Problems of American History
Cornel West is the author of Democracy Matters, Winning the Fight Against Imperialism. It was published by the Penguin Group in 2004. Cornel West is best known for his literary work, Race Matters, which analyzes the impact race has had in American history.
In Democracy Matters, West dives into the problematic behavior of the United States, specifically narrowing in on our imperialistic behavior in the name of democracy. Within the span of seven chapters, West outlines the points of contention within U.S. democracy, starting from biblical times to the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. Through corporate greed, to nihilism, to Constantinian Christianity, and more, West paints a picture that illustrates the problems of American history to its present, both abroad and at home. With that in mind, West argues that if America wants to uphold the model of democracy, we must look inward to recognize and acknowledge our own imperialistic faults, which over the course of our history have fostered the antithesis of these ideals.
Although West lists a plethora of problematic U.S. behaviors, the first (and perhaps the leading cause of all other behaviors) is the insatiable hunger for money, which drives free-market fundamentalism. (West, p. 4) This is most noticeably seen within our political parties, in which both sides, regardless of political party, are swayed by corporate greed. This is turn creates a culture in which society is driven to consumerism, as they are bombarded with constant exposure to consumer ideals. This creates a devaluement of community, and shifts the ideals we should be striving for as a nation. As best expressed by West:
“Free-market fundamentalism-just as dangerous as the religious fundamentalisms of our day-trivializes the concern for public interest.” (p. 4)
The second problematic behavior as asserted by West is the military might we have built. As a result of such priority, West illustrates how our militant focus created a shift of emphasis to our police systems, prison-industrial complex, and unchecked male power (and inherently, violence) at home and in the workforce. (p. 6) Our militarism gives us the access and power to act in accordance with West’s final problematic behavior, which is our ever growing authoritarianism. As we become a growing hegemony, West warns the reader of the cost of hubris, as seen with the fallen empire of Rome, for it was an internal decay that brought down the once powerful empire. (Lecture, 1/29/19) It can be argued that the following issues discussed in West’s Democracy Matters, all revolve and are in part, supported by these stated characteristics.
The impact of America’s free market fundamentalism has undeniably led way to the growing nihilism in America. The political world has become assimilated to the practices of the marketplace, and as a result, has created a mass consumer culture in which the nation grows indifferent. (p. 25) This indifference is felt everywhere, from its political elites within its political parties, to its very citizens. In reference to America’s politicians, West classifies the leaders of the Republican party as being evangelical nihilists, whose sole motive is to expand American domination. (p. 31) The Democratic elites however, have become ineffectual by having bought into the corruptions of the power hungry, and in essence, have succumbed to the idea that fighting the corruption within the elite is a futile fight. (p. 32) West argues that the two parties have become two sides of the same coin; Emerson stated that trade has become the lord of the world and that government has merely become it’s parachute. (p. 72) As these parties are driven (in part or wholly) by money, this growing nihilism has trickled down to America’s citizens, who feel a mass disaffection at our political system because they see too little difference within our political parties, aside from them both being dependent on corporate money and interests. (p. 3)
West furthers his point by stating that the growing nihilism in America has prevented us from engaging in the Socratic questioning of our nation. With that in mind, the theme of American exceptionalism has come into being, both within the context of this class and the book. As discussed in class, there are a number of reasons as to why America is believed to be exceptional. From our geographical location, to our meritocracy, to our democratic deals, and our ever growing aspiration to be better than we were yesterday. (Lecture 1/29/19) In line with this belief, Jake Sullivan, author of “What Donald Trump and Dick Cheney Got Wrong About America”, he is in agreeance that America is exceptional, and as a result of that, we have certain responsibilities to uphold. He believes that our capacity for self-appraisal, self-correction, and self-renewal is what makes us exceptional. (Sullivan) History has shown our ability to fix our mistakes, as seen with the Embargo Act of 1907, to the Marshall Plan, to our assistance in Cuba during Obama’s administration, America has shown that it has the means to self-correct. In this regard, West agrees that America is exceptional, but for different reasons completely. He argues that America is exceptional for its ability to remain in denial about its past injustices. He firmly believes that America is unique in that regard, because no other country has remained willfully ignorant of its dark history and we fail to attribute our success at the cost of fundamental human rights. As best expressed by West:
“The most painful truth in the making of America-a truth that shatters all pretensions to innocence and undercuts all efforts of denial – is the enslavement of Africans and the imperial expansion over indigenous peoples and their lands were undeniable preconditions for the possibility of American democracy. There could be no such thing as an experiment in American democracy without these racist and imperial foundations.” (p. 45)
With that in mind, West urges us to participate in the Socratic questioning of America, not to bad mouth it, but rather to enable us to wrestle with difficult realities we have so often denied. In doing so, we can attain democratic paideia, which will allow us to deepen our democratic experiment. (p. 41) A democratic promotion that we have strived for is John Locke’s belief of liberalism. (1/31/19) Liberalism is the idea that human beings are at their full potential when they have the rights that are provided to them, and therefore, that should be driving force behind any working government. If hope to achieve this classical form of liberalism and remain exceptional, then it is important that we heed West’s warning to look critically at America’s past so that we may better ourselves.
Despite West’s feelings about America, he shows characteristics of a being a revisionist; of having a glass half full outlook. He shows an unwavering optimism for America’s future, one in which can be connected to the very foundation of American exceptionalism. This is shown in his descriptions of jazz, hip-hop, African American literature, and the youths’ unwavering creative expression. He states that there is a growing movement within hip-hop to unravel the hypocrisies of adult culture, one that revels in selfishness, capitalist callousness, and xenophobia, both within the hood and society. (p. 179) This, in addition to our patriotic love for democracy is what seems to fuel his hope. It can best be expressed by him alone:
“Our democracy is certainly in horrible disrepair, and the disengagement of so many, along with the flight into superficial forms of entertainment and life satisfaction, is understandable. But the deep love of and commitment to democracy expressed by these great artists and the long tradition of scrutinizing the raves of our imperialism is strong.” (p. 101)
He acknowledges and recognizes the United States as the American experiment, and despite in spite of the sorrows and pain inflicted on the minorities of this country, he holds a hopeful outlook for America’s future.
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