National Post

Page URL:

November 4, 2000

What does 'W.' read after the Bible?

The real influence behind the man who would be president

Donna Laframboise
National Post

Don Hogan Charles, The New York Times
Myron Magnet believes that a victory for Governor Bush would be a blessing for America's poor.

When asked earlier this year what book, other than the Bible, had most influenced him, U.S. presidential candidate George W. Bush surprised many by citing a volume written by a former English professor whose specialty is the work of Charles Dickens.

Published in 1993, The Dream and the Nightmare: The Sixties' Legacy to the Underclass, has been required reading for Governor Bush's Texas staff since his first term in office. These days, it's described by his campaign strategist as "a road map to the governor's attitudes on the role of government."

The book's author, Myron Magnet, is an unlikely Republican guru. As a graduate student, he protested the Vietnam War and, in his words, "helped barricade a building at Columbia" University. In the Eighties, he wrote a series of articles on poverty for Fortune magazine that eventually led to the ideas espoused in The Dream and the Nightmare.

"I was extremely interested in all the social questions that are at the centre of Dickens' books," he told the National Post. "The virtue of doing this for Fortune is that you are not only allowed but encouraged to go look at it with your own eyes. I traversed the country visiting homeless shelters, talking to their operators and the people in them. It was an eye-opener."

Now editor of City Journal, an influential quarterly published by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, Magnet spends part of his time trying to sell "compassionate conservatism" to Republicans.

The central thesis of his book (of which 28,000 copies have been sold), is that poverty is more closely related to cultural factors than economic ones. In Magnet's view, many of the values of personal liberation that Americans began embracing in the Sixties have profoundly harmed society's most vulnerable. Programs aimed at helping the poor have proliferated in recent decades, he argues, but have succeeded only in producing a historically new phenomenon -- an underclass of approximately 5 million Americans trapped in violent ghettos, intergenerational welfare dependency and homelessness.

People's chances of escaping life in the underclass are hampered, Magnet says, by several factors. First, mass culture is dominated by middle-class individuals whose affluence cushions them when they behave irresponsibly. Teenage pregnancy, for example, may not be the end of the world for a middle-class girl, and unmarried pregnancy may be no hardship for Madonna. But for those on the margins, it is economically disastrous.

In Magnet's view, a society that no longer values "deferral of gratification, sobriety, thrift [and] dogged industry," but instead promotes doing whatever feels good, is a society that invites its poorest members to torpedo their own lives. "Poverty turned pathological," he says, "because the new culture that the Haves invented -- their remade system of beliefs, norms and institutions -- permitted, even celebrated, behavior that, when poor people practice it, will imprison them inextricably in poverty."

A second problem is middle-class snobbery, which disparages low paid work as demeaning, dead-end McJobs. "Most families don't rise from poverty to neurosurgery ... in one generation," writes Magnet. "It goes by stages, it takes time, and it often starts humbly. But if cleaning houses, making up hotel rooms, cutting meat or cooking French fries is being a sap ... rather than being decent and honest -- then it is that much harder to put a foot on the bottom of the ladder."

While wave after wave of immigrants find in menial jobs "their gateway to the American dream," Magnet says U.S. ghettos are filled with young people who have been taught by mainstream culture to scorn "jobs flipping hamburgers [even though such jobs] are good at teaching what underclass kids lacking basic skills need first to learn about managing the world of work: how to show up on time, look presentable, be efficient and deal pleasantly with customers and bosses."

Nor are the values necessary to succeed in life being transmitted to these kids in their own homes. "Many underclass children, already deprived of a father, also suffer bad mothering from harried, ignorant, isolated, poor and sometimes drug-dependent women," he writes.

Regarding the common practice of setting up teenage moms in welfare-supported apartments, he says society has "created a machine for perpetuating that very underclass, by encouraging the least competent women -- with the least initiative, the worst values and the most blighted family structures -- to become the mothers of the next generation."

"I'm sure," he adds, "I will be accused of all sorts of things for suggesting that people likely to be incompetent parents shouldn't be abetted in having babies to be supported by the state. But ... I find it cruelty to induce the bringing into the world of children who will be so badly nurtured."

A third problem is that society undermines the self-confidence of those at the bottom by telling them the real answer to poverty involves making society more equitable on a grand scale -- the implication being that their own efforts aren't likely to amount to much.

"In the Sixties, just when the successes of the civil rights movement were removing racial barriers to mainstream opportunities, the mainstream values that poor blacks needed to seize those chances, values such as hard work and self-denial, came under sharp attack," writes Magnet.

"Poor blacks needed all the support and encouragement that mainstream culture could give them to stand up and make their own fates. But mainstream culture let them down. Issuing the opposite of a call to responsibility and self-reliance, the larger culture told blacks in particular, and the poor in general, that they were victims, and that society, not they themselves, was responsible for not only their present but their future condition."

The Dream and the Nightmare repeatedly acknowledges that the left-leaning middle class has genuinely tried to emancipate the downtrodden. The problem, he says, is that many of their Sixties-era assumptions about how to solve social problems have been flawed.

"The bitter paradox that is so hard to face is that most of what the Haves have already done to help the poor -- out of decent and generous motives -- is part of the problem," he writes. "Like gas pumped into a flooded engine, the more help they bestow, the less able do the poor become to help themselves. The problem isn't that the Haves haven't done enough but that they've done the diametrically wrong thing."

Magnet argues strongly for a return to more straitlaced social norms such as the restigmatization of unmarried motherhood -- not because he's a killjoy, but because he believes that's how the poor will be empowered to escape their grim fate under their own steam.

He has no doubts about Governor Bush's sincerity in embracing his message. "I don't think he's kidding," says Magnet. "We need, above all, to have an educational system that gives poor people the tools that so many generations of internal and external migrants had when they reached the American cities. He's very serious about that. He's very serious about believing that families of welfare moms and their children are weak families. He's very, very anxious about doing everything from a policy point of view he can to not encourage illegitimacy and, from a bully pulpit point of view, to making the case powerfully that kids need two parents."

Personally, I've never before cheered on a Republican presidential candidate. But as the daughter of an auto mechanic, I know first-hand that I wouldn't hold a university degree or a white collar job today if my own parents had swallowed the leftist view that the system is stacked against them, if they hadn't lived cautiously, worked hard and valued education.

In Magnet's view, a victory for Governor Bush will be a blessing for America's poor. After reading his startling -- and brilliant -- book, it's easy to believe he's correct.

(Each link opens a new window)
  • Al Gore 2000
    The official site for Al Gore and Joseph Lieberman.
  • George W. Bush
    Increasing the evidence that running is in the family.
  • Senator Joe Lieberman's home page
  • Issues 2000
    View Senator Lieberman's voting record on all the big issues.
  • Project Vote Smart
    This site is packed with information on the elections and claims to be a self-defense resource for voters.
    Large and multi-faceted discussion area for election commentary.
  • Biography of Dick Cheney
  • Freedom Channel
    Bills itself as a free, non-partisan site that offers video views of the candidates. Also visit WebWhite&Blue, a site that selects the best of election coverage each day as a lead-up to November.
  • E-The People
    An electronic town hall that hosts candidate profiles, petitions, news stories and voter information.
    Dubya's advisors bought up just about every anti-Bush URL conceivable, but they didn't get this one.
  • Reform Party
    The American version — currently farming the outskirts of Electionville.
  • Ralph Nader
    Running under the mantle of the Green Party — and doing fairly well, if reports are to be believed.
  • Skeleton Closet
    All the dirt on all the major candidates. Read why they consider this mission a necessity.
  • National Review
    The watchdog of the right wing totes up the lies of Al Gore.
  • Copyright © 2000 National Post Online