Friday, September 28, 2012

BOOK NOTE: The Moynihan Report (blacks, gingers, and more)

The Moynihan report I refer to in the headline is not this week’s report that Michael C. Moynihan has gone from Reason to Vice to Beast (which sounds like a three-phase descent into Hell) – but he too would likely find the 1965 “Moynihan Report” (officially The Negro Family: The Case for National Action) interesting (and is not to be confused with a white supremacist also named Michael Moynihan without the C. in the middle). 

Today’s Moynihan has libertarian acquaintances (some of whom I spoke to last night) who, like so many of one’s acquaintances, ostensibly have the same basic political principles but end up at each other’s throats half the time over little sticking points on which I wish people would learn to compromise. 

(Some reading this likely think me absurdly libertarian, for instance, but might be amused to know I was likened to a fascistic condoner of rape yesterday online by a libertarian – a fine fellow in his own way – who was offended because I think we can reasonably deplore vandalism on public property as opposed to thinking all public property essentially an inherently-unprincipled no man’s land.  This debate arose as a side effect of my friend Pamela Hall getting spray-painted on the NYC subway while trying to defend a pro-Israel poster from a vandal, as you may’ve seen in a dramatic video clip.)

In similar fashion, most decent people were agreed in 1965 that America had to correct its gigantic, historic mistakes on race – yet it’s interesting how quickly after the 1964 Civil Rights Act the fissures appeared on what to do next.  I find myself fascinated again and again by moments in history where factions suddenly appear because no one had quite noticed that numerous conflicting principles had long been bundled together as if they were a single thing.

(To take perhaps my favorite example, look at the way nineteenth-century radicals worked happily together without seeming to notice that some of them were statist-socialists, some left-anarchists, and others capitalistic proto-libertarians.  When you’re a united front against the aristocracy or slave-owners [or whatever the enemy happens to be], you can overlook internal divisions for decades.  “Liberalism,” plainly, is a similar story – and more recently, “conservatism.”  If the numbers of “libertarians” increase enough, they will plainly be ready to replicate the phenomenon and sometimes already do.)

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, at the time a sociologist and an Assistant Secretary of Labor (under Kennedy and LBJ, later working with Nixon and Ford), released a report in 1965 – mere months into the modern legislative Civil Rights era, really – that already contained within it three profoundly different and plausible views on how to approach race in America. 

Out of (1) compassion and with a Democrat’s basic belief in the appropriateness of using government to address large-scale social problems, Moynihan nonetheless drew (2) the rather neoconservative conclusion (before affirmative action and the Great Society had even had set in) that the real problems of the black community were more rooted in sociology and family breakdown than in any remaining legal barriers that the government could fruitfully address, and (3) most libertarians at the time, had there been enough of them to bother asking for advice, would likely have concluded that government should stay out of the whole issue and let the market subtly steer people toward productive and socially-harmonious habits, as it tends (eventually) to do. 

The report indeed sparked great controversy (much
of it recounted in the volume linked above), with everyone from conservative columnists Evans and Novak to anti-Moynihan forces in the Department of Labor weighing in on how best to interpret the report. 

Moynihan, though a lifelong Democrat, was not a bad example of what was generally meant by “neoconservative” before the term took on its often military-related twenty-first-century connotation – that is, he was a Democrat who had drawn sociologically-conservative conclusions at odds with the radical-left thinking of the day, due not to traditionalism alone but to the use of modern statistics and social-scientific analysis.  That latter-day neoconservatives such as David Brooks (who is also clearly pained by our failure to use government as a vast culture-reshaping sociological problem-solving tool) have also tended to be militaristic is almost a footnote to the domestic-policy origins of the movement. 

It’s unclear government could ever hope to mold society in a conservative way (I’m inclined to think that’s an oxymoronic goal and basically told David Brooks as much the one brief time I spoke to him, before resorting to just insulting him online periodically).  Instead, it instituted affirmative action and spent the 60s subsidizing the sorts of left-leaning “community organizations” that would give us Barack Obama decades later, while Moynihan and others, despairing at the prospects for social engineering, counseled a period of “benign neglect” as preferable to increasing volume and shrillness in the argument over what to do. 

Moynihan deserves credit (from a libertarian perspective) for pointing out the difference between quickly-fixable legal problems and deeply-entrenched social problems (as well as the difference and even opposition between liberty for all and equal outcomes for all) very clearly, and so early in the post-1964 period (within mere months, in fact, accompanied by a prominent LBJ speech on the topic, derived from the report, at a black college in mid-1965).  He probably helped moderate what could otherwise have been an even stranger half-century of social engineering. 

Keep in mind that the government, for all its current pretense of being the great engine of racial compassion in society, had only just done an almost overnight 180 from enforcing Jim Crow and demolishing entire black neighborhoods in NYC via eminent domain to claiming to be the arbiter of opportunity and fairness.  Much as you can understand black activists feeling as if they’d barely been liberated before Moynihan began saying the fault lay with their terrible family lives, you can understand advocates of the market wanting some time to see the good the market can do before letting an entity as dangerous and arrogant as the government work any more of its magic. 

It is entirely possible that we will experience the fiftieth anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act with a black president in the White House, and though I do not believe for a moment that he secretly harbors a libertarian inclination to dismantle affirmative action, regulation, and the welfare state, it will be interesting if, somewhat like Gorbachev, he ends up presiding over the unraveling of that system without intending to.  Then again, I thought history might end up looking back at Bill Clinton the same way, and over a decade later, we keep muddling along without changing much.


While it’s true there are aspects of racism that are a semi-rational response to some of the social pathologies lamented by Moynihan, it is also true that people have a startlingly irrational capacity to pick simple markers of difference (skin, eyes, accent, side of the river) and extrapolate wildly from them in a biased way. 

One of the oddest (and luckily mostly-harmless) examples I’ve witnessed in my largely-comfy Gen X lifetime is the downright weird, half-joking but not wholly-joking animus against redheads – seemingly driven in large part by the coining of the term “gingers” – that has spread mostly amongst the twentysomethings (likely fueled, I’d imagine, by English condescension toward the Scottish; as Chris Rock – or was it some other black guy? – said of the Protestant/Catholic conflict in Northern Ireland, when there are no black people around to hate, white people can improvise). 

Coincidentally or not, left-anarchist Alan Moore plans to make a secretly gay, secretly Jewish, and, yes, redhead cop a foil to his fictionalized version of writer H.P. Lovecraft in his upcoming semi-biographical comic Providence, as many a Brown alum and Providence resident may be pleased to hear. 


In addition to this being a “Month of Reform” on this blog, touching on reformist political issues, it’s also the beginning of some personal reforms for me, likely climaxing with a bit of a retreat from political conflict and the Net itself right after the election, while I plan my next big move.

And after all, tempting as it for me to get bogged down in some of those tiny internecine political schisms alluded to earlier, it looks from a Reason-Rupe study noted by Cato like about 70-77% of libertarians are going to end up voting for moderate Romney this year anyway – and that he may then go on to lose nonetheless (though I still hold out hope that Gary Johnson could at least make an electoral dent, especially if he gets into the debates, since he’s already polling around 10% in electorally-relevant places like Ohio). 

Depressingly, I must concede that Romney arguably is as good a candidate as the GOP has nominated since 1980; I just keep wishing we could finally raise our standards a bit higher than that.  Maybe 2016.

The highest possible numbers for Johnson – who tends to pull from Romney and Obama equally anyway – at least sends a signal to America about other possibilities, and that has become the most important thing to me. 

For some, of course, it is the “spiritual” things that matter most, so on Sunday a little coda about kicking off October with an NYSalon gathering that’ll discuss the mushy, reformist, ambiguous state of American religiosity.  

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