How the '60s Continue To Oppress the Weakest


March 22, 1993|By GEORGE F. WILL

Washington. -- Liberals and conservatives currently have retrospective mentalities, liberals reacting to the 1980s, conservatives to the 1960s. The difference demonstrates a double paradox of today's politics: Conservatism is the more radical, meaning thorough, critique of contemporary America. And one kind of conservatism -- call it cultural conservatism -- is almost as critical of another variant of conservatism as it is of liberalism.

The liberal complaint about the 1980s concerns economics -- income disparities, ''unfair'' top tax rates and other matters more easily altered than the cultural tendencies that are the subject of the conservative critique of the lingering legacy of the 1960s. This critique is elaborated in a new book about the decade that was so formative to many people now in power.

The book is ''The Dream and the Nightmare: The Sixties' Legacy to the Underclass'' by Myron Magnet, an editor of Fortune and fellow of the Manhattan Institute. His theme is that the aspects of the 1960s about which that decade's celebrators are most pleased -- a new notion of ''personal liberation'' fused to a political agenda, and an adversary stance toward many social institutions and values -- have been ruinous to society's most marginal members.

Most of the people the census counts as poor do not stay poor long. But the underclass is defined less by its poverty than by its behavior and the cultural messages from which, Mr. Magnet believes, the behavior springs.

His analysis begins where conservatism should, with a sense of society's fragility. It is not, he notes, ''natural,'' meaning spontaneous, for people to restrain their aggression, patiently nurture offspring in marriage, exercise foresight, calculate rationally, defer gratification, toil with discipline.

Fragility? New Yorkers who can remember when they could safely converse on park benches after dark now read of a city high school that has a ''grieving room'' where students mourn slain classmates.

Why, Mr. Magnet asks, did so many indices of social pathology -- crime, illegitimacy, dropping out of school, drug abuse, welfare dependency -- suddenly and simultaneously go wrong in the late 1960s and early 1970s? One answer, he says, is that just when the successes of the civil-rights movement were removing barriers to opportunities, the values and character traits that enable people to seize opportunities -- industriousness, sobriety, thrift, self-discipline, deferral of gratification -- were being subverted by cultural ridicule, welfare generosity and judicial leniency.

Society, which should be a crucible for forming character, was incubating what have been termed ''incentives to fail.'' Today the cultural inheritance indispensable for familial responsibility and social competence is not being transmitted to the people who are, primarily for that reason, mired in an intergenerational transmission of poverty.

The Have-Nots, says Mr. Magnet, have been incapacitated for upward mobility by the Sixties' culture of the Haves, which tells the Have-Nots that they are crippled by victimization, in need of therapeutic preferences, and that their self-destructive behavior is a natural expression of a history of oppression. Such ideas are what William Blake called ''mind-forg'd manacles.''

The success of recent immigrants demonstrates, Mr. Magnet says, that ''cultural values make economic opportunities.'' Perhaps one reason these immigrants have an easier time grasping the first rungs on the ladder of social striving is that they, with strong family and ethnic community support, do not hear the messages of the deforming culture.

Makers of social policy flinch from cultural questions, preferring the soothing premise that the underclass lacks only the goods and services that government can deliver -- cash, jobs, housing, whatever. But Mr. Magnet argues that poverty is more a cultural than economic phenomenon, produced by a poverty of ''inner resources.'' In this poverty, the cultural elite is implicated.

Since the 1960s such central institutions as the law, universities, public schools, the welfare and mental-health systems have been permeated with 1960s values. Often the changes have been driven by a perverse premise -- that the social order is an infringement on freedom rather than freedom's foundation.

Mr. Magnet's argument is not only with liberals but also with conservatives who discount the primacy of cultural factors. Such conservatives believe cheerfully that all people are rational economic calculators and therefore behavioral change and economic transformation require only a rearrangement of incentives -- lower taxes, enterprise zones and so on. Such conservatives resemble liberals in believing that human beings are no more complicated than corn or alfalfa -- they flourish or languish according to the sufficiency or insufficiency of a few physical, material factors.

To read Myron Magnet is to realize that the conservative critique of contemporary America is the more -- indeed, the only -- radical critique just now. Placed alongside his comprehensive dissent from prevailing cultural premises, the complaints of liberalism -- that ''fairness'' requires an upward nudge of taxation; that budget priorities should be fiddled this way or that -- seem trivial and complacent.

But, then, if Mr. Magnet is correct, liberals should be complacent. The decade that formed them -- the 1960s -- formed much of the society we have.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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