Dr. Cornel West


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In a farmhouse, on a farm. With goats.
I had the privelege of hearing Cornel West speak last night at Washington State University here in Pullman. This morning and afternoon, I've been digging through the internet, trying to find tidbits of his thoughts and words to present on my radio show tomorrow. I've finally come across a pdf file of a speech that he gave in 2003. Interestingly enough, it's quite similar to the speech he gave here last night. I'm providing a link to those who might be interested in reading it over. Be aware that you'll need to scroll down a bit to get through the introductions and pleasantries and on with the substance of his speech.


If you are completely unfamiliar with Cornel West, an introduction can be found here:


And then here are some excerpts from the speech, if you are interested but don't want to read the whole thing:

And for me it’s impossible to talk about cultural freedom; it’s impossible to talk about political vision; it’s impossible to talk about existential engagement, without acknowledging the legacy of Athens and turn to line 38a and play those Apologia, "The unexamined life if not worth living." And, of course, Malcolm X adds, "The examined life is painful." To engage in Socratic activity, the activity of self-examination, self-interrogation, self-questioning, requires courage, courage todo what? To think for one’s self. William Butler Yeats is right when he said, "It takes more courage to dig deep into the dark corners of one’s own soul and wrestle with what one finds than it does for a soldier to fight on the battlefield." Part of the problem in our nation, in our world, is we don’t have enough fellow citizens and human beings who are willing to exercise the courage to think critically, for themselves. America’s always been, as the great Richard Hofstetter put itin his classic of 1963, Anti-intellectualism in America, "America’s always been an antiintellectual culture." Americans love intelligence but fear intellect. There’s a big difference. Hofstetter’s right, intelligence is a manipulative faculty. It comes in and evaluates the situation, draws a conclusion, accents the results. Intellect is a critical faculty. It evaluates the evaluations. It’s a meta-activity. It says let’s examine the basic assumptions and pass at presuppositions the unarticulated prejudgments of a framework, of a paradigm, rather than just thinking within the framework and the paradigm.


Let’s be even more specific, the Greek in that line 38a says, "The unexamined life is not a life for the human being." …. human derives from the Latin humando, which means burying. When America is a death-dodging, death-ducking, death-denying civilization. This is what you would expect out of a hotel civilization. [Laughter]. Like Disneyland and Disneyworld have bragged that no one’s ever died on their premises. [Laughter] Oh, so American. Sentimental, melodramatic, superficial, and yet we know in the end we’re federalist, two-legged, linguistically conscious creatures born between urine and feces on our way to unavoidable extinction. That’s us... ...To be death denying is to deny history, reality, mortality.

You see, I come from a tradition of struggle, of a particular peoples who have been on intimate terms with forms of death. American slavery – 244 years - was a threat of social death... ...No legal status, no social standing, no public value; only a commodity to be bought and sold. And if you don’t come to terms with death in that context, there’s no way you can live psychically and culturally because it’s clear that your labor will be exploited and there’s no rights that your fellow human beings of European descent have that you have access to.

Intimate terms with death… indigenous brothers and sisters. American imperial expansion fascinates me... ...Forms of death. Struggle for black freedom. Civic death. Jim Crow. Jane Crow. Lynching. I’d call it American terrorism.
Who wants to interrogate the dogmas of, in Socratic fashion, white supremacy, male supremacy, economic growth by means of corporate priority, the deep dogma shot through American life... ...Americans have some of the most creative minds in the world, but very few are willing to examine the basic assumptions that constitute the paradigm in which they are imaginative.

...Parhesia is a Greek word that means plain speech, frank speech, telling it like it is in a sophisticated way but from the soul. And being willing to live what one says, attempting to enact one’s convictions, fusing one’s analysis with one’s life. That’s what I love about Socrates. Raising that fundamental question, who am I really? You always begin with yourself. Always begin with self-criticism. What are the ways in which I am conforming? What are ways in which I am complicitous to the powers that be? What are the ways in which I am too complacent? Then moving out, who are we really in our neighborhoods, our community? What kind of people are the American people, really, when you get beyond the myths and chivalries and clichés? This notion that somehow America has some special connection with the deity. It goes all the way back to the founding of the country, city on the hill, moral exemplar to the world, God’s chosen people.

Cornel West is an intereting theologian. We discussed his work a bit in a contemporary theologies course I took a few years ago. He tends to be able to addressed topics that don't seem to be very theological in nature and tease out their relevance to the ideas normally thought of as belonging to theology.

I was particularly intrigued by a theological meditation he wrote concerning the life and work of Marvin Gaye. I wish I could give a citation for it, but I read it out of someone's library book in class and never noted down where it was published. I do know that it was in a collection of Dr. West's writings, rather than in a magazine or in a more general anthology.
Perhaps in his book Race Matters? He did mention Marvin Gaye in his speech last night, as well as Sly Robinson (Sly and the Family Stone, "Everyday People"), and many others. I didn't realize until last night that he was a Christian, nor that he approaches issues from that angle (as well as others). Great man, in my opinion.
Could have been. At the time, each person in the class was assigned to introduce the rest of the class to a currently living theologian's ideas, and the student who had decided to cover Dr. West's work had several of his books with him and passed them around the class. I'm afraid I read the essay (it was only a few pages long) when I probably should have been listening to the student's presentation.:eek: Anyway, it was my introduction to Dr. West and his work.

BTW, (and this totally off-topic :))I chose John Polkinghorne, an Anglican priest who was a physicist in his first career to look at for that assignment because I'm fascinated with the interface (and, sometimes, the lack of it) between science and religion. One of the cool things about that class was that even though it was very small, the students had a wide variety of interests so that we learned at least a little bit about a wide variety of theologians with a wide variety of approaches.