|The Mission of the Manhattan Institute is
foster greater economic choice and
Excoriating the Enablers, in 12 Chapters
By Robin Finn
SO this is how a bastion of conservative brainstorming -- the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, across the street from Grand Central Terminal and next to the Yale Club -- looks and sounds on the inside. Books doing double duty as wallpaper. Chunky furniture in that serious shade of leather, legal maroon. Murmurs from behind closed doors, even some modulated chuckling. Folks, arenít you supposed to be busy turning intellect into influence, the way your motto states? Perhaps the process is funnier than we assumed.
Not so, says Heather L. Mac Donald, the influential institute thinker who risks being stereotyped as a right-leaning academic curmudgeon in her new collection of essays, "The Burden of Bad Ideas: How Modern Intellectuals Misshape Our Society" (Ivan R. Dee). Throughout a dozen chapters, she argues that the nation, steered by liberal ideologues with 60ís hangovers and led by New York Cityís bad example, is metamorphosing into a dysfunction enabler. Caseworkers on every corner. Individual responsibility a bygone virtue.
Ms. Mac Donald, 44, is more congenial in person (sheís sniffling through the nonpartisan symptoms of the common cold) than on the page (no sniffling there).
"I donít consider myself a rock-ribbed conservative," notes Ms. Mac Donald, who originally wrote about "the idiocies of academia and the art world," then found public policy more compelling. Her ideas have found their way onto Mayor Rudolph W. Giulianiís policy agenda, even winning her a place on his City University of New York task force after she condemned CUNYís remedial programs.
She is a fellow at the institute and a contributing editor to its glossy publication, City Journal, where the 12 essays in her book first appeared. It is the kind of book that prompted this back-cover blurb from George F. Will: "No journalist now writing about urban problems has produced a body of work matching that of Heather Mac Donald."
She is a displaced Californian, but New York is where the cerebral action is. She says itís "ground zero in elite ideology, a breeding ground for lots of really awful ideas." Teaching hip-hop in schools? Insanity! In the same class with putting day care centers in schools to simplify life for teenage moms. Idiotic!
NEW YORK is in the social uplift business: advocates sort of control the discourse, and the cityís policies reward dysfunction," she says. "A lot of this progressive nonsense, done in the name of helping the poor, does just the opposite. Thereís a caseworker for every social ill." How about affirmative action? "Iíve always loathed it." Feminism? "For white women to go around nurturing this victim complex is ridiculous." Racism? "Most claims of racism are smoke screens for a different set of problems." Student empowerment through pop culture curriculums? Allow her to echo her mayor on that: "Education is not about self-esteem, itís about knowledge."
Ms. Mac Donald grew up a car-hating contrarian in Los Angeles, the kind of girl who rode her bicycle on Sunset Boulevard. Now she is a regular on the cityís subways. She goes in-line skating in Central Park. Regarding the spacing of her surname, an innovation that made her father huffy (heís a MacDonald), she calls it a bad idea. Even Ms. Mac Donald has them sometimes.
"I donít ever think deep thoughts -- I just do my research," she insists, not convincingly. One presumably doesnít excoriate institutions including the Ford Foundation ("the first -- but far from the last -- foundation to conceive of itself explicitly as a laboratory for the federal welfare state"), The New York Times ("a proponent of victimology and double standards"), the Board of Education or the Smithsonian Institution without a pitch-perfect polemic.
Youíd never know she used to be a member of the enemy, "a liberal by default." That her idea of a polemic at Stanford University Law School (prefaced by honors-laden English degrees from Yale and Cambridge) was wearing a "Reagan Busters: Donít Get Slimed Again" T-shirt.
Ms. Mac Donald theorizes that conservatives are made, not born.
Her conversion occurred when she moved to New York in 1987 after an Environmental Protection Agency stint convinced her that she was not meant to be a practicing attorney.
She intended to return to Ivy League academia. "But the campuses had been taken over by multiculturalism and this yahoo rejection of Western culture by a bunch of students who had barely read a book," she says.
Her latest article, "How to Train Cops," is a post-Louima, post-Diallo examination of the Police Academy.
According to Ms. Mac Donald, the Police Department "is awash in the spurious Ďdiversityí ideology" and foolish to devote "ever more instructive hours to moronic Ďanti-racismí training."
And Ms. Mac Donald likes the department. She endorses Mayor Giuliani and says he demonstrated that the city "is governable," but his marital misdemeanors deeply disappoint her, setting her off on an anti-divorce diatribe that hits home. Hers.
"If you want to preserve that degree of personal freedom, donít have kids," says Ms. Mac Donald, reluctantly revealing that she was floored by her parentsí divorce when she was 12. "Children are very conservative little creatures."
But she is childless. Why? "You canít think about having children if youíre not married."
©2000 The New York Times
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