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Gara LaMarche | The Nation

Gara LaMarche

Author Bios

Gara LaMarche

Gara LaMarche, president of the Democracy Alliance, previously headed the Atlantic Philanthropies and the Open Society Foundation’s US programs.

Articles

News and Features

There’s more collaboration between progressive groups—and more coordination among donors—than ever before.

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.

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.