Democracy and Empire


Now that America has the blues, can the nation learn from a blues people? Mainstream Americans were shocked to feel unsafe, unprotected, subject to random violence and hatred after 9/11, says Cornel West. These feelings were nothing new to black Americans, Dr. West says, it’s been their reality for 350 years. He wrote Democracy Matters to offer ways to win against the imperialism, soul-murder and free market fundamentalism that he believes are destroying the United States, his strategies grounded in America’s deeply democratic tradition.

The ways people in the United States adjust to uncertainties and fear impacts America’s future, as well as the world’s, Cornel West realizes. He offers a three-pillar approach: question, seek justice, and chose hope and resilience in facing dark realities. If the United States chooses Lone Ranger strategies, demonizes The Other, acts with a machismo-mentality bent on domination and conquest instead, he has a sober confidence that America will loose it’s democracy.

Dr. West calls for action grounded in powerful ideas from the Western tradition: question (from ancient Greece,) witness for justice (from ancient Judaism,) and embrace tragicomic hope (embodied in blues, jazz and the African-American experience in the New World.) Start with Socrates’ rigorous self-questioning and use of dialogue in the pursuit of wisdom, Dr. West advises -- question assumptions of ruling elites determined to erode civil liberties, destroy lives and entrench themselves in power. Then add the Jewish prophetic tradition which seeks justice for oppressed peoples -- it worries Dr. West to see equal protection under the law threatened, one example of which is proposed Constitutional bans on gay marriages, he says. Finally, bring the two (questioning and a constant pursuit of justice) together with the power of tragicomic hope. It’s embodied in the blues, jazz, and the African experience in the New World -- the ability to withstand terrorism, embrace one’s worst enemies lovingly and bear the unbearable in song.

Choose justice over revenge. It has sustained African-Americans for centuries, he says, eager to build on the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Put this powerful combination to work in your everyday challenges, Dr. West urges, there are plenty for individuals and nations, at home and abroad.

He knows full well that America’s political system is known today for its legalized bribery, normalized corruption and anti-democratic dogmas -- from male supremacy and homophobia to white supremacy, freemarket fundamentalism and a taste for empire. Each threatens democracy, he says. The remedy for each is more democracy, he believes, returning to questions, witness and tragicomic hope.

Chose the prophetic in every religion, he urges. Resist being “Constantinian” Christians, deferring to American empire, embracing a business-oriented religiosity. Face hard realities. Learn to “swing” with fear and uncertainty -- black people have no corner on the blues, he insists, pointing to Tennessee Williams. Learn from the blues and jazz with Bessie Smith, Sarah Vaughn and Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and John Coltrane.

Dr. West is eager for America to chose democracy and love mediated with a ceaseless dialogue, not dogma and death. He’s made his choice.

[This Program was recorded September 24, 2004, in Atlanta, Georgia, US.]

Cornel West

Cornel West 

     ... public intellectual. Widely acclaimed for his public role in addressing vital subjects, Dr. West is University Professor of Religion at Princeton University. Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism joins his classic Race Matters in his long list of books, articles, general audience and scholarly publications. Recipient of the American Book Award and more than 20 honorary degrees, he has held positions at Union Theological Seminary, Yale, Harvard and the University of Paris. His rap group, “4BMWMB” -- Four Black Men Who Mean Business -- reaches out to the HipHop generation.


Conversation 1

Cornel West tells Paula Gordon and Bill Russell how he looks at democracy -- balancing the legacy of passionate narratives with analytical energy, urging real world action grounded in America’s deep democratic tradition.


Conversation 2

Socrates combines the highest level of serious intellectual integrity and humility in his ceaseless quest for wisdom, Dr. West says, describing his first “pillar.” For his second, he looks to the Jewish invention of the prophetic -- oppressed people longing for justice, finding power in kindness. The search for justice must be an ideal for nations, communities and individuals because we always fall short, Dr. West says. Language’s power is considered. Adding his third pillar -- tragicomic hope rooted in the blues, jazz, and the African experience in the New World -- Dr. West applies his equation to the complexity and richness of everyday life and death issues.


Conversation 3

Hope is earned with blood, sweat and tears, Dr. West reports, describing how the blues always presupposes the “funk” of life -- it’s nightside or underside. He compares the mirror image reality of most Americans after 9/11 and the experience of black Americans for the last 350 years -- feeling unsafe, unprotected, subject to random violence and hatred. Dr. West poses his fundamental question: Now that the nation has the blues, can the nation learn from a blues people? He describes America’s political system as legalized bribery, normalized corruption, and suggests remedies No dialogue, no democracy, he insists.


Conversation 4

Summarizing the Biblical story of the “Golden Calf,” Dr. West compares it to the United States today. He explains why he and his rap group are relating to the hip-hop generation in their own idiom. Music, he says, is a profound expression of the human spirit, and expands. He worries that America’s sense of innocence can constitute a crime, become self-righteous and a danger, given America’s role as superpower. He grieves that most Christians in America are “Constantinian” Christians -- deferring to the American empire -- rather than prophetic Christians committed to learning to love, care and live a dangerous life based on sustaining grace.


Conversation 5

When one loses the prophetic voice, Dr. West says, you lose your democracy. He expands. America’s ability to preserve its own democracy has clear ties to the Middle East, Dr. West says. He explains the effects of 50% of every US foreign aid dollar (only 0.2 %, the least of any industrialized nation,) going to Israel, Egypt and Jordan, much of it military. Worried that militarism has infected American society and the world, Dr. West describes the similarities and differences within the “family of democracies.” He speaks out against escalating authoritarianism in the United States, with examples.


Conversation 6

Part of a great tradition of bearing witness, Dr. West says tragicomic hope -- jazz and blues -- allows us to linger with dark questions and difficult challenges and still sustain our energy and will-to-endure. Chekhov, John Coltrane, Mohammed Ali, Ella Fitzgerald and Ralph Ellison all contribute. Dr. West contrasts dogma and death to democracy and love mediated with a ceaseless dialogue.





Cornel West’s astonishing grasp of the Western tradition is as impressive has his eagerness to share the best of that tradition with us all. We are profoundly grateful that Dr. West has lived to tell his tale in Democracy Matters.

We gratefully acknowledge the “giants” on whose shoulders Dr. West stands, including Sheldon Wolin, one of Dr. West’s five great democratic teachers to whom he dedicates Democracy Matters. To that grand lineage, Paula adds Dr. Wolin’s colleague, her own great teacher, Dr. John D. Lewis. When she was his student, “J.D.” headed the government department at Oberlin College and was president of the American Political Science Association.

Related Links:

Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism is published by The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA).

For information about Dr. West’s rap group FBMWMB (Four BlackMen Who Mean Business) -- with Mike Dalley, Clifton West and Derek “DOA” Allen -- visit ROC Diamond Records’ website.

Race Matters was published in hardcover by Beacon Press and in paperback by Vintage.

Our first program with Dr. West is here.

Gerry Adams tells of his ongoing struggle for Irish independence from Britain.

Hong Kong’s role as a bridge between China and the rest of the world is context for Christine Loh’s work in building democratic institutions in that former British colony.

In The Coming Democracy, Ann Florini shows how people around the world are working to improve democracies.

Susan Jacoby presents a secular history of the United States in Freethinkers.

Aminata Forna’s The Devil That Danced on the Water tells the story of her father’s execution for opposing one-man rule and kleptocracy in Sierra Leon is a warning about risks to democracies.

Former Candian Prime Minister Kim Campell compares the Canadian and America versions of democracy.

Thom Hartmann raises his concerm about what happens when corporations become more important than people.

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