The educator, activist, and and former Harvard professor is touring the country with broadcaster Tavis Smiley to stir up interest in their new “poverty manifesto” called “The Rich and the Rest of Us.”
Q. Why is the word “poverty” absent from the national debate? All we are hearing about is the middle class.
A. I think that in the last 30 years we have moved to the right in terms of our public discourse, and we tend to characterize poor people as undeserving people with character flaws and therefore undeserving of public attention — people who have to deal with the consequences of their own actions. We are trying to shatter these myths of poor people, to accentuate their dignity and humanity and [show] they are poor as a result of no fault of their own. It goes back to the founding of the nation, to the notion of the self-made, rugged, rapacious individualism that has characterized so much of the shaping of the conception of the nation. In the 1980s, Reagan really helped inaugurate this obsession with the rich and famous, which generated an indifference and sometimes a contempt for poor and working people.
Q. You write that nearly one in two Americans is living in or near poverty and that the poor are starting to fight back. Why have they not staged a revolt, as at other times in history? Why hasn’t this exploded?
A. It is hard for these voices to surface and therefore hard for poor people to be visible and taken seriously unless they constitute a threat, and then it is tied to issues of national security. We are arguing this is a state of emergency and a national security [issue] already. We know that empires tend to collapse not due to internal collapse . . . or external threat but due to internal rot.
Q. To the north of us, in Canada, the public debate sounds very different. You hear about the need for “generosity” and “inclusivity.” Why is generosity not part of the American political lexicon?
A. I would say that our conception of public interest has been reduced to national security and policing. That is, we give tremendous amounts of money to the war and prison industrial complex. In Canada, housing, health care, quality education are all considered integral to the public interest. We have tremendous problems making that case. What you end up with is an obsession with austerity and cutting budgets rather than with education, housing, and jobs with living wages. I do think, though, that this [focus on] austerity will come to an end. You see it in Europe: austerity reinforces more recession and depression.
Q. Are you optimistic that things will change?
A. As you know, I draw a radical distinction between hope and optimism. I think that history is so open-ended it can go either way. But there is always a darkness out there, and that’s what the blues teaches us — B.B. King, Sarah Vaughan, Count Basie. We must have a compassionate response to catastrophe. That is my tradition, which means I am a prisoner of hope. It’s always possible for breakthroughs.
Q. Here in Massachusetts, there’s been some fuss recently about the tax returns of the two candidates in the US Senate race. Obviously, both of them are wealthy. Does that say anything relevant about their character?
A. I don’t think money determines character at all. I think character has to do with the kinds of choices people make, the moral vision they follow. It has to do with their courage. This determination that the more money you have the more gangster you are, I don’t accept that. The problem is that we are talking about a system that is rigged in such a way that those at the top have very little accountability, and when they have little accountability it is very difficult for them to have character. Of course, as a Christian I recognize that the spirit always has an autonomy that is not reducible to circumstance, because choices make a big difference.
Q. Any word yet from the White House about your proposal for a Conference on the Eradication of Poverty?
A. Not yet. Not yet. But I do foresee a victory for Barack Obama. Absolutely. He is so much more charismatic. It would be a disaster if Mitt Romney were to win. But with the oligarchs in control, we still need a massive social movement, which means we have to do whatever is necessary to bring about a fundamental transformation of the oligarchy if America is to survive with any sense of democratic character.