Watch Your Tongue, Dr. West

Cornel West, a professor of religion and African-American Studies at Princeton University, is the latest in a long line of demagogues who have, over the past three centuries, bandied about the term revolution without realizing the gravity of the word. West winds up his 8/26 article with a sweeping gesture: “King’s response to our crisis can be put in one word: revolution,” and concludes by declaring: “Like King, we need to put on our cemetery clothes and be coffin-ready for the next great democratic battle.” (“Dr. King Weeps from His Grave,” New York Times [8/26/11], A23).
Excuse me, Dr. West, but perhaps you have forgotten what revolution looks like. Allow me to remind you. See the two images below, from the August 2011 revolution in Tripoli, Libya, and the July 1789 revolution in Paris, France. See the blood, the hurt, the intractable anger and the destruction.

A wounded Libyan fighter. Photo by Tyler Hicks, NYT
Death by hanging (three times) of Foulon, age 74

These facts form as much a part of our revolutionary legacy as the more palatable notion suggested in West’s article, that is, a “King-worthy narrative to reinvigorate the poor and working people.”

West makes some good points. The USA is in need of a reinvigorated public life that incites ordinary citizens to get involved in local affairs, support reasonable politicians, and contribute to public debate.

But please, people, watch your language. The problems we are facing are grave, but they are negotiable through deliberative democracy—another great American tradition. The resort to “life and death confrontations” should be the last resort. May these images remind us that battles have casualties. Dr. King did not preach gratuitous violence. And neither should Dr. West.

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