THE DREAM AND THE NIGHTMARE is an exceptionally important book. President George W. Bush specifically referred to it as one of the most influential books he has read and made it the cornerstone of his compassionate conservativism. In the book, Myron Magnet of the Manhattan Institute attempts to answer one of the true riddles of our time: In a society of such opportunity, why is there an underclass that seems totally entrenched in failure and that seems incapable of finding its way into the respectable mainstream of American life?
For those in the middle class, this really is a puzzle. The answers seem so obvious. Get a job; gain work experience in order to climb the ladder; do not expect something for nothing; be selective about who you have sex with and use those precautions necessary to minimize unwanted pregnancies; when you do have kids, read to them and oversee their upbringing so that they can properly interact with others; and if you do take drugs, well, just make it the occasional joint, don't get all crazy there. The answer Magnet reaches has less to do with policy and more to do with philosophy. THE DREAM AND THE NIGHTMARE is a manifesto to the concept that ideas have consequences.
Magnet points to the significant paradigm shift of the 1960s, in which many elites thought it was progressive, even compassionate, to denigrate traditional notions of morality and the American way of life. Shifting the concept from personal responsibility among the poor to the idea that the poor are victims of society entitled to handouts, racial separation among blacks, sexual liberation, permissiveness regarding drug use, and other attitudes that demonstrated an oppositional mindset to the traditional notions of how to get ahead filtered down from the upper classes who espoused them to the lower classes who adopted them.
The results have been disastrous. As Magnet points out, many members of the upper class knew that there was a limit to how far they could go before jeopardizing themselves. And even for those who did go over the edge, there was usually some safety net among one's family and social structure that softened the blow. Yet when these same ideas were adopted by those at the lower end of the ladder, without the socialization which might have provided an internal barrier to holding back before the edge and without the external social structure to soften the landing, the results were something else indeed. The destruction of the two-parent family, rampant drug use and its attendant violence, laziness and a 'I deserve something to be handed to me' attitude have combined to stop the advance of a large section of our society in its tracks.
Magnet's theory explains not only how the underclass was created but also why so many factors of urban life seemed to erode at the same time. Specific policies may have an effect on this or that issue. But significant changes in a people's philosophy, the zeitgeist in which they live and breathe, will have a far wider impact. That is what we now see and it is a deeply disturbing sight for those of us who are witness to the results.
Unfortunately, the biggest impediment to change is also philosophical. It is all but impossible for someone to even discuss these issues without those on the political Left howling about racism, blaming the victim, blah, blah, blah. And the underclass itself is now so violent and disfunctional that it is nothing short of flat-out dangerous to address its members directly. Even then, the members of the underclass are so enveloped in their thinking that it is like talking to a brick wall. It is so bad that telling it straight is simply interpreted as racism or naivity about what life on the street is really like. The underclass displays that most damaging of traits - an imperviousness to negative yet accurate feedback. The road ahead looks dark indeed.