Cornel West:
ordinary people

An interview by Tom Knapp,
March 1994

Cornel West is a fan of ordinary people.

Ordinary people can be black, white, brown, red or yellow, he said. They can be rich, poor or somewhere in between. Unfortunately, he said, they can also be xenophobic.

West, a professor of religion and director of the Afro-American studies department at Princeton University, spoke at Pennsylvania's Franklin & Marshall College after signing copies of his latest book, Race Matters. "I proceed from the notion that nothing human ought to be alien to us," he said. "We have been too preoccupied with certain slices of the human condition."

Every aspect of society has its crimes and contributions, he said. The tendency to judge a particular segment of society by a single set of criteria is unjust and narrow. For that reason, West opposes the black nationalistic movement which attempts to reclaim its pride by setting blacks in their own separate niche. "They are simply recycling the very thing they claim to be overcoming," he said. "It mirrors the very worst of what has been done to the black folk. ... Why get down into that gutter?"

West is an advocate on the "radical democratic tradition," which he said should allow ordinary people to participate in the highest levels of government and to "live lives of decency and dignity." Sadly, he said, "for most of human history, ordinary people are often look at as less than human." They are tarred with unflattering labels, he said, such as "mob, mass, herd, rabble, cabal."

What is usually overlooked, he said, is that common folk have the same depth and complexity in their lives as the rich and powerful. "One cannot hammer out a democracy without a deep respect for everyone's unusualness," West said.

A downward spiral of economic decline, social decay and political bewilderment are making matters worse, he said. While corporate executives are getting 225 percent salary increases, the common workers are getting laid off and losing benefits. People without jobs fall into despair and hopelessness. Misfortune leads to distrust, and scapegoats are blamed for bad situations.

"We are living in one of the most frightening and terrifying moments in this experiment called American democracy," West said. "If this experiment is to last ... we must deal with that poverty and paranoia, that despair and distrust." The rich and powerful owe the poor and despondent a hand, he said. "We are on the same boat on this turbulent sea, and there is a leak in it," he said. "We go up together or we go down together, no matter where you are on that boat. There is nowhere to run."

The "market culture" of modern America offers only quick, unsatisfying fixes to the problems, he said. "Down and out? Go to the mall and consume. Feel better about yourself. Take your credit card." The sense of community is vanishing, he said, and non-market values -- love, loyalty, commitment and trust -- are fading out.

The first step to healing, he said, is public conversation "mediated by civility and mutual respect." Another ingredient, he said, is hope. "Hope for me has nothing to do with optimism," he said. "I am not optimistic. There is not enough evidence out there to convince me that things are going to get better." Hope, however, allows him to make a leap of faith, an assumption that the evidence fails to support.

West's books include Prophetic Thought in Postmodern Times, Post-Analytic Philosophy and Breaking Bread.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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