Revolution #272, June 17, 2012
Cornel West and Carl Dix Unsettle University of Chicago with Dialogue on "What Future for Our Youth?"
The dialogue between Cornel West and Carl Dix, "In the Age of Obama... Police Terror, Incarceration, No Jobs, Mis-education: What Future For Our Youth?" has had a profound impact wherever it has gone. Over the last year, very large crowds have attended at UCLA, UC Berkeley, and now the University of Chicago (U.C.), an elite private institution located in the midst of Chicago's Southside—the largest concentration of Black people in the U.S. U.C. is where president Obama taught constitutional law, and it is in Hyde Park, where Obama maintains his residence. (See "1300 Attend Chicago Dialogue between Cornel West and Carl Dix," Revolution #269, May 20, 2012, about the U.C. dialogue.)
Planning for this event had gone on for many months. But this spring, with the national outrage around the modern day lynching of Trayvon Martin, the felt need of students for the dialogue became greater. At U.C. there were no demonstrations protesting the Martin murder, but there were students, primarily African-American, who had tried to put on a program, only to have it stifled by administrators who objected that the room being requested was "too large." So they, along with other students who were already active in bringing the dialogue to U.C., intensified their efforts to make this dialogue happen.
But as all of the elements for the event came together three weeks before the scheduled date, the University administration suddenly cancelled it, citing "logistical problems." What they didn't anticipate was the determination of a few students to overcome the obstacles thrown up by the University, and the outpouring of support from the students, faculty and some prominent community members. A petition campaign was quickly mounted and student organizers, who were already 24/7 on this project, rallied more support and bent every effort to ensure the program would go on. The struggle to not cancel the event became the main form of publicity since no publicity could be printed or released online until the University gave the green light. Within a few days the Provost and Dean of Students had to write a letter to the faculty about how they were helping the students finalize the preparations for the dialogue (!), and lo and behold they found a larger venue and additional overflow room! One of the organizers said afterwards that his advice to students trying to bring the dialogue to their school is that "you need to look at this as not just booking an event, but taking a bold political stance, and anticipate a reaction from the administration and be prepared to deal with it."
All this tremendous effort was worth it. What transpired was a beautiful event, with a very diverse audience of more than 1,300—very likely the most diverse of any big event in U.C. history. Those who work with ideas on the highest level in this society combined with others who have been mainly locked out of that sphere. Students whose tuition and expenses are $60,000 per year mixed it up with those who society has denied all kinds of opportunities. Predominantly white U.C. was host to a crowd that was about 40 percent African-American—students, youth from the community as well as a number of high school teachers, community activists, ministers and Occupy people. Among the people who lined up to get in, there was such a thirst and hunger for answers to the question posed in the title of the dialogue—"What Future for Our Youth?"—and more fundamentally, why the situation today is the way it is, and how it could be changed. Smiles, eyes filled with wonder and hope, serious determination and questioning, anticipation—except for the unprecedented force of 15 police that the University insisted on having there, and even made the students pay for! No smiles there. But their somber expressions were lost in the sea of excitement, and whatever "crowd control" that was actually necessary was fulfilled quite nicely by about 30 UC students, in hoodies, who served as ushers.
Carl Dix: "This has got to stop!"
Carl Dix opened with "revolutionary greetings Chicago!" and then spoke to the students in particular: "In this time of heightened attacks on the people but also heightened resistance, it is important that especially the young intellectuals, which comprise a sizeable part of the audience, get to hear from different perspectives about what is the situation in the world, how did it get that way, and what can we do to transform it. It's important that we have this engagement because it's your responsibility to envision a world different than today's world and all its horrors, and then to join the fight to bring that different world into being."
He told about his and Dr. West's fight to stop the massive racial profiling operation of the NYPD, stop-and-frisk, and their trial the previous week for opposing it. He listed some of the more outrageous recent police murders in Chicago and around the country. After each point he'd say "This has got to stop!" and the audience responded with applause. This became a major theme of both his and Cornel West's talks.
Put this in an international context, Dix said: "Spin the globe. Wherever your finger lands we find unspeakable horrors... These horrors happen for one reason: this capitalist-imperialist system... The way it operates and what it is based on—a chase after profits, which condemns countless people worldwide to lives of poverty and squalor, to endure torture and rape. It unleashes wars for empire...This chase after profits ravages the environment of the very planet we live on... Now, I'm going to zero in on the criminal injustice system in this country, in particular the way it heaps abuse on Black and Latino people. That is a key pillar, a foundation of this American Empire...it is something that there needs to be determined mass resistance to..."
Dix talked about the terrible devastation the policy of mass incarceration has wrought on millions of people: "When you pull all this together—the people who get caught up in the criminal injustice system through racial profiling, the 2.4 million people being warehoused in prison, the five million people who have served their sentences but still are forced to wear badges of shame and dishonor. Then add to that their families and loved ones. What you have is tens of millions of people living their lives enmeshed in the criminal justice system. This is an emergency situation, a dire crisis, one we have to do something about. I call this a slow genocide..."
Then he went to the underlying reasons for how this situation came to be: "Two things came together. One was the operation of this capitalist system and the other is the conscious policies adopted by the ruling class. Starting back in the 1970s, capitalism, in its chase after profits, began to relocate factories from this country to the Third World, where they could pay the workers less and force them to work in more dangerous conditions. That process has gotten to the point that for young people growing up in the inner cities of this country it has become extremely hard to find a legitimate way to survive and raise a family. Another thing that has been going on for decades is that they have cut the safety net that is supposed to shelter poor people. They cut it to the bone, then they cut it again, and now they have it lined up to be cut even more. Then you have the education system that has been under funded, de-funded and geared to failing many of our youth. What that means is that you have youth growing up in the inner cities who face futures of no hope. Capitalism could exploit their ancestors as slaves on the plantation. It could exploit their great-grandparents as sharecroppers—many of them on the same plantations. It could exploit their grandparents as laborers in the factories. But they have no way to profitably exploit this generation of Black youth."
"Then we come to the conscious policies... They got these youth who they got nothing for and they remember the role that Black youth played in the 1960s, standing up against what was coming down on Black people. The youth sparked uprisings and helped to bring forth a revolutionary movement that rocked this system back on its heels. Richard Nixon, old Tricky Dick, who was the president back in the late '60s and early '70s—at a cabinet meeting said this: 'The problem is the Blacks and we have to devise a solution that does not acknowledge that is what we are dealing with.' His solution was to launch wars on drugs and wars on crime, which were really wars on Black people... And [thru the decades] this has led to this mass incarceration situation."
Dix then drew on a book by Richard Lawrence Miller, Drug Warriors and Their Prey: From Police Power to Police State, to underline that he is not exaggerating to say that this is a form of slow genocide that could become fast genocide. Using the analogy of how the Germans carried out their genocide of the Jews, Miller outlines how things moved through five stages: Identification, Ostracism, Confiscation, Concentration, and then Annihilation.
But then Dix argued that the final stages are not inevitable: "What happens is up to us, it depends on how we respond. If we respond with determined resistance we have every chance of beating back and stopping this slow genocide. If we respond with silence? Mass incarceration + silence = genocide."
Things don't have to be this way
And, Dix argued, there is another alternative to the world we live in now: "All of these horrors come down on people because of this capitalist-imperialist system and its chase after profit. Things do not have to be this way. We could end all these horrors and get rid of them once and for all through making revolution. And I am talking about communist revolution. That's right. That's what I am talking about—communist revolution. You did not mishear that. (Laughter and applause) I know what you all have heard about revolution and especially communist revolution. That it was a failure. That is was a disaster. Well, you have been lied to. The capitalists and their mouthpieces have spared no effort in heaping slander on revolution and communism because they don't want people to think that there is any way to live that could be better than this. But revolutions have been made. And when power was in the hands of the people in those revolutions in the Soviet Union, and later in China, many great things were accomplished. Both of these revolutions have since been overturned and power is now back in the hands of capitalist exploiters in those countries. But that doesn't wipe away the many things that they accomplished. ... If you are somebody who is disturbed by the way that people are forced to live in this country and around the world, you owe it to yourself and to humanity to check out the truth about the experience of revolutions in these countries. The way you can do this is to go to the website thisiscommunism.org."
What would a revolutionary society look like?
Dix spoke to what a revolutionary society would look like: "There would be no more Trayvon Martins, no more Rekia Boyds [murdered by the police in Chicago], no more Oscar Grants [murdered by the police in Oakland] (applause). There would be no more police patrolling our communities like occupying armies. No more of women being subjected to degradation and enslavement. No more people living on the edge of starvation here and around the world. No more wars for empire. What there would be is a society where power to change things is in the hands of the people led by their revolutionary communist vanguard. People who wanted to act to eradicate the oppression and inequality left over from the old society would have a governmental authority that would back them up in doing that as opposed to one that would arrest them and put them on trial for trying to meet the needs of the people. We would have an education system where youth were prepared to think critically so that they could understand the world in order to be able to act to change it. (applause) We'd have a justice system that would be aimed at getting at the truth of things as opposed to this justice system we have that uses lies, deceit, torture and anything it can come up with to convict people and warehouse them in prison. People need to check out what this revolutionary society would mean. There isn't a socialist republic in North America now, but we in the RCP are working on bringing one into being and this book—Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America (Draft Proposal)—tells you what it would look like..."
What people can do
Carl ended his presentation by talking about what people can do right now: "First, to the people who are coming to see the need for revolution, what do you need to be doing right now? The RCP has a strategy statement that says we need to be fighting the power and transforming the people for revolution...We saw a taste of what resistance can do with the response around the murder of Trayvon. They tell us 'OK, the case is in the court, it's time for you to get out of the streets and let the system work.' Bullshit! The system had already worked in Trayvon's case when they ushered his killer out the police door and let him go free. It took mass resistance for them to even put charges on the guy. It's gonna take continued mass resistance to get justice in that case... Trayvon was not an isolated incident, it was just the latest in an endless chain of abuse that this criminal justice system has brought down on the people and it's rooted in that same capitalist/imperialist system. So we have to build resistance that brings out what's behind this, what's the source of the murder of Trayvon and the murder and brutality that comes down on all the other Trayvons in this society. This is what Fight the Power, and Transform the People, for Revolution comes down to."
"Then there's another level. I've said a lot here and there are people here who have to think about and digest what I've said. Even as you do that you can get with this movement for revolution and do things that are important and would really matter. I said that the work that Bob Avakian has been doing and the leadership he's providing is something a lot more people need to know about. The movement for revolution has launched a campaign we call BA Everywhere. We're getting his voice and his works much more widely known. We need a lot of involvement. Here's one way: You can check out BA, and read his book of quotations and short essays, BAsics, read Revolution newspaper, watch the DVD of a talk he gave, Revolution: Why It's Necessary, Why It's Possible, and What It's All About. You can contribute money, we're raising big money to get BA's voice everywhere. Think of what difference it would make as people are coming into political life, if they were beginning to learn about a leader who has been figuring out how to make revolution, how to bring a whole different world into being... imagine the impact that would have on what people are thinking about and talking about, what they are getting organized to fight for. We have a BAsics Bus Tour, telling people about revolution and communism, what's going down in society. You can help make this happen.
"Here's another layer of what people can do. For those who say, 'You've got some good things to say Carl, but I can't get with that revolution stuff, that's too much for me.' (laughter) OK, keep thinking about it. But whether or not you agree with me about the need for revolution, there is something you and me need to do together, we need to stand up together and say 'no more to mass incarceration.' (prolonged applause) We really are on an arc to slow genocide. We have to mobilize this mass resistance, there is a Stop Mass Incarceration Network, Cornel and I were part of putting this together."
Cornel West: "The condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak."
Cornel West started with "I'm blessed to be in Chi-town." Then he talked about his relationship with Carl: "People say, Brother West, you are a revolutionary Christian, what are you doing hanging out with a revolutionary communist? In all seriousness, given the depth of the suffering we are in and the decline of the American empire and the internal decay of our fragile experiment in democracy that we are losing every day. The most important thing right now is to get back to the raw stuff. We need fellow citizens who have the courage to think and act and who are not for sale. So it is not even a question of whether you have full ideological agreement. Of course I have disagreements with my brother. He is wrong on the God question but we won't get into that now. But I love my brother and I respect my brother and the reason is because he decided like me a long time ago that he was going to be a long distance runner for freedom which means that he is going to live and die for something bigger than himself. And there will never be a highest bidder. He is going to go down swinging. And that is what we need in these days and these times..." He later commented, "Any time you have a profound love of poor people, you are a threat to the powers that be. That is a fundamental fact."
West elaborated on why a different society is needed: "What connects a revolutionary Christian and a revolutionary communist is that we have a fundamental commitment to non-market values like—love, commitment, trust, sacrifice, compassion. A refusal to be well adjusted to injustice... and indifference... where your heart is so hardened and conscience is so coarsened, that the soul becomes so chilled that it is all about you and your narcissistic predicament, your own ego-centric condition, the obsession with stimulation and titillation, but very little preoccupation with deep care and nurture. That is how far things have gone in 2012 in our hyper-marketized, hyper-capitalist society here and abroad. And that is why it is difficult for some folks to even take seriously talk about a different society. 'Oh God that is just so far down the road.' But, you know what? If we don't do something, the right wing, the reactionary crypto-fascists are ready to move in because they understand the depths of the decay too. And they have xenophobic, anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, anti-Arab, homophobic, deeply anti-Black, anti-brown and oligarchic support. That is where we are now. That is the state of emergency that our dear brother was talking about."
He then developed his central philosophical and ideological theme: "I want to start with the Socratic method... The unexamined life is not worth living. You have to decide what kind of human being you want to be, what does it mean to be human. ... We are here precisely because the love is central. And it is a love of truth. That's what makes it Socratic... At his trial, Socrates says: What is the cause of my unpopularity? What is fearless speech, plain speech, frank speech, unintimidated speech. We don't hear enough of that kind of speech when it comes to dealing with the plight of poor and working people. And it is precisely because we don't love them enough to tell society the truth and to tell them the truth. So obsessed with our professions that we lose any sense of our vocations. So obsessed with our careers that we lose any sense of our callings. So obsessed with our jobs that we lose any sense of our life tasks. What do you think the next generation and the generation after that will look like if you are so obsessed with your profession and your career that you don't tell the truth about the situation and the suffering in which we find ourselves? You can't re-generate democracy without that kind of deep truth telling."
West emphasized: "I come here tonight to try to do something that unsettles you. Even my progressive comrades. I don't believe in unanimity. I believe in critical engagement. I believe in unity, but that is not the same thing as unanimity." He said that U.C. was supposed to be all about "the self-examination of prejudice and presuppositions, pre-judgments." But he said, "here we are at a university committed to Socratic Inquiry, and yet it's still so difficult." He challenged the students—"don't be discouraged to be radically critical," and "history is actually quite open ended. It depends on the courage and the willingness of others to fight, sacrifice, think and so on."
Dr. West then went into his view of the problem: "There is a connection between the so-called 'free market' with its oligarchic tilt, the 1% that own 42% of the wealth, the top 400 individuals that have wealth equal to the bottom 150 million in America today, and that 22% of our precious children of all colors live in poverty in the richest nation in the world. 40% of red, brown, and black children live in poverty in the richest democratic experiment and imperial power in the history of the world and we say, 'Where is the moral outrage? Where is the righteous indignation?' Well, you look at the leaders; too many of them—bought. Caved in. Given in. Sold out. 'Brother West, that's very harsh language.' Yes it is, we live in harsh times. Ubiquitous commodification, ubiquitous commercialism, including your education.
"Today the fundamental challenge is oligarchy and in the end you do have to decide which side you're on. That's where the Occupy movement gets it right...It's oligarchy. The financialization of financial capitalism where Wall Street is in the driver's seat...generating billions of profit, with very little productive value...when workers wages were declining, schools were becoming more decrepit, housing more dilapidated, health care more unavailable...and the wealth inequality exponentially expanding...Greed is running amok... Then again the political system is broken down...Congress a site of legalized bribery and normalized corruption. Who even talks about the dignity of poor people these days, especially among elected officials? How long can our fragile experiment in democracy survive with oligarchic powers in the economy dominating the political system?"
And West explained his view of what to do about it: "How do we become more awakened and draw the connections between the prison-industrial complex, the military-industrial complex, the Wall Street oligarchic complex and then the corporate media multiplex that keeps so many of us stimulated, titillated, pacified, distracted—weapons of mass distraction—that is what the media is. Very little talk about context. Very little talk about common good that bring us together. So you get highly polarized, highly balkanized discourse with no public dialogue.
"Think about the whole system. It is not just a matter of one politician. I do believe that there are progressive politicians. I support various progressive politicians.... Inside they are trying to create some space, but they have to have a social movement outside putting that pressure on, letting folk know that there is accountability there—foreign policy and domestic policy."
After West and Dix gave their presentations they sat down together on stage and "dialogued." They debated the role of Martin Luther King, Jr., the role of electoral politics, as well as socialism in the USSR during the Stalin years. One exchange which a number of audience members commented on afterwards was over "secular optimism or Christian hope?"
West characterized their differences this way: "Brother Carl represents a secular optimism in thinking that there would ever be a time that will be free of oppression. But I am a prisoner of Christian hope, and Christian hope is different than secular optimism. That means that I can't conceive of we human creatures, with all the fears, anxieties and uncertainties in the face of the extinction of our bodies very soon, the culinary delight of the terrestrial worms waiting for us...I can't conceive of us reaching a level of spiritual, moral maturity that will ever do away with all the forms of oppression—homophobia, anti-Semitic, anti-Arab, and so forth. And then the question becomes how do we love enough, sacrifice enough, to make things much, much better? Because the system is so messed up. But whatever we produce, it will need another social movement. Because the cycle of history is shot through with domination, oppression, envy, jealousy, greed. And we need democratic accountability to minimize it as much as possibly can. So I have a darker view. It is closer to Chekhov than it is to you (Carl)."
Dix: "I'm not saying that we are getting to a perfect society."
West: "You say 'free of oppression.'"
Dix: "Yeah. That is what we are working on. We want to end exploitation and oppression once and for all. There are always going to be contradictions. There are always going to be problems. And we need to struggle over those."
West: "Then you are closer to me..."
Dix: "One of the things Bob Avakian has said is that in a revolutionary society we would have to combine seizing power, unleashing people to run the society and to hang onto the power to keep the exploiters from coming back or new-born exploiters. But a part of how you do that and continue the motion to the end of oppression is that you create an atmosphere where you are encouraging diversity, inquiry, interrogation and dissent—including from people who don't agree with the direction of the revolutionary society because you need to hear what everybody thinks, including people who don't like what you are doing because they may be able to tell you some truth that people who like what you are doing might not tell you. You need to hear all that to know how to go forward."
Many people were excited about the way the two speakers deeply engaged each other, going into their differences as well as their unity and so clearly showing their respect and love for each other.
A young Black woman active in Occupy said: "I liked that they were coming from two different sides. Dr. West, he is coming from a Christian background and Dix is coming from a non-religious background so they have different ideas. What did West say, something about a 'secular optimism'? I can't remember the words but it was interesting to see the perspectives coming from a religious and non-religious background around the two different ways to achieve revolution."
A U.C. grad student, a white woman, said: "What this did for me is to re-energize me to do my work and my excitement about the work that is being done. To see everyone come together was a great experience for me. And the two views—I find myself moving toward the more militant, by-any-means-necessary kind of action, the revolution of it all. So it was interesting to me to get both perspectives and to see how both men could communicate with each other so brilliantly. That is something I need to learn how to do better. So it's a learning experience because I tend to have trouble discussing. And to see it is possible, that is a huge learn for me."
Afterward interviewers for Revolution asked people what they thought about the program. Again and again, people said "amazing," "inspiring," "moving," "it opened my eyes," "my hope is we can move forward from here." People wanted to go on at length pouring their hearts out. Below are some more of the responses.
A young Black man: "The passion and sincerity that Mr. Carl Dix had about his revolutionary communism. He was not sorry about anything he said. And I thought that was really strong. His passion forced that onto the listeners. It forced us to take him seriously. If you see a marquee poster that says 'revolutionary communism' in this country, p-sssh, you dismiss it. But his passion really gave us some seriousness about the subject."
A young white man, recent U.C. grad: "They touch on mass incarceration and how deep it really goes, and where that is headed and how important it is to look to where we are going, and the trends we are seeing. Because I think that once you look at the root and see how far this rabbit hole really goes, then you get to see the corporations and the people that are actually behind this and their motivations and that's what you need to understand."
A young Palestinian woman: "Personally, I had never seen either of them speak before. I think they made a good team. I understand where both of them are coming from. And I was right there with them, nodding at what first one would say, and then the other one would have some really good counter-points. It was still leading to the same thing. We all want a better society and we all want to take this to a different world. We need to revolutionize the society we live in but they want to take different ways with that. So, the other one would speak in rebuttal and I'd find myself nodding at what that one said. What an interesting dynamic to see each one critique the issues we face today. They are both really smart men, with different backgrounds and different theories that they have studied in their very prominent careers. It was a good combination. Very powerful to be able to be in that room, to see them and hear them and be right in the middle of it."
A young Black man from the Southside of Chicago: "Both of those guys, they spoke phenomenally...It was something I would like to bring to a lot of people who are my generation so they can be aware of these things so they don't have to fall victim to this system or fall victim to the way this society is brainwashing and bringing people into capitalism and a lot of things that deteriorate the community or just the whole way society is as a whole or society is everywhere, abroad."
And a friend of his added: "It was so much being said and there was so much I got from this. A lot of stuff that I feel and that I talk to people about, but they think I'm crazy for feeling this way because it's not put out there on the table. And people really like to ignore it, they act like it's not really happening but it's going on right before our very eyes. It's time for a wake up call. It's time for us to wake up and stand up and fight."
A young Black skateboarder active in Occupy: "What impressed me the most was the honesty and sincerity of Carl Dix and Cornel West. In that I felt like it's exactly what we needed to hear, you know. I believe that knowledge passed on from our elders to the youth is something that we need now more than ever because we're kind of looked at with a distant eye like we're kind of dangerous, or at least, that's how I feel we're perceived these days. So just seeing our elders come back and actually care about us, and you know, put forth an effort to inform us. I feel like that's more important than anything. Like Dr. Cornel West said, 'We care.' And literally, those two words, 'we care'—that had me. I'm like, I've been waiting to hear that for like five years, you know, to hear that someone actually cares. So that, it's more than words, it's a positive energy within myself and within others."
The last question from the Q&A is a fitting way to end this article:
Q: "Dr. West, I want to get your vision of the future. Not just for the Occupy Movement, but for everybody."
West: "The future of the world?"
Q: "However you choose to analyze it—inclusively how not just Occupy, but everybody can be included in that world?"
Moderator: "I think that would be a great way to end this with some closing statements on your visions for the future."
West: "I really believe the future is open-ended. It is unpredictable. I don't think any of us would have thought that the Occupy Movement would have emerged when it did. Who would have thought we would be talking about corporate greed and wealth inequality given the right wing neoliberal predominance in our public discourse. Austerity, austerity—always from the viewpoint of the lenders—instead of massive investment in jobs, massive investment in housing, massive investment in healthcare from the view of working and poor people. Who would have thought that we could engage in that kind of shift. It so much depends on what kind of choices we make. There might be a massive democratic awakening that historians have no analytical tools for in the next year. Or there could be sleepwalking and we could go under. It is hard to say. I really don't know. All I know is as for me, I know what I'm going to do. I know what my calling is. So if we (point to CD) end up crushed, going to jail, murdered, whatever—like BB King, I had a smile on my face singing the blues. I hope it will be with a whole lot of other people, or it might be with a small group, but I have already made my choice. I made my choice 50 years ago and I am going to be faithful unto death."
Dix: "I was torn between Woman on the Edge of Time [a 1976 novel by Marge Piercy] and a quote from Lenin about dreaming. I will do the quote from Lenin about dreaming because it is shorter. These two revolutionaries were talking and one guy sneers at the idea of dreaming. And Lenin says, no, the other guy had the correct approach to dreaming. You have to dream. You have to dream big dreams. Dream a vision of a new way for the world to be. But then compare your dreams to reality and constantly work to narrow the gap between your dreams and reality. If there is no gap between your dreams and the reality you live in, you ain't really dreaming. So you have to dream some big dreams. So that is how we got to go at it. And drawing on Woman on the Edge of Time—the future is not written. We are struggling for it now. If we respond to today with silence, we will get one future. If we respond to today with determined mass resistance, we can write another future. My suggestion is—write that other future sisters and brothers. Respond with mass resistance."
If you like this article, subscribe, donate to and sustain Revolution newspaper.