Sunday, September 14, 2014

Nicholas Kristoff: How not to be a Liberal

Nicholas Kristoff has a piece in today's New York Times which is enough to give liberalism a bad name. 

He wants to tell us how we should eliminate poverty in this country and he starts off by trying to impress us with his deep understanding of the complexity of the problem:  "Within four weeks of conception, human embryo has formed a neural tube, which then begins to produce brain cells."

Okay, we got it. You have read some heavy books and you have learned: "It all begins early."

And he winds up with "If you want to help, here are a few organizations whose work on early childhood has impressed us."

And here they are:
1. Nurse-Family Partnership: is a proven home visitation program that gives a risk kids a shot at reaching the starting line.
2. Reach Out and Read: supports pediatricians who hand out books to low-income children during doctor visits, with instructions about bedtime reading.  Careful studies show that the parents red to the children more often and the chilrdren end up with larger vocabularies--all for just $20 per child per year.

There are more, but it goes downhill from there.

As if sending a nurse by once a month, or even once a week, or even once an hour could really make a difference to the children of Baltimore whose parents are sending them out to the corner to sling drugs, who view their children as their meal tickets, who game every government program to cash in vouchers so they can buy more heroin and cocaine.

Mr. Kristoff should be strapped into a chair and forced to watch The Wire continuously, all five seasons until he has assimilated the lessons there.  

Can you imagine any of the mothers, so carefully depicted there,  being influenced in any positive way by the visit from some nurse, even if she were not white?  

Can you imagine Michael's mother, who uses every monthly payment for Aid to Dependent Children to buy heroin, reading to her children at bedtime, even if she did ever bring them to a pediatrician and even if, at that visit, she were handed a book with instructions on how to read to her children. If she could read herself. If she did not try to sell the book for money to buy drugs?
The problem with so many solutions proposed from so many quarters is the people who develop these solutions have no clue about what life is like for the people they are trying to improve.

What Mr. Kristoff  needs is not a new program to recommend but an anthropological ethnograph which might actually clue him in to the hard shell of the problem.

The best such anthropological study, by a country mile, is The Wire

When you see children living in abandoned buildings, hijacking electricity from neighboring buildings, living without parents because they are better off without the adults who might be related to them, when you see the variety of parental depredation to which these children are exposed, you will know no book hand out in a pediatrician's office will make a difference. 

When you see the boy whose mother buys him a set of back-to-school clothes which is not intended to be worn at school but which will make him look right for his work slinging drugs on the corners, you know a visiting nurse will not help that situation. 

When you see the boy whose foster mother does try to guide him but is defeated by the world she sends that boy into--a world where the most powerful socializing organizations in the neighborhood are not the schools, nor the government, nor the church, nor the local YMCA, but the drug gangs, then you understand that Save The Children, which provides home visitation, screening and literacy programs for the bargain rate of $28 a month, will  not make one wit of difference.

When you have widespread dissolution of families, cultural values which direct young boys and girls into selling, using and extolling drugs, then all the best intentions only pave the way to hell.

As a medical student in the 1970's, I worked in a project in Bedford Stuyvesant, which was then a desperately poor Black neighborhood, where a gleaming new clinic, built with War on Poverty money, stood unused in its magnificence. Our project was to figure out why the locals were not keeping their appointments for medical care there. 

It didn't take long:  The first few days we visited the addresses where the prospective patients were supposed to be living, we found open doors, or no doors, on the once magnificent stone townhouses, which were now occupied by people, not families, with children in dirty diapers padding around the prostate bodies of adults in heroin stupors and nary a clock nor a calendar to be seen. These people could not keep appointments because they had no concept of day of the week or time of day. 

You can talk about neural tubes until you are blue, but you are never going to change poverty in the inner cities until you really know what that poverty is and does. 

Good intentions are not enough.  Been there (in the 1970's). Done that.

Watch The Wire, Mr. Kristol and trade your bubbly do goodism for a little nihilism. 

Do not think you can change people unless you are willing to control way more of daily life than you can now imagine, and that goes not just for Baltimore, Washington, DC and Detroit. That goes for Baghdad, Syria and Libya.

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