Sunday, October 21, 2007

Poverty of Culture Redux

In an insightful column today in the NY Daily News, Errol Louis sings the praises of Bill Cosby for the comedian's outspoken attack on the decline in cultural standards in parts of the African American community. As Louis says; "Cosby's straight talk and self-help solutions flow like a fresh breeze through the tangle of university jargon and cowardly excuses that so often turn discussions of inner-city problems into a muddle."

This is important stuff. There are issues in the Black community that are not easily remedied by policies imposed from outside-whether it's increases in certain forms of assistance, or the hair-brained check book morality scheme to pay people to behave better.

And the seriousness of these issues are certainly not going to be remedied by the nostrums proposed by self-styled progressives, whose contributions to the debate is to white wash the dysfunctions in a paroxysm of accusatory "blaming the victim" rhetoric. Here's how Maureen Lane of the DMI puts it, in her criticism of the Manhattan Institutes's Heather McDonald: "Heather's premise is that people are not doing things like, taking kids to school on time, going to PTA, going to doctor's appointments, because they have bad behavior and they just need to "do the right thing" like the rest of "us" (by which she must mean the presumably middle class viewers). Setting poor people outside society by drawing a "them versus us" dichotomy is a tried and true way for ideologues to frame arguments for not working directly on economic and public policy solutions to poverty."

Lane couldn't be more wrong-and save us from all of those who want to become saviours for folks whose salvation lies more with a radical trans valuation of the negative cultural norms that shackle them in place, than from the "policies' designed to uplift them. One can here the sarcasm dripping from Lane's lips as she utters the ultimate epithet: "middle class values."

These are the same values that enabled Lane herself to achieve some decent things in this culture, but she turns around and scorns them when discussing the problems of poverty. The question here is, What is more racist? Is holding people to a standard of behavior that you know will lead to success racist? Or is it a racist assumption that these folks, with different cutural values, are unable to achieve without a massive outside intervention? In fact, the latter comes really close to a "white man's burden" philosophy

In our view, having high standards for people, and believing that they can achieve by emulating them, is to treat them with a respect that the progressives never have for those who may be downtrodden-so afraid are they that they're not respecting their cultural differences that they can't see that the emperor has no clothes.

Change needs to come from a radical reordering of cultural imperatives; this is what Cosby and Dr. Alvin Poussaint are saying in their new book on the subject: "A house without a father is a challenge. A neighborhood without fathers is a catastrophe, and that's just about what we have today," write Cosby and Poussaint, citing startling statistics: Of about 16,000 murders in this country each year, more than half are committed by black men.Young black men are twice as likely to be unemployed as other American men. Although black people are just 12% of the general population, they are some 44% of prison inmates."

This does not mean that there's nothing that the larger mainstream society can do. It just means that the standard "progressive" victimology is a policy cul-du-sac, one that will perpetuate the very victimhood that these folks are always excoriating-generally for the benefit of the "benefactor class" of social workers, progressive think tank thinkers (one is reminded of the "Thinkery" in Aristophanes' Clouds), and government bureaucrats.

Which is exactly what Errol Lois understands as he rebuts the retrograde ideas of some of Cosby's detractors. One in particular, Earl Ofari Hutchinson of the LA Times, captures the old tired analysis: "This is hardly the call to action that can inspire and motivate underachieving blacks...," says columnist Earl Ofari Hutchinson. "Cosby's blame the victim slam does nothing to encourage government officials and business leaders to provide greater resources and opportunities to aid those blacks that need help."

Hutchinson, stilled mired in the "culture of poverty" school emanating from the sixties critique of the white power structure, misses the point. The amount of resources devoted to these poverty problems has already been immense; and he's unable to see, so invested is he in the ideological prison that he's constructed, the degree to which the continued utilization of the standard liberal approach is ultimately doomed to failure.

Louis has the final word on all of this: "And sadly, Hutchinson speaks for plenty of others who would rather close their eyes to what is, like it or not, an unpretty picture for black families.
They are dead wrong. Many government and business leaders, who over the last 50 years have committed billions of public and private dollars to a long run of housing and social welfare programs, are closing their checkbooks as they watch troubled black families and neighborhoods continue to disintegrate."
A change in perspective is long overdue.