In Prospect

Summer 2003

This issue adds up to an extended meditation on a key City Journal conviction: that man is more than a reasoning machine, calculating costs against benefits; and that any social policy based on such an impoverished understanding of psychology will leave its creators puzzled by its failure.

Our conviction, Michael Knox Beran shows in “Conservative Compassion Vs. Liberal Pity”, undergirds President Bush’s compassionate conservatism. Much of what government social policy seeks to achieve, Beran argues, concerns what an older language would call the individual’s soul. Services such as prisoner counseling or drug treatment work best when they approach clients as fellow humans possessed of dignity and moral worth, which they may claim simply by accepting the moral accountability that defines us as human.

Bureaucratic government charity can’t take such an approach, for it sees people as indistinguishable units needing merely material aid. That’s why it makes sense to give public funds to allow private charities, especially faith-based ones, to provide such services, as Bush proposes: these are the institutions whose own faith helps them to see the soul within the most degraded and to treat them with the compassion that transforms.

The bureaucratic worldview, Beran says, accounts for the failure of so much of the nation’s public education. A teacher’s job is not only to impart information, but to awaken a student’s spirit to the possibilities in the world and within himself. A system organized like a factory for processing juvenile raw material is ill designed for that task.

Because men are not calculating machines, they construct much of their worldview out of stories that make sense of reality for them, rather than out of raw data. And the tellers of the tales that make up the web of culture often bend their stories to describe the world as they’d like it to be, in hopes of bringing that ideal world into existence. At one extreme, this impulse results in propaganda, as Steven Malanga shows in “Union U.”. At U.S. universities, Malanga shows, union bosses have helped institute labor studies programs that indoctrinate students into labor’s worldview and churn out studies that “prove” labor’s policy positions. City Journal feels a duty to debunk such falsehoods.

Which accounts for Kay S. Hymowitz’s article on Michael Moore. Moore’s hit movies and books depict a world in which global capitalism devastates vibrant communities and America exports worldwide the injustice that grips it at home—a view as false as so many of Moore’s statements. But because his comedy draws its uninformed audience into the charmed circle of its hip cynicism, it is effective, despite its mendacity.

More destructive is the worldview retailed in the music John H. McWhorter analyzes in “How Hip-Hop Holds Blacks Back”—a vision of authentic black identity as violent, misogynistic, and adversarial toward a supposedly racist society. Plato spoke of music’s power to shape the soul: and having this stuff blasting into your head for hours a day is no help in seeing the opportunity that fills the world.

How did we arrive at the bottom of the cultural barrel, where hip-hop jostles with writers who celebrate sadomasochism? asks Theodore Dalrymple in “What’s Wrong with Twinkling Buttocks?” Dalrymple dates the start of the decline in 1957, with the court decision permitting the publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The court, by effectively allowing anything to be published, set off a race to the bottom, where every new effort to shock had to outdo the previous effort. But Lawrence’s belief that stripping away the conventions of reticence in which culture has veiled sex would result in liberation was mistaken, Dalrymple says, since sex without the culturally created penumbras of love and courtship is no different from the coupling of farmyard animals.

So if the stories a culture tells are so often false and destructive, are the decontructionists right? Is every cultural “text” just special pleading? In fact, as “What Use Is Literature?” argues, our greatest texts, unlike the sea of propaganda and porn that surrounds us, have the virtue of being true. They show us how we transmute the barnyard realities into something human, how our free choices and our acceptance of responsibility transform us into beings with—to use Beran’s old-fashioned word—a soul.