Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Illiberal Liberalism

Back a couple months, I posted a quote from the late Sydney J. Harris, a newspaper commentator. I was quite a fan of Mr. Harris, reading him fatihfully as a teenager and on into adulthood, until his death in the mid-80s. I found him perceptive, educated, interesting, and so on.

Mr. Harris was what is often referred to as a "classical liberal". He believed in equality between the races, loving thy neighbor and so on. He was a solid Christian, and espoused "Christian values", though he also maintained that they were not merely "Christian".

None of this is unusual, innovative or even all that interesting.

Shortly after I posted that quote, I got onto one of my little obsessive kicks, where I spent a couple hours looking for more on Harris. I googled him, found him on Wikipedia, and went to Amazon, where I found several anthologies of his writings for sale. Naturally I jumped on them all. And I've been perusing them ever since.

The other day, I came across a column he wrote in the 1960s, a piece entitled "Can we prevent delinquency?" He mentions a boy whom he guesses to be "about 11 years old". He states that the boy, to his knowledge, has done nothing wrong, and behaves appropriately for an 11 year old boy.

Then comes the kicker: "But I am morally certain that he is going to become an active delinquent in a few years. The signs are all there, if one looks closely at his attitudes." And Mr. Harris suggests in the column that boys like this- a "potential pre-delinquent" need special attention from society.

He then goes on to detail his theory- shared by, among others Dr. J.M. Stubblebine, a psychiatrist- that we as a society have to work harder to identify the "pre-delinquents" among us, and work with them to prevent their later misdeeds. The identification would come from "the general physician, family counselors and clergymen", to which one would assume teachers could be added. The label would be applied based upon "traits that most of them share in common."

To an extent, there is something to be said for this. I suspect that there are certain "traits" that can identify potential criminals. But still.... This view completely overshadows anything resembling "Free Will". I suspect that many of the kids, if they have any upbringing at all, or any sense of self-awareness, can overcome their weaknesses.

When I was a a teenager, I did some things that I'm not proud of. Many things that were illegal and immoral. On at least one occasion, I committed something that was, I'm pretty sure, a felony. And I came very close to getting caught. Had I done so, I know I'd have gotten a serious rash of trouble at home, and some kind of juvenile record (though I don't think any time in an institution). Fortunately, nothing came of it. Even so, the things that were done, especially in The Incident, were, I suspect, far more than needed to become a "pre-delinquent", or even to make the leap into delinquency.

First lesson learned: if you are going to commit a crime, do it in the company of a friend whose father is a police officer. The potential for an intervention is much better. Or was back in the 1970s at least. Not sure about today.

However, this lesson became pointless fairly quickly. Because of the second lesson: Don't blindly follow the crowd. This was brought home to me then, though I should have been aware of it earlier. And I suppose on some level, I was. I knew my friends were talking me into things that felt wrong, but I wanted to be cool, and went along. After this Incident, I concluded that A) I would never be cool; and B) If this was what I needed to do to reach that lofty goal, I wasn't interested.

At any rate, I learned my lesson, which was the point made by my friend's father to his fellow officer. He got it swept under the rug, and except for some reminders from my friends over the next few years (I also learned exactly how trustworthy they were), that was the end. I've limited myself to less open displays of criminal activity since then.

None of which is intended to portray myself as some kind of hero: I didn't turn my life around, and escape from the mean streets of Detroit, though I suppose all of that is- technically- true. (Well... if the far limits of Detroit in an all-white, middle class neighborhood are "mean". If not, then I admit to embellishing the phrase "mean streets", while holding the rest as True).

But the issue which Mr. Harris overlooked was the possibility- and not necessarily anything else- that this boy could do the same. Whatever he was doing to earn the title of "pre-delinquent" was probably not much worse than what my friends and I did. I certainly didn't respect or even like my parents at that age. I shoplifted, like most kids. I did other things that, in retrospect, would have sent up big warning signs to adults that were aware of them, and justifiably so. But they weren't aware.

Another example is Gavin de Becker, the author of books such as The Gift of Fear (which I recommend). In this book, he talks some about his childhood. Apparently, he had a stepfather who was physically and emotionally abusive to young Gavin and his mother. (Which I note is worse than what I went through). At one point in "The Gift of Fear", he tells of speaking to some prisoners, and of discussing their relative backgrounds. One of them commented on how similar their lives were as children, and asked why he was a hardened criminal, and de Becker was not.

I would argue that choice probably had something to do with it.

Other factors certainly can play a role, but if the boy Mr. Harris was so concerned with made a decision down the road- a week, a year, five years- then it would have been fairly simple for the boy to turn it around. Not saying he did, as there's no way to be sure, but the potential was there. I've personally read many stories of teenagers who realized at some point that they were on the wrong path, and left it.

And this is the problem that I have with liberals. They seem, even if they're well-intentioned- to ignore Possibilities. Yes, we are a product of our backgrounds, childhood, environment, etc. But a person CAN change if they so desire. Labelling someone as a "pre-delinquent" would almost certainly have a negative outcome. At some point, he would simply shrug his shoulders and think, like Popeye "I yam what I yam", and keep moving along that path. In fact, I believe, as do many other conservatives, that this is the problem with Blacks today. Society, in the form of the government, Jesse Jackson, and "liberals" tell them they've been held down, and that they'll never manage to escape from poverty because they've been victimised by racism.

So why bother trying?

It would have been simple for me to decide that I was a victim of wanting to follow the crowd. And it was certainly true. But trust me, when you are 13, as I was, deciding not to stick around when things start to go the wrong way is tough. Deciding that the friends you've had since you were 3-4 years old are leading you down the wrong path is tough. Deciding that perhaps you need to not hang out with them all the time is tough. But if that's what you know is right, perhaps you can do it. It's always important to try.

Too many people seem to think that we are destined to follow a certain path. If you're black, you're doomed to be held down by The Man, unless society picks you up and carries you. If you're a terrorist, it's because you were forced into it by the Jews, Racism, Islamophobia, and by Bush's Middle East Policy.

As for labelling "Pre-Delinquents", I see that as another step down a very slippery slope. Anybody can look at a child and see the evil in him. And in some cases, it might be justified. But judging an 11 year old as being a threat to society because of his "attitudes" is completely misguided.

It's the ultimate Fascist dream: catch and label trouble-makers before they have a chance to act up. Only we have to be aware of who decides what "attitudes" constitute "pre-delinquency", who decides which kids have those "attitudes", and what actions should be taken to address the "problem". Because in most cases, it would be the same people. And those people are always going to have feeling, emotions, desires and agendas, even if they're unconscious.

Teachers, for instance, might simply want to get Johnny out of their classroom because he's "disruptive". Is that sufficient? What happens if he gets put into some kind of special group at a special school? Will he then learn to be even more disruptive? At that point, it's self-fulfilling.

But hey, it's a wide open field, and it needs to be pursued. And we'll need lots of Federal dollars to study it. So fork over the money, and I'll study the problem, and work with the kids. For at least 20 years.

It's amazing that even a true liberal can sometimes come up with a fascist idea, and not see the contradiction in it. And until they do, I'll always be suspicious.

But I guess being suspicious of others when they are trying to do The Right Thing is simply the hallmark of a conservative mind.



Note: All of the above quotes of Mr. Harris come from the article cited, which is included in the book Leaving the Surface, copyright 1968. Pages 66-68.


Jenera Healy said...

Very well said, it definitely makes me think. On the topic of Liberals and Blacks (or any race for that matter), I was just talking the other day about Barrack Obama (I think that is spelled right). The black community is upset because they don't feel his is the right black man to represent them because he's too well educated. Huh? They feel a 'brotha' from the streets would be more qualified. Excuse me? My theory is that they spout their beliefs that they are being held down, looked down upon, etc etc but the minute something happens that could change that, nope, no way, that can't happen. They perpetuate the vicious cycle they claim they want out of. It's insane.

Any man, woman, or child can change and make something out of themselves no matter what type of upbringing they had. My husband was raised around hardcore drugs, drinking, and criminal behaviour. Yes, he wandered that way for a good portion of his life but he has changed and turned into a good, law abiding, sensible man that knows what he did was wrong. To say that you turn into a deliquent simply because of your past is a cop out because you do not want to take the time to look at yourself and change.

Thanks for the great topic!


gun-totin-wacko said...

The most ironic thing about Obama being "too white"- which is what they're really saying- is that when television shows upper-class, educated blacks, then they're "not black enough". Think the Cosby Show from the 80s.

Some years ago, my hometown of Detroit was electing a new mayor: The Great Black Father, Coleman Young , was retiring. One of the candidates was a Black woman (a white has as much chance of being elected mayor of Detroit as a Black has of running the KKK). I remember seeing bumper stickers around the area (I was long out of Detroit, but living about 40 miles away), promoting her candidacy. Her motto was "Run Girl, Run".

Who was she appealing to? Clearly Black women. No candidate in that city will ever be elected by whites, so they're pretty much ignored by the candidates. But in this case, it was a clear case of pandering to Black women. Nobody else.

Of course she lost, but I suspect she made a strong showing among her chosen constituency.