The title says it all. In her new book, Do-Gooders: How Liberals Hurt Those They Claim to Help (And the Rest of Us)–released today–Mona Charen holds the Left accountable for their grand claims of magnanimity. The book, as she tells it in the introduction, “is a chronicle of failure–the failure of liberals to help those they set out to help.” And in her scorekeeping, Charen has a constructive end in mind: “a moral challenge.” She writes, “Liberals must be called to account for the real havoc they have created in so many lives. They must be asked to offer something more than good intentions when their actions lead to disaster.”
It’s an ugly record–on race-baiting, welfare, education…the list goes on. Charen talked to NRO Editor Kathryn Lopez about some of it over New Year’s weekend. It’s a healthy way to start the new year: with the lessons of failure up front and highlighted.
National Review Online: Who are these “do-gooders”?
Mona Charen: Obviously, there is nothing wrong with wanting to do good. What distinguishes the liberal do-gooder is a self-righteous belief that anyone who differs with his notion of what constitutes “good” has evil motives. As I argue in the book, do-gooders are also remarkably indifferent to the actual results of their nostrums. This calls into question their intellectual and moral bona fides. Who are they? Let’s name names: Marian Wright Edelman, Mario Cuomo, Bryant Gumbel, Norman Lear, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Jonathan Kozol, Ralph Neas, Maxine Waters, and many, many more. The liberal do-gooder has shaped American life for most of the past 40 years with sometimes silly, sometimes counterproductive, and sometimes disastrous results.
NRO: Is there something instinctual about conservatives that they “underestimate the worth of their principles”?
Charen: For too long conservatives did cede the moral high ground to liberals on domestic issues. I say frankly in Do-Gooders that many conservatives missed the boat on the civil-rights movement. Liberals were right on that. But that was 50 years ago, and in the intervening decades, both sides have overinterpreted the lessons of that movement. Liberals concluded that a) they were always on the side of the angels, and b) that every other domestic matter could be analogized to the struggle for civil rights. Conservatives drew the lesson that a) their instincts might not lead them in the right direction, and b) liberals were well-motivated if often misguided. All of those are wrong.
NRO: Conservatism actually does some good–is that recognized by an “objective” sources?
Charen: It depends what you mean by “objective.” There have been some fair-minded liberals, like Jason de Parle of the New York Times, who have examined the results of welfare reform and acknowledged that it has been a success (though you must search the Internet for this–it wasn’t in the Times). For the most part, the mainstream media (MSM) has made war on conservative-reform ideas. I go into detail in the book about the sulphuric liberal response to Giuliani’s successful anti-crime strategy and about liberal scorn for Newt Gingrich’s orphanage suggestion for children who are abused and/or neglected.
NRO: How did conservatism save New York?
Charen: One of the great liberal myths of the last several decades concerned crime. Liberals legislators, judges, authors, social scientists, and politicians were all convinced that poverty causes crime. I argue that it is quite the other way around. A dangerous neighborhood is not going to be a prosperous neighborhood. Because liberals were so wrong about what causes crime, they inadvertently created the crime wave that began, quite suddenly, in the 1960s. This had cascading effects for the entire nation, but was most vividly on display in cities like New York, where civilization itself seemed to be breaking down by the 1970s and 80s. The election of a Republican mayor, who was willing to attempt conservative reform, transformed the city in a surprisingly short period of time. It was like driving the Taliban from power in Kabul!
NRO: The debate about U.S. supposed stinginess in regard to tsunami victims–is this an example of this old do-gooder logic at work?
Charen: No, it’s the anti-American spirit in the saddle. We are, by far, the most generous nation on the planet. But then, as Clare Booth Luce reminded us, “no good deed goes unpunished.”
NRO: The Left uses race baiting and “civil-rights” talk a lot, illegitimately.–in presidential elections, in Supreme Court nomination fights. How do they get away with it?
Charen: This is related to the earlier question about the moral high ground. I devote a chapter to liberal race-baiting–perhaps their most shameful tactic. They have descended, in 50 years, from high-minded Freedom Riders to deeply cynical manipulators of racial fears. Part of this is tactical–without 85 or 90 percent of the black vote, liberals simply will not win any more elections. But that does not excuse the vicious lies.
Remember those ads the NAACP ran against George W. Bush in 2000, implying that he condoned the lynching of James Byrd in Texas? The mainstream press never held the NAACP answerable. Nor did they even offer it as part of the context when discussing the fact that Bush had declined to speak at the NAACP Convention in 2004.
NRO: Speaking of race baiting–Charles Pickering was nominated for a federal seat and never got a fair shot. What becomes of those whose names partisan politics makes mud of? Is there any redemption to come?
Charen: For some the damage is permanent. I fear that Pickering–a southerner who had the courage to stand up to the Klan in the 60s–will never fully regain his reputation.
NRO: Do you expect that the state of marriage in America going to get worse before it gets better?
Charen: No. Some of the data are looking better in the past several years. Divorce is down. Unwed childbearing is down. Sexual abstinence among teenagers is up. But we still have a long way to go before marriage resumes its former strength as a bedrock of society.
NRO: Are vouchers the most practical first step to fixing the problem of kids getting dumber? Why is the Left so opposed when everything they do is “for the children”?
Charen: Vouchers are necessary but not sufficient. In my education chapter I outline the chaos that has descended on public schools in large measure due to liberal court rulings that have handcuffed teachers and principals regarding basic discipline. Also, the teachers unions have played a huge role in dumbing down the curriculum. Their power must be broken. The liberal claim to be acting “for the children” is risible. Read my chapters on family life and education.
NRO: In this book and in Useful Idiots you document many ways liberalism has failed. What are the most important–maybe even life-saving–lessons in your book?
Charen: Look at results not at intentions. This has been the signal failure of liberalism over the past several decades. They have introduced any number of reforms in education, welfare, family structure, criminal justice, care of the homeless, and more. Conservatives were dubious about these reforms from the start. But that’s not the liberal failure. Where liberals lose credibility as honest do-gooders is in their unwillingness to acknowledge that, on the ground, in the lives of actual poor people, or homeless men, or abused children, their “solutions” have not improved things; in fact, they’ve often made things worse.
NRO: What’s your best example of liberal pretension in the face of failure?
Charen: The book is full of examples. They’ve fractured our families, endangered our neighborhoods, disrupted our classrooms (while indoctrinating children in how sinful the U.S. is), turned the homeless mentally ill onto the streets (all the while blaming Reagan), prevented Hispanic youngsters from learning English in the name of multiculturalism, and groundlessly embittered African Americans towards their neighbors and friends who are white.
NRO: Would liberal do-gooders be as stubborn as they are without a like-minded media to trumpet their press releases?
Charen: The media have been key. But, as we know and rejoice about, the media marketplace is rapidly changing. Rather is out. NRO is in. CNN is down. Fox is up.
NRO: Is it fair to lump all liberals together? “Liberalism failed” and the like makes a great bumper sticker, but does it advance a public policy debate? How do you get over those huge concrete blocks that keeps everyone on “their side”?
Charen: I give credit where it’s due in both of my books. In Useful Idiots, I praised Lane Kirkland, Martin Peretz, and others for their steadfast anti-Communism. In Do-Gooders, I single out Howard Metzenbaum (believe it or not!) for his bold resistance to the National Association of Black Social Workers who wanted to prevent white couples from adopting black children. I also applauded the late Mary McGrory for her unwavering devotion to the cause of abused kids, even when it meant crossing her liberal friends.
That much having been said, let me agree that getting over those “huge concrete blocks” is extremely difficult. I write to persuade not just to reinforce the views of my audience. But you don’t get the chance if people who are persuadable are unwilling even to consider the other side of a question.
Still, over time, ideas do circulate through the nation’s bloodstream. And though Mr. Democrat might never willingly entertain the ideas of Milton Friedman, he might find himself, as most urban black parents have, endorsing the idea of school vouchers. So those of us who believe that ideas rule the world just have to keep plugging away.
Buy Do-Gooders from the NR Book Service here and from Amazon here.