Democracy: from Athenian Origins to 21st Century America

DEMOCRACY MATTERS Winning the Fight Against Imperialism by Cornel West

I will not write much here.  Those who read me often hear enough of my words and have become familiar with my convictions and concerns.  What I am doing instead is putting together a series of quotations from African-American philosopher Cornel West, from his essay Putting on Our Democratic Armor from the book, DEMOCRACY MATTERS (1).  Dr. West committed these thoughts to words before the toxic takeover of the Trump regime.

As the United States approaches an historical election in November2020 I am, by editing this thinking, calling on the American people, indeed on democracy upholding people everywhere, to open minds and hearts to the challenge before us.  As you, the reader, are about to see, Dr. West clearly articulates the struggle between imperialism and democratization that has always been a threat and challenge to democratic aspiration.

Before setting forth the argument, I will premise with a brief statement.  Earth is the home of humanity; the singular home of our species so far are we know.  This is a small planet made smaller still by the technologies of communication and travel.  Our political possibilities are, like planetary resources, finite yet open within the terms, dynamics and limitations of the human condition to allow or actualize transformations.  Throughout history the pendulum of human governance has swung between freedom, liberation and democracy and tyranny, aggression and oppression.

Here are the quotations from Cornel West, which I number and place in their original sequence.  As such, there are a compelling and comprehensive argument allowing to see what danger we are presently in and what is at risk.  I would suggest that Dr. West’s reflections can serve as opening civics discussions, of any group size, in any place, in this time of crisis.

1) “…There are two opposing tendencies in American democracy—toward imperialism and toward democratization—and we are in a period of intense battle between the two. At this moment our imperialist elites are casting themselves as the defenders of democracy… Our business elites have cloaked themselves in the rhetoric of the unfettered free market and the inevitable juggernaut of corporate globalization, justifying an obscene exacerbation of wealth inequality. It is in the face of such egregious misrepresentations of democracy that the example of the original Greek experiment with democracy—especially the witness of Socrates—is so relevant.

The historic emergence of Athenian democracy and the Greek invention of Socratic dialogue must instruct and inspire our practice of democratic citizenship in present-day America.  Athenian democracy was created by the revolt of organized peasants against the abusive power of oligarchic rulers.  These peasants refused to be passive victims in the face of plutocratic policies that redistributed wealth upward—from the vast majority to the privileged few.

2)“The historic evolution from a society and government based on loyalty to a narrow kinship group into a broader citizenship model was, in the wonderful phrase of Eli Sagan in his superb book The Honey and the Hemlock (19191) “the conscious moralization of democratic energy.”

3) “It is no accident that the Greek invention of Socratic dialogue was motivated, in part, by opposition to the market-driven Sophists obsessed with moneymaking. The major foes of Socrates in the writings that popularized his ideas…were cast as greedy merchants and clever rhetoricians with little regard for the quality of democratic public life. In fact, the Socratic love of wisdom was contrasted sharply against the Sophistic love of money.

4) “The Socratic love of wisdom holds not only that the unexamined life is not worth living…but also that to be human and a democratic citizen requires that one muster the courage to think critically for oneself. This love of wisdom is a perennial pursuit into the dark corners of one’s own soul, society, and world. This pursuit shatters one’s petty idols, false illusions, and seductive fetishes; it undermines blind conformity, glib complacency, and pathetic cowardice.  Socratic questioning yields intellectual integrity, philosophic humility, and personal sincerity—all essential elements of our democratic armor for the fight against corrupt elite power.

5) “For the Founding Fathers—just as for Plato—too much Socratic questioning from the demos and too much power sharing of elites with the demos were expected to lead to anarchy, instability, or perpetual rebellion.  The democratic genius of the Founding Fathers was to nevertheless incorporate Socratic questioning into our government in the form of a procedure of constitutional revision and to create the Bill of Rights to protect parrhesia(free speech), despite their fear of unruly demos. Without these Socratic dimensions of American democracy, American tyranny would have triumphed.  Without Socratic questioning by the demos, elite greed at home and imperial domination abroad devour any democracy.

6) “For (American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo) Emerson, every democratic citizen must aspire to the Socratic love of wisdom, to a vigilant questioning that transforms the unruly mob into mature seekers of the tougher, deeper truths that sustain democratic individuals, democratic communities, and democratic societies.

Yet our Socratic questioning must go beyond Socrates. We must out-Socratize Socrates by revealing the limits of the great Socratic tradition.  My own philosophy of democracy that emerges from the nightside of American democracy is rooted in the guttural cries and silent tears of oppressed people.  And it has always bothered me that Socrates never cries—he never sheds a tear.  His profound but insufficient rationalism refuses to connect noble self-mastery to a heartfelt solidarity with the agony and anguish of oppressed peoples.  Why this glaring defect in Socratic love of wisdom?  Does not the rich Socratic legacy of Athens need the deep prophetic legacy of Jerusalem?  Must not the rigorous questioning and quest for wisdom of the Socratic be infused with the passionate fervor and quest for justice of the prophetic?”

Thus, the position of Cornel West.  Beyond his words as presented, and beyond my own brief accompaniments, I encourage the reader to view my video Sovereignty on YouTube as an aesthetic address on the importance of Freedom of Conscience.

Now I share with you, friend, this closing thought.  When a democracy dies, there is keening over many lands, dismay and dread resonate in many lives. It is as a light being extinguished; as a dream exiled beyond ordinary reach, beyond human hope. When an empire falls, for an empire is a giant of power overshadowing the indiscriminate dignity of humanity, the Earth shakes.  Preservation of democracy is a safeguard again the earthquakes of history.

*1. DEMOCRACY MATTERS Winning the Fight Against Imperialism by Cornel West, published in 2004 by Penguin Press.

David Sparenberg is a world citizen, environmental & peace advocate & activist, actor, poet-playwright, storyteller, teacher and author.




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