The Prophetic, the Socratic, and the Democratic

Cornel West, Democracy Matters:  Winning the Fight against Imperialism


Pat Geier, a dear friend in Louisville, once told me of one of her favorite adages that dated back to the civil right movement: “If you see a good fight, get in it!”  In his latest book, Democracy Matters, Cornel West, a professor of religion and philosophy at Princeton University, is calling on Americans to get in a good fight:  To save democracy in the United States and to resist the empire of the United States.  West may be criticized for preaching to the choir, but there are times like this past week, with the inauguration of George W. Bush, that “the choir” itself may need to be succored, exhorted and challenged.  West offers hopeful reminders, passionate summonses, and critical analysis.

West identifies three grave threats to democracy in the United States.  First is a free-market fundamentalism, in which the market is our reigning idol, before which we must bow, with all other human values and considerations (like that old Catholic teaching of the common good) deemed irrelevant.  It is just such fundamentalism that the global justice movement against corporate globalization seeks to delegitimize. Second, West notes an aggressive militarism that bodes ill for democratic prospects in our country.  Daily, we see the costs of this aggression in the U.S. occupation of Iraq, most recently in the destruction of Fallujah.  But just last week, Seymour Hersh published  an article in the New Yorker reviewing the serious attention the U.S. is giving to going after Iran next.  A third danger to our democratic values is what West terms an escalating authoritarianism, which, in the context of the supposed decades-long war on terrorism, results such perilous measures as the Patriot Act.  

Like a biblical prophet, West can be quite critical of his fellow American citizens. He frequently uses the image of sleepwalking, as Americans avert our eyes from these dangers, and many focus instead on diversions, distractions, short-term gratifications, and leave the big picture to our leaders.  Not surprisingly, West is even more lacerating of the political and cultural leadership of the country as he detects a growing nihilism in the United States.  West characterizes nihilism as the experience of meaninglessness and lovelessness and he identifies three different categories of nihilists: the evangelical, those who unapologetically think that might makes right, and you do what you have to do to win the war, or get the intelligence (think Abu Ghraib, not simply sadism at the bottom of the chain of command but policy determined at the top); there are also the benevolent nihilists, those who may have once believed in humanizing the system, but by now have become such fixtures in it, that they cynically say they have the best interests of the people at heart, but actually do what power and money demands (think John Kerry); last are the sentimental nihilists, for example, the mainstream media, those who avoid exposing the painful truths  of our life and instead give us a series of emotionally simplistic and shallow distractions. 

Given these dangers and this nihilism, what hope is there?

West is not simply about criticism and suspicion of these developments; he also offers, cheerfully, earnestly, and joyfully even, three sources for democratic renewal.  First, he highlights the tradition of Socratic questioning and interrogation, which is sorely needed by all citizens, but also by the press, which so rarely asks the President and his staff any penetrating and uncomfortable questions.  Second, West champions the role of prophetic intervention and the need to challenge authority, stand with victims of the system, and incarnate the best of the Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions.  Third, West is a proponent of tragicomic hope, fueled by the African-American experience of the blues and jazz.  As much as injustice hurts us and makes us tempted to become embittered, tragicomic hope persists on, refusing to give into despair.

In one compelling chapter, West gives a reading of U.S. history that is a clash between the forces of domination and democracy.  As for the letter, he identifies two streams of the democratic force in U.S. life: the Emersonian, after Ralph Waldo Emerson, celebrated for his essays, who believed optimistically in the individual’s potential for both enlightenment and emancipation; and the Melvillean, after Herman Melville, best known for his novel Moby Dick, but who had a darker view of the prospects for enlightenment in the United States than Emerson.

Throughout this and other chapters, West cites a number of writers worth reading or rereading and musicians worth listening to. His convening is both of high culture and popular culture, as the roll call includes such individuals as Susan Sontag, Noam Chomsky, Outkast, Tariq Ramadan, Kaled Abou El-Fadl, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, John Coltrane, Michael Lerner, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Angela Davis, Dolores Huerta, Ralph Nader, and Barbara Ehrenreich.

West champions individuals and movements that carry on the work of the prophetic against the depredations of empire:    for example, the Sojourners community, the Catholic Worker Movement, and Tikkun.   West himself speaks as a Christian: “My defense of [Martin Luther] King’s legacy requires that we accent justice as a Christian ideal and become even more active as citizens to change America without succumbing to secular idols or imperial fetishes. To be a prophetic Christian is not to be against the world in the name of church purity; it is to be in the world but not of the world’s nihilism, in the name of a loving Christ who proclaims this this-worldy justice of a kingdom to come.”

Indeed, he  poses a fundamental either-or for all three religions:  either the community embraces the prophetic tradition, or it embraces the empire.  I think this is an interesting viewpoint, one that can interrogate standard liberal versus conservative categories.  For example, there may be plenty of liberals who oppose Bush, but are themselves still quite content with empire.


–January 2005

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