A review of The Dream and the Nightmare: The Sixties’ Legacy to the Underclass. By Myron Magnet.

Encounter Books, 1993.

Myron Magnet’s book is an excellent example of why 1960s leftists should be having second thoughts. In a nutshell, he argues that the mindset and the values of the sixties are largely responsible for America’s urban underclass. The sixties counterculture and the sexual revolution both put in place a set of values and beliefs that for many turned poverty into a way of life.

The liberations promoted by the counter-culturalists – sexual, personal, political, economic – did not liberate. Instead, they enslaved people. Says Magnet, the no-fault way in which the counter-culturalist conducted his personal life was “mirrored by his no-fault social policy, all rights and entitlements without responsibilities”.

These counterculture values had a very real bearing on the issue of poverty. The traditional values that either prevented poverty or helped one escape from poverty – thrift, hard work, responsibility, deferral of gratification, sobriety – were eschewed. In their place were enshrined the values of hedonism, sensualism and selfishness. These values can only entrap, not liberate. As Irving Kristol put it, “It’s hard to rise above poverty if society keeps deriding the human qualities that allow you to escape from it.”

Take the sexual revolution for example. The reshaped values of the sexual revolution were directly responsible for the breakdown of families, for easy divorce, for illegitimacy, for sole-parent households. Not that these problems didn’t exist before the onset of the sexual revolution, but they were certainly exacerbated and compounded by it.

The new culture, as Magnet explains, “permitted, even celebrated, behavior that, when poor people practice it, will imprison them inextricably in poverty. It’s hard to persuade ghetto fifteen-year-olds not to get pregnant, for instance, when the entire culture, from rock music to upscale perfume commercials to highbrow books, is intoxicated with the joy of what before AIDS was called ‘recreational’ sex.”

Moreover, the new culture “held the poor back from advancement by robbing them of responsibility for their fate and thus further squelching their initiative and energy. Instead of telling them to take wholehearted advantage of opportunities that were rapidly opening, the new culture told the Have-Nots that they were victims of an unjust society and, if they were black, that they were entitled to restitution, including advancement on the basis of racial preference rather than mere personal striving and merit.”

Viewing poverty primarily in terms of a poverty of values is not a new thesis: Other social commentators, like George Gilder and Thomas Sowell, have argued this thesis. Moreover, earlier commentators like Max Weber have pointed out the connection between values and socio-economic development. Historical examples can be cited. For example, many historians now agree that the spread of Methodism in England in the 18th Century helped spare England the bloody revolutions taking place around it. John Wesley’s preaching imbued the English people with a conservative orderliness that helped to avert revolutionary violence and upheaval.

Magnet’s book confirms the thesis that the major operatives in a society are not just economic ones. Moral, religious and cultural values even more strongly determine how a society will fare – politically and economically.

The question of crime also must be seen in terms of values. The use of force and threat – police, courts, prisons – is one way to restrain aggression and crime. However, “The most powerful curb isn’t force at all: it is the internal inhibition that society builds into each person’s character, the inner voice”.

Instead of worrying about lenient sentencing or cumbersome legal procedures – as important as they are – of more value is ensuring that “inner barriers to violence and aggression are strongly in place. This is a cultural matter, a matter of how people bring up their children, a matter of the messages that get passed from the community to the parents and thence to the children.

The object is both to transmit the necessary prohibitions against aggression to each individual and to win each individual’s inner, positive assent to the social endeavor.”

And that of course is what is not happening in black urban America. Sixty-eight per cent of all black children are born without a father at home. Thus it is much harder for positive values to be transmitted. But the tragedy of broken black families is perpetuated by counterculture values: love’em and leave’em is the natural expression of the sexual revolution, and the economic reinforcement of illegitimacy is the logical outcome of welfarism. As Charles Murray noted, a welfare mother’s child “provides her with the economic insurance that a husband used to represent.”

Thus counterculture values reinforce and perpetuate the crime, poverty and despair of the ghetto. The poverty of values that emanated from the 1960s counterculture have left their mark. And welfarism simply ingrained the problems. Best of intentions, we have learned, unfortunately are not enough. Reformist zeal needs to be backed up by hard thinking and common sense. Simply throwing money at a problem will usually not suffice. The less politically tangible route of changing values and belief systems is generally more effective.

The counterculture mindset has had a firm grip on American life for the past three decades. Fortunately, a little bit of common sense is beginning to dawn. Some Democrats, like Daniel Patrick Moynihan, now claim that America’s biggest problem is welfarism and the values that underpin it. Even Bill Clinton wants to overhaul the Welfare State. So change might be on the way.

One has to ask, though, whether it’s too little, too late. If change does take place, and if the poverty of values crisis is stemmed, at least in part, this book will have played a role in that process.

[937 words]

2 Replies to “A review of The Dream and the Nightmare: The Sixties’ Legacy to the Underclass. By Myron Magnet.”

  1. Thanks Bill,

    What an excellent review. Ultimately it is biblical values that are needed.

    You may have seen the article Black Power: The New Conservative Stronghold, which gives some good news about transformation within “black” communities in the US.

    Genesis is the foundation for all biblical values which is why secularists promote evolution and attack Genesis so consistently.
    Tas Walker

  2. “Instead of worrying about lenient sentencing or cumbersome legal procedures – as important as they are – of more value is ensuring that “inner barriers to violence and aggression are strongly in place.”
    I hear what Mr. Magnet says and agree. A real mess has been created by the Great Society generation. I understand that President Bush has said that next to the Bible this is the most important book he has read. And that it was, somehow, the foundation for the roadmap to compassionate conservatism. The “underclass” that was created are still with us. Katrina rubbed our noses in that reality. And I agree w/Mr. Magnet wholeheartedly. “Thus counterculture values reinforce and perpetuate the crime, poverty and despair of the ghetto.” The best way out of the ghetto is to take an entry level job. And work your way up. But the American “underclass” has been dealt another crippling blow. Our President and those before him have opened our back door wide to another nations “underclass”. Without restrictions or rules! And they came and took every menial entry level job available. Millions of them.
    My question Mr. Muehlenberg; does Mr. Magnet advise that we (and his Manhattan Institute does advise the President) that we take on the responsibility of other nations “underclass”? Evidently that is how the President interprets this. I can tell you from the viewpoint of the American taxpayer, that is not part of the bargain. We have agreed to take care of our own. But not those from another nation. That will be the straw that breaks the camels back. The camel is groaning under the strain now. And protesting as demonstrated on 11/7/06. A sizeable block of the GOP base has now turned against the President at a time when he needs them the most (Iraq war support) and it is of his own doing. He has tuned-out and insulted them. I think President Bush needs to re-read this book and remember that it applies to our nation only.
    Darvin Dowdy

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