Democracy Matters Audio CD – Audiobook, 9 Sep 2004
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In Democracy Matters, Cornel West's follow-up to 1993's Race Matters, the author's diagnosis of the state of modern American democracy is grim. The institution suffers, he says, from what he calls free market fundamentalism, aggressive militarism and escalating authoritarianism, forces that put a stranglehold on efforts to achieve better social and political results on a global scale. These systemic problems exist simultaneous to a pervading sense of nihilism throughout the American corridors of power, West contends, making lawmakers feel that they are inherently virtuous because they are so powerful and accepting a system they know to be unjust, while the press sacrifices truth and insight in pursuit of a sentimental story. Along the way, West makes extensive use of literary and historical parallels, employing Alexis de Tocqueville, Herman Melville, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Toni Morrison and others, with great efficacy for the most part, to illustrate his points. West's prescription calls for a path toward a style of Christianity more in keeping with what he sees as true Christian ideals as well as a greater enfranchisement and understanding of young people and youth culture. West has a lot to say and the vast scope of West's arguments could be construed in at least a couple of ways: either he boldly takes on the enormity inherent to the topic of democracy, or he loses his way and attempts to touch on too wide a swath of topics while rarely going into sufficient detail on any of them. Besides being a provocative author, West is a highly respected Harvard professor and Democracy Matters reads something like a university lecture sounds: often insightful, occasionally disjointed, periodically obtuse, and sometimes brilliant. But in the ongoing effort to establish a better democracy, Professor West's perspective is highly instructive. --John Moe--From Amazon.com --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Uncompromising and unconventional . . . Cornel West is an eloquent prophet with attitude. ("Newsweek") West reveals himself as a thinker of dazzling erudition, whose critiques are inevitably balanced by an infectious optimism? ("The Village Voice")
"Uncompromising and unconventional . . . Cornel West is an eloquent prophet with attitude." Newsweek
"West reveals himself as a thinker of dazzling erudition, whose critiques are inevitably balanced by an infectious optimism and magnanimity of spirit" The Village Voice" --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title. See all Product Description
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Top Customer Reviews
I don't live in America, but I like Cornel West's writing. What comes across in this book, is his ability to trod the academic world, and then walk comfortably in the streets, among everyday black people.
If I would add anything to the book, it would be a deeper look at the mythology attached to religion. Mythology, that continues to act as a veil over peoples eyes, as they outsource personal responsibility to - the supernatural.
I would also add, the failings of political and theological debate in being able to fuse together the history of slavery and the industrial revolution. Revolution which gave Europeans a misplaced sense of supremacy. The fact is that Europe and Europeans have been catapulted into the future on the back of slave labour. This has not been fully addressed in the book and leaves open space, for a halo to sit comfortably on the head of democracy.
I say get the book, and have a discussion with your friends.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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.