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The Cultural Dimensions of Social Change

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from the magazine

The Cultural Dimensions of Social Change

Spring 1993
The Social Order

In The Dream and the Nightmare: The Sixties’ Legacy to the Underclass (William Morrow & Co.), Myron Magnet, a member of the Board of Editors of Fortune, argues that the poor have paid the price for middle-class cultural liberation.

Full of hope and exhilaration, the nation turned itself and its culture inside out during the Sixties in an effort to better the condition of the poor and black. How, then, is it possible that a seemingly permanent underclass has come into existence in our inner cities and that an epidemic of homelessness has filled urban neighborhoods with a Dickensian poverty? In The Dream and the Nightmare, I argue that such pathological poverty came into being not in spite of, but because of, the cultural shift that began in the Sixties.

You can call that shift, with only a little exaggeration, a cultural revolution. It took place in the name of two related types of liberation. The first was an effort to free the excluded Have-Nots, the poor and black, from their marginalization. The second was an effort on the part of the Haves—by which I mean not the rich but the basically prosperous, mainstream, and established—to achieve a different kind of liberation for themselves, an inner deliverance from a sense of anxious, deadening conformity into a freer, more authentic, happier selfhood. These changes in the culture steadily diffused themselves into the population at large.

Unfortunately for the worst-off, too many of the messages that came from the new culture only served to bind them more firmly to their poverty and marginality. When you took at the members of the underclass, that 2 percent or so of the population at the very bottom of society, what strikes you is that poverty is not ultimately their differentiating feature. What makes them distinct enough for social scientists to need a special name for them is their behavior: chronic lawlessness, drug use, out-of-wedlock births, failure to work, welfare dependency, and academic failure, all of which combine to make their poverty intergenerational. More than an economic condition, “underclass” describes a state of mind and a way of life.

If you want a demonstration of how changed ideas and values can transform social reality, focus on the homeless. The 40 to 50 percent of this group who suffer from serious mental illness and get no treatment are in the most direct way victims of the culture shift.

In the Sixties, madness was deemed a rational response to the insane world we had made. Asylums came to be seen as emblems of the social regimentation that robs people of their freedom, pleasure, and life-affirming impulses. The insane were seen as a metaphor for the Have-Nots: another victimized group, innocent, powerless, outside the mainstream, forced by fear of their oppressors to communicate by the signs of madness rather than direct statement. Within the psychiatric establishment, such ideas went far to discredit institutionalization for the insane, and state hospitals began to empty. The deinstitutionalized were supposed to be looked after by a system of community mental health centers, but those that were established were not interested in treating the seriously ill, who were scruffy and unappealing. Instead, they were bent on creating “community mental health,” which in practice often meant something indistinguishable from Sixties-style community activism.

Four basic ideas, central to the new culture, went into the making of the underclass. The first was the belief that the poor are, by the mere fact of their poverty, victims. Poverty gets inside them, filling them with feelings of futility which lead them to self-destructive behavior. This condition, it is said, can be overcome only by changing the structure of the economy. In this way, the poor are relieved of the sense of personal responsibility, control, and freedom we all need to summon the energy and initiative to change our fate.

The second baleful new idea was that the poor are entitled to reparations. Cockeyed ideas of economic victimization got mixed up with an appropriate horror at racism to produce the belief that the state had to compensate the poor, especially poor blacks, for their plight. That compensation turned out to be welfare, which has become a machine for perpetuating the underclass by stifling initiative, undermining values, and supporting the most blighted family structures. Anyone who looks at underclass children, with their deplorable legacy of poor health, emotional and intellectual stunting, and failure in school and later life, would have to ask whose welfare is being advanced by a system that proliferates terribly dysfunctional families.

Third, the new culture inclined toward the view that crime was the responsibility not of the criminal but of the social environment. Since the principal deterrent from crime is each individual’s conscience, built up out of moral imperatives that come from the culture, such a message was profoundly mischievous. In addition, a widespread belief that police had a general tendency to oppress the poor and black served to weaken the institutional barriers to crime by producing court decisions that excessively constrained the criminal justice system, turned the juvenile courts into a farce, and weakened much of the order-keeping authority of the police.

The fourth new idea was that judges should effect social changes in the name of perfecting justice and liberty. The idea flowed out of the Brown v. Board of Education desegregation decision, in which the Supreme Court courageously began to push back the official segregation that had disgraced American democracy. But in the end, fanciful legal reasoning overturned the essential principle of nondiscrimination that Brown had seemed to establish. By the Seventies, thanks to a run of tortuous Supreme Court rulings, children across the nation were being bused in an effort to integrate schools. As a consequence of the ensuing white flight, the big-city schools ended up much more segregated by the mid-Eighties than they had been before busing started. Meanwhile, the focus of the schools turned from education to social engineering—surely one of the reasons why big-city public schools have failed this generation of the poor.

Today’s political correctness movement makes explicit—and takes to a zany extreme—ideas that have long been central to the cultural revolution. PC makes clear that trashing the culture has been not an incidental feature of the new order, but a key intention. If the cultural revolution has been aiming at liberation, the thing we most need liberating from—according to PC orthodoxy—is the entire structure of Western culture, which adds up to nothing more than a farrago of racism, sexism, and classism aimed at oppressing the poor, black, and weak. So it needs to be deconstructed, devalued, and robbed of its authority if the dispossessed are ever really to be free. Traditional standards of ethics, merit, and achievement are arbitrary designations, designed to stigmatize and put down the poor, the nonwhite, and other victims.

This approach leaves the poor without the very values that point the way toward the mainstream. To solve the problems of the worst-off, we must not only stop doing what clearly doesn’t work; we must also rehabilitate the few powerful ideas that for two centuries succeeded in transforming huddled masses into free and prosperous American citizens: responsibility, freedom under the rule of law, equal rights for individuals, and the freedom to shape one’s own fate.

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