Renowned scholar, professor and philosopher Dr. Cornel West is not known for his tact. He stayed true to form when talking about the “spiritual decay” of America in a recent interview.
“When you think of the secular these days, you think of careerism, opportunism, hedonism, egoism, individualism—and the ways in which science seems to be driven by corporate greed, seems to be moving toward the explosion of the planet or the collapse of the environment,” West said to writer Vinson Cunningham for an interview in The New Yorker. “So that the secular has a very different resonance now than it did in ’77.
“It’s almost as if everybody recognizes the spiritual decay and the moral decrepitude of the culture,” West continued. “And then the question becomes, ‘Well, what blame do we give to religious institutions for accommodating to the empire, accommodating to capitalism, accommodating to white supremacy, homophobia, transphobia, accommodating to anti-Jewish, anti-Arab, anti-Muslim, or anti-Palestinian orientation?’”
West made the comments in answer to Cunningham’s questions about whether his second stint at Union Theological Seminary felt different than teaching at Harvard University, a secular school; as well as whether the students he teaches at Union feel “embattled” because they are “entering a world that might be less receptive to the fruits of their training.”
The brilliant academic, who has written and spoken widely about race, religion, politics and justice, among other topics also said, “the category of the secular is viewed with great suspicion these days.”
After being asked why he decided to teach on the popular online platform MasterClass, Cornel West said his approach to philosophy deals just as much with lay people as it does scholars. He described himself as being more in line with scholars like W.E.B Du Bois and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
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“Now, Emerson, William James, Muriel Rukeyser, W. E. B. Du Bois, John Dewey—they were philosophers in that less professionalized way, whereas most philosophers in the university are just so specialized and professionalized that they talk in fascinating jargon with each other. And we can still learn some things from them, but it doesn’t spill over into public life,” Cornel West said. “So my own tradition is one that’s much more tied to Augustine and Freud and Du Bois and Dewey and Emerson and Muriel Rukeyser and those lovers of wisdom, as opposed to those highly professionalized folk.”
West said America’s hypocrisy about the Russian invasion of Ukraine is an example of the country’s spiritual decay.
“You’re not dealing with deportation. You’re still locked into a very knee-jerk defense of NATO so that the militarism still goes on—everybody knows if Russia had troops in Mexico or Canada there would be invasions tomorrow,” West explained. “He sends the Secretary of State, telling Russia, ‘You have no right to have a sphere of influence,’ after the Monroe Doctrine, after the overthrowing of democratic regimes in Latin America for the last 100-and-some years. Come on, America, do you think people are stupid? What kind of hypocrisy can anybody stand?
“That doesn’t mean that Putin is not still a gangster—of course he is,” West added. “But so were the folk promoting the Monroe Doctrine that had the U.S. sphere of influence for decade after decade after decade after decade, and anybody critical of you, you would demonize. Yet here are you, right at the door of Russia, and can’t see yourself in the mirror. That’s spiritual decay right there, brother, it really is.”
However, as is characteristic, West encouraged people to have hope and walk in integrity, despite the likelihood of consequences.
“That don’t mean you stop organizing and mobilizing and loving your children and loving other people,” West told Cunningham. “And being in solidarity with Palestinians and landless peasants and folk in Kashmir. And folk in China, dealing with the Chinese repression or dealing with the too-often-corrupt African leaders in the name of Blackness. You preserve your moral integrity and tell the truth. And then the worms get you. Because they going to get you one way or the other anyway. Might as well go with some integrity and with style. Right?”
PHOTO: Dr. Cornel West at a Bernie Sanders Rally in Davenport, Iowa, 1/29/16, by Dennis Van Tine/STAR MAX/IPx