Ethics & Public Policy Center

Compassion Gone Mad

Published in The Public Interest on April 1, 2001



If a neoconservative is a liberal mugged by reality, then Heather Mac Donald may be the most neoconservative person alive, given the many muggings she has put herself through in the last five years. From inner-city schools to law schools, from foundations to museums, from public health centers to homeless shelters, Mac Donald has done her own one-woman run through the institutions. Her many essays in City Journal, now collected in The Burden of Bad Ideas,† tell a story of “compassion gone mad,” a parable of how the “destructive and blinding ideas” of intellectuals and activists have wreaked havoc on America’s cities and culture and on the lives of the urban poor.

Take Edgar Miranda, one of the many orthodox radicals that Mac Donald meets on her travels. Miranda teaches “Hip Hop 101” at El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice, a public high school in Brooklyn. The course includes sections on graffiti-making, rapping, dee-jaying, and break-dancing. The students watch movies on the “hip-hop revolution,” take tests on “graffiti style,” and are evaluated on their commitment to social and economic justice. When asked if his students take their graffiti lessons to the streets, Miranda replies, with a laugh: “I have no knowledge of it, nor do I care to find out.” When asked if students are allowed to paint graffiti on El Puente Academy, he says: “How we look at it is, they don’t tag their own home.” (Just other people’s homes.) When asked why students should be learning about “hip-hop culture” at all, Miranda gives a predictable triad of answers: Hip-hop is art; hip-hop is a “cry” for justice; and hip-hop simply reflects the “socioe conomic condition” of the community.

Mac Donald, taking stock of this example of “progressive idiocy” (she has seen many more like it in many other schools), is typically on point:

“That a school could embrace a practice both illegal and destructive of the city’s spirit is a troubling indication of how far the educational system has lost its bearings. Desperate to show “sensitivity” to minority students and to create subjects in which they can unequivocally excel, schools have cast aside responsibility for academic and moral education.”

To begin to understand how this happened, consider another example: “Plain Talk,” an Annie E. Casey Foundation initiative to reduce teen pregnancy by encouraging more open “dialogue” about sexuality and expanding teen access to birth control. The problem was that many of the communities the program targeted-especially immigrants-still lived (or tried to) by traditional moral codes, the very thing the progressive program rejected. “Stated simply,” the program report laments, “the less assimilated, more traditional Latino and Southeast Asian cultures regard premarital sex among teenagers as unacceptable. They … do not feel it is appropriate to discuss sex openly with their children.” This is, the foundation executives reasoned, the wrong kind of moral diversity. So when kids took a “judgmental approach” to sex-i.e., when they spoke out in favor of abstinence-the program leaders sent them to “values clarification” workshops to become more “tolerant” of other life styles. When a young man made a sign that said “Plain Talk: Say No to Sex,” the project manager pressured him to change it to “Plain Talk: Say No to AIDS.”

Perhaps, as Mac Donald says, such initiatives would be more tolerable if there were any evidence that more dialogue and more condoms have actually reduced teen pregnancy. But there is not. And yet, as Mac Donald chronicles in institution after institution, it is not evidence that matters but myth; not fact but feeling; not real-life consequences but noble (though really ignoble) intentions. And so 35 years of misguided, often radically destructive programs and policies have devastated the lives and communities of the supposed beneficiaries, especially the urban poor. The “moral imperialists,” as Mac Donald so aptly describes them, have won, and won big. And the very fact that these imperialists have not solved, but have worsened, many of the problems they claim to address-minority achievement, poverty, crime, teen pregnancy-means the passions are still hot and the quest for “social change” continues apace, its many myths still well-funded and intact.

What are these myths, where do they take shape, and what are their consequences? The first great myth, according to Mac Donald, is that all economic and spiritual poverty, especially among blacks and Hispanics, is the result of oppression-the oppression of a racist and sexist society, the oppression of capitalism and privilege, the oppression of Western imperialism and scientific reason. To the intellectuals and advocates that adhere to this myth, there is no such thing as self-destructive individual behavior, just social and economic forces that victimize certain groups. Thus, incremental, partial reforms are unacceptable and undesirable; the goal, as former Carnegie Foundation president Alan Pifer put it in 1968, is to revolutionize American society in ways that “the comfortable stratum of American life would consider disturbing and perhaps even dangerous.”

Mac Donald chronicles the birth of this radicalism in the universities, the foundations, and at the New York Times-the three major myth-making institutions in American society. In 1912, the Times began its now famous annual “Hundred Neediest Cases” campaign to raise money for what the paper then called “the uttermost dregs of the city’s poor.” The appeal asked for specific amounts of money to help specific individuals-usually widows and orphans-who were considered the most destitute and deserving. The appeal was unabashedly moral and judgmental: “Because the Christmas spirit is strong within you, do not give to the professional beggars on the streets, unworthy, all of them, and often criminals.” (Imagine that sentence today in the New York Times!) The foundations, led by the greatest philanthropist of his age, Andrew Carnegie, took the same moral approach: Help those who want to help themselves; do not give “indiscriminately”; do not shield individuals from the consequences of their own self-destructive behavior; do not make charity a public entitlement.

Over time, however, the philosophy of charity changed. In the 1940s, psychology replaced morality as the basis for the “Neediest Cases” appeal. Illegitimacy and juvenile delinquency became the products of “repressive childhoods” rather than individual moral failings. The distinction between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor was abandoned. Widows and orphans were overshadowed by stories of family disintegration, which became progressively worse decade after decade.

By the 1960s, confrontation and entitlement had replaced gratitude and moral sentiment as the guiding spirit of the new “War on Poverty,” which began as a series of Ford Foundation initiatives before becoming a permanent federal program. As social dysfunction worsened throughout the 1960s and 1970s-with skyrocketing levels of violence, drugs, and illegitimacy-the emphasis on personal responsibility declined. Instead, leading social theorists and foundation activists put the blame on “social and economic forces” and other “structural problems” that needed government solutions. And paradoxically, as the last remnants of institutional and legal racism against blacks came down, large segments of the civil-rights movement became more radical and militant. The noble goal of integration gave way to “race pride” and “community empowerment”; peaceful protest gave way to riots in the streets; the long, hard struggle to force America to live up to its own ideals gave way to a reckless attack on the ideals and institutions themselves.

In time, this radicalism domesticated itself into a political ideology, the second great myth of progressive social policy, which Mac Donald aptly calls “compassion gone mad.” Mac Donald’s great service in these essays is to provide firsthand portraits of this madness and its consequences. She visits the education schools to find future teachers role-playing “how to usurp the power structure” and learning that grammar is repressive. She goes to the Smithsonian to find that history has been rewritten to depict America and the West as singularly evil and oppressive, and Africa, Native Americans, and the East as singularly good and tolerant. She visits homeless shelters and social welfare agencies that leave vagabonds on the streets because “it would be wrong to coerce them to come inside.” She goes to the courtrooms to discover that therapists now rule, and that their diagnoses of “mental illness” for drug use, violent crime, and all manner of social deviance are accepted as fact. She travels to the leading public health schools to find studies claimin g that Ronald Reagan’s military buildup is the primary cause of AIDS and that sexual promiscuity is a “sanctuary from racial hatred” and an “authentic voice” that should not be “silenced” by abstinence. In every institution, she traces the irrationality and social upheaval to its root-the false ideas of liberation and liberal compassion energetically imposed by elites and government agencies.

The social wreckage Mac Donald describes raises new questions for neoconservatives and for all moral and political realists. The overriding theme of Mac Donald’s book is that the ideology and social policies that treated people as victims of social conditions, rather than individuals responsible for their own behavior, destroyed the lives of the urban poor. But now that the institutions have been weakened, the family ruined, the culture demoralized, to what extent must policy makers conclude that individuals born into such ruins are in fact “victims”? Can a child born into the inner-city with no father, whose step-siblings all have different, equally temporary fathers, whose mother is a crack addict, whose tenement house is filled with sex-seeking, drug-seeking men, whose teachers and parents imbue him with the view that the root of all his problems is “white America,” whose only window to the non-ghetto world is a television culture that celebrates ghetto values, whose president and most prominent black leader are both philanderers-can this child be held responsible for his own actions? Or is he not a victim of social conditions?

To say that it is impossible for such a child to transcend his conditions is false, since such examples of moral heroism and perseverance certainly exist. But to expect such heroism is itself somewhat unrealistic. Children born into madness are likely to continue that madness. And so when this moral-less child commits crimes, fathers illegitimate children, and deals drugs, he must still be punished, since society would wither (and may be withering) if he isn’t. But inevitably this means holding individuals accountable for actions that, in a certain sense, are not fully their fault. It means accepting that life is unfair, and acting accordingly.

Mac Donald, a brilliant observer of the culture, does not attempt to address such theoretical concerns as the nature of justice or the legitimacy of law and morality. But her work does help to clarify one of the crucial distinctions between progressives and conservatives: Progressives believe the world could be fair, and that their prophet-like job is to decry injustice and demand reform-often failing to appreciate the significance of the moral institutions they dismantle or the limits and dangers of social policy. Conservatives accept that the world is unfair and always will be, and seek to uphold laws, traditions, and moral institutions as the most just alternative to social disorder. The progressive sin is lack of realism; the conservative sin is inflexibility and neglect. Clearly, for the last three decades, it is the progressives who have ruled, and it is their sins that have left us in the quandary we’re now in.

Source Notes
Copyright: 2001 The Public Interest

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