Cornel West – philosopher, author, critic, civil rights activist and Princeton University professor – applied his charismatic energy and rapid-fire rhetoric to the topic of student activism Friday, Feb. 4, in a wide-ranging talk at UC Irvine’s Cross-Cultural Center. For nearly two hours before his scheduled Student Center lecture in celebration of African American History Month, West discussed with invited students how to remain “maladapted to injustice,” what it means to be a “bluesman” and how to effect change within an institution. Thomas Parham, UCI’s interim vice chancellor for student affairs, guided the conversation. The following are excerpts.
Parham: In your latest book, Brother West: Living & Loving Out Loud, A Memoir, you talk about being a “bluesman.” Explain to us what that means.
West: If you’re a bluesman or blueswoman, you wrestle with catastrophe and forces that push you to the wall and disempower you. But in the face of this, you muster the ability to laugh and love. The bluesman responds to catastrophe with compassion, without drinking from the cup of bitterness – not with revenge, but with justice. He would rather lose for the moment with integrity than win and be a gangster like the oppressor. That’s the blues sensibility. Let the love inside you be expressed even though it’s hard for it to be translated into love or justice on the ground. That’s the great lesson in this age of terrorism.
Parham: What advice do you have for students wrestling with the dynamics of oppression to avoid pitting themselves against each other?
West: You have to separate schooling from education. Schooling is designed to make you smart and well-adjusted to injustice. Education is developing pride in being maladjusted to the status quo, in being compassionate, courageous. Too many people would rather be smart than courageous. In an elite institution like UCI, you must be intellectually rigorous and expose yourselves to alternative understanding of the world. Do serious reading of authors who look at the world from the point of view of the people below. You can study economic models and formulas, but brother Juan from Mexico is not just a utility function or an economic outlier. He’s a person trying to make a life. When catastrophe hits the system, the voices from below have salience. And we have a crisis because the markets only work for those who are well-adapted to an unjust status quo.
Tension is not always a bad thing. Nobody is morally or spiritually pure, so wrestle with that part of yourself. If tension becomes destructive, then it’s a problem. Tension can bring out the worst – a shared cowardice, which is hatred. We need the courage to embrace creative tension like we’re seeing in Egypt. The people in the street have class tension, regional tension, religious and political tension, but at this moment they’re coming together.
Parham: You talk about loving our way through the darkness. What does that mean for students who may feel offended by actions of others on campus?
West: I’m talking about loving wisdom and justice, not loving pleasure, power and property. Loving wisdom, justice and decency in the face of power and privilege puts you over the powers that be. You have to decide whose side you’re going to be on. We had grand examples in the ’60s – Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Angela Davis. They couldn’t be bought. Now it’s hard to find leaders who aren’t sellable in this money-obsessed society. In an elite institution like UCI, you’ll sell yourself to some degree. You need to get a job to support your family. But you need to understand the difference between your job and your fundamental life task. The two are conflated so easily.
You have to wrestle with despair. Look at the darkness of the world, because if you don’t, it will hunt you down anyway. America has grown powerful and wealthy without growing up. In America, it’s always sunny, it’s always morning. We don’t look at the dark. If our society doesn’t come to terms with the “night” side of its history, it’s not going to live long. Our empire is in decline, our culture is in decay, and our political system is broken.
UCI has to align with the dominant culture to be grand. Where else would the resources and reputation come from? But there is space here for freedom to tell the truth.
West also addressed several subjects broached by those in attendance.
On students’ spiritual laziness: Don’t get discouraged. I’ve seen a shift in this generation. In the ’80s, during the Reagan years, there was very little concern about justice. I define it as sleepwalking – blind conformity, moral complacency, ethical apathy. But that’s changing. Never give up on your generation. Someone may be apathetic one year and awakened the next.
On the most productive way to express frustration: One, public tension must be made salient and visible. Have forums to talk and argue, present views and opportunities to see other persons’ moral and political orientations. You can’t do it just once and then say, “Oh, isn’t it good we did that? Now let’s move on.” It has to be ongoing. And two, find some way to pressure the powers that be. Get someone on the inside who cares about what’s happening on the outside.
On America’s weak effort to fight injustice in its own culture: We do fight injustice but on a smaller scale that’s not visible in the corporate media. It’s nowhere near the scale in Egypt and Tunisia because people here feel powerless and hopeless and then become cynics. The dominant response in the U.S. is self-medication – sex, alcohol, drugs – all weapons of mass distraction. And we have narrowed our concepts of status and success to where we have no concept of alternative action.
On love versus anger in response to injustice: Love does not have to look like silence. The love of justice, wisdom and neighbor goes hand in hand with the hatred of injustice. If you love your oppressor, that’s sick. You begin by loving yourself to develop the capacity to love others critically. As long as there is room in the system for people to work on the inside, do that – if not, revolution.