How do we talk to one another in such a market driven democracy? How are ideas discussed in an atmosphere so polarized by the current presidential campaign? What is the nature of our public debate? These are questions on Cornel West’s mind as well. West is the Class of 1943 University Professor of Religion at Princeton University. The author of the numerous works including The American Evasion of Philosophy, and Race Matters, Professor West is a recipient of the American Book Award and more than twenty honorary degrees. This article is an excerpt from West’s forthcoming book Democracy Matters, which will be published September 9.
In a world so focused on commerce, conversation over every public concern is reduced. “The fundamentalism of the market puts a premium on the activities of buying and selling, consuming and taking, promoting and advertising, and devalues community, compassionate charity, and improvement of the general quality of life,” writes West. “How ironic that in America we’ve moved so quickly from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Let Freedom Ring” to “Bling! Bling!” as if freedom were reducible to simply having material toys, as dictated by free-market fundamentalism.”
These are important questions for members of a democracy to consider from time to time. Has the nature of our society changed to such a degree that voices are no longer heard? In some ways, West thinks so. At a minimum it has “severely narrowed our political dialogue,” writes West. “The major problem is not the vociferous shouting from one camp to the other; rather it is that many have given up even being heard. We are losing the very value of dialogue, especially respectful communication, in the name of the sheer force of naked power. This is the classic triumph of authoritarianism over the kind of questioning, compassion, and hope requisite for any democratic experiment.”
West can be a controversial figure; and he certainly doesn’t mince words when sharing his opinions. But, at least he has the courage to share them, even though they go against more mainstream beliefs. No one has all of the answers, but West surely seems to be asking the right questions.