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Issue Date:  February 11, 2005

By Cornel West
The Penguin Press,
229 pages, $24.95
Dogmas that threaten democracy

Author urges dismantling of the American empire

Reviewed by CHRIS BYRD

In the recent presidential election, a record 120 million persons voted. These 120 million represented 60 percent of the electorate, which means 40 percent didn’t vote. Democracy is in trouble at home even as the Bush administration wants to spread it around the world. What the Bush administration views as spreading democracy, Dr. Cornel West in his new book Democracy Matters sees as the revival of American imperialism. This poses a grave threat to our attenuated democracy, Dr. West believes.

The sequel to his critically and commercially well-received Race Matters, Democracy Matters is a series of interconnected essays -- part social commentary, political analysis, intellectual discourse and religious preaching -- that urge a democratic revival in the United States. This renewal is necessary to counter three dangerous dogmas that threaten democracy: free market absolutism, aggressive militarism and authoritarianism.

Free market absolutism, in Dr. West’s view, emphasizes corporate and individual wealth over the public good, which has resulted in a great and growing wealth disparity, the reduction of workers’ rights and corporate scandals.

According to Dr. West, the view “might is right” motivates aggressive militarism, which exploits poor young persons and persons of color to fight a preemptive war with a distorted salvific mission and perpetrates a “sick and cowardly terrorism it claims to contain and eliminate.”

In a similar way, according to the author, a growing authoritarianism -- represented most notably by the Patriot Act -- attempts to suppress any dissent on the war on terrorism and is the third dogmatic threat to the United States’ democracy.

These connected threats, Dr. West believes, have led to evangelical, paternalistic and sentimental nihilisms marked by a pervasive sense that life is meaningless, hopeless and loveless in the United States. According to the author, evangelical nihilists are deluded but truly believe in the rightness of American imperialism as reflected in the Bush administration’s desire to forge a new American Empire with a go-it-alone posture that doesn’t brook criticism or dissent.

Democrats, by contrast, are paternal nihilists ineffectively opposing the drive for empire because they’ve been as corrupted by power, money and lobbyists’ influence as the Republicans, Dr. West believes.

For Dr. West, the media, overly beholden to their corporate owners and sponsors, practice a sentimental nihilism that refuses to expose American imperialism’s flaws and injustices. Instead, the media orchestrate stories with happy endings that gloss over any imperial flaws or injustices.

Faced with such pervasive nihilism in the United States, the challenge for advocates of democracy is to dismantle the American empire, and the author believes these advocates should look to Socratic democratic traditions and our own for answers. The Socratic tradition called people to question authority and hold the powerful accountable. In his discussion of American democratic traditions, Dr. West invokes such writers as Emerson, Melville and James Baldwin. Dr. West writes that to revive democracy, Americans need Emerson’s self- reliance that doesn’t adhere to rigid ideologies, Baldwin’s decency in the face of “pervasive mendacity and hypocrisy” and Melville’s tireless questioning of racism and imperialism.

Dr. West is a Christian whose commitment to democracy is informed by the Gospels. He argues we need to revive the prophetic Christian tradition -- embodied by Dorothy Day, the Berrigans and William Sloan Coffin -- to speak truth to the empire and counter Constantinian Christianity, which began when the Roman Empire incorporated Christianity and today is promoted by fundamentalists who endorse the empire’s aims. For Dr. West, “to be a Christian is to live dangerously, honestly, freely, to step in the name of love as if you may land on nothing, yet to keep stepping because the something that sustains you no empire can give you and no empire can take away.”

Dr. West believes Islamic democratic traditions can inform our efforts to revive democracy, but he employs terms from the Islamic tradition with which most readers are unfamiliar. His setting the record straight on his much-publicized dismissal from Harvard is the more significant flaw in Democracy Matters. The racist treatment he received there was shameful and the reader is sympathetic to his desire to settle the score, but it’s misplaced in a chapter about the need to engage the youth culture.

Despite its shortcomings, Democracy Matters makes a compelling case, one that reconfirms the author’s standing as one of the preeminent social critics of our time.

Chris Byrd works for a nonprofit food distribution program in Washington.

National Catholic Reporter, February 11, 2005

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