Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism
Democracy Matters is the sequel to Cornel West’s path-breaking text Race Matters. In the ten years since the publication of Race Matters, American culture, in West’s view, has located itself more and more in an imperialist positioning. Although there are pockets of resistance actively striving to counter this portentous positioning, the vast majority of Americans support this phenomenon, allowing it to define them. Democracy Matters is a clarion call, advocating the swift rescue of the prophetic democratic project that gave birth to this country and that might very well be America’s/Americans’ best hope.
West sets out his argument quite clearly in the first chapter, “Democracy Matters Are Frightening in Our Time.” The capitalist ideology that has structured, perhaps pervaded, American society for so long is a critical focus of attention:
By way of countering this materialist obsession, West advocates for an appreciation of the cultural diversity that gave rise to the American democratic experiment. He contends, “The greatest intellectual, moral, political, and spiritual resources in America that may renew the soul and preserve the future of American democracy reside in [its] multiracial, rich democratic heritage” . West’s critique is of interest, primarily due to its potentiality, and it helps that throughout the text he writes with the fervor of an individual who feels as if there is something to lose. Indeed, the reader cannot help but identify with this sentiment that something of great value is at stake. Nonetheless, West’s pronouncements occasionally have the effect of being more jarring than he might have intended. A case in point is the following excerpt:
This assertion, particularly the superlative phrase “most especially and centrally,” immediately gives the reader pause, causing him to wonder if West really means to suggest that the dehumanizing hypocrisy of whites over the racialized subaltern somehow trumps the genocide of countless Native Americans—certainly a curious conceit to say the least.
In the following chapter, “Nihilism in America,” West laments America’s lack of substantive critical self-consciousness:
As an example of the myopic view of imperialist America, West considers how influential the media is in the country, identifying the news not as news per se, but as entertainment. Of particular concern for West is the frequent (mis)use of statistics: “Most significantly, the obsessive touting of dubious statistics and sound bites by mainstream pundits points citizens away from a true reckoning with the institutional causes of social misery” . This is a valid point that is almost delegitimized a few pages later when West cites a dizzying series of statistics without informing his reader where the numbers are culled from:
Criticizing the media for its tendency to do something that he does shortly thereafter (how do we know that West’s statistics are any less dubious than the media’s?) is undeniably hypocritical. Additionally, the reader remains unnerved by the inclusion of the aforementioned statistics without any attribution.
The most rewarding chapter by far is the third, “The Deep Democratic Tradition in America,” wherein West reveals why democracy (still) matters, an idea that is bolstered by his belief that democracy is more an action verb than a noun . For all intents and purposes, this tenet is one of the foremost theoretical underpinnings of Democracy Matters. It is one thing for Americans to feel as if they have little or no agency in creating their democratic traditions, viewing that process of creation as completely out of their hands. It is an entirely different thing—and this is West’s point—to feel that the creation of democratic traditions, indeed of democracy in an overarching sense, is not only a choice for the individual, but the individual’s responsibility. As West explains:
Again, West’s discourse is of interest to the reader. In this instance, it is the deployment of the term “authentic” that causes the reader some consternation. One wonders who gets to decide which expressions of insight are “authentic” and which are not. Nevertheless, the reader understands and appreciates the sentiment West is trying to convey, the need to probe a little deeper in terms of the phenomenology and rhetoric of being America(n).
Later in this chapter, West continues his attack on the materialist culture that has virtually become synonymous with America. He indicates how he believes a counter-narrative to this capitalist obsession can be invoked:
reader cannot help but agree with West in this instance, recognizing
how salient the perspectives of the disenfranchised have been, and
continue to be, in America. It is worth underscoring that West states
“it has been primarily artistic, activist, and intellectual
forces,” a cautious way of indicating his sense of the appeal
of these forces without discounting those “mainstream”
forces, few that there have arguably been in the teleological course
of American history, that can speak with a similar insight, vision
West continues by addressing the apparent univocality of American Christians that is actually only the loud, powerful voices of Constantinian Christians in contradistinction to prophetic Christians, whose scope of inclusion is not nearly as limited as their Constantinian brethren . Throughout the course of these chapters, West does not shy away from articulating his faith and belief in Christianity, although it is a particular kind of Christianity (the prophetic kind) that he finds most appealing. But as West explains, this is not the brand of Christianity that holds the most purchase in American culture today. To that end, West poignantly calls on his Christian brothers and sisters, Constantinian and prophetic alike, to remember to step outside of their own concerns and address all instances of intolerance despite their ostensible differences in structure: “We all fall short yet we must never fail to fight all forms of bigotry” .
Arguably, the chapter in Democracy Matters that will interest readers the most is the penultimate one, “The Necessary Engagement with Youth Culture.” It is this section wherein West articulates his faith in the variety of discourses and democratic experiments that are produced by youth today. As the title of the chapter indicates, he believes in a “necessary engagement” with these discourses and experiments because they signal the future direction of the country, if not the globe. He also explains his well-known interest in them, emphasizing how these discourses and experiments inform his ontology as a critic, professor and scholar. Midway through this explanation, West offers an extended recount of his opinions about the (in)famous debacle he was embroiled in with Lawrence Summers, president of Harvard University, that resulted in West leaving Harvard for Princeton. Although this narrative is an informative one, primarily due to the reality TV-esque behind the scenes look at Harvard politics, it also has the impression of being a voyeuristic one in that the reader feels that he is being offered a peak beyond the veneer of the Ivory Tower at one of the world’s preeminent universities yet doesn’t feel quite comfortable trusting the tour guide’s objectivity. As with other sections of the text, West writes as if there is something at stake, and there definitely is in this instance. West wants his reader to believe him as he shares his (the?) account of the events at Harvard, events that are, according to West, premised on one individual’s (West) relying on the democratic tradition in his fight against another imperialist individual (Summers).
The concluding chapter, “Putting on Our Democratic Armor,” restates many of the observations West has mentioned in previous chapters. The narrative of violence insinuated by the chapter title notwithstanding, the commentary here is as astute as elsewhere in the text.
summary, Democracy Matters is as fresh and invigorating
a text as one has grown to expect from West. His analysis is primarily
sharp (albeit occasionally hypocritical as previously mentioned)
and his language is engaging, which helps the reader digest the
relatively serious material at hand. The lack of a bibliography
is frustrating for the reader who might want to peruse the original
source material that West includes throughout. Having finished Democracy
Matters, the reader feels grateful to West, recognizing how
valuable the text is in this cultural moment of uncertainty brought
about, largely, through the undeniable power of the imperialist
empire, a power that West convincingly deconstructs in the text.