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Democracy Matters
Winning the Fight Against Imperialism.
By Cornel West

229 pp. Penguin Press. $24.95

Review by Anthony Henry Smith

During the summer of 1987, the Swedish author and folk educator Henry Blid sat down for one week in a Swedish classroom with 14 visiting Clearwater members. I know, because I was fortunate to be one of them. Blid’s purpose was to share his final draft of “Education By The People, Study Circles” and to get our input. His book described using the democratic process to increase learning among the adult population. The practical application of Blid’s elucidation to my own work in alternative education over the next 17 years has led me to this understanding of democracy:

Whatever else democracy may be, it is, at very least, a social process grounded in principles. I base that on Henry Blid’s detailed analysis of the highly democratic Swedish study circle. (See “Learn and Act With Study Circles, by Henry Blid, 2000, ISBN: 91-631-0377-X”)

What makes democratic government so unique is that the principled democratic process appears to be one of the most efficient ways of acquiring and applying knowledge. It’s significant that shortly before his assassination, Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme described Sweden as a “study circle democracy.”

Lincoln appears to have had something similar in mind when he defined democracy as “…government of the people, by the people, for the people…” Blid’s working title for his book was “Education By The People, Study Circles.”

It’s easy to see how people might come together to combine their strength, wealth, or voting power. Yet in a world where so much depends on our ability to make decisions, wealth and power remain the servants of wisdom. Wisdom is our most important resource. The true challenge is not to be stronger than another, but to be more wise. Democracy is a way of cooperating to be more wise.

The democratic process is informed by four essential principles, Equality, Shared Decision Making, Individual Responsibility, and Mutual Respect.

Democracy can and often does occur spontaneously among people guided by these principles as they work together. Wise leadership identifies the pattern and develops it for optimum efficiency.

Much of what we claim to “know” is actually nothing more than useful fiction. It’s frequently more convenient to think and speak of things as though we knew they were definitely going to happen. “I’ll meet you here at 6 o’clock tomorrow,” is not intended to be conditional, but obviously it is. Luck plays a role in human affairs that is seldom acknowledged. So do hope and courage.

Cornel West is a Professor of Religion at Princeton University. He has written and coauthored a small library of books on American culture and values. These could be usefully edited and added to this present work to create the definitive American work on the subject of Democracy. Consider the power of this message from nine years ago:

“There’s not enough evidence out there in America or anywhere else in the world to allow you to infer that things are gonna get better. But radical democrats are prisoners of Hope: that’s something’ else! Looks at the evidence; makes a leap of faith beyond the evidence to create new evidence by energizing and galvanizing each and every one of us so that we can be the best that we can be. That’s what struggle is all about.” - Cornel West in a spoken address “The Radical Democratic Tradition,” Portland, Oregon, October 27,1995. (My transcription from tape.)

The principled democratic process within the radical democratic tradition of Hope makes it possible to participate in the struggle together better than the best we can possibly be working alone. West finds the personal examples set by artists and intellectuals provide many reasons to be hopeful.

“Our history shows that stirring the deep commitment to democratic values and mandates does make a difference. But we must not confuse this democratic commitment with flag-waving patriotism. The former is guided by common virtues forged by ordinary citizens, the latter by martial ideals promoted by powerful elites. Democratic commitment confronts American hypocrisy and mendacity in the name of public interest; flag-waving patriotism promotes American innocence and purity in the name of national glory.”

West asks the question:

“How does one affirm a life of mature autonomy while recognizing that evil is inseparable from freedom? How does one remain open and ready for meaningful solidarity with the very people who hate you? …”

He finds an answer in the democratic energies and lessons of black Americans, including Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Jr., Bessie Smith, Sarah Vaughan, and Duke Ellington, among others, “…wise voices in a deep democratic tradition in America. They all knew that even if the tears of the world are a constant quantity and that the air is full of our cries, we can and should still embark on a democratic quest for wisdom, justice, and freedom.”

Democracy matters; it always has and always will. West isn’t telling you “what “ to think, he’s telling you “how” to think, not “what” to do, but “how” accomplishments both great and small are and shall continue to be achieved through the democratic process.

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