February 07, 2020

Cornel West and Robert George

Dr. Cornel West and Dr. Robert George, the “ideological odd couple,” discuss the importance of civil discourse in this era of polarization. Leftist West and conservative George are friends who teach together and travel the country to demonstrate their commitment to free speech. They explore their opposing views on several policy areas, respectfully disagreeing as well as finding common ground.

Read Full Transcript EXPAND

They often disagree but say that’s a blessing. This Week on Firing Line. 

SOT panel discussion

George: And I don’t like that big government up here

West: No I don’t want big government, I just want to make sure we don’t have poverty…

 They’ve been described as the ideological odd couple

NAT, news reporter: “Cornel West being led away, under arrest”

 Dr. Cornel West, a radical philosopher, socialist, and political activist, and Dr. Robert George, a socially conservative Christian thinker. But they are friends, teach together and even travel the country to make that point that opposites don’t have to be enemies.

 West: The important thing of course is that I love this brother, and love is not reducible to politics 

 With so many fault lines in the country deepening, what do Cornel West and Robert George say now?

 ‘Firing Line’ with Margaret Hoover is made possible by the Margaret and Daniel Loeb Foundation. Robert Graneiri through the Vanguard Donor Advised Fund. David Tepper, Charitable Foundation. Additional funding is provided by. Corporate funding is provided by Stephens Inc.

HOOVER: Welcome back to Firing Line Dr. Cornel West and Dr. Robert George. I am honored because you are both celebrated scholars and public intellectuals who come from remarkably different worldviews and profess different perspectives. Dr. West, you are a professed non Marxist socialist. And Dr. George, you are a leader in the Theo conservative movement.

GEORGE: Not sure I’d say that, but at least I’m not a Marxist. I’m like Cornel in that perspective.  

WEST: And we’re both Christians. We’re both Christians. 

HOOVER: You’re both Christians. And you, you respect each other enough to disagree and to engage in serious and rigorous contest of ideas in a civil and respectful way. You teach a course at Princeton University and you also have in common that you were both guests on the original Firing Line with William F. Buckley Jr.

GEORGE: It’s a very great honor. Very great honor. 

HOOVER: We are beginning the presidential 2020 contest finally. We are off to New Hampshire and Dr. West, your candidate, Bernie Sanders, has emerged from Iowa, with a very strong hand. How do you reflect on this shift? 

WEST: I always look for a candidate who exemplifies integrity, honesty, decency, constancy, as Jane Austen would put it, a moral consistency. And Brother Bernie’s been that. 

HOOVER: And Dr. George, I know you don’t politically agree with Bernie Sanders, but I’ve noticed in your Twitter feed you’ve had some positive things to say about him. I want to read you one. You said, “I half envy progressives that they have a candidate who genuinely believes in certain things, things that they themselves believe in and then tells the truth about his beliefs. If I shared those beliefs, I’d be all for Bernie Sanders.” Isn’t that tweet an implicit criticism of the Republican candidates?

GEORGE: Oh, not only of the Republican candidate, but of the other Democratic candidates as well. I do half-envy my progressive friends, including brother Cornel. I know where Senator Sanders stands. I know why he stands there. Whether I agree or disagree, usually I disagree. I can respect his honesty and his integrity.

HOOVER: There’s a clear affection between the two of you. Which I — 

GEORGE: He’s so loveable. [LAUGHTER]

WEST: It’s true. In fact, I think it’s, it’s deeper than civility and it’s even deeper than respect. I think we’ve got a genuine love for one another. I love this brother, I revel in his humanity. We’ve spent good time together. And so we just always want to send a sign to the nation that deep down in your heart, you know, love is not reducible to politics.

GEORGE: Well, I not only love Brother Cornel, I admire him and I admire him for those virtues, for honesty and for integrity. He sets an example for me. He’s inspiring to me. We may disagree about politics, but I do admire integrity — person who says what he means means what he says, who does not succumb to peer group pressure. Cornel has been under pressure from the progressive side sometimes to do things or say things that he actually doesn’t agree with and he refuses to yield. I try to do that on my end and I look to him as a model for that.

HOOVER: And so the viewers know you both do that in 2016 where you refused to support Hillary Clinton, even there was enormous pressure from you on the Democratic side to support Hillary Clinton and for you as well, Dr. George, to support President Trump and to vote for him and to throw your weight behind him. So both of you have really walked that walk. Dr. George, you’ve said of Dr. West, ‘Cornel is someone I have been learning from since the moment we met. Even if I thought he was getting the answer wrong, I noticed he was always asking exactly the right question.’ Can you give me an example of something he gets wrong when he’s asking the right question? 

GEORGE: This sort of thing: asking about, say, an economic system. Not, or not exclusively, does it work to elevate overall prosperity, but is it just. Does it honor the principles that we ought to honor, given that human beings have a profound inherent and equal dignity? Now we reach different conclusions about that. Cornel leans in the direction of a more socialistic sort of system. I’m more in the direction of the free market sort of system. 

WEST: There’s overlap. See, both of us want to preserve the private sector. We want to protect rights and liberties. Both of us acknowledge that it’s got to be some public regulation of markets.

GEORGE: Yeah.

WEST: There’s got to be fair regulation of markets. It’s gonna be a matter of degree, is going to be a matter of gradation. And so in that sense, it gets deeper than just the ‘ism’.

HOOVER: Dr. George, you have said that the examined life is constantly being unsettled. So where has Dr. West unsettled you?

GEORGE: I’ll tell you where. On issues of race, my inclination prior to our deep engagement on these racial issues was to suppose that the fundamental problem is that people are race conscious. They think of themselves as white or black when race is really something ephemeral, something that, strictly speaking, doesn’t even exist. It’s a kind of artifact of culture. Wouldn’t it be better if we just were colorblind completely, and all of our dealings. What Cornel has driven home with me is, yes, there’s a sense in which we should relegate racial categories to the ash heap of history. And yet we have to deal with the facts of history, which include the emergence of cultures based on quote, race, unquote.

HOOVER: There’s a policy prescription that encompasses many of the problems that you’ve just outlined, and that’s affirmative action. Have you thought about the policy prescriptions? 

GEORGE: I have. And my judgment of it is we certainly don’t want to lower standards. So we’ve got one set of standards for African-American or Latino students and another set of standards for those who don’t fall into those categories. We don’t want to do that. I don’t think we want to give preferences based on race. That sounds too much to me, like the disease as cure. But it does mean that we need to make an effort to make sure – a serious effort – to make sure that minority students feel they are welcome at Princeton University. There’s a place for them at Harvard University or Ohio State or anywhere else.

HOOVER: Dr. West, were you trying to change his opinion or just help him arrive closer to the truth as you see it?

WEST: You know, my dear sister, I come from a tradition of lifting every voice. I don’t want anybody to be an echo. I want people to find their own voice, just like a jazz woman or blues man. And my brother’s got his own voice. So I want him to find his voice and he’ll land where he lands. But it’s that human connection that’s crucial. And when it comes to affirmative action, the question becomes we want to make sure our students connect at a human level, but we want to make sure it’s fair. The conditions under which they enter a college is fair. And it’s just.

HOOVER: Let me ask you about another policy, health care. You’ve been on the record that like in supporting Bernie Sanders, you also support some version of Medicare for all. Single payer health care system and that healthcare is a human right.

WEST: Absolutely. Brother Bernie is absolutely right about that. 

HOOVER: Why is healthcare a human right?

WEST: Because I think that human beings are so precious and priceless that they ought to have access to the highest quality of health care in their short move from momma’s womb to tomb. And that is something that so many other nations already have been able to institutionalize. The United States is very far behind in this regard.

HOOVER: Dr. George, I know you’ve been on the record saying you don’t believe that healthcare is a fundamental human right.

GEORGE: Well, not if by fundamental human right we mean an obligation that the government provided, no. There is a looser sense in which I’m perfectly happy to speak in the language of rights when it comes to health care. That means I think human beings have profound inherent and equal dignity. And we should work for a system that may have some public elements, but may also have private elements that will make healthcare affordable to as many people as possible. I think there should be a safety net, if necessary provided by the government. And in a modern complex societies like our, society like ours, it probably is necessary that the, that the safety net provided by the government. But on the whole, I would much rather rely on the market. I don’t like government running things unless it’s absolutely necessary; no one else can run it.

WEST: And you see now the overlap here because at the moral level, we’re very similar.

HOOVER: What you’re both saying is, there’s an obligation of civil society to provide. 

WEST: Dignity, sanctity of person. Somehow that society ought to provide to the best of its ability because morally and spiritually, human beings have something precious that needs to be attended to, that results in how they behave.

HOOVER: And your difference is how it’s provided.

WEST: But then at the level of policy, then you say, oh, well, let’s see which way is the best way of going about doing this kind of thing. And it’s that kind of discussion that we need more of in the country. 

GEORGE: And reasonable people of good will can disagree about what is best.

HOOVER: Well, a subject that you do agree about is what you just mentioned, free speech. And free speech on college campuses. You, in fact, authored a statement of principle in March of-

WEST: Absolutely.

HOOVER: -2017 after a violent incident at Middlebury College when Charles Murray, a professor and a thinker, went to give a lecture at Middlebury College and one of his colleagues – a professor at Middlebury College – was violently assaulted. Your statement of principle read: ‘Of course, the right to peacefully protest, including on campuses, is sacrosanct. But before exercising that right, each of us should ask, Might it not be better to listen respectfully and try to learn from the speaker with whom I disagree? Might it be better to serve the cause of truth-seeking to engage the speaker in frank and civil discussion?’ Has it become even more difficult in recent years to speak freely on college campuses?

WEST: Oh, absolutely. 

GEORGE: Oh, yes. No question that it has. Cornel kindly praised me for my witness and work on behalf of free speech. But I want to say it’s easy for me now, as a conservative, because right now the conservative side, being so often the victims of repression of speech, is in a high free speech mode. Conservatives weren’t always so jealous and protective of free speech. 

WEST When communists, socialists-

GEORGE: That’s right. 

WEST: -anarchists were being repressed.

GEORGE: Today, the difficulty – and this is why Cornel deserves more praise than I do – Today, the difficulty is on the progressive side. There are lots of progressives who aren’t so excited about free speech, who want to restrict it, who think there are good reasons to restrict what they call hate speech and so forth, and Cornel has stood up in the face of that and said, ‘No, free speech is for everybody and it’s important and it’s got to be honored on our university campuses and in our society more broadly.’

HOOVER: Dr. West, why that shift, that progressives seem to be in a place where they’re shutting down free speech more now than before?

WEST: That’s a good question, it’s hard to say. It’s really hard. I think it’s partly generational. There is, in fact, also a certain kind of orthodoxy that sets in to any group. And that’s why Socratic energy is very important, no matter what the context is. You have to have an acknowledgment that not only you could be wrong, but you can learn something from someone you have deep disagreements with. Now, keep in mind, you got a lot of progressive young folk who are very Socratic, I don’t want to engage in generalization. But I think that, in part, it has to do a generational issue and the second has to do with the increasing orthodoxy.

GEORGE: I want to emphasize, Margaret, that when Cornel and I defend, both on campus and in society more broadly, we’re not defending it as a mere abstract right – just a right that falls down from heaven that exists because it exists – no. We’re defending it because it’s essential to truth-seeking and to running a Republican democracy. You cannot be a truth-seeker if you’re in groupthink. You cannot be a truth-seeker if you’re unwilling to be challenged. The same for running a Republican democracy, a constitutional democracy like ours. This only works if citizens treat each other as fellow citizens, that is, each with an equal right to speak. I have a right to speak. The people who oppose me have a right to speak because we’re running a great experiment in democratic order and democratic liberty and self government. And you just cannot do that if some people get to suppress the speech of other people. 

HOOVER: Do you see that happening in our national politics right now?

GEORGE: Well, there’s certainly a problem in both parties with the unwillingness to tolerate dissent. If you-

HOOVER: Is dissent just beat out politically? I just, one of the things you said recently, and you’re a Republican on the record who didn’t vote for Donald Trump, there aren’t many of them. If you’d been in Congress, you wouldn’t be there anymore.

WEST: He had a critique, an indictment of brother Donald Trump, that was quite intense. So in that sense, not just a matter of not voting, it was really offensive as well as defensive.

HOOVER: But what you’ve said is – two years ago in a National Catholic Register interview, was that what was most needed in American political life at this moment was the courage to stand up to bullies and to refuse to be intimidated.

GEORGE: I still think that’s right. That’s what we need on our university campuses and that’s what we need in the culture more broadly. We’re living with some, what sometimes Margaret called ‘Cancel Culture’. People live in fear that they will be shunned, that they will be hated, that they will be defamed, that their reputations will be destroyed. And so they hide their true beliefs. They refuse to say what’s actually on their mind. You can’t have a conversation unless people are willing to speak and feel that they can safely speak what they truly believe. If you happen to be on the progressive side, you dare not say a word in criticism of certain sacred values. If you have to be on the conservative side, you’re frightened to death to say a word about that, or you’ll be canceled by your conservative peers. Cornel and I represent a direct challenge to that, whether it’s on the conservative side or on the progressive side.

WEST: Absolutely, absolutely. 

HOOVER: The place you see that most in the national politics right now is on the Republican side in terms of a lack of willingness to stand up to that Cancel Culture. 

WEST: Stand up to the president, stand up to the powers that be within the Republican Party. But I think it’s a broader affair. I think we’re living not just in a highly polarized moment in this society, but it’s a ‘gangsterized’ moment in our society. 

HOOVER: What do you mean by that? 

WEST: Gangster, what I mean is the eclipse of integrity, honesty, decency. A hypocrite – Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue. So when you’re a hypocrite, at least you still have standards, you’re just falling short. A gangster has no standards at all. And that is the most dangerous thing no democracy can survive.

HOOVER: Sounds like you’re describing President Trump.

WEST: Well, I mean, he’s one example but he’s not the only gangster around. All of us have some gangster inside of us, no doubt about that. And I would say even my brother Bloomberg. You see, I’ve been following Bloomberg for a long time. He’s got some gangster-like qualities-

HOOVER: Well, that sounds like a Bernie Sanders offensive right there. [LAUGHTER]

WEST: But I’d bet, whether, whether he’s running or not. I went to jail because of stop and frisk. You know, we, we had two-week sentencing because of stop and frisk. That’s gangster behavior. You just treating people, violating their liberties that way so quickly. And that’s just one example. So gangsterism is not just a right wing thing.

HOOVER: Dr. West, you have never shied away from confrontation. And I’d like to get your reaction to a clip of you with Al Sharpton on MSNBC. Let’s take a look. 

WEST: I’ll give you an example, look at this. We got young, black brothers in New York City. Over 72% of them have been stopped and frisked by the police. 3% of them. 3% – 

SHARPTON: And who fought that, we did! We did! 

WEST: You fought it! But how come –

SHARPTON: Where were the academicians? Where were the Congressional *inaudible*? Where were they at then? Where – but how come, but how come the critics of Obama – 

WEST: How come brothers on Obama can’t say *inaudible* a word about it when it comes to New York! People say ‘I’m worried about it’ when it comes to New York. If investment bankers were getting stop and frisk he’d say something.

HOOVER: I’m going to go out on a limb. I’m going to go out on a limb and say, that doesn’t happen between the two of you. [LAUGHTER] At least, not based on what I’ve seen right here. And-

GEORGE: I can’t remember. Have I ever shouted the way you shouted at Sharpton, Cornel?

HOOVER: So, so, look. You can’t get it right all the time, right? What is it that makes it easier for you to find common ground with Dr. George than with Reverend Sharpton?

WEST: Well, I’ll tell you. See, brother Al is my dear brother. He and I go back almost 40 years of struggle. So part of that is just the kind of loving, antagonistic engagement. 

HOOVER: Reveling in his humanity?

WEST: Well, we revelled after, after the exchange. But it’s, it’s – But I don’t want to give the impression that he’s not my dear brother too, even though I’ve got some very deep disagreements. That had to do with Obama, that had to do with his attempt to try to shut down Socratic energy around Obama. No critiques of Obama. And therefore, he was an echo rather than a voice. He was just someone who defends Obama, no matter what. You do want to be honest and candid, sometimes intensely so. Even with the people you love. And that’s what you saw with me and brother Al going at it. 

HOOVER: So I think, I mean, as, as regular viewers take heart and inspiration from the model that you demonstrate, how do they also apply it to their own lives, to their own families and Thanksgiving dinner tables, right? Where – like you and brother Sharpton – you know, they have a deep love and shared history, but often fundamentally disagree. And that can get in the way of the love that you all have discussed that ultimately needs to triumph in order for us to be able to really move forward in this experiment of representative democracy.

GEORGE: Let me tell you, Margaret, what I think the first and most necessary thing is. And it begins with each of us. And that is recognizing our own fallibility. We are frail, fallen creatures. 

HOOVER: Humility?

GEORGE: Yeah. Intellectual humility. Recognizing that we could be wrong about things. And someone we regard as goofy or misguided or bigoted might actually be right about those things. I could be wrong about values I cherish. I could be wrong about identity-forming beliefs for myself. But the only way I’m going to figure out whether I’m right or wrong is to listen to somebody who has a different point of view, and challenge. The reason I don’t shout at Cornel — one is he’s just a hard guy to shout at. I don’t know how Al Sharpton pulled that off cause he was shouting back pretty well – but I’m not going to learn anything from somebody I’m shouting at. I’m just not. There’s not going to be any learning in that conversation. I want to learn from Cornel. He has things to teach me, I have things to learn, even when he’s wrong about some things. I want to know what his reasons are because they’re gonna deepen and enrich my understanding, even if his, he’s not actually correct. So if we’re shouting, if we’re not listening to each other, there’s not gonna be any learning.

HOOVER: Let me just ask you about one more policy issue. LGBT freedom. For example, you, Dr. West, support certain employment protections for racial minorities, women, religious minorities and LGBT people. Is this an area where you would be open to reconsidering your perspectives on that?

GEORGE: Well, I’ve written, as you know about this. I’ve engaged with people who strongly share your belief and Cornel’s about those sorts of issues. But I’m not so far impressed by those arguments.

HOOVER: But employment discrimination. Yeah, just, but employment discrim – When it comes to the sort of the simple issue of employment discrimination. This idea that this country is getting better and there are half the states in this country where you can still be fired for being gay or an LGBTQ American.

GEORGE: Well, can you guarantee me, Margaret, that what we’ll have is not an assault on religious freedom and the rights of conscience so that those laws are manipulated and used in order to whip into line people who do dissent from this now powerful orthodoxy that has the whip hand when it comes to media, academia, professional associations, the corporate boardroom?

HOOVER: I mean, I understand that there is this argument about whether it’s possible to balance religious freedom, which is under assault-

GEORGE: That’s the whole issue. 

HOOVER: -with LGBT equality. And I would just say I can’t guarantee you anything but I can turn you to the example of Utah, one of the most religious states in the country, where the Mormon Church passed comprehensive employment nondiscrimination protection five years ago, and they haven’t seen the assault on religious freedom that, that is feared.

GEORGE: I think that’s a far more complicated question right now than you’re depicting it as being. I understand you’ve got a view on that and it’s fine. It’s fine for you to-

HOOVER: We can model that. We can model a respectful disagreement. 

WEST: But the starting point… The starting point has to be the preciousness and pricelessness of our trans folk, gay brothers and lesbian sisters. How do we ensure that their inherent sanctity and dignity is preserved? Now, again, this is at the moral level. When you shift to policy, then you’ve got to look at various practical considerations in terms of whether certain religious liberties are being pushed aside and so forth and so on. But that is where the conflict is, I think, and that’s where the dialogue has to take place. One has to say that over and over and over again, because homophobia cuts so deep in the culture that it’s easy to overlook. 

HOOVER: I’d like to sort of wrap this up by taking you on a trip down memory lane, Dr. West. And ask you to reflect on your former self from 1993 and a question William F. Buckley Jr. asked you on this program. Let’s take a look.

 BUCKLEY: How easy is it to convince them, given their preoccupation with extra-academic life? People arrive as freshmen and want to know how much money they are going to be making five years from now as an accountant or as a lawyer or whatever. Is the old magic still there? Or do you give up on that?

WEST: Well, no, I think we recognize at Princeton that it’s always been difficult to make the life of the mind attractive in American culture. There is a long history, been this preoccupation, a long history of anti-intellectualism as well — we’re simply trying to acknowledge the fact that there is this very rich tradition in which the attempt to delight and instruct and inspire and inform ought to be at least made available. We recognize it will appeal only to a small number of students, but to ensure the quality of those students who make that kind of choice. And so in this sense we don’t think that the present age is qualitatively different. 

HOOVER: You both teach students at Harvard, at Princeton, at Princeton together. How many students are you finding these days are interested in the life of the mind?

 GEORGE: Yeah-

WEST: It’s a good number. It’s a good slice. 

 GEORGE: -but we have to inspire more.

WEST: Absolutely. 

GEORGE: See, there’s a lot that you’re competing with when you’re trying to preach the gospel of the examined life – the life of the mind. 

WEST: That’s right

GEORGE: You’re competing with status, power, money, prestige.

WEST: Absolutely.

GEORGE: And it’s not wrong for students to want those things. But they are not what really matters. The things that really matter are things like faith, family, friendship, love, compassion, reaching out to other people, exploring the great mysteries of life and of the universe. What summarily we call the life of the mind — which we might also at the same time call the life of the heart — they’re what really matter.

 WEST: The point I was trying to make 27 years ago there like – it’s amazing to see me so young – that love of truth, goodness, beauty has always been that of a critical minority because you had the pay of a heavy cost. We’d rather take the easy way out – status, money, wealth and so forth. And yet the real spiritual and moral wealth that really does provide a deep joy, not just a superficial pleasure, is something that we provide as a door opening for young folk who want to enter this love of truth, beauty, goodness, and then as Christians, even love of God. But that’s always a critical minority but that’s all right. 

GEORGE: In our classes, Cornel will often tell our students that you may not understand it, you might not even believe it, but let me tell you, the real reason that you have come to Princeton or Harvard or whatever university it is. The real reason you have come is to learn how to die. Because if you don’t learn how to die, you’re not gonna be able to know how to live. We learn how to die in order to learn how to live. And it’s only in the perspective of and against the horizon of our own death that we can really get our values straight.

 HOOVER: I can’t end it any better. It’s been one heck of a bromance. Thank you for modeling how to do this. 

WEST: Thank you. Thank you.

HOOVER: And thank you for coming to Firing Line both of you. Thank you for returning. 

GEORGE: Thank you Margaret, it’s a great pleasure. 

HOOVER: Thank you.

WEST: Thank you so much.

‘Firing Line with Margaret Hoover’ is made possible by… Additional funding is provided by… Corporate funding is provided by… ♪♪ You’re watching PBS.