Saturday, April 10, 2010
Cornel West Matters
In recent years, the distinguished Dr. Cornel West has attracted not a small amount of controversy over his message vs. his lifestyle. He has been attacked from both the far right and the far left for preaching his message of equality while sitting amongst the towers of the Ivy League. It certainly doesn’t help his case that he is a much desired speaker and has managed to make quite a good living for himself. I can understand the viewpoints of my fellow leftists who frown upon this, but I don’t believe that the message of Dr. West is worth discarding simply because he has done well financially.
It is only relatively recently that I myself have seriously read the work of Dr. West. It started 3 years ago when I first made my way through the dense prose of The Cornel West Reader which included his philosophical musings on the Marxist tradition alongside American Pragmatism and some of his more academic writings. It was certainly a stimulating read, and, for an Ivy League professor, somewhat of a radical worldview.
In the past month, I have read the two most popular books of Dr. West, Race Matters and Democracy Matters. Reading these two back to back was particularly rewarding as West himself considers Democracy Matters to be a sequel to Race Matters. They are both eloquent and articulate as one might expect from such a great orator. However, they are accessible to a wide audience.
It saddens me that in America whenever a strong African voice speaks out against injustice it’s ironically called racism. And it angers me that these charges come from WASP’s and other white elements of society. West addresses some of the common charges thrown against African Americans in Race Matters. These include high crime rates in African American communities, welfare queens, high unemployment, etc… West hits hard by saying “Conservative behaviorists talk about values and attitudes as if political and economic structures hardly exist.”
At the same time, a common theme in both Race Matters and Democracy Matters is nihilism. “Any disease of the soul is conquered by a turning of one’s soul. This turning is done through one’s own affirmation of one’s worth.” West makes an emphasis in both books of the nihilism of the Western world, and primarily among the poorer and minority classes by “This market way of life promoting addictions to stimulation and obsessions with comfort and convenience”.
In listening to or reading Dr. West you will find yourself coming across his description of arriving from a blues tradition. This partly involves West’s embracing of the pain of his ancestors and the color line that is still so clearly defined in present day America. West encourages us to NOT look at a color blind world. That would be a mistake that discards the unique and sometimes painful traditions from which we have arrived. Instead, he exhorts us to EMBRACE the rich cultures of the different ethnicities, religions, cultures and countries that make up our world. It is only through appreciating the equality yet uniqueness of the other that we can develop the proper respect and love for humanity.
“The fight for democracy has ever been one against the oppressive and racist corruptions of empire.” As a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, Dr. West would subscribe to the belief that the very nature of Capitalism leads to racism. The idea of competition, of survival of the fittest, of being the better man naturally incorporates nihilistic elements of race and class.
At the same time, West also has a deep hope for America. Democracy Matters acknowledges the democratic traditions that are underneath the surface. The book was quite prophetic in this sense by the reaction we saw to the election of Obama. FINALLY, the people felt that they were really making a difference in their society. Unfortunately, as the Obama presidency has had some time, this “hope” has been misplaced. It is now clearer than ever that our SYSTEM is broken, although one of my criticisms of Dr. West is that he publicly voices a little too much confidence in our current President. As a Socialist, Dr. West should realize that it will require much more than a new face in the White House to change the rule of the plutocrats in America.
I particularly enjoyed the chapter on Christianity from Democracy Matters in which Dr. West broke down modern day American Christianity into two main strains: That of the Prophetic Christians vs. the Constantinian or Imperialistic Christians. One of the main identifying factors between the two is separation of church and state. The Prophetic is more likely to hold the government accountable for its actions whereas the Constantinian has BECOME part of the government. This is evident in the view of the right-wing evangelicals that the wars of America are “holy” in the sense that we are spreading Christianity and democracy to a heretical part of the world. This is hubris in its purest form, and is blindness from the nihilism of American politics in the sense that the Constantinians are playing right into the imperialistic government agenda. This can also be seen by the undying Zionistic support of the Constantinians which spreads the illusion of divine blessing on the actions of America’s client state Israel.
Prophetic Christianity is the blues tradition of which Dr. West speaks. It calls out injustice. It speaks truth to power. It follows in the great traditions of the Old Testament prophets such as Isaiah, Jeremiah and ultimately Jesus who condemned authority for being drunk with power. It challenges America to follow the all-embracing love of Christ which looks at the poor not as “unintended consequences” of American domestic policy, but as equal humans to be loved, respected, and if necessary, cared for by our government. It preaches equality in health care, employment and civil rights. It calls for a respectful attitude towards the sovereignty of other nations and the immigrant looking to come to OUR nation. It is the true spirit of Socialism that is inherent in the very message of Christ. This is the common strain of love that all of the world’s great ideologies strive to achieve.
West is on a mission of hope. His belief that the restoration of democracy is critical to the future of America can only be accomplished by a more level playing field. Plutocracy and oligarchy control our country. We as the PEOPLE must take our country back. We can do so through the Prophetic tradition of which Dr. West speaks by educating and waking up our fellow citizens from the nihilism that currently controls our Race and Democracy Matters. As Dr. West says “We must all strive for justice. And justice is what love looks like in public.”