Cornel West: To Be A Leftist in the 21st Century

I have attended two conferences that presented Cornel West as its key note speaker. Most recently, the African American Studies department at the University of Houston invited him as a speaker and public intellectual. West promulgates the need for leftist ideology in the 21st century as a juxtaposed construct to: religion, corporate greed, youth, white supremacy, and global patriarchy. Furthermore, West addresses the weakness of American democracy as an enlightened construct that ushered in a capitalist system that transformed Atlantic history by giving birth to white supremacy. Thus the creation of neo-racism and neo-slavery via democracy and capitalism set the stage for black oppression circa 1776 to 1963. West, as I have stated here before, dismisses the birth of America as this great liberal construct vis-a-vis 18th century European progress. Watch West (see video clip) address the issue of being a leftist and listen to how he links the historical to the present. Although not directly, listen to how West differentiates between historical and present liberalism and leftism.

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11 thoughts on “Cornel West: To Be A Leftist in the 21st Century

  1. I think he is making excuses for the sale of his book. Blaming industry and capitalism for having to take it underground is garbage. I agreewith the rest of it.

  2. Watching Cornel West is sucha different experience from his books. I find it is easy to get bogged down in his writing but he is so dynamic in person that it is easy to relaly focus, although man can he cover a lot of topics all at once!

    Great blog! This is my first time on it but I will be back!

  3. Sarah,

    I have found that the more I read West’s essays, the easier it gets. He does a nice job making me think, though I do not always agree with his subjectivity. But, you are right, his stuff can be a lot to digest at times. Please come back.

  4. On the one hand he bemoans white supremacy in America, but then is at a loss on how to motivate the Left when the Right is busy squabbling with itself. If white supremacy and capitalism is such a problem in America, shouldn’t that level of concern naturally gin up the appropriate response as in the days when segregation fell and civil rights were finally honored? While I enjoy listening to Mr. West speak, I get the feeling some of the “old guard” from the battles of the 60’s are trying to manufacture fights in the present. Instead of taking advantage of better integration, there is more “Us vs. Them” rhetoric. There is certainly a place for historical perspective and knowledge of what happened during the Lydon Johnson administration, but where is the “new guard” for today’s issues? Why is plugging-into the capitalist system being anti-black? The more that minorities join the system the less that race becomes an issue.

    I watched another clip of Mr. West where he called the current crop of presidential candidates “unadulterated mediocrity”, where we are stuck with ho-hum people that are supported by big investors. The truth of that made me laugh. : ) I’m with West: Is that the best we could come up with out of all the people in the country?

  5. No doubt West’s speaking and writing come across differently. While his philosophical/theological musings have their place, some of his best work comes in the short essay kind of format: energetic, prophetic, socratic, and punchy.

    I appreciate Matt S.’s observations as well, and I too am curious as to what exact prescription West has for the Left. Perhaps, as Edward Blum points out, a resurrection of W.E.B. Du Bois may be an option. (See Blum’s column here: http://hnn.us/articles/40530.html Furthermore, I feel his disquiet about the current crop of presidential candidates.

    While the tendency may be to see West, et. al. stirring up “old guard” arguments circa 1960s, the more subtle forms white supremacy has taken both necessitate and demand the kinds of systemic, institutional critiques West, et. al. offer. No doubt a post-Civil Rights conext is important to keep in mind, but it seems to me that white supremacy is “manufactured” anew in subtle forms today, and so West et. al. are not manufacturing new fights in the present. There’s no doubt this kind of speech comes across as “Us vs. Them,” but the kind of prophetic posture West, et.al. adopt, in my estimation, will be that way. In my reading of history, prophets are never popular and are seen as those who cause division.

    As to Matt S’s query about the “new guard,” Eddie Glaude is a West protege and has some keen things to say, _In a Shade of Blue_, Tavis Smiley would certainly fit the bill here, Jonathan Walton (religious studies prof at UC-Riverside), Marc Lamont Hill (American studies/education prof at Temple), and Melissa Harris-Lacewell (political science prof at Princeton), to name a few…

  6. A few things: I understood his position and discussion about liberalism as one of transformative substance: Liberalism was and is often considered the base for a democratic society; however, because this democratic American society has allowed greed and capitalism to exploit sub groups, 21st century liberals must and have redefine the concept of liberalism. For example, protecting the rights and oppertunities of various sub groups to advance their econonic and social plight in a transformative society. But, as West contends, that is not easy. West’s example of capitalist elites forcing truthful discourse underground furthers the challenge of transformative liberals adavncing an already liberal society.

    As conservative and Puritanical as America is, the most conservative American is still liberal; however, that liberalism is often about the advancements of economic elites: Obama, Kerry, Clinton, etc…

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