Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s Tough Lessons for Liberals

Monday, August 31st, 2015

Daniel Patrick Moynihan provided some tough lessons for liberals:

Today, however, Moynihan towers before us a vanished, much-missed type, the reform-minded traditionalist, “the American Burke,” as Greg Weiner’s new book about him maintains, whose complex ideas weighed “possibility” against “limitation,” and “private pluralism” against “common purpose.” The Washington Post columnist EJ Dionne recently recalled the memory of the “unpolarising Moynihan,” at home in Democratic and Republican administrations alike. But he was not a placatory figure. On the contrary, he lived to polarise and provoke, needed to feel surrounded by critics and carpers, enemies hiding in ambush. His strength was for seeking out the hidden sources of discontent. His weakness was in imagining they lay in wait principally for him.


Unlike so many Kennedy favourites, he wasn’t really a Harvard man — teaching there, later, didn’t count and he didn’t yet have the easy polish and style that Kennedy liked. It was under the next President, Lyndon Johnson, that Moynihan achieved fame, though not in the way he wanted, when he was unmasked as the author of a penetrating, vivid report entitled “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” composed in 1965. An “eyes only” memo, written to stir policymakers into action, it became the basis for much of Johnson’s “Great Society” programme to eliminate poverty.

But there was a backlash. Once the report was leaked, the story ceased to be the rescue programmes, but Moynihan’s account of life in the inner-city blighted by the unbreakable rhythms of poverty: unemployment, little or no schooling, low wages (if any at all), children raised in “matriarchal” (fatherless) households and generations trapped in hopelessness, unable to lift themselves up or out. You could read it either as compassion for the wretched of the earth or as a kind of horrified anthropology. Moynihan was accused of blaming the victim. In reply, he reminded critics that the report explicitly pointed to the legacy of slavery. He was right. Those words were there, but they were drowned in the sensational data and the vivid prose. He didn’t coin the phrase “tangle of pathology.” But through Moynihan it entered the language, and in the tense climate of the 1960s seemed less diagnostic than judgemental. Wading so confidently into these question, treating black Americans as if their habits differed from those of whites, Moynihan failed to see, as the sociologist Herbert J Gans observed at the time, that apparently disabling features of inner-city life might actually be “positive adaptations” to exceedingly difficult conditions, ingenious and sophisticated methods of coping. Either way, Moynihan the political visionary was engulfed in an emerging culture war. The Democratic Party was splitting apart, as disagreements that had begun in policy-writing cubicles and the pages of small-circulation journals spilled onto the nation’s campuses and into the streets of its great cities.

Under assault by civil rights activists he thought had been on his side, and by campus activists, Moynihan was thrust into the role of unwitting pioneer, the first of the discredited “white guys,” the lecture-hall moraliser, the tone-deaf “expert” who actually didn’t know what he was talking about, because the truth of American life was known only to those victimised daily by it, in ways no intellectual tourist could ever grasp. Moynihan intemperately fought back, lashing out not only at individual critics but at the legions of “the liberal left” and their indifference to hard facts except “to the extent that they serve as an indictment of American society.”

Conservatives were as bad, he pointed out. They respected data, but self-servingly, “to indict the poor; after that, they lose interest.” But his anger was aimed at those who had stung him, who questioned his good faith and mocked his principles. A lifelong liberal Democrat, he declared war on the “adversary culture” (a phrase borrowed from Lionel Trilling), the complacent inhabitants of “eliteland,” the cultural relativists and nostalgists de la boue he saw all around him: the professors in league with their privileged students, the anti-Vietnam war protestors and community activists, journalists at the Nation — “the new class,” as Moynihan’s friend Irving Kristol, godfather of the neoconservatives, later called it.

Kristol and others fled that world or scorned it. But Moynihan remained in it. He was an old-fashioned liberal, a product of the New Deal who had become a Great Society Democrat This was supposed to be the future and the path to deliverance, and still could be, except no one seemed to believe it any more, including other nations for whom America had once been a beacon. Named Ambassador to the United Nations in 1975, Moynihan became a hero on the right, defending Israel and denouncing Third World monsters like Idi Amin, but he was also labelled a neoconservative jingoist, infected with “paranoia about communism” and “cultural chauvinism.”

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