Sunday, September 16, 2007

Democracy Matters: A Revue

I recently read Democracy Matters by Cornel West. What a terrible book. I'll be honest, I've never been able to understand the level of academic success Cornel West has been able to achieve over the years. I read Race Matters as a senior in high school and found it to be a somewhat half-hearted and ultimately trite examination of what at times can be a very serious problem in our country - racial relations. Having had seven years of education since reading Race Matters I feel even more comfortable denouncing West as something of an intellectual hack. I consider myself at least partly a liberal, but I can honestly say I have never met an (in my opinion) intelligent liberal who has thought Cornel West has contributed anything truly worthwhile to the racial dialogue. This is not to say if you like his books you are an idiot. But I've always been concerned that West's writing resonates with the same demographic of liberalism that, for example, considers Al Sharpton to be a meaningful black leader.

West's writing to me always displays the worst of academia: using big words to paint broad concepts but never truly drawing any actual conclusions. In a book called "Democracy Matters," West never takes the time to explain or define what he really means by "democracy." Is it free speech and open dialogue? Elected government? Personal involvement in the political process? All of these? Without a more specific explanation, I had a difficult time understanding what precisely it was about democracy that mattered, since democracy is, after all, a complex concept with multiple variations and meanings. In the end I felt like I'd just read through 200-pages of a George Bush speech, which is to say: democracy = good.

Reading the book I was also struck by the extent to which Cornel West is essentially a racist - or "Afro-centrist," if you prefer the more patronizing term. I do not exaggerate when I say every other paragraph had a reference to either the hegemony imposed by white males over various demographics of American society or the manner in which black-specific contributions to American culture (ie, jazz or Toni Morrison) are the true reflection of democracy. I believe both that white men have exercised an oppressive dominance over American society and that black culture has offered much to the American experience, but neither to the extent West does. A good but benign example is when West refers to Tavis Smiley as the political voice of my generation. I respect Tavis Smiley very much, but it is pretty well accepted that it is in fact Jon Stewart, a mere white man, who is the political voice of my generation. In the end I found this overpromotion of black America off-putting and self-serving, distracting from what should otherwise have been an examination of the importance of "democracy" (however you define it to be).

I also found it to be incredibly self-serving on the part of West to dedicate a significant portion of one chapter - and I kid you not - to essentially gripe about how Lawrence Summers was mean to him at Harvard. Their famous exchange may have deserved an off-handed mention in a paragraph, possibly two, particularly to illuminate West's point about opening a racial dialogue in America through all mediums accessible (rap CDs, you see, are one such medium, while scholarly journals are not). But to dedicate page after page to the incident not only distracted from the true focus of the book, but also came off as childish.

I hope people will understand that this is intended to be an honest examination of the book and not an opportunity to put down Professor West. Despite having little respect for his intellectual acumen, I purchased and approached this book with my best effort at an open mind, hoping to be convinced that West's supposed brilliance would in fact be merited. But in the end I walked away with the conviction that my friends' appraisal of West is in fact the correct one, and that he is riding off the (undeserved) goodwill of liberal America, rather than any sort of meaningful continued contribution to the racial dialogue.


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