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Understanding Moynihan

Brass Tacks

By Harold A. Mcdougall

It is fortunate that Daniel Moynihan has seen fit to re-define his position in the light of recent criticism; this redefinition provides an opportunity to discuss the real issues involved in the Moynihan Report, The Negro Family.

The main criticism of The Negro Family came from middle-class liberals, black and white. The charge was that the report raised the spectre of Negro inferiority. Moynihan was at complete liberty to demolish these arguments, as he does in his Commentary article. Obviously certain problems--illegitimacy (that is, reported births out of wedlock), lack of education, inferior housing, and unsanitary living conditions--simply go along with poverty and discrimination.

But the charge of subtle racism is an irrelevant one; a much more serious charge--one that reflects not on Moynihan's motives but upon his competence--is that the Moynihan Report proposed a program that was simply unworkable within the framework of national and local power relations. This flaw, I think, not only from Moynihan's basic orientation, but from his misunderstanding--until recently--of the nature of the political and administrative process in this country.

The government, as the Liberal Left and Moynihan fail to recognize, is not an instrument for the initiation and sustenance of social change. Its purpose is to institutionalize social change when it occurs--to legitimize the new order. It is somewhat naive, as the leaders of the War on Poverty have by now recognized, to expect a government body which rests on consensus to foster social change. As Moynihan himself says, "A quest for peace of this kind gives maximum leverage to the group with the most intransigent and assertive opinions, and the greatest ideological discipline" -- or, simply, the group with the most power. The problem for the Negro, specifically the lower-class Negro, is the gaining power--of influence over relevant decisions.

It is for this reason that bureaucrats with a vested interest, in welfare could scuttle Moynihan's program. Congressional committees must respond to both interested groups who can make their demands articulate and immediate, and to the bureaucracy which controls information necessary for the consideration of legislation. Further, the committees can enhance their own power by enhancing the power of the agencies and bureaus over which they have a degree of financial control. No group without influence upon this system can expect to be favored by it.

"The adequacy of the welfare bureaucracy's efforts and even the integrity of its view of events," Moynihan says, had been "roundly condemned" by his report. The result was forseeable: the enervation of Moynihan's program.

Moynihan charges that civil rights leaders lost the initiative for a program "going beyond the traditional and relatively easy issues of segregation and discrimination" -- and misses the point. Civil rights and the Federal government were natural allies; they were both ostensibly dedicated to the libertarian issues that were easy: the ones that could be passed upon by many members of Congress without offending their constituencies. The civil rights movement, like the Federal government, was simply incapable of addressing itself to the type of change necessary to ameliorate the conditions under which the black poor live.

It is in this sense that the Moynihan Report is a cop-out; not for the white conscience so much as for official policy-makers faced with the impossibility of reconstituting power relations via government policy. Moynihan says that "unless we can change the character of the Negro family all our efforts will come to naught." But to change the character of the Negro family via government policy is impossible not only because of psychological reality but because of political reality.

Moynihan's basically liberal orientation -- one, that is, which looks to the Federal government for the implementation of social change -- leads him to feel that unless the Federal government can do somehing, all is lost. That is simply not true. The government can pass--and what is more important, enforce -- laws that prevent that harrassment of people exercising their right to assemble and form organizations for their own advancement. These organizations can then, by putting pressure on public and private agencies, facilitate change. That is the limit, not of the moral obligation, but of the political capacity of the government.

Moynihan is guality to a large extent, of exactly that shortcoming for which he criticizes liberals: the desire to control those whom one seeks to help. The results of this very human failing are many: romantic identification with the oppressed; the desire to preserve the romance by controlling the oppressed and their thoughts and actions; the use of this romantic notion to overcome doubts about the morality of what one is in fact doing.

For example, Moynihan says Negroes are Southern Protestant civil servants. This is, to say the least, an oversimplification. Moynihan is doing the same thing as the liberal leftists who see Negroes as a black proletariat. Negroes are neither; they are people.

Moynihan sees the Negro as a solid, bourgeois citizen, holding opinions and values antithetical to those of the liberal left. The liberal left apparently sees the Negro as the embodiment of its own ideals. Until the Negro speaks for himself, experts on and leaders of the Negro ("of both races," as President Johnson put it) will continue to compartmentalize, classify, and be wrong.

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