Cornel West poses key questions, concerns


West pic 2

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.West pic 3

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.

West and Ryg

“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.

Dr. Cornel West

Dr. Cornel West Flyer (4-17)

UIC Faculty Strike

By James Anderson

After 18 months of bargaining, University of Illinois Chicago Faculty will be walking the picket lines Tuesday, Feb. 18, and Wednesday, Feb. 19., to pressure the University of Illinois Board of Trustees to bargain in earnest and agree to a fair, equitable contract.

Trustee proposals thus far would short change faculty, students and the University as a whole, the UIC Faculty Union wrote in a press release.

The United Faculty Local 6456 also noted in the press release, regarding circumstances surrounding the struggle for a fair contract, that while administrative positions at UIC have increased 10 percent in the last five years, tenured faculty positions have decreased by one percent.

The UIC United Faculty published details on the strike: the picketing, the rally set for Tuesday at 10 a.m., and a light brigade banner that evening followed by a demonstration at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 18 at the UIC Pavilion.

The UIC Graduate Employees Organization, the labor union representing more than 1,400 Graduate and Teaching Assistants at the University of Illinois-Chicago, posted information on how to support the United Faculty strike using social media, including sample Tweets for a “Twitter Storm using the hashtag #UICStrike” Tuesday evening from 7 to 9 p.m.

Lennard Davis, professor of English in the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, told GAUnited that people can Like the UIC United Faculty on Facebook and follow #UICStrike on Twitter.

Davis and Walter Benn Michaels, also professor of English at UIC who studies literary and theoretical writing and authored, “The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality,” co-wrote a piece for Jacobin about the impending strike.

In the article, they described some of the developments — and lack thereof — leading to the extant situation:

Historically, the administration of the university was a function of faculty who were chosen to manage the running of departments.  The Dean was Dean of Faculty — chosen by and beholden to the people who actually teach students. But with the bureaucratization of the university and the growth of the university as corporation, deans, provosts, and their myriad vice-provosts have become management. This now-bloated segment of the university makes decisions about the welfare of faculty and students.  A recent study shows that non-faculty jobs have grown by 27 percent while faculty lines remain flat or decreasing.

The term “shared governance” is invoked to disguise this evisceration of power but what it mainly means is that faculty senates can “advise” the administration and the administration can then do whatever it wants. To call shared governance real governance is like saying your dog has an equal say in how your household is run because sometimes when he whines he gets fed.

Read more

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.

Union Impact and Non-Impact

Published at Inside Higher Ed on October 8, 2013; by Scott jaschik.

Graduate student unionization is very much in the news these days, with the National Labor Relations Board expected to rule soon on whether graduate assistants may unionize at private universities. New York University on Friday offered a deal to the United Auto Workers unit organizing graduate students at the university under which NYU would accept a vote on a teaching assistant union but not a research assistant union. The debates over unions frequently deal with whether the nature of the student-faculty relationship deteriorates with collective bargaining, and whether unionized graduate students earn more.

Currently, there are no private universities with graduate student unions. But many public universities have them, and the authors of a paper released this year surveyed similar graduate students at universities with and without unions about pay and also the student-faculty relationship. The study found unionized graduate students earn more, on average. And on various measures of student-faculty relations, the survey found either no difference or (in some cases) better relations at unionized campuses.

The paper (abstract available here) appears in ILR Review, published by Cornell University.

Click here to read the entire article.

Protect Honduran union leader Victor Crespo!

Posted at the International Labor Rights Forum:

Honduran trade union leader Victor Crespo has been forced to flee Honduras after armed assailants tried to batter their way into his home. The attack came after two months of anonymous death threats that began when Mr. Crespo, general secretary of the Sindicato Gremial de Trabajadores del Muelle (SGTM), requested a collective bargaining agreement with the new operators of Puerto Cortes, ICTSI (International Container Terminal Services, Inc). Worker rights activists around the world, led in a campaign by the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), are calling on the Honduran Government to secure Mr. Crespo’s safety with police protection and to give assurances about workers being able to exercise their legal right to collectively bargain.

Click here to send a letter to President of Honduras.

McDonald’s: Pay Your Workers A Living Wage

From Democracy for America.

The vast majority of McDonald’s employees earn less than $16,000 a year. Nobody can live on that amount, or raise a family. McDonald’s should pay its employees a living wage.

Why is this important?

“McDonald’s took in more than $5.5 billion in profits last year, but millions of its employees are still making wages so low that they’re often forced to choose between paying rent and buying food. If we are going to close the economic opportunity gap it is crucial that wealthy corporations like McDonald’s start paying their employees fairly.”

Sign the petition.

In Historic Move, AFL-CIO Expands Ranks With Vote to Include Non-Union, Immigrant, Low-Wage Workers

Posted today at Democracy Now.

In what could be a major development for worker rights, the AFL-CIO has announced a new plan to enlist tens of millions of non-union workers, including immigrants and low-wage workers who have traditionally not been part of its federation. The move comes as unions face a major decline in membership and have seen their collective bargaining rights slashed in former union strongholds like Wisconsin. Meanwhile, non-union workers at Wal-Mart, and fast food chains like McDonalds, have gained momentum in their efforts to push for better pay by holding one-day strikes. We’re joined by Cristina Tzintzun, executive director of the Workers Defense Project in Texas, who just attended the AFL-CIO Quadrennial Convention.

Read the transcript or listen to the broadcast at Democracy Now.