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Cornel West Speaks on State of Democracy
December 01, 2011
The prominent democratic intellectual commented on the Occupy Wall Street movement and critiqued President Obama in address at GW.
Cornel West wants everyone to feel a little bit uneasy.
“I hope that I say something about democracy that unsettles you. That unnerves you,” Dr. West opened after a standing ovation from an energetic audience of about 2,000 at the George Washington University’s Charles E. Smith Center Thursday.
A prominent democratic intellectual, speaker, professor and author of 19 books including Race Matters, Dr. West’s keynote address capped the three-day “Democracy and Public Argument” conference sponsored by the GW University Writing Program and the Freemasons of Washington, D.C., Justice-Columbia Lodge No. 3.
In his attempt to unsettle and unnerve, Dr. West—introduced by GW President Steven Knapp as “one of the most renowned political intellectuals of our time”—said he takes the viewpoint of “those who are catching hell,” tackling issues like poverty, unemployment, corporate greed, money and politics, and the concentration of power and wealth.
Today, those very topics define the Occupy Wall Street movement, according to Dr. West, who has been a vocal and visible force at Occupy camps across the country. The movement is one driven by everyday people raising critical questions and striving for a needed “democratic awakening,” he added. When much of the power and money lies in the hands of very few, it’s dangerous, said Dr. West, and those living in poverty are forgotten. According to recent estimates, about 46 million Americans are living below the poverty level.
Dr. West also commented on the state of the presidency. He took jabs at President Barack Obama, whom he has criticized recently despite having initially supported his bid for president. While “charismatic” and “stylish,” Obama hasn’t done enough for the poor, and he’s head of a “spineless” Democratic Party, said Dr. West.
But the Republican presidential candidates aren’t much better—they’re “mediocre” and engaged in “reality-show-like activity,” said Dr. West. He wondered how the field of Republican candidates came to be: “For 30 years I’ve traveled around the country, and I see Americans with tremendous creativity, imagination, intelligence, then I look at the folks running for president and I say, ‘What happened?’” When asked later in a question-and-answer session whether he would support Obama’s reelection, Dr. West sidestepped, saying, “I don’t get behind politicians. I get behind principles.”
Above all, keeping democracy alive is crucial, said Dr. West. He encouraged people to “wrestle with what it means to be human,” urging them to be individuals—a “creation,” not an “echo”—who serve others, are sensitive and compassionate, and have the courage to be critical. To critically examine issues and question beliefs, said Dr. West, is to die only to be reborn and learn how to live.
The keynote address from Dr. West was the culmination of the three-day “Democracy and Public Argument” conference. Throughout last week, GW hosted panel discussions and lectures on topics from poetry as political discourse to the relationship between religion and democracy to the role of science, technology and democracy. Speakers came from the right, the left and everywhere in between on the political, religious and cultural spectrums, said Derek Malone-France, interim executive director of the University Writing Program and associate professor of writing and of religion at GW.
“Our goal has been to contribute in some small way to a broader conversation—an open and inclusive conversation—about the character of public debate in democratic society,” said Dr. Malone-France. “And to expose our audience to a full range of perspectives and opinions.”