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Honesty and Courage: Cornel West and Robert George Speak Out

July 24, 2020


When we see friendships between people who seem to have little in common. those of us of a certain age will quickly think of Neil Simon’s classic play (and subsequent movie, and television series) The Odd Couple.

For the uninitiated, the story presents the misadventures of two divorced men who, for economic reasons, share a Manhattan apartment. Sportswriter Oscar Madison is the grizzly sort of old-school, hard-living journalist who no longer exists except in movies. When he pulls a half-eaten hotdog from his crumpled trench coat and finishes eating it, the action is entirely keeping with his character.

Felix Unger, his roommate, is an OCD-addled domestic fusspot so meticulous in both thought and action that when Oscar, in a fit of frustration at his roomie’s perfectionism, throws a plate of pasta against a wall, Felix feels moved to correct him, “That’s not spaghetti, it’s linquine.”

Oscar, still fuming, turns to him and clarifies, “Now, it’s garbage.”

In each iteration of the show the story succeeded because of clever writing, gifted performances, and a never-ending supply of variations on the truest of human themes: we drive each other crazy because we can, and because we bring unique perspectives to what is common among us. Oscar sees dust bunnies in his bedroom and shrugs, “It’s just a little dust.” Felix bristles, “Lawrence of Arabia couldn’t make it through such dust!”

Differences in style and outlook notwithstanding, these men are always friends. And the friendship is believable because—linguine wall-hangings aside—the two actually like and respect each other; they want to get along—and they mostly do so by building on those values they do share.

About a week ago, perhaps the “oddest couple” in modern public and academic life got together to show us how that premise is real, and still possible, even in our uber-divisive age.

By background, Professors Cornel R. West, who has taught at too many distinguished schools to list, and Robert P. George, of Princeton University, could not seem more different. West is an African American, a political progressive whose youthful intellectual formation came from Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and W.E.B. DuBois, among others. The grandson of a Baptist preacher, he manages to poke and provoke wherever he feels necessary, offering thoughtful, sometimes fiery criticisms of politicians and pundits on any side of the political spectrum.

George, on the other hand, is a banjo-playing white American who, by name and countenance would seem devoid of ethnicity (though he descends from an Italian and Syrian background) and is the grandson of immigrant coal miners. Were he not a Roman Catholic of the Thomist persuasion, he would seem a quintessential, unexotic White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, politically conservative to boot.

On paper, particularly in an age of identity-everything, it should not work, and yet the two men are fast friends who manage to be frank in their disagreements and yet manage a warm and constructive relationship that builds on where they agree and—when they take their thoughts public, as they did last week—works to the benefit of us all.

Addressing the national tumult that has followed the horrific death of George Floyd at the hands of law enforcement—the violence, the often extreme, sometimes eliminationist rhetoric that has extended beyond that incident, and the sense of a society spinning too far out of control to find its balance—West and George have released a remarkable and powerful statement, calling for deep courage, deep honesty, and deep humility, on all sides:

We need the honesty and courage not to compromise our beliefs or go silent on them out of a desire to be accepted, or out of fear of being ostracized, excluded, or canceled.

We need the honesty and courage to consider with an open mind and heart points of view that challenge our beliefs—even our deepest, most cherished identity-forming beliefs. We need the intellectual humility to recognize our own fallibility—and that, too, requires honesty and courage.

The piece must be read in its entirety, and (hopefully) given broad dissemination. It is a document of peaceful productivity amid social unrest where battling perspectives often seem confused, sometimes senseless, and increasingly alarming in malevolence. As I write this it has been shared with others only 206 times on Twitter. It didn’t cause a sensation on Facebook, either, and a Google search finds scant exposition of the piece by mainstream, or even Christian, media.

Apparently, a statement that is not about drawing blood or scoring points for a particular “side” is not interesting enough—or perhaps just not clickable enough—to be given the attention it deserves.

Social ennui aside, one can’t help but wonder, how do they do it? Black man, white man; progressive, conservative—how do West and George manage to come together to deliver the stabilizing pylons upon which something fine and lasting may be built?

Well, on a few highly important points that most would dismiss as irrelevant, they are less different than we may perceive. Both were raised in intact families that, while not rich, were not poor, either; both are prolific writers who graduated from Harvard and have become influential intellectuals; and perhaps most importantly, both are Christians unashamed to profess it, or to give witness as to how and why their faith shapes their shared opinions and divergent philosophies. West has said he calls himself a “non-Marxist socialist” because he cannot reconcile Marxism with his own Christian vision.

Like Felix and Oscar, in a way, all of the differences between these two men find, if not full reconciliation, then full respect within their shared values—not least in their desire to bring a Christ-consciousness into all of their myriad considerations.

Perhaps so few appreciate what a gift West and George have given to us with their statement—a precise mapping-out of how we may re-realize, reform, and reconstruct the best parts of our humanity and our nation—because the values we, as a society, hold in common are fewer than they were, harder to recognize as being truly mutual amid all the muddy warring.

Is that the answer? Have our values become so individualized and scattered, or so changeable and zeitgeist-driven, that they no longer can be brought together in support of something broader and greater than any single movement?

It’s a fair question. Cornel West and Robert George are trying to help us find the answer.

We need the honesty and courage to treat decent and honest people with whom we disagree—even on the most consequential questions—as partners in truth-seeking and fellow citizens of our republican order, not as enemies to be destroyed. And we must always respect and protect their human rights and civil liberties.

We need the honesty and courage to be willing to change our beliefs and stances if evidence, reason, and compelling argument persuade us that they are in need of revision—even at the cost of alienating us from communities in which we are comfortable and rely on for personal affirmation, solidarity, and support.

We need the honesty and courage to love, in the highest and best sense: to will the good of the other for the sake of the other, to treat even our adversaries as precious members of the human family. We need the honesty and courage to resist the hatred—the spirit of hatred—that the zeal even for good causes can induce in we frail, fallen, fallible human beings, and that corrupts the human soul and leads inexorably to spiritual emptiness and to tyranny, even among those who began as sincere advocates of freedom and justice.

A brave and wise exhortation, if anyone is listening.


Photographs by Gage Skidmore.