Cornel West is one of the most recognizable and provocative intellectuals in the U.S. In addition to being a regular guest on TV news programs and talk shows, he has been at the front line of many major social-justice protests — from Ferguson, Missouri (where he was arrested twice for civil disobedience); to Standing Rock, North Dakota; to Charlottesville, Virginia. Describing himself as a “Christian bluesman in the life of the mind,” West dresses the part in a three-piece black suit, white dress shirt, black tie, and black cravat around his neck. He says this fashion choice is a tribute to the classic style of jazz musicians as well as a reminder of his grandfather, a Baptist minister in Tulsa, Oklahoma. When he teaches, West combines the virtuoso improvisation skills of a bebop soloist with the charisma of a preacher, speaking without notes and sprinkling his lectures with quotes from Socrates, Karl Marx, the Hebrew prophets, and Martin Luther King Jr.
Born in Tulsa in 1953, West grew up in Sacramento, California, where his family moved after his father got a job as an administrator at an Air Force base. In 1973 West graduated from Harvard University with a degree in Near Eastern languages and civilizations; he then went on to earn a PhD in philosophy at Princeton, becoming the first African American person to do so. His 1993 book Race Matters, published one year after the Los Angeles riots, was a best seller and made West an academic celebrity. (The twenty-fifth-anniversary edition came out earlier this year.) He has written more than twenty books in all and has held academic appointments at Union Theological Seminary, Yale, Princeton, and Harvard. Although he left Harvard in 2002 after a dispute with the university president, West began teaching there again last year. His fellow Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. has called him “one of the most brilliant scholars working in the academy.”
Others are less fond of West’s fiery manner of discourse. He is known for not compromising on matters of principle and for speaking up about dishonesty and injustice, even if it alienates some on the Left. He has criticized President Barack Obama for failing to address poverty and inequality, calling him a “Rockefeller Republican in blackface”; he has denounced Hillary Clinton as a “neoliberal disaster”; and, most recently, West lambasted writer Ta-Nehisi Coates as the “neoliberal face of the black freedom struggle.” Such pronouncements have frustrated some of his fellow social-justice activists, but West says he feels obligated to combat the ills of the world wherever they arise. “There is a price to pay for telling the truth,” he is fond of saying. “There is a bigger price for living a lie.” He also says we must each tell the truth in our “own fallible way.”
West maintains a relentless schedule of teaching, travel, activism, and media appearances (cornelwest.com). In his memoir, Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud, he says he sleeps only about four hours a night. When I arrived at West’s office at Harvard Divinity School, his assistant warned me that his interview couldn’t go overtime, because some students had already been waiting for three months to speak to the professor, and there was not a spare minute left in his schedule.
“Sister Judith!” West said, welcoming me in and offering me a chair across from him at his big wooden desk. He was unhurried and gave me his full attention. When I asked about his habit of addressing people as “sister” and “brother,” he explained that it symbolizes the idea of our common humanity and that we are made in God’s image: “We are essentially all the same, with the same fears, anxieties, and insecurities, and our bodies are headed toward the same destiny: the worms or the ashes. There is a beautiful connection we have with each other.”
Hertog: You once said that growing up in a segregated part of Sacramento, California, had a positive influence on you, because it gave you a chance to revel in black humanity. Tell me more about your neighborhood and how it influenced you.
West: I grew up in Glen Elder, right at the edge of Sacramento. We had tremendous love and zest and gusto in that neighborhood. Our lives revolved around sports and music, but I also happened to be reading books all the time. I got my love of reading from my mom, who was a teacher, a principal, an educator. She was always reading: James Baldwin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and later Toni Morrison. And I was addicted to the bookmobile: I read [Danish philosopher Søren] Kierkegaard when I was fourteen. That was a turning point in my life. There’s nobody like him. But I still thought I would become a great athlete or an entertainer.
Church life was also integral to our community. Family and church had a kind of continuity. The deacons, the deaconesses, the ushers — they were all very much a part of one’s family. And our family was very much a part of the church family. It was what the Germans call gemeinschaft, which is a soul-to-soul, person-to-person relationship, as opposed to gesellschaft, which is a relationship mediated by impersonal rules and bureaucratic practices.
Of course, our community could be parochial and provincial. There was a lot of dogma. It was homophobic, transphobic, patriarchal, and so on. But alongside those particular evils, we had some magnificent good. We really did.
Most important for me, growing up in a white-supremacist civilization, I had a chance to take for granted black humanity. I didn’t have to prove myself to anybody or show that I met some standard to be considered human. It was just assumed. In a racist society it’s rare for a black person to have his or her humanity taken for granted. Most black people feel they are in a perpetual audition. They have to prove themselves, prove themselves, prove themselves, over and over again.
Assuming one’s own humanity makes it easier to be in contact with the humanity of others, no matter what color they are. So I was equipped, coming out of Glen Elder, to be in touch with the humanity of my white brothers and sisters, because I had already been grounded in self-respect and self-trust on the black side of town.
Hertog: So by growing up in a black community, you escaped the pressure of feeling judged by white society?
West: Absolutely. At least, it was possible to do so at the time. It’s very different now, because the mass media, the market, and commercial forces penetrate the hearts and minds and souls of black people in black communities in such a way that they still have massive self-doubts and self-disrespect.
Hertog: You were once expelled from school for refusing to salute the flag. Were you a rebel in childhood?
West: I was a gangster. No doubt about it. But I was more of a Robin Hood type. I’d beat up those who had extra food and share it with those who came to school with nothing. I remember I wanted to make sure a girl named Linda had something to eat. Her parents were very poor, and she’d come to school with maybe just an apple for lunch. And then this guy would come with two sandwiches and potato chips and so forth, and I’d beat him down and take a sandwich to give to Linda. Of course I was wrong — I had a gangster mentality — but there was some moral and spiritual dimension to it.
Hertog: And why did you refuse to salute the flag?
West: Well, my great-uncle had been lynched when he’d come out of the Army, and his killers had wrapped a flag around his body. So when my teacher told me to salute that same flag, I said no.
Hertog: How old were you?
West: I was in third grade. I ended up getting into a fight with the teacher. I was wrong: I shouldn’t have hit the teacher. But she hit me, and then I hit her back, and the next thing you know, everyone was jumping up, and the principal came in, and my brother came in with his friends, and it became a quasi riot. At that time my school had all black students with all white teachers.
Hertog: How did your parents react?
West: Oh, God. They were so sad. My mom was crying, and my dad, he gave me a whupping. That’s what happened in those days: you’d get a whupping. They couldn’t find a place for me to go to school for a while, because none of the schools would take me.
Hertog: Did your parents understand why you’d refused to salute the flag?
West: My parents did understand, but they thought I shouldn’t have reacted that way.
You’ve got to learn how to come to terms with these kinds of traumas. You can’t respond to other people violently just because you have undergone a certain trauma. Violence is wrong. And after a while your fists get tired.
Hertog: What attracted you to academia?
West: It was never academia in and of itself. It was more the life of the mind, the world of ideas; the opportunity to read voraciously, to expand my imagination in a capacious way, to try to become a more fortified person in the world. So many great thinkers — from Socrates, to Jesus, to Maimonides, to Spinoza, to Nietzsche, to Chekhov, to Dostoyevsky — these were the people who meant so much to me as I grew up, and one of the ways I could remain conversant with them, close to their texts and their souls, was to be in the academy.
Hertog: In your book Democracy Matters you urge academics to get out of their ivory towers.
West: I wouldn’t say I urge others. I do it myself, but I don’t think I’m any kind of role model to be imitated. Different people have different callings. I have to be true to my own calling and vocation, and I have always viewed myself as an intellectual as opposed to an academic. An intellectual is someone who uses the life of the mind as both a source of joy and a way of empowering others. One of the best ways to empower others is to make sure your texts have a broad reach and to intervene in a public context: TV, radio, demonstrations, a social movement.
I think democracies stay alive in part based on the quality of their public dialogue, and it’s good to have interlocutors in those dialogues who know what they are talking about and who have a passion for justice.
Hertog: You recorded a hip-hop album with artists such as Prince and Killer Mike. You called it “danceable education.” Is that your way of spreading intellectual ideas in a more popular context?
West: It’s one way. I have a love of music, TV, radio, film — you can use all of these to engage with the larger public. And when you bring in great artists like Prince, Talib Kweli, Rah Digga, Jill Scott, and Andre 3000, you know you are going to have some effect, because you’re going to sell some records.
Art connects us to what it means to be human and helps us find the truths behind superficial language. I believe that artists are the vanguard of our species, and that musicians are the vanguard of the artists. The Duke Ellingtons, the Barbra Streisands, the Frank Sinatras — all of these persons have used their imagination and their mastery of their craft to touch the hearts and minds of people. Music allows us to distance ourselves from our sorrow and anguish, and from the pain that is coming at us all the time.
Hertog: You have talked about improvisation as a particularly African American art form, perhaps best exemplified in jazz music.
West: To improvise is to be flexible and fluid, with a protean sense of possibility. It’s always dynamic, not dogmatic. We need to be willing to move and question and interrogate and explore. So much of the best of the black experience has been about embarking on this unbelievable adventure against the backdrop of ugly oppression. Jazz is one of the grand expressions of black folk. It is improvisation all the way.
Hertog: Are you saying that oppression forces people to be more flexible in their thinking and living?
West: When raw violence comes at you all the time, you are forced to become flexible and fluid, to pull from this and that to survive. But every group has its own kinds of dogmatism and rigidities. I don’t want to romanticize black culture. It can also go the other way. Oppression can make people more dogmatic and rigid. You have to choose to be a certain kind of human being, and that takes tremendous courage and fortitude.
Hertog: Do African American intellectuals have something unique to contribute because of their experience of oppression? Has it encouraged them to think more fluidly and inventively about how to create a just society?
West: Definitely. We come from a people who have been terrorized for four hundred years. And we’ve learned a lot from being terrorized. We’ve learned a lot from being invisible, spit on, dishonored, and devalued. One thing we’ve learned is that when you have been terrorized, it is spiritually empty to terrorize others back. We need to take it to a higher moral and spiritual level. The Louis Armstrongs and John Coltranes and Nina Simones and Aretha Franklins — these are the people who embody artistic excellence at the highest level but still have a generosity and sense of integrity that doesn’t terrorize back, even though they’re dealing with terror coming at them. In the age of terrorism, you can learn a whole lot from people who’ve been terrorized for four hundred years but who have taught the world so much about freedom; from people who’ve been hated for four hundred years but who still teach the world so much about love.
Hertog: In Race Matters you describe blackness as a political construct. What does it mean to call someone “white” or “black”?
West: It’s a construct that’s used to contain and control people. For example, when our Irish brothers and sisters arrived in America after having been colonized and abused for hundreds of years by the British, they were not “white” in their own eyes; they were Irish. But for them to become American, they had to become white. And they could become white only by defining themselves against blacks. So the next thing you know, they were white like the British. In America whiteness is broad enough to include these two European peoples who have been at each other’s throats for centuries, because white is defined against black — and red and yellow and brown, but especially black.
Hertog: In your daily life, how often do you think of yourself as a black man?
West: You can never get away from being black in America. If you try, you’re reminded rather quickly. So the question becomes not just whether to acknowledge myself as a black man, but: What does it mean to be a black man? It can be a matter of acknowledging my dependence on my mother, my father, my church; on the traditions of intellectuals like W.E.B. Du Bois and artists like Coltrane. It can be magnificent. But if blackness means someone like me can be victimized by white-supremacist bosses or white-supremacist police, then I have to be cognizant of that, too, and concerned about that. Still, that can’t be the stopping point. I can’t view myself first and foremost as a victim.
Hertog: There must also be times when you don’t think of yourself as a black man.
West: Of course. In an all-black context, blackness doesn’t have a whole lot of visibility. Or in a predominantly white context, if the white folk are spiritually and morally developed, then it doesn’t come up. You can just be having a good time together.
Hertog: I always recoil when I’m filling out a form and must select my “race” or “ethnicity.” It feels wrong to me to limit people to such categories. But I also understand that if we want to address the problem of racism, we must first acknowledge it. What are your thoughts on this paradox — that we must be categorized by race in order to address the inequalities caused by racism?
West: You just never allow that line on a form to dictate your morality. It’s there for the bureaucrats to keep track of us. But in terms of our common humanity — we can’t leave that to the bureaucrats. They can write down whatever color or gender we are, but we know all colors and genders have equal value.
Hertog: Why do they need to know our color and gender?
West: The bureaucrats need to keep track of how the resources are distributed and who is gaining access to privileged positions. If they don’t keep track of this, and racism continues, people will be discriminated against even more. Color blindness can be used to reinforce the racist status quo. If you ignore race, then racism is in the driver’s seat.
Hertog: You’ve written that you would prefer to see class-based affirmative action in college admissions. Is this still the case?
West: I want it to be based on class and race, but I’d prefer it tilt toward class, because I want to make sure that poor blacks and poor browns and poor whites have a chance. If affirmative action is only race based, then it ends up advancing the children of the professional and managerial classes, and you don’t get a sizable number of poor students of any color.
In the age of terrorism, you can learn a whole lot from people who’ve been terrorized for four hundred years but who have taught the world so much about freedom; from people who’ve been hated for four hundred years but who still teach the world so much about love.
Hertog: Earlier, when you talked about improvisation and fluidity, did you mean that people who are being oppressed have an incentive to change society, while others may have less interest in changing the status quo?
West: Fluidity doesn’t necessarily mean subversion. You can be highly fluid and just come up with creative ways of adjusting to or reproducing the status quo. Fluidity and flexibility are important, but to transform society you need more than that. You need a vision. You need a different way of looking at the world. That’s where the Hebrew prophets and the legacy of Jerusalem come in. The words of Isaiah, Micah, and others authorized an alternative vision of the world.
The genius of the Hebrew Scriptures is that they put a premium on the plight of the vulnerable, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow. They emphasize compassion and sensitivity to suffering. They insist that the vulnerable need to be attended to and treated with loving-kindness, or chesed. The Hebrew Scriptures say that the ordinary lives and suffering of everyday people are essential; that a pauper is just as important as a priest; that a prostitute matters just as much as a queen.
Hertog: And the Christian tradition came out of this Jewish prophetic tradition?
West: Christianity is a rich footnote to prophetic Judaism. But throughout much of its history, Christianity has attempted to distance itself from its Judaic roots. Once Christianity became a state religion under the Roman Empire, it aimed to continue the status quo.
Hertog: Weren’t the Greeks concerned with creating a better society as well?
West: Yes, but they were not concerned with the plight of non-Greeks, the so-called barbarians. You see, prophetic Judaism talks about “the nations,” not just about Jewish folk. Prophetic Judaism unleashed this moral energy that allowed people to imagine that it’s not just about your own clan or tribe but everybody. I see Judaism as a moral revolution in our species. Christianity picked up the notion of universality from Judaism.
Hertog: But the Hebrew Bible is not always a peaceful text.
West: Yes, it contains all kinds of contradictions. It portrays God’s wrath and authorizes genocide. But, at the same time, it contains prophetic voices that indict any kind of cruelty or genocide.
Hertog: You often speak of paideia, the ancient Greek ideal of self-improvement, of becoming the best possible member of society. How does one pursue paideia?
West: Bear witness to the truth. Connect your love to goodness and beauty and the holy. Try to be a force for good by being an example.
Hertog: Does observance of paideia necessarily result in activism?
West: For some people it would. For Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Heschel, and Dorothy Day: yes. But Toni Morrison: Is she an activist marching in the streets? No. But she is certainly a truth-teller. And John Coltrane was playing his horn, not marching in the streets, but he is a great exemplar of paideia because he wrestled with truth and goodness and beauty in his art and spread it by means of kenosis, or self-emptying. He gave all of himself in his music.
Hertog: Can one be an activist for social justice and not pursue paideia?
West: You can be an activist and be spiritually hollow. You can be part of the noble struggle against racism but not have the capacity to form friendships.
Hertog: You often speak of “deep democracy” — a democratic tradition rooted in the questioning philosophy of Socrates and the commitment to justice found in the prophets of Judaism. Is paideia related to that?
West: Absolutely, because deep democracy has to be profoundly prophetic and Socratic at the same time. To be prophetic is to attend to the vulnerable and the weak. To be Socratic is to put a premium on dialogue and persuasion, not force.
Hertog: What does public dialogue look like in today’s society?
West: We don’t see too much of it anymore. We live in a balkanized society. Everyone is in their own bubble. It’s hard to get a dialogue going. That’s one reason I’ve been traveling the country, teaching and speaking with my dear brother Robert George, a conservative: because nowadays it is rare to see a right-wing person and a left-wing person who love and respect each other and engage in dialogue. We live in a society where it’s all about the will to power, the will to dominate, the will to conquer. The change in the culture has a lot to do with the eclipse of integrity and honesty and decency, and the normalization of corruption, deceit, and mendacity. It’s all about manipulating your political opponents to diminish them and show that they have nothing to say or contribute. People no longer have dialogue. It’s all monologue.
Hertog: Why has this happened?
West: It’s fear and the reluctance to be vulnerable. We have produced a market-driven culture that devalues public dialogue.
Hertog: Where could dialogue take place in today’s society?
West: It has to begin in the streets, in the classrooms, in homes. You would hope that it would also happen on radio, television, and film. So much art is dialogical: great novels, great music. But in a democracy it’s not enough to have dialogue in your art.
Hertog: You want it to be part of public life, too?
West: Right. But when the political aim is always privatize, privatize, privatize, anything public is devalued. Public conversation, public health, public schools — it’s all pushed to the margins.
John Dewey, the great American philosopher, said that a democracy that has lost the art of public communication is a democracy on its way toward chaos. He said that in 1927. Ninety years later we see exactly what he was talking about.
Hertog: Are you pessimistic?
West: No, I’m a prisoner of hope. I don’t believe in optimism or pessimism. I believe in wrestling with despair and trying to generate enough energy to remain Socratic and prophetic in my own life, deeds, and thoughts. But the world is always a mess.
Hertog: And always has been?
West: Yes, in every moment of our existence there has been too much suffering, too much misery, too much hatred, too much contempt, too much envy, too much resentment. The question is: How do we break the cycle in our individual lives? You can break it with a grin, with a hug, with a piece of art, with a movement, with democratic practices and the hope that they are not crushed by authoritarian tendencies. But that is the best we can do. It’s a sad story in the end. We know this. But we must maintain a cheerful disposition.
Hertog: Because it would be even worse if we didn’t stay hopeful?
West: That’s right. My dear brother Jeffrey Stout, a great philosopher of our day, says, “Hope is not a mood; it’s a virtue.” We have a right to be in as dark a mood as we want, because things are indeed bleak. But hope is a virtue — which is to say, it’s an excellence that we aspire to. No matter how dark your mood is, you still have a responsibility to aspire to the virtuous. Hope is the refusal to succumb to despair and nihilism.
Love, too, is a virtue. No matter how much hatred you see in the world, and no matter how much you want to feel hatred in your heart, you should know that the standard is still love. You might feel yourself succumbing to hatred, but as long as you know what the standard is, you’ll know you’re wrong. Once you give up on the standard, we’re all in deep trouble.
Hertog: So it’s good to have hope, but will we ever achieve the ideals we pursue?
West: There will never be a true paradise in this world. There will never be any kingdom of heaven in history. There will never be any utopian society.
The question is: Do we have the courage and tenacity and compassion to try to move beyond our tribalism and our narcissism? That’s the best we can do. Biologist E.O. Wilson says our basic problem as a species is that we are just too selfish, narcissistic, and tribal. Anything that gets us away from those proclivities is a major contribution to progress.
There are different ways of overcoming our narcissism and tribalism: secular, scientific, artistic, religious. All of them are concerned with unsettling our ego so that love and compassion can flow.
Hertog: I assume it’s the same for paideia: it’s not something we will ever reach.
West: It’s an endless process of self-betterment. But the process itself should produce joy. So much of contemporary culture is a joyless quest for pleasure. It has been flattened out spiritually. As there are more possibilities for titillation and stimulation, there are fewer opportunities to pursue paideia.
Hertog: In Democracy Matters you write that “Democracy is more a verb than a noun.”
West: Right. It’s not a status quo but something we must constantly strive for.
Hertog: The founding principles of the U.S. seem to promote equality, but, at the same time, they are steeped in oppression, racism, and sexism. How do you interpret that contradiction?
West: In terms of practice, the U.S. Constitution was a proslavery document. That doesn’t mean all early Americans were proslavery. Abolitionists like John Quincy Adams, Thaddeus Stevens, Charles Sumner, the Quakers, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman — these people were as American as cherry pie. But the Confederates, whose conception of freedom was predicated on the enslavement of black people — they, too, were as American as cherry pie.
[German Jewish philosopher] Walter Benjamin said every grand institution and civilization is grounded in some form of barbarism. And he is right about that. But that doesn’t mean it’s static. There are certain structures and institutions that render all of us complicit. And we have to be honest about those institutions and try to have a serious discussion about our complicity without being self-righteous or trying to be “pure” or “pristine.”
There is always contradiction, in society as well as in our souls. We say one thing; we do something else. We are human beings. It isn’t easy.
Hertog: You have been very critical of the American two-party system, which you have described as “two parties sucking up to corporate interests.”
West: Yes, to Big Money. The elites of the Democratic Party have given up on true democracy and have adopted a neoliberal philosophy of privatization, deregulation, and free trade. It promotes corporate interests and ignores the suffering of the poor.
Hertog: In recent years we have seen opposition to this: Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, the Bernie Sanders campaign. And then we ended up with Donald Trump. What went wrong?
West: Well, part of it is that large numbers of our fellow citizens have given up on participating in the political process and in public life. They have just given up. Some who still do participate are suspicious of those who have the courage to be critical of Wall Street and of the greed among corporate and banking elites. They see such criticism as too revolutionary, too subversive of the status quo.
And then we have the neoliberals, who use some of the rhetoric of Bernie Sanders but have deep ties to the military-industrial complex and to Wall Street. They end up saying one thing and doing something else. Obama is like that. He wants to be seen as Martin Luther King Jr., but he is actually a neoliberal political figure who is far removed from King’s courage and vision.
And then you have Trump and others who come in with pseudopopulist language and are tied to Big Money and thoroughly lack integrity. Trump has made mendacity a way of life. He has made lying seem normal. That is his way of being in the world. And yet 38 percent of our fellow citizens say they like him.
Hertog: It could be a threat to democracy, no?
West: Oh, yes, it is a threat to democracy. It could very well be the end of democracy. We are living in a very bleak moment.
Hertog: But you supported Jill Stein over Hillary Clinton?
Hertog: Would you have changed your vote to Clinton if it would have prevented the election of Trump?
West: If my vote had been the decisive vote, yes, I would have voted for Clinton against Trump. But what we need is a sustained critique of the Clintons and the Obamas and other Wall Street–friendly politicians, with their ugly drone strikes on innocent people; politicians who hardly say a word about poverty and reinforce a surveillance state and a national-security state and permanent war. We must have some truth-telling about that. More than half of discretionary government spending goes into the military-industrial complex. That’s why we don’t have enough resources for education or public healthcare. We need true public healthcare, not market-driven Obamacare. Obama took a step in the right direction, but it fell far, far short.
We need our fellow citizens, intellectuals and others, to tell the truth. As long as we have a fear of telling the truth, we will be locked into lies as a mode of living. If everybody is afraid to tell the truth, what kind of public dialogue can you have?
Hertog: And people are increasingly isolated in society.
West: People are increasingly isolated, atomized, unable to connect. But we have to bounce back. And we do have wonderful movements going on. There is Rev. William Barber II’s Poor People’s Campaign, based on Martin Luther King Jr.’s campaign of the same name. Barber has been traveling to different cities and drawing large crowds. He is currently the most King-like person in our culture, because he reaches people of all colors and sexual orientations and genders. He’s a prophetic figure who inspires public dialogue through example. Thank God he is finally being noticed in the media.
Hertog: Isn’t it true that politicians must sometimes compromise? How do you know when to compromise and when to stand on principle?
West: There are times when you can do both. Being principled is about pushing that principle as far as possible, given the available options.
Hertog: But is it fair to blame Obama for falling short of his ideals when, as a president, he had to work with a hostile congress?
West: Every president has constraints. The question is: Did he attempt to fight and lose, so that people knew where he stood? Part of Obama’s problem was that he gave in too quickly. Take healthcare: Early on he said he wanted single-payer, but then he sat down and made a deal with big pharmaceutical companies and big insurance companies, a deal that didn’t even allow for a discussion of single-payer. He thought this was the only way he could push this plan through, so he gave up his principles before the negotiations even began. The insurers knew they would make even bigger profits if Obama forced people to buy from them, and that’s what he did. And then he went around telling people that this was some kind of great progressive breakthrough.
Just tell people the truth. Tell them that you are a principled person, and that you fought for your principles but couldn’t get the legislation through, and therefore you made this compromise. Instead Obama keeps pretending that this is what he was working for all along.
Hertog: Do you think having a black Democratic president caused some on the Left to become complacent?
West: That’s right. They knew what was going on, but they didn’t want to criticize a black president. Fox News was criticizing him all the time, and that made liberals and progressives defensive. But I told Obama right away that I would be critical when he didn’t talk about Wall Street greed. I’d be critical when he didn’t talk about the mass incarceration of black men. What’s the use of a black president who doesn’t say a word about that?
I’m a prisoner of hope. I don’t believe in optimism or pessimism. I believe in wrestling with despair and trying to generate enough energy to remain Socratic and prophetic in my own life, deeds, and thoughts. But the world is always a mess.
Hertog: Have you ever considered going into politics?
West: No, not really. I spent a lot of time close to Bernie Sanders and my dear brother [former U.S. senator] Bill Bradley, but I have no desire to enter politics myself.
Hertog: Your grandfather was a Baptist preacher, right? Can you tell me about him?
West: He passed away forty-two years ago. The Reverend C.L. West. He was what greatness really means: the self-emptying and giving to others in order to inspire them. He was a giver at the deepest level. Of course, he was wounded like anybody. But he chose to be a wounded helper, not a wounded hurter.
Hertog: Do you have memories of him?
West: Oh, yes. I was twenty-three when we buried him. He was my father’s father. My family would visit him in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on vacations, and I’d get to spend time with him and see him preach. He had a golden heart. He was good folk. He was not a revolutionary like me, but he had a tremendous sensitivity to the suffering of other people. That’s the moral and spiritual basis of any force for good.
Hertog: Was he part of what you call the “prophetic Christian tradition”?
West: Yes, indeed. Take this man right here: Reinhold Niebuhr. [Points to a copy of Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society.] My granddad had that book on his bookshelf and showed it to me when I was ten years old. Little did I know that I would grow up to write the introduction to the new edition fifty years later.
Hertog: What was it about Niebuhr that so impressed your grandfather?
West: Granddad thought Niebuhr was a serious Christian who tried to make sense of the world and who was fundamentally concerned with justice wedded with the gospel of love.
Hertog: You have been critical of what you call the “dogma of skepticism.” What does that phrase mean?
West: When skepticism is taken to an extreme, it becomes a form of dogma. We must be skeptical even of skepticism, because you can’t live without beliefs. The very notion of a full-fledged, dogma-free way of being in the world is itself an illusion. To live life, you’ve got to love your family, your community — and once you love, you can’t be entirely skeptical.
Hertog: This reminds me of another question. Some people see truth from a perspective of universality, and others approach truth from the perspective of a particular identity.
West: But they belong together. There is no universality that is not mediated through particularity. You can’t have scientific truth based on pure speculation. There’s got to be some kind of evidence, and that evidence is particular.
Hertog: Because we are all standing somewhere?
West: Yes, we are all standing somewhere, and the claims we make are shaped in some way by where we stand and where we come from. But that doesn’t mean there are no universals. [Novelist and short-story writer] Franz Kafka is a truth-teller, but he comes out of a particular tradition. There is no Kafka without Prague and the Jewish community in Prague. But the truth he tells is bigger than any particular culture or society or civilization.
Hertog: Is racism a particularly American problem?
West: No. There’s no doubt that white supremacy has played a paramount role in shaping the U.S. The fact that we had a civil war over white supremacy and slavery has shaped our understanding of our country. But racism has also played a paramount role in shaping South Africa. It has also played a crucial role in Brazil, Colombia, and Cuba.
Hertog: You have described the Charlottesville rally on August 12, 2017, as the “biggest gathering of a hate-driven right wing” in the last thirty years. What do you think is behind this apparent rise in organized white supremacy?
West: It’s always been there, but lately they have been emboldened by Trump and others. It’s very dangerous. They could create a Nazi movement that will topple all of us. They are drawing more and more followers.
Hertog: So you are worried?
West: Definitely. Neofascism in the U.S. is tied to white supremacy. It is also tied to anti-Jewish, anti-Arab, anti-gay, and anti-trans hatred. But it’s not happening just in the U.S. We see it in Poland, in Hungary, in Turkey, in Kenya, in Middle Eastern countries. It’s a global phenomenon: using neofascism, xenophobia, and the hatred of the “other” to undermine democracy. In the U.S. we get the white-supremacist version of this, which targets blacks and browns and reds and Jews and Muslims.
Hertog: Are you worried this ideology will win against the ideology of tolerance?
West: Or just the ideology of telling the truth and respecting each other, which is even stronger than tolerance. But respecting others is a weak reed when hatred is being unleashed in every corner of the world.
Hertog: Is violence ever justified when standing up to racist and fascist movements?
West: Definitely. I believe in just war. We had a just war against Hitler. And I would have engaged in a just war against Stalin, or a just war against apartheid in South Africa.
Once you have exhausted all possible nonviolent means, and you still have thugs and gangsters trying to kill people, then you have no choice but to violently resist them. The Jews in Poland in 1943 were heroic in their violent resistance to Hitler. I applaud self-defense. But you have to be very careful, when using the language of self-defense, that it doesn’t become a rationale to kill innocent people. That is a real danger anywhere in the world.
Hertog: Can the Black Lives Matter movement promote the kind of change you want to see?
West: I hope so. Right now Black Lives Matter is all motion and momentum. It needs to take on a much more sustained, institutional form, with high levels of visibility, before it constitutes a formidable threat to the status quo. Black Lives Matter is not there yet, but it’s a marvelous new militancy. And it is fundamentally concerned with the weakest and most vulnerable in society. Black Lives Matter was largely founded by black queers, and that makes a big difference in terms of how they look at the world. But they have to become international in their concerns about empire, about predatory capitalism, about patriarchy, about prejudice against any human being or group. You need that kind of universal moral and spiritual concern. You don’t want to become tribal.
Hertog: What do you mean by “tribal”?
West: When you’re concerned only with people of your own race, or your own religion, or your own ethnicity. When you don’t speak up when a member of another group is mistreated. That’s tribal.
Hertog: Is that why you have expressed reservations about black nationalism?
West: Absolutely. I have reservations about any kind of nationalism. Nationalism per se is probably the most powerful movement in the modern world. It tells us that people outside our nation-state have less value than those inside.
I have never been a nationalist of any sort, white or black. Nationalism too easily falls prey to tribalism and idolatry. I am more of an internationalist.
Hertog: Does that mean you are also suspicious of nation-states?
West: We need to live with nation-states. But my ultimate allegiance is not to any nation-state. It’s to truth and justice.