Community & Government, Wellness

The Love Ethic

Cornel West talks about the connection between poverty and empathy and the legacy of Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty” and Martin Luther King’s “Poor People’s Campaign.”

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Topics include: Case Study: The War on Poverty · The Legacies of LBJ and MLK


[MUSIC PLAYING] - I just believe that every human being is made in the image of likeness of God, and therefore ought to be able to live lives where they can flourish and flower at the highest level of decency and dignity. And it's hard for me to conceive of how that's possible with involuntary poverty. That's why I see empathy and the abolition of poverty as deeply interconnected. Most people who are locked into poverty are trying to get out. And so for me, it's just a very simple moral and spiritual commitment. My dear brother Sonny Rollins used to say to me all the time-- and he still does. He said, brother West, you know, the Golden Rule is probably the most profound expression of empathy that we have. Because if you really put yourself in the shoes of poor people, you would want your poverty abolished. Now, if that's true, then why not abolish it for them? And so serious talk about any society must begin by, how are the least of these doing? What's happening in the prisons? What's happening in the barrios, the reservations, the hoods? What's happening in the poor neighborhoods, and so forth? It's very interesting the relation between discourses of empathy and justice and discourses on poverty. Because there has to be some ways in which they become intertangled such that they can generate serious public opinion tied to public policies that try to hit poverty head-on in whatever form. I think the story of how the war on poverty emerged is a fascinating one. It began, of course, with the grand Norman Thomas. Norman Thomas was a socialist who ran against FDR four times. Of course, he lost over and over again. But he was head of the Socialist Party for almost 50 years. And he was trying to bring black and white workers together. And he was a great exemplar of empathy in the middle part of the 20th century. In fact, Martin Luther King Jr.'s movement was tied to Norman Thomas as an inspiration. King wrote an essay called "The Bravest Man I Ever Met, Norman Thomas." See, Martin Luther King Jr. was talking about poverty and was concerned about poor and working people no matter who they are. That's the legacy of Martin King. So Norman Thomas ought to be a household word when you talk about war against poverty. But his mentoree was Michael Harrington, who was a leading Democratic Socialist of his day. My dear brother Michael Harrington wrote a book about poverty called "The Other America." And Dwight Macdonald did a piece on that book for "The New Yorker" in 1963, where he called for a war on poverty. And President Kennedy read that piece. JFK said, hmm, we got to do something about this. Let's bring Michael Harrington into the White House. They had a conversation. But calling for the abolition of poverty generates a whole host of other kinds of questions. And that's precisely what Michael Harrington and Martin King and the others understood very, very well. So this war on poverty begins to take off...

About the Instructor

For the first time ever on MasterClass, a diverse range of our instructors come together to talk about the power of empathy and how it can transform the way you view the world. Join Pharrell Williams, Robin Arzón, Roxane Gay, Walter Mosley, Robert Reffkin, Gloria Steinem, and Cornel West as they share their experiences with empathy and its importance in their lives and careers. Learn how to exercise, cultivate, and promote empathy to connect with others on a deeper, more human level.

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Pharrell Williams, Robin Arzón, Roxane Gay, Walter Mosley, Robert Reffkin, Gloria Steinem, and Cornel West

Pharrell Williams, Robin Arzón, Roxane Gay, Walter Mosley, Robert Reffkin, Gloria Steinem, and Cornel West teach about leading life with empathy.

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