Cornel West has been roundly criticized for his captious remarks about the Obama presidency, despite the fact that he has also been a strong supporter of both his initial candidacy and his reelection. Some have commented that he seems jealous that he did not get special recognition from the president this year during the inaugural festivities and has not been invited to the White House as a major consultant or advisor. Perhaps, West has gone a little overboard at times, but I think he is not far amiss in his concern over some aspects of the current, extended administration.
Two matters West has addressed are worthy of note. First, being the consummate politician, Obama extended the tax breaks for the wealthiest U.S. citizens, bailed out the banks in large part responsible for the domestic economic crisis, and mouthed clichéd irrelevancies about protecting the middle class—all at the unconscionable neglect of the poverty stricken. Second, Obama has continued the failed military policies of the past—having made promises he did not keep and using drones on a regular basis in the ill-conceived war against terrorism. Many were afraid that West’s remarks would impede Obama’s bid for a second term. Now that Obama heading towards lame duck-ness and the annals of presidential lore, can we substantively analyze what West has been saying?
A White House Conference on the Eradication of Poverty in America is one of the central suggestions made by West and his compatriot, Tavis Smiley, in their book, The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto. It is an easy read, and the data utilized throughout the text is not in the least overwhelming or superfluous. In this small book, the devastating effects of poverty, both historically and contemporaneously, are delineated via the analysis of others and anecdotes of real-life experiences of the indigent or near poor. A bit repetitious at times, the authors make a compelling case for the need of such a Conference finally to put the 1967 concerns of Robert F. Kennedy, Marian Wright (Edelman), and Martin Luther King, Jr., front and center.
King, of course, through the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, was putting together a Poor People’s Campaign to do precisely that in a dramatic way on the mall of the nation’s capital. Before he could implement this endeavor, he was diverted to Memphis, Tennessee, to support striking sanitation workers—a fatal involvement for him. The book lies heavily upon the legacy of the civil rights era and offers to resume King’s quest to end the United States’ escalating foray into Vietnam (today’s Afghanistan) in order to focus on crippling poverty at home. They reference the idea of a Marshall Plan for the Disadvantaged, a concept based upon the European Recovery Program for which the former Secretary of State General George Marshall won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1953 and upon Asa Philip Randolph’s Freedom Budget to mitigate the plight of the economically depressed.
The Rich and the Rest of Us is not a bona fide how-to book. There are twelve proposed steps to alleviate poverty, but they are not profoundly new or strikingly inspiring considering the many famous figures quoted intermittently throughout the text. It can be used as a basic tool to gather people together at least to talk about the taboo subject of poverty and to spin off local efforts to help the needy. I am afraid, however, that it does not seem to have the makings of a springboard impelling folks to rekindling the revolutionary spirit of old to challenge the capitalist system and restructure the institutions, processes, and policies that more than metaphorically makes paupers of the majority.
Does such a book, one that seems authentically to grow out of moral concern, make cowards of us all, to paraphrase William Shakespeare’s Hamlet? That is to say, are we so afraid of the type of society that might come after the revolution that we refuse to make the attempt to forge a new one? Or is poverty such a blight upon the great American experiment, to use Alexis de Tocqueville’s phrase, that we will shun safety, expediency, or popularity to attack and defeat it?
I close with a quote that King often used and did so on March 31, 1968, at the National Cathedral in D.C. a few days before he was assassinated. It is from the 19th-century preacher, William Morley Punshon.
On some positions, Cowardice asks the question, “Is it safe?”
Expediency asks the question, “Is it politic?”
Vanity asks the question, “Is it popular?”
But Conscience asks the question, “Is it right?”
King goes on to say that “there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because conscience tells him it is right.”
Perhaps, the eradication of poverty is, to restate Victor Hugo, an idea whose time has come!