Intellectual Vocation & Political Struggle in the Trump Moment

-Cornel West

I have no monopoly on the truth you can see and I have no monopoly on beauty either, but I am involved in a quest for truth and goodness and justice and as a Christian based on that rich prophetic legacy of Jerusalem, love of the holy. So I want to begin on a very personal note, a very existential note before we get into talking about vocation and struggle, my dear brother Donald Trump in the White House, and he is my brother, he is made in the image of God just like just like all of us. He has just chosen to act like a gangster sometimes and that’s alright, I was a gangster before I met Jesus and I’m a redeemed sinner with gangster proclivities so I could say I understand gangsters!

Love warriors are different from polished professionals. O, young brothers and sisters of all colours here at Dartmouth! Always remember the difference between what it means to really fall in love, the quest for truth and goodness and beauty as opposed to falling in love with commodities, possessions and status; and we all fall short. Samuel Beckett says, “Try again and fall; fail again and fail better.” But in the moment in which we find ourselves today, we need a focus on those particular traditions – secular and religious – that highlight a quest for integrity, honesty, decency, fortitude, courage, and magnanimity. That’s why I want to begin with my epigraph which I haven’t got to yet. My epigraph comes from probably the greatest Democratic and public intellectual in the history of the American Empire in the 20th century. He has got some candidates. John Dewey was a league of his own in many ways; Edmund Wilson and Susan Sontag, Muriel Rukeyser, Lionel Trilling, Reinhold Niebuhr were some candidates. But I still go with W.E.B. Du Bois.

First question De Bois says is, “how shall integrity face oppression?” Now De Bois already acknowledges that he himself comes from a tradition of black people who have been terrorized for 400 years, traumatized for 400 years, hated for 400 years and yet have taught the world so much about how to love. I just celebrated the 100th anniversary of Ella Fitzgerald, joy and love in every note. John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, I could just turn it on and sit down. It’s true. It’s beyond language. Has there ever been a character on the American stage who was more loved than Mama in a Raisin in the Sun, written by a genius from Chicago named Lorraine Hansberry? Transgenerational love flowing through her with unbelievable dignity and we should note, those who are graduating here at Dartmouth very soon as I salute you, congratulations, but momma didn’t go to college, but a college went through her. So what do you mean, brother West? She said, “Nobody has a right to graduate from college if they haven’t learned how to die in order to learn how to live.” And that’s what mama did. She learned how to die by critically examining her assumptions and presuppositions and when you let go of some of those assumptions and presuppositions go when you let go of certain prejudices and prejudgments go, that’s a form of death. There’s no growth, there’s no maturation. There’s no development.

Now as a Christian of course for me, no rebirth without death, that wonderful eulogy that Dorothy Day wrote for Martin Luther King Jr. on April 5th, 1968. Martin Luther King Jr. learned how to die daily. What a gift! Kenosis: emptying himself by critically examining who he was so that he could grow and ascend. Now, of course, Stanley Cavell and others called it ‘Emersonian perfectionism’. The ascension of the self, the reliance on the self, in order to be what? In the world but not of the world, a nonconformist against the world as you never attain the ultimate self that you would like, but you’re forever in the process. That’s called the Emersonian New England-like version of Protestant Christianity.

The market model has become so hegemonic that it is normalized and naturalized and De Bois says, “Be Socratic. Contest it, interrogate it, examine it, historicize it, and contextualize it. It doesn’t have to be that way.” And one of the reasons why we ended up with the xenophobic, mendacious and mediocrity as a kind of quasi-complement to Brother Trump is because America does have a long tradition of white male mediocrity in high places. There’s absolutely no doubt about that. Family connections, cronyism, and nepotism but Trump makes that look bad and that’s just at the level of knowledge and competence.

[Dr. Cornel West delivered this lecture at Dartmouth College on April 27, 2017. Click here to watch.]

Read the full text of the lecture here.

Cite as: Cornel West, Intellectual Vocation and Political Struggle in the Trump Moment, 1 Jour. of Pol. Th. & Philo. 127-140(2017).


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