11 Aug 2018

Cornel West - Confronting a polarised world

From Saturday Morning, 9:10 am on 11 August 2018

Leading US left-wing intellectual Cornel West is headed to New Zealand to take on right-wing thinker Douglas Murray in an informed discussion the like of which, he says, has practically disappeared from America. 

Professor of the practice of public philosophy at Harvard University and Emeritus professor at Princeton University, Dr West has written 20 books and has edited 13.

Dr Cornel West

Dr Cornel West Photo: AFP / FILE

Best known for his classics: Race Matters and Democracy Matters, and his memoir Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud, he's coming to for the Polarised debate on 17 August.

He says it is the kind of informed, evidence-based discussion he says has practically disappeared from American public life, and despite Donald Trump dragging public discourse into a new realm of crudity he says polarisation is not new.

“Public discourse has been in decline and decay for a good while,” Dr West says.

“The important thing to keep in mind is there’s never been a golden age. It was highly polarised under Obama, it was high polarised under Bush, highly polarised under Clinton but of course you had protocol then - some kind of relative decorum.”

Trump, he says, has a “gangster mentality”.

“It generates these very deep cleavages and conflicts.

“The important thing to keep in mind is Trump is as American as cherry pie, same way Martin Luther King Jnr is as American as cherry pie - the real struggle is whose America will actually triumph.”

The progressive movement shows signs of life just as the far right are emboldened by President’s Trump’s strident rhetoric, he says.

“Ironically you’re actually seeing the best of America in the response and resistance to Trump, just as you’re seeing the worst - in Trump and his cohorts and followers.”

However, the traditional political left wing - the Democratic Party - are failing to respond to the rise of the nationalist right in the US, he says. 

“We’ve got a Democratic party that’s in such disarray right now. It lacks energy, it lacks vision, you’ve got a Republican Party that have been eclipsed by Trump. A number of Republicans who are anti-Trump have been pushed to the margins and he has galvanised an authoritarian populist base, if not a downright neo-Fascist base.”

Dr West describes himself a non-Marxist socialist and he is co-chair of the Democratic Socialists of America.

“We either come up with a strong progressive response that goes beyond centrism and moderation or we have to end up continually fighting this escalating right-wing movement.”

He says the rise of Trump and the right in America has been fuelled by discontent resulting from neo-liberalism. Dr West was highly critical of Barack Obama’s presidency.

“Obama was the brilliant, poised, neo-liberal face of the American empire that was very much tied to multi-lateral alliances.

“He’s not a xenophobe, he’s not the America First kind of nationalist but at the same time the war still went on - five wars going on simultaneously, drone strikes were still at work, Wall Street was still at the driver’s seat, poverty was still escalating, wealth inequality was going up - 1 percent still got 95% of the income growth.”

What followed, he says, was a right-wing nationalist counter-revolution.

“People who are suffering wage stagnation and high levels of unemployment, they are looking for some other alternative.”

Dr West has been vocal in his disdain for Hillary Clinton, calling her a neo-liberal disaster. He says her lacklustre campaign did little to mobilise the black vote.

“Hillary Clinton just lacked vigour, lacked vitality, her message was simply ‘Nobody would vote for Trump, he is decrepit’ and she’s right about him being decrepit, but she didn’t have any major substance and she represented the repetition of the same neoliberal policy that had devastated so many of the working peoples and lower-middle-class people under Obama.

“The black folk were deeply disappointed with Obama many of them held back.”

He says his upcoming debate with Douglas Murray is part of a fight for spaces where rational exchange can take place.

Murray is a conservative British author, journalist and political commentator whose most recent book is The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam .

He laments the decline of informed political engagement.

“Many people in the US are uninterested in argument, uninterested in evidence. It’s just a matter of bland assertion, it’s just a matter of what Nietzsche would call 'will to power'.”

 Cornel West

Cornel West Photo: supplied

Free speech nonetheless comes with limits, he says.

“Campus is not a place for free speech unlimited. You have to have a certain quality of mind, you have to have certain arguments; you have to have a certain critical intelligence that’s working. You don’t just snatch folk off the corner and bring them in to make a major speech at a university. “

That’s not to say there shouldn’t be a plurality of voices.

“There are highly intelligent and rational right-wing or conservative thinkers who can present arguments. Then you’ve you got people like Milo [Yiannopoulos] it’s just hate speech he has a right to be on the corner and shout and say what he wants to say.”

Dr West says he has some hope, albeit threadbare, an “undefeated despair”. 

“We’re in uncharted territory right now. We just don’t know. I’m a person of hope so I just go down swinging but it looks bleak, there’s no doubt about that, it looks very bleak.

“We live in an ecological crisis so overwhelming we might not even have a planet in 50 years.”

Dr West will debate right-wing thinker Douglas Murray in a mediated discussion called Polarised on 17 August in Auckland.