On Tuesday night, The Lecture Fund welcomed renowned radio and television personality Tavis Smiley and Dr. Cornel West, a philosopher and writer described by Smiley as “our country’s leading public intellectual,” to Lohrfink Auditorium to speak about the growing issue of income inequality in the United States.
Smiley set the tone for his segment of the talk by declaring poverty “the moral and spiritual issue of our time,” and “a threat to our democracy.”
Referencing the historical reputation of privilege at elite universities, Smiley said, “Some might find it ludicrous or laughable that we’re talking about poverty at a place like Georgetown.” However, he continued, poverty is an issue impacting a growing number of people who had once been solidly in the middle class.
Smiley and West embarked on a “poverty tour” this summer with the aim of seeing the effects of the current recession on Americans. Visiting 18 cities in nine states over the course of a week, Smiley and West discovered that poverty can no longer be “color-coded,” for Americans of all races struggle to make ends meet.
Smiley declared that 150 million Americans can now be classified as poor or near-poor—almost half of the population of the United States. Nevertheless, the nation has been reluctant to start a conversation on the topic; in the three debates leading up to the 2008 presidential election, the words “poor” or “poverty” were never even used.
“The time is now for this conversation,” Smiley said. “Poverty is an issue of national security.”
A Princeton professor whose popular writings focus on poverty and race theory, West began his portion of the talk with kind words about departing Georgetown professor Patrick Deneen. Of Professor Michael Eric Dyson, West said, “I may not always agree with that brother, but he’s a genius.”
Moving on to the issue of poverty, West raised the question of what kind of human beings we choose to be, and what kind of community we create as a result. West implored audience to be independent thinkers and to wrestle with what it means to be human. “We need more voices, not echoes, at Georgetown,” West said, encouraging students to have the “courage to think critically.”
West also criticized the values that encourage young people to pursue wealth and personal success above all else, characterizing this type of “peacock sensibility” as “spiritual malnutrition.”
“To be human is to spead loving kindness,” West said. “All the money in the world will still leave you shallow and hollow if you don’t learn to love wisdom, love justice, love neighbor.”
Smiley and West signed copies of their new book, The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto, after their talk. The event was followed by a television interview with Smiley and West conducted by CNN host Piers Morgan.
Photo: Julian De La Paz