The Breakfast Table

Optimism, Conservative and Otherwise

Dear Amity:

Some good news in the papers this morning. DC Mayor Tony Williams has agreed to rehire David Howard, the aide whose resignation he accepted after Howard was accused of making a racial slur when he used the word “niggardly.” (See Yolanda Woodlee’s front-page account in the Washington Post today.)

There’s been so much commentary on this that I don’t have much to add. My favorite pieces on it were by my Post colleagues Bill Raspberry, mentioned earlier, and Colby King . It was an absurd controversy and troublesome because Mayor Williams, a good man with not a racialist streak in his body, got caught up in racial politics and (temporarily, it turns out) gave in. As Ms. Woodlee wrote: The controversy “focused attention on Williams’ discomfort over criticism from some black residents that he has brought in too many white department managers who have little feel for their communities.”

One of Williams’ “problems” is that he won such strong support from white voters. But the truth is that if you look at the results of last year’s primary, Williams would have won even if you took away every vote cast in predominantly white and middle class/upper middle class Ward 3. Williams’ hope and promise was that he could answer a call throughout the city for better, back-to-basics local government, put us in a better position to deal with the city’s social problems and break down the racial and class barriers that divide the city. The rap that Williams is somehow distant from the poor is wrong, at least from everything I have heard from people who know him well.

Here’s the other problem: this silly controversy gets wrapped into all the talk about “political correctness.” But there are dumb manifestations of political correctness and very good manifestations of political correctness. It’s a very good thing that people are condemned for using racial slurs and ethnic slurs, or for making gross or sexist remarks about women. In another time, we might have called it political politeness or decency or civility.

By the way, NAACP Chairman Julian Bond played a constructive and important role in this thing from the beginning. He said that people shouldn’t have to “censor” their language to meet “other people’s lack of understanding.”

A very interesting and important piece in your paper today by Gertrude Himmelfarb, “The Panglosses of the Right Are Wrong.” Her point: that conservatives who point to all the good social indicators (on divorce, abortion rates, out-of-wedlock births and crime) are far too optimistic about the state of the culture. On the contrary, she says: “For almost every favorable statistic, an ornery conservative can cite an unfavorable one.” And she goes on to cite a lot of them.

Now Prof. Himmelfarb is one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, and of course she’s right in saying that not all the social indicators are positive. (We have somewhat different takes on the Clinton scandal, but leave that aside.)

Where I disagree is that I really do think a certain optimism is in order. (For a bigger target to attack, if you’re in a mood to do that, I wrote a column trying to make this case a few weeks back in response to the American Enterprise magazine issue “Is America Turning a Corner?”)

There are at least two views out there about the 60s–a lot of this goes back to arguments about the 60s–that I disagree with. One is that the dreaded 60s destroyed our culture and our morals. The other, less prevalent these days, is that the 60s were a grand time that we ought to try to repeat.

Seems to me that some very good things happened in the 60s–civil rights, feminism, the spread of tolerance–but that the era also left negative legacies. The reason I may feel a bit better about our time than Prof. Himmelfarb does is that I think we’re in a period of moderation and adjustment. We’re trying to keep the achievements of the 60s (feminism, civil rights, tolerance) while recognizing that certain trends that may have begun then (reflected in crime rates, the rise in the number of single parent families and out-of-wedlock births, the effect of drugs and porn on kids, for example) need to be reversed. Would recommend a piece John Judis wrote in the New Republic a few months back which focused on the complicated relationship between the consumer culture and the counter-culture. (An old friend of mine observed back in the 1970s that “the counter culture became the over the counter culture.” A good line, and true.)

Slate editors could entice Prof. Himmelfarb into a debate with a Panglossian conservative on this subject. I’d like to read it.

I have to run off to some appointments and didn’t get your morning comment in time to respond to it. (No knock on you: this Breakfast Table business is a stern and time consuming discipline. Kinsley should pay us more, don’t you think?)

All best, E.J.