Thursday, January 28, 2010

Radical Democracy

In response to my post a couple of days ago about Cornel West, Karlissimo del Banco asks, "How did Cornel West define 'radical democracy?'"

You know, it's funny. I'm sure he went into it on that cold night in St. Paul, but I don't remember now exactly what he said. And I've never gone back to find out. I've never even read even one of his books or articles, I don't think. All I know of the guy, really, is that he said that phrase, that he records rap albums, and that he maybe had some sort of dispute with Harvard president Larry Summers which caused him to leave Harvard, and that now he teaches at Princeton.

But after a friend posted a link to a recent story about him in the New York Times, I recalled that "radical democracy" phrase and how important it was to me. Over the past few days I've dipped my toe into Cornel-Westdom, becoming a "fan" of his on Facebook and watching a video message he recorded to Barack Obama (here's a link to the video; there is an ad at the beginning).

The video message reminded me how much I love the way the man speaks. And being his Facebook  fan means that I find out what he's thinking, and I like the way he's thinking. For example, today his Facebook message is "After watching President Obama's State of the Union Address 2010 and keeping in mind Dr. King's legacy of love tilted toward the weak, what do you feel is your responsibility as a U.S. citizen to help the American government achieve economic recovery?"

I thought it was a totally original insight. The government is weak right now, obviously not in a military sense, but in the sense that it is unable to respond to the demands of the people.

So, back to "radical democracy." Like I say, I don't know for sure what he meant by it. To me, it means that for democracy to work, we small-d democrats must be constantly acting. Constantly doing what we can to expand the voice of the people, all the people, even, or especially, those with whom we disagree.

That's why even when I have political debates with my family members, I always try to tell them to keep standing up for what they believe in, keep speaking out and acting. Because it's in that action that your ideology and beliefs are tested against reality.

Too much of "the left" takes an academic approach to politics. We seek to understand the workings of power and we try to stay up-to-date on the latest exercise of what we take to be illegitimate power. This is fine, as far as it goes. But for too many of us, me included, that is as far as it goes.

To me, "radical democracy" means that we need to cultivate in ourselves and in our political allies a bias toward action. A willingness to "Ready, Fire, Aim," which means that we try lots of different types of action and messages, we learn what works and refine them and improve them, and we discard what doesn't.

So-called "educated people" are often very skilled at pointing out the flaws in someone else's idea. This is something I think they might learn in college discussion sections – "I have to say something smart so that the T.A. marks me down as having spoken." This is of course a ludicrous way to have a discussion. It does favor the guy who did manage to do all the reading, but since most grad students are not very effective discussion moderators, it also favors the glib and the sarcastic. It encourages people who are unsure to keep that uncertainty to themselves. Obviously this carries over into business meetings, which is why there is always such a danger of Groupthink.

I see this happening big-time now among my progressive allies. Obama and the Democrats are disappointing us. We spend a lot of time detailing those disappointments and making "if only Obama had done X" arguments. It seems like we are doing something productive when we do this, but we aren't really. It may be a good and necessary first step to proclaim our differences with the Obama administration, but it's not political action.

The tea-partiers, for all their ideas which we take to be strange or paranoid, are taking political action. And – surprise! – it seems to be having an effect. If the tea partiers are the only ones practicing "radical democracy," then we're going to get more tea-party-friendly public policy.


Anonymous said...

I still love you.
Joe G.

Anonymous said...

Remeber Prof. Harris? English history? We had a great discussion once about the word 'radical' -- he pointed out that it originally meant getting to the root of something. (Shares an etymology with the word 'radish'). So now it means sort of crazy or on the extreme, but it used to mean getting back to the very essence of an idea -- very appropriate for your thought exercise on democracy, I suppose.


C - Log said...

Thanks for reminding me of that, Alex. I also remember Prof. Harris talking about "revolution." I think he said something like, "In a revolution of a wheel or a planet around the sun, you go in a big circle and wind up right back where you started. It's the same with political revolutions."

But I can't now figure out what he was getting at... I don't think he was speaking of the Eastern conception of time and events as endlessly repeating themselves on a big wheel.

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