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Why Cornel West is hopeful (but not optimistic)

A conversation about Black liberation theology, existentialism, and other philosophies that can help us through these times.

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Sigal Samuel is a senior reporter for Vox’s Future Perfect and co-host of the Future Perfect podcast. She writes primarily about the future of consciousness, tracking advances in artificial intelligence and neuroscience and their staggering ethical implications. Before joining Vox, Sigal was the religion editor at the Atlantic.

Since this summer’s racial justice protests began filling the streets, the one public figure I’ve wanted to talk to more than anyone else is Cornel West.

A professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy at Harvard, he’s one of the most prominent and provocative Black intellectuals alive. He’s known for calling out racism, predatory capitalism, and unjust policies wherever he sees them. And judging by his new podcast, The Tight Rope (co-hosted by Tricia Rose), I was sure he’d have a sharp analysis of the twin epidemics pummeling America today: white supremacy and Covid-19.

So I was thrilled when West agreed to come on Future Perfect’s limited-series podcast, The Way Through, which is all about mining the world’s rich philosophical and spiritual traditions for guidance that can help us through these challenging times.

West and I talked about some potential tools for dealing with white supremacy and Covid-19. We discussed Black liberation theology, which took off in the 1960s and emphasized that God’s primary concern is for people who are being oppressed. West is a Christian who’s steeped in that theology.

But West is also steeped in a bunch of secular philosophical traditions — from Marxism to existentialism to pragmatism — so I asked him what those traditions can teach us about how to handle our current crises.

We covered questions like: Is the pandemic weakening or strengthening white supremacy? What’s the difference between optimism and hope — and why does West say he’s not optimistic but is hopeful?

By the end of this talk, I felt more hopeful myself. You can hear our full conversation in the podcast here. A partial transcript, edited for length and clarity, follows.

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Sigal Samuel

Dr. West, we’ve been through some really hard months. How would you diagnose the crisis that we see convulsing American life?

Cornel West

You’ve got an empire that is experiencing spiritual decay and moral decline driven by greed, especially in high places, and hate being used as a divisive way of pitting citizens against one another. And then you’ve got corruption — not just in the White House, but corruption really throughout our institutions.

So then when the pandemic hit, we began to see just the raw reality of the empire and the indifference towards the vulnerable. You began to see the health care system and all of its frailty, which my dear brother Bernie Sanders was pointing out with such courage just a few months ago during the campaign. You began to see the wealth inequality, the white supremacy, the male supremacy that the Me Too movement pointed out. You began to see the ways in which precious trans people are devalued, and gays and lesbians are dishonored. You just began to see the ugliness.

But you also see resilience. People in the streets. People waking up. Some people even recognizing, lo and behold, America is an empire! It’s not just a democratic experiment. It’s a democratic experiment against the backdrop of imperial expansion, especially a dispossession of land of indigenous peoples, the enslavement of Africans, white brothers who are working with no property — these chickens are all coming home to roost at the same time.

That’s what I meant when I said we are witnessing America as a failed social experiment. Our conception of ourselves as being so exceptional is being shattered. Our conception of ourselves as somehow being innocent is being radically called into question.

Sigal Samuel

There are different faith traditions and philosophies we can draw on for wisdom in a moment like this. Let’s start by talking about Black liberation theology, which drew on the thought of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and others. Your friend Dr. James Cone, the theologian who founded Black liberation theology in the 1960s, described this theology as an interpretation of the Christian gospel from the perspectives of people who were at the bottom in society, the lowest racial and economic groups. And he encouraged Americans to reimagine Jesus as black. He drew parallels between the crucifixion of Jesus and the lynching of black Americans.

So talk to me about Black liberation theology and the role you think it can play in today’s fight for racial justice. Can it provide the spiritual scaffolding for this movement?

Cornel West

It can certainly be one dimension in the leaven in the loaf. In the Democratic loaf.

I think in order to understand Jim Cone, we’ve got to go back to Hebrew scripture, because Hebrew scripture itself was one of the great moments in the moral evolution of the species. Unlike the Greeks, unlike empires and dynasties, Hebrew scripture comes along and says to be human is to spread hesedsteadfast love, lovingkindness — to the orphan, the widow, the motherless, the fatherless, the poor, the persecuted, the oppressed. And that I am going to be a God of the oppressed, of a hated people, a haunted people, of Jews under vicious domination and oppression. But I make a covenant with you: Do justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly with thy God.

Jesus comes right out of that prophetic Judaism that was at work in that covenant.

James Cone then comes along in the most barbaric century, the 20th century. Hundreds of millions of folks killed by Hitler, Stalin, European colonialism. Cone comes along and says, lo and behold, there is also an oppressed people in the midst of the American empire who have made a covenant with a God, who have fallen in love with a Palestinian Jew named Jesus.

And this Jesus, when he makes his way from Galilee into Jerusalem, what does he do? He weeps for Jerusalem. And he runs the money changers out of the temple.

Serious business. You don’t see that on the walls of churches. No, not that Jesus. No, you get a domesticated, deodorized Jesus. That’s the Constantinian Christianity that becomes Christianity as a state religion. But the Jesus that Cone is talking about is running out the greedy, the indifferent, the callous, the powerful who are using their wealth and power to oppress poor people.

He says, now look at it from the vantage point of African slaves in the United States. Look at it from the vantage point of Negroes under Jim Crow. Look at it from the vantage point of Black folk under the new Jim Crow.

Sigal Samuel

You have a very class-conscious race analysis compared to a lot of mainstream intellectuals, including Black intellectuals. Do you think the current protest movement is spending enough time talking about class?

Cornel West

Well, it depends on who you talk to, my dear sister. Anytime I get a chance to speak, I always make the connection between police power and police murder on the one hand with Wall Street power and Wall Street crimes on the other. So that you get the connection between white supremacy on the ground, and predatory capitalism, especially the financial services class, especially the oligarchs and plutocrats. So I love your question. This class question is in no way a luxury.

Sigal Samuel

You’ve written a lot about what it means to be an intellectual, especially a Black intellectual. But there’s so much anti-expert, anti-intellectual sentiment in the US. So what role do you see for intellectuals now in responding to the pandemic and the protests?

Cornel West

I want to point out that America has always been a profoundly anti-intellectual civilization. Richard Hofstadter pointed this out with great, profound insight in his classic, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. Remember, there he draws a distinction between intelligence and intellect. He says Americans love intelligence because it’s a manipulative function that allows them to do well, especially in the marketplace. Intelligence is something to be used as a calculating orientation, to make discerning insights to make more money for upward mobility, for the American dream.

Intellect is an interrogation of the most basic assumptions and presuppositions. So intelligence makes immediate evaluations, intellect evaluates the evaluations. That’s how Hofstadter puts it.

There’s never been space in American civilization, in American empire, for serious intellectual presence. Never. That’s why our greatest novelists, like Melville — nobody cares. It is hard for any intellectual to gain a footing.

And of course, for Black intellectuals it becomes even more challenging. Enslaved Africans were not even allowed to learn how to read and write. When we do emerge with the word, the question becomes, can we be as empowering as the musicians? The intellectuals who have been most effective in American culture, it’s been much more the musicians than academicians. Because the musicians have been able to couch stories, narrative, ideas, visions in forms that everyday people in a business civilization can take in and be empowered.

Whereas the academicians, we’re so worried about our ranking and what tradition we’re going be promoting vis-à-vis other traditions intellectually that we can’t dig deep inside of our own selves and give of ourselves in such a way that our fellow citizens will look at an intellectual and say, my God, I need that intellectual the way my mother needed Louis Armstrong.

Sigal Samuel

So part of this is on the intellectuals themselves, to step out of purely ivory tower concerns and adopt more of a pragmatic approach. I know you yourself are steeped in the American tradition of pragmatism in philosophy, which really tries to focus on the social, cultural, and economic concerns, not just more abstract epistemology and metaphysics. But you’re also steeped in so many other different philosophical schools like existentialism and Marxism. I’m curious which philosophy you think has the most value to offer us all right now.

Cornel West

I think we have to be jazz men and jazz women. We have to be improvisational. We have to recognize that the abstract has its role to play, the academy has its role to play, but there’s a whole host of other dimensions that have their role to play.

See, I believe in engaging the public. I think it’s no accident that when you look at Ralph Waldo Emerson, he is the great Democratic public intellectual of the 19th century, and he is the godfather of the American pragmatism that you talked about, that I tried to talk about 30-some years ago in American Evasion of Philosophy.

Sigal Samuel

So is it pragmatism that you would hold up as the philosophy has the most to offer us right now?

Cornel West

No, because pragmatism has its blind spots. When you’re jazz-like, none of these schools ever provide enough. They all fall short. You need existentialism because you’ve got to deal with death, dread, despair, and disappointment. You don’t get that from pragmatists. John Dewey on death? Don’t hold your breath!

Marxism is indispensable as an analysis of capital, but Marxism on “where do you go when your mama dies?” Karl don’t have too much to say about that! Every school of thought has its own limitations. And the question becomes accenting the best in each one.

Sigal Samuel

Well, existentialism really emphasizes that it’s up to each of us to make choices and take responsibility for our lives, to make our own meaning in a world that doesn’t come with meaning inherent in it. What do you think that that philosophy can teach us about how to handle this moment?

Cornel West

Richard Wright, the first great Black literary figure that the white mainstream had to take notice of, was an existentialist at a very deep level. And for him, it was always about digging deep and finding out who you are, manifested in the choices that you make, and then owning those choices. Being responsible, being accountable.

It’s the exact opposite of what you see when you look at a neo-gangster like Trump. He thinks he can live his whole life with no answerability. Say and do anything he wants and get away with it.

So existentialism at its best reminds us: responsibility, accountability, answerability at the center.

Sigal Samuel

Do you think that responsibility in our current situation is inevitably going to have to do with solidarity, both in terms of social distancing to prevent the pandemic from spreading, and in terms of solidarity of protest, maybe allyship between non-Black Americans and Black Americans?

Cornel West

Oh, absolutely. You have to have solidarity all the way down. And for me, it’s just fundamental human solidarity.

I’m not sure I like the language of allies. Was John Brown an ally for the Black Freedom Movement? The brother gave his life and his sons. Calling him an ally kind of belittles his sacrifice. Rabbi [Abraham Joshua] Heschel was not an ally to Martin Luther King Jr. They were two brothers, one from the Jewish tradition, the other from a Black church tradition. They came together as human beings in the name of integrity, honesty, decency. Heschel says, I want to be a decent human being, and I understand that in my Jewish tradition to be decent is to be in solidarity with people who are suffering. Not just Black. Could be indigenous people. Could be the goyim. Whoever it is. It’s a human decision that you’re making.

Sigal Samuel

It sounds like you really believe in the power of broad coalitions. Let me ask you this, though. Is the pandemic weakening or strengthening white supremacy?

Cornel West

It’s both. On the one hand, it is revealing just how ugly the combination of predatory capitalism driven by Wall Street greed and the collapse of so much of civic life is. And so people are not just polarized, they’re also gangsterized. Well, one of the long traditions in America is, if you’re going to join a gang for protection, white supremacy is waiting for you. And so we see an increase of white supremacist activity.

The white supremacy being decreased is this just beautiful, majestic, marvelous militancy of brothers and sisters of all colors, especially young brothers and sisters. And more and more largely vanilla. They have been Afro-Americanized by the music that they listen to. They’ve also awakened in terms of the lies that their parents have told them about America, about Black people and so forth.

We’ve got both happening simultaneously. And that’s what makes our turbulent times such fascinating times to live in.

Sigal Samuel

One profound feature of our culture is this libertarian strain in American thought, this focus on individual freedoms, liberties, and autonomies. Has that hampered our pandemic response, in terms of people refusing to wear masks and all that?

Cornel West

It’s Janus-faced. It’s a good thing and it’s a bad thing. You can see the relation between certain Emersonian strands of being nonconformist and a deep distrust of the elites because they might be lying to you. But you have to be discerning. If the elites tell you the Earth is flat and you’re distrustful, then that can be a good thing. If they tell you it’s round and you’re distrustful, you’ve got to back off because the evidence is overwhelming, right? So it can go either way.

I have strong libertarian inclinations. That’s why I believe that Rush Limbaugh, he’s got a right to be wrong. I fight for his right to be wrong. Libertarian sensibilities, I think, can be very important. Strong support of civil liberties is crucial.

But when it takes the form of I don’t believe Dr. Fauci, I don’t believe the CDC, and so forth — well, no, there’s evidence here. Libertarianism can’t just go off into fantasy. You’ve got to be tied to certain kinds of evidential forms of credibility.

Sigal Samuel

In the wake of the pandemic and the protests, a lot of people are wondering how we can make lasting, substantive progress in this country. How do we make it so that the US doesn’t just return to status quo around race in a year from now?

Cornel West

We have yet to have a serious discussion of what the status quo was. We haven’t had a discussion about the Obama administration. The Obama administration looks so wonderful in contrast to the neo-fascist gangster in the White House. But it was not wonderful at all. Not in terms of the bailout — Wall Street made big money. The child poverty rate was still high. Still dropping drones in Afghanistan.

Yes, Obama was better, but better in relation to what?

Sigal Samuel

It sounds like you’re saying that if we want to see lasting change of the status quo, we first have to really interrogate what was that status quo all along. And that might mean getting into some, as John Lewis would say, “good trouble, necessary trouble,” by questioning even those on the left.

Cornel West

And questioning ourselves.

Sigal Samuel

Let’s close by talking about the importance of hope versus optimism. You define optimism as rational and evidence-based, whereas for you, hope is an act of courage and imagination that looks beyond what the existing circumstances tell us we can expect. So for you, what roles do hope and optimism play in this situation, where the pandemic requires an emphasis on evidence, but so much feels unknowable and demands this very high level of hope from us?

Cornel West

Well, we must accent the crucial role that science must play. Scientific temperament, not just scientific method, because the method can become dogmatic, too. But the temperament is forever Socratic, forever questioning. So science must play a fundamental role. But there are certain issues that science itself is relatively helpless about.

And that has to do with the meaning of life. Why is there something rather than nothing? Why not commit suicide tomorrow? Why do you love in this way? Why are you so attached to your mama when you know she’s wrong on so many issues, but you’d take a bullet for her in a heartbeat? You don’t measure your mama based on scientific evidence. It’s visceral, it’s not just cerebral. So we have to be able to acknowledge the roles that each one of these play.

Optimism for me has never been an option. Because there’s too much suffering in the world. Think of all the African bones and bodies at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean with the slave trade. And Jewish brothers and sisters in the concentration camps. And Dalits in India. None of that can generate an optimism for me, ever.

But hope is something else, you see, because hope is not spectatorial. It’s participatory. You’re already in the mess. You’re in the funk. What are you going to do? Hope is a verb as much as a virtue. Hope is as much a consequence of your action as it is a source of your action, as Roberto Unger always said. So that hope is something that you find in your immersion. And you decide you’re going to fight till the end. No matter what.

Sigal Samuel

When you say hope is also a “consequence of your action,” do you mean that by choosing to act now in this incredibly stressful time with integrity, with accountability, with responsibility, our actions themselves can nurture and fuel hope in us?

Cornel West

That’s eloquently put. That’s exactly right. Hope is about everybody trying to contribute to the push, the motion, the momentum, the movement for something bigger than them that’s better. The good, the beautiful. If you’re not in motion, you’re a spectator.

Sigal Samuel

Well, it doesn’t seem to me like you’re being a spectator these days. You and Professor Tricia Rose have a new podcast, The Tight Rope.

Cornel West

That’s true. It’s truth-telling, witness-bearing, justice-seeking — but also joy, because there’s joy in what we do. You got to find joy in spreading hesed. If it’s always just a negative burden, you’re not going to be a long-distance runner. No, we’re talking about a joy that will sustain you over against the grain, until the worms get your body.

And this particular podcast is an attempt to broaden the discourse, get beyond the two-party dialogue, get beyond the liberal versus conservative — but also keep track of the centrality of the arts, the moral, the spiritual, the beautiful. We need to lift each other up.

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