Friday, April 1, 2011

Cornel West & the Courage to Think Critically

“Borders to Democracy: Who Draws the Line?”

Cornel West spoke at the University of Arizona. Below are my notes from Dr. West's thought-provoking, invigorating and energizing lecture.

At the beginning of his speech, West remarked that is was good to be in Arizona because it was a state “on the move in a variety of different ways.” He spoke of Arizona as the epicenter for issues of human rights in the United States.
In what would become a motif of his talk, West began with what he called a Socratic note, meaning he wanted to unsettle and unnerve the audience. He wanted to provoke because, quoting from Plato’s Apology, “the examined life is not worth living.
As a part of his Socratic challenge, he wanted the audience to focus on the courage to think critically.
Going back to the life of a human and what it means to be human, he explained the Latin root of human, relating to burial and its connection of the body to the earth. He reminded the audience they were “born between feces and urine, and if not for their momma’s love, they wouldn’t be there.”
Referencing George Clinton and West’s affinity for him, West explained we emerge in the funk and love in the funky love stench.
Aja Martinez, Cornel West and myself 

West said “deodorized discourse” was the discourse that doesn’t speak of human suffering.
Criticizing the current cultural trends, he argued we are concerned with the “superficial spectacle” of a celebrity obsessed culture, generating “weapons of mass distraction.”
Education, not schooling, West argued was what we needed to learn to be human; needing to be less obsessed with celebrity, students need to understand that by being connected to technology, they do not necessarily have raised consciousness.
He said we are too “well adapted to indifference.”
One of his main points coming back to humanity and being human came back to education and how the humanities teach us how to die, so that we know how to live.
Quoting the Roman philosopher Seneca, West said that when we learn how to die, we unlearn slavery.
What dies when we become educated is the something within us that makes us afraid like prejudices and assumptions—West explained we need to teach students arguments that push them against the wall and show them “their worldviews rest on pudding.”
The problem, West explained, is that too many students don’t want to be courageous, but just want to make money and be comfortable.
West advocated being a misfit; speaking of his friendship with Arthur Miller (author of Death of a Salesman), West said they had discussions about choosing to become misfits.
One of West’s great rhetorical refutations when speaking of Bill Maher was: “I think you’re wrong, but let’s examine your argument.” He added that the God Bill Maher describes is not the God West worships.
Maintaining his Socratic method, West said he wanted to be dialectical and explained that if he were around when George Washington and the other founding fathers were going to war with England, he would have been with them because West is anti-imperialism.

However, West spoke of politicians being unable to speak outside of narrow discourses because of their allegiances to big business on both sides and looming elections; he argued “budgetary deficits” that allowed for war demonstrated “warped priorities.”
Meditating on MLK, West said “don’t fall for the hype” when it came to colorblindness because “we’re all embodied” and in bodies. He said that we shouldn’t be blind because we can’t be in love with one another if we are blind, and if we are blind to culture, then there will still be a predominant culture. This was followed by his point that we have not responded well to the legacy of MLK.
Criticizing Obama, West said that he wished Obama “treated the homeowners the same way you treat investment bankers.”

Returning to the idea of individuality and courage, West said students and hip hop artists need to find their voices because there are too many echoes.
He said we need to understand the difference musically of musicians who are “body stimulators” and those who are “soul stirrers” saying someone like Soulja Boy is much more of a body stimulator.
When asked about the Anti-Ethnic Studies bill here in Arizona, West replied that Ethnic Studies is a “quest for truth.” Education, according to West, is not high quality if there are not numerous voices. Without numerous voices, there’s only a narrow viewpoint being represented. He commented that the Attorney General in Arizona, who argues Ethnic Studies classes segregate students, needs to go on a “deeper quest for truth.”
Teachers are caretakers of the precious youth, West said. Explaining the U.S is #1 in educating the wealthy and that self-confidence, telling students they’re brilliant is something that happens in those schools. But West says not to hate the rich, but to hate the arrogance.

Cornel West in dialogue with Jay-Z at New York Public Library: 

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