Democracy Matters,

Nihilism in America

excerpted from the book

Democracy Matters

Winning the Fight Against Imperialism

by Cornell West

Penguin Books, 2004, paper


The rise of an 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 ...

When Bush smiles after his carefully scripted press conferences of little substance, we do not know whether he is laughing at us or getting back at us as we laugh at him-as the press meanwhile hurries to concoct a story out of his clichés and shibboleths.

[The] glorification of the market has led to a callous corporate-dominated political economy in which business leaders (their wealth and power) are to be worshipped-even despite the recent scandals-and the most powerful corporations are delegated magical powers of salvation rather than relegated to democratic scrutiny concerning both the ethics of their business practices and their treatment of workers. This largely unexamined and unquestioned dogma that supports the policies of both Democrats and Republicans in the United States-and those of most political parties in other parts of the world-is a major threat to the quality of democratic life and the well-being of most peoples across the globe.

[The] illicit marriage of corporate and political elites-so blatant and flagrant in our time-not only undermines the trust of informed citizens in those who rule over them. It also promotes the pervasive sleepwalking of the populace, who see that the false prophets are handsomely rewarded with money, status, and access to more power.

[The aggressive militarism] of U.S. foreign policy goes far beyond our former doctrine of preventive war. It green-lights political elites to sacrifice U.S. soldiers-who are disproportionately working class and youth of color-in adventurous crusades.

How ironic that 9/11-a vicious attack on innocent civilians by gangsters-becomes the historic occasion for the full-scale gangsterization of America.

... the prevailing conservative culture has made the Left-progressives and liberals-internal enemies. They are considered out of step with the drumbeat of patriots, who defer to the imperial aims, free-market policies, cultural conservative views, and personal pieties of the Bush administration.

The Jewish invention of the prophetic commitment to justice-also central to both Christianity and Islam-is one of the great moral moments in human history. This was the commitment to justice of an oppressed people. It set in motion a prophetic tradition based on the belief that God had imparted this love of justice because God is first and foremost a lover of justice. The Judaic prophetic commitment to justice is therefore predicated on the divine love of justice. Israel - hated and enslaved people in the most powerful empire of its day (that of Egypt's pharaohs) - is chosen by God because of God's love of justice. And the admonition against inhumane injustice is central to the message of the prophetic: "He who oppresses a poor man insults his maker / He who is kind to the needy honors him" (Proverbs 14:31). Prophetic witness consists of human acts of justice and kindness that attend to the unjust sources of human hurt and misery. Prophetic witness calls attention to the causes of unjustified suffering and unnecessary social misery. It highlights personal and institutional evil, including especially the evil of being indifferent to personal and institutional evil.

Globalization is inescapable-the question is whether it will be a democratic globalization or a U.S.-led corporate globalization (with thin democratic rhetoric).

The perception of pervasive corruption at the top seems to many to justify the unprincipled quest to succeed at any cost in their own lives, and the widespread cheating in our culture reflects this sad truth. The oppressive effect of the prevailing market moralities leads to a form of sleepwalking from womb to tomb, with the majority of citizens content to focus on private careers and be distracted with stimulating amusements. They have given up any real hope of shaping the collective destiny of the nation. Sour cynicism, political apathy, and cultural escapism become the pervasive options.

The public has good cause for disillusionment with the American democratic system. The saturation of market forces and market moralities has indeed corrupted our system all the way up. Our leadership elite have themselves lost faith in the efficacy of adhering to democratic principles in the face of the overwhelming power of those market forces. They are caught up in the corrupting influences of market morality. Our politicians have sacrificed their principles on the altar of special interests; our corporate leaders have sacrificed their integrity on the altar of profits; and our media watchdogs have sacrificed the voice of dissent on the altar of audience competition.

Our leadership elite may still want to believe in democratic principles-they certainly profess that they do-but in practice they have shown themselves all too willing to violate those principles in order to gain or retain power. The flip side of the nihilism of despair is this nihilism of the unprincipled abuse of power. When the lack of belief in the power of principles prevails, the void is filled by the will to power of the market, by the drive to succeed at the cost of others rather than the drive to decency and integrity. In the poverty-stricken inner cities, this nihilism leads to street gangsterism, and in the halls of elite power it leads to elite gangsterism ...

The elites in the Democratic Party-especially in the Senate and the House-are not only liberal and centrist supporters of social equality and individual freedoms; more pointedly they are paternalistic nihilists who have become ineffectual by having bought into the corruptions of the power-hungry system. Though they may wish that the system could be made to serve more truly democratic purposes, they have succumbed to the belief that a more radical fight for a truer democracy, battling against the corruption of elites, is largely futile. So they've joined the game in the delusional belief that at least they are doing so in the better interests of the public.

... the present Democratic Party has lost its footing in terms of its foundational mission to fight the plutocracy. Corporate elites in the American empire have always cast a dark shadow over the operations of power in American government. And although these elites are mighty, they are not almighty. The Democratic Party leaders seem to have lost the conviction that corporate elites can be forced to make concessions under the pressure of organized democratic forces. But our history has shown they can be forced. The key reason women could not vote until 1920, indigenous peoples until 1924, and most blacks until 1964 was that they could not bring organized democratic pressures to bear in order to limit the power of wealthy white male citizens. Yet, when they marshaled that organized force, they got the vote.

For most of the history of the American empire, government has been a tool for preserving and furthering the power and might of white male corporate elites ...

The Democratic Party elites are too often unwilling to tell the] American people just how connected they and their Republican colleagues are to powerful corporations and influential lobbyists. Their caving in to Bush's Iraq war, and their support for the loosening of regulations on corporations that led to the recent wave of scandals, are two blatant examples. In these legislative votes, most Democrats failed to follow their conscience, following instead the polls and their reelection strategies. Unlike their idol, Bill Clinton-a masterful neoliberal communicator who subordinated his conscience to the exigencies of reelection strategies, but was able to conceal his opportunism with his charisma-the vast majority of Democratic Party elites are rendered impotent by their timidity and paralyzed by their cupidity (their courting of corporate donors). Their unprincipled compromises reinforce the idea that corporate influence and lobbyists' clout run the U.S. government.

While an essential mission of the news organizations in a democracy should be to expose the lies and manipulations of our political and economic leaders-and surely many media watchdogs devote themselves to that task-too much of what passes for news today is really a form of entertainment. So many shows follow a crude formula for providing titillating coverage that masks itself as news. Those who are purveyors of this bastardized form of reporting are sentimental nihilists, willing to sidestep or even bludgeon the truth or unpleasant and unpopular facts and stories, in order to provide an emotionally satisfying show. This is the dominance of sentiment over truth telling in order to build up market share. Our market- driven media have be come much too constrained in the coverage of unpleasant truths, much too preoccupied with the concerns and views of middle-class and upper-class white people, and much too beholden to the political persuasions of the media moguls.

Hence we have witnessed the breakdown in media ethics-going after "good" stories even if the truth has to be stretched or outright fabrications are condoned. The overwhelming dominance of market-driven pressures has also led to the outburst of blatantly partisan punditry. And even the supposed do-gooders in the media often limit the depth of their analysis and the range of their truth telling so as not to offend advertisers and mainstream opinion.

Though our cultural mythology has promoted the notion of "fair and balanced" coverage and impartiality, our news organizations have always been more partisanly political than the ideal and have always been subject to market pressures. Yet we now have a media whose vulgar partisanship is corrupting our public life. Those who engage in biased reporting reinforce the deep polarization and balkanization of the citizenry and contribute much to the decline of public trust in meaningful political conversation. The relentless pursuit of power among the media elite-in the form of ratings and market share-is indulged in with little regard for the consequences for our democracy.

[The} sad display of highly ambitious yet too often docile and deferential newspeople preoccupied with a market bottom line has not been lost on the public and has contributed to the widespread public apathy about our politics. Yet the hard-hitting, deeply probing periodicals and shows that do exist struggle for market share because the allure of the entertainment offered by the mass-appeal versions is so strong. Most significantly, the obsessive touting of dubious statistics and sound bites by mainstream pundits points citizens away from a true reckoning with the institutional causes of social misery.

Democracy depends, in large part, on a free and frank press willing to speak painful truths to the public about our society, including the fact of their own complicity in superficiality and simplistic reportage. There can be no democratic paideia-the critical cultivation of an active citizenry-without democratic parrhesia-a bold and courageous press willing to speak against the misinformation and mendacities of elites. Democracy matters are in peril when the so-called free press lacks the autonomy or courage to inspire democratic energies.

Free-market fundamentalism has for so long been the precondition of American democracy that we have rendered it sacred - an unexamined fetish that we worship.

The American democratic experiment is unique in human history not because we are God's chosen people to lead the world, nor because we are always a force for good in the world, but because of our refusal to acknowledge the deeply racist and imperial roots of our democratic project. We are exceptional because of our denial of the antidemocratic foundation stones of American democracy. No other democratic nation revels so blatantly in such self-deceptive innocence, such self-paralyzing reluctance to confront the nightside of its own history. This sentimental flight from history-or adolescent escape from painful truths about ourselves-means that even as we grow old, grow big, and grow powerful, we have yet to grow up. To confront the role of race and empire is to grapple with what we would like to avoid, but we avoid that confrontation at the risk of our democratic maturation.

Benjamin Franklin, 1787 in his closing speech at the Constitutional Convention

I agree to this constitution with all its faults, if they are such: because I think a general government necessary for us, and there is no form of government but what may be a blessing to the people if well-administered," and I believe farther that this [government] is likely to be well administered for a Course of Years and can only end in Despotism as other forms have done before it, when the People shall become so corrupted as to need Despotic Government, being incapable of any other.

The most painful truth in the making of America-a truth that shatters all pretensions to innocence and undercuts all efforts of denial-is that 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. It is no accident that from the nation's founding (1789) to the Civil War (1861) the vast majority of Supreme Court justices-the highest rule of law in the land-were slaveholders and imperial expansionists. And for forty-nine of these seventy-two years, the presidency of the United States was held by slaveholders and imperial expansionists. And the only ones reelected president were slaveholders and imperial expansionists.

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835

I do not imagine that the white and black races will ever live in any country upon an equal footing. But I believe the difficulty to be still greater in the United States than elsewhere. An isolated individual may surmount the prejudices of religion, of his country, or of his race, and if this individual is a king he may effect surprising changes in society; but a whole people cannot rise, as it were, above itself. A despot who should subject the Americans and their former slaves to the same yoke, might perhaps succeed in commingling their races; but as long as the American democracy remains at the head of affairs, no one will undertake so difficult a task; and it maybe foreseen that the freer the white population of the United States becomes, the more isolated will it remain ....

If ever America undergoes great revolutions, they will be brought about by the presence of the black race on the soil of the United States,-that is to say, they will owe their origin, not to the equality, but to the inequality, of conditions.

... the historical alliance of the American and Soviet empires ... defeated the fascist forces on the globe at a cost of fifty million dead, including six million Jews in Nazi concentration camps along with Gypsies, Communists, gays, and lesbians. The indescribable courage of the U.S. Jim Crow armed forces (365,000 dead) and the incredible gallantry of the Soviet army (twenty million Russian dead) gave the world another chance for democracy matters.

We should not be surprised when we get beneath the empty clichés and routine shibboleths so often uttered by American officials to discover that the obsession with power and might is so prevalent.

The U.S. military budget accounts for over 40 percent of the world's total military spending. It is six times the size of the military spending of the number two nation (Russia) and more than that of the next twenty-three nations combined. America is the greatest nuclear power (nine thousand nuclear warheads) and has over 650 military facilities with 1.45 million soldiers in 132 countries (on every continent except Antarctica).

The United States is the world's biggest debtor nation because foreign investors hold their savings and reserves in dollars for security. American trade and budget deficits as well as American consumer debts are sustained by this foreign investment.

... only 0.2 percent of the total gross national product of the United States goes to foreign aid-more than 50 percent of it to Israel and Egypt. The poorest nations, especially in Africa, receive hardly a drop in the bucket.

... the largely U.S.-financed United Nations is disproportionately influenced by U.S. interests-with its symbolic veto power in the Security Council (along with Russia, China, Britain, and France).

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