DEMOCRACY MATTERS: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism by Cornel West

 

(Penguin) 2004

Copyright 2004 David Henderson. All Rights reserved.

 

 

Leading African American public intellectual Cornel West, Ph.D., addresses his constituents, a broad cross section of the liberal progressive world. Plenty of African Americans, Jews, Christians, intellectuals, people of color and white academics, activists, and a good slice of the hip-hop generation are well invested in this man.

A product of civil rights protest demonstrations and affirmative-action demands that finally gave access to realms of "mainstream" higher education hitherto closed to African Americans, Cornel West became that well-educated black person who was not separate from the folk who got him there in the first place.

 

West's doctorate, in religion, is from Princeton University. He received his undergraduate degree and master of arts degree from Harvard. He taught at Yale (tenure-track), went on to Princeton, where he headed the Afro-American Studies Department, and then went back to Harvard in 1994 as one of seventeen most prestigious University Professors. The top of the game, so to speak.

 

The difficulty West faced at Harvard is but one aspect of the formulation of his public identity since the unusual success of his book \italic{Race Matters }(1993). That book transmitted West's desire to reach out to a wider public, to overcome the strictures of academia, and to voice ideas about the past, present, and future of "The Race." Yet its success could be considered a mixed blessing for West because many scholars did not take so well to this popular, rather nonscholarly, and in many ways confessional work.

 

A public had been built for such coming-of-age-as-adult, first-person black testimonials since James Baldwin's successes in the 1960s. Ishmael Reed has called these works contemporary slave narratives, harking back to a popular genre of centuries past. Makes Me Wanna Hollar, by Nathan McCall; Volunteer Slavery, by Jill Nelson; and Race Matters by West, all published in 1993-94, led a rash of successful nonfiction books about black identity, especially from those blacks who were ensconced in establishment positions. McCall was an ex-con who was a columnist for the Washington Post. Nelson, on the same paper, wrote an insider's exposé of the conditions she faced as a black woman reporter, and although it was published by a small press, Volunteer Slavery became a major book on its own. At the same time, bell hooks was emerging with a spate of books that also included a strict black feminism. And in the early '90s, on a parallel track, Henry Louis Gates Jr. was emerging as a major black scholar. Although seemingly a strong advocate of this trend, The New York Times tended to succinctly, and perhaps slightly mockingly, refer to Dr. Gates as the author of The Signifying Monkey, his breakthrough scholarly work of that same era.

 

In 1994 Gates, a recent appointment to head the Afro-American Studies Department at Harvard University, invited Cornel West to join the faculty. The '90s was a collaborative time for them. They co-authored books and often appeared together at public forums and on the media. Now, ten years down the road, Democracy Matters could be considered a reality check of a sort, contrasting the academic presence of one of these prominent "brothers" with the state of African Americana.

 

Cornel West is from Stockton, California, not exactly an urban center, better known for cattle drives and six-gun shoot-outs in oat-burner western movies. But one would suspect that West's outgoing California "country" élan -- with his old-style Black Power Afro, his goatee, and his declamatory speech -- worked well in those straitlaced East Coast centers of higher education he had transversed the breadth of America to be a part of.

 

It seems somehow relevant that this book -- whose theme is democracy and is written by a black man considered by many to be a leading public intellectual -- is extant in the midst of another presidential election that is under a cloud of distrust and impending recounts, investigations, and media blackouts. This variegated story, still unfolding, challenges the self-imposed mandate of the United States of America to spread "democracy" all over the world as if democracy were some sort of franchise.

 

Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism constitutes seven interrelated chapters that target the liberal/progressive wing of the Democratic Party. A sequel to Race Matters, Democracy Matters addresses the nation and the world. The only time West speaks of race at any length is self-referentially, when he tells of his own recent and unfortunate plight at Harvard University, which would result in his return to Princeton.

 

It is overall democracy that is the message here. The subtext, the fight against imperialism, irrevocably complicates this message. Things get mushed up to a level where the senseless Iraqi War; the continuance of the Nixonian Republican tactics of the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP); the quick concession of Kerry, being true to his waffler typecast; the slide into bankruptcy of the United States; and the concomitant decline of many programs designed to alleviate poverty -- to name a few ingredients -- all make West's effort to defend American democracy (especially postelection 2004) seem almost comic.

 

Democracy Matters is published by the ubiquitous, worldwide Penguin Press, unlike the much smaller Beacon Press of Boston, the publisher of Race Matters. Not long by any standard, be it pica or page, Democracy Matters comes in at just over 200 pages. Race Matters, at just over 100 pages of smaller type, was comprised of pieces previously published in periodicals and anthologies. As indicated by the absence of any credits, the seven titled chapters of Democracy Matters are all new to this volume. The reviewer suspects that at least a few of these chapters may have been preceded by talks, speeches, or perhaps media commentary in the more than ten-year span between books.

 

 

Without an introduction or a preface, Democracy Matters starts off with "Democracy Matters are Frightening in Our Time," with a brief quote from Walt Whitman saying something to the effect that the word democracy was yet to be defined, in his day, of course. The word and concept go back to ancient Greece, but at that time democracy was dependent on an elite that has never subsided, even in the face of the literary promise of a new democracy in the original colonies of the United States. West feels that democracy, nowadays, is endangered, and he sees at play "three dominating antidemocratic dogmas." The first, "free-market fundamentalism," cleverly compares the capitalism of corporations, e.g., Enron, with extreme right-wing religious fundamentalism:

 

 

The first dogma of free-market fundamentalism posits the unregulated and unfettered market as idol and fetish. This glorification of the market has led to a callous corporate-dominated political economy in which business leaders (their wealth and power) are to be worshipped -- even despite the recent scandals -- and the most powerful corporations are delegated magical powers of salvation rather than relegated to democratic scrutiny concerning both the ethics of their business practices and their treatment of workers.

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The second dogma is a new and "aggressive" brand of militarism, of which preemptive strikes are extensions, and the third dogma is an accelerating authoritarianism accented by expanded police powers and the equally expanding prison-industrial complex, as well as unregulated male power, as in domestic violence against women at home and in the workplace. "This dogma is rooted in our understandable paranoia toward potential terrorists, our traditional fear of too many liberties, and our deep distrust of one another. The Patriot Act is but the peak of an iceberg that has widened the scope of the repression of our hard-earned rights and hard-fought liberties." Additional authoritarianism is found in "the market-driven media" exploiting a divided country that is also exploited by "profit-hungry monopolies" that own the media in the first place.

 

 

In some ways this early chapter contains a mini introduction to the book, setting up West's parameters of his promotion, critique, and defense of democracy, as well as his fight against imperialism, which he seems to believe is separate from democracy. After the 9/11 benchmark, West sees an "unprecedented gangsterization of America" and the concomitant "suffocation of democratic energies." As a result, he poses the essential question:

 

 

Do we now live in a post-democratic age in which the very "democratic" rhetoric of an imperial America hides the waning of a democratic America? Are there enough democratic energies here and abroad to fight for and win back our democracy given the undeniable power of the three dominant dogmas that fuel imperial America? Or will the American empire go the way of the Leviathans of the past -- the Roman, Ottoman, Soviet, and British empires?

 

 

Is the United States of America in danger of losing her democracy? Cornel West's list of dangers is broad: the gulf between conservative Republicans and leftist Democrats; the Arab-Israeli conflict; Africa and Latin America "still grappling with postcolonial European and U.S. economic domination"; the North American Free Trade Agreement and resultant problems in Canada and Mexico. All that, combined with internal, long-simmering problems: "the ravages of our imperial expansionist genocide of the Native Americans; of the crushing of the lives of workers by the callous machinery of capitalist excesses; of the wholesale subjugation of women, gays and lesbians; and most especially ... the deeply antidemocratic and dehumanizing hypocrisies of white supremacy."

 

West touches on the origins of the old American empire of Manifest Destiny that "disempowered Amerindians, Asians, Mexicans, Africans, and immigrant Europeans" as profoundly racist. "How ironic that this New World outpost of the British Empire, which rested upon Amerindian lands and was greatly aided by African enslaved laborers, would institute a grand anti-imperial revolution and embark on a rich democratic experiment?"

 

West sums up this section of his thesis:

 

 

The contingent origins of American democracy and the ignoble beginnings of imperial America go hand in hand. This dynamic and complex intertwining of racial subjugation and       democratic flourishing of imperial resistance (against the British) and imperial expansion (against Amerindians) -- driven primarily by market forces, to satisfy expanding populations and greedy profiteers -- sets the stage for the uneven development of the best and worst of American history.

 

 

Referring again to the benchmark of 9/11, which West notes "should have been an opportunity for national scrutiny," he offers some of his own scrutiny: "We have failed to even consider deeply as a culture the role our imperialist behavior has played in the contempt we have inspired in much of the world." Manifest Destiny has become a worldwide concept. West asks the question prompted by the attack of 9/11,"Why do they hate us?" He often writes in a spiraling manner, repeating phrases and enhancing them each time in a circling, rhetorical style. The rhetoric can be frustrating, but it has its payoffs.

 

 

West attempts to balance out this hardening line. After all, he is a man of God.

 

 

The good news ... is that there is a deep public reverence for -- a love of -- democracy in America and a deep democratic tradition. This love of democracy has been most powerfully expressed and pushed forward by our great public intellectuals and artists. Our democratic tradition has built on the profound democratic impulse that stretches all the way back to the Greeks, and this book will, in part, explore the rich insights and expressions of that deep democratic tradition, from the radical iconoclasm of Socrates, to the tragically schizophrenic visions of the American Founding Fathers, to the exuberant and brilliant indictments laid down by hip-hop.

 

 

Deep into the first piece, we began to see the shape of the book, but it is a process that unfolds as we read the often repeated passages and concepts that are enhanced slightly as we go along, as if this book were written in one long session, in a building crescendo of emotion that is seizing the moment and not looking back.

 

West's mention of hip-hop is reprised toward the end of the book, but there is an added element of black music that he elaborates on: "the tragicomic" aspects of the blues and the power of jazz. These are important concepts to West's thesis because they are used (arguably, in this reviewer's mind) to balance out the Western world's impact on the lives of the people Cornel West represents. "This tragicomic hope is expressed in America most profoundly in the wrenchingly honest yet compassionate voices of the black freedom struggle; most poignantly in the painful eloquence of the blues; and most exuberantly in the improvisational virtuosity of jazz."

 

 

 

West's "three dominating anti-democratic dogmas" of free-market fundamentalism, militarism, and authoritarianism are contrasted. His balancing forces also are "three crucial traditions" that "fuel deep democratic energies." The first is the deep Socratic tradition of questioning that results in fearless speech or parrhesia. The second is "the Jewish prophetic commitment to justice," and the third is the "tragicomic commitment to hope."

 

The Socratic tradition, while true to the deep philosophical basis of Western thought, does not seem to impact the kind of gangsterization of government West so aptly tags the current Bush administration with. But the Jewish prophets are indispensable to West's summation of the question and problem of Palestine. And it is Henry Louis Gates Jr. who continues to call West "Our Black Jeremiah," as if he has become a black and Jewish prophetic voice of a new age.

 

West is brave to touch on an area where some might consider he is sounding like an Uncle Tom -- or "tomming," as the fairly antiquated term goes (and certainly black Bush administration figures Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice have elevated that term to a near art form). "The tragicomic is the ability to laugh and retain a sense of life's joy -- to preserve hope even while staring in the face of hate and hypocrisy -- as against falling into the nihilism of paralyzing despair."

 

West does not forget to flash his tragicomic hope at the point when his rhetoric becomes overwhelming. At the end of his opening piece he states: "Since 9/11 we have experienced the niggerization of America, and as we struggle against the imperialistic arrogance of the us-versus-them, revenge-driven policies of the Bush administration, we as a blues nation must learn from a blues people how to keep alive our deep democratic energies in dark times rather than resort to the tempting and easier response of militarism and authoritarianism." As if such a response were an option of free will.

 

West segues into chapter two, "Nihilism in America," with a concept from his Princeton mentor Sheldon Wolin, who is quoted at the beginning about "postmodern despotism" comprised of a "collapse of politics into economics," where buyer beware would be the governing maxim for citizens in a "shareholder democracy."

 

West himself takes it back a bit to his only thematic continuation from \italic{Race Matters}, where his "Nihilism in Black America" (originally appearing in Dissent in the spring of 1991), the first chapter, sets the tone for that work, which would establish him in the public eye as someone who might be able to help deal with the problem.

 

Given the semi-introduction of "Democracy Matters Are Frightening in Our Time," this reviewer feels as if "Nihilism in America" is indeed the first chapter of Democracy Matters. West notes "the insidious growth of deadening nihilisms across political lines" that are "suffocating the deep democratic energies in America." It seems that there is a progression, since, "in Race Matters, I examined the increasing nihilism in black America as the 'lived experience of coping with a life of horrifying meaninglessness, hopelessness, and (most important) lovelessness'" as attributed to "'the saturation of market forces and market moralities on black life and the present crisis of black leadership.'" This could easily be extended to the entire American landscape. When West speaks of "nihilistic criminal thugs," often street gangs who step into that void and "rule a brutal underground economy and frightened community, and timid black leaders offer no energizing vision to perishing people," he would also be speaking of all of America, especially white America, whose thugs are often elevated to corporate manager and officer levels where the white-collar designation of their crimes generally escapes justice. To West this "elite gangsterism" becomes "political nihilism."

 

He calls one of the biggest crimes of political nihilism the insidious "censorship of the market." He is speaking not only of the heavy reliance on market research (or public polls) but also of "the broad array of citizens voices" as "channeled through a narrow tunnel of market-driven mass-media outlets" that also include the domestic (and worldwide) Internet. He adds that "our capitalism has always been subject to antidemocratic corruptions" that have prevented many from enjoying "the fruits of prosperity," just as, in turn, "capitalist corruption" has impacted "our political system."

 

West describes three forms of political nihilism: evangelical, paternalistic, and sentimental, "each with its own false justifications and vicious consequences." He traces evangelical nihilism back to the later Sophists of ancient Greece, who asserted that might makes right. Paternalistic nihilism is illustrated with an example from Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, personified by the Grand Inquisitor, who believes in "working within the corrupted system" during the Inquisition and therefore "paternally deceiving the public, shielding society from the terrible burden of the mandates of truth. He has cast his lot with corruption." West distributes this paternalism equally among the Republicans and Democrats, although the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq trumps the entrance to an escalated Vietnam War via the Gulf of Tonkin resolution of Lyndon Johnson only in contemporaneity. He notes that working within the corrupted system also produced "the greatest Democratic legislation -- that of the New Deal and of the Great Society ... But the present Democratic Party has lost its footing in terms of its foundational mission to fight the plutocracy."

 

West gets very specific:

 

 

Senators Hillary Clinton and John Kerry are exemplary paternalistic nihilists -- contemporary Grand Inquisitors who long to believe in a grand democratic vision yet cannot manage to speak with full candor or attack the corruptions of the system at their heart. So they defer to pollsters, lobbyists, and powerful corporate interests even as they espouse populist rhetoric and democratic concerns. Their centrist or conservative policies on welfare reform, the Iraq war, and justice in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict speak volumes -- they are opportunistic efforts to satisfy centrist or conservative constituencies. In this way, both follow the lead of Bill Clinton. Inadvertently, they contribute to the conservative drift of the country heralded by Republicans.

 

 

 Sentimental nihilism is ascribed to the "market-driven media" that play to "emotionally satisfying" programming at the expense of truth. The ethics of the media give way to a preoccupation with "the concerns and views of middle-class and upper-class white people, and much too beholden to the political persuasions of the media moguls." But of course that is the selfsame media audience polled by the Nielsen ratings -- in other words, that good old general plutocracy. "The nihilistic market-dominated mentality -- the quest for wealth and power -- leads to the drive for conquest, and it's when market morality prevails over democratic principle that imperialism reigns supreme."

 

 

 

West purposefully surveys the Founding Fathers. The quotation from Benjamin Franklin's closing speech at the 1787 Constitutional Convention is a fruit of West's scholarship, and a telling comment on his theme. Franklin agreed "to this constitution with all its faults." Certainly a government was necessary for the new republic, and although he thought it would "be well administered for a Course of years," he also thought that it could "only end in Despotism as other forms have done before it, when the People shall become so corrupted as to need Despotic Government, being incapable of any other."

 

Fifty years later, Alexis de Tocqueville "feared that America would produce a new form of despotism in the world." And West points out that W.E.B. Du Bois, a hundred years later, would employ the term democratic despotism as a result of "the deep white supremacist practices of the country's tyrannical majority."

 

Populism, progressivism, and trade unionism are "the three most indigenous forms of democratic radicalism initiated by white males in the American democratic experiment." But "rarely did either movement target white supremacy or imperial expansion." Indeed, Dr. West has a long bone to pick. But what becomes increasingly interesting to note is his use of "we" -- at first as a participant in the grand democratic experiment and then later as a member of the Establishment, the mainstream -- dare one say a member of the plutocracy?

 

As a further illustration of imperial America, West notes,

"America is the greatest nuclear power (nine thousand nuclear warheads)" with "over 650 military facilities with 1.45 million soldiers in 132 countries (on every continent except Antarctica)." Perhaps all that is a result of World War Two, he adds, of "what the historical alliance of the American and Soviet empires did together," defeating "the fascist forces on the globe at a cost of fifty million dead, including six million Jews in Nazi concentration camps along with Gypsies, Communists, gays and lesbians."

 

Dr. West ends this chapter with another restatement of his theme:

 

 

The aim of this book is to put forward a strong democratic vision and critique, rooted in a deep democratic tradition forged on the nightside of the precious American democratic experiment -- a tradition of Socratic examination, prophetic practice, and dark hope. It is a Socratic-driven, prophetic-centered, tragicomic-tempered, blues-inflected, jazz-saturated vision that posits America as a confident yet humble democratic experiment that should shore up international law and multilateral institutions that preclude imperial arrangements and colonial invasions; that should also promote wealth-sharing and wealth-producing activities among rich and poor nations abroad; and that should facilitate the principled transfer of wealth from well-to-do to working and poor people by massive investments in health care, education and employment, and the preservation of our environment. On this vision -- filtered through the lens of race in America -- democracy matters much, hardworking and poor citizens reign, and empire is dismantled so that all nations and peoples can breathe freely and aspire to democracy matters, if they have the courage and vision to do so.

Such as it is, the rhetoric builds.

 

Chapter three -- "The Deep Democratic Tradition in America" -- opens with a quote from the late poet Muriel Rukeyser, on democracy: "This history is the history of possibility ... All we can do is believe in the seed, living on that belief." As far as political culture goes, West surveys a selection of various writer-activists and intellectuals who speak to this American life. "The penetrating visions and inspiring truth-telling of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, and Eugene O'Neill, of W.E.B. Du Bois, James Baldwin, John Coltrane, Lorraine Hansberry, and Toni Morrison, exemplify the profound potential of democracy in America."

 

West attributes to these individuals a unique "democratic vigilance, " which he also employs in these pages in an attempt to temper the crush of political history with the scholarship he so amply provides. He constructs a line of tradition that has Ralph Waldo Emerson represented by James Baldwin in the "stream of this [democratic] tradition." He likewise pairs Herman Melville with Toni Morrison, the "most Melvillean of our democratic intellectuals." But it is apparent that, to West, "the indisputable godfather of the deep democratic tradition in America is Emerson ... the first full-blown democratic intellectual in the United States." In addition to being "a literary artist of dramatic and visionary eloquence," Emerson was also antislavery and against the genocide of the Native Americans. "He left his Unitarian ministry and pastorate because of his disagreement over doctrine," and "was banned from Harvard -- his alma mater -- for nearly thirty years after his infamous lecture at the divinity school in 1838 that questioned the divinity of Jesus." Emerson became "a kind of secular intellectual minister," giving many lectures across the country well into his later years. As an early public intellectual, it is clear that Emerson is a role model for West.

     

 This is an awkward chapter with many awkward stretches, such as, "The commitment to self-worth and individual potential of the Emersonian combines with the commitment to deep-searching truth telling of the Melvillean in the most American of art forms, the blues and jazz." West then juxtaposes a list of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington and Ma Rainey, John Coltrane and Sarah Vaughan as "foundational figures of the blues and jazz heritage." He writes that if the blues "is the struggle against pain for transcendence," then, as Duke Ellington proclaimed, "jazz is freedom." If they are similar to Emerson via the "individuality in their improvisational arts and experimental lives," they differ from him in (what must be one of the worst lines in the book) that "they sit on the edge of America's abyss -- in the invisible chocolate infernos of the American paradise." Thankfully, West brings us back to his structure by concluding that they are consummate "practitioners of the tragicomic."

 

West quotes from some of Toni Morrison's nonfiction prose, in response to Melville and about her own work, and the concept of love as related to the blues. West calls her a "literary musician" because of her insistence on being able to hear the sound of what she writes, as if she were a blues singer concerned with performance.

 

Morrison also becomes a crude bridge to the next, most difficult chapter. The honeymoon for his analysis ends here as he foreshadows: "Her insistence on the need to appreciate the plights and values of all people is a vital guide as we attempt to instill a democracy in the Middle East, a region riven by issues of offended identity." The use of "we" here is instructive, as is the usage of "democracy" -- a concept Dr. West has amply demonstrated as being highly problematic and unresolved here at home, in the U.S.A.

 

What is to be instilled? We stayed tuned.

 

Chapter four, "Forging New Jewish and Islamic Democratic Identities," is the chapter in which Dr. West tackles the long-standing problems in the Middle East that are at the heart of the Iraq War and, as many believe, will determine the future of the world for some time to come. He acknowledges the role of imperialism "run amok in having set the conflict in motion," beginning with the British Empire, continuing through the cold war, to where it stands now, with the "American support for the Israeli state as well as the Egyptian and Jordan states." The support of the United States for Saudi Arabia is legend, but owing to its bountiful oil and the monarchy that receives most of the wealth from revenues, that country doesn't need U.S. financial support.

 

 

Today Israel -- a country of 6.5 million people -- receives 33 percent of the entire foreign-aid budget of the American empire ($3 billion a year). Another 20 percent of the budget goes to Egypt, in part as a payment for not attacking Israel, and Jordan is the third largest recipient ... more than half the budget concerns the security of Israel. The average African receives 10 cents a year from U.S. foreign aid. The average Israeli receives $500 a year.

 

 

West adds up a total figure for all the foreign aid the United States has given to Israel since 1949. It comes to nearly $100 billion, mostly as military aid, which has not only made Israel the dominant military force in the Middle East but has also contributed to the nuclear weapons possessed by the Jewish state. But as West points out:

 

 

that military might and the protectorship of the United States that has accompanied all the munitions has not come for free. Israel has paid a price: it has no peace or real security ... and Israel played a key role in some of the most morally indefensible policies of the United States as it waged the cold war: providing arms, training and intelligence support for the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua, the Afrikaner government of apartheid South Africa, UNITA thugs in Angola, and repressive juntas in Guatemala.

 

 

Those "thugs" in Angola waged a civil war that lasted until not very long ago, and it has been said that Israel helped the apartheid government of South Africa develop nuclear weapons of mass destruction as well. West now introduces "American elites and certain powerful factions of American Jewish leadership" whose hard partnership with Israel "adopted a 'broach no criticisms' position about Israel's actions in the conflict with the Palestinians, a stance that effectively silenced critics, including Jewish critics." He points out that American Jews, who number 6.1 million people, or about 1.8 percent of the U.S. population, have been significant supporters of civil rights and civil liberties, "yet the issue of the Jewish state tends to muzzle their democratic energies."

 

Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ reinforced, for Dr. West, the weirdness of the "unholy alliance" between the American Jewish lobby and "right-wing evangelical Christians whose anti-Semitism, past and present, is notorious, and whose support for Israel is based in the idea that the Jewish state paves the way for the Second Coming of Christ."

 

West points out that Franz Rosenzweig, "the greatest Jewish philosopher of the twentieth century" -- whom he quotes at the beginning of the chapter from The Star of Redemption, 1921: "The earth betrays a people that entrusted its permanence to earth" -- placed "the critique of idolatry at the center of his thought."

 

West takes this concept further:

 

 

The tragic irony is that the deep faith of American and Israeli Jews in the American empire is itself idolatrous and dangerous. It is idolatrous because it makes the U.S. helicopter gunships that patrol the Palestinian West Bank and the U.S. supported wall that separates Palestinians from Israel the dominant imperial symbols of an Israel founded in the name of the Israelite prophets.

 

 

West then grabs Israel by its prophets.

 

 

The Jewish community has been losing touch with its own rich prophetic tradition ... We recall that the Jewish invention of the prophetic, to be found in the scriptural teachings of Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Micah, Jeremiah, and Habakkuk, not only put justice at the center of what it means to be chosen as a Jewish people but also made compassion to human suffering and kindness to the stranger the fundamental features of the most noble human calling. The divine covenant with Abraham, the divine deliverance of enslaved Jews from Egypt, the divine pathos against injustice in Amos, and the divine promise of salvation in Isaiah all speak to the core of the prophetic: the distinctive Jewish refusal to allow raw power to silence or might to trump right. The heart of the prophetic in the Hebrew scripture is an indictment of those who worship the idol of human power.

 

 

West is careful to cite and condemn the Palestinian suicide bombers "who call for Jewish annihilation" -- or at least an end to occupation -- and the early "barbarity of the terrorism launched against Jews in Israel" by the Arab states. West, like his friend and colleague Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine, are both declared pro-Israel and pro-Palestine. They are the co-authors of Jews & Blacks: Let the Healing Begin and are involved in other co-ventures.

 

West's balanced sincerity is evident. He warns all Jews of America's deep anti-Semitic roots and cautions Israel that just as the United States favors Israel for "geostrategic reasons," it could, for the same reasons, abandon Israel if "an oil-rich Arab country could do imperial America's dirty work better than Israel at a lower cost and with less controversy."

 

 

Surprisingly, in spite of all of West's castigations of imperial democracy and his indications of the contradictions inherent in the full history of American democracy clear back to the Founding Fathers, institutionalized slavery, and widely sanctioned Native American genocide, he does unequivocally endorse democracy as the key element in the solving of the problems that exist in the Middle East. Given that Israel proclaims itself a democracy while occupying Palestine, it would seem that Israel's subscription to their form of democracy would be sufficient to keep the other Arab countries from adopting this system. But West gives us a roster of Arab authors who, in one way or another, support democracy in their homelands. It is probably asking too much to be able to sample the writings of those who support other types of governments that would include Islamic fundamentalism. American democracy certainly seems to have no problem in supporting Christian fundamentalism alongside its cherished political system and way of life. But it also seems obvious that whether it is early imperialism or contemporary democracy, these are still American-driven -- most often at the point of a gun -- demands on Islamic societies. And America is impatient.

 

But it is interesting to survey with West his lineup of Arab scholars in support of democracy, if only for the fact that West's fine intelligence and broad scholarship are at play in his argument.

 

He is straightforward about his positions. "Western-style democracy has no future in the Islamic world ... Yet the future of democracy in the Islamic world may be bright if democratic notions of voice and rights, community and liberties, rotation of elites and autonomous civic spaces are couched in Islamic terms and traditions."

 

He specifically delineates three basic efforts to be undertaken by Muslims, owing to his belief that "the Qur'an can be interpreted to support democracy." Islamic concepts of justice -- from the legalistic perspective of "'adl, or procedural justice, and ma'ruf, or substantive justice" -- West believes, "are compatible with democratic concepts of justice." He employs the writings of Khaled Abou El-Fadl, which he feels best exemplify his own thesis: "A case for democracy presented from within Islam must accept the idea of God's sovereignty ... It cannot reject the idea that God's law is given prior to human action, but must show how democratic law-making respects that priority." Sounds like a slam dunk for Christian fundamentalism, and for a man of God like Dr. West, it also works.

 

His second basic effort to democratize the Islamic world "does away with all appeals to Islamic law -- it is an Islam without Shari'a." This has been one avenue for Islamic women "to undercut the deeply patriarchal character and content of Islamic law." He supports his strategy with a reference to the early days of "the first Islamic state in 622, established by the Prophet Muhammad himself in his compact of Medina, which insisted on mutual respect and civility between Jews and Muslims." Muhammad's "constitutional rule" was based on a "principled agreement" between Muslims from Mecca and Medina and the Jews. "This federation authorized that the different communities were equal in rights and duties." The third, rather nonspecific, effort is to be "found in the rich and revolutionary writings of Mahmoud Mohamed Taha (himself murdered by the Nimeiri regime in Sudan for his visionary and courageous works)." West ranks Taha with the Prophet Muhammad in his belief in "diversity." Taha's vision of an Islamic society rests "upon economic equality (egalitarian sharing of wealth), political equality (political sharing in decisions), and social equality (no discrimination based on color, faith, race or sex in order to provide equal opportunity for cultural refinement)." This definitely seems to flow well with democracy. One would suppose the opposing view is considered well represented in the U.S. media by its coverage of violence, "terrorism," and insurgencies, but the writings of some of the antidemocratic Islamics would have given balance and perhaps more buoyancy to West's thesis.

 

West concludes this chapter with a couple of conditionals, one being that "Palestinians may be democratic pioneers who inspire the democratization of the Islamic peoples in the region." This is certainly the obvious hope of the Bush administration. With the death of Arafat and the dearth of a military response to Israel, it would seem the Palestinians have no choice. Or certainly the least choice of any Islamics in the region. Democratize or die. And West also looks to northern Iraq, where the "American empire ... only recently opened its eyes to the long-standing Kurdish democratic practices." West ends with the following most incredible conditional:

 

And would not pioneering Palestinians and Kurds be inspired by the magnificent democratic achievements of Israel itself if the Jewish state emerged out of the shadow of U.S. imperialism and took its rightful vanguard place among democratic national experiments in the region?

 

 

Could this be the tragicomic hope West speaks so highly of?

 

The obligatory piece, chapter five, "The Crisis of Christian Identity in America," is not the kind of piece that would get him thrown out of Harvard as his mentor, Emerson, was. And as a professor of religion and a public intellectual, he is duty bound to address the part of his audience that looks to him to comment on the faith. West's structure for this problem is a mere dichotomy. He divides the Christians between the Constantinian and the prophetic. The former, of course, are connected to the Roman emperor, Constantine, who converted to Christianity in A.D. 312 and set the stage for the switch of the entire Roman Empire to Christianity. The prophetic Christian goes back to the Jewish prophets at the time when Christianity was emerging from Judaism. Nowadays, as West believes the prophets to be the hope of the Jews, he apparently also believes the prophets are the hope of the Christians. "Constantinian strains of American Christianity have been on the wrong side of so many of our social troubles, such as the dogmatic justification of slavery and the parochial defense of women's inequality. It has been the prophetic Christian tradition, by contrast, that has so often pushed for social justice."

 

 

This reviewer would suppose that the first part of chapter six, "The Necessary Engagement with Youth Culture," a quick ten-page assessment of hip-hop, could be seen as simply setting the stage for West's profound discussion of his own two CDs. These CDs are not only literally in the center of the piece but also at the center of the controversy that would ultimately lead to West's leaving Harvard.

 

In the first CD, Sketches of My Culture (2001, Artemis), which helped spark an academic standards throw-down, West intersperses spoken-word commentary over rap beats and R&B arrangements that often include a chorus of female harmonizers, other voices and effects, and scenarios reminiscent of the popular sounds of today as reflected in the black music market. He describes hip-hop as "fusing linguistic virtuosity with musical velocity" -- an example of what this reviewer thought was a particularly good rhyme. But there are many creatively uninspired moments on the CD. West doesn't always rhyme, and what he is pronouncing doesn't always work. Nevertheless, a comparison of drug busts under the Rockefeller drug laws aptly concludes that blacks commit 12 percent of the drug crimes yet serve 70 percent of the prison time. Another CD, this one a double, Street Knowledge, came out in 2004 from Roc Diamond.

 

This chapter is the most personal and in many ways most cohesive of all the pieces in the book. Indeed, it seems to be the actual denouement of \italic{Democracy Matters. }Up to now West's point of view is dualistic. On the one hand, it is distant, theoretical, with highlights borne of scholarly research; on the other hand, he presents a fire-and-brimstone preacher style toned down only by its existence on the page. Here, after the hip-hop introductory passages, we experience the story of his stint at Harvard, where he was a University Professor. That position, only one of a few of this highly prestigious ranking at Harvard, was "a special kind of professorship that resides in no department or program -- I was free to teach wherever I so desired and able to cut back on my teaching load if I so desired. though I had not at all desired to and had in fact added to mine." To be a University Professor at Harvard is considered by many to be the absolute pinnacle of academic appointments.

 

Yet West writes of being challenged by the new president of Harvard, Lawrence Summers, in October of 2001 when he is summoned to a meeting. West notes his surprise that his "friend and department head," Henry Louis Gates Jr. (not as public an intellectual as West, but certainly equally large as a scholar), showed him a detailed three-page letter to President Summers he had prepared in advance of the meeting. "I was taken aback to discover that I was apparently under scrutiny," says West. Moreover, he "couldn't believe the amount of energy and time Professor Gates had been required to devote to the task; it seemed unnecessary, even wasteful."

 

The meeting started off on bad footing, according to West, who was asked to join in "bringing Professor [Harvey] Mansfield down." Summer's plan to get at this often unpopular conservative professor was nixed by West, who said he "respected" Mansfield, a former teacher whom he also regarded as a friend. West acknowledged that Mansfield and he had often publicly debated the issue of race before students who found the contests "wildly popular." But West had to admit that Mansfield "openly disparaged the sizable presence of black students and women at Harvard." But in that meeting West felt he had no option other than to protect Mansfield.

 

With the preliminaries over and West on the defensive, Summers listed as West tells it, many problems: he had "canceled classes for three straight weeks in the year 2000 to promote the Bill Bradley [presidential] campaign"; he had also supported unacceptable candidates for public office -- e.g., Ralph Nader; his "rap CD was an embarrassment to Harvard"; he needed to write a major book; his courses were "contributing to grade inflation in the curriculum"; he needed to "learn to be a good citizen at Harvard and focus on the academic needs of students and not the wages of workers"; and his books needed to be reviewed in more "specialized academic journals" instead of popular periodicals. And "we should meet bimonthly so he could monitor my grades and my progress on published work."

 

Although Summers, the first Jewish president of Harvard, ended the -- as West termed it -- "tirade with a sense of reassurance" and "a smug grin of ... arrogance," West wondered what kind of reaction Summers could possibly expect. A mouthful.

 

 

In response I looked him straight in the eyes and asked him what kind of person he took me to be. I informed him that I had missed one class in all my time at Harvard, in order to give the keynote address at a Harvard-sponsored conference on AIDS in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, led by my wife. That I don't support candidates based on what others say or respect but based on my personal convictions. That I was as much a part of the Harvard tradition as he was (I revere the place, having graduated from Harvard College in 1973) and that if I wanted to present a danceable education to young people in their own idiom I would do so. That I had written sixteen books, including a highly respected treatment of the major American philosophical tradition (pragmatism -- from Emerson to Rorty) still in print after twelve years. That the grades in my courses could stand next to any grades in any other department ... That I have given over fifty lectures to student groups in my seven years at Harvard. That my office hours were often extended to five hours to accommodate students. And that I would not mind meeting him over the year but never to be monitored as if I were a negligent graduate student. At that our meeting was over.

 

 

West writes that soon after that meeting the conflict somehow "became a news bombshell" with the \italic{Boston Globe}. Then \italic{The New York Times,} in a front-page article, although West says he was never interviewed, "focused on Summer's ambivalence about affirmative action, an issue not even broached in our meeting." A national press corps, according to West, descended on Cambridge. Students distributed and signed petitions. "TV pundits were charging me with never showing up for classes, spending all my time in the recording studio, refusing to write books, publishing mediocre text years ago and mau-mauing Summers to enhance my salary." To top it off, "George Will even wrote that my position at Harvard was an extreme case of 'racial entitlement.'"

 

Pressure. Was this a cabal to dislodge him from the nation's premier institution of higher learning? Were his friends, colleagues, and even his department head part of this cabal?

 

West maintains that after conferring with close colleagues at Harvard soon after that meeting, he decided to resign rather than go public and fight it. But after the firestorm in the press, he decided to respond. Tavis Smiley's radio and TV programs, The New York Times, and the dubious O'Rielly Factor were his platforms. West let it be known that he "had more academic references than fourteen of the other seventeen Harvard University Professors" and, to boot, "nearly twice as many such references as Summer himself." The counterattack put Harvard itself in the public mix and, of course, President Summers requested another meeting.

 

West reports, "In our next meeting, Summers was cordial, at ease, and clearly eager to get the matter behind him." They talked "movingly" about West's upcoming cancer surgery. Summers, himself a survivor of a bout with cancer, was supportive and encouraging. West relates that Summers thanked him for not "playing the race card," because "his major fear in the incident was clearly that he would be pegged as a racist -- a charge already leveled at him during his years at the World Bank." And then came what West was apparently looking for: "He said we'd had a mere misunderstanding and apologized -- more than once -- to me." West accused Summers of authorizing "every xenophobic and conservative or neoliberal newspaper writer in the country to unleash pent-up hostility towards me," but he does not say whether he accepted Summers's apology.

 

From here on, we have a variation on Ralph Waldo Ellison's Invisible Man and the symbolic letter, given to the nameless hero by a genial Negro college white patron, that would dog him in his career forevermore.

 

The next day, another front-page story in The New York Times reported the opposite of what had happened at that meeting -- that "Summers had not budged an inch, had held his ground against me and refused to apologize." West could not believe his eyes. He called Summers, who affirmed that he had indeed apologized and that the reporter must have gotten the story wrong. West was totally flummoxed. As he sadly confides to the reader:

 

 

Unbelievably, I was later to find out that when a contact of mine asked the reporter about the story, and whether Summers had apologized to me, the reporter said that in an interview Summers had strongly insisted that he had not apologized and would never do so. I then knew just what an unprincipled power player I was dealing with.

 

 

West struck back.

 

 

In my next interview I called Summers the Ariel Sharon of American higher education -- a bull in a china shop, a bully in a difficult and delicate situation, an arrogant man, and an ineffective leader. Needless to say, more hell broke loose. Charges of anti-Semitism were heard from New York to Tel Aviv -- charges I had encountered before given my support of the Million Man March led by Minister Louis Farrakhan, as well as my staunch opposition with my friend Rabbi Michael Lerner to Sharon's repressive policies against the Palestinians.

 

 

As West ends this chapter, which effectively ends the book, (although there is an uneventful concluding chapter) he takes the high road, noting how low academia has sunk, a level that parallels "the troubles with American business and society at large." But West is candid about his biggest disappointment: the lack of support he received from his fellow University Professors and, the reviewer would guess, although this is never stated explicitly, his lack of support from Henry Louis Gates Jr., his department head and "friend."

 

West points out that "what was missed was the larger issue -- a debate about the vision of the national university in the age of American empire." Although in the next sentence he brings it back to himself and his accomplishments -- especially the fact that, having been tenured at Yale, Princeton, and Harvard, he cannot believe what happened to him. West reiterates the scenario one more time as he ends this piece, re: black-Jewish relations:

 

 

The first Jewish president of Harvard -- an institution with its own history of anti-Semitism and racism -- not only comes down on a high profile African-American professor but also challenges the merits of the premier Afro-American Studies Department in the world.

 

     

West defends his approach to higher education: "My vision of academic engagement embraces his [President Summers] academic standards of excellence yet also revels in overcoming the huge distance between the elite world of the universities, the young people in the hood, and the democratic activists who fight for social change."

 

 

Well said, but does it scan? Does it stand up? For instance, earlier in the piece West points to his impressive list of radio and television appearances and even feature film appearances, as well as personal appearances in prisons and a personal involvement in parenting and children's issues. But this reviewer wonders about "the annual Pass-the-Mic tour of several cities -- with crowds of thousands paying $50 a ticket to engage in a discussion of serious issues -- that I do with Tavis Smiley and Michael Eric Dyson ... [which] joins older and younger people in a democratic space of critique and resistance to imperial America." Would those Boyz in the Hood and those protesters in the street pay $50 to hear these three bloods? As the Wayan Brothers' retiree, Homey the Clown, would say, "Homey don't THINK so."

 

Nowhere in the chapter does West indicate that he will definitely leave Harvard. Yet one finds on the book jacket that he is now "the Class of 1943 University Professor of Religion" at Princeton, but no longer director of Afro-American studies, as he was when \italic{Race Matters} was published some twelve years ago. He seems older, wiser at this point in time, his book-jacket photo displaying lines of worry across his forehead instead of the sly smile of optimism in his Race Matters photo that went along with his elegant French cuffs and well-appointed dark suit, vest, and power tie. That was the face of hope, even though, in the author's preface, we are told of the harrowing experience he had in trying to catch a cab on Park Avenue to take him to Harlem for the very photo on the cover of this breakthrough book. Since that time, Dr. West has, indeed, suffered much deeper, life-changing indignities as a public intellectual, as a high-ranking academician, and as a solitary, existential black man.

 

Perhaps someday these brilliant professors who run those gigantic research engines at prestigious universities could give some guidance to poor black people and other poor people, or perhaps lend some support to the lesser African American studies programs and institutes under attack (in New York City, for instance, there are no African American studies departments in the major institutions of higher education -- a scandal for all black academics), or even give some direction to those multitudes facing a changing world, with incipient fascism at home, unpopular wars abroad, currency deflation, no jobs anywhere, and a general lack of participation (in fact well documented widespread disenfranchisement) in this democracy in the United States of America -- at the beginning of this new millennium.

Steve CannonTribes