April 18, 2014
By James Anderson
Speaking to a capacity audience at Shryock Auditorium on Southern Illinois University Carbondale campus, Cornel West drew on an array of thinkers to pose the question so many have wrestled with before: What does it mean to be human?
“What does it mean to be a featherless, two-legged, linguistically conscious creature born between urine and feces?” West, an author of 19 books who has taught at Yale, Harvard and Princeton, asked as he cited “the inimitable James Baldwin,” whose life struggle reflected the force behind the question.
“No deodorized discourse here,” West said, referring to his talk the evening of April 18.
Drawing on thinkers like W.E.B. DuBois, West said there are additional concerns – “perennial questions,” which should continue to inform theory and action.
Integrity, West said, is “not cupidity or venality,” nor does it permit “becoming well-adjusted to injustice” or “well-adapted to indifference as long as you are doing well.” It entails something more than “fleeting pleasures and instant gratifications,” he said.
“But we live in a moment in which we are ruled by big money, big banks and big corporations,” West allowed, with “market forces of titillation and stimulation,” and a corporate media system culpable for mass distraction.
Given the impoverished media discourse, West said that to “pierce through the thick forms of obfuscation,” a reflective ethos is needed now. He gave the example of Henry David Thoreau when he went off to Walden Pond and the spirit of John Coltrane whose music compelled “Socratic interrogation of yourself,” as exemplars of what society needs now.
That reflection should be geared to key concerns, including: “How does integrity face oppression?”
“What does honesty do in the face of deception?” West also asked, highlighting another concern.
He emphasized “intellectual honesty,” and explained that while no one has the monopoly on truth, the mendacity dominating institutions today must be challenged. Baldwin, West said, stressed honesty and integrity throughout his life when grappling with that question of what it means to be human.
West also asked what decency does “in the face of insult” and injustice, evoking another crucial consideration for contemporary praxis.
He said, like Frantz Fanon, it is imperative to start with “The Wretched of the Earth,” and he questioned the lack of moral outcry surrounding that fact that 22 percent of children in the US live in poverty while one percent of the population owns 47 percent of the nation’s wealth and earned 95 percent of the income in the last few years.
West went on to pose the problem of how virtue meets brute force.
“The criminal justice system itself more and more looks criminal,” said West, who recently has been teaching in prisons.
In addition to eliding abject poverty, dominant discourse renders mass incarceration invisible, he said.
In “looking for justice,” then, West said, it is important to “first keep track of the structures and institutions.”
Pointing to the three tendencies of neoliberal capitalism – financialization, privatization and militarization – West noted that “no person who is trying to be decent can flower and flourish under these conditions.”
West faulted the Obama administration for contributing to the three tendencies and thus impeding human potentials. He criticized the administration for militarism in the form of dirty wars and drone bombings. West excoriated the Obama White House for extra-judicial killing and expansive surveillance programs brought to light recently with the Edward Snowden NSA revelations.
Obama’s selection of people with strong financial industry ties and finance capital ideology – like Timothy Geithner and Larry Summers – for positions in his administration evinces other problems, West said.
Typified by the push for the Trans Pacific Partnership, a proposed trade agreement discussed in secret without congressional input or public deliberation, West said there is a move toward “reshaping the whole world in the image of the corporations,” which are essentially totalitarian institutions and anti-democratic private tyrannies.
West also alluded to a growing injustice gap.
On one hand, he noted, there have been bailouts for big banks. He pointed to how financial institutions received $787 billion after the 2008 crisis yet continued to award big bonuses. Alongside other corporations, West told people in Shryock, banks keep $2.2 trillion of wealth offshore to avoid contributing to the society from which they emerged.
On the other hand, he said, there is growing poverty, push toward privatization of education and concomitant accumulation of debt among students.
Student debt, West said, should be a “more central,” social concern than attending to the insolvency of mega-banks. When a graduate student in attendance yelled from the balcony seating about a movement for collective debt resistance, West said he would be in full favor of it.
An assembly against debt recently took place at SIU in front of the Student Center on campus. Participants created a space to share experiences about how debt has impacted them the first time they assembled together on April 10. Recognizing the issue of debt not as a source of individual shame, but as a systemic problem and form of social control, there was a call for “collective outrage,” and future assemblies are planned.
West said at his talk that fortification of a “moral sensibility,” in the spirit of the blues – a “narrative of catastrophe lyrically expressed” – becomes paramount in ongoing struggle, as does prophetic pedagogy inseparable from advancing pressing concerns.
“We need more serious talk about the proletarianization and the sub-proletarianization of academicians,” West told GAUnited backstage after his talk.
He said the work of people like Stanley Aronowitz, Frederic Jameson and David Harvey provide potent analyses from within the academy, which are fruitful for praxis.
The university is “absolutely,” still a site for contestation and transformation, West said backstage.
The two-day system-wide strike across University of California campuses in early April illustrates one way collective action is going against and beyond institutional parameters associated with neoliberal education.
“I think it’s a beautiful thing,” West said about the UAW local 2865 student-worker union resistance to neoliberal violence in California.
Attempts to democratize the university as part of a project to democratize society is a matter of justice, he said.
The sentiment echoed a saying from the civil rights movement West uses to express a truth about advancing aforementioned key concerns: “Justice is what love looks like in public.”
James Anderson is a doctoral candidate and the GAU Steward for the College of Mass Communication and Media Arts. His interests include social movements, alternative media, critical theory, prefigurative politics, horizontalidad, political economy and praxis.