Category Archives: Social Justice

The Chocolate Side of life

 

The first time I heard Cornel West speak was at the University of Winnipeg in 2015. He pulled no punches in describing the American system of criminal justice “racist.” “I got too much white supremacy inside of me. I got too much homophobia inside of me.”

West pointed out that in America 65% of convictions are against blacks who make up about 20% of the population. Is that not very similar to the situation of indigenous people in this  country. How is it possible to deny that such a criminal justice system is racist? “If you don’t speak out against such injustice the rocks are going to cry out,” West said. He saw that speaking out against such injustice is part of the prophetic system of which he is a part.

When West at the university, he said that every 28 hours for the last 7 years (since 2015) a black or brown man, woman, or child in America was murdered by the police or private security guard services. That is based on a devaluing of black life in America. He pointed out that is true even though we have a black President in the United States with a black Attorney General. During that time not one policeman was sent to jail. Not one. Is that justice?

He said he made that statement because he wants to be an honest man. Of course, Canada, and in particular Manitoba, is much worse than that with its indigenous population.

When I heard him speak in Arizona a few years later, West said, “I have been subtly shaped by the chocolate side of life.” That point of view coloured his speaking out in the prophetic tradition which he gleaned from the Old Testament.  All that was part of his religious quest.

Speaking out against injustice can be a vital part of a religious quest; keeping silent not so much.

Learning how to Die

 

Cornel West is also a University  Professor. He teaches religion and philosophy.  He says he tells his students the first day of each year that he is there to teach them how to die. Can you imagine a professor saying that?  I would have been blown away.

 

In America our life is based on a sentimental denial of death. So many Americans (and of course Canadians are just as guilty) are unable to face uncomfortable truths.  Whether it is race or oppression people don’t want to know the uncomfortable truths. And it is exactly the uncomfortable truths that we need the most West said,

“I teach students how to die. The first time students come to my class I tell them you are here to learn how to die. Plato talks about philosophy as wisdom being learning how to die. When you have dogma there is no growth—that is death. There is no shift in your attention from the superficial to the substantial without death. Only that way can you avoid the mainstream which suffers from so much spiritual malnutrition. In the mainstream you end up well adjusted to injustice. No matter how many toys you have. No matter how big your house you end up well adapted to indifference.”

 

 

According to West, the essence of wisdom speaking is having the courage to know how to die by questioning your presuppositions. Every time you let a presupposition go that is a form of death because it allows you to be reborn. It allows you to grow. It allows you to develop. It allows you to mature.

 

West says that there are many ways to die.

 

“One is what he calls civic death—being part of a civil society but not its public life. That is what happened to blacks with Jim and Jane Crow. You can work for us, you can entertain us, you can titillate us, but you cannot be part of the civic body.

Or it could be psychic death as when our sisters are subject to male domination or gays and lesbians are subject to tyranny: dehumanized, dishonoured and devalued. The same is for the working classes. They are also dehumanized. Reduced to costs and calculations as your job goes to China. Who cares about your humanity? You are only useful to the degree to which you can make us money.

And then there is spiritual death where you just give up. Make your way to the crack house. Or sell your soul for a mess of porridge.”

 

According to West, trying to live a safe life can be one way to die. West argues like Martin Heidegger did:

“Human” comes from “Humando” which means burial. We are beings-toward-death. The journey from Mama’s womb to tomb is fast.  The question is what sort of human being will you be in that short time from Mama’s womb to tomb in a predatory capitalism civilization …that gives titillation and instant gratification as opposed to deep caring and nurturing…people want to live in some safe and secure suburb instead of what Samuel Beckett called “the mess” which is life.”

 

 

West asks us to consider this: What are they going to say about that person in the coffin? What will they say about you when you are in that coffin?  That is what it means to be human. Blacks in America have learned to look unflinchingly at death, he says. 242 years of social death without any social standing will do that. Just like the American constitution which refers to aboriginal people as “savages,” in order for the mainstream to feel good about itself. That is a form of social death too. “You don’t come to any intimate terms with what it means to be human unless you are on intimate terms with death.

You have to wrestle with it the way Jacob wrestled with the angel of death.”  to learn to die you have to learn to deal with such questions West claims. For him the religious quest is a quest for death, or perhaps, a quest for the good death.

Deep Joy: Loving  and Loving Out Loud

 

Cornel West made living part of his religious quest in the modern age. How did he do that?

In his is autobiography which  he called   Loving and Living Out Loud   Brother West tried  to advocate for living with deep joy, even though as I have said earlier, he always starts with suffering. A source of deep joy for him, as I have said earlier,  was music. Particularly the blues and jazz. He is a big fan of Jazz musician John Coltrane, as am I. He says he finds in that music a deep well spring of joy.

On the other hand, like a true Old Testament Prophet he find much to criticize in contemporary culture that he find shallow. As he said,

“You have to have something that sustains you and so much of contemporary culture is a joyless quest for pleasure. The pleasures are insatiable and you never have enough of them, but you never have any deep joy. If you got to the pre-K program and look into the eyes of those precious children and that sustains you that is deep joy. That is to me a sacred calling. I find joy in the writing and lecturing and speaking like Coltrane found it in blowing his horn.”

 

West says that “we are deliberate and joyful misfits, to use the language of the great Arthur Miller.”  We are maladjusted to injustice. We are maladjusted to indifference. We are maladjusted to people in denial.”  He also said: “Justice is the way love looks in public and tenderness is what love feels like in private.” I also personally heard him deliver various versions of that claim. Again this reminds of those Prophets.

West also warns about the dangers of anger. Sometimes anger is called for. As when the powerful oppress the weak. West always opposes that. Yet West also said he learned from Audrey Lord, that  anger is a form of love, engagement and truth telling. But—and this is key—according to West, “You don’t stay with the anger; it is a medium. But you find joy in being of service to others.”

You have to move beyond anger and resentment back to joy. The deep joy that he looks for not shallow joyless pleasures that take up so much time for so many of us. Like me.

Standing up for what’s right takes courage

 

The Freedom Convoy in support of truckers went through Winnipeg on the way to Ottawa. I wish I had gone to see it, but Christiane and I are staying close to home in support of our health care workers and Manitobans who have not been able to get vital health care procedures or surgeries because our hospitals are filled up with Covid-19 patients and the staff are being relentlessly overworked. We are triple vaxxed so we think we are safe, but don’t want to take a chance right now partly for their sake.

Canada’s truckers don’t support such thinking. They want their freedom. And to them that basically means they don’t want to give in to health restrictions even if that increases danger for others. It’s all about them.

The truckers have also been joined by some unsavoury characters that they are not able to denounce. For example, in Winnipeg Niigaan Sinclair a professor at the University of Manitoba and columnist for the Winnipeg Free Press went to see their “freedom rally” when the convoy stopped in Winnipeg. He took his young daughter with him. She got an education.  This is what he reported seeing:

 

“We saw swastikas. We also saw dozens of signs chanting homophobic and Islamophobic slurs, threats against politicians, and near-endless messages about “freedom.”

I saw lots of sign-less people alongside children and elders.

I hope everyone I saw realizes that there’s no point chanting “freedom” when you stand beside someone calling for violence.

No one credits someone with a “differing opinion” while watching violence. The watcher is as complicit as the doer. Ask the German people if you want to know what I mean.

So, two days after International Holocaust Memorial Day (Jan. 27), Nazi symbols were brandished openly in downtown Winnipeg — and nobody stopped it.”

 

Frankly, I never thought Swastikas would be brandished in downtown Winnipeg. Some of the truckers or their supporters were carrying yellow Star of David’s with wording that suggested vaccine mandates were equivalent to persecution by Nazis.

This “freedom convoy” has been planned for nearly a year. Sinclair believes the date chosen for the event was significant. It was the day set for Canada’s National Day of Remembrance of the brutal and hateful attack on a Quebec City Mosque. It should have been about that event, not some phony “freedom rally.” There was a hero 5 years ago during that attack. He was not a trucker. He was Azzedine Soufiane, a 57-year-old grocery store owner, who was killed while opposing the gunman for long enough for others to join him and stop the shooting. That took bravery.  Driving a big rig across the country does not take any courage. As Sinclair said, Saturday should have been about Soufiane.” It should have been about a real hero.

 Instead of supporting a cause that needs our support, this convoy stood up for racism and zeonphobia. As Sinclair said, “No, Saturday was about people who used frustration with the COVID-19 pandemic to spread hate, sow division, and try to intimidate people they disagree with.”

 

I am not saying all the participants in the convoy are scum. But there were plenty of them, and I did not hear many words of dissent from the truckers or the non-truckers that organized the event. They were too busy ‘shouting hooray for our side,” to quote Neil Young.  The denunciations should have come through loud and clear. My own Member of Parliament, Ted Falk, had gone to the Manitoba/US border to show his support for the truckers earlier in the week. I did not hear him denouncing the hate.

Sinclair said he had not seen anyone standing up at the Winnipeg Rally to denounce the racism and hate.  Sinclair summed it up well,

“Truth be told, I don’t know if anyone during Saturday’s rally in Winnipeg or Ottawa had the courage to speak up against those waving swastikas. I’d like to hope there were a few… It takes courage to stand up for what one believes in. It takes much more courage though to stand up for what’s right.”

 

I would like to see some more truckers and politicians standing up against hate. That’s what freedom is really about. Standing up against hate. That takes guts. Something notable by its absence at the Freedom Convoy.

The Classics: Wisdom Speaking

Cornel West wrote an article in the Washington Post in response to Howard University and other universities getting rid of their Classics Department.  Walter Isaacson interviewed him on Amanpour and Company about that. said that he believes it is important to preserve and read the classics. He  emphasized that, it important to read the classics:

I am convinced we are living in a moment of spiritual decay and moral decrepitude in the American empire. We have to come up with countervailing forces and countervailing weight against the rule of money, rule of mediocrity, rule of military might, rule of narrow conformity, and rule of indifference and callousness. The best classics of any civilization, of any empire, of any culture have to do with trying to convince ourselves to get involved in a quest for truth, and beauty, and goodness, and then for some of us like myself, a Christian, the holy.

 

That is what the classics can help us to do. That is part of West’s religious quest in the modern age. West believes there has been a deep moral decline in the west and a deep intellectual narrowness has crept in, and that the classics can help us to resist this trend. He says, the reason it does that is

“The classics force us to come to terms with the most terrifying question we can ever raise which is what does it mean to be human? The unexamined life is not a life of a human according to Plato in his Apology in line 38a. “Human” comes from the Latin humando which means burial, we are disappearing creatures. We are vanishing organisms on the way to bodily extinction. Therefore, the question becomes, ‘who will we be in the meantime?’ What kind of virtue can we enact? What kind of vision will we pursue? What kind of values will we try to embody? And once you raise that question what it means to be human, then you begin to see on the one hand like Shakespeare and Dante have taught us, like Toni Morrison, and John Coltrane have taught us, it’s dark in our history! Most of our history is the history of domination and oppression. The history of hatred. The history of contempt. It is the history of fear driven cruelty. What is the best of our history? Counterweights against that. And that is everywhere you look. Every civilization. Every continent. Every race. Every religion. Every gender. Every sexual orientation. And once you come to terms with that, then the question becomes how do you become equipped? What kind of spiritual and moral armour do you have that allows you to think critically? That allows you to open yourself to others. That allows you to act courageously.”

 

Now if that is not a spiritual quest, I do not know what is. That is what I have been seekiing on my quest. I think I have found it. West used Frederick Douglas as an example of a man who did that. He discovered  truths from foreign languages as well as anyone can do. He was already a freedom fighter, but the classics of other countries helped him to find the truth, beauty, and the good. According to West, “He teased out an eloquence. And what is eloquence? “Eloquence is wisdom speaking,” say Cicero and Marcus Fabius Quintilianus (often referred to as Quintilian) a rhetorician and educator.

 

According to West, the essence of wisdom speaking is having the courage to know how to die by questioning your presuppositions. Every time you let a presupposition go that is a form of death because it allows you to be reborn. It allows you to grow. It allows you to develop. It allows you to mature.

As West said,

“We live in an empire my brother that has grown powerful and rich but has not grown up. F.O Mathieson used to say, “America would in some way be distinctive because it could move from perceived innocence to corruption without a mediating state of maturity.” The nation believes it is innocent. How can you be authorizers of devastation of indigenous people and African slaves and then view yourselves as innocent? James Baldwin said that innocence is the crime before you commit the crime. We need to grow up. This is not Peter Pan. This is not Disneyland. We gotta be mature. It is possible for any human being to be innocent, naïve, to be mature and separate childishness from child-likeness. Child-likeness is a sign of maturity. Childishness? You need to grow up.”

The classics taught West how to find truth, beauty, moral goodness and the holy. That is the spiritual quest in the modern age.

The New Old Testament Prophets

 

Cornell West traveled to New York to give a speech at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. West lives as much on the road as in Princeton, delivering more than 100 public talks a year. He has actually claim to speak every weekend of the year somewhere. But that night’s  lecture was not his usual speech. It was a tribute to one of his late heroes,  Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Polish-born rabbi who marched with Martin Luther King Jr.  in Selma. Heschel was best known for his first book, The Prophets.  To West, Heschel was an example of a modern prophet, a position he aspired to.

 

West  says he wants to be a prophet, himself, an ambition that would be grandiose if it weren’t for the fact that he wants the rest of us to be prophets, too. We should all try to be prophets. We should all speak truth to power.  Like the Old Testament Prophets Heschel did not mean that to prophesy was not to predict an outcome, but rather to identify concrete evils. He wanted to lead the way to justice. Once those are identified the prophet advocates for the path to overcome injustice.

Heschel wrote that “Prophecy is the voice that God has lent to the silent agony, a voice to the plundered poor, to the profane riches of the world. It is a form of living, a crossing point of God and man. God is raging in the prophet’s words.

In Heschel’s view, the basic intuition of reality takes place on a “preconceptual” level; a disparity always remains between what we encounter and how we can express our encounter in words. The great achievements of art, philosophy, and religion are brought forth in movements when the individual senses more than he can say.   He also said,

“In our religious situation we do not comprehend the transcendent; we are present at it, we witness it. Whatever we know is inadequate; whatever we say is an understatement…Concepts, words must not become screens; they must be regarded as windows.”

 

Heschel, like Brother West, believed that the teachings of the Hebrew prophets were a clarion call for social action in the United States and inspired by this belief, with Martin Luther King Jr. he worked for African Americans’ civil rights and spoke out against the Vietnam War.  To the two of them that is what prophecy is all about. Working to root out injustice, not trying to tell us what was going to happen in the future. That was the religious quest of both Brother West and Rabbi Heschel.

Rabbi Michael Lerner with whom West worked on a book, believes West is one of the most profound thinkers he’s ever encountered. “West has a prophetic consciousness,” he said, language no honest rabbi dispenses lightly.

Blessed Hesed

 

On Amanour & Co. Cornel West talked some more about the Hebrew concept of hesed.

He started by talking about the great American novelist Henry James who wrote a letter on January 12, 1901 to Robert Louis Stevenson in which he said, he wanted no theory that is too kind  us or that cheats us out of seeing. Every theory has a certain limitedness and narrowness, but the goal is to broaden what we see. We do not want to be short-sighted or myopic. West says the same applies to feeling more deeply.  Then we hopefully can avoid indifference.

West quoted the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who said, “Indifference to evil is more evil than evil itself.”  The Rabbi said it was more dangerous more universal, and more contagious than evil. Then, according to West, the next step is to act more courageously.  It certainly seems like those who are indifferent to suffering are in fact almost numberless. They have no interest in confronting issues of inequity, injustice, poverty, oppression, or the like. They just want to get to their TV shows, or their Facebook feed, or their mindless chatter. I don’t know if it is the most evil thing, but it is surely evil when people are indifferent to suffering.  According to West, If they don’t care about the suffering of others they are simply not fully human.

Even when black leaders are the best of who they are, there are limitations, he admitted. That’s why “democracy itself is the proximate solution to insoluble problems.” It’s the best we can do for now. As he added,

“You are never going to get away with the hatred and insecurity and the anxiety that go hand in hand with who we are as human beings, but you can have mechanisms of accountability vis-à-vis the most vulnerable. That’s democracy. That’s why voices from below can merge to try to shape the destiny of a nation.”

 

When West speaks of love, he means it in the biblical sense of the prophets. As Jeff Sharlet explained,   “Hesed,” he tells me one evening in Princeton, the Hebrew word for “lovingkindness.” “Steadfast commitment to the wellbeing of others, especially the least of these,” West says. That demands a lot of love, but West doesn’t stop there. “Justice is what love looks like in public.” For him, justice is not vengeance but fairness; the respect he believes should be accorded every soul. “And democracy,” he continues, “is what justice looks like in practice.”

I find it interesting how West takes an Old Testament concept and infuses it with modern politics.  He uses the idea to advocate for a  a society where there is justice—a vast, public, and steadfast lovingkindness—for all. That is where West’s religious quest brought him. It brought him to a good place.

 

Compassion for the Vulnerable

 

To Brother Cornel West the concept of Hesed is central. I had never heard of Hesed before I heard him talk about it. I guess that shows profound ignorance. In the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, if you like, when God appeared to Moses to give the Law a second time, he said that he was  “abounding in” or “filled with” Hesed, which is translated  as “love and faithfulness,” “unfailing love,” “faithful love,” “steadfast love,” and “loyal love,” depending on which version of the Bible that you read. The relevant passage is (Exodus 34:6–7). The idea is that of a love that is loyal within a group. West emphasizes, as did American Philosopher Walter Kaufman, the idea of compassion for the vulnerable that is so important in the Hebrew Bible. Once more, that is the essence of religion. I believe that it is the essence of the religious quest in the modern world.

Cornel West says that the greatest play on the American Empire is Eugene O’Neil’s The Iceman Cometh. The plays deals with the idea, what does it profit a nation to gain the whole world and lose its soul?

The western tradition is important, but it is also limited.  The western tradition had no room for indigenous people of Africa or the Americas.  I went through 7 years of university without paying any attention to any part of the indigenous culture other than the western culture. That is what I thought culture was all about. I, like so many others was completely western centric. The western tradition was all that mattered. I did not see vulnerable.

Now we know better. Even I know better. We need African culture and tradition. We need indigenous culture and tradition from the Americas, and from everywhere! Anything less is shabby. We need to learn from the oppressed. If we get all our ideas from the dominant culture we are badly served.

Walter Isaacson when he interviewed West on PBS’s Amanpour & Co asked West  how these others could be added to the western tradition? How do they become a part of it?  West’s answer was very interesting.  He said the way to be part of it is to challenge it. We must challenge the dominant culture to learn from those that were oppressed by it. That is the start.

That is something that modern conservatives don’t want to do. For example, they worry about critical race theory which is used to challenge white supremacy. They don’t like it when their dominant culture is challenged. They don’t want their children to be challenged. They don’t want their children to be disturbed. But that is what you must do to wake up and see more than your own privilege. The point is not to make white children feel guilty. That serves no purpose.  The point is to make them see.

Hesed means to be concerned about and have love for others. To do that you must first see them. If you don’t notice them you won’t care. So you can’t be scared to look and look without blinkers or rose coloured glasses.

 

The Black Tradition: There is a lot to be learned from the Oppressed

 

Brother Cornel West frequently reminds us that he comes out of the Black tradition from African to America. Sometimes West calls that the “chocolate side of life.”

Not that long ago, I also  a wonder interview of Cornel West by Walter Isaacson  on Amanpour and Co in April of 2021 on PBS television.  Brother West started talking about one of his heroes—Martin Luther King Jr. According to West, King had a deep conversation with the ancients and the classics. He could do that, West says, because he learned it from a people who had been despised for 400 years and yet still tried to teach the world so much about love. So did John Coltrane, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison among others. All of them came from a people who had been traumatized for 400 years, but still at their best decided to be wounded healers rather than wounded hurters. He came from a people that had been terrorized for 400 years all the way up to Brother Floyd in 2020. What did that people do? They called for freedom for everybody, West pointed out. They did not create a black version of the Ku Klux Klan. “If they opted to be like the Klan there would have been a civil war every generation. There would have been terrorist cells in every chocolate centre of every city.”

West believes

“these black leaders focused on the tradition of the virtues, that embraces all, that is predicated on the humanity of each and everyone of us, each human being made in the likeness of God, that gives us a value, a worth, a sanctity, a dignity. That has been the best of black leadership, and once that black leadership has been reduced to just a quest for dollars, and smartness, rather than justice, and deep commitment to love and compassion, then you lose the best of the black tradition.

West does not say all black leaders have demonstrated the best of that tradition.  But these, and others, have done that. West said the best of the black freedom tradition has been the” levelling of the democratic low”. In the 2020 presidential election in America it was the votes of blacks, particularly the votes of black sisters that handed the victory to Biden. A majority of whites voted for Donald Trump!  58% of white men and 53% of white women voted for Trump.  Whites should never forget that. Trump of course always bragged about being a winner and his worst insult to others was  that they were “losers”. West, like Jesus, always wanted to be on the side of the low—i.e. the so-called losers.

Trump tried to appeal to the black voters on the basis that the average income of blacks in American had never been better in comparison to whites than it was during his administration. While this might be true, according to West,  it was one of the few good things about his administration, and he could not persuade blacks to abandon the quest for justice merely for dollars. That is what I have called the religious quest for justice.  Were it not for the black voters, particularly the black women voters, America could have had Trump again and would been even closer to a neo-fascist America! As a black man, West was proud of that.

As West said,

“the best of black folk has always been about the broadening of not just rights and liberties but of the equality of our relations to one another. It’s also about the Hesed that great concept that comes from the genius of Hebrew scripture.  That loving kindness is to be spread to the orphan, and widow, and fatherless, and motherless, and to be spread to the weak and the vulnerable. And if you give up on that, it becomes simply might makes right. And if you give up on that it becomes simply survival of the slickest.  If you give up on that and push the 10 Commandments away and take the 11th Commandment, ‘Thou shalt not get caught, thou shall take over by any means, and make as much money, and status and spectacle as you can’, you lose your democracy you lose your soul.”

To save your soul, you must rally to the low, rather than the high and mighty. Is that not exactly what Jesus always did.  And the Hebrew Prophets. We should all ask ourselves, what side are we on?

Secular Prophecy

 

According to Brother Cornell West, “even atheists like Karl Marx can be a secular prophet”. Remember West identifies as a Christian. Marx was deeply secular, but in his concern for working people and in what West refers as  “his call for accountability of capital, and the bosses, and elites at the top including oligarchs and plutocrats there is a prophetic element to his critique.”  West denied that Mao, or Stalin, or even Lenin are prophets. They have become “gangsters” said West. They were not on the side of the oppressed. They are not prophets at all. They manipulated working people for their own advantage. They did not care about the poor.

The presence of gangsters who claim to be followers of Marx does not detract from the fact that Marx’s critique was an act of secular prophesy. When Marx said that capitalism would generate a system in which there would be more and more autocrats and plutocrats at the top who will not be accountable and will instead try to buy off politicians in such a way that working people become “secondary and tertiary” he was prophetic. That does not mean that Marx correctly predicted the future. It means that he was correct in his analysis of the present (at that time) workings of the capitalist system.  And the present is the the mother of the future. That is what pragmatic prophecy is all about. Like the Old Testament Prophets, West does not advocate trying to predict the future. That is false prophecy. The real Prophet tries to look closely and fearlessly at the present, analyze it, and tell us what he or she thinks is wrong with it. Often that entails telling the powerful what they don’t want to hear. That is a Prophet.

As a result, West accepts Marx as a secular prophet even though as a Christian he disagrees with him on the God question.  He does not agree with Marx that all forms of religion are opiates. Some certainly are. Not all. At the same time he rejects some of the forms of Communism that flowed from Marx’s work.

What is important is a basic empathy for humanity. That is a big part of pragmatic prophecy as West sees it.  We must, he suggests, must ask “how do we get out of our tribalism, our clannishness, our narrow groupism, let alone our egos, our narcissism, our hedonism and our rapacious individualism that renders us callous to the suffering of others?” That is the type of question the prophet asks, whether secular or religious.  I think that is a very important approach. I even think it could be an important part of a religious quest in the modern age which is what I am looking at.

That is a perennial problem that every generation must face. As West said at his talk at the University of Winnipeg, “We have to learn to support not just those who look like us, that have the same colour of our skin, that attend the same churches or mosques as us, and support the larger humanity.”

 

Taking up a notion I got from the American philosopher Peter Singer, what we must do, is expand our fellow feeling is how I would put it.  I think that is what Brother West was saying. And I think that is profound. Again, since my view is that fellow feeling or empathy is the fundamental core of religions—virtually all religions—that is the what it means to be engaged in a religious quest in the modern age. If you are not expanding the circle of compassion you have fallen off the trail and it’s time to get back.