The Rich and the Rest of Us, by Tavis Smiley and Cornel West (Smiley Books).
These two bright minds, with articulate diction of intellect and the loud volume of intense passion, place the political “F-word” at the center of the socio-political discourse – and that disconcerting word is poverty. For many, it remains an icky word – and not since reading Henry George’s Progress and Poverty (1877) have I been made to view poverty so up close and critically. And just like George’s work, which employed its own brand of investigative journalism, Smiley and West make the reader keenly aware of the “systemic and institutional factors [contributing] to poverty” and even more so “the poverty of collective actions and thought that got us into this [dismal and unjust economic] predicament…”
Smiley and West commence their trek by surveying the history of America’s general demonizing of poor people, either viewing poverty as a result of some personal and/or moral deficiency or viewing the poor as barely a Hegelian negation worth acknowledging. “Most, including the fragile middle class, still ignore the poor and are defensively inclined to separate themselves from them. They have been misled to believe that America is really not a country of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots.’” It is no wonder how so many American citizens have remained as John Steinbeck’s George and Lennie, poor pursuers of an elusive “American Dream.” Smiley and West not only assert that such is the case because of a history of unbridled greed and consumerism but a dearth of any serious engagement and plan to eradicate poverty by furnishing real opportunities for the poor via seeking economic equality. It is this perennial hopelessness experienced by poor people that threatens to unravel our nation’s social soul and political existence.
To have such a straightforward discussion about poverty and the poor, within the context of historical economic exploitation, budget expenditures that prioritize war over job creation, and governmental complicity with corporate market abuse, takes a great amount of selflessness and courage. The rock solid conviction that Kant was accurate regarding the absolute inner worth and dignity of human beings is the high moral platform upon which Smiley and West make their plea for the well-being of the poor, aiming to lift our socio-political and individual imaginations about an America from which poverty is eradicated. “With a surplus of opportunity, affirmation, compassion, courage and imagination, we can make poverty an archaic remnant of how America used to be” – Milton Friedman being perturbed here is an understatement. Yet, we still must appreciate Smiley and West for attempting to insert the plight of the poor into the public socio-political discourse as James Cone and Gustavo Gutierrez endeavored to do within the fields of theology and church life.
On the one hand, reading this book might make the more “rational/realistic” observer think that perhaps Smiley and West have overreached. Instead of seeking the eradication of poverty, in America of all places, just the elimination of Jeffrey Sach’s “extreme poverty” would have been more reasonable and achievable. However, what deserves the most credit is Smiley’s and West’s insistence that we grapple with the underside of our capitalist paradigm. And as we grapple with the lives of 150 million Americans experiencing the dour backlash of “profits over people”, we may never eradicate poverty fully, but our nation will never lose its soul because it did not at least try. So the question, after reading The Rich and the Rest of Us, is not who are we as a nation if we do not eradicate poverty, but who can we ever become if, from time to time, we do not seriously try.
-S. Emmanuel Epps