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Vol. LXII, No. 44
Wednesday, October 29, 2008
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“Democratic Awakening” Needed: Cornel West Speaks About Politics

Dilshanie Perera

“The political ice age is beginning to melt,” observed scholar and Princeton University professor Cornel West during his talk at the Witherspoon Presbyterian Church last week. He characterizes the “political ice age” as “the highest level of political indifference,” or “to be well-adjusted to injustice.”

“Indifference to evil is more invidious than evil itself,” Mr. West intoned while cautioning, “Indifference is the essence of inhumanity.”

Present-day politics has seen “greed run amok,” according to Mr. West, who noted that we are feeling its effects in the “catastrophe of our financial markets” due to “obscene wealth extraction” and a greed borne out of a “culture of indifference.”

“For the last 40 years, the politics of fear has been predicated on the southern strategy, but that southern strategy is coming to an end,” Mr. West acknowledged, saying “this is a historic moment.”

“What we need before and after the election is a democratic awakening,” Mr. West said. “The question becomes,” he added, “what are we going to do?” He offered “becoming Socratic” by way of an answer, since, pace Plato, “the unexamined life is not worth living,” and in doing so he challenged the audience to confront “the most terrifying question: what does it mean to be human?”

“It’s not just a question of your vote, it’s a question of your voice,” asserted Mr. West, asking, “What kind of human being will you choose to be?”

Urging the people assembled to look into history in order to inform their views of the present, Mr. West said that “the black freedom struggle is so crucial to the development of democracy.” Even 400 years ago, the “question of the slave was: how do I preserve my humanity, my dignity?”

Speaking of the “history of American terrorism,” Mr. West cited the brutal practices of the Jim Crow South as an example, firmly declaring, “That’s not ‘segregation;’ that’s terrorism.”

It is an instance of “taking a people who have been citizens, and transforming them into subjects” and according to Mr. West, it “has to do with life and death — not just physical, but psychic and spiritual.”

The wounds are deeply historical, but for the political and social process to work, “in a democracy, you have to muster the courage to never forget, but also the courage to forgive,” Mr. West asserted.

“The best of the blues people have been able to unflinchingly confront catastrophe and endure it with grace and dignity,” Mr. West said, quoting Emmett Till’s mother, “I don’t have a minute to hate; I’ll pursue justice for the rest of my life.”

A professed supporter of Senator Barack Obama, Mr. West joked that “if brother Barack wins, I’m going to breakdance that night,” adding in a more serious tone, “but the next morning, I’ll be a major critic.” Mr. West has criticized Mr. Obama for not discussing race earlier in his campaign, and noted the absence of Martin Luther King, Jr. from Mr. Obama’s addresses until the Democratic National Convention in August.

“It’s never just a question of phenotype; black folk have been voting for progressive white brothers and sisters for decades,” Mr. West said, asking, “What makes [the situation] post-racial” now that the reverse is true?

“You can stay in contact with his humanity without having his color disappear,” noted Mr. West, regarding Sen. Obama.

While the American past may have an “ambiguous legacy, with both democratic possibilities and barbaric possibilities,” Mr. West proclaimed that “history does not change with one election.”

Nonetheless, “the difference between leadership and great leadership is the same as the difference between a thermometer and a thermostat,” Mr. West announced: “A thermometer just reflects what’s out there, but a thermostat shapes the climate.”

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