Cornel West dropped into the East Village’s Maryhouse on Friday to deliver a holy-rolling birthday tribute to Dorothy Day, the Catholic-anarchist writer who would’ve turned 116.
Decked out in his signature tux, West described Day as a “God wrestler” who was “broke as the Ten Commandments financially” but “spiritually as rich as anyone could imagine.”
Born in Brooklyn, Day lived the bohemian life before converting to Catholicism and co-founding the Catholic Worker movement and newspaper in 1933, during the depths of the Great Depression. She lived at Maryhouse, on East Third Street, until her death at the age of 83, on November 29, 1980.
Although West didn’t call for Day’s canonization to sainthood, as American bishops have done, the firey, wiry academic put her in the same pantheon of progressive icons as Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Fannie Lou Hamer. Citing passages from the activist’s 1952 memoir, “The Long Loneliness,” he said she “wrestled with nihilism, she wrestled with melancholy, she wrestled with darkness and despair but she allowed love to have the last words” as she advocated for direct help to the poor and the homeless as well as non-violent activism against war.West spoke next to a replica of a drone and at one point mentioned the prop, which the Catholic Worker uses for its anti-war demonstrations. Saying Day carried a spiritual burden far heavier than that of a “flag waver,” he contended that patriotism “in its most dominant form — as we see with this drone — is a form of idolatry that too often leaves us callous and indifferent to the suffering of others.”
West’s appearance at Maryhouse’s Friday night lecture series drew a diverse crowd, ranging from students of Fordham (which has a Dorothy Day Center) to octogenarian pacifist/socialist David McReynolds, who got a praiseful shout-out from West. Martha Hennessee, one of Day’s nine grandchildren, introduced “Brother Cornel” by saying he — unlike Obama — was “genuinely a socialist,” a remark that drew applause and laughter.
West stumped for Obama on the campaign trail in 2007 and reportedly was furious when he and his mother did not receive invitations to the inauguration. He once called the president a “Rockefeller Republican in black face.”
During a question-and-answer period, B+B asked him if he would still choose that label for Obama given all the Republican opposition to his Affordable Care Act. In response, West smiled and said, “Yes, absolutely,” adding: “The Republican Party is now so far right-wing that even Nixon would be considered progressive. Am I trying to be too hard on him?” he asked rhetorically. “I’m just trying to be metaphorical to get people’s attention so we can understand the degree to which our political discourse has so thoroughly degenerated.”
Obama, he said, is “calling for cuts in Social Security. He’s calling for cuts in Medicare — that’s Republican party talk. Obamacare was Romneycare, which came out of the Heritage Foundation,” he said, referring to the conservative think tank. “This is a bonanza for the big pharmaceutical companies who will be making gobs of money because it expands their markets. Of course it’s a good thing that our poor brothers and sisters get access to insurance, but the money will still go to profits because it’s a market centered project.”
Earlier, he riffed on Obama’s presence in the White House: “Having a black president is a beautiful thing. It shows that our white brothers and sisters are less racist than their parents and grandparents. That’s beautiful but it’s not worth breakdancing over,” he said as audience members chuckled. Regarding his hopes for Obama, he said: “I want to protect him and I want to correct him.”
As for New York City Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio, West took a wait-and-see stance. “We’re going to have to see what he does. His first move was to bring in establishment people for his transition team and he comes out of the Clinton [camp]. We’re just glad he’s better than someone else. There’s going to be a honeymoon, but he’s a politician in an oligarchic system and he must meet with the permanent government of New York City. And the permanent government is… oligarchs and plutocrats and they watch these politicians come and go.” He concluded: “We have to be with our brothers and sisters in social misery. Love them to death even if they don’t understand.”
The audience gave him a standing ovation.