During Yom Kippur, this sacred 25-hour period of atonement for people of the Jewish faith, it is a good time to list 25 regrettable political things for which someone should do penance. You know what’s not entirely regrettable, though? That warning some guy on TV gave two years ago that his ex-girlfriend, a fellow political writer, may be a closet moral nihilist who wants people to suffer.
1. Sure, he’s mostly kept the peace for the past year – genuinely hoping the ex-girlfriend, now relocated to Australia, has turned over a new leaf, as she claimed – but he couldn’t help feeling more than a bit vindicated in his old warning when the ex, returning at long last to two of her favorite themes, wrote an article for a cover symposium in the September issue of American Spectator in which (surprise, surprise) she argues that (A) conservatives really need to stop worrying about moral relativism and nihilism (a little dose is good for the culture, she tempts) and, furthermore, (B) conservatives’ new public enemy #1 should instead be (can you guess?) utilitarianism.
Utilitarianism is not only the belief that we should try to foster happiness instead of suffering in others (also known as common decency or basic empathy) but is also – by an astonishing coincidence – her critic/ex-boyfriend’s own creed.
2. As with so many things she writes – whether she’s condemning meritocracy or arguing counterintuitively that conservatives should naturally love “transgressive” artists like Lady Gaga – Helen’s unstated real mission sometimes seems to be to drag down the whole culture into the abyss with her. Then she cannot be judged, not by the class structure, not by libertarians, not by statisticians, not by the kindhearted nor by the mean kids in high school who made fun of the goths or had happier lives – not by anyone. (And they’re all stupid to boot, of course. And, yeah, most of them are.)
I had honestly hoped she’d just stay off such topics (while flourishing professionally), but I gotta say I hope she doesn’t continue down this dark road. I fear (for her sake as much as the culture’s) that she might.
3. Oh sure, it’ll start out sounding like a mere tweak of existing conservative doctrine – even refreshing and witty (New Atlantis magazine tweeted its approval: “funny, smart”!). But in time, there will be talk of Nietzsche...then attempts to rehabilitate wife-beating as a vital tradition...then violence and immorality in general...and it will all end in darkness and sadism while somehow being peddled to the respectable editors at some unsuspecting place like Weekly Standard.
4. And it’ll all be prettied up with a few Catholic jokes and affected Victorian references, as the traditionalist-nihilists like it these days (with their cartoons of monocles and other steampunk-like anachronisms, including lots of phrases like “Good sir!” – none of it a substitute for actual old-fashioned good behavior).
5. I don’t wholly object to the aesthetic – and speaking of anachronisms, I am likely looking forward to Rian Johnson’s stylish time travel thriller Looper this weekend as much as Helen, who first drew my attention to the director – but even being as artfully affected as Oscar Wilde, or for that matter Prince, cannot count as the slightest compensation for being a jerk, if indeed you are a jerk. That way lies life as Rocky Horror, and remember, people got murdered in Rocky Horror, no matter how cool the costumes and songs were.
So often, though, she hints at a belief that artifice balances out bad behavior – that lying compensates for harming, so to speak. This disturbing view, I’m telling you, underlies countless otherwise potentially confusing and ironic Helen passages like this one:
But we’ve come a long way since the days when Marilyn Manson and Andres Serrano (the artist behind Piss Christ) could make careers out of transgression for transgression’s sake. Breaking taboos for shock value is relativism; breaking taboos as a means rather than an end is not, which gives Lady Gaga and Seth MacFarlane an alibi. Pop stars used to think that authenticity was an important part of a musician’s job description – that’s what those Lilith Fair songstresses, self-righteous grungers, and way-too-honest emo kids seemed to think, anyway – and it certainly was a form of relativism to make such a fetish of being true to yourself, objective standards be damned. But overprocessed chart-slayers like Katy Perry and Ke$ha don’t act as if they want to be judged by the brutal honesty of their self-expression, and neither do mannered indie darlings like the Decemberists.
In other words: Get over this honesty fetish, America. (And get over this morality hang-up, too.) Hide things. Terrible things. The more terrible, the better. The more terrible, the more sophisticated. It sounds at first like old-fashioned propriety, which is why it’s in a conservative magazine, but it’s a post-postmodern sort of pseudo-propriety that takes the horror behind the façade for granted – and gleefully refuses to fight it.
(In the article, she also implies that she likes the band the Hold Steady because they address moral dilemmas with seriousness and sophistication – but I have a right to wonder what she sees as sophistication, given that she once praised the band to me at an odd juncture precisely for their refusal to judge things like instances of infidelity as right or wrong and their tendency instead just to ask with curiosity, “What happens next?” That’s the century-ago D.H. Lawrence-like liberal view of what “sophistication” is, dangerously disguised as neo-traditionalism.)
6. I’m not denying the value of artifice, but yes,I’m separating it from morals (and I’m saddened by the pessimists, like one Ibsen fan I know – another ex-girlfriend, actually – who think that self-deception is the very glue that allows families to function). Why not try actual good behavior? In art, of course, I can appreciate hipsters like Montreal band Metric, who I saw on Sunday – or the artist-hipster going away party for a Williamsburg resident headed to Montreal I’m going to later in the week – without thus, say, hoping that the Reason gathering I’m also scheduled to attend will be filled with half-truths and bullshitters (though it well may). There’ll be plenty of illusion and delusion in the world even if everyone strives for truth and skepticism.
7. As it happens, mere days after her American Spectator piece, while reading one of the last of the books she graciously gave me when she readied to leave the country (more on those below), I found a scrap of paper on which she’d written, among other things, “Odin is with us: We will be victorious.” Closet Nazi, on top of everything else? Probably not, but I don’t think that’d be much worse than the real situation, which is dark and Germanic enough already.
8. On the bright side, the writer who to my mind wrote the most vicious mockery of the whole Todd-vs.-Helen confrontation on C-SPAN2 two years ago, Maureen “Moe” Tkacik, surprised me by sending along, in perfectly friendly fashion, a link to her own article from last Monday (the anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, as commemorated by a dinky gathering at our Dionysium that evening), profiling famed libertarian writer Karl Hess Sr. of all people, calling him a sort of precursor to present-day Occupy/Tea crossover cases.
Though Tkacik didn’t phrase it this way, Hess was long known in libertarian circles as that fellow who went from writing speeches for Goldwater to hanging out with the Black Panthers.
My own closest contact with the Black Panthers was hearing one member address a small gathering of leftists at the ABC No Rio performance space years ago. He humorlessly chastised them all for not repeating his chant “All power to the people.” Later, he became angry when a homeless man wandered in who, Tourette’s-like, summarized the famed police assault on the Philadelphia leftist group MOVE by saying, “They had cows on the roof, man, so they blew ’em up!” Well, that’s sort of what happened.
I’m just delighted Tkacik has some interest in hybrids and political boundary-crossers (as do I, obviously), but then, I didn’t know Moe’s dad was (bow tie-wearing) conservative Heritage Foundation analyst John Tkacik. Odd boundary-crossing cases often run in the family, I find.
Here’s hoping we all learn from each other and all do better in the future. (This is the “Month of Reform” on the blog, after all, and maybe after the election I should just ditch politics altogether to further aid the cause of niceness, maybe even stay off the Net. I will never be able to fix everything singlehandedly, though like Superman, I try.)
9. Speaking of weird things on the roof, my photo above juxtaposes Frank Gehry’s latest twisty (but much taller than usual) building with the far more beautiful and traditional Woolworth Building downtown. I’m not sure New Yorkers will love it, but they will probably be more tolerant than the traditionalist Basques who tried to blow up the Guggenheim branch that Gehry designed in Spain. Tradition and innovation form a tricky balancing act, I don’t deny. (More on their interplay in urban environments coming up below.)
10. Real tradition vs. innovation is a nobler balancing act, though, than seeking “middle ground” between nihilism and absolutism, as Helen applauds Western culture for doing in her anti-utilitarian article. Despite her multilayered paleoconservative trappings, she is definitely very much like a Straussian. Mid-century philosopher Leo Strauss shared the pessimistic, almost manic-depressive German view that humanity teeters – and must teeter – between Nietzschean chaos and fascistic authoritarianism.
The classical liberal, libertarian, utilitarian, or bourgeois view, by contrast, is that you don’t juggle these two dangerous machetes – any more than you hang out in a dangerous alley frequented by muggers while at the same time having one hand poised to toss a live hand grenade, as if that combo yields “moderation.” For crying out loud, you find (or create) a nicer place to hang out, where you then encourage people to treat each other well.
Straussianism can be dark and dangerous and – like Nietzsche or the Nazis or Satanism – is one of those things that has just enough truth in it...and whispers of having enough additional truth secreted away somewhere...that people become willing to gradually swallow the system, even to conceal the fact they are doing so lest dimmer people not understand the shadowy and shocking reality of things.
11. At the same time, in keeping with Plato’s warnings about just how few people are adept at philosophy, I won’t deny people get things wrong a lot and need plenty of guiding and prompting to avoid making horrible political mistakes (but that’s why I encourage kindness instead of brutality). Take the bizarre and arguably irrational case of the conspiracy theorists who so recently supported Rep. Ron Paul (as did I) turning harshly against his virtually-identical son, Sen. Rand Paul (since the latter, plainly having a better handle on practical politics than some of his dad’s fans, has taken mainstream-appeasing steps like belatedly endorsing Romney).
The strangest – and most passive-aggressive – manifestation of this schizo pro-Ron/anti-Rand phenomenon I have so far seen is this video (alarmingly well produced for something so insane, especially given the terrible injustice that I have neither sets nor graphics). In it, the host – describing an event that I attended, as it happens – says that since that night entailed Rand Paul using a venue that had been used by strippers on other occasions, he must either have stupid handlers or (wait for it) be an unwitting tool of the Bilderbergers.
I think we’re better off if the conspiracy theorists run away from Rand, frankly. Go find a UFO convention or a lingering chapter of the Reform Party to hang out with.
12. In the meantime, I can’t deny having to rub elbows with the occasional conspiracy theorist at libertarian events (at least in this election cycle, where we’re honored with the default “outsider” role – in 1992 it was Perot, and in the 1940s, lamented Orwell, it was socialist conventions full of vegan energy-medicine enthusiasts). Take the fine Gary Johnson speech I attended one week ago at NYU.
He was great – much more passionate, clear, and bullet-pointy than I’d ever seen him before, with a great, convincing shtick about being the only acceptable choice if you really, truly believe in peace and freedom and prosperity (instead of just sticking it to the other team). But the one person to get a huge, immediate standing ovation from the mostly-NYU crowd upon entry was...Jesse Ventura (speaking of the Reform Party)?
Don’t get me wrong, he’s very likable and has some admirably freedom-loving instincts. But – as I find is usually the case with the conspiracy theorists – he’s not even a libertarian, more a paranoid populist, perfectly willing to drift away from libertarian principles in order to bar evil corporate money from elections, etc., etc.
He wasn’t the only guest who was a surprise to me at the event, which I hadn’t expected to feature anyone but Johnson and which instead (without me so much as glancing at a program) turned into a This Is Your Life, Mr. Libertarian Person cavalcade of libertarian celebrities, including my old boss, Judge Andrew Napolitano (who shook my hand on the way to the podium), ex-MTV VJ Kennedy (who waved – and was funny), madam turned gubernatorial and soon mayoral candidate Kristin Davis, and, seated directly in front of me videotaping like a civilian, Teller from Penn and Teller.
13. I confess to having had a bit of a crush on the smart albeit overly religious, funny, energetic, possibly insane, bespectacled, libertarian, sci-fi-friendly, alternative rock-savvy media phenomenon that is Kennedy since meeting her and briefly interviewing her twenty (freaking) years ago for Chronicles of all things (I may have been the first outside media to call her at MTV, since she mentioned on-air that she was a Republican – soon notorious for her elephant tattoo and other heresies; she may also have been the first person I called for interviewing purposes as a professional writer).
Twenty years later, probably like a lot of her fellow Star Trek fans and Reason readers out there, I grudgingly acknowledge the existence of her husband and children. I am a sensible and accepting fellow, plainly. And I am pleased, since she started out more conventionally-conservative (even professing a crush on Dan Quayle back in the day), that she is defying yet another phony pattern posited by Helen in her anti-utilitarian piece: Kennedy is getting more, not less libertarian as she takes on parental responsibilities.
14. You’d think spending two years around me would be enough to convince someone that there is not necessarily a direct logical link between being politically-libertarian (that is, wanting the government and all other forms of violence out of people’s lives) and being libertine and devil-may-care about one’s personal responsibilities. I make this very important distinction despite not being religious and not wanting kids myself (in part because I solemnly recognize how much work it should be if you’re doing it right).
Yet in 2012 we get this line in Helen’s piece, intended as an analogy for professors recoiling from bad effects of postmodernism: “The same thing happens when libertarians have children. They sober up fast...” Now, that’s a perfect example of the sort of line that the casual conservative reader will take to mean that Helen is more responsible than a libertarian, yet (A) libertarians do not necessarily take a libertine view of parenting in the first place, as she should know, and (B) Helen has privately talked about wanting to beat children someday so “they will know pain,” so once again, is it really libertarianism and utilitarianism that are the threats to morality and civility here?
Here’s hoping everyone stays sober around the kids, in any case.
15. And, I should add, sometimes kids actually are getting too much structure and authority, as is suggested by this piece about their diminishing creativity and independence. Kids do need some room for rough and tumble exploration (and are not necessarily like some of those Gitmo prisoners who head back to the battlefield as soon as they’re out of your sight).
16. I suppose the irking thing about the whole Helen approach to things is that in all her contrarian twists, she may just turn into one of those people who blames her (perfectly upstanding) enemies for her own bad behavior.
She has almost written a piece endorsing that tactic already, in fact, having half-jokingly blogged that a “Red Tory” writer in the UK who was caught feathering his own nest after having long officially eschewed materialism and globalism should blame modernity and cosmopolitanism for his own bad behavior. No, he should probably rethink his stupid philosophy and take note of the well-behaved libertarians and utilitarians around him.
The English certainly considered liberty and utilitarianism compatible with Christian kindness in the nineteenth century, when all three forces were seen as comporting with both tradition and Progress to boot. There was much valid Victorianism, and thus little need to reduce it all today to phony-baloney ironic posturing.
As Helen worryingly puts it in the American Spectator piece: “Some things are good, others are bad,” has sometimes been an extremely important point to make, but never has it been an interesting one.
Really? Not to her, maybe. Right and wrong resonate powerfully for most people. Civilization depends on it.
17. But imagine you were duping a whole society through scapegoating tactics and theatrics. Since con artists tend to get a bit proud of themselves for putting one over on people, they tend to sound smug, even if wittily so – rather like gays of old, Straussians, or communists, winking at each other and making inside jokes amidst a crowd of unwitting normals. This is true even in situations where the deceitful are on the side of good. And that is rarer than lying to conceal bad things, alas.
18. So many philosophies that start out claiming that lying will only be deployed for beneficial purposes end up deploying lies as a matter of routine, which is why morality depends more upon hard and fast rules – as every good rule utilitarian knows, perhaps better than a lot of mushy traditionalists do. (Without firm rules, you soon go from being a “nuanced” neoconservative to being a mere neoconsultant like Romney: from the necessary and wise business of tweaking rhetoric according to circumstances to aw-the-hell-with-it just saying whatever the clients wanna hear. In this, Romney may be more like his fellow boomer Clinton than like either Reagan or Obama.)
19. In preferring transparency to obfuscation, I’ll go so far as to say that I was delighted to see that someone recently took Facebook printouts that exposed his mate as a cheater and posted them in the subway. Helen – again feigning the more moral position – tweeted that “a gentleman” would never do such a thing. It doesn’t seem to cross her mind that a lady wouldn’t cheat in the first place or that there were indeed penalties, most involving public disapproval, in the old-timey times whose harshness she pretends to champion (at least for others).
20. Unhip as it may sound to some, I don’t even think it’s that crazy (or uniquely religious-right) to be wary of politicians who cheat on their spouses (even though it is not a direct indicator of their policy savvy, obviously), all else being equal.
Some Instagram user with the handle ShineOn28 has been posting photos of (Senator’s son) Jeremy Hutchinson, a state senator in Arkansas, that sure seem to suggest he was having an affair back when he was married and running for office, possibly even leading to money changing hands for some strange purpose. Even if ShineOn28 turns out to be a crazy meth head or something, you can’t blame her for wanting to shine a little light.
21. All this, admittedly, is a trivial footnote to the more important Straussian issues I should address – and three Strauss-related books this Book Note blog entry is eventually, I swear, leading to. (Polisci prof Jacob Levy noted recently that he feels a bit like a Straussian all of a sudden, since he’s been preparing to teach Greeks, the Bible, and medievals. Joking ensued among his friends about whether teaching the “classics” nowadays should include things like Red Dawn and Dark Knight while avoiding Starship’s “We Built This City” – but if it is necessary to teach that song to understand corruption, I think I could write a book along those lines.)
Helen’s American Spectator piece opened by suggesting that Strauss student Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind, an inspiration to many a budding teenage conservative including me after its release a quarter-century ago this year, is now largely obsolete.
The moral relativists he railed against have retreated to her satisfaction, and now she wants instead to put a stop to technocrats of the Malcolm Gladwell and Freakonomics variety – and blames every such picayune technocratic impulse on utilitarianism, which is as irresponsible a leap as dismissing all morality because of something as specific as Muslim fundamentalists, or dismissing science because of the machine gun.
It’s not as if I’m oblivious to the problem of faddish petty technocrats. It may not be a coincidence that just a few months before Helen and I met in 2008, I blogged this:
[Y]ou just know that if the intellectuals fall in love with the ostensibly novel idea that they understand people’s rational failings better than the rest of us – and I blame Malcolm Gladwell and the Freakonomics guys for making this sort of thing trendy, fascinating though it is – it will never be seen as reason to fear that central government planners, too, might be irrational and biased and dangerous. Rather, it will become the latest hip rationale for letting the planners control the rest of us (supposedly stupider) people...
[B]eware people who show little interest in punishing burglars and murderers – the big, obvious things that need punishing – but who show lots of interest in punishing the million petty little things that make up the rest of our lives, like eating trans fats, putting an unauthorized addition on the house, dancing in a venue with no cabaret license...or putting the “wrong” amount of money in savings accounts.
But there could be few more dangerous conclusions drawn from this problem than that we should abandon concern with utility altogether. And if we were to do that in combination with ditching the war against moral relativism, I’m not sure where that would leave us, despite Helen banking on readers assuming it’s someplace better (and despite it perhaps being more to her liking even if it’s scary for everyone else).
I’ll stick with Bloom and J.S. Mill instead of with the abyss and (faux-)redemptive authority, thanks. Here’s to Closing of the American Mind on its twenty-fifth anniversary.
22. Strangely, the student of Strauss who seems to have been Helen’s biggest influence, historian Edward Banfield, was quite fond of statistics as a tool of social reform, something she now seems to regard with a dread most of us would reserve for, well, nihilism or authoritarianism.
So focused on data were Banfield and his co-author James Q. Wilson in their 1963 book City Politics that despite plainly having some conservative sociological views, in the acknowledgements they drily thank urbanist Saul Alinsky as a valuable source of data, though nowadays his work is such a hot leftist potato you would no more see your average conservative writer thanking him than thanking Satan (similarly, I’ve talked to a young present-day conservative writer who says one of the most helpful and informed people on the topic of education reform she’s encountered in the Chicago area is one Bill Ayers).
City Politics (refreshingly), eschews the usual right/left (or even more clumsily in recent years, “red state/blue state”) models that mask so many transpartisan causal patterns shaped by other, less ideological forces – such as WASPs tending to move to the suburbs, and immigrant populations tending to fill up central cities and then to be more enthusiastic about public expenditures in the central cities than the WASPs, who are busying themselves out in the suburbs.
Straussians vary widely but tend to be suspicious of revolutionary social change and to prefer learning from the classics, from history, or in the case of City Politics, from an admirably non-partisan (even dry) averaging-together of the typical social and political patterns in American cities a half-century ago.
Banfield and Wilson emphasize that politics is a continual struggle of factions and interests – and simple demographic groups – and cannot be thought of as a problem to be solved any more than there is a “solution to the problem of chess.” There are patterns one can take into account to avoid forming unrealistic expectations, though. One thing to keep in mind is that simply because political groupings are not usually based on conscious ideology, neither are they necessarily practical and functional.
They note that the infamous Tammany machine here in NYC began with, of all things, a group of Washington’s soldiers after the Revolutionary War, as a prank, starting a recurring series of mock-Native American rituals. From beginnings little more serious than a frat house grew one of the most important political cabals in American history. For many of politics’ most eager participants, it may always have about it this (slightly insane) element of play rather than pragmatism.
Similarly, they note in passing the possibly-apocryphal story that when Utah was absorbed into the Union, Salt Lake City dissolved its unified pro-Mormon party, and church elders simply told all the people on one side of the main street initially to vote Republican and the other initially to vote Democrat, with the voting pattern hardening and persisting decades later.
(Likewise, “Democrat” and “Republican” at the local level do not always map perfectly onto allegiance to those same parties at the national level and do not map neatly onto liberal and conservative, certainly not a half-century ago, when Banfield and Wilson were writing, at which time both parties were more ideologically mixed.)
They note, too, that the frequency of fierce and divisive political battles varies as much with town size as it does with party affiliation, small towns being more prone to long, conflict-free periods of humdrum, non-ideological administration, occasionally punctuated by extremely personal and divisive spats, whereas large towns are more prone to mostly-civil but perpetual factional gridlock.
Unsettling as it may sound (just a tad nihilistic, I suppose?), they note that the activities not only of politicians and parties but also of major civic institutions, non-profits, and of course the media itself (including the beloved local newspaper) can be predicted in part on the basis of the assumption that they are continually, consciously trying to make themselves look important, not just solve the most urgent real problems.
Adding further strangeness to American city politics, there is little most American cities can do without the approval of state legislatures, which in turn hold only a trivial portion of the power that they did relative to the central government prior to the Civil War. Of possible interest to American conservatives and Tenth Amendment buffs, Banfield and Wilson suggest that (at least as of a half-century ago) European cities have far more political autonomy.
In a reminder that the idea of unions being a nuisance was not always a heretical one, they note that circa 1960, labor leaders were not held in high regard as civic-minded individuals, whereas local business leaders often were.
More troublingly for today’s left, they note that reformers often came to power in cities vowing to decrease the waste and cronyism of old-fashioned political machines but soon set about protecting their own even larger and more expensive bureaucracies from reform, now cloaked in the mantle of impartiality and objective management.
23. Focusing more narrowly on the most serious problems of the cities in his 1968 volume Unheavenly City, Banfield – who I’ve repeatedly heard described as a contrarian but who I have to say sounds pretty straightforwardly commonsensical to me – cautions in his introduction that few of the much-touted crises of the city could actually cause any substantial, devastating change in the lives of its inhabitants, not by historical standards (famine, flood, mass death, etc.). Even the moderate crises like the decline of a downtown shopping district are often compensated by increased prosperity elsewhere that has simply gone less remarked upon.
In a fashion after my own heart, he notes the dangers of overhyping crises, including, for instance, creating such a stigma around high school dropouts that they might actually be less likely to be hired than if we had not panicked over the dropout rate.
He’s willing to note conservative effects such as the neighborhood leadership roles that can be played by a few prominent and respected families, effects that would likely have to be talked about with many euphemisms larded with morally-neutral sociological language today (one of countless pernicious effects of creeping relativism).
Without quite replicating the Straussian or Platonist’s talk of guardian and warrior classes, he’s more willing to dive into class analysis than most on the right would (save perhaps for Charles Murray these days), describing how the upper class tends to combine long time-horizons with participation in civic institutions and a desire for personal expression, while the middle class tends to eschew institutions beyond the home even while taking care to plan for the future on a personal level, and the working and under-class live from day to day or, in particularly bad cases, moment to moment, leaving jobs without warning, abandoning marriages and children, and having a higher arrest rate than the other classes.
He examines a pattern I’ve noticed myself from direct observation, which is lower-class (and quite possibly less-intelligent) parents being more likely to give “because I said so” explanations to their children that do not likely encourage them to make sense of the world as quickly.
Conscious of the fact that he may be dismissed as a curmudgeon or bigot, Banfield takes pains to point out both the good and the bad, as when noting that blacks fare poorly by some indications but not as bad as might be expected once other co-factors such as geography and economic class are accounted for (he distinguishes between the mere Census Negro and what he calls the Statistical Negro in tracing the class-relevant differences).
If Helen is a Banfield fan, by the way, she managed to evade his barbs about labor unions, since she holds them in a rather unconservative high regard, whereas Banfield describes them as cruelly pricing workers out of the market who might otherwise have been employed, much like minimum wage laws, an early iteration of what was a standard Reagan-era conservative argument and may by now frankly have been forgotten again after a decade of stupider battles.
Banfield even sounds a bit like a libertarian as he recounts the inevitable lure of the drug trade for black marketeers, quoting one young drug dealer saying:
I make $40 or $50 a day selling marijuana. You want me to go down into the garment district and push one of those trucks through the street and at the end of the week take home $40 or $50 if I’m lucky? Come off it. They don’t have animals doing what you want me to do. There would be some society to protect animals if anybody had them pushing those damn trucks around.
This is truth. Banfield’s amusing realism also shows in lines like:
No one cares if a factory worker speaks crudely, scratches himself in the wrong places, or is physically unattractive; if he can read signs like DANGER – NO SMOKING and if he keeps his part of the assembly line moving, little else matters.
Banfield also addresses the rather arbitrary algebraic formulation (a non-absolute one) for defining “poverty,” acknowledges that just because high school diplomas are correlated with success doesn’t mean high school teaches you the things that cause success (he’d no doubt love Peter Thiel today), notes the existence of entire communities that qualify as borderline “retardates,” and takes a downright utilitarian – even technocratic – view of matching criminal sanctions to the costs of the crime and costs of enforcement as a function of probability of recidivism, including the odds of various sorts of communities rioting (he even uses the phrase “stop and frisk,” recently so controversial in NYC).
Warning, as in City Politics, against unrealistic optimism and resulting Great Society-sized efforts that may excite the intellectuals even if they get no results, he quotes Macaulay’s observation that the Puritans seemed to oppose bear-baiting less out of a desire to create a real decrease in the suffering of the bears than out of a desire to decrease the enjoyment of the audiences.
24. By the way, in perhaps my favorite example from Unheavenly City of how little we can trust the experts’ observations when we form long-term predictions, he quotes a 1901 report by the United Hebrew Charities:
A condition of chronic poverty is developing in the Jewish community of New York that is appalling in its immensity. Forty-five percent of our applicants, representing between twenty thousand and twenty-five thousand human beings, have been in the United States over five years; have been given the opportunities for economic and industrial improvement which this country affords; yet, notwithstanding all this, have not managed to reach a position of economic independence.
25. Naturally, Banfield cited the famous Moynihan Report on urban squalor and black families, and it is with a look at that pivotal work that I will conclude this “Month of Reform.” Right and wrong choices matter, and the numbers are often how you know – so don’t be a relativist, and stay utile, people.