Why progressives need to own Obama's achievements—and build a movement to pressure him to do more.
For all the supposed preparation progressives did for a return to political power, we haven’t figured out how to relate to an actual government. If progressives cannot "own" landmark achievements like healthcare and financial reform, how can we expect anyone else to?
We need to change the sorry frame of the debate over judges and the role the judicial system plays in our democracy.
Criminal justice reform, absent from the progressive agenda, must be a priority for Democratic candidates.
When it comes to the events of September 11, everyone is an expert and no one is. Everyone, because the attacks and their consequences had the rare character of a universal event. Few in the world have been left untouched by them, from New York City schoolchildren to Kabul shopkeepers. No one, because, as Strobe Talbott and Nayan Chanda put it in their introduction to The Age of Terror, "this was something new under the sun."
Or was it? Did we lose our innocence on September 11? Were the attacks a turning point in human history, like the smashing of the atom or the fall of the Berlin wall? Will we never be the same again?
These are the kinds of large questions that have been kicking around since September 11, and it's easy to understand, given the suddenness of the attacks, the scale of the horror and the intensity of the response, why they have been posed. My own view, reinforced by a look at five collections of essays written after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, is that it is too soon to tell. Some of the initial analysis is already looking dated or much too optimistic about the changed landscape. And in any event, it's important to be careful about the "we" packed into these questions, and alert to signs that September 11 is being used more often to reinforce entrenched views across the political spectrum than to challenge settled assumptions.
In time, books about what happened on September 11 and its aftermath will no doubt constitute a virtual cottage industry, perhaps occupying their own section at the local Borders or Barnes & Noble. For now, though, the first out of the box are compilations of essays and articles. It must be said at the outset that any book conceived and written in the span of a few months is at best an album of snapshots of a moment, and that while each of the books reflects a particular political orientation and sensibility, none of them constitute a sustained argument or a monolithic point of view.
Two of the books emerge from institutions of the establishment center: How Did This Happen?, edited by James F. Hoge and Gideon Rose, the editor and managing editor of Foreign Affairs, published by the Council on Foreign Relations; and The Age of Terror, edited by former Deputy Secretary of State Talbott (director of the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, soon-to-be president of the Brookings Institution) and Chanda, the center's publications director.
Despite the fact that no military or national security authority anticipated the stunningly simple way unspeakable damage was wrought on September 11, these two books want to reassure us with "experts." How Did This Happen? promises readers it will answer that question "in all its critical aspects" by bringing together "experts whose insights make the events of that terrible day more understandable, even as we steel ourselves for the conflicts ahead." The Age of Terror promises that an "agenda-setting team of experts" will begin to tell us "what happened here and why," and "examine the considerations and objectives of policy decisions in post-September 11 America."
In other words, Sisters Mary Yale and Harvard Explain It All to You. Except that most of these experts turn out to be men: Only three women are among the twenty-six writers in the Hoge/Rose book, a group that includes a former national security adviser, NATO commander and Secretary of Defense; and only one is among the eight academics in The Age of Terror. (The paucity of female "experts" in these pages, while appalling, is hardly limited to the books in question; a recent report by the White House Project kept track of appearances on the leading Sunday television news and public affairs interview programs and determined that after September 11 the percentage of female guests--only 11 percent to begin with--dropped by 39 percent. That's almost as much of a gender shutout as in prewar Afghanistan under the Taliban.)
The first few essays in the Hoge/Rose book try to explain Islam, marshaling scholars and writers like Fouad Ajami and Karen Armstrong. Walter Laqueur provides a look at "The Changing Face of Terror," and then there are a few pieces each on the impact on US intelligence, security, and diplomatic, military and economic policy. The Talbott/
Chanda book follows a similar template, touching fewer bases.
The three other early collections to emerge since September 11 bear a surface similarity to the Hoge/Rose and Talbott/
Chanda books. They, too, have portentous subtitles ("Conversations in a Time of Terror," "Beyond the Curtain of Smoke," "Solutions for a Saner World"). All the books bear a cover photograph of the crumbling World Trade Center towers (except Another World Is Possible, which has a silhouette of the pre-September 11 lower Manhattan skyline; The Age of Terror also features a Coca-Cola truck amid the Ground Zero debris, perhaps befitting the work of a center on globalization). And they all attempt to survey various aspects of the post-
September 11 world. But there the resemblance ends.
If the editors and authors of The Age of Terror and How Did This Happen? seek to explain September 11, in effect, to themselves--to those who take as a given a world led by a benign United States, in other words--those who compiled and contributed to the other three books are accustomed to their marginalization as critics of the prevailing world order. They might well be living in a parallel universe.
In ascending order of marginalization, After 9/11: Solutions for a Saner World emerges from the San Francisco-based Independent Media Institute. Among its contributors are many who have written for this magazine, including its editor, and such stars of the progressive punditocracy as Barbara Ehrenreich, Jim Hightower and Arianna Huffington. It's in many ways the most comfortable to me of these books, more critical of the existing world order than the "expert" editions but more engaged with it than the other two volumes. But it left less of an impression on me, as well. While there is some overlap between it and September 11 and the U.S. War: Beyond the Curtain of Smoke (for example, Barbara Kingsolver, Arundhati Roy and Michael Klare appear in both), the latter volume, published by City Lights Books and Freedom Voices, delivers us an angrier, more sectarian left--the kind of book that contains an oil pipeline map and ends with a poem telling us that the planes that crashed on September 11 were made by "the same billionaire wing-makers whose jets burned the sky over Baghdad, Panama City, Grenada, the Mekong." September 11 and the U.S. War, like After 9/11, consists almost entirely of brief, Op-Ed-length articles that have appeared elsewhere. Unlike After 9/11 (which is dedicated to "the everyday heroes who rose to the challenge of 9/11"), there is barely room in this volume for a nod to the human toll--in the United States, anyway--of the violence inflicted on that day. The editors and authors get straight to business in stating their "dissent from the bellicose actions" taken by the United States, exposing, as they talk about Eduardo Galeano, author of the lead essay, the "fundamental falsehoods of US militarism and its mirrored evils abroad."
The third of the books by the marginalized, Another World Is Possible, was produced by six activists in their 20s affiliated with the Active Element Foundation. If After 9/11 is Tracy Chapman, and September 11 and the U.S. War is Pete Seeger, Another World Is Possible is Rage Against the Machine. The contributors are trying, in the words of Kofi Taha's brief foreword, to "find a language that evokes love, compassion and critical thought in the face of tragedy," and to recognize "this pivotal moment in human history that will either positively propel us forward or plunge us in ever-deepening despair."
One of the positive things about Another World Is Possible is the way the editors disagree with one another--two of them even question whether its subtitle, "Conversations in a Time of Terror," is too "American-centric." Walidah Imarisha, an artist, poet and "rabble-rouser," doesn't like it because "it's been a time of terror for folks of color, in and out of this country, for centuries." Shaffy Moeel, a former reporter for youth radio, thinks Americans should understand that terror is what is faced by 25 million Africans with HIV who can't afford treatment drugs and by Iraqi children deprived of food and medicine. And the authors here don't always take themselves as seriously as some others on the left: It's refreshing to read that Beka Economopoulos, another of the editors and a trainer for the Ruckus Society, avoided the "sectarian and process-heavy" meetings called by the left in the days after September 11.
Another thing that makes this book more compelling than its counterparts is the contribution of Jeremy Glick, a graduate student at Rutgers and one of the editors. On the one hand, much of his writing seems as "sectarian and process-heavy" as any in the collection's pages (and there is plenty of that). On the other, Glick's father was killed in Tower One on September 11, and he writes movingly of what happened to him in the weeks afterward when he experienced a "complete collapse of the public/private."
Another World Is Possible is also more original and graphically lively than any of the other books, containing interviews, photographs and even a running e-mail exchange among the editors, begun on September 11 when several of them weren't sure whether the Jeremy Glick among the casualties was their friend and contemporary or his father.
One way to measure the appeal of these books--or any, really--is whether they manage to surprise us, or tell us something we didn't know. In After 9/11, I was surprised to find peace activist Riane Eisler, president of the Center for Partnership Studies, telling interviewer Helen Knode that she supports a "military response against terrorist bases in nations that fund and support terrorism," because "if you've got a psychopath lunging at you with a knife, that's not the time to talk about peace and love." I was informed, if somewhat amused, by Dr. Michael Bader's examination of the post-September 11 "terror sex" phenomenon--that "some of us get turned on by disasters...because disasters make us unconsciously feel safe to be sexual." (That made me wish they were still making new Seinfelds--oh, the possibilities!)
In Another World Is Possible, I was taken with the editors' ability to unearth quotes from Martin Luther King Jr. that have been largely forgotten in the process of his near-canonization, like these lines from his 1967 Riverside Church sermon: "I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered."
In How Did This Happen?, I learned from Greg Easterbrook's piece on airline security that it would be sensible to equip planes with transponders that can't be turned on and off by pilots in a hijacking, except automatically upon takeoff and landing. From Stephen Flynn's sobering article, "The Unguarded Homeland," I got a sense of the vulnerability of the harbors of Long Beach, California, and Port Everglades, Florida, and of what a huge disruption it would be to the residents of those states if the oil tankers docked there were attacked in the manner employed against the USS Cole in Yemen. From Walter Laqueur I learned that suicide bombing is not the exclusive province of Islamic terrorists--Sri Lankan Tamils have a higher per capita rate of them, but they are neither Muslim nor religiously motivated. And William Wechsler, a former adviser to the Secretary of the Treasury, writing about efforts to cut off Al Qaeda's financial support, sheds fascinating light on Osama bin Laden's rise. He didn't attain prestige by "leading an army into battle" or "valor in combat"--the source of his power is his fundraising prowess. So for terrorists, it seems, as for politicians, success increasingly comes through the ability to raise large amounts of money.
In The Age of Terror, I appreciated the fresh and provocative perspective of Maxine Singer, president of the Carnegie Institution, writing on the "challenge to science" posed by September 11: that "millions of people in poor nations [who] watch their children die of diseases we have not seen in generations" may not see "the introduction of dangerous biological and chemical agents into our relatively clean environments" as so horrible. Perhaps, Singer writes, "the willingness of terrorists to die for a cause we find unfathomable may be influenced by the fact that life spans in their societies are in any case short."
Nothing in September 11 and the U.S. War surprised me.
A number of the essays in these books, particularly in the two "expert" volumes, seem much too optimistic or have already been superseded by events. In How Did This Happen?, economist Martin Baily calmly assesses the economic impact of the World Trade Center attacks, including the effect on the recession, unemployment and the globalization debate, concluding blandly that "economic fears will be overcome." A few pages later, Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, writes that it will be difficult for Democrats to shift to the left or Republicans to the right, and that "screaming talk show hosts" who blame "their favorite targets" for the World Trade Center attacks will find no one listening. Has he watched The O'Reilly Factor lately? Wolfe observes with approval that "Bush's support has broadened as his proposals have become more inclusive." I would have liked a dose here of New York Times columnist Paul Krugman's relentless, dead-on exposure of the way the Bush Administration has used the cloak of war to disguise an ideological agenda of tax cuts for the rich and privatized Social Security.
In The Age of Terror, Yale history professor Abbas Amanat writes of hopeful signs in the calls for "open society, coexistence and rule of law" in Iran. These are hopeful, indeed, and call for a sensitive and nuanced response by the United States. But it is harder to keep such hopes alive when the burgeoning forces of democratization in Iran are greeted with a US policy--set forth by President Bush in the State of the Union address after Amanat's essay went to press--pronouncing that nation one of three countries in an "axis of evil" that the United States must vanquish now that it is finishing up in Afghanistan.
Paul Kennedy, another Yale history professor and author of The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, applauds the post-September 11 disappearance of US unilateralism. It was certainly possible to think, in the days and weeks following the attacks, as Washington set about lining up the support of other nations for its campaign against terrorism, that we had come to the end of a dismal period in which, only a week before, the United States had walked out of the UN World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, having already thumbed its nose at treaties on global warming and the International Criminal Court. But that optimism doesn't seem warranted now, in the mood of US triumphalism surrounding the perceived success of the go-it-alone approach.
Finally, a few of the contributions are, simply put, a bit bizarre. In The Age of Terror, Charles Hill, a former aide to Secretaries of State Kissinger, Haig and Shultz, writes, as if to shake his head at misguided priorities, "In the aftermath of the September 11 mass murders, many Americans admirably rushed to recommit themselves to civil liberties and respect for the rights of individuals who share the appearance, ethnicity or faith of the terrorist enemies of the U.S." On this planet? In the country I'm living in, the Attorney General rushed to apprehend thousands of immigrants without charges or access to public counsel, sent FBI agents to question 5,000 more and impugned the patriotism of those who dared to challenge his policies. The President rushed to set up military tribunals, akin to those we have condemned when used by Peru or Turkey, to try suspected terrorists. Hill goes on: "Over the past few decades, Americans have begun to fall prey to an inverse version of the conspiracy-theory mentality: that virtually every problem in the world can be attributed to some fault of ours." Not that I've noticed. Maybe he's been spending too much time reading September 11 and the U.S. War.
Harold Hongju Koh, former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, is virtually alone in both of the mainstream volumes in raising the alarm about the serious challenges to civil liberties and human rights brought on by the US response to September 11. Aside from Michael Mandelbaum's essay in How Did This Happen?, only Koh seems concerned about the US tendency to overlook the human rights abuses of "friendly" states, from our allies in the cold war to those in the campaign against terrorism. And only he condemns the rapid resort to "crisis restrictions" on civil liberties and the "oppressive orthodoxy" of "patriotic correctness"--a nice turn of phrase that I hope catches on--that swept the country in the weeks and months following the attacks.
Yet even Koh, in his eagerness to demonstrate that it's possible to combat terrorism and protect civil liberties, overstates the experience of "our fellow democracies like Britain and Israel...in balancing a crisis atmosphere, a forceful response, and strenuous efforts to increase homeland security, with a sustained commitment to domestic civil liberties." For a different view, the latest issue of Index on Censorship, the London-based human rights magazine, reports the testimony of the British rights organization Liberty before Parliament's Home Affairs Committee that twenty-five years of antiterrorism laws in Britain have led to "appalling human rights abuses and miscarriages of justice, and the unnecessary detention of thousands of innocent, mostly Irish, people."
Civil liberties are under greater strain in the United States than at any time in recent memory; the Taliban are nearly routed in Afghanistan. That much is clear at this writing. Beyond that, it's almost impossible to predict the longer-term impact of the World Trade Center attacks. In fact, what's remarkable to me about some cataclysmic political events of the past few years, which totally absorbed public and media attention for months on end and which were widely assumed to have altered the political equation in fundamental ways, even calling into question the legitimacy of all three branches of government (I'm thinking here about the impeachment and trial of President Clinton and the crisis over the 2000 presidential election, finally resolved by a highly suspect ruling of the Supreme Court) is not how much they changed American life and politics but how quickly they faded from consciousness, and how little enduring impact they seem to have had. September 11, we are endlessly told, transformed George W. Bush into a leader and erased any lingering doubts about his legitimacy. But in fact, for most Americans, whatever they thought of his competence or policies, doubts about his right to be there had virtually evaporated by the time of the inauguration, and only weeks into Bush's presidency it was quite easy to forget the extraordinary means by which he had reached it.
President Clinton was supposed to be fatally wounded, first by Kenneth Starr's disclosure of what he did with Monica Lewinsky--few public figures aside from Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee have had to endure such a detailed public account of their sexual activities--and then by having to stand in the dock for it. There is no doubt that Clinton's energies and attention were diverted by the trials visited upon him by the independent prosecutor and the Republican-controlled House and Senate. But life went on, and it's hard to see any enduring damage to the political system. Monica Lewinsky is a minor celebrity, popping up on HBO and Larry King Live, and Hillary Clinton chums it up in the Senate with dozens of colleagues who voted to oust her husband from office.
A historian might say it is too soon to assess the impact of either the impeachment or the election, and some may think it trivializes the crimes of September 11 to discuss them in the same breath with the perfidies of Kenneth Starr and Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris. Perhaps it does, and I recognize that the events of September 11 sent waves far beyond the shores of US politics and culture. But it is possible to think that the political and diplomatic consequences of September 11--not the personal trauma of thousands of lives forever disrupted by murder, or the psychic scars borne by millions from the violence witnessed and spawned that day--may be far less significant than the conventional wisdom now allows, or at least that it is too soon to tell.
I must also confess skepticism, after reading so many thousands of words written about September 11, from across the political spectrum, that anyone's view of the world has been very much changed. What strikes me most forcefully is how virtually everyone with an opinion or an orientation has cut 9/11 to fit his or her preconceived agenda. The crude and outrageous assertion by Jerry Falwell that gays and abortion-rights activists are to blame for the attacks on the World Trade Center was roundly denounced from all quarters, but there are plenty of other people using the events of September 11 to ride their favorite hobbyhorse.
In The Age of Terror, for instance, Niall Ferguson, an Oxford professor of political and financial history, starts out usefully enough, challenging the military historian John Keegan's assertion that he could not find parallels for September 11. (Ferguson cites the Japanese kamikaze pilots, German use of anthrax in the First World War and the rash of 1970s hijackings.) But by the end of his essay he is urging a "proper role for imperial America" in "imposing democracy on all the world's 'rogue states.'" At the other end of the spectrum, Wendell Berry, writing in September 11 and the U.S. War, hopes that the attacks ended "technological and economic euphoria."
But since, as I suggested at the outset, everyone is entitled to be an expert on this subject, I would like to ride two of my own hobbyhorses for a moment.
The first is about the "we" that the editors and most of the contributors to the two mainstream volumes claim to speak for and to. The brief introductory essay by Hoge and Rose in How Did This Happen?, for example, laments the loss of the "open, secure life Americans took for granted"--a frequently voiced sentiment in recent months that seems unobjectionable at first. But did all Americans take such a life for granted before September 11? Did young African-American men feel secure on the streets of New York City after Amadou Diallo? Or single mothers in East New York who put their children to bed in the bathtub to keep them safe from drive-by shootings at the peak of the crack epidemic?
That's not terrorism, one might respond. Fair enough. Did doctors and nurses working in abortion clinics feel the benefits of an open and secure life after Dr. Barnett Slepian was gunned down? Did such shootings, and a wave of arson and bombing and anthrax threats, have the desired effect of suppressing a woman's right to choose in many parts of the United States? You bet they did. Some communities have always lived with the threat of terror. One thing September 11 did was democratize the fear.
The second hobbyhorse is closely connected, and it has to do with the media's--well, ultimately, the democracy's--failure to do its job in equipping citizens to exercise any meaningful stewardship over the country's role around the world. The disconnection of US foreign policy from democratic discourse is profound. On this point, After 9/11 is strongest, providing a forum for Danny Schechter's argument that "the structure and orientation of our media system and its abandonment of international news...has fueled two cultures, virtually segregated from one another. A small elite operates globally with a 'need to know,' and most people are in effect told they do not."
Is there any chance this picture will change? That Americans will insist on being better informed about the world and the US role in it, and on a foreign policy that respects international law and institutions and the need to act in concert with other democratic nations? That the spirit of community and "everyday heroism" that moved New York and the nation in the weeks after September 11 has sparked a deeper and more enduring sense of civic responsibility and a more inclusive sense of community? That politics-as-usual will be set aside in order to address enduring inequities, here and around the world?
Too soon to tell.
Within weeks of taking office, President Bush started to dispense compassionate conservatism with a vengeance. As the first order of business, he moved to give a massive tax windfall to the rich, who got richer in the now-precarious boom economy. By impact and perhaps by design, this would hobble the capacity of the federal government to respond to escalating human need in the harder times that lie ahead. To get a head start on that, Bush asked Congress to shrink funding for Head Start, childcare block grants for poor families and programs to combat child abuse. If this seems like--to use another "c" word--old-fashioned cruelty instead of compassion, it should come as no surprise. The President did his best during last year's campaign, with the complicity of a timid press and a triangulating Democratic Party, to blur his intentions. But the blueprint for the second Bush Administration has been available to anyone who has followed the work of The Manhattan Institute and read its quarterly publication, City Journal.
Two recent books, both published by the Chicago-based Ivan R. Dee, bring together articles originally published in City Journal. At the risk of providing unwitting copy for a rave blurb, they are must reading for anyone who wants a window into the thinking of the people running all three branches of government in these trying days. (Or, as Bill Moyers is quoted as saying on the back of What Makes Charity Work?, "Even when I disagree with City Journal, I dare not ignore it.")
The Manhattan Institute came to prominence around the time of Rudolph Giuliani's election as mayor of New York, and they form a mutual admiration society. Giuliani has praised City Journal for puncturing a "tyranny of political correctness" in New York, which he likens to the Spanish Inquisition. (I thought the Mayor, who just installed a decency panel to monitor arts in city-funded institutions because he was offended by a few paintings at the Brooklyn Museum, and who slashed funds for the 150-year-old Legal Aid Society because it sued him and went on strike, was an admirer of the Spanish Inquisition.) And the Manhattan Institute loves him back. As Heather Mac Donald, City Journal contributing editor and the author of The Burden of Bad Ideas, writes: "From the day he took office, Rudy Giuliani threatened the foundations of the liberal worldview--denouncing identity politics, demanding work from welfare recipients, and above all, successfully fighting crime by fighting criminals, rather than blathering about crime's supposed 'root causes,' racism and poverty."
So far George W. Bush is shaping up as another star pupil. According to an April Washington Post article, Bush adviser Karl Rove considers The Dream and the Nightmare, an earlier book by City Journal editor Myron Magnet--editor of What Makes Charity Work?--a road map for Bush's approach to the role of government.
Neither road map nor blueprint seems quite the right metaphor for what is found in these books, since those imply a plan for getting somewhere or building something. The folks at the Manhattan Institute are more like demolition specialists, as their local hero, Mayor Giuliani, made clear in his call to blow up the New York City Board of Education. Their prescription for failing schools, poor inner-city neighborhoods, inadequate housing and every other shame of a rich industrialized nation is unfailingly the same: Get government out of the way, and let the market and private charity take care of it.
These are lazy books, compilations of recycled articles lightly edited, with slender introductions that do little more than annotate the table of contents. (Consequently, in several cases, the essays read like something from a time capsule: A 1996 Mac Donald essay asserts that California's Proposition 209, "if passed, would return California to color-blind status.") The works of Magnet and Mac Donald are not likely to be passed around in dogeared copies, like those of Ayn Rand, a generation from now. But these books are snapshots in which one can glimpse a way of looking at the world that infuses the thinking of the new President and the people around him. And for that reason, attention must be paid to them.
What is that way of looking at the world? It's deeply nostalgic for a time when the parish priest, the cop on the beat and the Scout troop master kept everyone in line. Criminals weren't coddled, teenage mothers were shipped out of town, and you could take your small son or your mother to the art museum without blushing. Poor people didn't look for government handouts. They climbed out of poverty thanks to temporary private charity that helped them see that their own moral failings were to blame for their problems, not an unfair system.
Magnet's book, with multiple contributors (including Mac Donald; two of the essays in her book also appear in his), devotes the first several pieces to a look backward. In his introductory essay, Magnet laments that the cultural revolution of the sixties changed traditional charities: No longer did these institutions see the personal behavior and worldview of the poor as the key to improvement of their condition. Turning its attention to an unjust economy and racist society, philanthropy turned into a wholesale--rather than a retail--enterprise. Magnet bemoans that "anyone who sought to help the poor as individuals, one by one, looked hopelessly naïve, as if trying to empty the sea with a spoon."
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."
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.)
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."
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.