Cornel West and Robert George at Liberty University

I spent a little time last night watching Cornel West and Robert George at Liberty University.  I have learned a lot from both of these men and I love watching them talk with one another.  This conversation is no different.  These kinds of conversations give me hope.

A few comments:

  • The first minute of this video speaks volumes.  The Liberty University convocation, which is touted  in the video as the “largest gathering of Christian young people in the world,” begins with Liberty University football highlights.
  • I would like to know more about how West balances his prophetic voice with his  commitment to civility.  West comes across as gracious and civil here, but he has spent much of his career railing against the kind of conservative, politically-oriented Christianity that the Liberty University leadership represents.
  • This leads me to ask:  Where is Jerry Falwell Jr.?  Doesn’t he usually host these events?  This is a great conversation about ideas, the pursuit of learning, and intellectual humility.  I am glad that the Liberty University students could experience it.  But the things West and George are talking about here seem to be the antithesis of how Jerry Falwell Jr. engages public life from his perch in the Liberty president’s office.
  • Things get good around the 1:04:30 mark when they West and George start debating public schools.
  • The quiz at the end is hilarious.

Cornel West and Robert George Will Be Speaking at Liberty University

Cornel West and Princeton professor Robert George will be speaking at an event on civil discourse at Liberty University.  If I am reading the schedule correctly, it looks like the event will take place on August 30, 2019.

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West and George regularly travel to college campuses and other places to talk about civility and the importance of the liberal arts.  Here is a post we did on a recent discussion at the American Enterprise Institute.

Civil discourse is one thing, but I can’t imagine that Cornel West will not speak truth to power in Lynchburg.  As many of you know, Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University, is a leading court evangelical who has called Donald Trump the “dream president” of evangelicals.

George, on the other hand, will be on something close to home turf at Liberty despite the fact that many Liberty students probably don’t think he is truly saved because he is a Roman Catholic.

The Cornel West–Robert George Road Show Discuss MLK

West and George

Robert George and Cornel West at Arizona State University, January 2018 (Creative Commons)

Check out Adelle Banks’s piece at Religion News Service on a recent event sponsored by Baylor University’s program in Washington D.C.  I am encouraged when I hear conservative Robert George and progressive Cornel West working together to find common ground.  At this event they discussed the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

Here is a taste of Banks’s article:

West said he’s had to answer critics who can’t understand how he travels around the country with George: “I say, ‘Have you met him? Have you sat down and talked with him?’”

They sat onstage, comfortably taking turns highlighting how King had crossed divides in search of his goal of a “beloved community.”

West and George agree that the emphasis on King should be on his role as a Christian minister, though his civil rights activism is also grounded in his being a product of the black community.

“The last thing we ever want to do with Brother Martin is view him as some isolated icon on a pedestal to be viewed in a museum,” said West, professor of the practice of public philosophy at Harvard University. “He’s a wave in an ocean, a tradition of a people for 400 years so deeply hated, but taught the world so much about love and how to love.”

Read the rest here.

If you enjoyed this piece, you may also enjoy West and George discussing the liberal arts and the purpose of education:

 

Cornel West and Robert George Discuss MLK’s Legacy

West and George

From the Wall Street Journal:

In his own time Martin Luther King Jr. was regarded by some as a rabble rouser and even a communist sympathizer, and by others as an Uncle Tom and a “house Negro.” In demanding an immediate end to segregation and Jim Crow, he was too radical for some. In eschewing violence and hatred of anyone—including even the defenders of racial injustice—he was too “tame” and forgiving for others.

Fifty years after his death, he is almost universally revered. Though he did not fit perfectly into any ideological camp during his lifetime, he is claimed today by people across the political spectrum. His words are often invoked to defend causes that he himself did not live to form an opinion about—from opposition to affirmative action to advocacy of same-sex marriage. Everybody, it seems, thinks King would be on their side.

We can and should do our best to think about the implications of his basic principles, but often reasonable people of goodwill disagree about precisely what those implications are. The two of us disagree on some of these issues, though we continue to listen to and engage each other. This has deepened our understanding of King’s principles—especially his focus on the equal dignity and sanctity inherent to every human life.

One of us invokes “the radical King” in criticizing empire, capitalism, and white supremacy. The other recalls King’s principles in defending the unborn, Down syndrome and other disabled people, the frail elderly, and every life.

We both believe King would demand that more be done to fight poverty. But no one can say for sure how he would design and apportion the roles of government, at the national or state levels, and civil-society institutions in the effort. Nor would he claim that whatever policies he happened to favor were infallibly correct. In engaging with each other as fellow citizens, neither should we. At the same time, reasonable difference must never be an excuse for complacency or inaction in the face of evils such as poverty and injustice.

Still, in judging and acting, we must avoid sinning against King’s legacy by facilely claiming him for whatever policies we favor. A more fitting attitude, one consistent with what was truly radical about King, is to imagine him as a critic: “If Martin Luther King would be on the other side of where I happen to be on this question—why?”

This self-critical stance honors King by recognizing the centrality of his Christian faith to his work and witness. Today we treat King as a saint, but he recognized himself as a sinner. He struggled to live uprightly but often failed and stood in need of forgiveness. King was taught by the tradition of African-American Christianity, which shaped him in every dimension of his being, that all human beings are fallen. But he was also taught that all are fashioned in the image and likeness of God and are therefore worthy of being loved and treated justly—justice being what love looks like in public.

Read the rest here.

West and George disagree on a lot, but they also have a lot in common.  Over the years they have modeled civil dialogue and friendship. Click here to see West and George discuss the liberal arts.

Cornel West Takes a Shot at Ta-Nehisi Coates

Coates and West

In The Guardian.  A taste:

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Power, a book about Barack Obama’s presidency and the tenacity of white supremacy, has captured the attention of many of us. One crucial question is why now in this moment has his apolitical pessimism gained such wide acceptance?

Coates and I come from a great tradition of the black freedom struggle. He represents the neoliberal wing that sounds militant about white supremacy but renders black fightback invisible. This wing reaps the benefits of the neoliberal establishment that rewards silences on issues such as Wall Street greed or Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and people.

The disagreement between Coates and me is clear: any analysis or vision of our world that omits the centrality of Wall Street power, US military policies, and the complex dynamics of class, gender, and sexuality in black America is too narrow and dangerously misleading. So it is with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ worldview.

Coates rightly highlights the vicious legacy of white supremacy – past and present. He sees it everywhere and ever reminds us of its plundering effects. Unfortunately, he hardly keeps track of our fightback, and never connects this ugly legacy to the predatory capitalist practices, imperial policies (of war, occupation, detention, assassination) or the black elite’s refusal to confront poverty, patriarchy or transphobia.

In short, Coates fetishizes white supremacy. He makes it almighty, magical and unremovable. What concerns me is his narrative of “defiance”. For Coates, defiance is narrowly aesthetic – a personal commitment to writing with no connection to collective action. It generates crocodile tears of neoliberals who have no intention of sharing power or giving up privilege.

Read the rest here.

Cornel West and Ross Douthat Together at the University of St. Thomas

 

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I have been concerned lately about the lack of open debate and public conversation on college campuses.

All colleges and universities invite guest speakers to campus.  At my college we do a fair job of inviting a range of voices. Some speakers come from within the Christian tradition and some come from outside of it. Some are liberal and some are conservative.

Liberal factions on college campuses bring in speakers who will attract liberal faculty and students.  The speakers tell the audience what they want to hear and basically confirm the audience’s already held convictions.  Everyone oohs and ahhs for 45 minutes.  Then, when the applause is over,  they loft “softball” questions that the speaker can easily hit out of the park.  After the lecture they talk about the speaker for days, hoping that the college as a whole will take note of what he or she said and start to enact meaningful change along the lines that the speaker has proposed.

And then the next week a conservative speaker comes to campus and the same thing happens all over again.  Very few of the faculty and students who were present for the liberal lecture show up for this lecture.  The speaker expounds upon her or his conservative values and everyone leaves feeling pretty good about themselves.  Then comes the usual post-lecture swoon.

Rarely is there a conservative response at the liberal lecture or a liberal response at a conservative lecture.  I imagine that sometimes people worry about this kind of intellectual exchange becoming too contentious.  (This is certainly an issue at my college where Christian peace and the absence of conflict stem from the school’s Anabaptist heritage).  Yet such arguments, when conducted civilly, contribute to the educational and intellectual culture of our campuses.  Rarely do our students see two intellectuals with different ideas engaged in conversation over things that matter.

Last week I was up in Wenham, Massachusetts to deliver the Gordon College Franz Lecture.  My topic was “Why Study History?,” so I used my time to talk a little bit about the ongoing problems that I see with American democracy.  (Readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home or Why Study History? have heard or read this before).

Here is a small part of my talk:

And what is happening to the state of democratic conversation? Public argument and debate over the critical issues of the day too often takes place in 30-second sound bites between talking heads on cable news. This sound-bite culture makes it difficult to fully engage with and even understand the viewpoints of those neighbors with whom we disagree. Cable news encourages a kind of passive approach to public life. Rather than engaging in civil conversation, we sit on our couches or in front of our screens and merely consume it all. This is not citizenship.

As the late historian and cultural critic Christopher Lasch has written:

“The attempt to bring others around to our point of view carries the risk, of course, that we may adopt their point of view instead. We have to enter imaginatively into our opponent’s arguments, if only for the purpose of refuting them, and we may end up being persuaded by those we sought to persuade. Argument is risky and unpredictable, therefore educational. Most of us tend to think of it….as a clash of dogmas, a shouting match in which neither side gives any ground. But arguments are not won by shouting down opponents. They are won by changing opponents minds—something that can only happen if we give opposing arguments a respectful hearing and still persuade their advocates that there is something wrong with those arguments. In the course of this activity, we may well decide that there is something wrong with our own.”

I was thus encouraged when I recently read about a week of lectures and conversations at the University of St. Thomas, a Catholic liberal arts college in Minnesota.

The highlight of the week was a session featuring Cornel West and Ross Douthat.  The topic was “Christianity and Politics in the U.S. Today.”

Here is a taste of University of St. Thomas theologian Michael Hollerich‘s description of the event at the website of Commonweal

Then on Friday, St. Thomas’s Terrence J. Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law, and Public Policy hosted a conversation between Cornel West and New York Times columnist Ross Douthat on “Christianity and Politics in the U.S. Today.” A cynic might have derided this as a celebrity event. It was much better than that, and the planners deserve warm congratulations for pulling off a remarkable success. The Murphy Institute is named for the late Msgr. Terrence Murphy (d. 2004), for over thirty-five years the university’s president and chancellor, and sometimes referred to as St. Thomas’s Fr. Hesburgh. The institute is jointly administered by the university’s Center for Catholic Studies and the law school. Apart from its legal-education programs, for much of its twenty-year history the institute stuck to topics and speakers from the conservative end of the Catholic spectrum. The last few years it has been braver about going outside the usual suspects. A good example is the seminar led by German sociologist Hans Joas on his 2013 book The Sacredness of the Person, which draws on American pragmatism and German historicism for a new genealogy of human rights.

Cornel West was a reach well beyond that. I am not privy to whatever dealing brought him and Ross Douthat, a very public Catholic conservative, to our campus. It turned out to be an inspired match. Anyone who expected Crossfire-style vituperation would have been disappointed. West, who looks like an aging Frederick Douglass in cufflinks, was funny, powerful, and lightning quick on his feet, with a daunting expressive range and a limitless supply of intellectual and cultural allusions. He played his audience like a maestro conducting an orchestra. Douthat was the real surprise. His journalism didn’t prepare me for his self-deprecating humor and charm. There wasn’t a trace of the sometimes-churlish voice of the columnist. West’s booming greeting to “Brother Ross” set the tone. Douthat also showed impressive self-possession in not being bowled over by West’s bombast. He seemed mostly willing to play the straight man to West’s shtick (did he have a choice?), while slipping in his own sly cracks. The humor and the moral and intellectual passion were infectious. Who expected a spirited detour on John Dewey (Douthat called him an aggressive secularizer and a defender of amoral instrumental reason; West said his love of democracy was mystical and almost religious)? Or Cornel West invoking “Gilbert Keith Chesterton”? It helped that they shared a common contempt for Donald Trump (and possibly Hillary Clinton as well). On Trump, Douthat was unsparing—when I referred above to Trump’s “racialized politics,” I was borrowing Douthat’s phrase.

Read the rest here.  We need more events like this on our campuses for the purpose of modeling conversation and intellectual exchange about important matters.