September 11, 2004

Cornel West says democracy still matters

Afro-American intellectual and Princeton scholar Cornel West has published his latest book, "Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism." This is a follow-up to his acclaimed 1993 book, "Race Matters."

West, an unorthodox academic (he recorded a hip-hop album in 2001 and appeared as Councillor West in The Matrix II and III), describes himself as a "non-Marxist socialist" (due to Marx's opposition to religion), and serves as honorary chair of the Democratic Socialists of America, which he has described as "the first multiracial, socialist organization close enough to my politics that I could join." He has was involved with the Million Man March and Russell Simmons's Hip-Hop Summit, and has worked with such controversial figures as Louis Farrakhan (whom he has actively criticized), and Al Sharpton, whose 2004 presidential campaign West advised.

In "Democracy Matters," West worries that nihilism has now spread to Americans of all races. "Many have given up even being heard," he writes, and have succumbed to "sour cynicism, political apathy and cultural escapism." Writing a review in the New York Times, Caleb Crain writes:
American democracy, he feels, is threatened by "free-market fundamentalism," "aggressive militarism" and "escalating authoritarianism." It will be saved, if it can be, by recourse to "the Socratic commitment to questioning," "the prophetic commitment to justice" and "tragicomic hope." West believes that in the fight against imperialism, the black experience may be a crucial resource, because blacks relied on tragicomic hope in their struggle for freedom, and it remains legible in their history and audible in black music, from the blues to hip-hop.
He also believes that the political nihilism of the nation's elite also comes in three varieties, namely "evangelical nihilism," "paternalistic nihilism," and "sentimental nihilism."

West's solution is tied in closely with his religious inclinations. As Craine notes,
He offers to remind readers of democratic resources in America's cultural heritage, assess the obstacles and contributions to democracy of Judaism, Islam and Christianity and suggest ways of reaching young people. But he doesn't subject the concept of nihilism to further analysis. If you accept his descriptions, the argument is won. But he makes no effort to persuade anyone not yet a believer.
In closing the review, Craine writes,
West's intellectual catchment area is enormous -- he touches on topics as disparate as rap history, the Islamic novel in the 20th century and the latest thinking on postmodern Christian theology and the public sphere. But if he wants to address the people, he needs to give them more than just unfamiliar facts. He needs to give them reason to believe him, even if they don't really want to. At the perilous task of disillusionment, journalists, however sentimental, have been doing a better job.

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