Noted African-American author and professor Cornel West delivered a lecture November 17 in the Thompson Memorial Chapel. The lecture, on the topic of “Restoring Hope,” dealt with preservation of the democratic tradition and the general aversion to existential thought in the post-modern era.
West is a professor of Afro-American studies and the philosophy of religion at Harvard University and is one of the pre-eminent public intellectuals of our generation. He is the author of 13 books, including the best seller Race Matters (1993) and Restoring Hope: Conversations on the Future of Black America (1997).
From his youth, West was influenced by the Black Panthers and was drawn into political activism. Some of the most influential authors for him have been Chekhov and Eugene O’Neill, both of whom he cited as impacting his work.
“Black Americans stand in a special relationship to the cultural monuments of the West,” West said. With this in mind, West put forth a sense of history and tradition that has kept him grounded and allowed him to “involve myself in a narrative greater than me.”
West paraphrased Malcolm X to say that, while the unexamined life is not worth living, the examined life is a necessarily painful one to lead. He began the lecture by addressing the audience, saying, “I hope I say something which unnerves you, which unsettles you.”
The first question West posed was, “What does it mean to be human?” To be human, he said, is to suffer, to “shudder in the face of life’s mysteries and to struggle with that mystery.” To be human is to face a sort of existential vertigo and to be aware of the full magnitude of human existence. This is to recognize and to talk about “the dark underside of human existence…of death.” The democratic tradition teaches us to learn how to die, West said, not simply in a literal sense, but in that viewpoints arresting the development of democracy must die as well.
Paraphrasing Louis Farrakhan, West said death must take place daily and inequality of all sorts must die if the democratic tradition is to live. In this day and age, however, it is difficult for us to face this death, which is essential for growth.
According to West, our society is Alexandrine, world-weary and jaded, and it is difficult to even conceive of, much less engage in, passionate discourse. More now that ever, America harbors the unique conception that its origin was one untouched by the brutality of history. He said that as Americans we do not want to deal with the dark underside of the past and the deaths that took place in American history. Americans today find it preferable to look only to the future and to harbor “narcissistic fantasies of innocence,” to essentially deny the role of death in the formation and preservation of the democratic tradition.
America has become a “hotel nation,” West said, one preoccupied not with substance, but with convenience and superficiality. So long as the lights are on all hours of the day and our needs are attended to, most people see no need to address the dark underside of human existence. Indeed, West said, it is far easier to pretend it does not exist.
However, according to West, this hypocrisy leads us to be counterproductive, for it has been through addressing this underside that social reforms have been brought about. While the U.S. constitution ignored the issue of slavery, despite the fact that a distressingly large proportion of the population were African slaves, slavery was brought to its death by abolitionists because, in order for democracy to survive, this practice had to die. Later, racial freedom fighters “broke the back” of apartheid because democracy could not survive with its existence. Each time, reformers have had to deal with this necessary death and leave the comforting light of the hotel.
The next danger that democracy faces, West said, is one which we still must “break the back” of: the problem of economic inequality. Especially in recent years, upper-class wages have grown while lower-middle class workers have faced wage stagnation. The gap between the rich and the poor has grown increasingly wider with the passing of time. According to West, the identifiable problem is material greed. “There must be mechanisms to check greed [in our society],” said West, “because greed itself is never enough in a democracy.”
However, he said that it is easier to use the less powerful as scapegoats than it is to stand up to the richer and more powerful. “The impact of wealth inequality can lead to the worst in every one of us, and often we feel like we can do nothing about it,” he said.
Still, the market does not necessarily have to be a bad institution, West said. Like all tools, the market can be used for good and has many beneficial effects, but its underside is economic inequality. Both sides must be taken into account so that we neither fetishize nor demonize the institution, West said.
To address the underside, we must recognize that the rich have a civic responsibility to remedy this economic rift. “We are all on the same ship,” West reminded the audience, “and that ship has leaks in it. We must all stick together, or we will all fall apart, for we are inextricably linked together.”
He continued to state that a failure to confront this underside has made us increasingly aware of the shallowness and insubstantiality of our society. We hunger for intimacy, but in our superficiality we have lost the capacity to attain it. We recognize that material success, the ultimate goal in the market society, cannot ever fulfill our existential needs as human beings. We have become addicted to stimulation and titillation, shallow pleasures, and have discarded the search for depth.
West stated that society encourages people to “just get over,” to get through and succeed by any means possible. This he called a “gangsterization” of society, a movement that leads us to be “mean-spirited, cold-hearted and back-stabbing.” In our search for material success, non-market values such as concern, compassion, or unity have been forced to take a back seat.
The question West posed, as one that plagues our society was, “How do we accent non-market values in a market culture?” Non-market values have become marginalized he said, we must bring them back to the center.
Parenting, for example, as a non-market value, has become devalued as the nuclear family becomes more and more decentralized. West stated that we forget the “publicness” which is the essence of all our non-market values; publicness is the lifeblood of a democracy, because all our problems are public by nature, and our connection to the rest of humanity cannot be ignored.
“No democracy can survive that degrades publicness: public education, public transportation, public conversation,” West said.
With these, the social obligations of each person in mind, West said he wished to end his talk not on a note of optimism, but of hope: to acknowledge the state of affairs but to continue fighting for change. “For those who are willing to meet the challenge,” he concluded, “I will be there with you, because I am going down fighting.”