C< ornel West/b> (author of the groundbreaking Race Matters) promises from the get-go that his new book, Democracy Matters, is not a "rant" against imperialism. Instead, it's an unflinching look at the future of democracy in the age of an ever-bloating American empire. In some ways, a rant would be preferable to what we do get: a sporadically provocative, completely haphazard polemic that delivers just enough to frustrate with how good it could be. West begins with the argument that as a culture, we have yet to deal with the "racist and imperial roots of our democratic project"; chiefly, the twin pillars of slavery and colonial expansion that kept Thomas Jefferson in clean stockings while he was writing the Declaration of Independence. In order to mature as a nation, we must address this contradiction, and reconnect with a democratic tradition that has little to do with government or empire. To illustrate this tradition, West connects the work of authors like Toni Morrison and Herman Melville, as well as the "tragicomic" notes of jazz and the blues, to create a powerful chronology of oppression, resistance and hope.
Later, in his most compelling chapter, West draws an apt parallel between the current administration and the Roman Empire under which Christ was crucified. He indicts modern "Constantinian" Christians (read: the Christian Coalition) for abandoning the values taught by Christ. He encourages "genuine democrats and democratic Christians" to unite against antidemocratic forms of Christian fundamentalism.
Unfortunately, interspersed with such impassioned meditations on religion and literature are some puzzling tangents. A full chapter is devoted to the Israel/Palestine conflict--and while the U.S. should take responsibility for its role, West's too-facile solution boils down to "why don't we all just democratize and get along." A chapter on youth culture is equally disappointing, devolving into a gossipy defense of West's decision to resign as University Professor at Harvard. At his best, West challenges and inspires; it's too bad his moments of brilliance are so often obscured.