Summary: In this conversation between Dr. Cornel West and Tavis Smiley, West summarizes his thoughts on the “habitual vision of greatness,” or basing one’s life goals in altruistic motivations and behaviors. After discussing this vision from both religious and non-religious viewpoints, West goes on to distinguish between “success" and "greatness.” In contrast to greatness, he defines success as “pecuniary gain and financial prosperity” evidenced by “a big crib in a vanilla suburb.” Commodities become tools of division and alienation, and are fetishized by both the rich and the poor. This commodity fetishism leads people to believe that they are made human, and have a better chance of their personhood being noticed by others as they accumulate commodities. West emphasizes that this warped vision of success is directly tied to our market-driven, capitalist society. He concludes by citing the hope of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others as the foundation for leading a compassionate life, rather than a life driven by financial attainment. This video can be used in at least two classroom settings. First, in an Introduction to Sociology or Sociological Theory course, instructors can use the clip when discussing Karl Marx’s concepts of alienation, false consciousness, and commodity fetishism. This video can also be used to stimulate conversation around Thorstein Veblen’s conspicuous consumption, reflected in West’s dissection of monetary affluence flaunted with “a big crib in a vanilla suburb.” To incite discussion, instructors can ask students: What are media representations (i.e., Hollywood actors, reality TV, magazines, and advertisements) of commodity fetishism (and/or conspicuous consumption) that you see on a regular basis? Second, the clip can be used in a Contemporary Social Problems class when discussing remedies to social problems, specifically relying on West’s “habitual vision of greatness” as a potential starting point to think about social justice motivations and behaviors. Instructors can ask students: Why and how are feelings such as "hope," "compassion," and "love" important to theorize and research (and actually feel) when thinking about how to solve social problems?
Submitted By: Beverly M. Pratt