Cornel West: Hope Is Spiritual Armor Against Modern Society’s Spiritual Warfare

What does it mean to learn how to die in order
to learn how to live? That’s platonic isn’t it? Philosophy itself is a meditation in preparation
for death. Montaigne says the philosophizers learn how
to die. Seneca says he or she who learns how to die
unlearns slavery because art, paideia—deep education, not cheap schooling—deep education
is about a critical self-examination of that which is inside of us that needs to die. The fears. The cowardice. The complacency. The conformity. The assumptions and pre-supposition, the prejudices
and pre-judgments that we have that need to go. James Brown called it ‘give it up, turn it
loose’. It needs to go. Just like falling in love. You fall in love with somebody, something
has died in you.Anne Carson understands this well in her classic; something’s died in you. The egoism, the fear, the narcissism—I know
a lot of people don’t undergo full-fledged death, but it’s an effort because you’re now
entangled with a new self and that new self means you have been transformed and lo’ and
behold you walk around with a smile on your face feeling good before Sappho’s bittersweet
hits you. That’s part of love too, isn’t it? If bittersweet hasn’t hit you it’s just sentimental. We’re not going to go into that though. But the connection of learning how to die
and the saddest feature of our moment, in regards to Du Bois’s first question, is that
so many young brothers and sisters of the younger generation find themselves so far
removed from the best of their past, far removed from the best that has gone into the shaping
and molding them, that all they have relation is market forces, market forces, market forces. Stimulation, titillation. They’re hungry for care and nurture, hungry
for something deeper. That’s what the spiritual and moral awaking
young people in the last five or ten years is all about. The hunger for what Ashford and Simpson called
The Real Thing. And what is the real thing? Well, it’s something that is dynamic, you
never get your hands on it, it’s intangible but it has everything to do with the ways
in which love, the ways in which justice in motion generate hope, generate encouragement,
generate a certain sense of enthusiasm for what is to come. Anticipation of the not-yet rooted in the
ugly what-is. And Ernst Bloch and others talked about it
in the classical philosophy of hope. The volumes on philosophy of hope. That’s what Du Bois has in mind with integrity. And our young people these days more and more—I’ve
spent a lot of time, in fact I’ve shifted most of my lectures now to both prisons and
high schools and junior highs. They’re so hungry for something that pierces
through the spectacle and the image. They want something that they can hold onto
existentially. And that’s why the music is a fundamental
battlefield. That’s one of the crucial sites of the spiritual
warfare. It’s no accident they eliminated arts programs
in the 1980s under Reagan. Trumped: narrow their imagination, attenuate
their empathy. Let them just be bundles of desires that these
corporations can manipulate in order to convince them to be only consumers so that the profits
can go up, we can push the workers against the wall and therefore think that we are actually
sustaining a democratic experiment rather than undermining its soul and ending up with
a semblance and a simulacra of democracy because you no longer have citizens you just have
consumers. You can’t have a democracy with just consumers. And what was the response? Oh here comes hip-hop. Jesse Rose, Brother André, magnificent, why
she laid it out to 25 years ago. You eliminate the art program? Okay we’re not going to produce anybody that
sounds as good as Sarah Vaughan or Donny Hathaway anymore; some of them lucky to sing in tune,
because they haven’t been taught well. They don’t have examples because they’re no
longer in churches. If they aren’t in church where are they going
to get it? They’re going to get it on the radio but lo’
and behold they can make more money, by not necessarily imitating the best. But they did anyways connect the best. That’s why they went to Sly Stone, that’s
why they went to Curtis Mayfield, that’s why they went to George Clinton, that’s why they
went to James Brown, they went to Aretha, they sampled it, they couldn’t play it anymore,
there’s no instruments to learn how to play. So they had to sample it and use their orality
and the genius of their language to keep the tradition alive. And what happened 15 years later? You don’t even have any groups that sing together
anymore. No Dramatics. No Delfonics. No Main Ingredient. No Whispers. No bands like James Brown or Lakeside, it’s
all computers and individual isolated nomadic individuals. That’s spiritual warfare. You disenable the spiritual armor that’s kept
a people going because usually that’s all black people have had, is our voices and each
other. No land. No territory. No rights. No protection from the state. But at least we had our voices that preserved
our dignity, our sense of style and our empathy. What happens when that is more and more stripped
away? Then you’re going to have a Hobbesian war
of all against all, which is in part a description of where our precious poor and working class
youth of color and poor youth have to live every day, and there’s no serious discussion
about it. Democratic Party, Republican Party. Thank God for Bernie Sanders but that’s another
lecture too. Let’s bring this to a close. The first question is how shall integrity
meet oppression? Second question, what does honesty do in the
face of deception? Thank God for the best of the artists. What does it mean to be candid in an age of
mendacity and criminality? Crime has been normalized. No serious talk about drone strikes, even
though crimes are taking place all the time. How come? It’s normalized! It’s naturalized. We’ve just come to accept it. No, that’s catastrophe. You don’t kill innocent people. It’s wrong. It’s more than wrong, it’s evil. Don’t get used to evil. Indifference to evil is more invidious than
evil itself, says Rabbi Heschel. He’s right about that. And William James says indifference is the
one trait that makes the very angels weep. He’s right about that. We have normalized criminality. Last couple of days two more policeman off,
right? Killing the young black folk, just normal. Just normal. Everybody knows if that kind of killing was
going on in Beverly Hills, sookie sookie now. Shoot, there would be major moral outrage
in every corner of the country. “Don’t be killing these upper class white
brothers and sisters like that. They’re human beings.” What about Jamal the teacher, what about Juanita
and Carlos? What about our indigenous brothers and sisters
locked in these reservations? You normalize that and just keep moving. You deodorize it because you’re afraid of
the funk of your country. You don’t want to deal with the funk. Well, you can’t talk about hope without aspiring
to be a funk master. That’s what the funk is all about. Samuel Beckett called it the mess. Third question: what does decency do in the
face of insult and assault? What is indecent, callousness and indifference
toward the poor and vulnerable? Last question: what does courage do in the
face of brute force? Hope is about being, doing and acting, embodying. Connected to quest for integrity, honesty,
decency and courage plus magnanimity, namely fortitude. So in the end it’s not about how sophisticated
my discourse on hope was, it’s about at your funeral: “She lived a life in which she was
a hope and she generated hope in others.” That’s Curtis Mayfield saying: keep on pushing. It’s not a discourse on pushing. It’s an enactment. In the mess, in the funk, in catastrophe,
in domination, insubordination to not allow any of them to have the last word. There is no hope without a wrestling of despair. It’s like Jacob in the 32nd chapter of Genesis
where he’s wrestling with that angel of death in the midnight hour and he emerges as God
wrestler, that’s the definition of Israel, God wrestler with new energy. That’s not discourse solely. I’m not against discourse but discourse can
become such a distraction. And we live in a culture that specializes
in weapons of mass distraction as well as weapons of mass destruction. And it might be the case that we lose. Now, in America to talk about losing is always
a dangerous thing because we live in a superficial culture of winners. We’ve got to be with the winner. We’ve got to be with the winner. No, there is something about acknowledging
that you might lose that gives a gravitas to what you’re doing. And then we may be surprised by the joy of
the process and sometimes you’ll be surprised by some of the concrete victories.


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