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A Poverty of Thought

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By George F. Will
Tuesday, September 13, 2005

It took exactly one month -- until the president's prime-time news conference of Oct. 11, 2001 -- to refute the notion that Sept. 11 "changed everything." When a reporter said, "You haven't called for any sacrifices from the American people," he replied, "Well, you know, I think the American people are sacrificing now. I think they're waiting in airport lines longer than they've ever had before." And that was before the sacrificing became really hellacious with the requirement that passengers remove their shoes at security checkpoints.

The idea that Hurricane Katrina would change the only thing that matters -- thinking -- perished even more quickly, at about the time Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, a suitable symbol of congressional narcissism, dramatized the severity of the tragedy by taking a television interviewer on a helicopter flight over her destroyed beach house. "Washington rolled the dice and Louisiana lost," she said in a speech on the Senate floor that moved some senators to tears. You can no more embarrass a senator than you can a sofa, so the tears were not accompanied by blushing about having just passed a transportation bill whose 6,371 pork projects cost $24 billion, about 10 times more than the price of the levee New Orleans needed. Louisiana's congressional delegation larded the bill with $540,580,200 worth of earmarks, one-fifth the price of a capable levee.

America's always fast-flowing river of race-obsessing has overflowed its banks, and last Sunday on ABC's "This Week," Sen. Barack Obama, Illinois's freshman Democrat, applied to the expression of old banalities a fluency that would be beguiling were it without content. Unfortunately, it included the requisite lament about the president's inadequate "empathy" and an amazing criticism of the government's "historic indifference" and its "passive indifference" that "is as bad as active malice." The senator, 44, is just 30 months older than the "war on poverty" that President Johnson declared in January 1964. Since then the indifference that is as bad as active malice has been expressed in more than $6.6 trillion of anti-poverty spending, strictly defined.

The senator is called a "new kind of Democrat," which often means one with new ways of ignoring evidence discordant with old liberal orthodoxies about using cash -- much of it spent through liberalism's "caring professions" -- to cope with cultural collapse. He might, however, care to note three not-at-all recondite rules for avoiding poverty: Graduate from high school, don't have a baby until you are married, don't marry while you are a teenager. Among people who obey those rules, poverty is minimal.

In 1960 John Kennedy of Choate, Harvard and Palm Beach campaigned in West Virginia's primary and American liberalism experienced one of its regularly recurring rediscoveries of poor people, an epiphany abetted three years later by Michael Harrington's book "The Other America" receiving a 50-page review where liberals would notice it, amid the New Yorker magazine's advertisements for luxury goods. Between such rediscoveries, the poor are work for liberalism's constituencies among the "caregiving" professions.

Liberalism's post-Katrina fearlessness in discovering the obvious -- if an inner city is inundated, the victims will be disproportionately minorities -- stopped short of indelicately noting how many of the victims were women with children but not husbands. Because it was released during the post-Katrina debacle, scant attention was paid to the National Center for Health Statistics' report that in 2003, 34.6 percent of all American births were to unmarried women. The percentage among African American women was 68.2.

Given that most African Americans are middle class and almost half live outside central cities, and that 76 percent of all births to Louisiana African Americans were to unmarried women, it is a safe surmise that more than 80 percent of African American births in inner-city New Orleans -- as in some other inner cities -- were to women without husbands. That translates into a large and constantly renewed cohort of lightly parented adolescent males, and that translates into chaos in neighborhoods and schools, come rain or come shine.

This will become of intense interest to the "czar" or "czarina" -- this republic has a fascinating reflex for cloaking improvised offices with the dignity, such as it was, of defunct Russian royalty -- who is charged with "overseeing" the "rebuilding" of New Orleans. He or she can exchange notes with our "nation-builders" in Iraq, now learning conservatism's core truths about the limits of government's abilities to know and control things. Or he or she can glance at Ground Zero in Manhattan where, four years later, the "rebuilding" of a few square blocks is not going well.

georgewill@washpost.com


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