During the past several decades no journalist, said 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) published in New York’s City Journal. She also has a rare quality in today’s journalists—courage! She seeks to uncover and disclose truths in America the ruling elite find unpalatable. Thus, when she published The War on Cops: How the New Attack on Law and Order Makes Everyone Less Safe (New York: Encounter Books, c. 2016; Kindle), she became a regular target for leftist anger. Reading her treatise in the light of riots and destruction in the summer of 2020, moreover, reveals how presciently she read the signs of the times, for she looked at crime in the streets as more than a simple criminal matter. Murders and mayhem certainly do much harm and take thousands of lives, but “it is not, in itself, the greatest danger in today’s war on cops. The greatest danger lies, rather, in the delegitimization of law and order itself” (#120).
For 20 years, following 1994, city mayors and police would generally follow New York City Mayor Rudolph Guiliani’s prescriptions and “crime would fall 50 percent nationwide, revitalizing cities across the country” (#81). Cops actively engaged in “Broken Windows” policing—stopping criminals engaged in misdemeanors before they moved on to felonies. But by 2016 things had changed and crime was “shooting up in cities across the United States. Homicides in the country’s 50 largest cities rose nearly 17 percent in 2015, the greatest surge in fatal violence in a quarter-century” (#57). Under President Barack Obama—who campaigned promising “change” and “repeatedly charged that the criminal-justice system treats blacks differently from whites” (#93)—one of the most dramatic changes was in crime. “Fueling the rise in crime in places like Baltimore and Milwaukee is a multi-pronged attack on law enforcement. Since late summer 2014, a protest movement known as Black Lives Matter (a fraudulent, thuggish organization in Mac Donald’s judgment) has convulsed the nation. Triggered by a series of highly publicized deaths of black males at the hands of the police, the Black Lives Matter movement holds that police officers are the greatest threat facing young black men today. That belief has spawned riots, ‘die-ins,’ and the assassination of police officers. The movement’s targets include Broken Windows policing and the practice of stopping and questioning suspicious individuals, both of which are said to harass blacks” (#89).
Sensitive to media-fueled criticism, inner-city police understandably did less policing. Arrests plummeted. And as darkness follows dusk “a bloodbath ensued, and its victims were virtually all black. When the cops back off, blacks pay the greatest price. That truth would have come as no surprise to the legions of inner-city residents who fervently support the police and whose voices are almost never heard in the media” (#106). The virulent anti-cop movement gained impetus from the August 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. A white police officer, Darren Wilson, shot an 18-year-old black man—a “gentle giant” who supposedly had his hands raised saying “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” and was shot in cold blood. Soon thereafter, rioters burned and looted Ferguson businesses. When a grand jury exonerated the policeman, more riots erupted, and “Black Lives Matter protests grew ever more virulent as a second myth took hold: that the American criminal-justice system is rigged against blacks” (#137).
Promoting this myth—and while while looters were ravaging Ferguson—President Obama “betrayed the nation” by condemning the grand jury’s failure to indict Darren Wilson. “Obama had one job and one job only in his address that day: to defend the workings of the criminal-justice system and the rule of law. Instead, he turned his talk into a primer on police racism and criminal-justice bias. In so doing, he perverted his role as the leader of all Americans and as the country’s most visible symbol of the primacy of the law” (#154). The president “left no doubt that he believed the narrative of the mainstream media and race activists about Ferguson. That narrative held that the shooting of Brown was a symbol of nationwide police misbehavior and that the August riots were an ‘understandable’ reaction to widespread societal injustice” (#178). He and his Attorney General Eric Holder toured the country reciting this incendiary litany. This narrative has absolutely no factual basis, but that deterred neither the president nor the press.
Soon after Obama spoke, the New York Times pontificated on the Ferguson riots: “A more perfect example of what the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan called ‘defining deviancy down’ would be hard to find.” Revealingly: “The Times could not bring itself to say one word of condemnation against the savages who self-indulgently destroyed the livelihoods of struggling entrepreneurs and their employees in Ferguson, Missouri” (#260). Blaming the grand jury for failing to indict the policeman, the Times proceeded to assert “that ‘the killing of young black men by police is a common feature of African-American life and a source of dread for black parents from coast to coast.’ A ‘common feature’?” Mac Donald asks. In fact: “This is pure hysteria” promoted by “the media frenzy that follows every such police killing, rare as they are, compared with the silence that greets the daily homicides committed by blacks against other blacks” (#305). In fact, only a handful of unarmed blacks are annually killed by police—about half the number of whites! “Blacks made up 60.5 percent of all murder arrests in Missouri in 2012 and 58 percent of all robbery arrests, though they are less than 12 percent of the state’s population. Such vast disparities are found in every city and state in the country” (#485). Unfortunately for this nation’s well being, “America’s elites have talked feverishly about police racism in order to avoid talking about black crime” (#532).
In time the Justice Department issued an official report on the Ferguson killing, “eviscerating virtually every aspect of the pro-Brown, anti-Wilson narrative,” and demolishing “the incendiary story that had fueled the riots in Ferguson, Missouri— that a teenaged “gentle giant” was gunned down by a trigger-happy cop who feared black people— and made it clear why the department would not be bringing civil rights charges against Officer Darren Wilson” (#378). The report also explained that Brown’s body was left one the site for four hours because the police wanted to carefully examine the evidence and were hindered by protesters chanting “Kill the police.” (This became a theme song for Black Lives Matter, chanting while marching in protests: “What do we want? Dead cops.”) But the report was largely ignored by our politicians and journalists, who were determined to push the anti-police narrative, a “lie” that flooded much of “the country and grew into a kind of mass hysteria. That lie holds that the police pose a mortal threat to black Americans—indeed, that the police are the greatest threat facing black Americans today. Several subsidiary untruths buttress that central myth: that the criminal-justice system is biased against blacks; that there is no such thing as a black underclass; and that crime rates are comparable between blacks and whites, so that disproportionate police action in minority neighborhoods cannot be explained without reference to racism” (#628).
The riots in Ferguson were followed by riots in Baltimore and other cities. The pattern was set. And as a result, Mac Donald believes, our legal system has begun to “fray.” Police officers—illustrating the “Ferguson effect”—are less willing to confront lawbreakers lest they be accused of “racial profiling.” The twenty-year decline in crime has been reversed as violent crimes have surged. “There are signs that the legal order itself is breaking down in urban areas. ‘There’s a total lack of respect out there for the police,’ says a female sergeant in New York. ‘The perps feel more empowered to carry guns because they know that we are running scared.’ The lawful use of police power is being met by hostility and violence, which is often ignored by the press” (#1033). When then FBI Director Jim Comey admitted the evidence substantiated this, President Obama charged him with “shoddy, biased analysis. ‘We do have to stick with the facts,’” Obama said, but: ‘What we can’t do is cherry-pick data or use anecdotal evidence to drive policy or to feed political agendas.’ The idea that Obama knows more about crime patterns and policing than the FBI director is ludicrous; the one with a “political agenda” is Obama, who has spent the last two years disseminating the dangerous lie that the criminal-justice system is racially biased” (1092).
In the book’s final section, Mac Donald turns to analyzing some of the fundamental realities fomenting crime. Unsurprisingly: “A straight line can be drawn between family breakdown and youth violence. In Chicago’s poor black neighborhoods, criminal activity among the young has reached epidemic proportions. It’s a problem that no one, including the Chicago Police Department, seems able to solve. About 80 percent of black children in Chicago are born to single mothers. They grow up in a world where marriage is virtually unheard of and where no one expects a man to stick around and help raise a child” (#1896). For four years Barack Obama worked as a “community organizer” in South Side Chicago, promoting Saul Alinsky’s agenda of “change” and creating “mass organizations to seize power and give it to the people.” As president, Obama routinely mouthed “Alinskyite bromides about school spending, preschool programs, visiting nurses, global warming, sexism, racial division, and income inequality” (#2177). Throughout his years as an organizer, Obama ignored “the disappearance of the black two-parent family,” illustrating a “myopia” that “continues today, guaranteeing that the response to Chicago’s current youth violence will prove as useless as Obama’s activities were a generation ago” (#1911). Various governmental initiatives have sought to deal with Chicago’s children, spending billions of dollars without demonstrable effect. If these programs could have compensated “for the absence of fathers,” Mac Donald thinks, “the black violence problem would have ended years ago” (#2057). Yet: “The official silence about illegitimacy and its relation to youth violence remains as carefully preserved in today’s Chicago as it was during Obama’s organizing time there” (#2144).
Though published four years ago, The War on Cops could easily have been published in 2020. Urban details have changed—Minneapolis instead of Ferguson, LA instead of Baltimore—but the issues remain much the same.
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For an explanation of the anti-cop rioting in American cities, an examination of American universities provides plenteous clues. In The Diversity Delusion: How Race and Gender Pandering Corrupt the Universities and Undermine Our Culture (New York: St Martins Press, c. 2018). Heather Mac Donald begins by noting that English majors in our universities no longer study Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare and Milton because they might offend “students of color.” The dismantling of the traditional canon gained currency, in a dramatic fashion, when Jesse Jackson led Stanford Students chanting “Hey, he, ho, ho, Western Civ has got to go.” And it is largely gone! Zealously seeking victim-status, students now demand “safe spaces”where they will suffer no racial or sexual micro-aggressions. They reveal the changing face of higher education, wherein “human beings are defined by their skin color, sex, and sexual preference; that discrimination based on those characteristics has been the driving force in Western civilization; and that America remains a profoundly bigoted place, where heterosexual white males continue to deny opportunity to everyone else” (p. 2). UCLA English majors no longer study classic writers, but are required to take courses in “Gender, Race, Ethnicity, Disability, and Sexuality Studies; Imperial, Transnational, and Postcolonial Studies; genre studies, interdisciplinary studies, and critical theory; or creative writing. In other words, the UCLA faculty was now officially indifferent as to whether an English major had ever read a word of Chaucer, Milton, or Shakespeare, but was determined to expose students, according to the course catalog, to ‘alternative rubrics of gender, sexuality, race, and class’” (p. 211).
A primary plank in this endeavor is “affirmative action,” eminently evident in California. Though a 1996 initiative supposedly made it illegal, the state’s elites found clever ways to circumvent it under the umbrella of “diversity,” an ideology which routinely trumps the law. Admitting blacks and Hispanics to the state’s elite universities, despite their poor qualifications, demonstrates how administrators reveal a bigotry of low expectations as pernicious as that of Southerners before the civil rights movement. They “relied on wildly unequal double standards to achieve its smattering of ‘underrepresented minorities,’ especially at Berkeley and UCLA, the most competitive campuses. The median SAT score of blacks and Hispanics in Berkeley’s liberal arts programs was 250 points lower (on a 1600-point scale) than that of whites and Asians. This test-score gap was hard to miss in the classroom. Renowned Berkeley philosophy professor John Searle, who judges affirmative action ‘a disaster,’ recounted that ‘they admitted people who could barely read’” (p. 38). In 2002 UC Berkeley admitted 374 applicants “with SATs under 1000—almost all of them “students of color”—while rejecting 3,218 applicants with scores above 1400” (p. 45). Such admitted students, as one would imagine, rarely survived the rigors of the university and routinely dropped out. But the elites in the system cared not for graduation rates—only “diversity” in admissions counts!
Equally harmful is the “micro-aggression farce” making university life fearful. Casual comments in class discussions easily lead to accusations of racism or sexism or whatever “ism” you fancy. Even demanding that students write grammatical English may elicit protests. One Teaching Assistant said: “‘Asking for better grammar is inflammatory in the school. You have to give an A or you’re a racist’” (p. 66). A UCLA law professor arranged a softball game for his students, who decided to get T-shirts with whimsical lettering. Minority students, however, discerned a covert “white privilege” racial message and claimed to feel “triggered” by the shirts as well as traumatized by some “‘racist/classist/sexist comments made inside and outside of the classroom’” (p. 72). Rather than defend the eminently defensible professor, administrators equivocated and appeased the protestors, making life miserable for a highly esteemed scholar. And it is not only UCLA! Mac Donald provides persuasive examples from a variety of places to show how micro-aggressions harm university education.
Turning from race to gender, Mac Donald shows the great harm being done to universities by radical feminist ideology. For example, contrary to the “rape-culture” atmosphere feminists lament, actual interviews revealed that when asked if they’d been raped “very few women” assented. In one notorious incident at Columbia University, the “victim” took “six months to decide that she had been raped” (p. 145). Few campus “rapes” are reported to the local police, “because the accuser and her counselors know that most cases wouldn’t have a chance in court” (p. 146). What’s actually harming women, unfortunately, is the “hook-up” culture spawned by feminists themselves. “While there are thankfully few actual rape victims on college campuses, there are thousands of girls feeling taken advantage of by partners who walk away from casual sex with no apparent sense of thwarted attachment” (p. 145). Yet the “rape culture” has migrated from the university to the workplace, styling itself as the “Me Too” movement, egregiously evident in the Justice Brett Kavanaugh hearings.
After looking at the devastation demonstrably evident on university campuses, Mac Donald concludes by recommending alternative forms of education, such as the phenomenally successful “Great Courses.” She pleads for a return to traditional liberal arts studies and responsible campus behavior. Given all the evidence she presents in her essays, however, the university (or at least the elite universities) is almost ruined beyond redemption.
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Twenty years ago Heather Mac Donald collected a series of essays in The Burden of Bad Ideas: How Modern Intellectuals Misshape Our Society (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, c. 2000). Therein she documented the harm done to the recipients of social engineering. “These essays record,” Mac Donald said, “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 explored 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). These 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). No one should be surprised that the Ford Foundation recently gave $100 million to Black Lives Matter, giving it ample funds whereby to destabilize our republic.
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.
The varied titles of the essays 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).