Learning from the Poor



Kevin Mattson




A Review of Earl Shorris, New American Blues: A Journey Through Poverty to Democracy (New York: Norton, 1997), 432 pages, $29.95.


ince the 1930s, when James Agee penned Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, writing about the poor has become the domain of social scientists. Agee's foray into the lives of poor southern tenant farmers drove him to reflect about the act of conveying another person's experience to readers and wider issues of art. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men became a literary classic full of philosophical introspection. Today, the lives of the poor generate numbers and charts about income distribution. It seems intellectually hubristic to think that the lives of the poor might tell us anything more than cold facts about poverty.

But Earl Shorris thinks otherwise. He has shown how a concern for those suffering from poverty leads directly to concerns about the humanities -- about philosophy and ancient Greek conceptions of contemplation and reflection. His book is important and interesting while fraught with problems and contradictions.

Shorris's overall argument is relatively easy to follow. He asks: how should we define poverty? Eschewing the debates about America's dreadfully low poverty line -- debates which would lead him into the social scientific world of numbers and charts -- Shorris argues that the poor suffer most profoundly from the "surround of force." He writes, "The poor, those who lose in the game of modern society, are thrust into a surround of force. Inside the surround, they experience anomie: panic is limitless action within a surround, but the surround ruthlessly limits the freedom of its objects by enclosing them." Admittedly, "surround of force" is an odd term. But the term does illuminate the ways poor people feel hemmed in, limited by circumstance, and wracked by survivalism. The term becomes clearer when Shorris sets it against the "reflective thinking" that "plays little or no role in the lives of" the poor people whose stories form the empirical basis of his book. In essence, being poor means being denied the ability to reflect, think clearly, and do anything but respond to force with counter-force. For Shorris, this lack of reflective thinking draws poor people away from the opportunity of participating in "politics" -- which he defines broadly, as did Hannah Arendt and the ancient Greek philosophers before her, as engagement in discussion about public goods and values.

If poor people are denied the ability to reflect and think, then the conclusion would seemingly be to introduce them to those opportunities. A good deal of Shorris's book describes a program he put together for poor people -- the Clemente Course in the Humanities held in the Lower East Side of New York City (a notoriously tough section of Manhattan). In one of his speeches to participants, he articulates the purpose behind this effort: "Rich people learn the humanities; you didn't. The humanities are a foundation for getting along in the world, for thinking, for learning to reflect on the world instead of just reacting to whatever force is turned against you." Of course, Shorris is mindful of knee-jerk reactions against the idea of handing poor people books by Aristotle and Plato to read. He knows full well that many leftists will (tiredly) denounce this as "the cultural imperialism of dead white European males..." But he rightfully points out that works in the humanities can powerfully counteract the insipid "market-driven culture" that runs through every sector of America today (and one that Shorris exposed in his earlier book, A Nation of Salesmen). Whereas segments of the left today celebrate Madonna's supposed empowerment of radical female sexuality and other banalities of commercialized pop culture, Shorris commits himself to giving the poor something more than just t.v. and junk food. And much of his final chapters details how reading Socrates helped poor students think more critically and reflectively about their circumstances. In the end, the humanities opened up a new world for poor students, one that didn't turn them into placid, pipe-smoking academics but rather thoughtful citizens who were "disputatious" and even "unruly" -- who moved, as the subtitle of this book puts it, from poverty to democracy.

Shorris's arguments and experiments are quite important. As "one path to politics" (an important qualifier on Shorris's part), the humanities offer a reflective opportunity to poor people who are locked out of a life of argument and public life. In making this point, Shorris renews the radical implications of the enlightenment tradition in Western intellectual thought and reminds us of the power that Socrates and Aristotle still hold for people. He shows that ideas serve as powerful resources when made meaningful in everyday contexts. An emphasis on reflection and thought also offers a critique of the recent stress placed on work as the path out of poverty. Shorris's arguments are a timely reminder of the limitations of workfare. He argues, quite convincingly, that work "for most people in America... is merely labor -- often repetitive, rarely interesting, sometimes dangerous, usually not well paid." I don't take this point to mean that we should turn our backs on improving working conditions, but I do think it suggests that work shouldn't be stressed to the exclusion of encouraging reflection and engagement in public life. Here, Shorris makes an important contribution to wider debates about alleviating poverty.

But alongside these contributions, Shorris makes a number of mistakes. First, he has a tendency to ramble and his narrative often gets lost in details. The stories he tells about poor people sometimes fail to illuminate his major thematic points (at one point, a poor person says that things were better when everyone was working -- an embarrassing contradiction of Shorris's arguments against stressing the importance of work). In addition, Shorris lacks preciseness in analyzing ideas contrary to his. For instance, when discussing the writings of the sociologist, William Julius Wilson, Shorris argues that "Wilson made the culture of poverty black." Those who have read Wilson know full well that he did no such thing. In fact, Wilson decoupled poverty from race. But Shorris doesn't deal with the nuances of other people's ideas when building his own case.

Worse yet, Shorris's own ideas often suffer from a lack of rigor. Shorris's notion of force -- which is intended as a new means of defining what makes poor people different -- becomes amorphous. At one point, Shorris writes, "The force the poor endure is the lack of treatment in a society that offers the rich the best medical care on earth. Nothing so separates the losers from the winners as the inability to care for their children or themselves." It seems that the term force could easily have been replaced by the term poverty here without any loss of clarity. Throughout this work, force often loses its explanatory power. This weakness certainly detracts from the overall merit of Shorris's arguments.

On the other hand, this seeming weakness might point to a different conclusion that actually bolsters Shorris's critique. Maybe the problem of "force" is amorphous because it actually applies to more than just the poor in American society. Shorris has put his finger on a larger cultural crisis. Perhaps it's not just the poor who suffer from a lack of "reflective thinking." Certainly having to cope with unfair economic circumstances and the violence of ghetto life puts a special roadblock in the way of reflective thinking. Nonetheless, the young, middle class suburbanite who is saturated in a culture of MTV and commercials has few opportunities to engage in "reflective thinking" and the challenges of "public life." Though we wouldn't want to argue that this young suburbanite's life is defined by a "surround of force," it wouldn't hurt to widen Shorris's critique to say that opportunities for reflective thinking and public life should be democratized to include all members of American society -- not just the poor. That's the power of Shorris's argument: the challenge of democracy, that he so rightly calls us to, is important to all.

In the end, this returns us to Shorris's major argument that the poor are not that different from the rest of us. We should never become so callous as to ignore their humanity. It's too easy for many Americans to succumb to the stereotype of the Cadillac driving "welfare queen" -- as those of us who remember the Reagan years remember all too well. More importantly, the poor suffer from a lack of opportunity at reflective thinking that all Americans suffer from, and that fact should alert us to the merit of Shorris's argument throughout this book. We will never shut out the lives of poor people, as hard as we try. Certainly, we must realize that the poor have a rightful demand for equity and justice. But the poor should tell us something more about the poverty of our democracy. They tell us, as Earl Shorris makes clear, that we have not done a good enough job at making our everyday culture a place for learning, debate, and rigorous citizenship. For teaching us that, Earl Shorris deserves our praise.