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A review on the Book "Restoring Hope" by Dr. Cornel West

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Now that the 2012 election cycle is finally in "full swing" and one of the candidates has had us relying on hope for the last four years, a review of Dr. West's book "Restoring Hope" would be an appropriate place to re-examine and take a more careful look at Mr. Obama's idea of hope, especially as it applies to the present black American condition. Dr. West's book actually is the perfect vehicle for all Americans voters to do the same.

It is a series of interviews and discussions between Dr. West and nine prominent people: Harry Belafonte, Bill Bradley, Charlayne-Hunter Gault, the Reverend Dr. James Forbes, and the Reverend Dr. James M. Washington, Wynton Marsalis, Patricia Williams, Haki Madhubuti, and Maya Angelou. It would be an understatement to say that all are far-ranging discussions, with framing questions to fit the experiences of the interviewees being asked at the beginning of each session by Dr. West himself.

As a self-proclaimed "non-theist," I had initially skipped the fourth interview in this book between Dr. West and the two ministers, thinking erroneously that what they would have to say would be the conventional religious take on issue of hope. However, that assumption was a colossal mistake, because as it turns out, not only was the three-way interview between them the centerpiece of the book, but also the most incredible free-wheeling discussions on America's contemporary spiritual predicament ever put in print. It alone awards the book at least five stars. My own detailed interpretation of it, with commentaries, makes up the bulk of this review.

Can you speak your truth in a way that allows you to preserve your integrity as an individual, while allowing your subgroup to be able to come together in a larger community of humanity?

How one answers that question is what animated the discussion among the ministers and actually is not just the output of the three-way discussion between them, but also provides the subtext for the other interviews -- all led by Dr. West posing, framing, agitating and signifying with the overarching question of: What is spirituality in the context of American society, and especially as it applies to black Americans?

Each of the ministers put their own unique meanings and (as a surprise to me, a committed existentialist) their own existential spin into the ring: To Rev Forbes, spirituality is the system of values that gives meaning and strength to the struggles of life; to Rev Washington, it is the anchor that holds us together in the struggle against the opposing force of meaninglessness, including against entrenched American style racism. Forbes says that we are thrown into the world to struggle and then forced to watch ourselves deteriorate: condemned to be observers to our ultimate fate, death. Spirituality to Forbes thus is just another way of coping with the meaning of life --- that is to say all the while we are on our way to die. In a beautiful and powerful existentialist metaphor, he describes us all as "Researchers," trying to decide if the act of "being born" was a friendly or a "hostile" act? According to him, the way we live our lives is our only report card: An "A" says that our birth was life-affirming and thus was a fortuitous moment; an "F" says that our very birth was a dark and deep tragedy.

Dr. West's take is that when we speak of spirituality in this nation, we are only speaking of various forms of darkness in a sea of forward-looking, blued-eyed, thin- lipped, straight haired sunshine, a kind of sunshine that is constantly trying to redefine us black people negatively and designed to relegate us permanently to the margins of society where there we are to remain quiet and helpless. But wrestling with the darkness on the backside of all this sunshine is just part of "our continuing struggle," and also part of the underside of the struggle of the human condition as a whole: If its not physical death, it is social death. If it is not social death, it is cultural death and degradation. If it is not cultural death and degradation, it is economic death through exploitation"

The ministers then chime in in agreement that we must all learn to be "truth tellers;" for the struggle for a meaningful life and the courage to be, are difficult undertakings. But also because therein lies the source of our moral integrity and authenticity. Only from this platform, standing firmly on our own truth, can we then become humble enough to engage in compassion and love of ourselves first, and then of others.   To validate ourselves, we need a cause larger than ourselves worth dying for, and not just dying in a war for the U.S. Army in a foreign country, but also one here on the "mean streets" of America. Mustering the courage to be is difficult work but the ability to engage in compassion and love are its rewards. In fact they are the only real (and remaining) signs of our humanity.

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The three ministers agreed that humility is the gateway to everything else that is human in us. It is the only thing that really makes us human, and thus the only human attribute that always commands respect. Humility is the ultimate source of any personal empowerment we may acquire. However, without truth, integrity and authenticity, one does not know how to learn to be humble. And one does not get to   become courageous, confident, or secure, for free. One has to do the work, and it all lies in the realm of self-awareness. Without attaining humility through self-awareness, we do not have a basis for attaining or enjoying our full humanity.

These ministers together, then go on to say that our society is being over-run by moral pygmies, people who lack the requisite humility and thus whose internal engines are fired up only by false egotistical bombast, which in reality is fear of their own shadows, expressing itself in other ways. These moral pygmies are constantly "faking it" and are teaching us how to "fake it" too. But in truth they are haunted by deep inner doubts, and insecurities, lacking both the confidence and the courage to be. They barrel through life beating their chests, with checkbooks, creative comforts and exaggerated titles, pretending to have what it takes. But in fact are scared to death that they may be empty of any humanity whatsoever; and thus that they will not be loved, will not be accepted, or validated in life by mainstream society -- and most of all, scared of their own failures. These are the people who are out front, who think they are leading us to the promise land, but who are in fact leading us over a destructive cliff far away from our own humanity and far away from the center of the democratic cultural ideals that have been bequeathed to us.

But life is a process that involves lots of failure. "Failing up" (by always telling the truth) makes you strong; failing down" (through lies, dissembling, avoidance, deception and fantasy) makes you weaker. And hiding from weaknesses leads to fallings back on convenient crutches as the preferred way of coping; that is to say, as a way to avoid facing the fear, insecurities, and lack of confidence that are at the root of such weaknesses. The author and his guests agree that the crutches have all become endemic idols of choice in contemporary American culture. They include all of the normal post-modern amusements: of drugs, alcohol, sex, shopping, chasing money, religion, the need to be entertained, the need to belong, and thus the need to be swept away from everyday reality by coping through sanctioned fiat. Foremost among these idols is religion itself, which all three agree has a lot to answer for -- as does God.

Reality construction too is a process in which, we blacks, as is true of all groups, must always have a stake. Mustering the courage to be is difficult and "it is dangerous to live in a world in which you do not have the power to help shape the nature of the experiences in that world, or to define who you are." Black reality does not have to be confined to what others tell us is real about our world or about ourselves. When we are honest, we can help define and shape our own reality, and can thus reconceive ourselves to ourselves.   In this way, even without a dime we can write our own narrative, plot our own destinies and become qualitatively a richer people.

Even though in our new erstwhile stage of equality, where the breaking out of the ghetto (or other segregated circumstances), is like a second semester in life, it is not a time to recoil and become complacent or become lemming-like followers of the mainstream living off the land, and constantly looking askance for mainstream approval. But it is also our opportunity to make a case for how the world is -- as well as how it should be -- with us, not just "of," but also "in" it.

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As a people black people have many unseen and still "untapped" strengths that these interviews draw out: the Blues, and Jazz or good examples. We can also sing; write poetry, and we can also "rap" and even hum. There is untapped knowledge for life's journey in all of these forms of strengths. For as history has shown, they can be subversive, progressive, conservative, or neutral, but always are life affirming and empowering.

Today, even with a mulatto President, in America, racially we are in a difficult situation, make no mistake about it: Right before our eyes, the American dream has turned to dust, a dim vapor trail, like cotton candy: You bite down on it: nothing is there? These ministers say it is thus time for a paradigm shift in spirituality; time to invent new ways of being spiritual. They say we now need new social movements, new ways of activism, new politics, new ways of being subversive, alternatives to hustling, Uncle Tomming and Aunt Jemaiming, and relying only on the self-destructive "get over strategies" of the ghetto and of the past. We need to call on our historical memory, on our forefathers and foremothers, and on all our historical connections.

As well, going forward, these three ministers admit that God too is a problem, He too must be interrogated. We have the right to ask Him hard questions. Maybe this will mean that we will need more secular models to help us cope? But here we must be careful for we are treading on thin ice. For we don't want to throw out the baby with the bath water. Because in reinventing the spiritual, throwing out God, we may also throw out our own collective vitality.

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Retired Foreign Service Officer and past Manager of Political and Military Affairs at the US Department of State. For a brief time an Assistant Professor of International Relations at the University of Denver and the University of Washington at (more...)

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