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.

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They often disagree but say it’s a blessing.
This week on ‘Firing Line.’

I don’t like that big government up here.

Well, no.
I don’t want too big a government.
I just want to make sure we don’t have poverty or…
They’ve been described as the ‘Ideological Odd Couple.’

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 making the point that opposites don’t have to be enemies.

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?

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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 world views and profess different perspectives.
Dr. West, you are a professed non-Marxist Socialist.
And, Dr. George, you are a leader in the Theoconservative movement.

I’m not sure I’d say that, but at least I’m not a Marxist.
I’m like Cornel in that respect.
[ Laughter ]
And we’re both Christians.
We’re both Christians.

You’re both Christians.
And you respect each other enough to disagree and to engage in a 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.’


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

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?

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

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… Isn’t that tweet an implicit criticism of the Republican candidates?

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.

There’s a clear affection between the two of you, which —
He’s so lovable.
We can’t help it.
[ Laughter ]
In fact, I think 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 spend 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.

Well, I not only love Brother Cornel, I admire him and I admire him for those virtues — for honesty and for integrity.
And he sets an example for me.
He’s inspiring to me.
We may disagree about politics, but I do admire integrity, a person who says what he means, means what he says, who does not succumb to peer-group pressure.
Cornel’s 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.

And, so, the viewers know you both did that in 2016, where you refused to support Hillary Clinton, even though 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 have said of Dr. West… Can you give me an example of something he gets wrong when he’s asking the right question?

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.

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 there’s got to be some public regulation of markets.


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

Dr. George, you’ve said that the examined life is constantly being unsettled.
So where has Dr. West unsettled you?

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.

Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Wouldn’t it be better if we just were color-blind completely in 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 ‘race.’

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 prescription?

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.

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

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 jazzwoman or a bluesman.
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.

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

No, Brother Bernie’s absolutely right about that.

Why is healthcare a human right?

Because I think that human beings are so precious and priceless that they ought to have access to the highest quality of healthcare in their short move from mama’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.

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

Well, not if by ‘fundamental human right’ we mean an obligation that the government provide it, no.
There’s a looser sense in which I’m perfectly happy to speak in the language of rights when it comes to healthcare.
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 society like ours, it probably is necessary, 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 — I don’t want a private military.
I want the government running that.

Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

But what can be done by private initiative, private action, voluntary work I think should be.

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

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

And reasonable people with goodwill can disagree about what is best.

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 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… Has it become even more difficult in recent years to speak freely on college campuses?

Oh, absolutely.

Oh, 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.

When the Communists, Socialists, anarchists were being repressed.

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 university campuses and in our society more broadly.’

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

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 into any group.
And that’s why Socratic energy is very important, no matter what the context is.
You have to have an acknowledgement that not only you could be wrong, but you can learn something from someone who you have deep disagreements with.
Now, keep in mind, you got a lot of progressive young folk who are very Socratic, so I don’t want to engage in generalization.
But I think that, in part, it has to do with the generational issue, and the second has to do with the increasing orthodoxy.

I want to emphasize, Margaret, that when Cornel and I defend free speech, 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.


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

Well, there’s certainly a problem in both parties with unwillingness to tolerate dissent.
If you —
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.

Not just he didn’t vote for him.
He had a critique and indictment of Brother Donald Trump that was quite intense.
And, so, in that sense, it’s not just a matter of not voting.
It was really as well as defensive.

But what you said is — two years ago in a 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.

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 what’s 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 happen 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.


Well, 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.

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.

What do you mean by that?

Gangster — what I mean is the eclipse of integrity, honesty, decency.
A hypocrite — Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice plays the 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.

Sounds like you’re describing President Trump.

Well, I mean, he’s one example, but he’s not the only gangster around.
All of us have some gangster inside of us.
You know, no doubt about that.
And I would say even about Brother Bloomberg.
You see?
I’ve been following Bloomberg for a long time.
He’s got some gangster-like qualities —
Well, that sounds like a Bernie Sanders offensive right there.

No, no.
But whether he’s running or not.
I went to jail because of Stop-and-Frisk.
You know, we had a two-week sentencing because of Stop-and-Frisk.
That’s gangster behavior.
You’re 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.

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.

Oh, alright.

Give you an example.
Look at this.
We got young black brothers in New York City — over 72% of them been stopped and frisked by the police —
And who fought that?
We did.

You fought it.
But how come —
Where were the congressional —
How come Brother Obama can’t say a mumbling word about it when he comes to New York?!
But how come the critics —
He don’t say a word about it when he comes to New York.
If his investment banker was stopped and frisked, he’d say something.

I’m gonna go out on a limb.
I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that doesn’t happen between the two of you, at least not based on what I’ve seen right here.
[ Both laugh ]
I can’t remember.
Have I ever shouted the way you shout at Al Sharpton before?

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?

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.

Reveling in his humanity?

Well, we reveled after.
[ Laughs ] After the exchange.
But I don’t want to give the impression that he’s not my dear brother, too, even though I got some very 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.

So, I think — I mean, 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.

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.


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.
It’s easy to acknowledge that we might be wrong about things that don’t matter that much to us.
The hard thing — but it’s necessary — is to understand the complexity and difficulty of great questions and to understand that I could be wrong about deep, important 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 gonna 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, he’s just a hard guy to shout at.
I don’t know how Al Sharpton pulled that off.
‘Cause you were shouting back pretty —
Oh, no, I was —
But I’m not gonna learn anything from somebody I’m shouting at.
I’m just not.
There’s not gonna 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 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.

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 considering your perspectives on that?

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

Yeah, but employment discrim– When it comes to 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 LGBT American.

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?

I mean, I understand that there’s this argument about whether it’s possible to balance religious freedom, which is under assault…
That’s the whole issue.

…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 non-discrimination protection five years ago, and they haven’t seen the assault on religious freedom that is feared.


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.

We can model that — We can model the respectful disagreement.

The starting point has to be the preciousness and pricelessness of our trans folk, of 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 the 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.
And 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.

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.


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’re 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?

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.
A long history.
There’s 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.

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

Got a good number.


We’ve got a good number.
It’s a good slice.

But we have to inspire more.

Yeah. Absolutely.

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.

That’s right.

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


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.

The point I was trying to make 27 years ago there — 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 to pay 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, you see?
But that’s always the critical minority, but that’s alright.

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 against the horizon of our own death that we can really get our values straight.

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

Thank you.

And thank you for coming to ‘Firing Line.’

Thank you, Margaret.
It’s a great pleasure.

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