Here’s what his father would tell him, as a child: “You can’t fight other people’s battles.” His mother clarifies: “He would take things from somebody who he thought had too much and give it to somebody who didn’t have as much. Such as their lunch money or their whatever. He shouldn’t have been involved in that kind of situation, and that’s the kind of calls we’d get from school. Where he was trying to help one kid by taking from another kid…”
We are speaking of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s 2015 Ware Lecturer. The prestigious Ware Lecture is given every June at General Assembly, and you are not invited to present unless you are one of today’s most visionary people, willing to fight other people’s battles. Visionaries like Eboo Patel, Karen Armstrong, Mary Oliver, Kurt Vonnegut, Martin Luther King Jr., and now: Cornel West.
Bill Moyers calls him “one of the most prominent public provocateurs in America.” The man is simply brilliant. Gary Dorrien, his colleague at Union Theological Seminary, talks about how, in conversation, he can glide effortlessly “from Matthew Arnold to C. L. R. James to Socrates to John Coltrane to Kierkegaard to Michel Foucault to Toni Morrison to Dostoyevsky to Alain Badiou to Jay-Z and Outkast.” A student of his at Princeton says, “Once we were talking about jazz, and he extemporaneously wanted to talk about the similarities between bebop and a particular moment in the Italian renaissance. I wondered,” he says, “What kind of mind is this?”
A mind on fire.
We want to know who Cornel West is. We want to know what Cornel West says.
There are two reasons for this, essentially. One is, he reminds us of who we are as Unitarian Universalists. And two, he can scare the pants off of us.
He brings us into the peace of our religious identity, and he disturbs that peace too.
Begin with the insight that to understand Cornel West, you must understand Ralph Waldo Emerson. In fact, time and again you will hear Cornel West described as the Emerson of today. There are many reasons why this is true, and certainly one of them is RAGE. How how he channels Emerson’s outrage at an America that is failing to live up to its promise.
First, Emerson: who said, “my quarrel with America … was that the geography is sublime, but the [people] are not.” America is full of “selfishness, fraud and conspiracy.” “[People] such as they are, very naturally seek money or power; and power because it is as good as money …. And why not? For they aspire to the highest, and this, in their sleep-walking, they dream is highest.” “We are,” Emerson said, “a puny and feeble folk.”
Now listen to Cornel West, from his book Race Matters, “We have created rootless, dangling people with little link to the supportive networks—family, friends, school—that sustain some sense of purpose in life…Post-modern culture is more and more a market culture dominated by gangster mentalities and self-destructive wantonness.” “Most of our children—neglected by overburdened parents and bombarded by the market values of profit-hungry corporations—are ill-equipped to live lives of spiritual and cultural quality.” This, says Cornel West, applies to all Americans but especially and above all to black America. A nihilism of “horrifying meaninglessness, hopelessness, and (most important) lovelessness” descends…
Cornel West is positively Emersonian in his outrage, with that special emphasis on the false dream of financial success as the highest a person can aspire to. So naturally, like Emerson, Cornel West urges folks to wake up. “We have to draw a distinction,” he says, “between success and greatness. And you tell people, look, you can be successful in terms of financial prosperity, but greatness has to do with moral integrity. 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. 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.”
That’s what Cornel West says. But tell us more!
And he does in another one of his books, Democracy Matters. The answer he gives there is: be like Emerson, whom he describes as “The indisputable godfather of the deep democratic tradition in America.” “He reveled in the burning social issues of his day (the annihilation of Native Americans, slavery), highlighting the need for democratic individuals to be nonconformist, courageous, and true to themselves. He believed that within the limited framework of freedom in our lives, individuals can and must create their own democratic individuality. He understood that democracy is not only about the workings of the political system but more profoundly about individuals being empowered and enlightened (and suspicious of authorities) in order to help create and sustain a genuine democratic community, a type of society that was unprecedented in human history.” Greatness is in being like this. Democratic individualism.
Again and again, he quotes passages from our spiritual ancestor—the very same passages I read in seminary and formed me in my Unitarian Universalist ministry:
Whoso would be a person] must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.
Yourself a newborn bard of the Holy Ghost,-cast behind you all conformity, and acquaint [people] at first hand with Deity …. Look to it first and only… [make sure] that fashion, custom, authority, pleasure, and money are nothing to you,–are not bandages over your eyes, that you cannot see,–but live with the privilege of the immeasurable mind.
What is the hardest task in the world? To think.
We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds.
People, this is the root of our spiritual way which is at one and the same time a justice way. “The privilege of the immeasurable mind.”
Today we might summarize it all more simply—say “All people have inherent worth and dignity” or “We affirm a free and responsible search for truth and meaning” or “Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.” But we say all this because of people like Emerson. Emerson gives us ourselves, and Cornel West, as he channels Emerson, does too.
(Now as a side note, I will say Cornel West explicitly identifies as Christian. And then he immediately follows up with: “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.” So: his Christianity is self-styled; it’s being fed by agnosticism and atheism; and what ultimately matters is that it’s full of love. That sounds VERY Unitarian Universalist to me…)
But now let’s take a sharp turn, go a different direction. Remember from the video, how, as a third grader, Cornel West hit his teacher with “a Joe Frazier counterpunch”?
Here’s one example of the counterpunch for us.
It starts out innocently enough, with an insight from Emerson (naturally) about the character of a truly democratic rhetoric that can speak to all, not just to the elite. Emerson says “The literature of the poor, the feelings of the child, the philosophy of the street, the meaning of household life, are the topics of the time. […] I ask not for the great, the remote, the romantic; what is doing in Italy or Arabia; what is Greek art, or Provencal minstrelsy; I embrace the common, I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low.”
So that’s what Cornel West has done. Besides his scholarly work, he’s appeared on numerous TV sitcoms like 30 Rock, he’s recorded with a hip hop band called The Cornel West Theory, he’s released several hip-hop/soul/spoken word albums of his own, and he’s also featured in the movies The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions as “Councilor West.”
But his critics could care less about the underlying democratic impulse. One of them says, “West has sadly exchanged the unsexy tedium of sustained scholarship to the siren call of public gestures.” When Cornel West was still at Harvard, its President, Larry Summers, blasted him for his rap CDs and other forays into popular culture and said he was embarrassing Harvard.
Now, there is an issue for us in all of this: what is required for UUCA to be a truly democratic free faith….
If we should feature hip hop or soul on a Sunday morning—or do other things that smack too much of popular culture—how many of you would feel, like Larry Summers did, that we were embarrassing Harvard?
For how many of you is serious church equivalent to “the unsexy tedium of sustained scholarship”?
Cornel West likes to ask, “How funky is your faith?”
Here’s yet another. Has to do with what I’ll call his “prophetic stubbornness.” How he says what he feels he needs to say—and lets the chips fall where they may. Why this is so is suggested by the signature on emails coming from his office: “There is a price to pay for speaking the truth. There is a bigger price for living a lie.”
Cornel West just doesn’t want to pay the bigger price.
So, right before the 2012 presidential election, this is what he’s saying about President Obama: that he’s “the black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs.” How he wants to “slap him on the side of the head.”
New York Magazine writer Lisa Miller met with him in his office and “offered the argument [she’d] heard: that his assault on the president hurts poor and working people more than it helps them. By seeding the left with dissatisfaction, West risks suppressing that vote and jeopardizing the outcome of November’s election. Whatever his failings, this reasoning goes, Obama is bound to represent poor people better than Mitt Romney would.” What happened next is this: “West considered the objection for the smallest fraction of a second before casting it, witheringly, aside. What, he asked [her], leaning across his desk and jabbing his long fingers downward, if the Jews had asked Amos to tone it down a notch? ‘Well, Amos,’ West imagines the residents of the Kingdom of Judah, circa 750 B.C., saying in a sort of whiny white-person voice, ‘Don’t talk about justice within the Jewish context, because that’s going to make Jewish people look bad.’ Amos [would] say, ‘What?’ ‘Kiss my Jewish behind.’” And then West said, “My calling is to say, ‘let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.’”
What do you think about that? Do you think he was right about speaking out against Obama so strongly, at risk of inflicting even greater harm to poor people?
As democratically-empowered individuals, nonconformers, true-to-selfers, do we take a hard line, insist on all-or-nothing; or do we compromise for now in order to secure future victory?
What do you think about the idea that liberals prevent themselves from succeeding because they keep on shooting eachother in the foot?
This leads to the third counterpunch coming our way from Cornel West.
Fast-forward from 2011 when he’s slamming Obama to October 2014, when he’s addressing the travesty of the killing of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. A huge crowd has gathered—mass protest. It’s rainy, cold. The event begins with one speaker after another saying that the best way to confront police racism and use of excessive force is through peaceful and orderly protest. Eventually, the speakers are shouted down by those pressing for more confrontational tactics. Someone says, “The people who want to break down racism from a philosophical level, y’all didn’t show up,” and this is greeted with loud cheers.
Finally, it’s Cornel West’s time to speak: “The older generation has been too well adjusted to injustice to listen to the younger generation. The older generation has been too obsessed with being successful rather than being faithful to a cause that was zeroing in on the plight of the poor and working people. Thank God the awakening is setting in. And any time the awakening sets in it gets a little messy.”
That’s the scene from back in October 2014, and the ultimate question raised here is: what does effective reform really look like?
Here in Atlanta, folks protesting police brutality marched on to the Downtown connector and blocked traffic. That’s what “confrontational” looked like to them. Is this how we’re going to make society better? And if you don’t participate in all such confrontational tactics, does that mean you are not sufficiently maladjusted to evil?
Furthermore, as we struggle to define effective protest, does it really boil down to a clash of generations? Younger vs. older folk? (I can’t resist adding that Cornel West is not at all young; and also that I have known people grow more radical as they’ve grown older. Just sayin’.)
And what do you think about him saying “any time the awakening sets in it gets a little messy”?
Fact is, Cornel West is just not afraid of revolution—he believes you don’t have to have all things figured out ahead of time before you pull the trigger. “We need,” he once said in a burst of democratic frustration, “a transfer of power from oligarchs and plutocrats to ordinary people, ordinary citizens. I don’t know how it happens. The central political system right now is decrepit, it’s broken. Congress legalized bribery and normalized corruption. Presidential candidates are basically bought off by big money. Both of them. In both parties, oligarchs rule. Mean-spirited Republicans, oligarchs rule. And milquetoast, spineless Democrats—oligarchs rule. Democrats [are] much better than Republicans but still caught within the oligarchy.” We need a revolution. And it’s “going to be fought less in the political system and in the courts than in the streets.”
But note one line here in particular: “I don’t know how it happens.”
Is it ok to plunge on ahead if you have no idea what steps to take?
In fact, how much messiness is ok? Can we possibly succeed without some kind of reasonable strategy?
If you are a white person, does your answer change when you consider Cornel West’s conviction that the feeling of being a black person in America—“feeling unsafe, unprotected, subject to random violence and hate”—is equivalent to the feeling all of us had as a result of the Sept. 11 attacks? With this in mind, can white folks see how anxiety over perfecting strategy plans can appear as just another form of privilege to the people who are suffering?
I’m throwing a lot of questions at you. I know it. And it’s not like I have answers—the questions are open, truly. But January is our Justice month, so we’re going to reflect on these questions. Take them seriously. Take them into your small groups, your classes, your conversations over coffee. I have phrased them in intentionally provocative ways because I am very much aware of our history as a people who in general (despite the few radicals among us) prefer peaceful protest and gradualistic change.
What above all in us feels the smack of Cornel West’s counterpunches is our Unitarian Universalist Superego…
That’s why thinking is the hardest task in the world…
But all this is far better than being oblivious to the needs of our day. We want the counterpunches to wake us up, stir things up, call us not to success, but GREATNESS.
How funky is your faith?
How deep is your love?
Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.
That’s what Cornel West says.