Big Think Interview With Cornel West
Cornel West is a prominent and provocative democratic intellectual. He is a Professor of Philosophy and Christian Practice at Union Theological Seminary and Professor Emeritus at Princeton University. He has also taught at Yale, Harvard, and the University of Paris. Cornel West graduated Magna Cum Laude from Harvard in three years and obtained his M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy at Princeton. He has written over 20 books and has edited 13. Though he is best known for his classics, Race Matters and Democracy Matters, and for his memoir, Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud, his most recent releases, Black Prophetic Fire and Radical King, were received with critical acclaim.
Question: Have Obama’s policies helped out the working class?
Cornell West: You know, when I talk about the symbolic victories, black man in the White House, precious black family in the White House -- I mean, the legacy of white supremacy in America -- you can't help but celebrate. I told that brother I was going to break dance, which I did, but only in the afternoon. The next morning I woke up a major critic: how do your policies relate to poor and working people? But you have to break dance in terms of that breakthrough, because racism is real, and it has an ugly and vicious history in the country. So for him to be in the White House is quite significant symbolically.
At the level of substance, what kind of policies? If you're going to bail out investment bankers, if you're going to have public options negotiable and make deals with greedy drug companies and pharmaceutical companies before you even have a substantive debate on health care, then it's clear you're not tilting toward the poor and working classes; you're tilting toward the well to do. And I'm afraid sometimes that my dear brother Barack Obama is too mesmerized, not just by Wall Street; he's mesmerized by braininess of those who are on intimate terms with Wall Street. My dear brother Larry Summers -- brilliant, brainy -- tied into a Wall Street Weltanschauung and a Wall Street worldview, cronies, best friends, comrades tied in to hedge fund communities and so forth. So that we can always applaud his brilliance, but brilliance and braininess need to be tied to a framework that puts poor and working people at the center.
This is why they can celebrate recessions -- oh, recovery's set in. For who? Wall Street? Yes. Everyday people, escalating unemployment, underemployment, much of which they don't even count, as you know, you see. But that's what -- when you have a neoliberal framework, jobs are a second thought, working people are a third thought, poor people not even on your radar screen. So we need to have voices out there that are very honest and candid about those persons who have been thoroughly left behind during the age of Reagan, and of course having a longer history in terms of issues of race and class and empire and gender and my gay brothers and lesbian sisters. They're important.
Question: Can you describe your upbringing?
Cornel West: Well, one, of course, I'm my momma's child and my daddy's kid. Irene and the late Clifton West. That West family is just so precious. I was saturated with love that's beyond description; I don't have the language; words cannot convey the kind of love that I received, and it was inseparable from Shiloh Baptist Church: Reverend Willie P. Cooke, my pastor; head of the deacon board, Deacon Hinton; my Sunday School teacher Sarah Ray. Fundamental for me. My Little League coach Mr. Peters, my cross-country coach Bill Mahan. I mean, all of these magnificent human being shaped me in fundamental ways. At the same time I was full of rage; I had a Robin Hood mentality that I tended to coerce people and take their money to make sure that people who had no money had something, because I couldn't stand to see the weak used and abused. And I was wrong to be coercive in that way, but I needed to find a positive channel for my rage.
I beat up my teacher when I was in the third grade, refused to salute the flag. Why? I had a great uncle who was lynched, and they wrapped his body with the U.S. flag as he hung from the tree in Jim Crow Texas. It was in my mind at eight years old, so I refused to salute the flag. Mrs. [IB], lovely teacher that she was, slapped me; I had a Joe Frazier counterpunch, hit her. The principal jumped on me, my brother and his partner jumped on the principal; a riot was on. Got kicked out of school. No school would take me. My mother was kind enough to have me take an I.Q. test; I got about 160-something, and they said, this little negro has some potential. They sent me over to another school across the way. So I went from the chocolate side of town to the vanilla side of town, Earl Warren Elementary School. Had a wonderful time. Two white sisters who were magnificent, Nona Sall and Cecilia Angell, helped me channel my rage. And so I'm still full of rage, but now it's a righteous indignation at injustice; it's not the kind of gangster orientation that's full of revenge and bitterness and so forth. That had something to do with the power of love, my Christian faith, which I hold onto and intend to be faithful unto death.
But it's self-styled; it goes through Chekov, it goes through Samuel Beckett, who are two of the great lapsed Christians, two of the great agnostics, probably two of the greatest writers of the 20th century, actually, Chekov and Beckett. Can't live without them. Kafka would be the other for me. Another agnostic in that sense. Full of love, though. Gregor Samsa in the Metamorphosis. Full of deep, loving compassion for family, especially his violin-playing sister Greta. They mean much to me. But it's the power of love, the power of education connecting life of the mind to struggle for justice. That's my story.
Question: Why are we no longer concerned with the working class?
Cornel West: I think one was, there was an idolizing of unfettered markets. And much if not most of the intelligentsia were duped. I recall traveling with my dear brother Michael Harrington and talking with brother Stanley Aronowitz years ago. And you know, here we're engaged in critiques of unfettered markets, and it looked as if we were medieval thinkers. Everybody was saying, we're followers of Milton Friedman. Everybody was saying Frederick Hayak got it right. Everybody was saying marketize, commercialize, commodify, and we were still reading Lukasch. And Lukasch was saying commodification is not simply an asymmetric relation of power, of bosses vis-à-vis workers, so workers are being more and more marginalized. Profits are being produced, wealth is being produced, hemorrhaged at the top, no fair distribution of that wealth or profit for workers. Poor are being demonized because they are viewed as those persons who are irresponsible, who will not work, who are always looking for welfare; i.e., failures in the society of success. And we reached a brink, and the chickens came home to roost. And a few years ago the unfettered markets led us off and over the brink.
And all of a sudden, very few intellectuals want to be honest and acknowledge the greed with which they were duped. Don't want to talk about the inequality that went along with it. Don't want to talk about the demonization of the poor that went along with it. Don't want to talk about the politics of fear that produced a Republican Party that was more and more lily-white, using not just race but also demonizing gay brothers and lesbian sisters, you see. Don't want to talk about the indifference toward the poor, and greed being good and desirable and so forth. Now is a very different moment, and it's not, you know, just about pointing fingers, but saying somebody's got to take responsibility. This was a nearly 40-year run. Who paid the cost? As is usually the case, you know, poor working people paid the cost, disproportionately black and brown and red, you see.
Question: Is this changing in the age of Obama?
Cornel West: So in the age of Obama, we say, okay, can we have a different kind of discussion? And that's what we're trying to do, but of course you've got two wars going on; you've got still Wall Street in the driver's seat in the Obama administration when it comes to the economic team, you see. And you've got very -- you know, I think in some ways unimaginative thinking when it comes to foreign policy, be it the Middle East or be it European Union or be it Latin America, you know, calling Chavez a dictator; the man's been elected! If he's calling into question rights and liberties, criticize him as a democratic president. We did the same thing for Bush. Bush was calling into question rights and liberties; we didn't call him a dictator. We said he's a democratically elected president who's doing the wrong thing. Chavez ought to be criticized. He's not a dictator; the man's been elected.
But it's that kind of demonizing that obscures and obfuscates the kind of issues that are necessary, because Chavez is also talking about poor people. So of course I want libertarian and democratic sides. I want right and liberties and empowerment of poor people. But talking about poor people is not a joke; it's crucial, it's part and parcel of the future of any serious democratic project. The fundamental question of any democracy is, what is the relation between public interest and the most vulnerable? That's the question, you see. That is the question. The test of your rule of law is going to be, how are the most vulnerable being treated? It's not whether the torturers are getting off; we know the torturers don't have the rule of law applied to them. The wiretappers, they're getting off scot-free. What about Jamal with the crack bag? Take him to jail for seven years. Oh -- so you've got a different rule of law when it comes to Jamal on the corner versus your torturers and your wiretappers? Torture is a crime against humanity; it's not just illegal. Wiretapping is illegal, you see. Now, it's not a crime against humanity, because I mean, I'm sure I've had my phone tapped for years. I don't think they committed a crime against humanity; they just ought to quit doing it God dangit.
Question: How can we strengthen the demos?
Cornel West: Well, you -- I think you keep in mind -- I mean, the demos is always a heterogeneous, diverse -- got a lot of xenophobic elements among the demos -- a lot of ignorance, a lot of parochialism. You also have a lot of cosmopolitanism, a lot of globalism, a lot of courage, moral courage. So the demos is not one thing. But when it comes to the ability of the demos to organize, mobilize and bring power and pressure to bear, we certainly are in a crisis; our system is broken. We've got seventy one percent of the people who want universal health care, and you can barely get through a reform bill with a weak public option. It's clear lobbyists from the top, pharmaceutical companies, drug companies have tremendous influence, much more than the demos from below, you see. So that those preferences don't get translated easily because our politicians are beholden to that big money and that big influence. But I mean the demos is still around, thank God. You've got your own institution. Dialog -- dialog is the lifeblood of a democracy. You've got to allow ideas to flow. You have to expose people to different visions, alternative arguments and so on, to try to keep the torch of the progressive demos alive. But it's very difficult to organize it. Complacency is deep; apathy is deep; people are wondering how can you confront, you know, big finance, big government tied to big finance, when all you've got is these little people, who are willing to talk and so forth, but have tremendous power bringing serious pressure to bear. We can march; you know, we marched against the war by the millions. We were ignored by the Bush administration. Some of us went to jail. We were ignored; we couldn't translate into foreign policy. That happens sometimes. It was **** Vietnam.
Question: What is the counterweight to a world where wealth becomes blindness?
Cornel West: I think there's two levels. I mean, one is just spiritual and moral. We have to draw a distinction between success and greatness. And you tell people, look, you can be great in terms of financial prosperity -- you can be successful in terms of financial prosperity, but greatness has to do with moral integrity. That you can be successful in terms of your personal security, but greatness has to do with your magnanimity, your willingness to do something for others, to take a risk, and so on. Now, that's at a personal, moral, spiritual level. But that's where education comes in. This is what I call pideia, p-i-d-e-i-a, which is so important for the book, because the power of love and the power of pideia shaped who and what I am. The power of love and the power of education shaped who I want to -- I'm an educator by calling, not career; by vocation, not profession -- precisely because I want to promote greatness.
Now, I come out of the biblical tradition: he or she who is greatest among you will be your servant. What is the quality of your service to the weak? What is the depth of your love for all? Those are not cliché-like questions. Those are questions worth living and dying for, if you take a certain conception of what it is to be human seriously.
Question: What is Dr. West’s lesson to younger generations?
Cornel West: Well, again, from my story, with that power of love and power of pideia, power of love and power of education, I say to young people, always aspire to greatness. Have a habitual vision of greatness, that greatness has to do with a love for all translated into a justice for all, and to have a tremendous discipline in not just being educated, but in trying to critically discern some of the crucial forces at work in our society that contribute to social misery, social suffering, and so on. And then to have a vocation; to find joy in your vocation, find joy in the passion that you have. It could be being an artist, a painter, a musician, a lawyer, a pharmacist. Whatever it is, find joy that will sustain you so that you will be a long-distance runner, a marathoner, rather than a sprinter. And don't allow the market forces to so thoroughly seduce you that your aspiration for greatness becomes locked into just success, as we talked about before. And there's a hunger and a thirst for it right now.
So many, you know, folk are dealing spiritual malnutrition, brother, the emptiness of the soul, which is oftentimes inseparable from a moral constipation, where the good the right just gets stuck and you can't get it out. And you need a little ethical diarrhea to get the flow going. That's what we need now. A lot of people know what's right and good. They know that unfettered markets led to greed and all kinds of avarice and so forth. Just read the business page every day and you see people obsessed with the eleventh commandment: thou shalt not get caught. And more and more of them are getting caught. Scandals, over and over again. We now that's not right. But why do you do it? Why are you morally constipated? You think you can get away with it. No, you need a little flush-out, a little flushing out. And people change. You know, gangsters change.
Question: What specific texts should today’s youth be reading on these topics?
Cornel West: Well, I mean, they can go back to John Ruskin in the19th century, who talks about wealth and life and makes fundamental distinction between success and greatness. They can read Sheldon Wolin, my great teacher, on democracy -- Democracy Incorporated -- his fundamental concern about the kind of heroic efforts of ordinary people to push back elites in various kinds of ways over time. They could read Jeff Stout; they could read Judith Butler; they could read David Kim on melancholic freedom, what it means to wrestle with darkness but still have a sense of agency at a time in which it seemed as if social movements are bygone realities, and yet we still want to live a life with some integrity and be organized. There are a number of people who are thinking about these issues. Farah Griffin, Manny Marable; there's a number of -- I mean, one of the wonderful things about the American empire is, we've got a lot of brilliant people in it, and a lot of courageous people still here. The problem is, they just don't have the impact that they should, you see. And that's important. And I would tell them too, just at the point of being self-serving for you brother, look at Big Think; you've got some folk coming through, wrestling with these issues. No one of us has a monopoly on truth. And we certainly don't have a monopoly on beauty; all you have to do is look at me. No, I'm just kidding. But no one of us has a monopoly on truth, goodness or beauty. We're all making stabs in the dark, you know, and as a Christian, I'm just trying to love my crooked neighbor with my crooked heart anyway, as W. H. Auden put it.
Question: What recent texts do you find noteworthy?
Cornel West: Well, you know, at my age I tend to reread as much as I read, because there's just so many classic and canonical texts that I reread. I just reread Chekov's short stories, and I wish we could all read In the Ravine to see the depth of compassion and the analysis of greed and avarice in that great short story. Dostoyevsky's The House of the Dead would be another important point of departure in terms of what the world looks like from the vantage point of a marginalized people whose humanity has been overlooked, and yet the kind of resistances and responses they make, not in any way romantic or sentimental, but the level of engagement, the quality of mind that goes into writing The House of the Dead or In the Ravine by Chekov. Let me think. I love William Greider, of course. I love Barbara Ehrenreich. What's the most recent -- you know who I actually appreciate is Kevin Phillips, my dear brother conservative populist Kevin Phillips on the financialization of the economy, and his concern about the decline of the American empire and the comparative analysis that he makes between the British and the Dutch and the American empire. He tends to be a little bit more Gibbon-like than I am in terms of believing that the decline might be just irreversible; I'm not sure. He might have a strong point; it's plausible. I'm not thoroughly persuaded by it at the moment. But those are some recent texts that I have read that are noteworthy, I think.
Question: How do you imagine the legacy of Barack Obama?
Cornel West: I think that my dear brother Barack Obama, President Obama, he's a very complicated fellow. He has a sterling democratic rhetoric at his best that reminds you of Saul Alinsky and the others at times. He has a technocratic team when it comes to policy, so there's not just a tension but oftentimes there's contradictions between the two, you see. He comes out of a black tradition that has been explicit about telling the truth about white supremacy, but he himself holds race at arm's length until there's a crisis: Jamal right here, and Skip Gates there, you see. And it's partly because he's such a masterful politician. He's brilliant, he's charismatic, he's a masterful politician. And he's concerned about cutting the deal and winning the election. And I think in the end this is going to be a major challenge for him.
He has to decide whether he wants to be an Abe Lincoln, who began as a mediocre politician -- remember, Abe Lincoln supported the first proposed 13th Amendment that set slavery for ever in the U.S. Constitution. Frederick Douglas bought a ticket to go to Haiti; he said, I would never live in a nation that has an unamendable amendment. Lincoln supported that. That was opportunistic at the core; he hated slavery, but he was willing to say keep these people in slavery for ever to preserve the union. You see, that's not the Lincoln that we talk about as great. Lincoln became great because of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Wendell Phillips, Charles Sumner, who was beat up by Preston Brooks from South Carolina, Frederick Douglas, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman. It was the abolitionist movement that helped make Lincoln great. Barack Obama has a choice between the greatness of a Lincoln and the masterful Machiavellian sensibilities of a Bill Clinton, who was brilliant, charismatic, masterful, but tended to be too opportunistic. So far, Barack Obama has leaned more toward the Clinton side than the Lincoln side. That was partly because he doesn't have an abolitionist movement equivalent. He doesn't have a social movement. That's what we need to do: we need to put pressure on him.
Question: What would this effort look like?
Cornel West: Well, it's a very good question. I mean, the kind of thing you're doing here on the Internet is very important, because it won't take the old traditional form of just hitting the streets. Hitting the streets will be one form; it's got to take a whole host of different forms, different voices, different views, different visions put forward, critiques of what's going on behind the scenes to reveal the contradictions of the Obama administration. We need young people who are looking at the world through a very different set of lenses than even myself, because I'm old-school, you know. And no school has the monopoly on truth. Yes, I do still see classes, and I see empires and so forth and so on. But there's also ways of looking at the world through popular culture that young people have that I don't fully understand, so that some of their criticisms would take forms that it will take me time to understand and grasp, you see. But we have to have the courage to not just raise our voices, but connect into organizations so that people can begin to see there are alternatives than the old neoliberalism dressed up in fashionable form, with a democratic rhetoric that hides a concealed technocratic policy. And it could be that, you know, Barack Obama himself, you know, he's waiting to make his turn toward Lincolnesque greatness. He hasn't made it yet, and of course the decision on Afghanistan is going to be very important. It's going to be difficult to have a peace prize and be a war president.
Question: Has Obama mastered the art of the spectacle?
Cornel West: I mean, I think the most effective use of the spectacle is brother Barack Obama himself. He's such a masterful televisual figure that he can appear on television late-night shows, five morning shows, have the kind of steadiness and sturdiness that does not really get at the degree to which the White House has not really stepped forward when it comes to this health care deal and standing up for public option, not showing the kind of backbone, sitting back trying to negotiate here, testing here, testing there. So not giving people a sense of not just what it is, but where they themselves are headed, because they want to cut a deal rather than take a stand. And of course, politicians are known for cutting deals, but when it comes to issues of life and death, if you're Lincoln, if you're FDR, you're not just cutting deals. Lincoln wasn't just cutting deals. FDR was not just cutting deals when it came to protecting the rights of collective bargaining, the workers and so forth. He had to cut against the grain and take a stand. And I think that the spectacle allows you to avoid taking a stand, showing backbone. That's what statesmanship is; that's what leadership is. It's the difference between a thermostat and a thermometer.
Question: Do you see our current period as a time of progress?
Cornel West: I think we have to draw a distinction between the symbolic and the substantial. The issue is symbol and substance: that we cannot deny the unprecedented progress when it comes to breaking glass ceilings. It can be Skip Gates at Harvard; it could be President Barack Obama in the White House. It could be Dick Parsons; we can go on and on. But to break the glass ceiling ought not to lead us to overlook so many locked into the basement, locked into the middle levels. And those issues are structural; they're institutional. So when you're dealing with increasing wealth inequality, you're dealing with a weakening working class and expanding poor working class and weak poor working class, then you've got some structural transformations that are taking place in which there's unprecedented opportunities at the top, from White House to Harvard, to even Princeton, myself, and yet you've got these dilapidated houses, you've got decrepit school systems, you've got unavailable health care, unavailable child care, depression-like levels of underemployment and unemployment.
So you've got this imbalance that it's hard to keep track of, especially in corporate media, you see. So that on the one hand you want to say, thank God that the age of Obama has begun; the age of Reagan is over; the great running amok, especially at the top, is over; the indifference to the poor is being called into question, we hope. And then the politics of fear has ended. So the question becomes, okay, in face of the greed, will there be serious talk about fairness? In face of the indifference, will there be serious talk about compassion, especially for the poor and working class? And in face of the fear, of course, there's hope, hope, hope, hope, hope. That's the mantra right now. And it's a good thing that the age of Obama is over. I've put in sixty-five events for my dear brother; he knew I was going to be a Socratic and critical supporter.
I've always felt that he's not progressive enough. I always felt he didn't have enough backbone. I've always felt that he didn't draw lines in the sand the way he should. But he is who he is, and he's a masterful and very charismatic politician. I want him to be a statesman and focus on poor and working people. He's still a politician very much in the neo-Clintonite mold. Economic team: recycled Clintonites. Foreign policy team: recycled Clintonites. And so there's no real history of a focus on poor and working people domestically, or no serious focus on trying to seriously focus on poor people and working people in the Middle East. And we're not just talking about Palestinians and Israelis, but working-class and poor Israelis, working-class and poor Palestinians, both of whom are suffering even though one is under occupation and one is not. So that those are the kind of perspectives that for me are very important in this age of Obama.
Question: What is the “bluesman”?
Cornel West: Well, see, the bluesman, of course, or the blueswoman, is someone who begins with the catastrophic. See, the blues is all about graphical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically. So it's a lyrical response to the monstrous, like the first sentence of Kafka's Metamorphosis. Gregor Samsa grows up uneasy -- I mean wakes up from an uneasy dream, finds himself transformed in bed to a huge vile vermin. That's catastrophic. That's catastrophic. The situation of poor people is catastrophic. Black people had slavery, Jim Crow, Jane Crow, catastrophic. What was the response? It wasn't to create a black al Qaida. It wasn't counterterroristic. In the face of slavery, Frederick Douglas said what? With a smile and wounds, we want freedom for everybody. We don't want to enslave others just because we're enslaved. Jim Crow -- we have no rights and liberties; we're civically dead -- we want rights and liberties for everybody. We don't want to Jim Crow somebody else. The blues responds to the catastrophic with compassion, without drinking from the cup of bitterness -- not with revenge but with justice. That's the best of the blues, you see.
And so the blues people in America have been the leaven in the democratic loaf, because black people could have chosen counterterroristic tactics when they were lynched over and over and over again. They said no, we're not going to go out and lynch white folk. We would rather be defeated for the moment, with integrity, than win and be a gangster like them. That's a blues sensibility. That's a blues sensibility. So you let that love inside of you be expressed even though it's hard for it to be translated into love or justice on the ground. That's a great lesson in this age of terrorism and in the age of recession, you see. And so a bluesman like myself in the life of the mind, a jazzman in the world of ideas, says I want to tell the truth. The condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak. And as a Christian, I believe in unconditional love; that's why I love brother Larry Summers. I want him to have more joy in his life. It's hard to have a lot of arrogance and have a lot of joy at the same time. I want him to have more joy and less arrogance. But unconditional love is always tied to justice. Justice is love on legs, spilling over into the public sphere.
Question: Is this mentality always linked with Blues music?
Cornel West: No, I mean its' just a different institutional array of sources of what a blues sensibility -- now, keep in mind, by blues sensibility, what I have in part in mind is a tragicomic's view in which compassion responds to catastrophe. See, in that sense Walter Benjamin's a bluesman in the Theses on the Philosophy of History in the ninth thesis, you see. That history is catastrophe, a pillage of records upon records, that pile of debris. But the response is; it's weak. But the question is what? To keep alive the memory of those who struggled before based on their compassion for the poor, you see. Based on their attempt to resist the powers that be. So that by blues I don't mean just a particular art form; it's really a way of life that that art form helped popularize. So even the media, in the context of the media, you see, you can be a blues person without even being able to sing. You can have a tragicomic sensibility that keeps track of the catastrophes all around us. It could be personal catastrophes, heartbreak. It could be the shipwreck of the mind, intellectual catastrophe. It could be social catastrophe, crisis. It could be Wall Street, catastrophe for the well to do and others. And then the catastrophe that's always in place for the poor, always at work with housing, education, unemployment and so on.
Question: When do you feel love best promoted social justice?
Cornel West: And so those '60s sensibilities, where people had a love for poor people -- it wasn't a condescension of just helping out -- we had a love for poor people. We loved poor people's music, like Curtis Mayfield. We loved poor people's music, the genius that came out of the ghettos, the Donny Hathaways and others, you see.
And it was also true on the other side: the Bruce Springsteens, the white bluesmen out of the working classes of New Jersey, you see. And they weren't geniuses because they were working-class, but they were extraordinarily ordinary people who happened to be geniuses in their genres. And that was the Sly Stone's Everyday People who we love. Everybody Is a Star, Sly Stone. That's what shaped and molded me, and I am old-school to the core, unapologetic. Motown, Stacks, Philly International Sound, Curtis Mayfield, Al Green, Aretha, W. E. B. DuBois, LeRoi Jones transferring into Baraka, but especially allowing -- because as a Christian I start with black people in terms of my love, but it spills over to white brothers and sisters, brown, red, yellow, across the board. So I believe in spillover love. And since justice is what love looks like in public, you can't talk about loving folk and not fighting for justice, especially beginning with the least of these.
Question: What Keeps You up at Night?
Cornel West: I think, you know, the great rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel used to say indifference to evil is more insidious than evil itself. George Bernard Shaw says it in The Devil's Discipline, the early play: indifference is the essence of inhumanity. And my -- one of my heroes, the greatest man of letters in America ever, William James, said indifference is the one trait to make the very angels weep. The expansion of indifference to other people's suffering is the most dangerous phenomenon in the world.
Question: Can we end indifference?
Cornel West: Yeah, but the thing about indifference is that it's always a choice that we make, you see. So that if you choose to have an iciness of soul and a hardening of heart and a coarsening of conscience, that leads towards indifference. That's why at the end of Dante's Inferno it's the iciness of Satan. You remember? The coldness. That's a choice. No matter what structures or dominations are in place, we can still choose to care, choose to care -- Sorge, that fundamental category that the Germans talked about, the care. And the bluesman and the blueswoman don't believe in optimism or pessimism, you see. I been down so long that down don't worry me no more; that's why I keep keeping on. The bluesman and the blueswoman are never indifferent. They're full of passion, they're full of caring about something. It could be last night, tomorrow night. It could be the society. Whatever.
You've got to sustain some kind of passion, and therefore the great bluesmen and women from Tony Morrison to white ones like Tennessee Williams to Bruce Springsteen on the vanilla side of town, along with Bob Dylan, or on the chocolate side of town, you know, it could be Leroy Carr or Curtis Mayfield or Aretha Franklin -- they are prisoners of hope. They're neither optimists nor pessimists; they are prisoners of hope because they care. As long as you care, and there's one little precious child out there with sparkling eyes, you've got to do something. And if you don't, the rocks are going to cry out. That's why Coltrane kept blowing his horn, my brother, because if he didn't blow his horn the rocks were going to cry out. That genius cared.
Recorded on: November 3, 2009
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