Or I could have easily titled this blog as “the most amazing lecture I’ve ever heard in my life.” I’m biased, sure, but hearing Cornel West speak in person is easily something I would recommend to anyone and everyone. I had heard that Professor West and Mr. Smiley would be speaking in Seattle, and that included in ticket price was a copy of their newest book, The Rich & the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto, but I’d been watching my budget and was waffling on if I would buy a ticket – I ended up caving, thanks to some pressure from some friends – and I can only say that I am so glad I did.
The content of their lecture, as well as their book, was phenomenal. It beats the partisan politics off of the issue and thrusts the facts of poverty in the United States, raw and naked, right in your face. (Admittedly, part of the reason this blog post has taken a while to get out is that every time I look at the book for a couple facts to throw in with the post, I keep getting distracted reading the book!) Both West and Smiley are heavily inspired by the life of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., with Mr. Smiley calling MLK “the greatest American this country ever produced,” and despite his faults, I would have to agree. The things that make MLK an amazing individual, in my opinion, are the things that can make any American great – and if I may be so bold, can save this country from this slippery slope on which we find ourselves.
In 2011 Dr. West and Mr. Smiley embarked on an 18-city journey across the United States, The Poverty Tour: A Call to Conscience, shedding light on and bringing awareness to the state of poverty in America:
Nearly 50 million Americans now live in poverty. If that doesn’t bother you, then let this be a call to your conscience indeed.
Aside from the PBS special linked above, Smiley and West’s book is the information and call to action from their experiences in 2011, with the book’s content ranging on a variety of related issues tied into poverty in America – that it’s not simply a poverty defined by lack of money, but also:
- Poverty of Opportunity
- Poverty of Affirmation
- Poverty of Courage
- Poverty of Compassion
- Poverty of Imagination
Perhaps the best quote I have since come across in the book that defines the issues is this:
“The level of inequality in this country has gotten so far out of hand, the quantity of compassion so thoroughly diminished, that the very future of American democracy is at stake.”
Tavis Smiley posited that poverty in America is a threat to American security, and I would have to agree. The day that we as a society actively disengage from compassion and action to protect the least amongst us, is the day that we begin actively participating in hurting our own society as a whole. Well, ‘as a whole’ in the sense of those who make less than the richest 1% of Americans, or less than $380,000 a year.
I know, some of you might be going ‘now hang on a minute, Nina, don’t go off on us now about the 99% or the 1% or all that jazz.” I won’t – not yet. Nor do I think that any discussion about economic issues and using those labels (99-percenters, 1-percenters, etc) is necessarily obligated to make judgment calls or descriptions of personal character – I have no use for demonizing or labeling someone’s character. Montanan though I may be, I find mud-slinging and name-calling about as useful as gun-slinging – that is, antiquated, unnecessary, and dangerous.
What I feel West and Smiley calling us to as a society is indeed a call to conscience. The faces of the poor are no longer relegated to solely the impoverished minorities that many amongst the well-to-do in society cannot relate to -or that even some minorities in America who may be well off themselves cannot find themselves relating to. The poor in America today are not relics from the Great Depression, or merely miscreants and addicts. In today’s economy, there are a growing number of people – individuals and families – who are one paycheck away from being homeless.
In fear of becoming a post that goes on for too long, I will instead share some quotes from the part of West and Smiley’s book I have read thus far. I hope it inspires you, angers you, pisses you off, or at least moves you in some way.
“Can we still claim ‘the greatest’ status when one out of two Americans is living in poverty or near the poverty line? Should our reputation as a global leader legitimately come into question when, every quarter, millions more of our citizens face the haunting specter that they, too, may soon join the ranks of America’s poor? How patriotic is a nation where veterans are more likely than non-veterans to be homeless?
“… What are the real choices and chances available in our democracy for average citizens when the wealthiest 1 percent of U.S. citizens controls nearly 42 percent of the wealth, or when the top 400 citizens have wealth equivalent to the bottom 150 million citizens? Is this still the land of opportunity when nearly 14 million Americans are ‘officially’ unemployed, and millions more are underemployed, to say nothing of the countless millions who have completely given up looking for work? The myth of American exceptionalism, of being the best of the best, overshadows an inconvenient truth. We are a nation where poverty of opportunity is dangerously close to becoming a permanent reality.” (pgs 44-45)
“…How can America be ‘first’ if the least among us are our last collective concern? What does it say about the priorities of a nation that allows 53% of its children–the most vulnerable and valuable — to live in or near poverty?” (pg 55)
For further information on Cornel West & Tavis Smiley, you can view this video clip of them on Democracy Now, as well as read this article about them on the Huffington Post. They have a weekly radio show, Smiley & West, on Sunday afternoons. This author would highly recommend their new book, The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto to every American.