By Ariana Siegel
Lately, with the Occupy movement on hiatus and conservative rhetoric shouting to be heard over the din of its own confusion, it’s been difficult to touch base with liberal politics. The Faculty Progressive Caucus’s series on “American Democracy in Crisis” has been a breath of fresh air, bringing liberal speakers to campus and us leftists back to our roots.
I had been anticipating Dr. Cornel West’s lecture since I heard about it last semester while sitting on the floor of Cabot, waiting to hear Noam Chomsky’s speech. Chomsky, the first to speak about the democratic crisis, came to Tufts in November during an Occupy movement high, but for all its appropriate timing, the lecture was a somewhat underwhelming experience. The MIT professor rehearsed arguments I might have better understood in his books, speaking softly about American hegemony with a perspective that might have resonated more with my parents.
As a senior, I see these lectures as more than just a breath of political fresh air. I look to them for insight into progressive life after Tufts. I have been hoping to hear someone tell me how to make use of my Peace and Justice Studies major and how to continue believing in change outside of Tufts. So it was disappointing to hear a progressive leader like Chomsky sound antiquated.
Cornel West, on the other hand, did not disappoint. At the end of his talk, I saw in the eyes of the audience that he is a liberal leader for today—wise with experience, filled with perspective on current politics. He has his head in the books, but his feet on the ground.
The lecture began with considerable fanfare—a student introducing a professor, who introduced a dean, who introduced Dr. West. Each heralded the occasion as an opportunity to delve into our interest in diversity on this campus. Each was white.
Diversity is always an interesting and seldom tension-free subject among white liberals. Despite students, faculty, and administrators’ oft-professed desire to live in a diverse world, Tufts’ white liberals frequently seem to me to be uncomfortable listening to people of color speak about their perspective on diversity at Tufts. So as those introducing West heralded his ability to “speak truth to power,” I wondered how they felt about him speaking truth to the Tufts power structure.
To me, the way West responded to this situation demonstrated why he is indeed a liberal leader for today. He did not shy away from his calling. In his opening remarks, he said, “I hope I say something that unsettles you, unnerves you, un-houses you.”
Much of what West said was unnerving to the traditional American sensibility, yet he always spoke with grace and humility. He voiced difficult truths about America’s history of racist, classist, and discriminatory behavior without dividing the audience into perpetrators and victims. His words were meant to empower, and they were meant to empower everybody. (This was the beauty of the rhetoric in the first Obama campaign.)
With a healthy dose of the showmanship and flare that characterized the messianic leadership of the civil rights movement, West discussed the fate of American democracy. “To talk about democracy,” he said, “is to raise the most terrifying question: what does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be the human that you are?”
As an antidote to the ills plaguing the system, West preached courage. Courage to examine the self, even the dark corners that frighten us. Courage to reject the consumerist race to the top, the system of “survival of the slickest.” Courage to love your own people, even if they behave in a manner that is hateful or hated, but also courage to expand your horizons and venture outside your community. And especially courage to allow old ideas to die, so that democracy can be reborn. “I like to remind people, when they talk about the US Constitution like it’s holy, [like] it’s scripture,” he said, “that it was a pro-slavery document for over 70 years!”
What was it about Dr. West’s sometimes clichéd liberal rhetoric that seduced me where Professor Chomsky’s did not, where President Obama’s now seldom does? The word “courage,” like “democracy” or “freedom,” can sound hollow in so many mouths; but in West’s, it felt real.
Why? Because West practiced what he preached, right on stage. Rather than buzzing with platitudes or succumbing to the urge to enumerate the ways the world has wronged him, he painted a realistic yet hopeful picture of current politics and the place that people of all colors and creeds can have in it. He professed his love for his own people and demonstrated intimate knowledge of others (he once quoted the scriptures on Jewish prophets). He even had the gumption to condemn “successful people who are too well-adjusted to injustice, too well-adapted to indifference,” knowing that many of those people likely sat before him. During the question-answer period he even did something I’ve almost never seen a speaker in Cohen auditorium (or anywhere else) do: he acknowledged it when he didn’t know an answer. That is true courage.
Even as Obama ratchets up his own rhetoric to match that of the conservative circus, the diminished excitement in his second campaign compared to his first is tangible. Leftists of our generation may find their hope faltering, and while Tufts can be an incubator for liberalism, I worry that in the outside world, my idealism will be hard to maintain.
That is why powerful, experienced, and widely appealing leaders like Cornel West remain so crucial. Watching this liberal lion still bursting with energy and zest for change at nearly 60 years of age, I saw a leader I could get behind. And I saw the possibility that my liberal, Peaceful-and-Just Tufts education might carry over into a progressive future—that is, if I have the courage to work for it.