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Useful Idiots: Excerpts From Our Interview With Dr. Cornel West
"It had to be politics." Dr. Cornel West on why Harvard didn't offer him tenure, assessing Joe Biden, and the value of classics
On Useful Idiots this week, Katie and I interviewed Dr. Cornel West, who recently left his longtime home at Harvard University when they refused to consider him for tenure. The decision may have been politically based, and led to the legendarily outspoken academic returning to intellectual home base, at Union Theological Seminary.
Dr. West was also in the news recently after he published, with Jeremy Tate, a controversial article in the Washington Post entitled, Howard University’s removal of classics is a spiritual catastrophe. The editorial, ostensibly focused on the decision of Howard University to dissolve its classics department, was unsparing in its criticism of the direction of the modern academy:
The removal of the classics is a sign that we, as a culture, have embraced from the youngest age utilitarian schooling at the expense of soul-forming education. To end this spiritual catastrophe, we must restore true education, mobilizing all of the intellectual and moral resources we can to create human beings of courage, vision and civic virtue.
West, who was in a somber mood throughout the interview, having recently lost his mother Irene B. West, was nonetheless candid and compelling as usual on a variety of topics.
We did not do a “Cornel West cultural reference counter” graphic as we planned once upon a time, but in a taping of Useful Idiots prior to this interview, I did guess he’d mention Frederick Douglass, Cicero, Miles Davis, and Bertold Brecht in this discussion. Three out of four ain’t bad…
In any case, here are some more selected passages from the Useful Idiots interview with one of our favorite guests, Dr. Cornel West. Links to the full video and audio, available to subscribers, are at the bottom of the page:
On the reason Harvard decided not to extend him tenure:
Dr. West: I asked the Harvard administration, why would you say that my tenure process would be so fraught and would be so controversial? I just want to know. Is it that they think if I'm too old? Then that's plausible, but then I'm giving the Gifford Lecture, which is like a Nobel prize equivalent in philosophy, with John Dewey, William James, Alfred North Whitehead, Martha Nussbaum, these are towering philosophical figures. I'll be delivering those lectures in Scotland.
They still think I have something to say as an older brother… I figured it couldn't be age at all. Couldn't be academics because I got tenure with two books at Yale in 1984; you would think that 22 books later on, that wouldn’t be controversial. It had to be politics. I don't think it was my love and support for Brother Bernie either, though. The only issue that would make any sense to me is the issue that has been at the center of earlier professors who were denied promotion, which is the Palestinian cause.
On the benefit of the study of classics:
Dr. West: Part of the challenge of education has always been, like any other institution, trying to ensure that it doesn't become thoroughly accommodated to the powers that be. What that means is it has to be a counterweight against the rule of money, against the rule of mendacity. The rule of mediocrity, the rule of military might. So that when Socrates confronts Thrasymachus, Thrasymachus says what to the younger generation in Plato's Republic: might makes right. Power dictates morality. Don't listen to Socrates. That's naive, that's childish. You got to grow up and recognize this is a Hobbesian war of all against all, it’s the survival of the thickest, survival of the slickest.
Socrates said, well, I still believe in integrity and honesty and decency, and I'm willing to die. I'll drink the hemlock in doing it. At that point, it doesn't really matter what color Socrates is. He could be beautifully black like Curtis Mayfield. He could be beautifully brown like Tito Puente. It's a human thing that's going on here. It could have been Socrates-ess. It could have been a sister. It could have been Aspasia. It could have been Hypatia, could have been some of the other Greek philosophers who were women, but he's speaking truth here.
Here we jump to 2021. What do we see when you look at education, especially in higher education? Rule of money. What do you see? Rule of reputation. What do you see? Donors disproportionately shaping the way in which the discourse proceeds because it's their money. Sometimes they even have a voice in choosing who will do the teaching because they have so much big money.
At that point, you say, my God, how do we get some countervailing force against greed, against condescension, arrogance, hatred, envy, resentment. Now that cuts deeper than just universities. That's what it is to live a decent life. That's what education is at its deepest level.
On whether or not the classics shaped the thought of black radicals:
Dr. West: When you think of somebody like C.L.R. James, who was probably one of the greatest left-wing intellectuals to emerge out of the Western hemisphere in the 20th century, he grew up of course under British colonial rule in Trinidad. But the ways in which he has been in dialogue with the Platos, the Aristotles, the Socrateses, the Ciceros, he's written magnificently on Vanity Fair. His book on cricket is very much tied to the discourse of a John Ruskin, a Matthew Arnold, a William Morris. He's using what's available to him and he recognizes the way in which white supremacy is still shot through the culture that produced these folk you see. But there's a variety of responses to that white supremacy. You know what I mean? It's like a sister the other day in Congress talking about, well, I want to form an Anglo Saxon club.
I say, really? Well, I know an Anglo-Saxon named John Brown. You're going to put him in there. He's my brother. He's not my ally. He's my brother. He died for black people. He's hugging Frederick Douglas and they both crying. He's hugging Harriet Tubman and they both crying. He goes to fight at the Harper's Ferry. You see what I mean? Anytime you say Anglo-Saxon, who you got in mind, John Milton? He's calling for regicide. He's calling for the killing of Kings. He's willing to go to jail.
Well, see I like to go to jail with John Milton, like white brothers. Because we come together on integrity, honesty, courage, vision, concerned with poor people, concerned with working people…
We got to be able to keep track of the viciousness of white supremacy, but we can't allow the labels to get in the way of the vision and the courage of these folk.
On deconstructionism, and the movement toward “dismantling” traditions in literature, art, music, etc:
Dr. West: People became so obsessed with difference, became so obsessed with domination, became so obsessed with the things that they would deny, that they overlook the degree to which you can't sustain an intellectual project. You can't sustain a life. You can't sustain a politics based solely on transgression and opposition. You become a parasite on the very host that you were trying to undermine, you see…
The best examples that I would have would be Chopin and Stephen Sondheim. You have to master the rules of the tradition, and that allows you to more substantially subvert them. That's what Chopin did. He played the most traditional music, and then it was revolutionary, with the nocturnes. Sondheim can walk through Oscar Hammerstein, the surrogate father, better than anybody else. Then here come Sunday in the Park with George. Here come Company. Here come Sweeney Todd, the compassion, subverting it in the most radical way, Into the Woods, even more so, Act Two. You see, so then you have to have both. You have to have both. Charlie Parker was like that. Miles Davis was like that.
It's certainly the case in terms of the greatest vocalists, out of my tradition, who have been black women. You see Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McRae. I'm talking about at the highest level, we talked about Phyllis Hyman and Gladys Knight and others, but Aretha and so forth. Aretha studied Marion Williams so well, she sounded like Marion Williams, and then she breaks off into Aretha. That's a new zone, something new is happening, but she couldn't do that without working through the other so well, so that she doesn't just become transgressive or just the host. She becomes original. She becomes constructive.
On the legacy of his mother, Irene B. West:
Dr. West: She was a walking exemplar of courage, of grace, of dignity, and most importantly of love. That she believed fundamentally as a Christian woman, as a black woman coming out of Jim Crow, Louisiana, and ended up in Sacramento, that to be human at its deepest level was to empty oneself and to use whatever gifts one had to try to empower, enable and allow others to be the best that they could be. That's a very, very beautiful way of being in the world. It really is. It's what music at its deepest level is all about. Beethoven, Kenosis of the notes. James Brown is Kenosis on the stage. He gives everything. Rembrandt is Kenosis on the canvas. He's giving everything inside of him.
Bruce Springsteen, the bluesman on the white side of town, he gave everything with the E Street Band. Janice Joplin, gave everything. We can go through Al Green and the Dramatics and the Temptations. Michael Jackson and even Prince himself, who I knew so well — he could hardly walk after his performance. We'd carry him on my back, and say, “Prince you're pushing yoursel.” Coltrane was about to break vessels in his neck. He drops his horn and pounds on his chest. That's Irene B west…
For her, it comes right out of Hebrew scripture and a Palestinian Jew named Jesus who ran the money changers out of the temple and ended up on a cross and that Roman Empire that thought that they had silenced that kind of love, but it just kept coming, oozing out anyway. It oozed out so thickly that the Roman Empire had to try to incorporate that religion as its own religion, which it did.
Most institutional Christianity has very little to do with that Jesus of Nazareth because he too real, too strong, too much love, too much critique, too much courage you see. Well, that's Irene B West. She was tied to that Jesus. We're going to put her to rest in just a few days.
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