Cornel West

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Cornel Ronald West

Cornel West in 2008
Full name Cornel Ronald West
Born June 2, 1953 (1953-06-02) (age 56)
Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA
Era 21st-century philosophy
Region Western Philosophers
School Pragmatism, Existentialism
Main interests Democracy, Race, Philosophy of religion, Ethics
Notable ideas Race Matters, Democracy Matters

Cornel Ronald West (born June 2, 1953) is an American philosopher, author, critic, actor, and civil rights activist, as well as a prominent member of the Democratic Socialists of America. West currently serves as the Class of 1943 University Professor at Princeton University, where he teaches in the Center for African American Studies and in the department of Religion.

West is known for his combination of political and moral insight and criticism, and his contribution to the post-1960s civil rights movement. The bulk of his work focuses upon the role of race, gender, and class in American society and the means by which people act and react to their “radical conditionedness." West draws intellectual contributions from such diverse traditions as the African American Baptist Church, pragmatism and transcendentalism.[1]



[edit] Biography

West was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma.[2] and raised in Sacramento, where his father was a general contractor for the Defense Department and his mother was a teacher, later to become a principal.[3] West marched as a young man in civil rights demonstrations and organized protests demanding black studies courses at his high school. He later wrote that, in his youth, he admired "the sincere black militancy of Malcolm X, the defiant rage of the Black Panther Party [...] and the livid black theology of James Cone."[4] After Sacramento, where he served as president of his high school class, he enrolled at Harvard University at age 17. He took classes from philosophers Robert Nozick and Stanley Cavell and graduated in three years, magna cum laude in Near Eastern Languages and Civilization in 1973. He was determined to press the university and its intellectual traditions into the service of his political agendas and not the other way around: to have its educational agendas imposed on him. "Owing to my family, church, and the black social movements of the 1960s", he says, "I arrived at Harvard unashamed of my African, Christian, and militant de-colonized outlooks. More pointedly, I acknowledged and accented the empowerment of my black styles, mannerisms, and viewpoints, my Christian values of service, love, humility, and struggle, and my anti-colonial sense of self-determination for oppressed people and nations around the world."

He earned a Ph.D. in 1980 from Princeton, where he was influenced by Richard Rorty's pragmatism. The title of his dissertation was Ethics, historicism and the Marxist tradition [5] which was later revised and published under the title The Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought.

In his mid-twenties, he returned to Harvard as a Du Bois fellow before becoming an assistant professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. In 1985 he went to Yale Divinity School in what eventually became a joint appointment in American studies. While at Yale, he participated in campus protests for a clerical union and divestment from apartheid South Africa, one of which resulted in his being arrested and jailed. As punishment, the university administration cancelled his leave for Spring 1987, leading him to commute between Yale (where he was teaching two classes) and the University of Paris.

He then returned to Union and taught at Haverford College for one year before going to Princeton to become a professor of religion and director of the Program in African American Studies, which he revitalized in cooperation with such scholars as novelist Toni Morrison. He served as director of the program from 1988 to 1994.

He then accepted an appointment as professor of African-American studies at Harvard University, with a joint appointment at the Harvard Divinity School. West taught one of the university's most popular courses, an introductory class on African-American studies. In 1998 he was appointed the first Alphonse Fletcher University Professor. West used this freedom to teach not only in African-American studies but in divinity, religion, and in philosophy.

In 2001, after an argument with Harvard president Lawrence Summers, West returned to Princeton, where he has taught since.[6]

The recipient of more than 20 honorary degrees and an American Book Award,[1] he is a longtime member of the Democratic Socialists of America, for which he now serves as Honorary Chair. He is also a co-chair of the Tikkun Community and the Network of Spiritual Progressives. West is a board member of the International Bridges to Justice, among others. West is also much sought-after as a speaker, blurb-writer, and honorary chair.

Critics, most notably The New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier, have charged him with opportunism, crass showmanship and lack of scholarly seriousness. [7]

West remains a widely cited scholar in the popular press, in African-American studies, and in studies of black theology, although his work as an academic philosopher has been almost completely ignored (with the exception of his early history of American pragmatism, The American Evasion of Philosophy).

West is a member of Alpha Phi Alpha, the first intercollegiate Greek-letter fraternity established for African-Americans. He is a member of the fraternity's World Policy Council, a think tank whose purpose is to expand Alpha Phi Alpha's involvement in politics and social and current policy to encompass international concerns.[8]

West is a practicing Christian.

[edit] Dispute with Lawrence Summers

In 2000, economist and former U.S. Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers became president of Harvard. In a private meeting with West, Summers allegedly rebuked West for missing too many classes, contributing to grade inflation, neglecting serious scholarship, and spending too much time on his economically profitable projects.[9] Summers allegedly suggested that West produce an academic book befitting his professorial position. West had written several books, some of them widely cited, but his recent output consisted primarily of co-written and edited volumes. According to some reports, Summers also objected to West's production of a CD, the critically panned Sketches of My Culture, and to his political campaigning.[10] According to West's book Democracy Matters, Summers wrongly accused him of canceling classes for three straight weeks during 2000 to promote Bill Bradley's presidential campaign. West contends that he had missed one class during his tenure at Harvard "in order to give a keynote address at a Harvard-sponsored conference on AIDS." Lawrence Summers also allegedly suggested that since West held the rank of Harvard University Professor and thus reported directly to the President, he should meet with Summers regularly to discuss the progress of his academic production.[11]

West contends that popular coverage of the controversy obscured the true issues at stake in his dispute with Summers. West argues that Summers's vision of academia is corrosive to a deep democratic commitment that strives to connect the academy with society at large, so as to fulfill its calling to educate the public. He contends that the controversy with Summers was indicative of the fact that "a market-driven technocratic culture has infiltrated university life, with the narrow pursuit of academic trophies and the business of generating income from grants and business partnerships taking precedence over the fundamental responsibility of nurturing young minds." [12] According to West, during the controversy West was highly regarded in the academic community, was already tenured at Harvard, Princeton and Yale, "had more academic references than fourteen of the other seventeen Harvard University Professors", and "had nearly twice as many such references as Summers himself."[13] At the time, West had been focused on reaching wider audiences as part of his effort to encourage civic engagement—especially amongst youth—in the hope of revitalizing a deep democratic commitment that would counteract the encroaching political nihilism that he argues threatens the future of American democracy. While West doesn't deny the importance of academics engaging the more specialized concerns of their fields, he strongly opposes the sentiment that academia must limit itself to those rarefied interests. Academia and academics have an important role to play in promoting public discourse that cannot be achieved if professors lock themselves in their ivory towers instead of engaging society-at-large and the salient issues of the day. Ultimately, this was the root of the quarrel, according to West.[12]

Summers refused to comment on the details of his conversation with West, except to express hope that West would remain at Harvard. Soon after, West was hospitalized for prostate cancer. West complained that Summers failed to send him get-well wishes until weeks after his surgery, whereas newly installed Princeton president Shirley Tilghman had contacted him frequently before and after his treatment.[11] In 2002 West left Harvard University to return to Princeton. West lashed out at Summers in public interviews, calling him "the Ariel Sharon of higher education" on NPR's Tavis Smiley Show.[14]

[edit] Views on race in America

West has branded the U.S. a "racist patriarchal" nation where "white supremacy" continues to define everyday life. "White America," he writes, "has been historically weak-willed in ensuring racial justice and has continued to resist fully accepting the humanity of blacks." This has resulted, he claims, in the creation of many "degraded and oppressed people hungry for identity, meaning, and self-worth." Professor West attributes most of the black community's problems to "existential angst derive[d] from the lived experience of ontological wounds and emotional scars inflicted by white supremacist beliefs and images permeating U.S. society and culture."[15]

In West's view, the September 11, 2001 attacks gave white Americans a glimpse of what it means to be a black person in the United States—feeling "unsafe, unprotected, subject to random violence, and hatred" for who they are.[16] "The ugly terrorist attacks on innocent civilians on 9/11," he said, "plunged the whole country into the blues."[16]

[edit] Politics

West describes himself as a "non-Marxist socialist" (partly due to Marx's opposition to religion) and serves as honorary chair of the Democratic Socialists of America, which he has described as "the first multiracial, socialist organization close enough to my politics that I could join". He also described himself as a "radical democrat, suspicious of all forms of authority" on the Matrix-themed documentary The Burly Man Chronicles (Found in The Ultimate Matrix Collection).

West has made plain[when?] his opposition to the war in Iraq. He asserts that Bush Administration hawks "are not simply conservative elites and right-wing ideologues", but rather are "evangelical nihilists — drunk with power and driven by grand delusions of American domination of the world". He adds, "We are experiencing the sad gangsterization of America, an unbridled grasp at power, wealth and status." Viewing capitalism as the root cause of these alleged American lusts, West warns, "Free-market fundamentalism trivializes the concern for public interest. It puts fear and insecurity in the hearts of anxiety-ridden workers. It also makes money-driven, poll-obsessed elected officials deferential to corporate goals of profit — often at the cost of the common good."[citation needed] West has been involved with such projects as the Million Man March and Russell Simmons's Hip-Hop Summit, and worked with such public figures as Louis Farrakhan[2] and Al Sharpton, whose 2004 presidential campaign West advised.

In 2000 West worked as a senior advisor to Democratic presidential candidate Bill Bradley. When Bradley lost in the primaries, West became a prominent endorser of Ralph Nader, even speaking at some Nader rallies. Some Greens sought to draft West to run as a presidential candidate in 2004. West declined, citing his active participation in the Al Sharpton campaign. West, along with other prominent Nader 2000 supporters, signed the "Vote to Stop Bush" statement urging progressive voters in swing states to vote for John Kerry, despite strong disagreements with many of Kerry's policies.

In April 2002 West and Rabbi Michael Lerner performed civil disobedience[clarification needed] at the U.S. State Department "in solidarity with suffering Palestinian and Israeli brothers and sisters". West said, "We must keep in touch with the humanity of both sides."[17] In May 2007 West joined a demonstration against "injustices faced by the Palestinian people resulting from the Israeli occupation" and "to bring attention to this 40 year travesty of justice".

Cornel West publicly supported 2008 Democratic Presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama. He spoke to over 1,000 of his supporters at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, NYC on November 29, 2007.[18]

West also serves as co-chair of the Tikkun Community. He co-chaired the National Parenting Organization's Task Force on Parent Empowerment and participated in President Clinton's National Conversation on Race. He has publicly endorsed In These Times magazine by calling it: "The most creative and challenging newsmagazine of the American left". He is also a contributing editor for Sojourners Magazine.

West is noted for his support of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) in its Kentucky Fried Cruelty campaign, aimed at eliminating what PETA describes as KFC's inhumane treatment of chickens. West is quoted on PETA flyers: "Although most people don't know chickens as well as they know cats and dogs, chickens are interesting individuals with personalities and interests every bit as developed as the dogs and cats with whom many of us share our lives."

In 2008, West contributed his insights on the current global issue of modernized slavery and human trafficking in the rockumentary Call+Response.[1]

West criticized President Obama when Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, saying that it would be difficult for Obama to be "a war president with a peace prize".[19]

[edit] Popular culture

West appears in both The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions. He plays Councilor West, one of the elders who serves on the council of Zion. West's character advises that "comprehension is not a requisite of cooperation." In addition, West provides philosophical commentary on all three Matrix films in The Ultimate Matrix Collection, along with integral theorist Ken Wilber.

West also made multiple appearances on the popular political show Real Time with Bill Maher.[20][21][22][23][24]

West was also featured on Starbucks Coffee Cups with The Way I See It #284 quoted, "You can't lead the people if you don't love the people. You can't save the people, if you don't serve the people."

In Anna Deavere Smith's work Twilight: Los Angeles 1992, she briefly delivers a speech in the style and words of West.

In the 2008 film Examined Life, a documentary featuring several noted academics discussing philosophy in real-world contexts, Cornel, "driving through Manhattan, . . . compares philosophy to jazz and blues, reminding us how intense and invigorating a life of the mind can be."[25]

West appeared in the rock-umentary Call + Response, a video aiming to raise awareness about human trafficking.

Rapper Lupe Fiasco mentions West in his song 'Just Might Be OK' from his album Food & Liquor with the line 'I ain't Cornel West, I am Cornel Westside, Chi-town Guevara."

West has recorded a recitation of John Mellencamp's song "Jim Crow" for inclusion on the singer's upcoming box set On the Rural Route 7609.

West has recently completed recording with the Cornel West Theory, a Hip Hop band endorsed by West which also bears his name [2].

He also was also seen having a conversation with Bill Withers in the Bill Withers documentary, "Still Bill".

[edit] Published works

[edit] See also

[edit] References

  1. ^ a b "Cornel West". Retrieved 2008-01-21. 
  2. ^ a b Elder, Robert (1998). "Prisoner of Hope". inFlux. University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication. Retrieved 2002-01-21. 
  3. ^ Alim, Fahizah (4 June 1999). "Opening Doors: Irene West Gave Her All as a Teacher and Principal, Now, a New School Honors Her Name and Hard Work". Sacramento Bee. 
  4. ^ "The Cornel West Reader". Retrieved 2008-02-23. 
  5. ^ "Ethics, historicism and the Marxist tradition". Retrieved 2009-10-27. 
  6. ^ Goldfarb, Zachary A. (2002-08-12). "West to leave Harvard to become University professor of religion". The Daily Princetonian (Daily Princetonian Publishing Company, Inc.). Retrieved 2008-01-21. 
  7. ^
  8. ^ Dawson, Horace; Edward Brooke, Henry Ponder, Vinton R. Anderson, Bobby William Austin, Ron Dellums, Kenton Keith, Huel D. Perkins, Charles Rangel, Clathan McClain Ross, and Cornel West (July 2006) (PDF). The Centenary Report Of The Alpha Phi Alpha World Policy Council. Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity. Retrieved 2008-12-28. 
  9. ^ Associated Press (2002-01-10). "Who is Cornel West?". Cable News Network. Retrieved 2008-01-21. 
  10. ^ Steinberg, Jacques (2001-11-29). "At Odds With Harvard President, Black-Studies Stars Eye Princeton". The New York Times (New York City, New York: The New York Times Company). Retrieved 2008-01-21. 
  11. ^ a b Belluck, Pam; Jacques Steinberg (2002-04-16). "Defector Indignant at President of Harvard". The New York Times (New York City, New York: The New York Times Company). Retrieved 2008-01-21. 
  12. ^ a b Cornell West (2004). Democracy Matters. [Penguin Books]. 
  13. ^ Cornell West (2004). Democracy Matters. [Penguin Books]. 
  14. ^
  15. ^ Cornel West, Race Matters, p. 27, 2001 edition, ISBN 978-0807009727
  16. ^ a b Cornel West, Democracy Matters, p. 20, 2004, ISBN 0-14-303583-5
  17. ^ Thoughts on Anti-Semitism
  18. ^ Parker Aab, Stacy (2007-10-30). "Obama, Race, and the Right Side of History". The Huffington News (, Inc.). Retrieved 2008-01-21. 
  19. ^ "Cornel West Comments On Obama's Nobel Peace Prize: Hard To Be War President With Peace Prize". The Huffington Post. October 10, 2009. Retrieved October 28, 2009. 
  20. ^ ""Real Time with Bill Maher" Episode 36". Retrieved 2008-05-14. 
  21. ^ ""Real Time with Bill Maher" Episode 49". Retrieved 2008-05-14. 
  22. ^ ""Real Time with Bill Maher" Episode 78". Retrieved 2008-05-14. 
  23. ^ ""Real Time with Bill Maher" Episode 107". Retrieved 2008-05-14. 
  24. ^ ""Real Time with Bill Maher" Episode 128". Retrieved 2008-05-14. 
  25. ^ ""Examined Life (2008) - Plot Summary"". 

[edit] External links

Voices on Antisemitism — A Podcast Series

July 19, 2007

Cornel West

Professor of Religion, Princeton University

Cornel West
Credit: Brian Velenchenko

Cornel West encourages us to acknowledge our prejudices, rather than to pretend that they don't exist. He says that we must then formulate strategies to move to a higher moral ground.

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I begin with the notion that we are all cracked vessels, meaning that as vanishing organisms in space and time, we have fears, insecurities, anxieties, sometimes even inner demons with which we all have to come to terms. And given that humanness of each and every one of us, we're all part of a certain family, community, society, culture, history, which is shot through with different forms of xenophobia. This is what, in part, human history has been. So the question is going to be: what kind of courage do we have to examine those prejudices that we do have in order to become more decent and compassionate human beings?

In his many writings on racism and democracy, Princeton University professor Cornel West encourages us to acknowledge our prejudices, rather than to pretend that they don't exist. He says that we must then formulate strategies to move beyond prejudice and to a higher moral ground. Despite America's history of racism and prejudice, West remains hopeful about our continuing democratic experiment.

Welcome to Voices on Antisemitism, a free podcast series of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. I'm Daniel Greene. Every other week, we invite a guest to reflect about the many ways that antisemitism and hatred influence our world today. From the campus of Princeton University, here's Cornel West.

I think that the, I mean the history of Jewish brothers and sisters and black brothers and sisters in the United States is a complicated one. There's no doubt about it. I mean, you got the age Europe, 1492 to 1945, where Jews actually are the degraded others. They are the internal exiles. They are the subjugated ones. 1492: expulsion of Jews from Spain. 1945: indescribable concentration camps in Germany, Poland, and other places. Meaning what? Meaning that you had this history of a hated people, a despised people, a subjugated people, an oppressed people.

Well, in the United States, black people constitute the symbol of the internal exile, of the degraded other. So you then, in the States, have the coming together of these two deeply despised, hated, and oppressed people, with their own paranoias, you know, with their own insecurities, but also with their own rich heritages. And you have to keep in mind, see, for black people that we, ourselves, in some way, make ourselves into modern American peoples, beneath American democracy by appropriating Hebrew scripture.

So that the understanding of what it means to be an oppressed people in an Egypt, making a covenant with a grand power that tells us to be kind to the weak, the vulnerable, and so forth, that you get this deeply Jewish dimension in black identity. In the very making of modern black peoples, there is a profound Jewish element.

But then you've got the actual interaction between Jews and black people on the ground in America. On the one sense, it's magnificent, of course, because you've got significant number of progressive Jews who talk about southern lynching as pogroms, who are in deep solidarity. And, of course, we don't have enough time to go into the unbelievable contributions of young Jews in the 1960s, who put their bodies on the line, not just time and energy, but their bodies on the line in terms of fighting American apartheid and white supremacy in the South, and so forth. On the other hand, of course, you have America as the place for unbelievable opportunity, possibility, unbelievable upward social mobility. And as you get a more bourgeois-ossified Jewry in America, as they begin to move from underdogs to middle dogs and upper middle dogs, and even a few top dogs at the top of American capitalist civilization, you begin to get more and more friction and tension. And it's understandable.

Part of the bourgeois-ossification of American Jewry has to do with the whitening of Jews in the eyes of those on the outside of the mainstream. There's no doubt about that. But I think on the other hand, even if some Jews do believe that they're white, I think that they're duped. I think that antisemitism has proven itself to be a powerful force in nearly every post of Western civilization where Christianity has a presence. And so even as a Christian, I say continually to my Jewish brothers and sisters: don't believe the hype about your full scale assimilation and integration into a mainstream. It only takes an event or two for a certain kind of anti-Jewish, antisemitic sensibility to surface in places that you would be surprised. But I'm just thoroughly convinced that America is not the promised land for Jewish brothers and sisters. A lot of Jewish brothers say, "No, that’s not true. We finally—yeah—they said that in Alexandria. You said that in Weimar Germany."

America is not the promised land. I do not believe there is a promised land for Jewish brothers and sisters given the history of antisemitism for the last 2000 years. There are better places. America is one of the best places, but the antisemitism is just beneath the surface. You see what I mean? And therefore those who are really vigilant, those like myself who are fundamentally committed to defending the humanity of Jewish brothers and sisters, no matter how popular or unpopular it is, that I am not going to believe the hype, even when I see Jews highly assimilated sometimes at high levels in American civilization believing they've been fully accepted by the Goyim. I just don't believe it.

Prejudices are always already there. You're never going to wipe them clean. If the criteria of progress is eradicating all prejudice, eradicating all racism, homophobia, antisemitism, and so forth, then we all may just give up and go to the crack house, because it’s just not going to happen. That's not the point. We can be better, much better.

I mean, with [Samuel] Beckett here, you know, you try again, fail again, fail better. And we know, we have examples of persons who are better. But we say to the pessimist, don’t just start with failure. Fail better. See the effort goes on. Agency is still at work. Intention is still at work. Possibility of progress. No paradise, progress still at work. So we need pessimists around. Don't get me wrong. I think pessimists are always quite useful. The problem is that they cannot constitute the last word. They’re the brook of fire through which we all must pass, but they can’t be the conclusion. Our conclusion must be actions, not a proposition, it’s action, which is a praxis, a way of life that recognizes the pessimist challenge, but also recognizes that for the sake of our own precious children of all colors, we can attempt to be better.