Transcript: Cornel West's 2017 Convocation Address

September 8, 2017
Professor Cornel West
Professor Cornel West. Photo by Evgenia Eliseeva.

HDS Professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy Cornel West delivered the 2017 Convocation address titled "Spiritual Blackout, Imperial Meltdown, Prophetic Fightback." His remarks can be read below. A video of the ceremony and a recap are available online.


I want to begin on a note of piety. I come from a tradition that has everything to do with not just courage and vision and sacrifice and service to the least of these, but also with piety. Understand that piety is not blind faith to a dogma; it's not uncritical adherence to a doctrine. Rather, piety is what George Santayana and John Dewey defined as the sources of good in our lives, in our move from womb to tomb, our acknowledged dependence on those who came before. I am who I am because somebody loved me, somebody cared for me, and somebody attended to me. I'll never, ever forget it.

It is a magnificent moment to be back at Harvard Divinity School for Afro-American studies, but the greatest honor I will ever receive is to be the second son of the late Clifton West and present Irene B. West. The grandest acknowledgment that I could ever make is the honor it is to be able to come out of that love nest on the chocolate side of Sacramento, California that was inseparable from Shiloh Baptist Church of Reverend Willie P. Cook. He was a pastor, he was not a CEO. We had choirs, we didn't have praise teams. The market model had not taken over. Our prison ministry was stronger than our building fund—ooh, that hurts these days, doesn't it? There was also an intellectual piety 47 years ago when I first walked up those steps and took my Hebrew class from Professor Dick Clifford from Weston Jesuit School of Theology, after which, I moved on to Paul Hanson and G. Ernest Wright, with whom I wrote my undergraduate thesis in near eastern languages and literature. I shall never forget their love, their caring, and their nurturing. I'll never forget the John Rawlses and Hilary Putnams, the Roderick Firths and Stanley Cavells, and the Martha Nussbaums and Eileen Foleys, who all mean the world to me. I notice that one of the great prophetic figures of our time just walked in. I'm talking about Professor Susannah Heschel, who of course is the daughter of the one and only Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and I want to acknowledge her too. And, of course, I want to acknowledge my dear sister Suzanne, who always has that magnificent smile when she’s in the office. She's a grand example of the counter-move against spiritual blackout. 

I begin with piety because Antonio Gramsci says that those who are serious about being all-season love warriors, not just sunshine soldiers in this moment of spiritual blackout and imperial meltdown, must begin with a critical historical inventory. Who are you, really? How do you situate yourself in relation to traditions? Not one of us have one identity or one tradition. We’re all hybrids, all the way down. But you have to situate yourself in the best of those traditions so that you’re able to sustain yourself in the face of the variety of catastrophes coming our way. The ecological catastrophe—the anthropocene is real, the extinctions are real. The nuclear catastrophe is pending with Russia and the United States and other countries with nuclear capacity—North Korea, India, Pakistan, Israel, and other countries. We know the moral catastrophe is real, what I'm calling the relative eclipse of integrity, honesty, and decency, not just in this empire, but around the world. And what do I mean by moral catastrophe? We’re not talking about politics, we’re not talking about ideology. We’re talking about the kinds of human beings being shaped by the weakened institutions in our world. We’re talking about spiritual blackout.

Spiritual blackout is the normalizing of mendacity, to make lives appear as if they’re a part of the normal order of things. For example, we believe in justice, but not a justice that sends the Wall Street executive who engages in the massive criminality of insider trading, market manipulation, fraudulent activity, and predatory lending to jail. Spiritual blackout is the naturalizing of criminality, when crimes against humanity become part of the natural order of things. One out of two black children under six years old live in poverty in the richest nation in the history of the world. That’s not just wrong, that’s not just unjust, that’s a certain kind of crime against humanity. Where is our public discussion about it? Where are the voices? Where is the moral outrage? Where’s the righteous indignation? No, we just fit in, it’s just business as usual. Drone strikes have been killing innocent children for the last ten years, and yes, they were happening under our dear brother Barack Obama whom so many fell in love with becoming blind when it came to his complicity in war crimes. We normalize criminality. So this normalization is not just a matter of the new occupant of the White House. It’s too easy to fetishize Donald Trump. But he is as American as apple pie, he just represents the worst of America. Don’t isolate him. Don’t act as if he dropped out of the sky. No, no, he comes out of very deep, organic traditions in the country. Phobias that make us lose sight of our precious trans brothers and sisters, of our bisexual folk and lesbians and gays, black people, indigenous people, Latinos, working people. Across the board, moral catastrophe.

Now, I wanna ascend to a deeper spiritual dimension. Spiritual blackout not only normalizes mendacity and naturalizes criminality, it also encourages callousness, it elevates machismo identity, and it rewards indifference. William James, the greatest of all public intellectuals—brother David Lamberth understands that, given his magnificent book on William James—used to say indifference is the one trait that makes the very angels weep. Rabbi Heschel says indifference to evil is more insidious than evil itself. Encouraging indifference where machismo identity is defined in terms of being manly and mature rather than cowardly and insecure is a sign of a spiritual blackout. So, when we look at Donald Trump, we ought not to engage in the sophomoric name-calling and finger-pointing that we get too often from the corporate media—the very corporate media that, in one sense, helped produce that Frankenstein, given their obsession with money and revenue and profit. I think it was the the CEO of NBC that said we understand that Trump’s bad for America, but he’s good for us. So much for public interest, so much for the common good. We see what’s really running things, this market-driven, predatory capitalism that’s obsessed with short-term gain, that’s obsessed with superficial success. What about spiritual issues, where greatness has to do with he or she who is serving the least of these, rather than just the smartest in the room? That neo-liberal soul-craft has become hegemonic across ideologies, across politics, across color, across sexual orientation, where the very end and aim is to focus on smartness, dollars, and bombs, rather than wisdom, and compassion, and service to the least of these. That’s a sign of spiritual blackout, so when we look at brother Donald Trump, we ought to also look inside of ourselves. There are elements inside of us that need to be wrestled with. That’s true for this grand institution going back to 1816. I'm reminded of John Ware, who generated the controversy where Andover moves out because the orthodox folk can’t take the Unitarians—they’re a little bit too loose. We love our Unitarian brothers and sisters, but I'm still a gut-bucket black Baptist, so I can be a free thinker and still be tied to the mysterious movements of the spirit that always have a way of humbling you so you don’t think as if being the smartest and being the freest thinker is the measure of being great.

I come from a people who’ve been terrorized and traumatized for 400 years. But Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Jr., Fanny Lou Hamer and Ella Baker, they decided what? Not to terrorize others, but to fight for freedom for everybody. They connected the legacy of Athens with that fundamental stress on piety, that formation of attention so you can shift from the superficial things to the substantial things. This is rooted in Plato's Republic in 51 AD which has a line on the turning of the soul, the transformation of yourself, not just as such to gain a job or acquire a skill in order to be visible, but to be a certain kind of human being who has undergone a periagoge, a metanoia, a conversion, a transformation. Then you’re on the road to the cultivation of a self-critical orientation and the maturation of a soul that wants to be, in the language of John Coltrane, a force for good. Then you have to shatter the chains of conformity, including the forms of conformity that are shot through professional managerial sites in our capitalist civilization like Harvard University. The aim here is not just to make the next connection, moving up the ladder. Can’t wait to be successful. For what? What kind of person are you gonna be? What are you gonna use your fame for if you have it? Part of our problem these days is that we’ve got so many market-driven celebrities tied to glitz and spectacle and raw self-promotion. We don't have enough morally-laden exemplars that have gritty, deep convictions and stout-hearted causes that they’re willing to live and die for. And young folk, the challenge becomes, do you have not just courage, but enough courage. The great classical tradition of western civilization says what? Courage and magnanimity produce fortitude. A Nazi soldier could be courageous, but he’s still a gangster. I saw great courage in the eyes of my neo-Nazi brothers and sisters in Charlottesville just a few weeks ago when they stood in front of us and spit and called names and racial epithets. Yes, I saw a lot of courage. I could see blazing in their eyes unbelievable determination, a willingness to live and die, but we need more than just courage. We need spiritual and moral dimensions that are tied to that courage. We need fortitude, we need greatness of character, we need magnanimity, and that fortitude that embraces the courage that provides us with a kind of moral and spiritual orientation. We can hold off the obsession with short-term gain and hold off the obsession with raw ambition and self-promotion, but it’s part of the civil war raging inside of each and every one of us. That’s what I love about the great legacy of Athens, learning how to die in order to learn how to live, trying to fight off those narrow prejudices—that parochialism, provincialism, hedonism, narcissism, and narrow individualism—that try to hold us back. We’ve got our dear brother E.J. Dionne here today, who has written a moralist book on individualism and community. He understands the difference between the quest for individuality in community and the narrow, rugged, rapacious individualism that leaves us isolated and deracinated and rootless and unable to connect in such an atomized world. (Did I get your interpretation though, brother? I wanted to make sure. We got the author in the house, so we got to make sure we get the interpretation right. I believe in hermeneutical humility, you know that.)

My hunch is that somewhere the American Gibbon is beginning to put pen to paper as a part of the prophetic fightback in the face of the decay and decline of the American empire. It's probably a sister, of any color. Good chance she’s lesbian, could be trans. To tell the truth about the history of this grand experiment in democracy is prophetic fightback. We’re grounded on the dispossession of land of our precious indigenous brothers and sisters and the violation of their bodies. People talk about slavery being America's original sin. That’s not true. The treatment of our indigenous brothers and sisters was our original sin. Slavery was second. But every human being has the same value and significance as those from the tradition that produced me, which I intend to be faithful to unto death. White supremacy moves quickly, and when you lie for so long, when you believe you’re innocent for so long, there’s an intimate connection between innocence and violence. That’s why the dominant myth of the American empire is frontier. What is frontier? Moral regeneration through violence, the savages to be tamed, the savages to be subordinated and dominated, and the sophisticated, civilized ones to take over their land and say, “Lo and behold, there’s free land, there’s no human beings here, only buffaloes and Indians.” But chickens come home to roost. Sooner or later, you’re gonna reap what you sow. You can only go on so long with mendacity and criminality. You talk about liberty for everybody, talk about yourself as a beacon of religious liberty, but you have a constitution that’s a pro-slavery constitution in practice and black folk who can’t worship god without white supervision and have no right to learn how to read or write. What are we talking about here? This is not some interesting tension between principle and practice. These are crimes against humanity, and sooner or later, chickens come home to roost, and we have to be fortified in this moment of imperial meltdown.

In this moment, 4,855 U.S. military units are around the world, 587 overseas, the rest in the United States, special operation activities going on in 150 nations. Yes, that’s an empire. Military overreach. For every dollar spent in Washington D.C. 53 cents go to the military-industrial complex, and we wonder why it is that we have so many decrepit schools, don’t have enough money to generate programs that deal with underemployment and unemployment, why it is we can’t have universal healthcare, a basic benchmark of a civilized society. Thank god for Canada. They’ve got right-wing brothers and sisters in Canada who are more left-wing on healthcare than most in the U.S. Democratic party. It’s true. But I know Canada has its problems. Why? Because we all have problems, every nation, every person, every individual. And to be able to keep track of our problems on the side, but not in a spirit of self-righteousness, is a major challenge. This is especially true for those progressive folk who just love to be in the company of the do-gooders, which is also a sign of spiritual immaturity.

Samuel Beckett is right when he says, “Try again, fail again, fail better. Try again, fail again, fail better.” That’s true for each and every one of us, that’s true for our movement. So don't confuse prophetic fightback with progressive do-good activity. We need examples of persons willing to speak the truth. The condition of truth is always to allow suffering to speak, and in my tradition—going back to the blues artists of Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, jazz musicians like Sarah Vaughn, and Mary Lou Williams, and John Coltrane, and Miles Davis, and Duke Ellington, and Count Basie—there is a soulful kenosis that sits at the center of prophetic fightback. Prophetic fightback has to do with the fundamental orientation of your soul, the very core of your being, and the soulful kenosis that you hear in a Sam Cooke or an Aretha Franklin, what you might see in a Kendrick Lamar or Erykah Badu, which is a courageous, creative, unflinching look at catastrophe: “‘cause the blues are produced by people on intimate terms with catastrophe.” That's what Ralph Ellison said, didn't he? The blues is an individual story of a personal catastrophe lyrically expressed. “Nobody loves me but my mama, and she might be jivin' too,” says B.B. King. He’s the king of the blues, and that’s the B-side of “The Thrill is Gone,” which can be catastrophic too, but we won’t get into that right now. We look catastrophe in the face, no denial, no evasion, no myths of innocence, no self-righteousness, and say maybe together—and this is where religion plays a fundamental role—let us be honest.

Most of the history of religion has been religious institutions accommodating themselves to structures of domination and reinforcing envy and resentment and hatred. But as religious people, we have no higher ground in terms of our tradition. The only higher ground we have is earned in terms of what kind of lives we’ve lived, what kind of sacrifices we have made, what kind of costs we’re willing to bear. Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t speak on behalf of all the black church. Most of the black church was terrorized and they were scared. They were niggerized, and to niggerize a people is keep a people so intimidated and scared and afraid that they walk around with their backs humped over, and laughing when it ain’t funny, and scratching when it don’t itch, and wearing a mask, and just trying to fit in and be well-adjusted to injustice, rather than maladjusted to injustice. Martin Luther King, Jr. had to cut against the grain in the black church. Rabbi Heschel had to cut against the grain when it came to Jewish synagogues. Dorothy Day had to cut against the grain when it came to the great Catholic tradition. We can go on and on and on. Bell Hooks, Buddhist, she’s cutting against the grain, in more ways than one, and not in a self-righteous way at their behest, but through soulful kenosis.

This soulful kenosis ought to be inextricably tied to paideia, in which—after critical reflection, after the analytical understandings of the operations of power and structures of domination and oppression—you say, “This is the kind of human being I choose to be before the worms get my body.” That’s a vocational question, not a professional one, a question of calling, not just your career, a question of life and death, not just your upward mobility in terms of your status. Those are the kind of questions of religare—which goes back to the Latin—that bind and rebind religion. It’s what the great William James in his Gifford Lectures calls the core problem of religion: the call for help. Our being an agent, being a subject in the world but knowing that there will be moments of relative helplessness and impotence so that you must call for help. The great Nathanael West says, “Help, help,” in Miss Lonelyhearts (which is the literary equivalent and analogue of William James' Varieties of Religious Experience) in the first chapter (probably the second greatest comic text ever written in American literature after Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn). That “Help, help”—that’s where we are now in the imperial meltdown, in the escalating neo-fascist era run by Trump that is tied to big money, big banks, and scapegoating the most vulnerable, especially Latino immigrants, but also those of non-straight orientation and other people of color. So, we call each other for help horizontally.

That horizontal call for help is part of the brown-black dialogue. We can make it a little longer without the other, but sooner or later, we come running. That’s a kind of solidarity, and it’s not just ideological, it’s not just political. Don’t believe the corporate media hype that says you have to subsume yourself under some label. When the anti-fascist forces protected us in Charlottesville, they didn't ask for our identity. They said these folks singing “This Little Light of Mine” are gonna get crushed, them and the light, and so they intervened with courage. Of course, we have some ideological and political differences with them, absolutely, but in that particular moment, they intervened with courage. And that’s where I think we will be, which means there’ll be widespread disagreement and there’ll be strong agreement, so let us mediate our disagreement with respect, critical sharpness, and an acknowledgment of the humanity of each and every one of us. And do we have any guarantee? Absolutely not. If that American Gibbon is right, then the decline and fall of the American empire is in motion, and the dominant forces will be hatred, envy, resentment, xenophobia, anti-Jewish hatred, anti-Arab hatred, anti-Palestinian hatred, it’ll be targeted on women, and especially black folk and brown. And so, we’ll just go down swinging, that’s all you can do, go down swinging. If we can turn it around and regenerate, reinvigorate, revitalize the best of American democracy, fight for rights and liberty, try to create some robust public life, public conversation, public schools, public healthcare, and so on, then we have a chance. But that’s not something that’s in our control. What we ought to do now is to decide, in the end, who we really are. These are the times that test women and men’s souls. Thomas Paine was right.

Let us now have a moment of silence for our brothers and sisters of all colors in Houston. Let’s have a moment of silence for our brothers and sisters in Asia, and Africa, and Latin America, Central America. Let’s have a moment for our brothers and sisters here in Cambridge, wrestling with the effects of a variety of different catastrophes, as we begin this new year in the middle, in the mess, in the funk, but deciding to intellectually, spiritually, and morally fight, work, laugh, grin, hug, serve, and sacrifice. God bless you and let’s have a magnificent year. Have fun, be unsettled, unearthed, and bounce back strong. My dear brother, Dean David.