Wolf Cries Wolf

Wolf Cries Wolf

Wolf Cries Wolf

Political commentary and more.
Nov. 10 1999 3:25 AM

Wolf Cries Wolf

Appearing on ABC's This Week last Sunday, controversial Gore consultant Naomi Wolf argued against holding candidates responsible for the views of their advisers, adding:

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I was interested to see on Crossfire a few nights ago, Mr. Press pointed out that George Bush's advisers have views that were much more, I would say, disturbing, than mine, that were in fact, I would say, racist.

Who are these racist advisers? A quick look at the Crossfire transcript reveals only one allegation that comes close to fitting Wolf's description, an example offered by "from-the-left" co-host Bill Press:

PRESS: I just want to follow up again. Because there's another adviser to George Bush by the name of Myron Magnet, who says there are lots of jobs out there for blacks, but blacks just don't go after them. It reminds me of Ed Meese saying that the homeless are homeless by choice. Now is that George Bush's position?

[RNC Co-Chair Pat]HARRISON: I have no idea who Myron is. Whatever he said in that sense is ridiculous. George W. Bush does not believe that.

I called Magnet on Tuesday. He hadn't heard he'd been denounced as a racist on national television. (This was a Naomi Wolf angle so obscure only kausfiles was on the case!) Like every other conservative intellectual in America, Magnet confessed that he was, indeed, a Bush adviser. He'd gotten the call from Austin a couple of years ago, and Bush had told him that his 1993 book The Dream and the Nightmare had been a major influence. In Dream, Magnet is talking about the black "underclass"--not, as Press implied, black society in general. (Magnet says "only a minority of black Americans--perhaps one in nine or ten--belongs to the underclass.") One dysfunctional feature of underclass society, Magnet argues, is a failure to take available jobs. "Of course there are jobs out there," Magnet told me, sticking to his guns. "The success of welfare reform makes that abundantly clear. Folks didn't have trouble going out and finding jobs."

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Magnet's view is probably impolitic (though maybe less so than Wolf and Press think). In important ways it may not be right. (If every able-bodied, unemployed man and woman in the black underclass tried to get a job back in 1993 when Magnet's book came out, could the labor market have readily absorbed them all? I doubt it.) But it's not "racist."

It is, rather, a simplified, blame-the-'60s version of the standard "culture of poverty" argument--one good working definition of a "culture of poverty" being a culture whose members do not take advantage of economic opportunities when they present themselves. The argument is actually anti-racist in the sense that Magnet thinks the black-white economic gap is purely a "cultural matter," the result of "bad messages coming from the larger culture [read: those privileged, white hippies!] that have encouraged a weak family structure." At the Manhattan Institute, where he edits City Journal, Magnet is known as an opponent of the Charles Murray-Richard Herrnstein argument that genetics, not culture, is at the bottom of the black-white divide.

Naomi Wolf didn't return my phone calls.*  Readers should know that I used to work and play basketball with her husband, David Shipley, an editor at the New York Times, who is a great guy. (How close a friend is he? Check back with me tomorrow on that! But regard for Shipley, I suspect, is giving Wolf a lot of protection when it comes to press coverage, though it might not look that way.) If I were Al Gore, I'd want someone like Naomi Wolf around, even if some of her ideas are quirky or wacky.

But the "racism" charge isn't quirky or wacky--it's demagogy. It coarsens and inflames dialogue in a way that tends to prevent exposure of which ideas are right and which are wrong. ("It's just bullshit," Magnet says. "It means 'we don't even want to have an argument with you.' ") Maybe Wolf was led astray by Press' tendentious summary of Magnet's views. But Press didn't call anyone a racist. Wolf did. She should apologize.

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P.S.: Another distinction between Wolf and Magnet is that Bush didn't pay Magnet anything for his advice, while Gore valued Wolf's at $15,000 a month.

P.P.S.: Kausfiles is having lunch with Magnet tomorrow. If he blurts out anything racist, you'll be notified immediately!

* Wolf did call after this item was posted, but our conversation was off-the-record.

Clarence Page's hack fact: 

"The downside of the changing statistics, and indeed a new figure came out this week showing unemployment down to--what?--around--around 4 percent, the lowest it's been since 1970, is that the poverty rate hasn't changed."

--Clarence Page, on Washington Week in Review, Nov. 5, 1999

"Continued economic growth led to a significant reduction in poverty in 1998, as the poverty rate declined to 12.7 percent."

--press release of the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Sept. 30, 1999. (The poverty rate has fallen from 15.1 percent in 1993, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.)

Pull-quote of the month:

"Sting really likes squash soup. He really enjoys soups that have been smoothed out with no bits or pieces."

--Joseph Sponzo, family chef for the musician Sting and his wife, Trudie Styler, quoted in the New York Post.