Listener Thoughts: Tavis Smiley, Cornel West and The Poverty Tour
After Vernon and Kamau discussed Steve Harvey’s recent criticism of Cornel West and Tavis Smiley’s recent tour, listener Jon left his thoughts on the subject in the comments section:
“Listened to #22, as usual, I love your discourse around social issues. I think you both have excellent points to make around key issues. This is why I was disappointed to see the issue of Tavis Smiley & Cornel West’s poverty tour be glossed over.
You guys described it as an ‘Obama Hate Tour’ and played a clip of Steve Harvey calling them out for not speaking out against other administrations. My question is, if a group of people decide to give up time and resources to travel around the country and spotlight the needs of the poor, why do they have to prove themselves by citing a track record several administrations and a couple decades long? If you want to help the poor, can’t you just help the poor? Especially in a climate where the poor are demonized (see the Aug 18 episode of Jon Stewart for an immediate example).
There are lots of ways Obama gets hated on that are very obvious (see Jon Stewart Aug 17). I don’t think that this is one of them. I’d encourage you to listen to the Smiley & West podcast for Aug 19 where they chronicle their journey. These guys are trying to spotlight the issues of your nation. I’d suggest you give them an ear before you ‘throw stones and ask questions later’ – the very kind of criticism you gave during this podcast.
I really enjoy your work. That is why I’m writing.“
Just to make sure Jon’s points didn’t go unnoticed, I thought I’d address them here instead. I can’t speak for Kamau and Vernon, but allow me to provide some elaboration on why many people, including myself, have been critical of Cornel West and Tavis Smiley—I encourage Jon or anyone else to comment after reading to see if we can get to the bottom of this:
To begin with, I feel that it gives the Poverty Tour too much credit to describe it as “giv[ing] up time and resources to travel around the country and spotlight the needs of the poor.” I can’t really know what’s going on in the minds of either man, but based on their past and present behavior, I find it hard to believe that their intentions are so pure.
To say that West and Smiley are giving up time and resources isn’t really accurate: both men travel around holding speaking engagements regularly because it’s a large part of what their careers entail. They’re not “giving up” anything because, since both men quite literally trade in media attention, they’re getting plenty out of the transaction. I don’t fault them for that—it’s just how the world works when you’re in their lines of work—but with that information in mind, I then have to look more deeply at their motivation than I would if a school teacher or clergyman took up the same task. That question of motivation is where I start to have problems with West and Smiley.
Both men have personal issues with President Obama and both have been fairly critical of him through his entire term. In both cases, the criticism started shortly after incidents where they felt “snubbed” by Obama and his team, calling into question why they’ve chosen now of all times to “spotlight” these issues. Poverty is a problem that has existed for as long as humans have had the concept of currency, so if the tour is set up to fight poverty, why are they mostly just fighting Barack Obama?
Why during election season? Why not two years ago or, even better, during previous administrations where better economic climates made it far easier for the middle class to ignore the problems of the impoverished? Blaming a president for poverty is a logical fallacy to begin with, so the fact that their idea of “helping the poor” has mostly taken the form of complaining about Obama shows that Smiley and West frankly aren’t thinking about the issue deeply enough to have any real value in the discussion.
What exactly are they actually accomplishing for the poor through this tour? They don’t seem to be raising money for any outreach programs or mobilizing any additional volunteers, simply arriving in a city, riling people up, talking to the local media and moving on. Who is this helping? One might say that they’re “raising awareness”—a common claim by people who want credit for helping without actually doing anything—but what person living in modern America is unaware of poverty? There are certainly plenty who chose not to care, but those people are not showing up to listen to a Cornel West or Tavis Smiley speak.
The economy has already done the job of making us all aware of poverty, so the money being spent on running that bus could have far more impact if allocated to any number related causes. Of course, what those causes actually are is more difficult to figure out, so West and Smiley have simply swept the topic aside and chosen a “solution” that best suits their own needs. It’s easy to point out problems but difficult to provide solutions, and West and Smiley seem more interested in the former than the latter.
I’ve found Tavis Smiley vexing for as long as I can remember, so ultimately, I’m inherently mistrustful of anything he does. Countless times, I’ve heard him on CNN, BET, PBS or HBO criticizing whomever is the popular straw-man of that moment while swinging his “views” around wildly to suit the audience he’s in front of. Like many modern political pundits, Smiley makes it his business to say provocative things in order to earn camera time and his credibility has been ruined after years and years of this behavior. Simply put, I don’t trust him now because I’ve never beed able to before and this tour fits right into his typical modus operandi. I’m all in favor of listening to what someone has to say before rushing to judgment, but I’ve heard more than enough of Tavis Smiley to feel comfortable in my opinions of him.
Cornel West, on the other hand, is a man who I would have once considered highly credible, but the fact that he’s fallen in with Smiley makes me question his logic as well. In his case, however, I feel that his intentions are less financially motivated and instead are driven by spite. We’ve seen the similar tantrums from other so-called “Black Leaders” in the past, and like Jesse Jackson before him, Cornel West strikes me as a man struggling with the idea of his own irrelevance in a changing world.
While the work of civil-rights era leadership is historically significant and racism still very much exists, the time of segregated water fountains and bus boycotts is long over. The difficulties that most modern Americans have with race are far too nuanced for grand gestures like marches and bombastic speeches to be of much help because changing the law has accomplished about as much as it can. Men like Jackson and West have been pushed to the side because their “old guard” ways have little use in the modern climate and they don’t like it. While Obama himself isn’t the catalyst for this change, he is highly symbolic of it and, as a result, has become a target for selfish, short-sighted men who always envisioned themselves as The Next Great Black Man.
Despite those years of struggle that made it possible for there to be a President Obama, now that the war is over—at least in the way West knows how to fight it—he’s the bitter vet who expected the parades to continue for as long as he was around to see them. What he fails to understand is that a freedom fighter’s main goal should be his own eventual irrelevance and that he should take satisfaction in the fact that at least some parts of the battle have been won. Instead, he releases embarrassingly out-of-touch rap albums and goes on tour with Tavis Smiley in order to keep himself at the center of attention, ultimately helping nobody and tarnishing what would have been an otherwise admirable legacy.
If West and Smiley want to help the poor, I’ll be glad to see them do it. Stirring the pot and pointing fingers, however, isn’t accomplishing anything but making us talk about them more. Their hustle is no different than tactics employed by the worst of The Right: taking advantage of uninformed poor people by convincing them that if they just vote against a specific list of politicians, all their problems will somehow be solved. When people are frustrated, they look for someone to blame and, if you can give them that, they’ll continue to listen to what you have to say no matter how little substance there actually is to the claim. West and Smiley are smart enough to know that and are using it to their advantage.
As Vernon mentioned in the episode, calling someone’s “blackness” into question is a slippery slope at best and a plainly racist premise at worst. With that said, it does seem counter-intuitive that a pair of men who would paint themselves as champions of black thought would be so quick to tear down Barack Obama, a man who has accomplished something that most of us thought impossible even while it was happening. They shouldn’t be expected to follow him over a cliff just because he’s black, but it does seem like they should at least be willing to leave him to his own devices since there’s no real indication that he has ill intent.
Cornel West and Tavis Smiley are not making the world a better place, they’re shouting into an echo-chamber. They’re participating in the worst kind of political theatre and manipulating uneducated or out-of-touch people with their celebrity. Is Steve Harvey right to bring the barbershop talk into the public? Suffice to say that’s an issue the black community has debated for decades, but just because he may have violated the code doesn’t mean that his anger is misplaced.
As for Kamau and Vernon, I’m sure they could have discussed the issue at a greater length, but there were plenty of other big stories this week and, frankly, it would be a little silly to devote more time to a pair of attention-seeking hucksters than the U.K. riots. If Smiley and West want to discuss the topic of poverty in a deep and nuanced way, I’ll gladly suggest that we return to the subject, but until they choose to stop glossing over real issues, there’s no need to do more than gloss over their opinions. They can carry on their vendetta just fine without us.
P.S. I could go on for days about my distaste for Jon Stewart and his show but that’s another topic entirely. Either way, I wouldn’t go too far in taking him seriously either.