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
In his major bestseller, Race Matters, philosopher Cornel West burst onto the national scene with his searing analysis of the scars of racism in American democracy. Race Matters has become a contemporary classic, still in print after ten years, having sold more than four hundred thousand copies. A mesmerizing speaker with a host of fervidly devoted fans, West gives as many as one hundred public lectures a year and appears regularly on radio and television. Praised by The New York Times for his "ferocious moral vision" and hailed by Newsweek as "an elegant prophet with attitude," he bridges the gap between black and white opinion about the country's problems.
In Democracy Matters, West returns to the analysis of the arrested development of democracy-both in America and in the crisis-ridden Middle East. In a strikingly original diagnosis, he argues that if America is to become a better steward of democratization around the world, we must first wake up to the long history of imperialist corruption that has plagued our own democracy. Both our failure to foster peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the crisis of Islamist anti-Americanism stem largely from hypocrisies in our dealings with the world. Racism and imperial expansionism have gone hand in hand in our country's inexorable drive toward hegemony, and our current militarism is only the latest expression of that drive. Even as we are shocked by Islamic fundamentalism, our own brand of fundamentalism, which West dubs Constantinian Christianity, has joined forces with imperialist corporate and political elites in an unholy alliance, and four decades after the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., insidious racism still inflicts debilitating psychic pain on so many of our citizens.
But there is a deep democratic tradition in America of impassioned commitment to the fight against imperialist corruptions-the last great expression of which was the civil rights movement led by Dr. King-and West brings forth the powerful voices of that great democratizing tradition in a brilliant and deeply moving call for the revival of our better democratic nature. His impassioned and provocative argument for the revitalization of America's democracy will reshape the terms of the raging national debate about America's role in today's troubled world.
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The great dramatic battle of the twenty-first century is the dismantling of empire and the deepening of democracy. This is more a colossal fight over visions and ideas than a catastrophic struggle over profits and missiles. We live at a moment in which it has become fashionable to celebrate the benefits of imperial rule and to accentuate the deficiencies of democratic governance. The prevailing climate of opinion and culture of consumption makes it difficult to even conceive of new democratic possibilities and practices.
This slow yet frightening imperial devouring of American democracy flows from a lethal combination of free market fundamentalism, aggressive militarism, and escalating authoritarianism. Free market fundamentalism—just as significant as religious fundamentalisms—not only posits the unregulated market as idol and fetish; it also devalues and demeans nonmarket activities like critical thought, compassionate temperament, and laughter at self and society. No democracy can survive without these precious commitments. No vital sense of public interest and common good can be sustained without these humanistic convictions.
Plutocratic economic arrangements—in which elite greed runs amok—create an unhealthy hemorrhage of wealth at the very top of society. This top-heavy inequality puts a premium on instant success and short-term gain by any means and at any cost. It also erodes the fragile democratic trust between classes and groups. Needless to say, it sends an explosive message to the most vulnerable that they neither count nor matter. Democracies reap social chaos when such plutocratic seeds are sowed.
Aggressive militarism—whether abroad, as in armed invasion in Iraq, or at home, as in police violations—heralds force as the desirable means of resolving problems. It demotes diplomacy and degrades dialogue—two crucial pillars of any democratic regime. And, as with Sophocles’ Creon in Antigone, the preoccupation with might easily leads to myopic arrogance and hideous hubris of nations and persons. As the mechanisms of deliberation and modes of cooperation weaken, unchecked power reigns supreme. No democracy can thrive without legitimate forms of accountability containing such power.
Escalating authoritarianism feeds public paranoia and cuts off the democratic lifeblood of any society. The curtailment of liberties and the repression of rights make the hard-won rule of law suspect. The subtle censorship of media and narrowing of political discourse disempowers citizens and discourages novel approaches to pressing problems. The ideological monitoring of schools and universities dampens the imagination and ingenuity of talented and creative young people. Freedom of expression is the indispensable precondition for any democratic experiment.
The perennial battle between empire and democracy—that reaches from Athens to America—sits at the center of human efforts to preserve decency and dignity, excellence and elegance, freedom and equality. We not only ignore it at our own peril; we also must acknowledge that the very moral grounds of our prosperity are at stake.
Excerpted from "Democracy Matters"
Copyright © 2005 Cornel West.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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Table of Contents1. Democracy Matters Are Frightening in Our Time
2. Nihilism In America
3. The Deep Democratic Traditioni in America
4. Forging New Jewish and Islamic Democratic Identities
5. The Crisis of Christian Identity in America
6. The Necessary Engagement with Youth Culture
7. Putting On Our Democratic Armor
What People are Saying About This
"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