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Compassionate Aversionism | The Nation

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Compassionate Aversionism

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If there is one refrain that runs most consistently through Mac Donald's essays, it is that society took a wrong turn when it stopped distinguishing between the deserving and the undeserving poor. A nostalgia for stigmatization pervades her writing: the notion that all families, no matter how troubled, deserve respect "epitomizes contemporary social work's refusal to make moral judgments." Magnet is even more blunt, wanting to separate "the bums and crooks from those trying to live upright lives and improve their condition by effort, sacrifice and self-restraint."

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

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The homeless? They're on the streets, according to Mac Donald, because "the advocates need them to be there. Should society finally decide to end street vagrancy, it could go far in that direction by facilitating commitment to mental hospitals and enforcing existing laws against street living." In other words, whether you lock them up in mental hospitals or prisons, just get them out of our sight.

A particularly nasty passage in Mac Donald's book is aimed at Jack Coleman, the former president of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, who spent ten days as a street person in 1983 to get a better understanding of homelessness. When Coleman returned to his home after his days on the street, Mac Donald reports, he drew himself a hot bath, got into it and started to cry. Recounting the story at a conference, Coleman cried again. This moving reaction is dismissed as "four-handkerchief histrionics" by Mac Donald, and at first it's hard to see why she isn't more sympathetic to Coleman's effort to get out of what she would undoubtedly view as an ivory tower, since she has nothing but contempt for advocates who she thinks preach about the poor from the comfortable precincts of the Upper West Side or Berkeley. (I, for one, would like to see foundation presidents shed more tears of their own and cause fewer to be shed by others!) But Mac Donald's antipathy is easily figured out: Coleman's remarks took place at a conference of homeless advocates whose work with the most desperately poor led them to call for stepped-up government responsibility to provide stable housing and employment for those on the streets. Anyone espousing those views has to be discredited at all costs.

Some of the targets Mac Donald picks are easy ones. It's hard to defend education colleges that turn out graduates who have little knowledge of the subjects they are going to teach, massive public education bureaucracies that seem to survive every change of leadership or the corruptions and cruelties of the foster care system. Occasionally she writes about her subjects more in sorrow than in anger, as in her piece about the El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice in Brooklyn. Mac Donald homes in on a course in hip-hop culture to make an argument about the glamorization of graffiti, but she seems to have a grudging affection for the energy of the place.

However, there is little respite in her book from the relentless assault on public institutions of all kinds. Mac Donald praises a Harlem Boy Scout troop, for example, as an antidote to the "chaos in New York's inner-city classrooms." I've been in many dozens of such classrooms in recent years (and not just as a Principal for a Day, which one of Magnet's essayists, City Journal contributing editor Sol Stern, attacks for turning business and other civic leaders into apologists for the public schools), and saw little chaos amid much hope. What chaos there is would be mightily affected by fewer pupils per class, better libraries and labs, and enough books to go around--all things that have nothing to do with the moral fiber of public school students.

There are, to be sure, many idiocies and failings of government policy, and hapless or misguided advocates for social justice. Some of those are chronicled in these two books. But in the parallel universe in which Mac Donald, Magnet and other City Journal writers dwell, government can't do a thing right. What's most striking about this, from authors who claim to celebrate old-fashioned virtues, is its fundamental dishonesty. It's hard to take seriously intellectuals who, in their ideological zeal to discredit government, ignore all contrary evidence: rural electrification programs that transformed the lives of Southern farm families from their medieval rhythms; the Social Security system, which put an end to the grinding poverty that darkened the final years of millions of elderly citizens; the GI Bill, which subsidized education for a generation of veterans, propelling them into the middle class.

Even the vaunted faith of the authors in the private sector disappears the minute those institutions call for greater public--that is, government--responsibility for the poor. That's why the most ferocious attacks in these books are aimed at corporate law firms that advocate federally funded legal services for the poor, religious organizations that call for increased social spending and foundations that support systemic change. And if the poor find the moral fortitude to pick themselves up by their bootstraps, that's fine, as long as their new sense of empowerment doesn't lead them to organize and agitate for rights and economic justice.

Any positive vision about what would make a more just and fair society--or even any recognition that contemporary American capitalism raises any issues of justice or fairness--is absent from the pages of these books. In the end, what they demonstrate is just how bereft of ideas--that is, beyond trashing public institutions and blaming the poor for their poverty--the right is at this moment.

That's the good news. The bad news is: They're running the country.

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