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Wall Street Journal.

Big Plans, Harmful Results
October 16, 2000


Reading Heather Mac Donald's thoughtful book, "The Burden of Bad Ideas: How Modern Intellectuals Misshape Our Society," (Ivan R. Dee, 242 pages, $26) I am haunted by the words of 19th-century economist Walter Bagehot, who observed, "The whole history of civilization is strewn with creeds and institutions that were invaluable at first, and deadly afterwards." Does it not profit us all to examine our deepest political beliefs?

I come out of the liberal tradition of the Democratic Party, and while I honor it for what it has accomplished, I distrust what it is becoming. I believe that the New Deal gave us a fairer, more just society, but I also believe that my generation has put too much faith in government solutions. I believe that social security and Medicare were some of the most successful antipoverty tools in our history, but it is clear that existing entitlement programs are unsustainable. My first job out of law school was as a civil-rights lawyer, but I believe the total acceptance of the victim philosophy is becoming a serious barrier to minority advancement.

Ms. Mac Donald takes on many shibboleths of my generation of liberals and rubs our noses in their failures. Her insightful and articulate polemic risks some of the same extremism that she accuses others of, but she is right more than she is wrong, and she is always entertaining and provocative. The questions she raises are valid—does liberalism's agenda on welfare, foster care, education and crime actually cause more harm than good?—and even when you disagree with her you recognize that her viewpoint must be thoughtfully considered and countered.

She challenges America's largest philanthropic foundations, finding that "on most campuses today, a foundation-endowed multicultural circus has driven out the very idea of a common culture, deriding it as a relic of American imperialism." She argues that most of these foundations are harmful rather than helpful and that they "should repress their yearning for activism once and for all. The glories of early twentieth-century philanthropy were produced by working within accepted notions of social improvement, not against them." Andrew Carnegie's philosophy ("I would not give a beggar a crust of bread, but I would build him a library") may be better social policy than the current thinking of the Ford or Rockefeller Foundations.

Ms. Mac Donald correctly points out that many public-health efforts and law faculties have been taken over by orthodox liberalism and its simple, rote solutions. "It was just a matter of time before public health picked up the jargon and conclusions of multiculturalism," she writes. "Indeed, according to public health professors, living in America is acutely hazardous to women and minorities, so shot through is the United States with sickness-producing—even fatal—injustice and bigotry." In many law schools, "race and feminist jurisprudence now reign supreme," negating "a legal system that aspires to objectivity."

In a chapter titled "Why Johnny's Teacher Can't Teach," Ms. Mac Donald notes that teacher-training programs have largely been captured by a "dangerous liberal dogma" that can "be summed up in the phrase: Anything But Knowledge. The early decades of this century forged the central educational fallacy of our time: that one can think without having anything to think about." She takes us on a tour of a Brooklyn school where students study graffiti and deejaying and write rap lyrics, complete with street slang and obscenities. Ms. Mac Donald charges that many modern educators are so desperate to show sensitivity to minority students and to create subjects in which they can unequivocally excel that they have cast aside responsibility for academic and moral education and failed to distinguish "Montaigne from Madonna."

Although she overstates her case, Ms. Mac Donald is right; a counterproductive liberal mindset dominates many institutions, as well as the Democratic Party. Too many liberals disregard the thought-provoking writings of Shelby Steele, John McWhorter and other black conservatives who find that the "enemy within" is a greater threat than the "enemy without." Too many liberals refuse to consider that victimization is an inadequate explanation for all minority problems and that "salvation by government" has run its course.

Did my generation of reformers have to move from civil rights to racial preferences? Can't we celebrate being a Joseph's coat of many races and ethnic groups without "multiculturalism"? Haven't we created dependency every time we have tried to transfer taxpayer money to people? Surely these questions are worth debating. Of course, the teachers' unions and the trial lawyers have taken over the Democratic Party and prevent much-needed reform from occurring. We are fast becoming a party of rich lawyers and poor teachers. I have sadly come to agree with Ms. Mac Donald's major theme (if not her specifics) that parts of the liberal agenda are not only wrong, but harmful.

Mr. Lamm, governor of Colorado from 1975 to 1987, is director of the Center for Public Policy and Contemporary Issues at the University of Denver.

©2000 The Wall Street Journal

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