Thursday, November 11, 2010
Cornel West and Carl Dix Dialogue in Harlem: What Future for Our Youth?
A sold-out crowd of more than 650 people at Aaron Davis Hall in Harlem, largely composed of African-Americans and youth but also other people of many nationalities and ages, turned out on October 29 for a dialogue between Cornel West and Carl Dix: "In the Age of Obama, Part II... Police Terror, Incarceration, No Jobs, Mis-education: What Future For Our Youth?" The dialogue was a fundraiser for Revolution Books and the Prisoners Revolutionary Literature Fund (PRLF).
West—a prominent Black intellectual, Princeton University professor, and longtime opponent of racial oppression—and Dix—a founding member of the Revolutionary Communist Party who served two years in prison for refusing orders to go to Vietnam—were speaking less than two years after the election of the nation's first Black president led many to proclaim that a brighter future was ahead for youth of color. It was also less than two weeks after police 30 miles north of New York City murdered 20-year-old D.J. Henry, an unarmed Black college student; and three days after an article in the New York Times reminded us that the NYPD has stopped-and-frisked hundreds of thousands of people each year—the vast majority of them African-Americans and Latinos who had committed no crime.
In other words, the main themes of this dialogue are badly needed, almost completely absent from the social and political landscape, and right on time. Where, for instance, in all the election debates and coverage did you hear this being discussed? The title of the event clearly resonated with, and intrigued, people walking into the auditorium.
One man told Revolution, "I have read a couple of Cornel West's books. Carl Dix is with the [Revolutionary] Communist Party—a publicly declared atheist, which is a beautiful thing. I'm a non-theist myself. Particularly in this country, stigma goes along with one saying they're an atheist. Christ and religion —period—is so predominant in the U.S. There is a negative stigma with anyone who believes otherwise. Christ is shoved down your throat in this country whether you want to be exposed to it or not."
He added, "The title is very good...it's complete, timely, necessary—instead of newscasters presenting supposedly what Americans' opinions are, a lot of the people here are of the opinion that don't necessarily get voiced..."
Another said, "I am familiar with Cornel West. I've not heard him speak publicly before. And I know he's a little bit of a radical. And sometimes I feel that it's important to hear those voices. I don't necessarily disagree or agree. But I like to hear a balanced argument."
Dix was the first to take the microphone. He began by condemning the humiliation, harassment, and murder that police regularly bring down on youth, linking these crimes to pervasive violence against women in our society, the prejudice against and violent persecution of gays and lesbians, children in South Asia slaving away in sweatshops, and U.S. drones raining destruction onto villages in Afghanistan and Pakistan. All of these crimes, Dix said, come from a common source: the capitalist-imperialist system that has a stranglehold on the planet and its people.
However, Dix said he did not come just to expose the horrors facing this planet, or explain why these horrors occur. Rather, he said: "My message is simple and urgent. I came here to tell people: Things do not have to be this way. We have a solution. Through communist revolution, we can end the horrors of this system and bring a far better world into being. And, we are building a movement for revolution. And we have a leader—Bob Avakian, the Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party—who makes this revolution immeasurably more possible." To drive home to the 650-plus people there just how serious and real this movement for revolution is, Dix held up a copy of the hot-off-the-pressConstitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America (Draft Proposal). (See the Preamble to the Constitution in this issue.) Dix referred to this new Constitution throughout the evening, and urged people to buy it.
Dix acknowledged that youth today are caught up in a lot of "bad shit," but emphasized the reason for this is what the capitalist-imperialist system does to them and the killing choices with which it leaves them. The way for youth to get out of this situation is not lectures about personal responsibility, "getting with god," or pulling up their pants: it is to get with the movement for revolution to end this capitalist-imperialist system, transforming themselves in the process. He emphatically argued that all religion promotes a slave mentality.
Cornel West was next to speak, and there were both differences and extremely important points of unity between him and Carl Dix. West began by saying that whether he agreed with everything he said or not, Dix—as well as Avakian—should be praised for a fierce commitment to the oppressed. He referred to himself as a "Jesus-loving free Black man," and responded to Dix's sharp critique of religion by saying the god he (West) envisioned and believed in was one that sustains those who advocated for poor people and empowered themselves.
West's speech exuded anger, compassion and love for the oppressed, and moral clarity. He poignantly condemned the degradation, isolation, hatred, hopelessness and violence this system imposes on its youth, several times explicitly linking these things to capitalism-imperialism and the culture that this system spawns. He angrily denounced the criminalization and demonization of impoverished youth, while challenging these youth to reject a culture of "superficial titillation" and "moral constipation," and to give their lives meaning by fighting for justice and the oppressed. West told the young people in the room not to strive for success if they defined success as accommodating to injustice. "Justice," Cornel told the audience, "is what love looks like in public."
And West said that if the youth choose to be revolutionary communists, "that's your choice," and that if they choose to fight for justice, they would find themselves alongside revolutionary communists.
Following moving and successful appeals for funds, audience members posed questions to the speakers, including: Why is there so much violence among the youth, and what can be done about it? What steps can students take to learn critical information being denied to them in school curricula? What are some concrete things that individuals can do to resist the system? How should we view the question of Black nationalism?
As they took turns speaking to these and other questions, Dix and West embraced their shared hatred for this system's crimes, while also engaging their differences with honesty, liveliness, principle, and mutual respect. After the dialogue, several people said they were struck by the way Dix and West related to each other. One student said that at her high school, too often people with different views believe that because someone thinks differently they have to be separate and stay apart. And she was impressed to see an atheist and a religious person on stage discussing and engaging their differences; this showed her a different way that society could be. This was an insightful comment. This whole event was a model of the kind of debate and contestation of ideas that will go on in the new socialist society all the damn time.
After the event, the lobby was full of people who were clearly inspired, moved, provoked, and intrigued—by the dialogue, and by the experience of being in a room full of people passionately engaging the issues at hand.
A 23-year-old African-American student summed up her reactions to the event by saying: "I've been motivated, entertained, and uplifted all in one. Fantastic."
"Everything that they talked about is exactly the things that I think are prevalent to me right now as a teenager, as a student, as the youth that they were talking about," said a 17-year-old white high school student from Brooklyn. "This is what I feel—that this is a moment in time where we have the future ahead of us and we have to seize it, and it's our decision what we're gonna do with it."
The student said he had just gotten a copy of the Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America (Draft Proposal), and said: "To say: 'There's another way'? Very powerful." "It's so common to say 'The way things are done is wrong'—to denounce the government, to denounce the way we're doing things, to say 'this is fucked up, we can't be doing this.' It's so common to be contrarian that it's almost meaningless. What is meaningful is to offer a solution to those problems.… You can read this."
Many people expressed being very fired up and inspired and at the same time were still taking in and sorting through what they had heard, and grappling with how to understand what type of movement for revolution was being put forward, and what they could do as an individual.
A college student was asked what sense he had gotten of what the Revolutionary Communist Party and this movement for revolution are all about.
"Hmm, let me think for a moment," he said, pausing. "I think I would have to look into more of the Party's readings to truly understand what they—like how they want to do things. 'Cause I know what they want. It sounds like they want a more collective organized system of equality for the people in an economic way. But I would have to read more about their means of doing it. 'Cause I understand it only on a surface level, I think, after tonight. But I do understand the urgency of change on a deeper level."
A young boxer, one of whose parents is from Puerto Rico and the other from Guam, said he had long been passionate about the themes West and Dix were addressing: "I connected to everything...This is my life. This isn't just an event for me. This is already a cause I'm already actively pursuing. So to know that I'm not alone, it's the most amazing feeling. The most amazing feeling. Like I cried—I'm not a crier, I'm a fucking boxer."
Asked if there were things that surprised him, a high school student said:
"You know, I was surprised by how enthusiastic everybody around me was. It was inspiring to see everybody so into it. To see people feeling—and not just sitting around and listening... People taking it in and feeling it and feeling like they can go out and do something. You can tell this isn't something where people are going to listen to some really nice radical notions and ideas and go home and say, 'Well, I saw Cornel West and he said some very interesting things.' You can tell these are people who want to do something about this and start this revolution and make things happen in the world. To stop eating all the crap that they're fed and go out and make something of this, take that power, because the world belongs to us. And people in this room realize that. It's all about community, and that feeling of community, I think, was my favorite thing here tonight."