226 “The Burden of Bad Ideas”

One of this nation’s most eminent playwrights, David Mamet, occupies an elevated position in contemporary culture.  Awarded the Pulitzer Prize for such plays as American Buffalo, responsible for such films as The Verdict and Wag the Dog (both nominated for an Academy Award), he easily embraced, early on, the regnant liberal ethos of his peers.  As a young writer, he “never questioned my tribal assumption that Capitalism was bad, although I, simultaneously, never acted upon these feelings,” earning a good living because of a nicely-functioning free market.  In time, however, he encountered challenges to his blithe assumptions in works such as Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom.  “The great wickedness of Liberalism, I saw, was that those who devise the ever new State Utopias, whether crooks or fools, set out to bankrupt and restrict not themselves, but others” (p. 9).  He then wrote a “political play” that subtly reflected his shifting convictions, and that led to an invitation from the Village Voice to write an article on it.  He titled his article “Why I Am No Longer a Brain-Dead Liberal,” which led to an invitation to expand upon the theme.  Consequently Mamet wrote The Secret Knowledge:  On the Dismantling of American Culture (New York:  Sentinel, c. 2011). 

Composed of 39 short chapters, The Secret Knowledge is more a compilation of thoughts than a carefully constructed treatise.   He touches on subjects ranging from environmentalism to Israel, from literature to sex, that I’ll not address.  But let me illustrate, in this review, Mamet’s concern with Liberalism’s socialistic schema.  Though it only dawned on him lately, he has awakened to the fact that the Nazis and Italian Fascists and Russian Bolsheviks all “believed, in their beginnings, in Social Justice, and the Fair distribution of goods.  But these sweet ideas are encumbered in execution by the realization that someone, finally, has to do the work; their adamant practice will quite soon reveal this:  ‘Oh.  We will need slaves’” (p. 32).  The American Left, though quick to disavow the havoc done by earlier Leftists (Nazis, Fascists, Bolsheviks) cannot escape the link that binds them together:  socialism, which has become a religion, “the largest myth of modern times” (p. 41).  “Liberalism is a religion.  Its tenets cannot be proved, its capacity for waste and destruction demonstrated.  But it affords a feeling of spiritual rectitude at little or no cost” (p. 81).  In accord with Liberal dogma, “the prime purpose of Government is to expand Equality, which may also be stated thus:  to expand its own powers” (p. 92).  

Furthermore:  “The baby boomer generation, my own, is content, if of the Left, to live out our remaining years upon the work and upon the entitlements created by our parents, and to entail the costs upon our children—to tax industry out of the country, to tax wealth away from its historical role and use as the funder of innovation” (p. 43).  These aging boomers still dream of the perfect Commune, a Return to Nature, the abolition of property and marriage, a world of untrammeled self-expression wherein no one “works” but “shares” the surfeit of society.  “It is,” Manet insists, “only in a summer camp (College or the hippie commune) that the enlightened live on the American Plan—room and board included prepaid—and one is free to frolic all day in the unspoiled woods” (p. 141).  Indeed, “Liberalism is a parlor game, where one, for a small stipend, is allowed to think he is aiding starving children in X or exploited workers in Y, when he is merely, in the capitalist tradition, paying a premium, tacked onto his goods, or subtracted from his income, for the illusion that he is behaving laudably (cf. bottled water)” (p. 141).  In short, the “Socialist vision” is, like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat, “a trick” (p. 172).  

Rather than magicians the Socialists have demagogic politicians.  “Demagoguery is the attempt to convince the People that they can be led into the Promised Land—it is the trick of the snake oil salesmen, the ‘energy therapists,’ the purveyors of ‘health water,’ and on the other side of the spectrum, the politician and that dictator into which he will evolve absent a vigilant electorate willing to admit its errors” (p. 193).  Did we think rightly, we’d detect “the similarities between ‘Lose Weight Without Dieting,’ and ‘Hope.’  The magicians say the more intelligent the viewer is, the easier he can be fooled.  To put it differently, the more educated a person, the easier it is to engage him in an abstraction” (p. 193).  For Mamet:  “It has taken me rather an effort of will to wrench myself free from various abstractions regarding human interaction.  A sample of these would include:  that poverty can be eradicated, that greed is the cause of poverty, that poverty is the cause of crime, that Government, given enough money, can cure all ills, and that, thus, it should be so engaged” (p. 193).  

The path the leftist boomers (such as Mamet in his youth) follow was identified by Hayek as “The Road to Serfdom.  And we see it in operation here, as we are in the process of choosing, as a society, between Liberty—the freedom from the State to pursue happiness, and a supposed but impossible Equality, which, as it could only be brought about by a State capable and empowered to function in all facets of life, means totalitarianism and eventual dictatorship” (p. 61).  Egalitarian Liberals constantly stress the importance of sympathy and compassion, of caring for others.  Translated into political action, however, these feelings frequently prove destructive, fully evident when Big Government imposes its agenda.  “The judge who forgot the admonition in Proverbs, ‘Do not favor the rich, neither favor the poor, but do Justice,’ who set aside the laws, or who ‘interpreted’ them in a way he considered ‘more fair,’ was, for all his good intentions, robbing the populace of an actual possession (the predictability of the legal codes).  He was graciously giving away something which was not his” (p. 151).   Good intentions can never suffice!  But they “can lead to evil—vide Busing, Urban Renewal, Affirmative Action, Welfare, et cetera, to name the more immediately apparent, and not to mention the, literally, tens of thousands of Federal and Sate statutes limiting freedom of trade, which is to say, of the right of the individual to make a living, and, so earn that wealth which would in its necessary expenditure, allow him to provide a living to others” (p. 151).  

Much that’s wrong with today’s Left, Mamet thinks, stems from a decision to ignore traditional canons of “justice” so as to impose a newly-exalted “social justice,” which can only mean, as Hayek wrote, ‘State Justice’” (p. 46).  Mamet acknowledges “that though, as a lifelong Liberal, I endorsed and paid lip service to ‘social justice,’ which is to say, to equality of result, I actually based the important decisions of my life—those in which I was personally going to be affected by the outcome—upon the principle of equality of opportunity; and, further, that so did everyone I knew” (p. 154).  Inevitably, “social justice” leads to “redistributive justice,” whereby the State “confiscates wealth accumulated under existing laws and redistributes it to those it deems worthy” (p. 46).  

 “To the Left it is the State which should distribute place, wealth, and status.  This is called ‘correcting structural error,’ or redressing ‘the legacy of Slavery,’ or Affirmative Action, or constraining unfair Executive Compensation; it is and can only be that Spoils System which is decried at the ward level as ‘cronyism,’ and lauded at the national level as ‘social justice’” (pp. 46-47).    “Government programs of confiscation and redistribution are called the War on Poverty, or the New Deal, or Hope and Change, but that these programs are given lofty names” (p. 153) guarantees nothing.  Still more:  States striving to insure social justice becomes dictatorial, for it is assumed “that there is a supergovernmental, superlegal responsibility upon the right-thinking to implement their visions” (p. 153).  “This progression, from Social Justice to Judicial Activism and control of means of production and distribution, can be seen . . . wherever the Socialists took power and brought terror and yet the Left, longing for the campfire, votes for collectivism, for better and more powerful and more ‘feeling’ Government” (p. 93).  

Rather than “social justice,” Mamet urges us to recover a commitment to the rule of law, for “The awe and majesty of the Law are our basic inheritance of freedom.  Without these nothing can exist in Freedom:  here is the bright line, stay to the correct side and the community will protect you, venture across, and you will be at the mercy of its other name, the State” (p. 219).  

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During the past two decades no journalist, says George Will, “has produced a body of work matching that of Heather Mac Donald.”  With degrees in literature from Yale and Cambridge universities, plus a law degree from Stanford, she brings unique credentials and scholarly depth to her essays, generally dealing with poverty and education and published in New York’s City Journal.  In a collection of some of her essays—The Burden of Bad Ideas:  How Modern Intellectuals Misshape Our Society (Chicago:  Ivan R. Dee, c. 2000)—she documents the harm done to the recipients of social engineering.   “These essays record,” Mac Donald says, “my travels through institutions that have been perverted by today’s elite intellectual orthodoxy, from an inner city high school that teaches graffiti-writing for academic credit . . . to the Smithsonian Institution, now in thrall to a crude academic multiculturalism; from New York’s Dantean foster care system to Ivy League law schools that produce ‘scholarship’ urging blacks to view shoplifting, and pilfering from an employer, as political expression” (p. xi).  

In “The Billions of Dollars That Made Things Worse” Mac Donald explores the impact of philanthropic foundations such as Carnegie and Ford which long ago abandoned their founders’ aspirations (e.g. Carnegie libraries) and now see themselves as agents of social change, funding radical “community activists” around the country, seeking to transform “a deeply flawed American society” (p. 4).  “When,” for example, “McGeorge Bundy, former White House national security advisor, became Ford’s president in 1966, the foundation’s activism switched into high gear.  Bundy reallocated Ford’s resources from education to minority rights” and “created a host of new advocacy groups, such as the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund” and “the Native American Rights Fund, that still wreak havoc on public policy today” (p. 9).  The foundations have routinely provided the funds to establish social justice centers on university campuses devoted to race, class, and gender.  They also have subsidized public interest litigation, enabling legions of lawyers to push for bilingual education, voter rights, racial quotas, sexual equality, prisoners’ rights, etc., all designed to  “establish in court rights that democratically elected legislatures have rejected” (p. 20).  

Paralleling the changes in powerful foundations have come similar changes in powerful media, preeminently evident in the New York Times.  Whereas the paper Adolph Ochs bought in 1896 was devoted to sound money, low taxes, and ‘no more government than is absolutely necessary to protect society, maintain individual and vested rights, and assure the free exercise of a sound conscience’” (p. 39), a century later it championed precisely the opposite positions.  Charting the ways poverty has been portrayed in the Times, Mac Donald shows how appeals for individual charity early in the 20th century shifted to demands for an ever-expanding welfare state.  With the passing decades, “elite opinion came to see the cause of poverty not in individual character and behavior but in vast, impersonal social and economic forces that supposedly determined individual fate” (p. 26).  No longer were individuals (including the poor) held accountable to moral standards, which were discarded in favor of a psychoanalytic model.  Distinctions between the “undeserving” and “deserving” poor disappeared from the Time’s pages.  Bad luck rather than bad character explained the plight of the city’s burgeoning welfare recipients.  In her judgment, one of the paper’s editorials cogently summarized the cultural elite’s agenda:  “first, to deny that welfare had become a trap and that conditions in the inner city reflected a moral, as much as an economic, decline; second, to disparage as greedy, unfeeling, and possibly even racist those who questioned the welfare status quo; and third, to insist that individuals acted not of their own free will but because of environmental conditions beyond their control” (p. 36).  None of these ideas, Mac Donald insists, is true.  Yet, sadly enough, as they have been imposed on the poor they have brought much misery.  

Some of the most trenchant essays in The Burden of Bad Ideas deal with one of Mac Donald’s main concerns:  education.  In “Law School Humbug” she dissects the current mission of elite institutions—to purge all racism, sexism, and classism from American society.  Teasing out the implications of the pragmatic jurisprudence of Oliver Wendell Holmes, numbers of law professors espoused varieties of Legal Realism and Critical Legal Studies, producing law review articles devoted to race and feminist theory that “have dispensed with the conventions of legal scholarship—case analysis, statement of legal problem followed by suggestions for its resolution—in favor of personal anecdotes telling of the author’s oppression” (p. 68).  Turning to graduate programs in education in “Why Johnny’s Teacher Can’t Teach,” she probes the mysterious innards of teacher education, which “has been in the grip of an immutable dogma, responsible for endless educational nonsense.  That dogma may be summed up in the phrase:  Anything But Knowledge” (p. 82).  A series of hot items—be it self-esteem or community-building or social justice or saving the planet—quickly becomes the educrats’ theme of the day.  Confidently committed to inducing “critical thinking,” teachers embrace “the central educational fallacy of our time:  that one can think without having anything to think about” (p. 85).  

The titles of other essays—“Compassion Gone Mad,” “Foster Care’s Underworld,” and “Homeless Advocates in Outer Space”—indicate the scope of Mac Donald’s authorial lens, and she successfully pillories many of the conventional liberal ideas that so shape public policy not only in New York but throughout the country.  Refuting the “bad ideas” of the intelligentsia are the realities of a world wherein three things seem clear.  “First was the depth of the dysfunction that I often saw—the self-destruction wrought by drugs and alcohol and promiscuity, the damage inflicted on children by a world from which the traditional family had largely disappeared (though throughout the most troubled neighborhoods I found individuals of extraordinary moral strength fighting for order).  Second was the extent to which government programs shaped life in the ghetto, influencing the choices that individuals made and distorting the forms the social interaction took.  Finally, I was continually amazed by the trenchancy with which those I interviewed could judge their situations and the policies that had gone into making them.  If you want to know how well social policies are working, I learned, ask the poor—when their advocates weren’t around” (pp. vii-viii).  

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Two decades ago, in The Dream and the Nightmare:  The Sixties’ Legacy to the Underclass (San Francisco:  Encounter Books, 2000, c. 1993), Myron Magnet, the editor of the City Journal, identified “culture, not racism or lack of jobs or the welfare system” as the source of the ominous social crisis we now face.  Slogans from the Sixties (e.g. “if it feels good, do it”) turned toxic when absorbed by the underclass (p. 1).   Eminent baby boomers with their “new morality,” and ambitious cultural elites—the Bill Clintons and John Kerrys, the Bill Ayers and Al Gores—the “Haves” in Magnet’s presentation, “radically remade American culture, turning it inside out and upside down to accomplish a cultural revolution whose most mangled victims turned out to be the Have-nots” (p. 14).  

These privileged Haves have presided over a Nietzchean transvaluation of all values—“letting it all hang out” and “doing it” without any commitment to delayed gratification—that have locked millions in poverty.  Now empowered, this cultural elite—professors and journalists, judges and movie moguls, armed with such texts as Michael Harrington’s The Other America and John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice—vainly wants to “help” the poor!  They mistakenly believe that economic inequities are the “root causes” of all social problems.  However, Magnet asserts:  “The bitter paradox that is so hard to face is that most of what the Haves have already done to help the poor—out of decent and generous motives—is part of the problem.  Like gas pumped into a flooded engine, the more help they bestow, the less able do the poor become to help themselves.   The problem isn’t that the Haves haven’t done enough but that they’ve done the diametrically wrong thing” (p. 21).  “In particular, one belief central to the new culture of the Haves has wreaked incalculable mischief:  the idea that the poor are victims, that poverty is in itself evidence of victimization” (p. 121).  William Blake, two centuries ago, “spoke of ‘mind-forg’d manacles’—the ideas engendered from within one’s own imagination that one invests with power enough to enslave oneself.  Victimization is one such idea” (p. 157).  

The “underclass” that concerns Magnet is worse than poor, for many folks slip in and out of the “poverty” category.  The underclass he considers represents perhaps 2 percent of the population; it “didn’t begin to crystallize as a major American problem until the mid-1960s,” and in the next decade “it tripled in size” (p. 41).  Inexplicably, during economic prosperous times and in conjunction with the many successes of the civil rights movement, “black men suddenly, startlingly, and in ever-increasing numbers began to drop out” of the labor force, and within a decade, “when the underclass had emerged as an obdurate fact, black participation was 8.4 percentage points lower than white participation, a difference that statisticians find colossal” (p. 44).  They also cast aside family responsibilities, sparking a soaring rate of female-headed households that testifies to a massive cultural collapse, sinking into an expanding welfare system—food stamps, Medicaid, AFDC, etc.—which “has been a particularly insidious snare” (p. 57).  “Nothing tells these young women that getting pregnant without being married and having illegitimate babies they can’t support and aren’t equipped to nurture well is wrong.  The culture they live in, both the larger culture and the culture of the underclass, tells them that a life on welfare is perfectly acceptable and, arguably, just as good as the other kind of life” (p. 60).  

The presence of the homeless in our “streets, parks, and train stations in the heart of our cities,” Magnet argues, illustrates “the most extreme and catastrophic failure of the cultural revolution of the Haves and the social policies that resulted from it” (p. 83).  All too many of the homeless are criminals or mentally ill folks who ought to be institutionalized.  In 1963 President Kennedy naively “persuaded Congress to establish community mental health centers for the seriously mentally ill,” and within a decade distributing Thorazine and enrolling clients in various Great Society programs replaced the “insane asylums” of earlier years.   Sad to say:  “advanced ideas about personal liberation came together with advanced ideas about political enfranchisement to create a climate of opinion and a body of social policy that harmed those at the bottom of society in the name of doing them good” (p. 85).  The freedom that sounded so sweet in boomers’ seminars led to a toxic free-for-all chaos on the streets.  

Significantly, such lawless now enjoys legal protection as advocates of the “Living Constitution” as lawyers and judges follow the rationale of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation decision to implement “the new culture’s vision of change and liberation” (p. 184).  Superficially admirable, the judiciary’s rulings regarding “nondiscrimination by race would have to give way to discrimination by race” (p. 192) and counterproductive plans such as busing and affirmative action.