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The Table Video

Cornel West& Robert P. George

Friends Who Disagree: Cornel West and Robert George

Professor of Philosophy and Christian Practice, Union Theological Seminary / Professor Emeritus, Princeton University
McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University / Founding Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions
August 11, 2015

Cornel West and Robert George talk about disagreement, learning from one another, and their long-standing friendship.


What’s an issue that each of you changed each other’s mind on, [laughing] as a result of dialogue together?

Well [laughing] [crowd laughing]

Carly, you gotta eat tonight.

I’ll go first cause Cornel has a very long list and I want him to choose the right one. [laughing]

interviewer: Humility right there ladies and gentlemen, that’s humility.

Humor makes the difference in a friendship though. [laughing]

One of the very first things, I don’t even know if Cornel will remember talking about this, one of the very first things that we talked about, we were on a college campus, we were meeting in Princeton. Cornel was interviewing me for a magazine, it’s a long story.

Cornel: Brother Andrew.

Brother Andrew, that’s right. And one of the things we talked about was affirmative action. Race-based or ethnic-based preference policies and admissions to universities like Princeton where we were teaching, or in employment, or in government contracting. And I’ve always been quite critical of those kinds of programs because they strike me as inconsistent with the basic principle of equality.

And there’s some other problems with them as well. But Cornel asked a set of questions that made me think a lot more deeply about that and Carly softened my kind of wholesale general opposition to those sorts of things when he raised some questions about whether we would really want it to be the case if this simply was the way the numbers worked out. That at a university like Princeton University we didn’t have any more than the smallest token representation, two, three, four, five black students.

Would our campus not be worse off by virtue of the effect of absence of people from the African-American community? And when you think about that question, the answer is of course we would be worse off with that. Now, how we handle that exactly? What do we have quotas? You know and how do we choose which groups get the benefits and which don’t? Pacific-Islanders yes, Sicilians no. How do we do? There are a lot of problems I still see with that but I see this as a much more complicated and difficult issue than I did before I engaged with Cornel on the question. This is something I now wrestle with in a way i didn’t before.

Interviewer: That’s a great illustration. Great example.

If I can say just quickly what I was deeply impressed by when I got a chance to know Brother Robby was the ways in which he would always defend our precious conservative even Angelicals not just Christians but even Angelical, anything, Muslims and others. In the Princeton context where a kind of secular sensibilities is predominant.

Interviewer: Sure.

And I’m always deeply impressed by that. I think what has been reinforced in our conversations is the degree to which I have always been very critical of big banks and big corporations that are unaccountable, the 1% that own 42% of the wealth in the country and I remain very critical.

But I think my suspicion of big government has been deeply reinforced by dialogues with Brother Robby and hijacking others especially given its powers of surveillance and the possibilities of FBI and other agencies reinforcing the kind of violation of rights for liberty and the possible creation of an American fascism. You get big business, big banks controlling politicians and then big government coming together, keeping track of everybody and the descending voices being just pushed aside

Interviewer: That warning goes back to Eisenhower.


I said that warning goes all the way back to Eisenhower.


Right before we left the presidency, you’re absolutely right.

Interviewer: You know who’s the biggest beneficiary of big government? It’s big business.

Cornel: Yeah