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tv   Firing Line With Margaret Hoover  PBS  November 27, 2021 5:30am-6:00am PST

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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 philosopr, socialist, and political activist, and dr. robert george, a socially conservative christian thinker. but they a 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? >> "firing line with margaret hoover" is made possible in part by... and by...
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corporate funding is provided by... >> welcome back to "firing line," dr. cornel west and dr. robert george. >> thank you. >> thank you. and we salute you for your show building on the great legacy of th historic "firing line" show. >> well, 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. [ lauger ] >> 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
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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." >> mm-hmm. >> it's a very great honor. very great honor. >> well, what's clear is, as you nod when you speak, you're nodding and vice versa. you're leaning ito one another. there's a clear affection between the two of you. >> he's so lovable. >> and i'm so glad you guys -- [ both laugh ] >> it's true. in fact, actually, 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. >> and it seems to me -- i've heard you say the common denominator is love. >> absolutely. there are just so many aspects and facets who we are as human beings that cannot be subsumed under politics. so when you love somebody, you love their qualities, their character, their laughter, their gestures, the things you have in common that don't always fall into politics. we can argue over aquinas versus kierkegaard or we can argue over
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his bluegrass versus my funk and rhythm and blues. you see? there's things that bring us together. then we reach politics and we say, "oh, my god. i think you're dead wrong, my brother." "i think you're dead wrong, my brother." so the human connection, that rich, deep human connection -- that's what is so very important. >> the other thing, margaret, that we were talking about was the importance of honesty and integrity and those sorts of virtues. 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
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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. but he's only gonna give two cheers for socialism, because he sees the downside and the
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danger, as well. and i'm only gonna give two cheers -- i'm like irving kristol. two cheers for capitalism, 'cause i realize it's a system that will sell you anything if it's not constrained by moral principles that are, themselves, reflective of our understanding we should have of the dignity of the human person. there's certain things that shouldn't be for sale. so i believe in the market, but just two cheers. cornel believes in the socialist system, but just two cheers. >> both of us acknowledge that there's got to be some public regulation of markets. >> yeah. >> 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. it's the predatory capitalism in which greed runs amok. brother robbie is against greed, whether it comes in the form of corporate eed, poor people's greed, working people's greed, white greed, black greed, brown greed. isn't that right? >> yeah. like cornel, i want a system that works for the common good, that works for people, and especially those who are at the lower end. i think the market system has lifted millions and millions of
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people out of poverty. so i'm for the market system. i'm very skeptical of big-government programs. i want to empower the institutions of civil society -- families and churches and voluntary associations. i want them to carry the bulk of the load when it comes to health, education, and welfare, and transmitting to each new generation the values and virtues that are necessary for people to lead successful lives and to be good, contributing citizens. but i know that a market that's unleashed without regulation, without moral constraints is going to do much more harm than good. >> so, have either of you moved the other closer to your position in any issue? >> i think there's been some movement. >> yeah, i think so. >> i think when we've taught hayek together, friedrich hayek, and his critique of -- >> did it bring you closer to the road to serfdom? >> [ laughs ] >> well, i was against serfdom from the very beginning, and i've become more intensely --
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i'm glad you mentioned that, that944 classic of his, "the road to serfdom." i think there's been movement, but a lot of our movement has to do with, also, intellectual movementthat is to say, reading great texts. it could be a john stuart mill. it could be a w.e.b. du bois. it could be a hayek. it could be a leo strauss. our conversations are oftentimes intellectual, and we wrestle -- >> but are you saying you've expanded your reading list? >> well, no, no. we had read the texts together, but it's how we read them. it's how we read them, i think. >> you've said, both of you, that the unexamined life is constantly being unsettled. >> absolutely. >> and that this is the challenge in the course you teach to your students. your challenge to them is to unsettle their ideas so that they examine their assumptions. where has dr. west unsettled you? >> i'll tell you where. on issues of race. >> mm. >> my inclination prior to our
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deep engagement on these racial issues was to suppose that the fundamental problem is that people are race-consciou 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. and that sounded, to me, like a very good way of solving the problem. 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" so that a program in african-american studies is, for example, studying a tradition, one that makes sense.
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cornel sometimes refers to african-americans as a people. he says, "i come from a people that has suffered for 400 years, been treated unjustly, been hated, and, yet, has taught the world so much to lov" i now understand in a way that i didn't, i think, previously, the sense in which it makes sense to refer to, let's say, african-americans as a people. >> i mean, there's a policy prescription that encompasses many of the problems that you've just outlined, and that's affirmative action. and you have said that brother geor-- i'm sorry. [ both laugh ] that dr. west -- you have said that -- >> brother cornel. >> you have said that dr. west has really influenced the way you thought about affirmative action. let's take a look. >> cornel asked a set of questions that made me think a lot more deeply about that. would our campus be -- not be worse off by virtue of the effective absence of people from the african-american community?
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and when you think about that question... >> yeah. >> ...the answer is, of course, we would be worse off. >> so, how do you handle the policy prescription then? i mean, have you thought about what the next step is? you've conceded that he really affected the way you think about the issue. 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 su that minority students feel they are welcome at princeton university, there's a place for them at harvard university or ohio state or anywhere els we need to be reaching out and looking for the talent in those communities that maybe, had history been different, would have been in those institutions,
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but, because history is as it is, are not in those institutions. that seems to me to be the way to go. >> 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. when i see my brother, i don't have to eliminate his constructed whiteness. he's a human being in a particular body, but he's made in the image and likeness of god. he has something there that is worthy of a certain kind of treatment, no matter who he is. and so the history is there. ite privilege is there and white supremacy is there, all these things. the same is true with gender and so forth, right? but it's that human connection that's crucial. and when it comes to firmative action, the question becomes -- we want to make sure our students connect at a human
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level. >> mm-hmm. >> but we want to make sure it's fair, the conditions under which they enter a college is fair and it's just. and we know all these institutions of higher learning have traditions that were deeply racist and sexist and anti-jewish and anti-muslim and a whole host of other things. they were anti-catholic, in terms of the harvard.. >> oh, sure. >> ...and the yales and so forth. >> princeton. >> and princeton, too. absolutely. >> let me ask you about another policy -- healthcare. you've been on the record that healthcare is a human right. >> absolutely. >> 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. >> that's a preference in terms of how the policy should be applied to every individual, but explain to me the right, the
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human-right part. do you believe that healthcare is a fundamental human right in the way that freedom of speech and freedom of assembly and freedom to practice your own religion that are enshrined in the first amendment -- is healthcare a fundamental right in that way? >> i think it is. i think healthcare is fundamentally a human right. just being born warrants a certain kind of treatment that society can provide, especially for the children, especially for the vulnerable, especially for the elderly. but i think it holds across the board. >> dr. george, i know you've been on the record saying you don't believe that healthcare is a fundamental human right. >> well, not iby "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, inhent, and equal dignity. and we should work for a system that may have some public elements but may also have
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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. 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. but what can be done by private initiative, private action, voluntary work i think should be. and i believe in the magic of markets. the good thing about markets, properly regulated, is they push quality up and they push price down. i think the best way to get healthcare to as many people as possible is to drive quality up and prices down. >> 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
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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 so that we're not at each other's throats but, rather, at the subject matter, trying to deal with the suffering and social misery that's out there. >> when it comes to positive goods, like healthcare, like education, there are different ways of providing, different mixes of private and public, and reasonable people of goodwill can disagree about what is best. >> well, a subject that you do agree about is free speech and free speech on college campuses. has it become even more difficult in recent years to speak freely on college campuses? >> oh, absolutely. >> oh, oh, yes. >> absolutely. >> 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
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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 our 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.
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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 so that any kind of orthodoxy of an adolescent or an underdeveloped form just doesn't want to listen or hear from anyone they disagree 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. because of human fallibility, we
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are all wrong about some things. there is nobody whose head is filled with nothing but true beliefs. all of us have some false beliefs in there. and if we're gonna move from falsehood to truth, with respect to any subject, we're gonna need somebody poking and prodding and challenging and engaging us, and we need to be willing to listen. and we certainly can't shut them down. the same for running a republican democracy, a constitutional democracy like ours, 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 geto suppress the speech of other people. >> yeah, 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. "i do what i want to do," impunity, lack of
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accountability. and that is the most dangerous thing no democracy can survive. >> 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. so, gangsterism is not just a right-wing thing. it cuts across our human condition. >> progressives have enormous cultural power. progressives dominate in academia, in journalism, in the professions. we've got a problem across the board, and the progressives can't point fingers at the conservatives, and the conservatives can't point fingers at progressives when it comes to this. everybody's got to stop and start showing some respect, respect for each other as human beings, and respect for each other's rights to disagree. >> okay. 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, know, they have a deep love and shared history but often fundamentally
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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. >> humility? >> yeah, intellectual mility, 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.
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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. 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, the's not gonna be any learning. >> do you think people are less likely to listen on the issues and the beliefs they hold most deeply? >> of course. of course they're gonna be less likely to. and we do wrap our convictions, wrap our emotions, more or less, tightly around our convictions. that's just the human condition. and so we then perceive challenges not as intellectual or moral challenges, but as assaults on us personally, because now our very identities are caught up in what we believe. >> of course we want to be improvisational.
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being improvisational doesn't mean you give in. it just means you're starting from a certain standing point and then you're seeing whether there's wiser, more persuasive arguments put forward for you to move in a place where you stand on something stronger. that's all. >> well, 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. let's take a look. >> really? >> well,o, i think we recognize at princeton that it's always been diicult to make the life of the mind attractive in american culture. 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. >> you both teach students --
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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. >> yeah. >> we've got 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. >> absolutely. >> those are just means. they are secondary things. they're good because of the good things you can do with them. 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. but there are competing values, and selling kids on what cornel and i think are the right values
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is a challenge, 'cause you've got a lot working against you. you've got a whole culture working against you. >> but, i mean, i think 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. and so it's no accident that, often, it's the great artists who have been the vanguard of the species, willing to pay that heavy cost. it could be a coltrane, a beethoven. it could be a toni morrison or virginia woolf. that's what it is. that's how we're constituted as human beings. >> mm-hmm. >> 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
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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. >> absolutely. >> i mean, 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. >> thank you so much. >> thank you. >> thank you so much. >> "firing line with margaret hoover" imade possible in part by... and by...
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