"In order to be free enough, you have to love deep enough."


An Interview with Cornel West

Deep love is the chief motivator for demanding justice, according to Cornel West, a trailblazing philosopher, theologian and uncompromising activist who wields a fist for justice powered by an empathetic heart heavy with radical love for all his neighbors. Tim Keller, a theologian, like West, and the closest person the broad Christian sphere has to a spotless guru, once stated that misplaced love is the force behind all violence and destructive actions. James Baldwin, author of Another Country and The Fire Next Time, believes it is a “battle,” a “war” in which we are torn “limb from limb” in its name. Classic literature insists love is worthy of our death. Looking at our summer of widely publicized police brutality and harassment through the lens of love as motivator, it is clear the love of power and authority that corroborates superiority—once safeguarded by the guarantee of white skin’s historical reign, now verified by blue uniform’s proven invincibility—led a California Highway Patrol officer to pound Marlene Pinnock’s head into a highway median strip fifteen times. That same love clutched Eric Garner’s neck until he relinquished his last breath to a gum-crusted, spit-soaked Staten Island street. In Ferguson, Missouri, where Darren Wilson fired six rounds into Michael Brown’s reportedly surrendered body and ended an 18-year life with miles of unfulfilled triumphs and mistakes in its future, love pulled the trigger.

Love does not limit its influence to zealous law enforcement; it abounds throughout life’s public and private, astronomical and misdemeanor offenses. Hatred didn’t lead jihadists to hijack and steer commercial planes into New York’s two tallest buildings or ISIL operatives to behead kidnapped westerners; unconditional love for culture, religion and belief in its supreme truth did. Likewise, a love for religious supremacy leads fundamentalist Christians to terrorize the secular and coerce LGBT congregants into identity-destroying conversion therapy. Love of control and dominance drives an abuser’s fist into a victim’s face. This is not to disclaim hatred as an operative force guiding cruel offense. On the contrary, it is love’s ever-present calling card, a symptom of its existence. Hatred, the heart’s allergic reaction to that which threatens its reason to beat, is always poised to defend love’s honor.

On my walk back from police detainment with dozens of other protestors at 42nd Street and 9th Avenue in Manhattan on August 14, 2014, following the Day of Resistance protest that led thousands of us from Union Square to Midtown with a failed attempt to return via the same mode we came—the street, I thought of Cornel West. I’d witnessed raw love in the streets that night and throughout the week following Ferguson, Missouri protest livestreams. At the time, Twitter.com’s @theanonmessage, Ferguson’s most vigilant, omnipresent, and thoroughly unidentifiable avenger, was my rallying source. I hadn’t a clue Dr. West was behind Stop Mass Incarceration’s leading presence at the march and defiant stance against the injustices inflicted on Brown, Garner, and Pinnock. At protests, on network television, in popular film, songs, and lecture halls at Yale, Princeton, Harvard and lastly Union Theological Seminary, Cornel has offered us decades of insight on race as defined, categorized and subjugated by the political sphere, and mobilized movements to further civil rights for the marginalized. Stop Mass Incarceration, one of his most recent endeavors, co-founded with Carl Dix, was birthed as a direct response to New York’s Stop and Frisk. SMI is upheld by a band of activists determined to educate groups targeted by police brutality, racial profiling, and mass criminalization while bringing officers whom engage in misconduct to task. October 2014 will bring their nationwide Month of Resistance, with demonstrations scheduled to launch simultaneously in cities across the country. I visited him at Union Theological Seminary to discuss police brutality and efforts to combat it, limitations on the black-American male image, passing his torch, and our hot summer of love.

Riayn Fergins


THE BELIEVER: What is Stop Mass Incarceration’s October Month of Resistance?

CORNEL WEST: Different events around the country making the connection that mass incarceration and miseducation equals genocide. By genocide, we mean the psychic, social, and in some ways the physical annihilation of significant groups of people—especially black, poor males and females, disproportionately poor black males. It’s one project and one voice among many others. We’ve got the revolutionary activist Carl Dix, the Organization for Black Struggle; they’ve been at it twenty-five years. All of these are coalescing to connect mass incarceration, arbitrary police power, the decrepit school system, indecent housing, not enough jobs with the living wage, and what was happening in Gaza. Because the young people in Ferguson got contacted by young people in Gaza telling them how to deal with the teargas. That was a beautiful connection.

BLVR: Can you think of anyone who’s coming close to taking some of your flame?

CW: There’s a young brother by the name of Phillip Agnew of the Dream Defendants. He is part of the rich legacy of Martin King—which is my own legacy—of Fannie Lou Hamer and Ella Baker, Ida B. Wells-Barnett. I met him in 2006 at Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University and was deeply impressed with him. He surfaced when they took over the governor’s office right after Stand Your Ground with Trayvon Martin. They took over that office thirty-one days, pushed through and got some major concessions. He emerged as a very important person of integrity.

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An Interview with David Bezmozgis

David Bezmozgis spoke to me over the phone from his home in Toronto. He has a kind, NPR-type voice, one that carries certain American inflections, but really comes alive when pronouncing Russian words. Midway through our hour-long conversation, his young daughters burst into his room in an explosion of laughter and affection. I greatly regret having to edit out their appearance, and Bezmozgis’s subsequent interaction with them, from the transcription that follows.

As for his writing: it is serious and good. Bezmozgis’s debut short story collection, Natasha, depicted the life of a Latvian Jewish émigré family in Toronto. His second book, The Free World, a sort of prequel, follows recently escaped Soviet émigrés from Riga, who are spending six months in Rome as they attempt to acquire visas to a viable port of emigration. They won him awards (Commonwealth Writers Prize, Governor General’s Award) and critical acclaim (The New Yorker, 20 Writers Under 40).

Bezmozgis’ latest book, The Betrayers, is a moral thriller that centers around 24 hours in the life of Baruch Kotler, a celebrated Soviet Jewish dissident turned disgraced Israeli politician. In a prose style that is understated, but always achieves what it sets out to do, Bezmozgis not only presents complex, endearing characters in dramatic situation, but also poses (and attempts to answer) difficult questions about how the individual can affect politics, and how politics in turn affects the individual. Aleksandar Hemon, Gary Shteyngart, Edith Pearlman and Joshua Ferris have all already praised it in no uncertain terms.

I read The Betrayers straight through in one sitting as if it was detective fiction. Then I reread it because it was so affecting.

—Ratik Asokan 


THE BELIEVER: Let’s start with The Betrayers’ first sentence: “A thousand kilometers away, while the next great drama of his life was unfolding and God was banging His gavel to shake the Judaean hills, Baruch Kotler sat in the lobby of the Yalta hotel and watched his young mistress berate the hotel clerk—a pretty blond girl, who endured the assault with a stiff, mulish expression.”

Your use of passive voice is striking. The politics occupies the first of the sentence, and Baruch arrives only in the second. It’s as if politics so powerfully affects his circumstances that it must be mentioned first. The passive voice is employed throughout The Betrayers. It seems symbolic of the way your characters live their life.

DAVID BEZMOZGIS: It’s hard for me to speak beyond that first sentence. You’ll have to quote me some other sentences.

BLVR: Well, in Natasha’s conclusion, Mark says, “By the time I got home I had already crafted a new identity: I would switch schools, change my wardrobe, move to another city. Later I would avenge myself with beautiful women, learn martial arts, and cultivate exotic experiences. I saw my future clearly.”

In The Betrayers, Tankilevich says  “To walk the kilometer was never pleasant,” rather than “It was never pleasant to walk the ten kilometers,” or “But in any season, even in the mildest weather, there was still nothing to enjoy about the trek,” rather than “There was nothing to enjoy about the trek, in any season, even in the mildest weather.”

DB: Yes, it’s deliberate. I think, perhaps, the way you phrase it is correct. In sentences like that, it would be assuming too much of the active voice, because they are victims of circumstances. I don’t know if I was conscious of it while writing. I don’t know if I feel comfortable confessing to it now, even in conversation. When you compare that with the last sentence in Natasha, the people’s situations are quite different, so their headspace is quite different. So it’s hard for me to say, without comparing dramatic moments in both books. But yes, I see a difference when you quote them like that.

BLVR: Francine Prose wrote that in The Free World, you were able to create sentences with “rhythm that echoes the ever-so-slightly stilted diction of someone who has almost but not entirely mastered a new language.” Is a similar thing—an attempt to capture a different culture’s mode of thinking—happening here with regard to the prominent passive voice?

DB: I still think it’s circumstantial. People everywhere feel differently at different times of their lives. Did you think the prose in The Betrayers was also filtered through another language?

BLVR: It reminded me of certain post-colonial novels: characters seem to talk, and engage with the language on the page (English) simultaneously.

DB: When writing dialogue, I hear it in both Russian and English, and try to find a language that combines the two. Which is an English that is informed by Russian speech.

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"Laughing at something is a form of accepting it, or at least making peace with it."


An Interview with Ted Alexandro

New York’s comedy scene can best be described as one big, dysfunctional family. Comedians see each other perform in clubs, they watch each other in bars, at birthdays, and at Bar Mitsvahs. If they are lucky, every once in a while someone in the family gets a chance to perform at Carnegie Hall, as Ted Alexandro did when he toured with Louis C.K.

In many ways Alexandro is a perfect foil for C.K. because his regular-guy stage persona is funny without being potty-mouthed or shocking. His stories are just the opposite—they revel in the pedestrian and the banality of every day life. His comedy is akin to the pitcher on the mound that does a wind up where nobody knows what ball he’s going to throw next.

It is natural then, with so many comedians performing at venues like the Comedy Cellar, Eastville, the Strand, or Upright Citizens Brigade—and countless other venues—that they should collaborate at some point. And some of them do. Following in the footsteps of Louis, Between Two Ferns, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee and the late Joan Rivers’ In Bed With Joan Rivers, Alexandro has teamed up with his old friend Hollis James to create a comedy web series called Teachers Lounge. Recently they raised $50,000 in a Kickstarter campaign and have continued the tradition of featuring new comedians in every episode.

While many people will recognize names like Janeane Garofalo and Alec Baldwin, fewer will know Dave Attell or Jim Gaffigan, even though they have been in the comedy circuit for decades. Teachers Lounge promises to amuse and delight by bringing together the various members of this dysfunctional family whether they are known, unknown, famous or infamous. With Alexandro being in the middle of all of this, it seemed like a perfect time to hit pause to reflect on where comedy is right now and how his own philosophy informs what he does.

—Chris Cobb


THE BELIEVER: Have you ever stood with a mirror to practice delivery and expressions and that sort of thing, or do you just have trusted friends you ask to see if something works?

TED ALEXANDRO: No, I don’t do the mirror thing; maybe once or twice when I first started out. But after twenty plus years of performing hundreds of shows a year, I prefer to try things out on stage rather than for friends. I don’t see the benefit in that, really. A crowd is the only way to know if something works. Telling a friend or two doesn’t matter. A crowd is what tells you what works or doesn’t, so I’d rather go in front of them cold and see.  

BLVR: When you tell people you are a comedian, do they expect you to make them laugh right there and then?

TA: Yeah, that’s definitely a vibe you run into a lot. How many comedians do most people meet, right? People are excited and intrigued and either want you to be funny or they want to make you laugh. It doesn’t drive me crazy, because I’m not the type who’s always on. So maybe it drives them crazy because I’m not terribly amusing. But it doesn’t bother me. After twenty years as a comedian, you pretty much know the terrain.

BLVR: Actors go to acting school to study technique. Comedians don’t, right?

TA: Well, comedians have varying levels of training. It can range from classically trained actors (like Robin Williams) to people who took comedy classes to folks who just started doing it. That’s the beauty of comedy: it’s close to a pure meritocracy. If you’re funny, you can find a stage to get on. If you’re good, you’ll start to get work and eventually get paid. 

BLVR: I may be over-thinking it, but comedians seem a lot like philosophers or public intellectuals. Like Socrates on a hill debating the meaning of virtue with other philosophers.

TA: I think you’re right. Comedians are thinkers. The best ones are akin to philosophers, in my opinion. Not that that’s the goal, but sometimes these funny insights can also be deeply profound. I think the more you hone your voice, take risks and talk about things that matter, the better chance you have of getting into the realm of the philosophers of stand up. But you have to be funny. People don’t come to a comedy club simply to hear someone’s thoughts, no matter how profound. 

BLVR: Do you have a comedy philosophy?

TA: I don’t know that I have a single comedy philosophy. But talking about things that matter to you is a good place to start. Listening is a big part of it, too. Listening to your own sets and listening to the audience as you perform. It’s a conversation of sorts. There is an exchange. The more you perform, the more adept you get at the nuances of navigating that communal conversation. 

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