Monday, January 16, 2012

Taking on Cornel West's mistaken views about young people (updated)

This week Tavis Smiley hosted a forum titled Reawakening America: From Poverty to Prosperity.

Much of what came from Smiley and guests like Cornel West and Michael Moore was the same kind of thing we hear from them all the time. Bob Cesca did a great job of taking on the stupid that was uttered that night by Moore.

But right at the end, West said some things that have weighed heavily on my mind and heart ever since I heard it. I haven't been able to find a transcript, so what I'm about to quote comes from my own clumsy transcription from this video of the 2 1/2 hour event. I'll start at about 2:11:45.

But I'll say this about young folk in a critical way. I do not know of a wave of young people who are commensurate to the grandmothers and grandfathers and those ancestors that shaped me in terms of who I am. I just don't. And the reason is because young people have been so penetrated with the capitalist culture and the cultural superficial spectacle of instant gratification and overnight success and pushed button gettin over...So when we talk about the young people who are to make this fundamental social change, if you're not talking about courage and integrity and willingness to serve and sacrifice, then you're going to get bought out. You're gonna sell out quick. You're not gonna be a long distance runner. You're gonna be so obsessed with instant success and superficial status that you're gonna make your grandmama weep from the grave. Cause she wanted you to have earned greatness, not quick success. She wanted you measured by the love in your heart and the service that you rendered, not what your position is and how big your crib is. That's a very different sensibility. And that's a tradition we gotta keep. We gotta fight for that. We gotta keep it alive.

As I watched him say this, faces flashed across my mind...dozens of young people who's grandmama's heart would burst with pride in who they are, the sacrifices they've made and the service they've rendered.

You see, I work with young people like that every day. Many of them have battled through the most amazing odds to complete their educations, get degrees (a couple even went on to get their law degrees and license). And yet they have a commitment to helping the next generation be able navigate the difficult waters they passed through. And so they work for nothing in terms of money and prestige...every gawd-damned day. Not only that, they continue their service on their own time - doing everything from coaching kids in basketball leagues to serving on the executive board of our local NAACP. They live and breath service and sacrifice - away from the spotlight that shines on people like Cornel West.

And so it infuriates me to hear him talk like this. I happen to know that what I see every day is going on all over this country. These young people may not be marching in Mr. West's parade of outrage at the system...they're in there doing the dirty work of getting the job done. I've talked to them. They don't have time for Mr. West's pontificating and ego-driven tirades. They're too busy noticing that people are both literally and symbolically hungry. Their satisfaction comes - not in shaking their fist at why that is happening - but in making the bread to actually assuage the hunger.

Sometime in your life, hope that you might see one starved man, the look on his face when the bread finally arrives. Hope that you might have baked it or bought or even kneaded it yourself. For that look on his face, for the meeting of your eyes across a piece of bread, you might be willing to loose a lot, or suffer a lot, or die a little, even.

- Daniel Berrigan

Update: I want to include the words of some other wise people who have done a better job than I have in making these points.

First of all, back in October 2008, Newark Mayor Cory Booker (video) was interviewed by Bill Moyers. Booker is one of those young people who inspires me about the next generation. He doesn't have time for the fist-shaking. Its time to get to work!

But, I'm already getting fatigued with the conversation, and feeling that there's a dearth of action. That it may be in vogue right now because of this presidential election to talk about race, to study and to flip it over. But at the end of the day, is it gonna motivate action? We had the courage to deplore the reality in which we live, but will we show the equal courage to do something about it? Not wait. Not point a finger. Not sit and have debates about a divided America. But, to get into the trenches, to roll up your sleeves, to do the hard, difficult work it takes to manifest the greatness of this nation.

And no one has captured more eloquently than Rev. Gordon Stewart the importance of one generation stepping aside to let the next find their way forward. Here is his commentary on the inauguration of President Obama.

They are strange tears, like none other I have ever felt. It confuses me. I wonder what they're about. It feels like joy. A joy I have not felt for a long time. Joy... and hope... that something really new is happening. Joy that all the struggles and all the marches that wore holes in my generation's shoes on behalf of civil rights and peace have brought us to this indescribably holy moment that transcends the old divisions.

For sure, the tears that rise up in me are tears of joy. But they're also about something else. They feel like the convulsing sobs of a prisoner released from prison. They come from a hidden well of poison -- the well of deep grief stuffed away over all the years because of all the marches, all the beatings, all the blood, the well of buried anger -- the silent tears of grief over the America we had almost lost.

Then I realize: Only the appearance of joy and hope can release such deep grief. It was the joy on Yo-Yo Ma's face that finally released the poison locked inside my soul. It is the joy and hope of a new generation that's able to take us where my generation cannot -- free of the taint of sore feet and scars and old grudges the new President says we must move past.

Unlike Mr. West, Rev. Stewart was able to release the poison of the past and recognize that his generation needs to get out of the way and let young people carry the torch their own way.


  1. I'm so glad your life is filled with such wonderful young people. Mine is too, and it fills me with joy and hope like nothing else.


    1. Yes, we are fortunate, aren't we?

      We often talk about how they will forge their own way forward. There is certainly respect for those who came before. But they know that their time and circumstance calls for their own kind of passion and creativity - not simply a clinging to the ways of the past.

  2. Here's what I think of the motivations of Michael Moore

  3. It really is all about them. If Mr. West hasn't personally experienced it then it hasn't happened. And what he has personally experienced *is* the definition of what is really happening out there.

    Perhaps he needs to broaden his horizons a little. Get away from the crowd that already agrees with him and just *listen* to what others might have to say who *don't* automatically agree with him.

  4. Where I come from things are as West describes them. His comments weren't aimed at kids who are on the right track, and this defense of them is gratuitous. A misrepresentation taken as an opening to attack West and company (no matter what they say).

    1. I'm genuinely curious - what has West done to help direct these kids he's concerned about? I confess I have no knowledge of 'the love in [his] heart and the service that [he has] rendered', but I have heard about his constant criticism of a president whose love and service I HAVE seen. You state you have seen the kids West describes - have you also seen what he has contributed to empower or redirect them, other than criticize? I really would welcome an update on who West is...really.

  5. I took great offense at what Mr. West said about young people today. There is nothing gratuitous in what I've written here. My reaction stems from the reality I see every day and read about extensively.

    You are, of course, free to disagree. But to characterize it as you have is where the actual "attack" takes place.

    So I'd invite you to converse about what you see or take it elsewhere.

    1. The above is a response to flawedplan.

  6. What has West sacrificed lately as a tenured professor, exactly? I remember his snit-fit about not getting primo tix for the inaugural and suspect that he's still nursing that grudge.

  7. That's pretty funny, coming from Professor West. After all, did he not speak at several Occupy sites--sites which had a lot of young people present? Honestly, Moore, West, and Tavis have laid a lot of praise on these movements.

    Sometimes, I get upset at the young, but then, I read about students doing things to help their neighborhoods, their schools....students who strive to work in public service, to do things that will help make life a little easier.

    "But, to get into the trenches, to roll up your sleeves, to do the hard, difficult work it takes to manifest the greatness of this nation." Mayor Booker is right about this. And right now, I see one man doing that, and he's in the White House.

  8. ebogan63 here.

    Smartypants speaks for me in regards to Prof. West and his mischaracterization of today's youth. Mr West hasn't been with me registering people to vote, many whom are folks younger than I. I also take personal offense at his constant reference to 'grandmothers weeping' b.s. Most grandmothers like my two late ones gave nothing but unconditional love for their grandkids. To opine that every young folk should be involved in some sort of 'movement' of West's choosing is completely idiotic