The Breakfast Table

Blood, Tear Gas, Fire, and Muddle-Headed Thinking

Dear Jonathan,

For the edification of our readers, who have missed our real e-mail correspondence, I will now post the following exchange:

Allen: Now what am I gonna say to that?

Chait: I was hoping you might have some of your own thoughts on the Byzantine Empire to share.

Allen: In truth, my knowledge of the Byzantines is so deep that it is hard for me to discuss them in a format so constraining …

Chait: … as I well know from having read your seminal work on the subject.

Anyway, I don’t want to give away the ending, though it does hark back to our earlier discussion of the ultimate fate of all bullies.

I feel guilty (and so should you) that we haven’t even mentioned the reason why most of Washington (but not us) has today off. I do, in fact, always find Martin Luther King’s birthday a sobering time. I, unlike you, am old enough to remember his murder very well–and the horrible year that surrounded it. We like to look back at the ‘60s (which didn’t really start till ‘66 or so–the JFK era was really very ‘50s, look at Jackie’s hat and gloves–and lasted till the mid-’70s) as a time of idealism. In fact it was a pretty awful time, full of blood and tear gas and fire–and muddle-headed thinking. It is uplifting to rehear MLK’s speeches but, again, those really date from an earlier era. By the time of his death, that moment of good feeling had largely been lost in acrimony over Vietnam. And the world of social policy, into which I was then a newcomer, operated at a level of abstraction that I found discouraging.

Too few of the planners seemed ever to have talked honestly with a poor person, and everyone went around saying things like “the only difference between the rich and the poor is money.” Small wonder that so many of our well-meant initiatives proved so disappointing. And that is truly a shame because the billions we spent might, if guided by less naïve impulse, have done a lot of good–or at least kept a lot of things, like the number of fatherless families and the rate of poverty among children, from getting as bad as they did.

Someone e-mailed me a copy of a speech Sen. Paul Wellstone is supposed to give today. He intersperses his remarks with statistics showing how, even in his liberal home state of Minnesota, African American families still lag far behind other families in income, home ownership, health insurance, etc. and far outpace others in homicides, broken homes, etc. By some measures, they actually lost ground in the 1980s. But I also notice (speaking of suspect statistics) that Wellstone cuts off his analysis at 1990. And the benefits of several years of steady growth and falling crime rates have surely extended to black families as well as to others. So maybe Dr. King won’t be disappointed in the end. More of that guiding providence.

See you tomorrow.