After seeing Professor West on Real Time With Bill Maher, I decided to check out his book. The premise certainly seemed interesting enough.
There is a deeply troubling deterioration of democratic powers in America today. The rise of ugly imperialism has been aided by an unholy alliance of the plutocratic elites and the Christian Right, and also by a massive disaffection of so many voters who see too little difference between two corrupted parties, with blacks being taken for granted by Democrats, and with the deep disaffection of youth. The energy of the youth support for the Howard Dean campaign and avid participation in the recent antiglobalization protests are promising signs, however, of the potential to engage them.
Immediately, I took a liking to West’s prose. I should point out, also, that this isn’t a partisan tome that bashes Bush (it does do it on occasion) and praises Democrats. In fact, he criticizes Democrats about as much as Republicans, because the problem lies largely within Government, not within Party. Professor West is, by some standards, perhaps, a liberal, though not the kind that rallies for abortion or whathaveyou. Mostly, his focus is on American imperialism against itself: the disenfranchisement of blacks and native Americans during our country’s history, and the strong democratic sentiments of authors like Ralph Waldo Emerson or Herman Melville or Toni Morrison.
I liked the first two chapters. Professor West’s assessment of the plight of the American ideal was, I think, poignant, but I began to see a certain stylistic problem.
We are suffering in America today from three particular forms of political nihilism, each with its own false justifications and vicious consequences: evangelical nihilism, paternalistic nihilism, and sentimental nihilism. The classic expression of evangelical nihilism is found in Plato’s Republic in the person of Thrasymachus, the Sophist who argues that might makes right. Thrasymachus mocks turth, integrity, and principle by claiming that power, might, and force dictate desirable political action and public policy. Raw power rather than moral principles determine what is right. For him, the terms of what is just must be dictated by imperial elites because such exercise of power is necessary in order to ensure national security and prosperity. In true evangelical spirit, such nihilists tend to become militant, broaching no dissenting views. The fundamental mission of Socratic questioning is, in fact, to show that this militance is morally wrong and spiritually empty.
Despite the fact that I think West’s use of “nihilism” in this context is something of a malapropism, one can already see his ties to historical and topical politics. Yet, I quickly grew tired of Democracy Matters, because I felt that West tended to repeat himself frequently and argue in circles. And, though he already wrote at length in Race Matters about race, so much of his political discourse comes invariably down to race, as though slavery is the end-all/be-all of political history. West’s focus on the “tragicomic” (another possible malapropsism for “rolling with the punches”) makes the book read sometimes like an Old Negro Spiritual. The fact that black culture produced blues and jazz is certainly a feat, but I feel as though it only tenuously relates to confronting American “imperialism.” And therein lies the crux of my issue with the book, I think: West is a true idealist, and offers pretty words and lots of hope for the problem at hand, but fails to really broach any constructive advice for fixing it. In that respect, his constant reiteration of his originally minor point made the last half of the book a real chore to read.