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Summer 1997
 
City Journal Summer 1997.
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In  P rospect

 

Ideas have consequences, sure—but not just good or true ideas. Foolish, utterly unproven notions have vast power to shape reality and determine lives. When Keynes remarked that "practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist," he made it explicit that the ideas that impel businessmen and politicians often are not only false but wacky, "the frenzy of some academic scribbler." And yet these ideas determine policy: "the world," Keynes concluded, "is ruled by little else."

Four fascinating stories in this issue deal with the huge, unhappy consequences of wrongheaded ideas. Also fascinating, if you look at these stories in relation to one another, is how closely the wrong ideas they discuss are connected to each other. They all rest upon the notion that the standards of the mainstream community are oppressive, that the mainstream community's authority is suspect, even illegitimate. "Question authority," the mantra of 30 years ago used to say; and sure enough, in many departments of life—political, institutional, and moral—people took that advice . . . and wrought havoc.

Those who find such notions from the sixties plausible point to America's treatment of blacks as exhibit A in making their case: how much moral authority can a slavery- and Jim Crow-tainted civilization claim? That historical grievance has supplied the moral capital for Leftish causes for decades, right down to the cry that opponents of today's various sexual "liberations" are "racists." It is, in particular, a grievance at the center of the idea—family preservation—that our story on page 50, "Fatal Preservation," takes as its subject.

Family preservation—the doctrine that social service agencies should strive to bolster troubled poor families so that they can remain united, even when parents have abused their children—grew out of the claim that white social workers, applying culturally insensitive and even racist standards of judgment, were too quick to take children away from minority parents. If parents are a little short-tempered, that might be the natural result of victimization; a little support and counseling, rather than "blaming the victim," ought to turn it around. This proposition was never experience-tested wisdom but only amiable wishful thinking, at best, or (more often) hard-edged ideology. The real-world result has been a procession of children murdered by their parents (or usually their welfare-dependent mother and her current boyfriend), not to mention still more children whose lives are a long, if invisible, endurance. They may be said to be the all-too-concrete victims of an idea.

So too the mentally ill homeless, sacrificed to the idea of deinstitutionalization. This idea, as E. Fuller Torrey shows in "Let's Stop Being Nutty About the Mentally Ill" on page 67, never had a scrap of scientific validation. A handful of intellectuals asserted that the majority culture was "labeling" nonconformists as ill or turning them crazy by consigning them to oppressive mental hospitals. They needed liberation, liberation, liberation—which turned out to be the liberty to live in fear and filth in the streets and the parks, and to die there.

A different bad idea accounts for the proliferation of the homeless who are not mentally ill: the idea that as victims of a lack of affordable housing they have a right to housing on demand. Result: a New York shelter system that amounts to a $300 million annual subsidy to vice, since its residents are, overwhelmingly, drug addicts and drunks. But now, as Sol Stern reports in "Who Says the Homeless Should Work?" on page 74, one of the most active advocates of the old idea has had a change of heart. What the homeless need, George McDonald now says, is work and responsibility—and he has put that idea into practice in a program that is succeeding. His former comrades are incensed: what's more galling than having your most cherished idea disproved?

Finally, Kay Hymowitz shows in "Raising Children for an Uncivil Society" on page 57 that the ideology-tinged ideas of today's child psychology experts have unsettling implications for the kind of people the next generation will become. Intellectual influences, in Keynes's phrase, can't have larger, more concrete results than that.

 

 


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