Cornel West on the moral obligations of living in a democratic society

February 11th, 2013

As we continue our celebration of Black History Month, have students read and discuss Cornel West’s essay “The Moral Obligations of Living in a  Democratic Society.” In the essay, West, a professor of African American Studies at Princeton University, examines the need for members of a democracy to understand their common history in order to take seriously their obligations to the future of their democratic order. West is specifically concerned about the viability of democratic society in America, which he believes is threatened by “a lethal and unprecedented linkage of relative economic decline, cultural decay, and political lethargy.”

What does West mean by this diagnosis? Why does he say that democracy necessarily concerns itself with “the role of the most disadvantaged in relation to the public interest”? What does he mean by “cultural decay” or by “the market culture”? Citing specific examples from the text, explain why he thinks our culture is in decline. What are “nonmarket” values, and why does West think they are crucial for democratic societies? What is the difference between a “hood” and a “neighborhood,” and does this difference matter? Does the music we listen to affect who we become? What does West mean by saying that “to be part of the democratic tradition is to be a prisoner of hope”? 

Here is an excerpt from West’s essay; click here to read the entire entire selection as it appears in our “Meaning of Martin Luther King Jr. Day” ebook. 

Young black people call their block a “hood” now. I grew up in a neighborhood; it is a big difference. A neighborhood was a place not only for the nuclear family, but also included aunts and uncles, friends and neighbors, rabbis and priests, deacons and pastors, Little League coaches and dance teachers—all of whom served as a backdrop for socializing young people. This backdrop provided children with a sense of what it is to be human, with all its decency, integrity, and compassion. When those values are practiced, a neighborhood emerges.

Unfortunately, neighborhoods often took shape in my boyhood under patriarchal and homophobic conditions, and that history must be called into question. Still, we must recover its flow of nonmarket values and nonmarket activity.

These days we cannot even talk about love the way James Baldwin and Martin Luther King Jr. did. Nobody wants to hear that syrupy, mushy stuff. James Baldwin, however, said love is the most dangerous discourse in the world. It is daring and difficult because it makes you vulnerable, but if you experience it, it is the peak of human existence.

In our own time it is becoming extremely difficult for nonmarket values to gain a foothold. Parenting is a nonmarket activity; so much sacrifice and service goes into it without any assurance that the providers will get anything back. Mercy, justice; they are nonmarket. Care, service; nonmarket. Solidarity, fidelity; nonmarket. Sweetness and kindness and gentleness. All nonmarket.

In the last decade we have witnessed within popular culture wonderful innovation in forms of hip hop and rap. Compare that phenomenon to the 1960s when the Black Panther Party emerged and note the big difference between the two movements. One has to do with sacrifice, paying the price, dealing with the consequences as you bring power and pressure to bear on the prevailing status quo. The other has to do with marketing black rage. One movement had forty-seven local branches across the nation, the other sells millions of albums and CDs. The comparison is not a matter of patronizing this generation. Frankly, it is a critique of each us who has to deal with this market culture and through market mechanisms try to preserve some nonmarket values.

What then are we to do? There is no overnight solution or panacea, of course. We need to begin with something profoundly un-American, namely, recalling a sense of history, a very deep, tragic, and comic sense of history, a historical sensibility linked to empathy. Empathy is not simply a matter of trying to imagine what others are going through, but having the will to muster enough courage to do something about it. In a way, empathy is predicated upon hope.

Hope has nothing to do with optimism. I am in no way optimistic about America, nor am I optimistic about the plight of the human species on this globe. There is simply not enough evidence that allows me to infer that things are going to get better. That has been the perennial state and condition of not simply black people in America, but all self-conscious human beings who are sensitive to the forms of evil around them. We can be prisoners of hope even as we call optimism into question.

To be part of the democratic tradition is to be a prisoner of hope. And you cannot be a prisoner of hope without engaging in a form of struggle in the present moment that keeps the best of the past alive. To engage in that struggle means that one is always willing to acknowledge that there is no triumph around the corner, but that you persist because you believe it is right and just and moral. As T. S. Eliot said, “Ours is in the trying. The rest is not our business.”

We are not going to save each other, ourselves, America, or the world. But we certainly can leave it a little bit better. As my grandmother used to say, “If the Kingdom of God is within you, then everywhere you go, you ought to leave a little Heaven behind.”

Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

Tags: ,