Tavis Smiley and Cornel West at Georgetown

On a Tuesday evening back in mid-April I had a wonderful opportunity to listen to media personality Tavis Smiley and celebrated intellectual Cornel West here at Georgetown. They came to speak about their recent book The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto, (at Amazon here), their first book written together. It seems they've known each other and collaborated for many years, however, including in their radio show Smiley & West. Hearing them speak was a great experience and I support their cause entirely. However, I do have some critiques of their message.

Coincidentally, I had happened to watch YouTube videos of each of the men in the weeks leading up to the event, (West on Real Time with Bill Maher and Smiley on his eponymous talk show), so I was very excited when I heard they were coming to campus. The event took place in Lohrfink Auditorium in the Rafik B. Hariri Building, which is also where I'd attended TEDx Georgetown last year and seen Mohammed Yunus the year before that. Ironically, the Hariri building houses Georgetown's business school, but I know not all business school students are enamored of the corporate and capitalist status quo in America that Smiley and West critique. Plus, the building and auditorium are really very nice, (opened in 2009 when I was a freshman), so I appreciate opportunities to spend time there.

Tavis Smiley spoke first after introductions were made, outlining the message of his and Cornell West's recent work. They claim 150 million Americans - or one in every two of us - lives either in or near poverty, and that the creation of this massive population of "new poor," added to those who have been poor for generations, has stemmed from the pauperization of America's middle class. Smiley pointed to the increasing wealth gap in the nation - a small elite taking in so much more of the income and resources - but essentially his focus lay on the nature of our national perspective on poverty, our lack of discussion on it, our lack of solutions to deal with it - and how that threatens our democracy.

In many ways, I agree with this: If a great portion or even the majority of a society is impoverished, how could such a society be a true democratic republic? A republic, in order to fulfill its ideals, would have to guarantee a certain level of fair recompense and economic security in order to preserve their rights and relative equality. In addition, if such a large body of poor could not effectively improve their lot by political means, then surely their society would not be democratic. On the other hand, I think Smiley strays from reality by portraying this as a new threat to the United States: The country has had large marginalized populations since its inception, always including the poor, whose numbers swell or contract with every swing in prosperity. Such marginalization has always called into question whether the U.S. is or has ever been a just and true democracy.

Next Cornell West spoke to us, and unlike Tavis Smiley he was clearly thinking extemporaneously, veering far from the contents of the recent book or even the topic of poverty. He did speak some about the subject but then he turned to speaking directly for his audience, exhorting us as Georgetown students to strive for something greater than "success" - narrowly-defined attainment of material goals. He's a powerful and very unorthodox speaker, capable of shaming, shocking, or humoring an audience in the space of a few sentences.

In some ways I felt a surge of appreciation for what I saw West was attempting - to shock Georgetown students out of their phenomenal complacency. At the same time, however, one of the major reasons I think many Georgetown students might be complacent is because they lack perspective, and I was disappointed by how little perspective on poverty was shown by Smiley and West's presentation. I have no doubt they witnessed many heartbreaking struggles and had many touching conversations during their poverty tour, but they didn't share any of that with us. I would have loved to hear stories of people in need - examples of America's current impoverishment - and I would love it for some Georgetown students to acquire a much better understanding of what life is like for those less prosperous.

Of course, I wholeheartedly agree with Smiley and West that more conversations on American poverty must occur, and poverty must reinsert itself as an issue - a major, critical, all-important issue - in our politics. Propaganda these days has made everyone in America "middle class," just when class divisions are more apparent than ever and little could be farther from the truth. In addition, so many people live in denial about what sorts of economic opportunities are available for people; jobs these days are not only sparse, but they're bad. I know workers are exploited every day with too-low wages, too-low hours, and unmanageable prices for food, housing and transportation.

Along with medical bills and caring for dependents, these are the sorts of realities that push families toward poverty, and I would dare to say that far too few people acknowledge their existence. Some people in this country refuse to believe that the economic system abuses and misuses workers, and doesn't even give them enough to live on; they would prefer to blame the victim. I won't - and I hope you won't either.

Here is a clip from Smiley and West's TV appearance that occurred right after their talk at Georgetown. It isn't directly relevant to the subjects they spoke on to their Georgetown audience, but you can see the seats of Lohrfink Auditorium behind them in the clip.

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