It almost didn’t matter what Cornel West said, it was the cadence of his voice that grabbed me. A blues man, an intellectual chiding us to live the unsettled, or funky life. I identified with him.
“Greed has been running amok since Reaganism, for 30 or 40 years now,” West bellowed. We live in it’s-an-all-about-me society, in a”culture of mass distraction.” Instead, he insists, to be a more humane society we must help the poor and the vulnerable.
“Indifference to evil is more evil than evil itself,” said West, quoting Rabbi Abraham Heschel.
Brother West — he calls everyone he speaks to or about “brother” or “sister” — spoke, no sang, to more than 2,500 brothers and sisters at the UA’s Centennial Hall last night. (Who knows how many people were turned away; security peopel had to lock the doors. It was a free event, but still, I’ve never seen so many people trying to get into the place.)
West kept reminding the largely student audience, “you come to the University of Arizona to learn how to die. Any time you give up a prejudice, a presupposition, it’s a form of death.” And I loved this, “Education is the moment you realize your worldview rests on pudding.”
I always wanted my students to be confused (funky?). Question dogma, i.e. history. So I definitely got down with Brother West.
“Who has the courage these days to wrestle with the truth?” he asked. “We have a mean-spirited political party on one side and a milquetoast party on the other.”
His references to Washington and Jefferson — old white guys who strove to overthrow imperialist shackles but who owned slaves — raised another essential educational goal. If you’re anti-imperialist and anti-slavery, “how do you hold two opposing ideas in your mind at the same time and still be able to function?” Wrestle with the unsettled life?
“And don’t talk to me about the budget,” roared West, noting that “since 1975 we’ve spent 301 billion on a Marshall Plan — to incarcerate people in prisons. And we always have enough money for Iraq, Afghanistan and now Libya.”
How do we deal with the poor and most vulnerable among us? Our priorities are warped. “In the Age of Obama,” he said, “I was break-dancing for a few days. But even with black folk in the White House it’s hard to keep track of black folk in public housing.”
West said he had hoped that Obama would provide a more humane vision for America, but choosing Larry Summers and Timothy Gauthier as economic advisers immediately showed him that the White House would be an “extension of investment bankers.”
Still, life must be about hope — not optimism — and that’s the blues, said West. “BB King still sings ‘Nobody loves me like my mama and she may be jivin’ too.’ That’s hope.”