Cornell West in Toronto, Canada
A public event last week at the 86th Canadian Humanities Congress at Ryerson University featured Cornel West, probably one of the best public speakers in the U.S. The organizers were not prepared for the overflow crowds, budgeting a room holding only 500 people. Given the present political situation, more and more people are coming out of their isolation to grapple with issues like racism and classism, and they caught the academics unaware in Toronto.
“I Come from the American Empire.” were his first words...
|Uncle Cornel Wants You|
West is the fiery preacher, the verbal jazzman, the learned academic, the prodigious memory bank, the concise analyst, the person who is not afraid to target liberal shibboleths. You might call him a Christian socialist, or you might not, but he’s definitely one of the speakers you should hear in your life. His speeches are punctuated by a wide array of quotations from writers, activists and philosophers. He praised the Humanities Congress, while pointing out that words like ‘diversity’ (which were highlighted in his introduction) are merely stale euphemisms for dealing with issues like racism, sexism and homophobia. He took questions from the audience and handled odd interjections and bad politics well. He did not agree with a speaker who insisted that his religion (Islam) was never violent. West indicated, as a Christian, that Christianity and every religion include many who are full of violent hatred. He pointed out to a young student that thinking white academics can never be allies or ‘know’ anything is a failing position.
West is the ‘love’ man, after all, and not a black nationalist. He has a position that without a united front of all ethnicities against Wall Street and the “1%,” based on principled demands, no peaceful revolution or even resistance can occur. This is similar to the policies of Bernie Sanders, who West supported in the Democratic primaries. It is similar to the combined class and ethnicity position of Marxists, but in a somewhat less class conscious manner.
West loves music and references blues, jazz or R&B constantly. At one point he said he could sit down and play Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” and not talk, because that album says it all for him. (Of course it IS one of the greatest jazz albums of all time.) His speechifying is not purely logical, but plays ‘riffs’ that return, improvising in a flow, with ‘choruses’ that appear at an end. Jokes abound. He insulted Stephen Harper of the Conservative Party by calling him a ‘smart Trump.’ He remarked that every black person should get a ‘standing ovation’ for not deciding to resort to constant violence. Most of the Toronto press, as would be predicted, did not cover his speech, except for one snarky corporate site.
West repeated his opposition to the corporate politics of Barack Obama, but said he would ‘give his life to save the brother’ from the police. He recently got into a yelling match with Democratic Party blowhard Bill Maher over this. In his speech in Toronto he even pointed out that Malcolm X had some sexist positions. WEB Dubois was the ‘exemplar’ that he structured the speech around, in the process giving ‘exemplars’ like Beyonce short shrift. He highlighted Gandhi’s support of the Hindu caste system, and approvingly name-checked Gandhi’s opponent on this issue, Ambedkar. He praised Canada’s health care system, calling for it in the U.S. He referenced the incarceration state in the U.S. and this brought out a flood of African, West Indian and black speakers at question time who discussed the racist treatment of black people by police, schools, the welfare state and the government in Toronto. All this in the supposedly enlightened, but still capitalist, country of Canada. This was the main ideological contribution of the audience. For the most part the audience did not approach things on a higher level, but only coming from their various silos.
West repeated his condemnation of Wall Street and capitalism, and noted that black poverty was ignored by Obama and is now worse than when he was a young man in Sacramento, California. In that vein, I first heard West talk at a convention of the Labor Party in Pittsburgh in 1998, but his speech there was a bit different. Given the date and the large crowd of left-wing union activists who had come together to oppose corporate capitalist methods like NAFTA and the Democrats, West emphasized economics. He is what you might call a left social-democrat, but he does consort with Canadian Marxists like Henry Giraux. The book “The Jungle” illustrated the role of Christian socialists at the turn of the 20th century, who castigated the rich and the uncaring capitalist system through Jesus’s eyes. West seems to be part of that tradition, with all its pluses and minuses.
The main problem with West is that, while he tells everyone to ‘take action’ and ‘speak truth to power’ he (like Chomsky and other academic radicals) has no real organizational solution to what ails those who live under capital. West himself is still preparatory to the real revolutionary movement that could arise.
Some books mentioned by West, reviewed below: Michelle Alexander: “The New Jim Crow;” Ambedkar: “Annihilation of Caste;” Henry Giraux: “The Violence of Organized Forgetting.” Use blog search box, upper left.
June 7, 2017