Counting Our Blessings

Counting Our Blessings

Nov. 30 2004 4:31 PM

Counting Our Blessings

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Charles Murray
8:24 a.m.  Wednesday  11/27/96

       Michael Elliott's and Robert Samuelson's comments point to one of the topsy-turviest aspects of what one thinks the country needs, and what the other thinks one's own self needs. I think the rest of the country needs drastic reform, and write articles and books saying so--but my own life is terrific, thank you. The same goes for a lot of people who make the most noise in the political arena.
       I'm not in Westchester County, but a small blue-collar and farming village in western Maryland, and there's hardly anything broke here that needs fixing. The public schools are still pretty much run as the parents think appropriate, and the principal knows he had better pay more attention to us than to the Supreme Court or the NEA. People do real jobs for a living--build things, grow things, fix things--instead of shuffle paper and try to run other people's lives for them. Honesty, dependability, and self-reliance aren't outdated around here. That's how almost everyone thinks you're supposed to behave. People are still courteous. Children still have childhoods. And guess what: All this goes for the blacks in our town as well as the whites, the poor as well as the not-poor.
       How much of the United States is like this? My friends tell me that I've retreated to a Norman Rockwell world, but when I go to visit my parents in Iowa, I see the same kind of community. And then I read Michael Elliott saying the same thing about Westchester, far from either rural Maryland or Iowa. For that matter, I bet Mike Kinsley's neighborhood is filled with friendly, decent people who probably want to make Mike a part of a closer-knit community than Mike may really want.
       A simple point, echoing others: Something is fundamentally wrong about the context within which the social-policy debate takes place. The proportions are radically distorted, and the distortions have significantly affected social policy (for the worse) over the last 30 years--that, I think, is an empirically defensible statement (OK, with the parenthetical part being editorial), and not Pollyannaish at all. Solutions? If I weren't a libertarian, mandatory church attendance for journalists would be a good start.

Michael Elliott
10:35 a.m.  Wednesday  11/27/96

       In haste to make the deadline. I'm beginning to think that this is turning into "if we're doing so well, how come we're feeling so bad?" If that's right, why are we feeling so bad? I will offer only one discomforting thought. After my book came out (its theme was "we're feeling so bad because we constantly compare ourselves to a golden age after 1945"), I did the obligatory book events and radio chat shows. If there was one feedback that dominated--and this was embarrassing, because I had not mentioned it in the book at all--it was the sense in the public that a cynical, world-weary media had soured on America and encouraged other Americans to sour on it too. Sam, who hammered the latest jeremiad from the Philadelphia Inquirer jeremiad factory, might have thoughts on that. Meanwhile, enjoy Thanksgiving; and, especially now we've been told it's safe, the stuffing.

Robert Samuelson
1:51 p.m.  Wednesday  11/27/96

       The conversation among Mike Elliott, Belle Sawhill, and Charles Murray reminds me of Tolstoy, who wrote (I think I remember) that all happy families are happy in the same way and that all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way. But that doesn't apply to nations. All nations are both happy and unhappy in their own way. That is, they have to be true to their own political and popular cultures. Just about any survey you can find shows that Americans--in contrast to Europeans--believe more in the power of individuals to affect their own destinies, which is one reason why Americans are less supportive of welfare and social safety nets than Europeans. The welfare debate is about more than whether liberals are more caring than conservatives. It's really the latest version of our recurrent effort to distinguish between the "deserving" and the "undeserving" poor. Sawhill suggests that a lot of welfare mothers are simply unemployable; a lot of conservatives are more optimistic about welfare recipients' ability to better themselves. This question--like many others--cannot be answered in advance or in the abstract; experience will tell us what happens. One way or another, I think, the result--when it becomes clear--will generate either more or less popular support for keeping our welfare programs stingy or making them more generous. People will be judged deserving or not. That is the test that Americans apply; it's what our political culture demands. Happy Thanksgiving.

Herb Stein
2:33 p.m.  Wednesday  11/27/96

       This is the 17th or 18th of these panels I have moderated. Always, at about this time of the week, I-- and, I suppose, the panelists--become aware of how terribly ambiguous the topic is. "Counting our blessings." Of course, we cannot literally count our blessings. We cannot add up the pluses and the minuses and calculate a net, and we cannot compare our net with the net of other people, in our own or other times. And who is the "our" whose blessings we are talking about? Is it the four panelists, or the average American, or every American? And, most difficult of all, what is a blessing? A blessing is not simply a happy condition. It is the part of a condition that comes from some source external to ourselves--which may be luck or, as Elliott pointed out on Monday, providence. And is being blessed an objective fact, or a feeling of having been blessed?
       I gather that our panelists, at least those who have spoken about it, are in happy conditions. I also live in a happy condition, although not one as idyllic as Elliott's or Murray's. I live in a co-op apartment building in Washington, DC. Even though Ruth Bader Ginsburg had her purse snatched not a block from where I live, and I would not let my daughter walk a block away from here after dark, I feel I am in a happy condition.
       I believe, and I expect our panelists would agree, that our happy condition is a blessing, not entirely due to our own efforts. This blessing comes from parents, governments, philanthropists, investors, scientists, and many other sources--to mention only secular ones. But there seem to be--this is only projection, of course--some people who are not in a happy condition. That is in part because they are not blessed and in part because of the inadequacy of their own efforts. A question that comes out of our discussion is what responsibility the fact of our being blessed imposes upon us to help those who are not blessed. There is also, of course, the question of how effectively to discharge that responsibility.
       I think that this notion of being blessed has many implications. For example, when Bob Dole, who was my candidate for president, used to go around saying, "It's your money! It's your money! And we're going to give it back to you!" I winced. "My" money is the result of so many happy events for which I was not responsible that I wonder what it means to say that it is "my" money, except that there are some laws that say it is.
       Of course, it is very hard to put yourself in someone else's shoes. When I think of my blessings, I think of a parent and two grandparents who came to America about 100 years ago and so protected me, if there had been a me, against the possibility of going to Auschwitz. So I wonder whether an African-American in the inner city, watching on TV what is going on in Zaire and Rwanda, feels that they are blessed. I just don't know. I think that we all have our blessings, and obligations that go with them.
       I wish all our panelists and all our readers a Happy Thanksgiving. We will resume this conversation on Monday, after you have had time to digest your dinner.