Robbing the Poor
The Dream and the Nightmare: The Sixties' Legacy to the Underclass, by Myron Magnet, New York: William Morrow & Co., $23.00
Jersey City, a sprawling and largely poor place across the Hudson River from Manhattan, was my home for eight years. Slum living provides daily exercises in incivility, but I will never forget one particular night when the annual church festival on my street turned into a quasi-riot. Teenagers rampaged through an acquiescent crowd, demolishing cars with baseball bats, hurling rocks and bottles at people and homes, lighting fires in trash cans, knifing bystanders, and taunting the police, who stood by either afraid or apathetic, yielding both moral authority and physical control. You could see in the eyes of these children a gleeful, terrifying savagery, and I could not help thinking of the British schoolboys in William Golding's famous novel, Lord of the Flies, who, stranded on a desert island, descended so swiftly into an unthinkable barbarism.
It doesn't take much more than living in a major city, or even reading a city's newspaper or watching its nightly television news, to know that something has gone terribly wrong among a group we now call the underclass, and that in tandem with the rise of this underclass, urban life has become uglier and more dangerous than was conceivable 30 years ago. From an otherwise routine litany of violence, only a few especially egregious horrors make headlines: the Central Park jogger raped and left to die by "wilding" teenagers; the Utah tourists whose son was stabbed to death for disco money in a New York subway station; the suburban Washington woman dragged to her death in a senseless carjacking, whose baby survived despite being tossed out of the moving car.
That so many opinion makers attempt to explain such acts as stemming from a lack of economic opportunity exposes the utter barrenness of conventional poverty analysis. Into this dissonant netherworld between reality and theory steps Myron Magnet, a member of Fortune's board of editors, a Manhattan Institute fellow, and a Dickens scholar. He offers a masterly overview that confronts the new social pathology of the underclass head on.
He tells us how and why we arrived at this state of affairs and how we might begin to remedy it. He sets the creation of the underclass in its historical and philosophical framework and then weaves together dozens of disparate strands of thought on poverty into a coherent whole that yields extraordinary explanatory power.
In its simplest terms, Magnet's argument states that the cultural revolution of the 1960s fostered the underclass by transmitting the wrong messages to the poor. Along the way, it further robbed the lives of many of the rest of us of purpose and meaning.
The great paradox of the '60s revolution—and Magnet argues cogently that its sweep and depth was no less than revolutionary—is that its dual aims of personal liberation and political/economic liberation backfired. The naive, utopian social experimentation conducted by the Haves, he argues, brought ruin upon society's most marginal members, the Have-Nots.
By telling the poor they were victims, the Haves unwittingly robbed them of the self-reliance and self-respect necessary to escape poverty. The revolution trampled the democratic values it sought to strengthen, Magnet contends, and made permanent and pathological the poverty it sought to eliminate.
Observe, Magnet challenges, the homeless shelters of Phoenix or Santa Barbara. "Look at the crowds of young men, mostly white, in their twenties, dressed like refugees from the Summer of Love: calico headbands, shoulder-length hair, torn jeans, black T-shirts emblazoned with Harley-Davidson or Grateful Dead logos." Then look in the urban ghettos, he says, and you will find "a nightmare parody of liberated sixties culture," in epidemic illegitimacy, drugs, and anarchy.
"The face that culture presents to the underclass, under the aspect of benevolence, is so meretricious and degraded, so shot through with falsehood, that it lacks adequate nurturing power," Magnet writes. "The beliefs and values it transmits to the underclass are all the wrong ones, retarding rather than promoting self-development: you've been marred by victimization, you can't succeed without special treatment, your success or failure is really not in your own hands, the values that allow us Haves to succeed have no application to you Have-Nots and will only oppress you, your own self-destructive behavior is a legitimate expression of your history and your oppression. Add to this the schools inadvertently ruined by the Haves' quest for racial liberation, the families subverted by the well-intentioned contagion of welfare, and the neighborhoods reduced to savage anarchy thanks to failed order-keeping masquerading as enlightened justice, and you can hardly wonder at the dismal harvest of pathology that imprisons the underclass."
Magnet's argument is hardly so simplistic as a thumbnail sketch implies. He deftly traces the roots of cultural change to Marx, Freud, and the rise of moral relativism. He then presents a thoroughgoing analysis of key intellectual milestones. Among them: Michael Harrington's The Other America, Thomas Szasz's The Myth of Mental Illness, and Norman Mailer's The White Negro. He completely debunks, with surprising ease, the currently popular theories of economic dislocation and social isolation propounded by sociologist William Julius Wilson. The book is well worth reading simply for its swift yet thorough survey of the literature.
Magnet addresses each major area of the poverty question: welfare; the labor market; race, busing, and affirmative action; homelessness; and crime. And he examines such cultural strands as literary deconstructionism, Afrocentrism, and other "politically correct" orthodoxies of current academe.
Little of what Magnet says is new. He borrows freely from a broad cast of thinkers, from historian Paul Johnson to economist Richard Freeman, as well as such widely known critics of the welfare state as Thomas Sowell and Charles Murray. He lifts generous helpings of anecdotal material from newspapers and magazines. Magnet's own contribution is the insight he achieves by uniting an otherwise perplexing mishmash of policy analysis and cultural critique into a readable and cohesive whole that ultimately yields understanding.
At his most original, and persuasive, Magnet argues that the cultural revolution fundamentally misread man's nature and misconstrued civilization as the enemy of freedom, rather than its necessary basis. In twisting things backward, Magnet writes, the cultural revolution undermined "the bedrock of first principles whereon all social policy thinking rests, whether the thinker is conscious of it or not."
Freud (to whose theories Magnet otherwise attaches considerable blame) himself understood that "men are not gentle creatures who want to be loved," but are, rather, instinctively aggressive. "Man is wolf to man," as Freud put it.
"The fundamental purpose of the social order, of the civilized condition itself, is to restrain man's instinctual aggressiveness, so that human life can be something higher than a war of all against all," Magnet contends. The civilizing process begins for us in childhood: Our parents make us relinquish the unlimited aggressiveness with which we are born. "During this protracted process, central to early childhood, one's innermost being is transformed," Magnet says. "As one internalizes the civilizing demands of one's parents and the community that speaks through them, one acquires an entirely new mental faculty, a part of one's inner self given one not by nature but by society."
Central to more than two millennia of Western political philosophy, he writes, "is a belief uncongenial to our revolutionized culture: the belief that man's full humanity and highest, most characteristically human achievements can unfold only in society," that only under a civilized social order "does man become fully man, able to build cities, create art and science and commerce, and attain virtue."
The ultimate goal of social policy, he contends, should be "a social order that nurtures the fullest development in individuals of the qualities that define humanity—reason, conscience, selfhood, individuality, creativity, judgment, the ability to impose order upon the world and meaning upon life. In the deepest sense, that is what society is for, and it is the fundamental measure of a good society. It is more than a matter of free institutions alone; the crucial element is the intangible cultural spirit, the values and ideals, animating the whole and nourishing each individual."
The crime that flourishes in American cities today, he maintains, especially the "crime of mindless malice," exists not because society has oppressed the individual, as social thinkers have believed since Marx. Quite the reverse: What one often finds instead is "free-floating aggression, weak consciences, anarchic beliefs, detachment from the community and its highest values…"
This, Magnet argues, is the "predictable result of unimaginably weak families, headed by immature, irresponsible girls who are at the margin of the community, pathological in their own behavior, and too often lacking the knowledge, interest and inner resources to be successful molders of strong characters in children."
As a Dickens scholar, Magnet offers a valuable literary perspective seldom present in poverty tracts. And he exhibits a journalist's facility with anecdote and statistic, a novelist's elegant and meaning-packed prose, and a rhetorician's sensitivity to ethos, both his own and his audience's.
This is not a trivial stylistic point. Too many conservative and libertarian analyses degenerate into polemics or choir preaching. By aiming at a broad, skeptical audience and carefully addressing its fears and objections, Magnet accomplishes a very difficult feat: honestly confronting a subject charged with racial overtones, without sounding either mean-spirited (as conservatives often do) or patronizing (as liberals often are).
The weakest areas of the book, and these are quibbles, are Magnet's dismissal of the libertarian view of poverty and a brief excursion into programmatic remedies. He attacks the libertarian idea of "economic man" as a "rational calculator" with its notion that welfare's perverse incentives trap people and that their behavior is a reasoned response to government policies. It is an argument he ascribes primarily to Charles Murray, author of the seminal welfare-policy critique Losing Ground.
Although he acknowledges Murray's work as "brilliant," Magnet nonetheless tries too hard to distinguish himself from someone from whom he actually borrows quite heavily. In fact, the two share vast expanses of common ground. Magnet cannot, and hardly tries to, refute the simple truth that incentives matter. One suspects that his zest to differentiate himself from Murray is driven more by a desire to stake out original territory than by any real disagreement. After all, Murray himself emphasizes the vital importance of community in his later book, In Pursuit: Of Happiness and Good Government.
Then there is the neck-snapping digression in which Magnet attempts to offer programmatic "solutions" to the cultural breakdown. In a highly contradictory passage, he suggests alternatives to welfare: expanding Head Start to socialize underclass children and offering group shelters (rather than private apartments) to unmarried mothers to make illegitimacy less attractive.
The flirtation with programs is mercifully short-lived. In his conclusion, Magnet wisely returns to his thesis that we should try to "repair the damage that has been done to the beliefs and values that have made America remarkable and that for two centuries have successfully transformed huddled masses of the poor into free and prosperous citizens….The principles on which our society was built must once again inform our public life, from social policy to school curricula: that everyone is responsible for his or her actions; that we believe in freedom under the rule of law and that we enforce the law scrupulously in all neighborhoods; that the public, communal life is a boon, not an oppression; that everyone has equal rights, and rights belong to individuals, not groups; that we are free to shape our own fate."
Magnet brings to bear the intellectual and journalistic equivalent of overwhelming force against cultural beliefs now so deeply embedded that we scarcely notice that we have absorbed them. As he makes so clear, ideas do have consequences. His book articulates truths and makes the intellectual case that must serve as the foundation of change.
There are others who have also begun the long task of piercing modern shibboleths; ironically, such voices often rise from the ground up, from those who live the realities that theories produced. Welfare mothers themselves will tell anyone who asks that the dole is a trap.
Yet until the Haves regain their faith in the tested values that are our heritage, such values cannot be restored to those who live at society's margins. Let us hope that we rediscover our higher vision of a truly free and civilized nation.
The danger, of course, is that in anger and frustration we abandon the liberal vision Magnet propounds for a backlash as ugly and depraved as that which it denounces.
Carolyn Lochhead, Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, has written extensively on poverty issues.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Robbing the Poor".