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Compassionate Aversionism | The Nation

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Compassionate Aversionism

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The first two essays, by William Stern, an official in the administration of New York Governor Mario Cuomo in the early 1980s, celebrate the influence of New York's first Roman Catholic Archbishop, John Hughes, and the Catholic Protectory in the "moral transformation" that lifted Irish immigrants from the lowest rungs of society at the turn of the century. (A different and provocative approach to this subject can be found in Noel Ignatiev's 1995 book, How the Irish Became White.) Stern's conservative sympathies are obvious, but he stays mainly in the past until the end of the second essay ("Once We Knew How to Rescue Poor Kids"). There he reveals his politics, lambasting the modern Catholic Charities for pursuing the "expansion of the welfare state" and ignoring the "central insight that for charity to succeed, it must change the cultural attitudes of its recipients."

About the Author

Gara LaMarche
Gara LaMarche, president of the Democracy Alliance, previously headed the Atlantic Philanthropies and the Open Society...

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Stern has a thing about what he terms confession--the Catholic sacrament called penance when I was a student at Immaculate Conception School, these days repackaged as "reconciliation," in what he undoubtedly would view as a triumph of euphemism. In the confessional, Stern writes, "you must clearly state what you yourself have done wrong. It is the ultimate taking of responsibility for one's actions, and it taught the Irish to focus on their own role in creating their misfortune." Confession has near-magical powers, Stern believes; it turned "impulsive, often criminally inclined, children into personally responsible individuals." Our Saturday afternoon stints in the confessional never had that effect on my friends and me, but I retain an attachment to the core concept that no sin is too great to be forgiven. I don't see much of that spirit among today's "compassionate" conservatives.

The nostalgic reveries in What Makes Charity Work? leave something to be desired as history, because they are invariably cut to fit a contemporary argument. Writing about the "Jewish Victorian" women of the Juvenile Aid Society who helped his immigrant father, Howard Husock calls them "a far cry from today's Jewish philanthropy, which has embraced the Protestant social gospel that religion has a duty to set right the injustices of society." The agency that came to his father's rescue, according to Husock, a director of case studies at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, "did not engage in advocacy at all, whether to improve housing conditions, raise wages or even reduce anti-Semitism." He compares it favorably with today's Children's Defense Fund, "advocating social policy but not itself directly helping individual children" (other than the millions who benefit from its lobbying for expanded child health insurance programs or Head Start, that is).

The contemporary argument, right from today's headlines, is the Bush Administration's drive to steer government funds to churches providing social services, the subject of legislation being taken up by Congress in late April. Eyal Press and others have recently done much to debunk the myth that religious providers are more efficient and effective than government in helping the poor. A program that deals with drug addiction as sinful behavior curable through Bible classes--and much touted by the supporters of faith-based approaches to social problems--inflated its success rate and, despite claims, actually costs more to deliver than conventional drug treatment. A North Carolina welfare-to-work program run by a local minister would have no chance of success but for state childcare funds and support services from an array of secular agencies. But even if every church-run drug treatment program, soup kitchen and inner-city parochial school had a 100 percent success rate, and even if their efforts were multiplied ten times over, the gulf between the problem and the resources would still be huge. A 1999 survey of congregations' social efforts found most of them to be short-term and small-scale, and only 2 to 4 percent of church budgets goes to social services.

Mac Donald's book is a series of angry and sarcastic essays attacking not just traditional charities but intellectual "elites" for the myriad ways in which she believes they have ruined contemporary American society. In Mac Donald's world, large foundations, the public health establishment, law school faculties, teachers' unions, social service advocates and museum directors have conspired to undermine old-fashioned values of self-reliance and decency. Together, she argues, these powerful forces have imposed an orthodoxy that few dare challenge.

In her attack on foundations, "The Billions of Dollars That Made Things Worse," Mac Donald focuses on the "liberal leviathans"--Ford, Carnegie, Rockefeller, etc.--because so-called liberal foundations "outnumber conservative ones three to one, and liberal policy groups receive four times as much foundation money as their conservative counterparts." (Somehow, the foundation whose US programs I direct, George Soros's Open Society Institute, escapes Mac Donald's barbs, even though we make grants to many of the same groups as the foundations she condemns--are we doing something wrong?) Although these assumptions are based on highly questionable categorizations of what is right and what is left--foundations like Ford and Carnegie, and many of their grantees, have as many critics on the left as on the right--let's accept for the sake of discussion that the right-wing foundations are outgunned in dollar terms.

Why, then, are we living in a policy landscape determined by their ideas? Why are we debating the size of an inevitable tax cut rather than national health insurance? How much arsenic to allow in the water and not how to strengthen worker safety laws? Maybe it's because the conservative foundations have spent their somewhat more limited funds--the Manhattan Institute, for all its influence, gets by on a budget of $6.2 million, the equivalent of pocket change for any of the larger, more progressive foundations--quite strategically, eschewing demonstration projects for well-promoted shibboleths about the evils of government like--well, like Heather Mac Donald's. As Edwin Feulner, longtime president of the Heritage Foundation (a model for the Manhattan Institute), which provided the blueprint for the Reagan Administration in 1981, told the American Legislative Exchange Council late last year, "It is telling that much of the left's distress about our success is aggravated by the skills we've acquired in marketing ideas." Given the success of the right's agenda, the pervasive whine about its marginalization that Mac Donald typifies is particularly galling. She complains about the professional victimhood of welfare rights and minority advocates, but nobody plays the role better than Mac Donald.

I once heard the leftist-turned-right-winger David Horowitz denounce foundations such as Ford and Carnegie as Marxist to a gathering of conservative funders. I thought it was a joke, but the audience clapped and slapped their thighs in joyous recognition; and in her book, Mac Donald picks up the same theme. A few paragraphs after citing a "former Communist" once on the staff of the Ford Foundation on the "secret anticapitalist orientation" of his fellow program officers, she disdains the call of Peter Goldmark, then president of the Rockefeller Foundation, for a "national conversation to talk with candor about the implications of personal and institutional racism," as if this notion were just another scheme of diehard reds fomenting revolution with the dollars of dead capitalists. As far as Mac Donald is concerned, racism is a thing of the past. Anyone who invokes it today is just making excuses for social pathology or incompetence. She doesn't think much of antibias task forces, citing with approval Stephan Thernstrom's findings that minorities are "overrepresented in the nation's judiciary." In her piece assailing pro bono work on behalf of "left-wing" causes like "expanding entitlements" and "promoting homosexual rights," Mac Donald makes a brief nod to the time when "civil rights litigation had unimpeachable moral authority." (It's hard to know what civil rights litigation Mac Donald would approve of today, since she doesn't cite any.)

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