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The Continuous Decline of the West

H.L. Mencken’s trenchant observation that behind every dumb idea lurks a college professor is fully revealed in Cornel West’s Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism (Penguin Press). Written in the aftermath of 9/11 and the Bush Administration’s pre-emptive offensive in Iraq, West, formerly of Harvard but now at Princeton, essentially solidifies his status as the bien pensant of the oatmeal Left’s bland and mushy thinking. How else can one explain this bit of analysis of the Middle East:

The major obstacle to peace in the region is the autocratic rule of Arab elites and their support, whether explicit or implicit, of anti-Jewish terrorism. The heinous terrorism has dealt a devastating blow to peace, but the special relationship between the US and Israel and Israeli violence against Palestinians have played crucial roles also in the deepening of the conflict.

West has basically subscribed to Ariel Sharon’s position: it’s "all the Arabs’ fault." By tweaking suicide bombings as being "anti-Jewish terrorism," not anti-Israeli (i.e., against the state of Israel as opposed to solely targeting people because of their religion or ethnicity), West endorses the Right’s argument that everything and anything critical of Israel is plainly anti-Semitic. On this crucial issue as well as many others, West’s position is neither original nor progressive.

The essential problem with Democracy Matters is that it is a narcissistic piece of work from a man who has nothing to say in regard to either American foreign policy or this country’s democratic practices. What gives him a license, however, is his role as a so-called public intellectual. The black public intellectual project of Left of Center academics—West, Henry Louis Gates, bell hooks, Michael Eric Dyson and other fellow travelers—has been one of the most cynical endeavors produced; they are market intellectuals who sell attitude. While the aforementioned have cranked out works of no practical significance, their counterparts on the Right—Thomas Sowell, Shelby Steele, John McWhorter and others—have done a better job being public intellectuals in public policy issues: education, crime, welfare, etc. They—black conservative intellectuals—have helped shift debates over public policy, albeit to the detriment of most African Americans.

West for his part has essentially produced no qualitative work in almost 20 years, and has instead coasted on best-selling anemic projects like Race Matters or his spoken-word projects, Sketches of My Culture or Street Knowledge. This shows in Democracy Matters, which tries to take up from where he left off in Race Matters. West, trained in the obfuscation practices of philosophy, scored points in the marketplace when he introduced the term nihilism to explain inner-city black behavior. Just as "underclass" behavior became the mode of discourse for the Right, nihilism was useful for the pseudo-intellectuals of the Left.

A one-note Johnny, West has expanded the use of nihilism to explain American behavior in the post-9/11 world. After initially embarrassing himself by dubbing that horrific event as the "niggerization of America," he then offers three "dominating, anti-democratic dogmas" which threaten America: "free-market fundamentalism," "aggressive militarism," and "escalating authoritarianism." Americans, he says, must engage in the Socratic method of questioning those dogmas in order to enhance democracy. It’s interesting that he chose the Socratic method, however, since Socrates, as argued by I. F. Stone in The Trial of Socrates, was anti-democratic in his refusal to accept the judgment of the people of Athens.

West is concerned that "free market fundamentalism" essentially "promotes the pervasive sleepwalking of the populace, who see that the false prophets are handsomely rewarded with money, status and access to more power. This profit-driven vision is sucking the democratic life of out of American society." This sleepwalking is so pervasive, however, that few even question that West himself is a false prophet who profits handsomely scoring nearly $2 million yearly in book contracts, academic sinecure, and speaking engagements.

As opposed to Noam Chomsky, Benjamin Barber (McWorld vs. Jihad), William Greider (Who Will Tell the People?), the late Edward Said and many others who have looked at the intersection of American politics and U.S. foreign policy, West offers nothing new—no unique insight or reinterpretation. Regarding the decline of American democracy, he offers only an expansion of his concept of nihilism—with categories including "political nihilism," "evangelical nihilism," "paternalistic nihilism," and "sentimental nihilism." But if everything is nihilism, where does it begin or end? Nihilism once conveyed a specific philosophical notion of alienation or being bereft of values, but with West everything is nihilistic to the point in which the word or concept has no significant application or meaning. He thus engages in a kind of template theorization in which academic concepts are draped over any subject even if they have no validity. In effect, West engages in "intellectual nihilism," which is the practice—to quote James Brown—of "talkin’ loud, but sayin’ nothin’."

West’s view that the major obstacle to peace in the region is the Arab elite may stem from the fact that he hangs out with the liberal Tikkun posse. He maintains that he, Michael Lerner and company are "slowly beginning to turn the tide against mainstream Jewish imperial idolatry," a grandiose term that he fails to define. West is loved by Lerner and company because they haven’t gotten over the breakdown of the celebrated alliance that blacks and Jews once had in the civil rights era; West now talks their talk but offers no significant insight in regard to what’s going on in the Middle East. He has endorsed Likud’s position, yet he also appears "progressive" to members of the Tikkun posse, or to those who come to Nation magazine-sponsored events. West thus performs a dual role as member of the niggerati and as the Left’s "pet Negro," much in the way that Condi Rice and Colin Powell serve as the Republicans’ pet Negroes.

West’s insights into the current politics of the Middle East are minimal at best, especially since he says nothing about the region’s most important recent thinker, Sayyid Qutb. Qutb is the intellectual architect of the Islamic resurgence, which occurred after the Arabs defeat in the Six-Day War. Qutb, an Egyptian theoretician of the Muslim Brotherhood who was executed by the Nasser regime in 1966, argued for a more expansive concept of jihad by arguing that the world had returned to a state of jahiliyyah (deviance from the divine path of God), a term that legitimately could be seen as a version of nihilism. Jihad was to be used to overthrow those man-made systems—capitalism and communism—and implement a system that was more benevolent: Islam.

That West totally overlooks Qutb (who is examined by Paul Berman in Terror and Liberalism) underscores his tendency to ignore competing or troublesome arguments, as he did in his very first book, Prophesy Deliverance! (1982). In that work, he argued for the rise of racism in modern European philosophy (the Enlightenment) and in capitalism, but studiously ignored the role of Christianity providing theological justification for black enslavement and disenfranchisement. Christianity was both a system of domination and deliverance in African American slave life, but West, out of whole cloth, makes an argument for black religious practices as one of "liberation theology" where it did not exist. The closest that African Americans ever had to "liberation theology" was King’s redemptive suffering that disappeared when he died. Today, the black church has returned to the quietude of yesteryear.

West here argues for a democratic dialogue that challenges "clerical Islam," and calls for "Socratizing Islam," ignoring the concept of ijtihad, the process of which allows for personal reflection and interpretation on that Quran and the life of the Prophet. He doesn’t sufficiently identify the meaning of "clerical Islam." If "clerical Islam" refers to nations controlled by religious leaders, then this accounts for only the two theological states in the Muslim world, Iran and Sudan. All of the Arab states in the Middle East are secular with a Muslim veneer. Saudi Arabia is the Holy Land and has a produced a brand of Islam, Wahhabism, that is very conservative, but there is no version of "clerical Islam" running the show. Also, Islam, like Judaism and Christian Protestantism, is not clerically based, meaning hierarchical; it tends to be congregation- based. Islam has two main branches, Sunni and Shia—the latter is the minority but does have a tendency to be led by religious leaders. In any case, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism was most fully articulated by Qutb, a non-clerical Muslim intellectual.

Throughout the book, West refuses to challenge the relationship between the U.S. and Israel. One could argue, as Tony Judt did recently in the New York Review of Books, that after invading Iraq, neither the U.S. nor Israel are really more secure than before, as both keep ducking the issue of the Palestinians. Yet Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, David Wurmser, the neo-con architects of the Iraq takeover, have used the war to protect Israel from having to deal with its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Now, according to Seymour Hersh in the June 28 New Yorker, the Israelis are setting up an alliance—"Plan B"—with disgruntled Kurds as a means of keeping their options open in Iraq and an eye on Iran. However, if the Kurds aren’t satisfied with the division of power in post-Saddam Iraq, they may call for an independent state, Kurdistan. This won’t please Turkey, Iran, or Syria (which all have Kurdish minorities), and it will surely keep that region the hottest hell on the planet.

West, a champion of pragmatic philosophy, here offers nothing in the way of practical solutions. For more challenging discussion, read Adam Shatz’s edited collection Prophets Outcasts: A Century of Dissident Jewish Writing about Zionism and Israel (Nation Books). And among the many current critiques of American imperialism, try Niall Ferguson’s Colossus: The Price of America’s Empire (Penguin Press), which calls for the U.S. to create a "liberal empire" based on the rule of law, human rights, and free markets. In Ferguson’s views the U.S. has been engaging in the "imperialism of anti-imperialism" and has been in denial of its imperial history. You may not agree with his arguments but he’ll certainly give you food for thought, more so than the mush served up by West. But what can one expect from someone whose most important work to date has been leaving Harvard? Rather than it being seen as the ignoble retreat that it was, West surely will spin it as a classic moment in the annals of intellectual freedom fighting, and he no doubt will get at least one or two books out of the deal.


Norman Kelley

Norman Kelley's Rhythm & Business: The Political Economy of Black Music is now available in paperback from Akashic Books.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2004

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