Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight against Imperialism
by Cornel West
229 pages (trade paperback)
In general, I agree with Cornel West's opinions. White supremacy is uncomfortable but undeniable; both political parties are screwed up; I find his subdefinitions of nihilism intriguing. However, I believe that West's approach to his subject is fundamentally flawed. His scathing tone will offend enemies and allies alike--for instance, he condemns youth blogging as comparable to middle-school blowjobs (176)--which accomplishes exactly nothing. Fancy rhetoric is all and well for a philosopher, but West is damn unpersuasive, especially for such a noted scholar and tenured Harvard professor. I'm sure he can present an eloquent defense of his argument, but in writing popular nonfiction, such skills are useless. West's prose is flagrantly critical and filled with emotional triggerwords, the latter of which I also find sloppy. He has some wonderful points but to the general public, his worthy ideas are buried in execution.
Furthermore, West has a tendency to ramble almost-but-not-quite off topic. From the title, one would think that the book concerns democracy; this is technically correct, but should not be an excuse for him to devote half of a chapter to a direct defense of an apparently much-publicized debacle with Harvard's President Summers. I, for one, expected more content relating to democracy rather than (black/white) race, (Judaic/Muslim) religion, or West's memoirs. All are fine topics for a book, but they do not belong in this
book. Thus, for IBARW 2008, I am reviewing Democracy Matters
rather than West's previous book, Race Matters
(i.e. the former was assigned reading for a class and I'm now disinclined to read the latter). And I'll even incorporate the intersectionality theme, since West devotes two out of seven chapters to discussing religion.Table of Contents
1. Democracy Matters Are Frightening in Our Time [introduction]
2. Nihilism in America [background to discussion of democracy]
3. The Deep Democratic Tradition in America [what this book should have been entirely about]
4. Forging New Jewish and Islamic Identities [what about Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, and agnostics?]
5. The Crisis of Christian Identity in America [oh, boohoo--sorry, but I have very little sympathy for the religious majority's wavering faith in a supposedly secular nation]
6. The Necessary Engagement of Youth Culture [by making a hip-hop CD, insulting youth bloggers, and defending his side of the Summers scandal]
7. Putting on Our Democratic Armor [conclusion]
The first chapter does a decent job of introducing West's concept of democracy. You would do well to go find a comfortable-to-hold highlighter at this time, because his prose often elevates obscurity above clarity. West says that the three dogmas against democracy today (in the U.S., it is assumed) are free-market fundamentalism, aggressive militarism, and escalating authoritarianism. Broad accusations follow, plus a shout-out to every major anti-ism. Three counter-dogmas: Socratic questioning, prophetic witness, and tragicomic hope. Interesting analysis of 9/11--"Never before have Americans of all
[emphasis original] classes, colors, regions, religions, genders, and sexual orientations felt safe, unprotected, subject to random violence, and hated" (20). I wish he had used "beliefs" instead of "religions," but that's a minor quibble. The introduction is actually a decent read, once you get past the prose; for example, on page 15: "Race is not a lens to justify sentimental stories of pure heroes of color and impure white villains or melodramatic tales of innocent victims of color and demonic white victimizers."
Chapter two actually follows up on some of the introduction's implicit promises, with an interesting discussion of political nihilism and its subsets--evangelical, paternalistic, sentimental. I have 20 minutes left to write this before it's tomorrow, so I'm not detailing all these weird philosophical terms that West makes up. Chapter three talks about democracy as a verb rather than a noun. It's also exceptionally dense and would probably make more sense on rereading.
The fourth chapter, which begins an extended discussion of religion in America, is where my patience with West begins to wear thin. I'm fascinated with the impact of religion on American culture and would readily admit that it has some bearing on American democracy; but it is hardly two-sevenths of all democracy matters. West laments the patriarchal leanings of Islam and the dangers in the Middle East without presenting any possible or theoretical solutions. The rest of the chapter tells me lots and lots of stuff about Judaism, which is great except that it's not
diverse in the way that West's introduction promises. Chapter five continues the same broad topic, this time focusing solely on Christian identity. I believe Buddhism is briefly mentioned in passing as an afterthought; I don't recall anything about Hinduism, arguably the world's oldest organized religion, and with this track record, I won't even bother looking for awareness of American atheists and content agnostics. West acknowledges that he is a devout black Christian--apparently the "black" part of that makes him an amazing spokesman for all oppressed minorities--but I found his treatment of religion identical to that of mainstream America. The Christian viewpoint obviously dominates, with Judaism welcomed because of a common God and Islam a point of concern post-9/11. Eastern religions and non-believers exist outside a democratic America, is how I read West.
Also, re: page 165, "...the most liberal nonwhite group--American Jews--voted for Reagan..." Am I lonely and delusional in thinking that most American Jews--especially the traditional families, not the isolated converts--are white
? Ethnicity /=/ race, kthxbai.
Chapter six involves West bragging about his outreach efforts to black youth, then defending himself to an imaginary bank of reporters concerning his "all-too-notorious encounter with the president of Harvard, Lawrence Summers." It also hosts the ludicrous association I mentioned above, on page 176. I quote necessarily at length:
...we witness personal depression, psychic pain, and individual loneliness fueling media-influenced modes of escapism. These include the high use of drugs like cocaine and Ecstasy, the growing popularity of performing sex acts at incredibly young ages, such as middle-school-age girls giving boys blow jobs because it will make them "cool"; and the way in which so many kids have become addicted to going online and instant messaging or creating Weblogs in which they assume an alternate personality. This disgraceful numbing of the senses, dulling of the mind, and confining of life to an eternal present--with a lack of connection to the past and no vision for a different future--is an insidious form of soul murder. And we wonder why depression escalates and suicides increase among our precious children.
Ironically, I'm critiquing West as a youth blogger, posting this on a "Weblog" under an alternate personality and killing my (condemned-to-Hell-anyway) soul. Moving on--the last chapter is thankfully just a reiteration of the first three. For a book about democracy, this one talked a whole lot about race and couldn't even cover that tangent properly.
Overall, I am dissatisfied with West's decisions and omissions. He portrays himself as an ally of all the variously oppressed, but he sees fit to champion only certain groups. I will not be reading Race Matters
because I have limited reading time these days and given the choice, I'd much rather read Frank Wu's Yellow
, then go on to educate myself about all the rest of the non-black and non-white U.S. ethnicities. Is this my own cultural prejudice against African-Americans? Perhaps, but I feel that others--not necessarily my ethnic peers, though I'm woefully ignorant about them as well--more desperately need representation in the race discussion. The final verdict on Democracy Matters
is mixed; I didn't enjoy it, but I don't think it was a waste of time either. In the end, it's up to you.
And I'm 5 minutes over the deadline, alas.