Cornel West: Sing A Song of Love and Faith in a Pandemic


Philosopher, author, and activist Dr. Cornel West talks to Rob Johnson about what the Christian concept of love can offer during a pandemic. They also discuss financialization, militarization, and the commodification of religion.

Transcript

Rob Johnson:

I’m here today with brother Cornel West to discuss these events here in early May of 2020, in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic, in relation to social theory, in relation to the arts, in relation to so many things that Cornel West brings to the table. He is one of the people in my life who I most admire for his ability to see patterns across the ages through the intellectuals, through the literature, through the music and weave a tapestry that takes us to a deeper understanding. Cornel, thank you for joining me here today.

Cornel West:

Well, thank you, my dear brother. I want to begin by saluting you, that we have had some good times together, as two former blues men and brothers with deep sensibilities, as it relates to wrestling with suffering with new sophisticated economists on the one hand and all at the same time connecting it to such genuine compassion on the other. That’s a rare and real combination though brother. Indeed, indeed. But I look forward to our dialogue, man, and it’s always a blessing to be in conversation with you.

Rob Johnson:

Well and the feelings are mutual. I was inspired today, in preparing to talk with you, remembering when we were on the stage together, when I met you at the Union Theological Seminary.

Cornel West:

Oh, yeah.

Rob Johnson:

Did a session called “Filling the Void,” and you and Serene Jones and I were on stage and I surprised you a little bit with recognizing an early fictional story, kind of an autobiographical fictional story called “Sing a Song.” And there was, within that, a character, Ezekiel Clifton Severfield, who looked to me like a self-portrait that you were painting. And his relation to music. His relation to not being a musician, but understanding music deeply, and his relation to written words. I thought it foreshadowed. That was published in 1982 and it foreshowed a great deal. But what I remember, it just foreshadowed so much of what you would build and what you would do in a self-awareness. But I remember there was a man whose name was Frank Yerby-

Cornel West:

Yes.

Rob Johnson:

… and when you started and you brought this music to the front of the discussion his … I want to quote him. “For they who fashion songs must live too close to pain. Acquaint themselves too well with grief and tears, thus make the slow deep throbbing pulse of years and their own heartbeats one. Watch the slow train of passing atoms paint their scarlet stain upon the hills and learn that beauty sears. The whole world’s woe and heartbeat must be theirs, and theirs each vision smashed. Each new dream slain. But sing again, oh you who have heart, sweet songs as fragile as a passing breath. Although your broken heart strings make your lyre, and each pure strain must rend the soul apart, for it was ever thus to sing is death and in your spirit flames your body’s pyre.”

Well I was gripped by that then and was gripped just as I read it today, and it brought me to a song that was written and that used to be what the band U2 used to close every one of their concerts. It was how they left a message with people and it was called 40. It was derived from Psalm 40 of the Bible and in that song, asking for the help of the Lord, to sing a new song. And in the middle of the song he declares that: “He,” meaning the Lord, “has set my seed upon the rock and made my footsteps firm so many will see, many will see and hear. I will sing. I will sing a new song. I will sing. I will sing a new song.” Dr. Cornel West, the world is shaken up, stale paradigms and habits of thought are breaking apart. What new song is in your imagination, that the world needs to sing to heal, restore faith in our future and pass on to our children?

Cornel West:

Well, I tell you, I appreciate those powerful words though, brother, to start us off. I had not thought about that short story. I wrote that as an undergrad but it was published in the Harvard Advocate, which was a literary magazine, they called it, back in the early ’70s, and it was “Sing a Song.” It was actually … The title came from a single by Earth, Wind & Fire, called “Sing a Song.”

Rob Johnson:

Uh-huh.

Cornel West:

Oh yes, absolutely. And it could have been sing a simple song. I debated with Sly Stone, “Sing a Simple Song,” and I was debating the title between Sly Stone and Earth, Wind & Fire, but I went with Earth, Wind & Fire. And it had everything to do with a sense of calling, a sense of vocation. I think any time we talk about crisis or catastrophe we’re really talking about who we are as human beings. Who we are as a society. Who we are as a species. Because these crises and catastrophes tend to reveal, disclose and really lay bare who we really are, and who we really are, defining that not just in the words we utter, but in the actions that we take, the needs that we’re wiling to undertake. And so the sense of … U2 sang: “Okay, let’s sing a new song.”

There’s a wonderful line in Alfred North Whitehead’s “Great Adventures of Ideas,” where he says: “A nothing novel is holy novel.” And well, of course what he’s saying there is no matter what new song we sing, it’s got to be rooted in the past, and I hope rooted in the best of the past. So the question becomes, in a crisis, in a catastrophe how do you gain access to and mobilize the best intellectual, moral, spiritual, political, economic resources of our past in order to bring those resources to bear that allows us to authorize a new future. And you can’t authorize a future without vision. It’s very, very important. So there’s an intimate relation, my dear brother, between vocation and vision.

You see, vocation is about not just a calling but it’s about a voice that is tied to invocation, what is invoked, relating you to the past, that your calling is connected to a recalling of earlier examples of individuals, of institutions, of structures, of practices, exemplary persons, figures, forces, institutions. It could be artwork. It could be individuals. So that when we think of how we come to terms with catastrophe, of all of the different kinds of catastrophes; spiritual, moral, political, economic, ecological, nuclear. We first have to learn how to see. So vision becomes very important. Somewhere I read, where there is no vision the people perish. What happens when individuals, communities, nations, empires have no vision? And that’s where we are now, you see, and there’s a qualitative difference between a stare and a vision.

A stare has no vitality, no vibrancy. It has no way of generating any excitement or enthusiasm. A stare has everything to do with a co-calculation, usually tied to self-interest, pecuniary gain, egoism, egotism. And, of course, we’re in a moment in which greed is running amuck. We’re in a moment in which indifference to others, especially the weak and vulnerable, is running amuck; and our mechanisms of accountability, vis-a-vis, the manifestation of that greed. The manifestation of that indifference leads toward corruption because we don’t have mechanisms of accountability. We don’t have mechanisms of answerability. And, of course, democracy at its highest level has to do with effective ways in which greed and indifference and hatred and contempt have some means of being rendered accountable. And so this whole notion … I love how you talked about starting off with: “Sing a Song,” because in the end it really is about how do we connect the best of our souls, that must sing new songs, with our society that has to acknowledge the way in which those songs connect us together.

Now John Dewey called it public goods, or common goods, or the acknowledgment of our dependency and interdependency, as opposed to just domination and manipulation, and one of the reasons why we live in such a sad … This is such a sad moment though brother. You remember now, the blues ain’t nothing but a sad and sweet indictment of misery, which results from catastrophe. Now Ralph Ellison said: “The blues ain’t nothing but a person’s narratives of individual catastrophes lyrically expressed.” But when we talk about blues we’re talking about tragicomic ways of being in the world that still try to muster the courage to see clearly, to feel deeply, and then to act courageously.

Rob Johnson:

Yes.

Cornel West:

And so what we need today is a kind of blues response to our catastrophe. And

Rob Johnson:

But your and my mutual friend, the late James Cone-

Cornel West:

Yeah, brother Jim.

Rob Johnson:

… was a very, very powerful seer of the role of music and blues, and I think I’ve told you the story in the past, that when I worked on the comeback of Ike Turner he was-

Cornel West:

Yes, yes.

Rob Johnson:

… doing his first album around 2000, it was part of the comeback, and James Cone’s book: “Spirituals and the Blues,” and I’m paraphrasing slightly, said: “The spirituals are when you’re in change. They’re singing about the afterlife, to relieve your suffering. But the blues, in the Jim Crow era, are in a time when you are not free, but you’re allegedly free. And the blues is a defiance, in code, in the here and now.” And I named Ike’s album: “Here and Now,” and that’s how I became acquainted, through correspondence with James Cone. But I see the here and now, and the defiance of these dogmas … In your opening introduction, thoughts in the Cornel West redo, which I believe was 1999.

Cornel West:

That’s true.

Rob Johnson:

You ask the question: “Can the dignity of everyday people thrive in an oligarchic and plutocratic economy? What does the public interest have to do with the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in our society? Dewey’s public good, Dewey’s public interest. In this pandemic, or in many other pockets of society related to education and health and poverty this is demoralizing to look directly in the eye the results of this system, which I would call carries a veneer of narcicisstic bragging about itself.”

Cornel West:

That’s right.

Rob Johnson:

The contradictions are hiding in plain site. Yeah?

Cornel West:

That’s absolutely right.

Rob Johnson:

And they are grinding the notion of humanity, the notion of dignity of humanity, the notion of community are being decimated by that denial.

Cornel West:

That’s very real though brother. It’s very, very real. You know, it was very interesting, I was listening to Brahms last night, his intermix of Ops. 118, No. 6, and you know Brahms is probably the saddest of all these classical-

Rob Johnson:

Yes.

Cornel West:

… composers.

Rob Johnson:

Yes.

Cornel West:

Hundreds of pictures of him he never smiles. From the north, from Hamburg, working class brother, self-taught, for the most part, but reached the highest height. And the music, which is in many ways new notes, and therefore new songs of a certain sort. The music is connected to Beethoven’s question; and Beethoven’s question always was: “How do we unflinchingly look at all of the suffering and misery in the world and still muster the courage to love beauty and to love truth?” Now you can see the connection or the elective of penalty between Brahms, Beethoven on the vanilla side of town, and Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Robert Johnson and Coltrane on the chocolate side of town; but all of those figures are exemplary in, the way that I was talking about before.

We need exemplary figures who look unflinchingly in the face of catastrophe and yet still muster the courage to engage in quest for beauty, truth, goodness, and certain religious folk, like Coltrane. I mean, we know Beethoven, for the most part, was much more tied to the enlightenment. We certainly know Brahms was an agnostic. You remember his requiem, written on the death of his mother, had no illusions whatsoever to God or Christ, even though he’s got biblical text starting things off. So it comes in a number of different forms. No religious tradition or secular tradition has a monopoly on the human quest for truth and duty and goodness. The difference, we can make some judgements about them, but none of them … All of them have access to certain elements of the truth, the beautiful and the good.

And I say all that to say that in our present moment, my brother, if we cannot get beyond the greed that blinds us and the indifference that renders us deaf to the cries for help that are escalating in our neighborhoods, our hoods, our burials, our reservations, our nations, you hear these cries all around the world. And, most importantly, in our actions. That must be courageous. It can’t simply be dictated by narrow market calculations. It can’t be dictated by narrow selfish calculations. We’ve got to be able to see and feel and act in a mature way. And this is what paideia is all about. It’s about teaching … Where I teach or anywhere I teach or when I lecture, paideia is the education. paideia is that formation of attention that tries to get us to attend to the things that really matter; not the superficial surface-like things of instant gratification and status and access to this celebrity connection or what have you, but a life and death of integrity, of honesty, of decency, of service to others and generosity, the things that generate joy, not just narrow pleasure.

That’s the formation of attention and a formation for attention goes hand-in-hand with a cultivation of a critical consciousness to be courageous enough to think critically, against the grain, against prevailing paradigms, against those frameworks that are too myopic and short-sighted. And then, most importantly, to act … To promote a maturation. So those are the three pillars of deep education. Formation of attention, the cultivation of critical consciousness and the maturation of a loving, compassionate, courageous person, and the soul of that person, I’ll use soul even as just a metaphor here, as an energy, that energy that Keats talked about. “Energy or despair,” he said. The vitality, the enthusiasm that Emerson talked about. Everything worth achieving is achieved in part by means of enthusiasm. And what happens when there’s no energy. There’s no vision. There’s hardly any enthusiasm tied to quest for truth … There’s a whole lot of enthusiasm when it comes to hatred, contempt, greed, corruption.

But that’s why, in some ways, we’re living in an escalating neo-fascist. Because people are more and more losing trust, losing confidence in the capacity of democratic procedures and processes to actually enhance their lives. So they’re looking for strong men. They’re looking for messianic figures. They’re looking for folk who could provide not just easy answers but scapegoating answers that would trash the weak and vulnerable and somehow think that life is only about survival of the slickest and the richest and the strongest.

Rob Johnson:

Well I know your colleague at Harvard, Michael Sandel, has a forthcoming book called: “The Tyranny of Meritocracy,” and it’s about how … Let us talk in the healthy sense, that education, those three parts that you’re talking about, are building towards a depth, a wisdom, a capacity to see how to be of service to mankind.

Cornel West:

Yes, yes.

Rob Johnson:

Whereas when you start playing credential games and power degrees and conforming to a concentrated power of wealth and social control you may get your awards, you may get your promotions, you may get your research grants, but you’re essentially a marketing man for power, in that context.

Cornel West:

That’s true.

Rob Johnson:

And you’re not for the public good. And we are-

Cornel West:

That’s true.

Rob Johnson:

… suffering tremendously, and this is what … that hollowness is what Sandel is exploring, is that we are in a place where the integrity and trust in expertise is in tatters. And people like our current president mock it. But many of those people that you’ve talked about, feeling the despair, have heard the stories of globalization and technical logical wonder and all these things that have enriched their own small group of people, fabulously, and left everybody else behind.

Cornel West:

That’s right.

Rob Johnson:

My Chinese friends always tell me things can happen. They’re being transient. But when you think, because you get sick or the sector you work in has to change, that you go down and you take your kids down with you. It’s time for rebellion. And there’s despondency, there’s growth of these diseases in despair, but there is also a groundswell of rebellion. And I do see some hope. My dear late friend, William Greider, set up a website in 2009.

Cornel West:

Yes.

Rob Johnson:

The first thing he put on that website is: “I have to announce that my faith is in young people because they have fresh eyes. They can see what is needed. And they have not been conditioned to what is feasible. And that word, feasible is, how would I say? It’s like something closing in, it’s darkness on a society when fewer and fewer people prosper. And the nature of the beast are those shallow things that you described. They’re not lifting a broad base of humanity to a new level of quality of life and comradery and spirit and faith that their children will do even better.

Cornel West:

You know, you’re absolutely right though brother, absolutely right. I think I would cast the net more broadly than my dear brother Michael Sandel. I have great respect for his scholarship, and he and I go all the way back. He was kind enough to let me lecture in his class, way back in the ’90s.

Rob Johnson:

Wow.

Cornel West:

George Will and I used to debate in Sandel’s class. I had wonderful debates with my dear right wing brother Harvey Mansfield, who was also connected-

Rob Johnson:

Wow.

Cornel West:

… in Sandel’s department. We had great times there in Cambridge. He had Harvard 25 years ago, right wing and left wing. But brother Sandel was part of that.

But I would cast it broader, and by casting it broader what I mean is that I think … See, you’ve got three pillars right now, in terms of our present day catastrophe. On the one hand you’ve got the financialization of capitalism, which you shift from American Motors that used to produce things to Wall Street and now produces deals. Because you’ve got the increase of profits going to the financial sector, as opposed to the old industrial sector that’s been de-industrialized, and so much of the labor force now resides all around the world. And so this shift to Wall Street, the shift to financial services in which Wall Street, now, is almost impossible, in terms of being a good servant to public interest and becomes a bad master to his own interest, short-term thinking, buying our private equity, merging, just generating billions and billions and billions of dollars that don’t concretely translate into the real economy.

And that kind of money then becomes, of course, the source of the donations to the politicians. So remember when our dear brother from the Midwest, what was his name? Last speech he gave he said Congress is now a sign of legalized bribery and normalized corruption. I think the senator, I think he was up in Wisconsin or somewhere. But he was talking about the ways in which the big money is spilling over into the political realm, which allows for the shrinking and the containing and the short-term thinking of the politicians as they become more and more subservient to their donors. So you got the financialization of capitalism, but then you’ve also got the militarization of a nation state that goes hand-in-hand in poor and working communities, with mass incarceration regimes in which police, on a local level, are more and more militarized, in which young people are told that violence and punitive punishment and ugly forms of domination is what lies in their future, either in their neighborhoods or in the cells.

And then, of course, internationally you get the 800 military units of the American empire. You get to interventions going on. What is it, 211 U.S. Military interventions in 67 countries since 1946?

Rob Johnson:

Yeah.

Cornel West:

I mean it’s unbelievable military presence, and that sense of our military powers being the benchmark of our national identity. And, of course, you can go back to a whole host of states, states both here in America and around the world, that when, in fact, one of the major benchmarks of your national identity is military prowess. There’s a good chance that spiritually you’re becoming more and more empty. But the third, in addition to the financialization of capitalism and the militarization of nation states, internally and externally, domestically and globally, is the commodification of culture. And this is what we were talking about, in terms-

Rob Johnson:

Yeah.

Cornel West:

… of education, you see?

Rob Johnson:

Yeah.

Cornel West:

Because the commodification of culture means you get commodified churches. I don’t care what color they’re in, black, white, red, whatever, commodified Christianity, commodified Judaism, commodified Buddhism. These major rich religious traditions so thoroughly accommodated to buying and selling, to making money, to making it … Remember, that highly influential and popular book by brother Norman Podhoretz, in the mid-60s, called: “Making It,” and what did he do? He juxtaposed making it with the rich Judaic prophetic tradition of keeping the faith. And he said: “Oh, for too long we Jewish brothers and sisters have talked about keeping the faith to taking at Esther and Jeremiah seriously and always bending up on the bottom. We need to learn how to make it. We need to learn how to play the power game. We need to learn how to make money and use our money in such a way that it is no longer tied to keeping our faith, remembering what it was like to be in Egypt. But rather just making it in a commodified culture.

So you get this major battle at the heart of our precious Jewish brothers and sisters’ souls in their community. And this is true for each and everyone of us. How do we deal with a commodified culture, commodified religion, commodified education? A neoliberal university rather than a university tied to veritas, truth, tied to public interest. Tied to common good, as if truth and public interest and common good could be an afterthought, for the model, the market model of how you go about educating. How you go about making accessible your tremendous intellectual resources, as mediated with commodified sensibility. So you get all three of those together, my brother, and that is the moment for the American [inaudible 00:29:56], the decline and fall of the American empire.

Rob Johnson:

Yes.

Cornel West:

And I do believe we have now, because , we’ve always … We got to keep some swing in it. Swinging, but also swinging in terms of style and having a good time and recognizing that we have joy that nobody can ever take away, which takes the form of our precious memories, and our traditions, our beloved, our mothers, our fathers, our grandparents, and others who taught us something deeper than just financialized militarized commodified ways of being in the world. Can you imagine what so many of them would say, with all this financialization and militarization and commodification. They’d say how to live?

Rob Johnson:

Yeah.

Cornel West:

What happens to integrity? What happens-

Rob Johnson:

Yes.

Cornel West:

… to honesty? What happens to decency? What happens to courage?

Rob Johnson:

And-

Cornel West:

I don’t want to go on and on, but you see-

Rob Johnson:

Yes.

Cornel West:

… the point I’m trying to make here?

Rob Johnson:

Yeah..Yeah. And what I see is perhaps the most dire symptom, is that when social design, what we call governance, becomes the commodities that’s bought and sold-

Cornel West:

That’s right.

Rob Johnson:

… it means that governance is not something people tend to have faith in to ameliorate misfortune. It’s something that exacerbates their misfortune. So if you have money so you can lobby, so that you can say what used to be tax evasion, is now legal, to keep your money offshore and be tax avoidance, and then run around because-

Cornel West:

That’s right.

Rob Johnson:

… can’t afford public schools-

Cornel West:

That’s right.

Rob Johnson:

You’ve got … And as wealth gets more and more concentrated fewer and fewer people, essentially, design and run the government. I’m talking about laws, regulation, enforcement, appointments become in servitude for survival of the-

Cornel West:

That’s right.

Rob Johnson:

… politicians. And so it’s a systemic breakdown … You know, I was trained as an engineer-

Cornel West:

That’s right.

Rob Johnson:

… and MIT. They have things called feedback mechanisms. You’ve got a machine.

Cornel West:

Yes.

Rob Johnson:

You’ve got a machine-

Cornel West:

Yes.

Rob Johnson:

You’ve got a machine, when it’s not working right it gives you a signal so you change course.

Cornel West:

That’s right.

Rob Johnson:

The signals are hideous and hiding in plain sight now, and we can’t react … We don’t have a system that can react to them.

Cornel West:

That’s very true.

Rob Johnson:

It exacerbates them. It’s like an amplifying feedback loop. Once you get rich, you’ve used the public sectors to subsidize what you do to get richer.

Cornel West:

That’s right.

Rob Johnson:

And if this was aligned with the broad-based social purpose we would all understand it. But right now governance, in the United States in particular, is commodified. The personhood, the people like Thom Hartmann talk about, and he says: “unequal protection”. The personhood of corporations, which started around the time of the robber barons and the railroads, and it’s gone wild now, where freedom is the freedom for organizations to not be accountable, but spend money to manipulate politics however they want. I don’t know. I mean Cornel, we’re talking about some very, very dark deep structural dimensions-

Cornel West:

That’s right.

Rob Johnson:

… and this pandemic is shedding light on those fault lines.

Cornel West:

That’s exactly right.

Rob Johnson:

It’s an unmasking. And that’s contained in that crisis, to go back to a Chinese. Crisis is opportunity. But how do we turn the corner into this opportunity? And-

Cornel West:

But I-

Rob Johnson:

… make use of it?

Cornel West:

You have to have persons in place, communities in place who have a remembrance of examples of greatness, but greatness defined in terms of integrity, honesty, decency, service to the weak and vulnerable, and willingness to fight. But if we don’t have access to those memories then you don’t have any sources to bring to the present. When you don’t have sources to bring to the present you end up with conformity, complacency and cowardly … And what is happening is there’s massive conformity, there’s massive complacency, and there’s massive cowardice, in so many different forms. Because when a society loses contact to the best of its past, and not just disown the past, but the past of the species. And we’re talking … You can go back a thousand years, they can go back a hundred years, we’ve got some grand examples, my brother.

I mean, of course, Martin King is one. Beethoven’s another one, and … We got some great examples. You know, Thomas Paine’s another one, and they cover a lot of different [inaudible 00:35:17]. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s another one. Edward Said’s another one. We have got some great exemplars, not one of them perfect. But they’re exemplars because they resisted the mass of financialization, militarization, they resisted the commodification, in the name of something higher. But with that [crosstalk 00:35:39] dumbing down and a leveling that is taking place, plus the commodification, financialization and [inaudible 00:35:45] so everybody figures oh, it’s just survival of the slickest, and the questions become who has the biggest conquest, or it’s just money, or it’s-

Rob Johnson:

Yes.

Cornel West:

… just status. And, of course, you know you’ve got white supremacy, their homophobia is sitting right at the center of it because those are ideologies that has fundamentally shaped so much of the worst of not just America but of the modern world. And yet we’ve also had the best, and the best comes in all colors, brother. Comes in all genders, comes in all sexual orientation, and it comes in all religious traditions. But the worst comes in all colors, all genders and all religious and ideological traditions as well. And so this issue of education at its deepest level … I’m not talking about schooling. I’m not talking about careerism. I’m not talking about opportunism. I’m not talking about making connections in elite sites that allow you to be able to make big money and gain access to your and your country club and all this other superficial mess that has become so much a part of the culture of the chattering classes and the professional classes and the ruling classes. But I’m talking about something that has always constituted forces of revitalization and regeneration, which are integrity, honesty, decency, compassion and others.

That’s why when we started off Sing a Song, Sing a New Song, probably we could just have resang some of these old songs about courage and vision and service of, because we’re in good shape. Of course that’s … I want to sing something about Jesus. I want to sing something about the cross. I want to sing something about what it means to look at the catastrophe of the Roman Empire, and to be part of a hated and haunted and hunted people, the Jews in that empire, and here comes this country boy named Jesus, who’s willing to run the money changes out of the temple when he first gained access to Jerusalem, what does he do? He does something Socrates never does, he cries. Socrates never sheds a tear. We want the elective vitality. We want the Socratic energy of the great Socrates. But we also want people who are willing to cry, who, who are willing to connect and love.

And when that Palestinian Jew made his way into Jerusalem and ran those money changes out, that was like running out some of the greed that you see on Wall Street and the White House and Hollywood, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, all of them together, recording industry. All the greed. And, of course, greed is inside of all of us. And so this is not name-calling or finger-pointing. It’s something inside of us. But it’s something that hasn’t been rendered accountable. Now democracy is the best thing we fallible creatures have been able to come up with in order to curtail the power and the greed and the hatred of especially the powerful, but also the relatively powerless. Because the powerless can be greedy too. The powerless can be just as gangster-like as Trump. They just don’t have the money, just don’t have the power to wield that he has. But their souls are still-

Rob Johnson:

Yes.

Cornel West:

… in a similar condition, you see?

Rob Johnson:

Well-

Cornel West:

And so-

Rob Johnson:

… when-

Cornel West:

… what we need are more and spiritual, political, democratic awakenings around integrity, honesty, decency, service to something bigger than us, and willingness to die.

Rob Johnson:

Yes. Well, that brings to mind a picture. When you had an office at the Union Theological Seminary there was a picture of Dr. Martin Luther King, above your desk, when I would come in-

Cornel West:

Oh.

Rob Johnson:

… and talk with you.

Cornel West:

Oh, all the time.

Rob Johnson:

And then those days I had developed a friendship with the late Vincent Hardy

Cornel West:

Oh, the great Vincent. Yes, yes, yes.

Rob Johnson:

Yes. The inconvenient hero. The books he wrote about-

Cornel West:

Yes.

Rob Johnson:

… militarism, racism and materialism, and the-

Cornel West:

That’s right.

Rob Johnson:

… triage of what you wouldn’t like if you were caught in this vortex that you’ve been describing-

Cornel West:

That’s right.

Rob Johnson:

… and you looked at the last three to four years of Martin Luther King’s life and the thrust of his work.

Cornel West:

That’s right.

Rob Johnson:

And that, to me … I mean, I think I’ve shared with you, in the past, that when I was a little boy my mother was involved with the school system and they voted to let Martin Luther King speak in Detroit, three weeks to the day before he was killed.

Cornel West:

My God.

Rob Johnson:

Because people came over to my front yard and verbally attacked my mother, so my father had to kind of chase them away. And I remember the speech, because I was outside with my dad and there was auxiliary speakers. It was just pandemonium. And three weeks later this man dies, in Memphis, and my parents are talking in front of me about having to evacuate our house in Detroit, because we were one year away from the ‘67 riots. And this put something in me, where … Like when I was in college I minored in Creative Writing. I focused on the writings of Martin Luther King, because I could feel-

Cornel West:

Yes, yes, yes.

Rob Johnson:

… the energy.

Cornel West:

Yes.

Rob Johnson:

And I could feel, like you said, his willingness to die. And I could feel the things that he would go for, like. The freedom budget for all Americans, with A. Philip Randolph.

Cornel West:

That’s right.

Rob Johnson:

There was a vision in that man, as a beacon. One of your examples of greatness that points the way to how to put this society back together again. But it requires-

Cornel West:

Yes.

Rob Johnson:

… people of that depth, courage, capability and compassion.

Cornel West:

That’s exactly right though brother. You remember what that great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said when he introduced brother Martin King in Chicago? He said: “The future of America depends on our response to the witness and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.” And he was not an individual when he said that, right? He was saying that brother Martin signifies, at a high level, not a perfect level. He would fall in the like all of us. He was like all of us. But at his best he was willing to engage in that quest for truth and goodness and beauty, exemplify the courage, the vision, the integrity. Remember what he said when he was in that paddy wagon for four and a half hours, driving from … Well, he’d driven from Atlanta to the Tattnall County at Reidsville Prison, in the dark with a German shepherd, and he … The only two creatures in the paddy wagon.

And Andrew Young told me when Martin got out of there he could hardly walk. It looked as if he had a nervous breakdown and he said: “This is the cross we must bear for the freedom of our people.” And he could’ve added for the best of American democracy or the best of the human spirit. Now keeping in mind, now when brother Martin was asked to write an essay on the bravest man he ever met … “The Radical King,” just in the collection of his essays. The bravest man I ever met is … Who did he write about? Norman Thomas.

Rob Johnson:

Wow, that’s right.

Cornel West:

Norman Thomas, Princeton undergrad, Phi Beta Kappa, student of Woodrow Wilson, union grad … The Union Theological Seminary graduate. Made his move to east Harlem rather than Fifth Avenue. Then lost his Christian faith and became one of the greatest freedom fighters throughout his whole career. He ran against FDR four times, supported by democratic socialists. Supported by Helen Keller. So Martin understood that he was not an isolated icon on a pedestal. He was a wave in an ocean, that he had-

Rob Johnson:

Yes.

Cornel West:

… on the one hand, Norman Thomas. He had Benjamin Mays. He had Ella Baker. He had Fannie Lou Hamer. Then he had the young folk. He had Bob Moses. He had Diane Nash. He had John Lewis. He had Stokely Carmichael. He had those young folk putting pressure on him. And he was listening. Even that he had disagreements with, he was listening. You see what I’m … So that-

Rob Johnson:

Yes.

Cornel West:

… we have to … We can’t learn how to see more clearly without learning how to listen more tentatively. We can’t learn how to feel more genuinely, so that we’re willing to share tears, shatter any indifferent and numbness inside of us to connect with the suffering of others, not as spectators but as interveners, as participants to do something about their suffering, and then we have to learn how to act. And I tell you, my brother, courage is more and more rare in our market-driven cultures today. It’s more and more rare. It’s hard to cut against the grain. Everybody wants to fit in and be well adjusted to injustice and well adapted to indifference and get our big reward. Everybody obsessed with the rewards or the prizes. Like, you probably saw that Ida B. Wells won the Pulitzer Prize, and that’s a beautiful thing.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah.

Cornel West:

They gave him the Pulitzer Prize. But they asked me, as I was talking to my brothers and sisters down in Mississippi at the newspaper, they said: “Well, brother West, what do you think about that?” I said: “Let me tell you something.” I said: “The great Ida B. Wells is too deep for the Pulitzer Prize. That what she means to us is so profound that the Pulitzer Prize could never offer anything that comes close to that. So she acknowledges it with a smile from the grave. We acknowledge it. But it ain’t about winning no damn Pulitzer Prize. The real prize is the quality of the life you live. The real prize is the risk that you take. The real prize is the impact you have on folks.” Just like your beloved wife. My wife, right now, is sending our dear sisters, right.

Rob Johnson:

That’s right.

Cornel West:

I saw it on Democracy Now! the other day.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah.

Cornel West:

She was wonderful. She was powerful. But that’s the prize. The prize is in the joy of serving others.

Rob Johnson:

Yes.

Cornel West:

And struggling for others. That’s what the prize is. Keep the Pulitzer if you want to. You took it from Duke Ellington. You think Duke Ellington needed the prize? All he wanted to know is, Pearl Garnet, do you think I can play the piano well? Because I know you set the standard. Yeah Duke, you’re sounding good brother. That’s all he needed to know. You know what I mean?

Rob Johnson:

Yeah, yeah.

Cornel West:

That’s all. Coltrane doesn’t need Charlie Parker to say brother, you meeting the standard. He don’t need no prize. That’s why Curtis Mayfield never won a Grammy. But Milli Vanilli won too. So what?

Rob Johnson:

Yeah.

Cornel West:

Curtis don’t need no Grammy.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah.

Cornel West:

He already got his prize.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah, I think you-

Cornel West:

He met the standard of the highest levels of musical excellence.

Rob Johnson:

I’ll take you to a Coltrane story I learned about last year.

Cornel West:

Uh-huh.

Rob Johnson:

Ornette Coleman.

Cornel West:

Oh, the great Ornette.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah, to the five spot.

Cornel West:

Yes.

Rob Johnson:

Which you might call modal music and bebop are being threatened with the paradigm change. I’m talking about like an economist now, changing the paradigms.

Cornel West:

That’s right. That’s right.

Rob Johnson:

And what happens-… is one of the nights there Max Roach gets up and punches Ornette Coleman in the face-

Cornel West:

Wow.

Rob Johnson:

… on stage, during a solo. So this is a heated thing. This is a heated thing. And what I’m … In the aftermath of that, and I met Ornette Coleman’s assistant, and my landlord, the late Elliot Hoffman was the lawyer and quasi manager for Coltrane.

Cornel West:

Wow, wow.

Rob Johnson:

And the story I hear, the story I hear is when Coltrane saw that his number one he is the guy at the top. This is after Giant Steps, My Favorite Things-

Cornel West:

That’s right.

Rob Johnson:

He goes to Ornette, and this guy, who I met last year, was with him. He was Ornette Coleman’s personal assistant. Coletrane comes in and said: “I want to pay you to teach me. I want to be your student.” And for about 14 months, apparently, John Coltrane came, and what this guy told me, and I can’t verify it, at the end of it Coletrane gave the guy a big check, Ornette Coleman, who handed it to his assistant, and the assistant-

Cornel West:

Wow.

Rob Johnson:

… looked at the check … After Coltrane left Coleman said God would strike me down if I cash that check, but please frame it. It’s one of the most … Things that I’m-

Cornel West:

Wow.

Rob Johnson:

… most proud of in my entire life.

Cornel West:

My God.

Rob Johnson:

So the man-

Cornel West:

My God.

Rob Johnson:

… with the big franchise, the man who’s the superstar is not protecting his property rights. He’s trying to grow. His name is John Coltrane.

Cornel West:

That’s exactly right.

Rob Johnson:

And the man who is his teacher isn’t wanting the money, he’s wanting to be of services.

Cornel West:

That’s it though brother.

Rob Johnson:

I’m trying to figure out if I can make a documentary movie about that episode, because I think-

Cornel West:

Ooh.

Rob Johnson:

… it illustrates-

Cornel West:

My brother-

Rob Johnson:

… many things-

Cornel West:

… that would be … Again, that’s an exemplary action of an exemplary figure whose memory we need to allow to inform us in light of our grim and bleak situation. Let me tell a story about Coltrane when I ran into a brother in Los Angeles, that’s Leimert Park, in a jazz club there. He was blowing his horn. He was sounding so good. And during the break he walks over to me, he says: “Oh, brother West man, I appreciate you always talking about Coltrane on television and what have you, but let me just tell you something right quick man.” He said: “When I was 14 years old I was trying to get into the club and Coltrane was playing and they wouldn’t let me in, and I had actually brought my horn,” he plays a serious saxophone now, “brought my horn and Coltrane was walking outside.” He said: “Oh” … We started talking. He had his horn. He couldn’t get in.

Coltrane says: “No, you can’t get in. They drinking.” Coltrane said: “I tell you what though.” He says: “I’m going to talk to the owner. You stay here. And when I’m done we going to play some scales together.”

Rob Johnson:

Wow.

Cornel West:

And Coltrane played scales with that little highly talented black brother, at 14 years old, being the giant that he was. And then there that little young black brother now, playing the sax, sounding so good, when I’m sitting up there drinking my cognac listening to it. Now you see that is that caravan of love that the Isaac Brothers talked about, right?

Rob Johnson:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Cornel West:

That is the tradition. And the love has to do with love of neighbors. It’s got to do with love of truth. It’s got to do with love of beauty. For those of us who are religious, it’s love of the holy and love of God. It’s love of something bigger than our little insecure egos, and something bigger than our tribes. It’s something bigger than our gender. It’s something bigger than our sexual orientation. It encompasses all of us in that way. And those are the kinds of things that have to become more potent in our present moment, and we don’t know. I mean, it could be, my brother, that as a species that we’re just running out of gas, and the egotism and the tribalism and the narrowness and the greed lead us off a cliff because the ecological catastrophes on the way, the nuclear catastrophe could easily take off, given the two gangsters who got the [inaudible 00:52:01] and Trump, at the moment you know?

Rob Johnson:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Cornel West:

So that all of these are very contingent. But because they’re unpredictable it means that history is always incomplete and unfinished and open-ended. Therefore, what we do, right now, the fact that you were concerned about that here and now with the blues, what we do right now can really make a difference. It can be a difference that makes a major difference.

Rob Johnson:

But you’re … It’s uncanny, when we were talking, because when I was preparing for today, and I did not say anything to you beforehand, I was thinking about Dr. King and I pulled out three books that I was inspired to buy-

Cornel West:

Wow.

Rob Johnson:

… by reading King, all by Norman Thomas. One called: “Socialism Re-examined”. Second-

Cornel West:

Wow.

Rob Johnson:

… “The Great Descenders,” about Socrates, Galileo, Thomas Paine, Wendell Phillips and Gandhi. And the third, called: “The Choice Before Us.” Mankind at the crossroads. This is in 1934, fearful of the growing momentum towards what became the Second World War.

Cornel West:

Right, right.

Rob Johnson:

And so I see-

Cornel West:

Isn’t that something? That’s amazing. The same telepathy, but we know that though brother. We’re always inhabiting the same zones so much when we’re together. You know what I mean?

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. And you bring it out of me. One of the things I … I think I’ve mentioned to you in a conversation but we’ve never really zoomed in on is the work of Ernest Becker.

Cornel West:

Oh yes.

Rob Johnson:

Ernest Becker wrote-

Cornel West:

Oh yes.

Rob Johnson:

… “The Denial of Death”.

Cornel West:

“Denial of Death.”

Rob Johnson:

When you were talking about-

Cornel West:

And Escape from Evil too.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah Escape from Evil.

Cornel West:

That’s the last thing he wrote. That’s powerful.

Rob Johnson:

Escape from Evil, he’s essentially saying, drawing on Denial of Death, that wealthy and powerful people [inaudible 00:54:08] just like everybody else.

Cornel West:

Yeah.

Rob Johnson:

How would I say it? Cease to be living organisms.

Cornel West:

That’s right.

Rob Johnson:

But in trying to create a legacy out of the fear of meaninglessness, they go to a place, and the place they go to can be hideous and cruel.

Cornel West:

That’s right.

Rob Johnson:

And when they followed those false gods that you’ve described that are embodied in greed and superficial accomplishments, and then it’s unmasked, that they have essentially, what you might call follow the siren songs of temptation and not a pathway that was worthy of the kind of meaning and reverence they aspire to. They became very defensive and very hostile. And you can have compassion for those people because they kind of go through a very rude awakening-

Cornel West:

Right, right.

Rob Johnson:

… about the meaning of their life, but we can’t tolerate their resistance to transformation, like you’ve just described in relation to climate and ecology.

Cornel West:

No-

Rob Johnson:

We’ve got to change the recipe, the game plan, and we’ve got to have a system that isn’t so dependent on the, what I’ll call, worship and affirmation of those few wealthy people. There are wealthy people.

Cornel West:

That’s very, very real.

Rob Johnson:

There are wealthy people that do great stuff, but they can’t be allowed, in their yearnings, the kind of flaws that Becker talks about in the spirit. That cruelty is something society has to design to protect us all from its evil ramifications.

Cornel West:

I mean, you think of Niebuhr’s great formulation, where he says that: “Democracy is approximate solution to insoluble problems.” And what he meant by that is connected to Becker’s fundamental thesis, which is that all human creatures, we disappearing mortals, we vanishing creatures have fears, insecurities and anxiety knowing that our bodies will undergo bodily extinction one day, maybe very soon. And that those fears and insecurities and anxieties have to be addressed in some way, because they’re always going to be there. So the question becomes, what kinds of structures of seeing and feeling and acting, what kind of structures of value and vision inform how human beings come to terms with those insecurities and fears and anxieties? Of course Freud was one of the major figures in the last 150 years, who was very honest about our fears, insecurities and anxieties as it related to eros and thanatos, as it related to desire and inescapable death. And why do we have death drives and what do we do with our libido and our egos and super egos and so forth.

But Becker is hitting on something that, of course, you know religions figures have been wrestling with ever since we emerged out of the cave, which is we know that we all have death sentence in time and space. What are you going to do? What kind of person will you choose to be, between your mamma’s womb and the tomb that is unavoidable? And will you be able to muster the courage to not deny the inevitable and unavoidable. But on the other hand will you also have the power of discernment to know that you can grow, develop, mature, love, laugh and live in the interim, between womb and tomb, in such a way that you have joy. And then you can pass that on to the younger generation. Because that younger generation, no matter what their circumstances, no matter what their conditions, they’re still, as human beings, going to have certain kinds of fears and insecurities of joy.

And what really breaks the fears, insecurities and joys, what breaks the back of those, that leads towards something upward and positive, and it really is love. Because in the end all of us want to love and be loved

Rob Johnson:

Yes.

Cornel West:

… right now, the great Thomas Hardy, his last novel of 1895 with Sue and Jude and Arabella and so forth and … I mean, Hardy understood this in such a profound way, but we ain’t got time to get into that blues brother from. Ooh, Lord-

Rob Johnson:

Yes.

Cornel West:

… because he’s trying to hold on to some love; and, of course, he’s not a Christian. He’s post-Christian. But he’s got deep connections to the love in the biblical scriptures, given what has shaped him, even as he grows out of, as it were, in his view, he grows out of his Christian faith, but the love that he sees in those scriptures, at their best, is something he holds onto for dear life. And I think … You know, there’s this debate these days about greatness. I mean, every life ought to be predicated on a habitual vision of greatness. And by greatness I’m not talking about Alexander the Great. I’m not talking about Genghis Kahn. I’m not talking about Napoleon. I’m not talking about any of the military greats. I’m talking about the great ones, in terms of service to others, the greatness in terms of Socratic energy. Greatness in terms of creating beautiful things, be it Opus 131 and play Beethoven’s greatest String Quartet, or be it a beautiful song sung by Aretha Franklin or Frank Sinatra-

Rob Johnson:

Yeah.

Cornel West:

… or Bing Crosby.

Rob Johnson:

I think I’ve been trying to impart to my young scholars, about that relationship that I just heard you underscore.

Cornel West:

Yes, yes.

Rob Johnson:

And I think I’ve shared with you, I’ve been reading a lot of Meister Eckhart, in recent months.

Cornel West:

Ooh, you’re going mystical, brother.

Rob Johnson:

And-Well, what I see, and I am quite fond of meditative practice.

Cornel West:

That’s good.

Rob Johnson:

But what I see is this dilemma, and I use your phrase.

Cornel West:

Ah-ha.

Rob Johnson:

“We all aspire to love and be loved.”

Cornel West:

That’s right.

Rob Johnson:

The question I’m asking is if you aspire to be loved, because you’re needy, you run around and get in front of parades to fill your needs.

Cornel West:

Yes, yes, yes.

Rob Johnson:

And one of the reasons I’m interested in Meister Eckhart and the meditative practice is that I believe there’s a certain, almost paradox, that in order to be of service, in the greatness you’re describing, you have to go into yourself, find your neediness and stop letting it have control over what you do-

Cornel West:

Yes, yes.

Rob Johnson:

… so that you can be of service. In other words, envision a courageous vision, and adhere to it through thick and thin.

Cornel West:

That’s true.

Rob Johnson:

And so the question-

Cornel West:

That’s true.

Rob Johnson:

… of how does one go introspective … But doesn’t use the introspection to hide; uses the introspection to detach-

Cornel West:

That’s right.

Rob Johnson:

… clarified purpose and come back out. And you and I are both friends of Ed Pavlic, who I talked to the other day, and I-

Cornel West:

Oh, you mean the great-… blues man down in Georgia?

Rob Johnson:

That’s right, a poet.

Cornel West:

Yeah.

Rob Johnson:

He’s got a new-

Cornel West:

My brother.

Rob Johnson:

He’s got a new book out called: “Let Broke Be Broke,” or “Let It Be Broke,” I think is the final title.

Cornel West:

Oh.

Rob Johnson:

And some of the poetry in that is just magnificent.

Cornel West:

Well, he’s written the best book on Baldwin, that we know, in terms of-

Rob Johnson:

Yes. It sure is.

Cornel West:

… to Baldwin’s- [crosstalk]

Rob Johnson:

Sure has. But I think … I’m going to share with you, here in conclusion, something that Pavlic gave me, that was talking about that introspection and then coming back out. And is not complete by withdrawing introspection or hiding, in new ways, spirituality or any of that kind of thing. You’ve got to come back out, courageously, and be of service to love and be loved, in that deep genuine great way.

Cornel West:

Yes, yes.

Rob Johnson:

And from the novel Another Country there is a passage that reminds me of you. It goes like this: “Perhaps such secrets, the secrets of everyone, were only expressed when the person laboriously dragged them into the light of the world and imposed them on the world and made them a part of the world’s experience. Without this effort the secret place was merely a dungeon in which the person perished.”

Cornel West:

Wow.

Rob Johnson:

At the outset of this conversation you were talking about how our society, our civilization … Not just perish in the extinction from being all hogtied in relation to ecology, but the loss of faith-

Cornel West:

Yes.

Rob Johnson:

… the loss of hope, the loss of a compass or the North Star.

Cornel West:

That’s right.

Rob Johnson:

And what I admire about you, tremendously, is your learning, your dedication to learning, your dedication to pattern recognition and the way in which you bring it to the world. You have been fierce, in relation to our first black president, in relation to social issues, in relation to democratic party. The way in which you have cultivated that courage is what James Baldwin was talking about. And in my view you’re one of the reasons I don’t think I live in the dungeon, and that I won’t perish.

Cornel West:

Oh, my God brother, my God. I tell you, Clifton and Irene, my mom and dad, because they said it’s such a high standard for me, but for me it’s really a matter of being part of … A small part of a great tradition thing. I mean, we black folk on one level. We hated for 400 years and taught the world so much about love like those; terrorized for 400 years and trying to teach the world something about freedom. Like not terrorizing others, just as we terrorize. We want freedom for everybody. Traumatized 400 years, try to heal some folk, create some music, create some humor, with Richard Pryor and Moms Mabley.

And all traditions do this, but initially that was my position, but you can imagine then I’d see oh, Lord, from Africa, from Asia, from indigenous peoples and [inaudible 01:06:30] legacies accents, where you have to learn how to die in order to learn how to live by critically examining who you are, so that you can then emerge with more vision, with broader scopes of seeing. And then the prophetic legacy of Jerusalem, with that moral revolution in the species, which is Hebrew scripture. To be great. To be human at the highest levels of and loving kindness that has love to orphaned and widowed and motherless and fatherless. That’s a moral revolution. That’s not Homer. That’s not so many of the classical of other civilizations. It’s in mustering the courage to love. Love thy neighbor, Leviticus 19. And then here comes Jesus, here comes Mohammed, out of that moral revolution. That’s exactly what informs my own truncated witness, because I don’t come close to the great ones. But I’m going to keep that great tradition alive until I get there, I tell you that my brother.

Rob Johnson:

Yes.

Cornel West:

Absolutely, absolutely. And it’s a joy. You know, it’s a blessing. And I remember gratitude, just being alive. Each day is a gift and each breath is a breakthrough. But then to be part of that tradition, but in such grim and bleak times. But the times-

Rob Johnson:

I want to remind you-

Cornel West:

… don’t determine my witness.

Rob Johnson:

I want to remind you of our mutual friend, the late James Cone.

Cornel West:

Oh yes, brother Jim.

Rob Johnson:

The last book that he released, before he passed away, one was released, posthumously, was called The Cross and the Lynching Tree.

Cornel West:

Oh yes.

Rob Johnson:

And this talked about Fannie Lou Hamer and Ida Wells.

Cornel West:

Yes it did.

Rob Johnson:

To some degree Rosa Parks. And it also talked about experts who turned the other way during lynching.

Cornel West:

Yeah, yeah.

Rob Johnson:

But it’s one of the most grim and hopeful books I have ever read. It was about when something is so hideous and intolerable that it is better not to live than go on living … How would I say, in the context of this hideousness. It’s like a coiled spring start to happen. And then people start to act courageously. And then it gathers momentum and change comes. So some of those women whose sons or husbands were lynched-

Cornel West:

Yeah.

Rob Johnson:

… if they were being like an economist and optimizing they would not go down to the police station, because they might get strung up or put on fire or whatever.

Cornel West:

That’s right. That’s right.

Rob Johnson:

But they found ways, and I think that James Cone’s book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, is the most illuminating book about what really creates social change, and the most hopeful guide to what you and my listeners could learn about and seize upon to invigorate their hope and faith, that in the aftermath of this pandemic, and that’s why I’m asking, we’re going to get to a better place.

Cornel West:

Oh, I think the great Cone … Ooh, he had some profound things to say. He really did. But you see this notion though brother that to live a good life is to recognize that it will in some way be tragic comic and character and cruciform in content. What I mean by that is that you’re going to cut against the grain. What it means to be in the world but not of it. Remember what Emerson said about non-conformity. “Non-conformity, the world will whip you if you opt for non-conformity,” he says in one of his letters. So you have to be ready for the arrows of the world; and, of course, Cone is actioning this as well. But tragic comic doesn’t mean that it’s fatalist. There’s a lot of efforts-

Rob Johnson:

That’s right.

Cornel West:

… these days coming now, and I understand it. They, oh, we’ve been catching so much hell we have no possibility. We’re like cows who emerged to be slaughtered and so forth. You say hey, hey, wait a minute now. Realism certainly requires us to acknowledge the grimness, no doubt about that. No doubt about that. The bleakness and … No doubt about that. But in the end hope is about motion, how you stand in motion. Are you willing to still see and feel and act and fight and laugh and bequeath it to the younger generation so that they can learn how to have resilience, based on their remembrance.

Rob Johnson:

Yes.

Cornel West:

So they can have resistance, but not a resistance that’s just parasitic on the mainstream. You end up just being a parasite on the host. No, you want to change the whole host. You want to change the whole framework, the paradigm in which the host understands itself. And that’s what makes the tragic comic something that’s still pushing. That’s why Chekov is my soulmate, brother. But-

Rob Johnson:

Yes.

Cornel West:

… Chekov do that better than any literary artist. It’s all about stamina and the quality of your perseverance, and the fortification of your own soul in relation to solidarity with others who are suffering and struggling. But then it’s cruciform, which is, as I say, in the you will be misunderstood. You’ll be misconstrued. The odds are that you will undergo character assassination, trying to, integrity, honesty, decency; and maybe literal assassination, which is to say you’ll be crucified in various ways. You have to be ready for that, because you want to use everything you have. It’s all about kenosis, brother. Self-emptying, self-donating, self-offering. You want to give everything and use everything, including using your own death as a force for good.

Rob Johnson:

Yes, yes.

Cornel West:

And, oh, what a great tradition. And no one of us have any automatic access to that tradition. You got to fight for it. You got to choose it. You have to be molded in it. You’ve got to be immersed in it. And you still come up inadequate. “Try again. Fail again. Fail better”, as Beckett said. And at the same time, ooh brother, when it’s time for you to go you will say oh, how blessed I was. I’d never sold my soul for. How blessed I was. I tried to be faithful, to the best of what was bequeathed to me. It doesn’t getter better than that brother.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. How would I say, you’re blazing the trail and I’m-

Cornel West:

We’re blazing-

Rob Johnson:

… very grateful-

Cornel West:

… together. We blazing together.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah.

Cornel West:

We in it together now.

Rob Johnson:

That’s right.

Cornel West:

Oh, we-

Rob Johnson:

That’s right.

Cornel West:

… in it together my brother.

Rob Johnson:

Okay.

Cornel West:

That’s it.

Rob Johnson:

Right now I’m proud to be arm in arm with you.

Cornel West:

No. No, it’s time to go, but love you, love you, love you man.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. And what … Let’s plan, in a couple months, to come back and reflect on where things are going and-

Cornel West:

Oh, absolutely.

Rob Johnson:

… how things…I value your insights, your friendship, your teaching-

Cornel West:

Absolutely.

Rob Johnson:

… and I know my listeners are going to want more of it. So we’ll reconvene in the not-

Cornel West:

Absolutely man.

Rob Johnson:

… too distant future.

Cornel West:

Pulling them prayers for you, you and your wonderful family, man. Your courageous visionary wife and your kids and everybody man.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. We’re praying for you too and-

Cornel West:

Yeah, appreciate it.

Rob Johnson:

… thank you.

Cornel West:

Thank you though man. Take good care now.

Rob Johnson:

You too, bye-bye.

Cornel West:

Uh-huh.

About the Host

ROB JOHNSON serves as President of the Institute for New Economic Thinking.

Johnson is an international investor and consultant to investment funds on issues of portfolio strategy. He recently served on the United Nations Commission of Experts on International Monetary Reform under the Chairmanship of Joseph Stiglitz.

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About the Guest

CORNEL WEST is a prominent and provocative democratic intellectual. He is Professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy at Harvard University and holds the title of Professor Emeritus at Princeton University. He has also taught at Union Theological Seminary, Yale, Harvard, and the University of Paris.

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