on October 22, 2004
The fact that some "reviewers" have used their review as a polemic against the left and an empty and spurious argument for the establishment of religion in school shows how little they've understood this book.
"Democracy Matters" is a lyical plea for the beginning of a meaningful dialogue in this country. With the talking heads on FOX and CNN and the dribble that drips from the mouth of the Bush administration (and often the Kerry campaign), West argues that America has lost its ability to advance democratically. This is an important book for anyone who wishes to transcend the easy labels of the day and stop the shallow mudslinging so common in our time. Whether you agree with Professor West's conclusions, the overall point of his work is to have a meaningful dialogue about the state of our country that does not devolve into the mindless shouting so common today.
The comments by some envoking the impoverished mark of "Leftist" prove Dr. West's point: the dogmatic inflexibility of much of this nation has made a mockery of our political process. If conservatives and liberals alike would read this book with an open mind, instead of questioning why dissenters don't leave this great country, we would all be better off.
on January 4, 2005
This book is outstanding. It outlines our anti-democratic conditions permeating American democracy, both domestically and in foreign policy and draws on the deep foundations of democratic traditions needed to draw on to combat what have lost. We have reached a rare fork in the road and it is crucial to draw on such democratic energies.
West outlines three antidemocratic dogmas that dominate our current political climate:
1. Free-market fundamentalism, which trivializes the concern of public interest. The overwhelming power and influence of plutocrats and oligarchs in the economy put fear and insecurity in the hearts of anxiety-ridden workers and render money-driven, poll obsessed elected officials deferential to corporate goals of profit often at the cost of the common good.
2. Aggressive militarism. This new U.S. doctrine goes beyond preventive war but puts the green lights on the elites to sacrifice soldiers, mostly of the working and poor classes, fueling a foreign campaign which does away with multilateral decisions to that of unilateral, lone ranger imperialistic colonial invasions, all for the sole benefit of the government regardless of all others and societies.
3. Escalating authoritarianism, which is tightening security in replace of liberty and freedom. The Patriot Act is only the beginning, as we will see escalated censorship and rights removed.
In this West brings out three common forms of anti-democratic nihilism:
1. Evangelical nihilism. This is the idea that might makes right, as in Thrasymachus argument in Plato's Republic. The stronger U.S. must use its military power to quiet dissenters. All must obey and submit to our correct interpretations of culture. The evangelical spirit sharply gravitates towards militancy and censorship against all views that differ, especially dissenting views and those that employ Socratic inquiry.
2. Parental nihilism. This is found in both Democrats and Republicans, that is, the ideas that the leaders will not resort to the proletariat decisions, but rather remain in charge to work within the corrupt system to make the necessary changes, the idea that it is useless to do otherwise.
3. Sentimental nihilism. This is found in the cowardly lack of willingness to engage in truth telling, even at the cost of social ills, to forfeit the comfortable life for the sake of exposing truth to help others, as in many former slave owners and today in the media where they are drawn to their corporate owned sponsors and what sells a story. Monetary interests clearly outweigh the truth, dialogue is limited, questions are reduced and thus the answers are reduced to the range limits of the questions in the vulgar partisanship corrupting our public life.
While we see such antidemocratic views permeating America and the middle east, both with the Palestinians and with Israel, with oppressive policies and imperialism, West brings out there are those that are aware and that our future depends on those who embrace our deep democratic traditions that fuel true democratic energies. However, we must recognize the schizophrenic nature of the American democratic experiment in peoples who rebelled from British imperialism in favor of American imperialism over the Native American Indians, doing so with African American slaves. So there was always this dual nature in the American democratic experiement. To acknowledge the past is needed and then to reject the imperialistic tendencies and to draw on the democratic energies of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Melville, Gertrude Stein, James Baldwin, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Jr., Toni Morrison and others. In this, West lists three democratic energies, which are:
1. The Socratic inquiry to fully examine government domestically and foreign. To question and fight censorship and corporate profit driven media from slanting the truths. This is the polar opposite from the fundamentalist and absolutist that defines all actions according to their predetermined meanings and then attacks with full vengence.
2. The Judeo-Christian prophetic view. This is the great tradition of mercy and justice of the prophets and of Christ, that enable social programs and genuine concern for the poor, the needy and the working class, to put individuals above corporate profits, monetary interests and imperialistic conquests. Just as you find the prophetic discarded by the Christian fundamentalists control in the Bush administration, you can find this same parallel situation in Israel, where the Jewish fundamentalists, attacks the prophetic Jewish voices of equality and social justice. West believes that those voices of democratic moderation are found in Rabbi Michael Lerner and Abraham Joshua Heschel.
3. Tragicomic hope. This is the crucial ability to cease from revenge, hatred and despair, to retain strength and integrity towards democratic equality with inner strength, despite the attacking hatred and vengeance directed towards one. And this West points out, can be found in the African American's treatment as outcasts, hated as inferior, and yet ceasing to return revengeful hate and not falling into despair, expressing themselves in the music of the Blues, Jazz and original Hip Hop and some Rap. This is the way to deal with slanderous, attacks from the fundamentalists and their hate.
West goes into the concept of Muslim democracy apart from Western domination, the abuses of the Judeo-Christian religious fundamentalism and its sharp contrast with the Judeo-Christian prophetic views. West calls these two types, Constantinian Christianity, from the government of Constantine backed imperialistic injustice, and prophetic Christianity, that of social democratic justice and democratic values.
on September 10, 2006
Democracy Matters is an exceptional read but sometimes it loses its focus.
In his latest book Cornel West tackles the issue of democracy decomposition. He brings to light many historical facts and opinions, which makes his case quite clear. However, at times, he has a tendency to lose focus on the subject matter and focuses more on the historical figures that he is quoting, which will leave the reader disenchanted. One must have a strong understanding of history to ascertain the complex subject matters discussed in this book.
The book is well written but you better understand the writings of Plato, be schooled on W.E.B. Dubois, and have an impeccable lexicon. Cornel's vocabulary is second to none. He never takes the easy way out and that's why his writings are so thought provoking. This book is a must read if you lean on the left side of politics. Cornel gives you a lot to contemplate.
on November 29, 2007
It's hard to know what to make of Cornell West, but more so of his detractors. West is a paradox. On one hand, he has held important positions at America's premier teaching institutions, like Harvard. On the other, he eschews the standard forms by which academics hold such position -- by publishing well-researched, highly-referenced works, many of which have little ultimate value. But West prefers sermons to citations and righteous exhortations to references.
In "Democracy Matters," the West style is in full flourish. He does not attempt to prove any of his statements, and hardly provides enough examples for the reader to be absolutely certain what he is referring to. He is a jazz artist of academe - floating serenely above the dull world of strict chord progressions and precisely-executed scales. This is simultaneously his strength and his greatest liability. The man has something to say that the safe, serene world of the academy cannot contain. On the other hand, a little rigor wouldn't hurt his cause.
In "Democracy Matters, "West preaches a sermon to an America that has become democratically lethargic and is losing interest in the impulses on which it was founded. West pins the blame on a trio of anti-democratic dogmas that underpin how Americans think about themselves and that propel our actions. The trio, (which due to ample repetition makes itself felt throughout the book) are free market fundamentalism, aggressive militarism and escalating authoritarianism. Needless to say, West is no fan of the Bush II administration, and he has little good to say about it adventurism overseas. But West has little use for Democrats, as current constituted, who he sees as captive to the same corrupting influence of market morality as Republicans,
West believes that America has failed to confront two uncomfortable realities that permeate its history: its lust for empire and its racism. The contention that America is a racist nation is irksome to many. But West wonders about a nation which spends so much time whitewashing its founders, who (like Jefferson and Washington) epitomize the paradox of our country: that men who themselves owned and oppressed other human beings could be the architects of a political system that sought to free itself of the oppressive rule of another nation. West scolds an America that can "grow big, grow powerful but not grow up" to maturely admit its faults and seek to redress them.
West's use of the concept of "nihilism" is problematic for some who prefer precise, philosophically-grounded definitions. West sweeps away these objections as irrelevant to his work. Nihilism represents those systems of values that fail to find their grounding in moral systems, but only in convenience or market success. West feels that the growth of these nihilisms, across party lines, is suffocating democracy. He identifies several nihilistic responses that shape the attitudes of Americans. Sentimental nihilism "provides an emotionally satisfying show," but is constrained when required to "expose uncomfortable truths." It is about "partisan punditry stretching truth into fabrication in search for a good story." It is about what passes for politics on much of television today, in which news and patriotism or packaged with the sole aim of increasing its profits and market share. Paternalistic nihilism infects the political landscape, encouraging the rise of leaders who pretend to speak for the citizenry, all the while being beholden to corporate interests and lobbyists. West sees George W. Bush as a classic exemplar of the genre, but names the Clintons and John Kerry among its practitioners. It's hard to argue with either insight.
But all is not lost. West identifies three antidotes or "fortifications" that temper the anti-democratic forces threatening our republic. The first is socratic questioning, in which an environment of dialog and questioning is tolerated and encouraged. The press once filled this role, but it is the responsibility of all citizens to keep their governments accountable.The second fortification is prophetic commitment, as practiced by the biblical prophets like Amos and Hosea up to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and beyond. This prophetic commitment is often overwhelmed by "religious" appeals to nationalism and self-interest. But when it is resurgent, great things happen. And finally, the third fortification for democracy is tragicomic hope, which is the vessel within which democracy rides during times when antidemocratic tendencies reign.West sees this hope in the work of artists like Coltrane and Toni Morrison (for whose work he has particular affection) and in the prophetic work of many young hip hop stars of the present.
West then goes on to apply his insights to trouble spots around the world, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His position -- both pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian is a gentle rebuke to those who insist that one side or the other shoulder all be blame for the conflict.
West's presentation is heartfelt and right on. It has the character of a sermon or gentle jeremiad, urging Americans off the road of self-righteous imperialism. His diagnosis of the racist and imperialistic rot at the core of our country's self-image is sadly accurate. As our recent supremacist exercise in Iraq demonstrates West's point that we are doomed to follow the lead of our twisted national conscience until we re-examine our founding myths that show our impulses as wholly pure.
West falls short only in his seeming lack of interest in proving his case. He presumes certain facts, then makes conclusions about them. I don't expect this book to make many converts. But West's greatest contribution is in providing a conceptual framework for thinking about our nation's history, and in goading us toward a nation that lives up to its democratic ideals. For all of the name-calling that West has been subjected to, "Democracy Matters" is a call to greater democracy and religious practice in line with the best impulses of both. You may not always agree with West, and you may occasionally find him confusing, but you will definitely be better off for having been taught at the feet of one of America's great patriots and compassionate human beings.
on September 15, 2007
I'll be honest, I've never been able to understand the level of academic success Cornel West has been able to achieve over the years. I read "Race Matters" as a senior in high school and found it to be a somewhat half-hearted and ultimately trite examination of what at times can be a very serious problem in our country - racial relations. Having had seven years of education since reading "Race Matters" I feel even more comfortable denouncing West as something of an intellectual hack. My criticism of West is not a mere "polemic against the left," as some reviewers have claimed. I am a liberal, but I can honestly say I have never met an (in my opinion) intelligent liberal who has thought Cornel West has contributed anything truly worthwhile to the racial dialogue. This is not to say if you liked his book you are an idiot. But I've always been concerned that West's writing resonates with the same demographic of liberalism that, for example, considers Al Sharpton to be a meaningful black leader.
West's writing to me always displays the worst of academia: using big words to paint broad concepts but never truly drawing any actual conclusions. In a book called "Democracy Matters," West never takes the time to explain or define what he really means by "democracy." Is it free speech and open dialogue? Elected government? Personal involvement in the political process? All of these? Without a more specific explanation, I had a difficult time understanding what precisely it was about democracy that mattered, since democracy is, after all, a complex concept with multiple variations and meanings. In the end I felt like I'd just read through 200-pages of a George Bush speech, which is to say: democracy = good.
Reading the book I was also struck by the extent to which Cornel West is essentially a racist - or "Afro-centrist," if you prefer the more patronizing term. I do not exaggerate when I say every other paragraph had a reference to either the hegemony imposed by white males over various demographics of American society or the manner in which black-specific contributions to American culture (ie, jazz or Toni Morrison) are the true reflection of democracy. I believe both that white men have exercised an oppressive dominance over American society and that black culture has offered much to the American experience, but neither to the extent West does. A good but benign example is when West refers to Tavis Smiley as the political voice of my generation. I respect Tavis Smiley very much, but it is pretty well accepted that it is in fact Jon Stewart, a mere white man, who is the political voice of my generation. In the end I found this overpromotion of black America off-putting and self-serving, distracting from what should otherwise have been an examination of the importance of "democracy" (however you define it to be).
I also found it to be incredibly self-serving on the part of West to dedicate a significant portion of one chapter - and I kid you not - to essentially gripe about how Lawrence Summers was mean to him at Harvard. Their famous exchange may have deserved an off-handed mention in a paragraph, possibly two, particularly to illuminate West's point about opening a racial dialogue in America through all mediums accessible (rap CDs, you see, are one such medium, while scholarly journals are not). But to dedicate page after page to the incident not only distracted from the true focus of the book, but also came off as childish.
I can guess by the low ratings that negative reviews have garnered on Amazon that this review will not be received favorably. I hope people will understand that this is intended to be an honest examination of the book and not an opportunity to put down Professor West. Despite having little respect for his intellectual acumen, I purchased and approached this book with my best effort at an open mind, hoping to be convinced that West's supposed brilliance would in fact be merited. But in the end I walked away with the conviction that my friends' appraisal of West is in fact the correct one, and that he is riding off the (undeserved) goodwill of liberal America, rather than any sort of meaningful continued contribution to the racial dialogue.
on March 8, 2013
I loved Dr. West's "Race Matters," so I'm going to consider that the standard by which I'll judge this book "Democracy Matters." I didn't appreciate this book because Dr. West isn't writing from the heart. It's all name-dropping, quotations, and references, which I'm not interested in. He's trying to make himself sound smart and knowledgeable, when none of that is necessary. Just tell it like it is, Dr. West. Tell us about your life.
When West gets angry in this book, it's gets funny, and he gets his point across. The part where he spars with his boss Lawrence Summers is great; it's a first hand example of Democracy in action. You get the academic head who wants to be the new sheriff in town, the professor who's been promised creative control (among other things,) and the unscrupulous reporters who're hungry for news. When accused of writing books that are commercial and not academic enough, West responds "none of my books have ever been reviewed in The New York Review of Books, but there's always hope."
Too much space is devoted to the Israel-Palestine conflict, but it gets old fast. West has hardly spent time there with either side. I wonder what would happen if he visited the refugee camps or Israeli settlements? Or any of the other "oppressed people" he tries to champion.
I saw Dr. West speak at a NY high school, and sad to say I was completely uninspired. He droned on and on with his cockamamie word play, not a single word of useable advice. He was supposed to be there in support of a school that was being forced to close, but wasn't much of a help. I feel more inspired when I listen to Henry Kissinger. But I wouldn't say that then and there, because it was an auditorium full of angry black kids, angry black single mothers, and angry black school employees who hate their jobs. West was just telling them what they wanted to hear.
Dr. West's books have gotten worse and worse as he developed a greater and greater sense of his own self-worth.
on November 20, 2005
I read the first half of this book flying from Atlanta to San Francisco and then read the second half flying back to Atlanta. It is an invigorating and inspirational book. At times West writes with fluid poetry, moving his prose into sermon. The book is thought provoking and insightful. I will point out some of the themes that I found especially relevant.
First, Cornel West points out that the democratic process in the United States is still in development with many populations such as racial and ethnic minorities as well as the working poor left out of the democratic process. He points out, similar to the writing of Gore Vidal, that we have moved from republic to empire with all the corruption that accompanies that pattern. West is able to see this pattern through the eyes of the Black man, which allows him to identify hypocracy and blindness of the American power structure that would claim to bring democracy to the Middle East and yet can't bring democracy to the working poor in America. He quotes both Walt Whitman and James Baldwin, both outsider voices, that saw the reality of government and society dictated by elites and yet loved the dream of democracy. Cornell West points out that it is the view of the outsider, the gay man or lesbian, the Native American, the African American, the working poor, the Islamist, and the Jew that gives us insight into the development or lack thereof of democracy within our society. This is an incredible gift to those who will listen and who are not blinded by greed and power or else are blinded by sentimental fictions around our country's past and present. Like Vidal, West indicates we really have two political parties that are virtually owned by corporate interests.
Second, West points out that the current cornerstone of our weakened democracy is free-market fundamentalism. Adam Smith's invisible hand remains the fetish despite evidence that elites manage the market and influence government to meet their own needs. A recent interview I read regarding the founder of the hedge funds had a quote "Don't you realize, we are the invisible hand!" This economic philosophy is embraced by both Republicans and Democrats and leads to immense wealth inequality in our nation.
Second, West points out that our country's aggressive militarism has shaped a foreign policy that avoids mutual cooperation among nations as well as weakens established structures, such as the United Nations, designed for deliberation. The war in Iraq is the prime example. This overpowering militarism which weakens thoughtful dialogue and exchange of view-point, undermines the democratic process. Thus it is the worst ambassador for our values in the developing world and stimulates terrorists rather than democracy. For this massive war machine to continue however,there must always be an enemy. After the fall of the Soveity Union a new enemy had to be found and extremist Islamic terrorists certainly fit the bill as the new enemy that would necessitate dismanteling health and social programs in the US to pay for high technology weapons of little use in a war with underground terrorists. West is a realists and does think the terrorists pose a threat, but he also thinks they gain their momentum from our foreigh policy that subjugates other nations the way we subjugate our own working poor in this nation. Imperialism breeds contempt.
Third, West conducts a masterful analysis of the Middle Eastern conflict between Israel and the Arab states, pointing out the tensions remain constant because of the anti-Semitic hostility of hte oil billionaire Arab royality and dictatorships as well as the Israeli occupation and subjugation of the Palestinian people.
Fourth, West is an optimist and idealist in many ways since he thinks that re-examination of our own history will ground us and give us insight into our international relationships. He points out the irony of a nation founded on Enlightenment philosophies and rebelling against European empire would also be founded on slavery and theft of land from the Native Ameerican peoples. Our own democratic growth is uneven, unique and unfinished. We should expect similar patterns as democracy develops elsewhere. He articulates that democractic leadership is the process of taking back the country from the imperial elites such as was the case with the labor movement and end of the depression in the 1930's and the civil rights movement in the 1960's.
Fifth, West believes in two basic gifts or tools that allow us to navigate through this swamp of power. These are the Socratic method of questioning dialogue and the Jewish tradition of justice as the concern of both God and man. This tradition of striving for justice undergrids also Islam and Christianity. The Socratic method of questioning requires self-examination and examination of power structures with the compass of intellectual integrity and moral grounding. West points out that in the Hebrew tradition, God loves justice. "He who oppresses a poor man insults his maker" - Proverbs 14:31. It is idolatry, the love of money or power, that blocks the God given impulse toward justice. This concept, articulated by Cornel West is suberbly expanded in the book.
Sixth, West points out that communities with little social capital and economic opportunity are ripe for despair. But due to corruption, the middle class has also become disillusioned by government and the possibility of shared services. The Republicans appear to have lost all faith in government as a means to address shared concerns and the Democrats have accepted weakened ineffective systems as the status quo. He draws a parellel between the Democrats and the Grand Inquisitor in the Brothers Karamozov, they think they work best trying to adjust and fine tune a corrupt system rather than re-think the system. Government has been the tool of maintaining the power of the elites rather than a tool for addressing social injustice. West does point out the unique vision of Lyndon Johnson who realized that the system shut out poor whites in the same way it shut out minorities. Under Johnson, West says that half of the Black and elderly in the US were raised from poverty. Johnson is the perfect example of success when he addressed expanding the democratic process in his domestic policy and failure when he supported imperialism in Vietnam.
Seventh, West firmly believes the press to be the tool of the elites, making every effort to entertain the masses rather than educate or encourage thoughtful dialogue. He sees talk shows and political pundits purely as entertainment by setting up chicken fights between extremists rather than careful delineation of compromise and shared interests. Rarely is the truth explored in detail for fear of alarming either the media owners or the advertisers, both of which are financial elites intent on maintaining power and wealth. The public believes in free press but unfortunately it doesn't exists.
These are the concepts covered in the first 10% of the book. West goes on to explore the conflict in the Middle East with very insightful ideas around development of both Jewish and Islamic identity that would be supportive of the democratic process. He explores the corruption of the fundamentalist Christians through the religious right and the need for a strengthening of a Christian identity that is based on love, hope and justice rather than greed, power, and bias.
Thoughtful and articulate and stimulating, these are the three adjectives I would use to describe this book. However insightful, renewing, and strategic would fit just as well.
on September 5, 2004
Got this book fresh off the press and as one who knows of West but who never read anything by him before, I found the start of the book exciting and well thought out. West intelligently writes about the history of democracy in this country, our schizophrenic attitude and the trouble we are in now. There are a few chapters that seem to get a tiny bit off course or take one topic and stretch it too long but in general, West provides very compelling ideas on democracy matters, why democracy matters and lights a spark for why we need to get back into the democratic experiment with some fire and commitment. The great thing is that it is not a bashing event though there is opportunity aplenty, as most of us know. West has optimism and embraces the potential and opportunity ahead. Well worth it.
on January 17, 2014
While I am in many ways impressed with the writings of Cornel West, I do not believe that he pushes the envelope in any significant way. It is difficult for me to conceive of how an agent of imperialism can postulate anything that comes close to a critique of it. It is an alright read, nothing great.
on February 24, 2016
One of the most important books I have read in the last 10 years. Cornel West, really understands how to get to the heart of the matter. He approaches the subject more like a sociologist rather than an historian. It will really open your eyes.