Prompt for Text/Service Reflection: West’s “Moral Obligation in a Democratic Society” + Goodall and Barzun pieces

This prompt provides some ideas for your reflection but as always you are free to and should engage other ideas and make connections between the readings and with service in ways that make sense to you. The central reading is the West piece, so please make sure to focus on the themes that he covers.

Cornell West starts his piece “The Moral Obligations of Living in a Democratic Society” by stating the inherent complexity and irrationality of tough social issues, especially those related to race. He restates W.E.B. DeBois’s analysis that “Being Black in America is to be a problem . . . Problem people become indistinguishable and interchangeable, which means that only one of them has to be asked to find out what the rest of them think” (5). He connects this issue to the idea that democratic sensibility “cuts against the grain of history” in which the ruling class exerted its power over the underclass, effectively dehumanizing the “ordinary” individual. Thus, West asserts, if we are to live justly and democratically, we must critically engage and examine issues of race and power: “No democracy can survive with a middle class so insecure that it is willing to accept any authoritarian option in order to provide some sense of normalcy and security in their lives. It also opens the door for significant segments of that middle class to scapegoat those who are most vulnerable” (10).

Think about what this means and if you can relate to anything related to your service or community partner. Also, see if you can connect to similar ideas conveyed by Barzun and Goodall:

What does Barzun mean by his struggle against the “mechanical”? He writes that “any ossified [fossilized] institution . . . manifests the mechanical. So does race-thinking—a verdict passed mechanically at a color-coded signal. Ideology is likewise an idea machine, designed to spare the buyer all further thought” (pg. 3 of pdf, right hand side).

Jane Goodall writes that it is “impossible to overemphasize the power of the individual in the shaping of the values of a society. . . In human society, the legacies of a Hitler or a Jesus, a Gandhi or an Ayatollah Khomeini, are testimonies to the impact they made during their brief years on earth. . . Every single one of has, I believe, a significant part to play in the scheme of things” (pg. 9 of pdf, right hand side).

What does it mean to be part of a larger, democratic community. What happens if we don’t struggle/question/strive as individuals but wait, instead for someone else to do it for us?


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