The Unheavenly Urban Philosopher

James Nuechterlein

Copyright (c) 1999 First Things 98 (December 1999): 7-8.

Most of us, in our effort to make sense of life, begin at home: we try, in the first instance, to make sense of our own lives. That attempt involves bringing order to what, in the living, has often seemed a disorderly process. The mental auto biographies we piece together do not work well if they are simply the recounting of one damn thing after another. The natural instinct is to retroactively impose on our experience a shape, coherence, and continuity that we did not sense at the time and that disinterested observers might treat skeptically. We see this clearly in others. We smile as the friend explains, "Well, yes, I was a Trotskyite then and I’m a Lefebvrist now, but if you look closely you’ll see it’s the continuities that matter."

My own political autobiography is free of Trotskyite/Lefebvrist disjunctures. (One advantage of a mind virtually free of imagination is an immunity to sectarian temptations.) But I was not always the perfect Tory I now am and sometimes imagine myself always to have been. I was never a person of the left, but as a young man I wavered between moderate liberalism and moderate conservatism. I was neither, I would say to others, National Review or New Republic. Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society struck me as grandiose, but I regarded the Barry Goldwater crusade of 1964 as extremist (Ronald Reagan’s speech in support of Goldwater scared me to death) and as late as 1968 I voted for Hubert Humphrey over Richard Nixon.

I mention all this as prelude. The newspapers reported the death, a few months ago, of Edward C. Banfield at age eighty-three, and in reading various obituaries and remembrances I was forcefully reminded that, although I never met Professor Banfield, he was a major influence in my life. I have read more important and more elegant books on public policy than his The Unheavenly City (1970), but I can think of none that made so much difference to me. He did not change my mind, but he did most powerfully clarify it. After I finished reading the book, there was no more wavering in my political self-definition. I was—and now without doubt or apology—a conservative. It’s been all continuity from there on in.

I suspect that reading Banfield might not have affected me so strongly had I not been in Detroit during the terrifying black riot of 1967. That was a most unsettling experience, and I had been brooding on its meaning in the three years prior to the pub lication of The Unheavenly City. Banfield’s analysis of America’s urban crisis made sense to me not only of urban affairs in general but most particularly of the annual summer riots that had wracked the nation for half a decade after the first one in 1965 in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles.

The Unheavenly City could not have gone more radically against the grain of the conventional wisdom on the causes and cures of the intertwined issues of race, poverty, and civil unrest. In the wake of the Detroit riot, the President’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (the Kerner Commission) blamed the continuing outbursts on "white racism." Banfield did not, of course, deny the existence or malign influence of racial prejudice, but he insisted that the fundamental cause of black poverty was based more in class culture than in skin color. It was important to distinguish, he said, between the historical and the continuing causes of black disadvantage.

Banfield marshaled a vast array of evidence to show that for most blacks conditions of life had improved across the board. But there remained, especially in the central cities of the nation, a significant minority whom progress had passed by. The problems within the black underclass (as it later came to be called) relating to crime, unemploy ment, poverty, and education stemmed less, Banfield said, from external discrimination or indifference than from a dys functional way of life endemic among lower-class people everywhere.

He cited an earlier sociological study of white lower-class behavior—A. B. Hollingshead’s Elmtown’s Youth (1949)—to demonstrate his point. Banfield quoted Hollingshead at length to show that the behavior attributed ("more or less correctly") to lower-class whites—disrespect for law, disregard of the future, laziness, promiscuous sex, indifference to edu cation—and the disapproval of that behavior by the larger society had obvious correlates with the current situation of the black underclass and of attitudes toward it. The culprit in the situation was culture, not race, and cultural patterns of behavior were notoriously resistant to change through public policy. Improvement was possible, Banfield argued—especially through general economic expansion—but it could only be incremental and would mostly have to come from inside the black community itself.

The response to The Unheavenly City by liberals was instant and unforgiving: Banfield was "blaming the victim." For those who were persuaded that the essential, even the sole, black problem was white prejudice—and that that prejudice was so pervasive and over whelming in its effects as to leave poor blacks helpless to succeed in America so long as it persisted—reference to behavior patterns in the black community was but a diversion and an evasion. Racism was the problem, its elimination from the white psyche the only solution. In the meantime, amelioration would come for blacks only from "massive" govern ment programs of aid and support that might to some degree circumvent the all-devouring prejudice that doomed reliance on private initiatives, white or black, to inevitable failure.

The liberal response could not have surprised Banfield. Indeed, he had anticipated it. Among the causes of urban discontent, he said, was precisely the altruistic bias of middle-class opinion leaders, seized by the urge to "do something, do good." But, Banfield insisted, we cannot solve fundamental social problems simply by exertions of social will. It was unfortunate, he thought, that the old urban political machines had been supplanted by liberal caucuses. The smoke-filled room had been superseded by the talk-filled room, and too much of that talk consisted of unappeasable righteous indignation. The "moral shrillness" of liberal opinion, caught up in fantasies of transformations in the "hearts and minds of men," had weakened the consensual bonds of society—had, indeed, invited the urban outbursts that liberals now used to assault the nation’s conscience.

Banfield’s conclusion was mordant: "Faith in the perfectibility of man and confidence that good intentions together with strenuous exertions will hasten his progress onward and upward lead to bold programs that promise to do what no one knows how to do and what perhaps cannot be done, and therefore end in frustration, loss of mutual respect and trust, anger, and even coercion."

As this passage indicates, Banfield’s conservatism was rooted in a refusal of sentimentality and a resolute anti-utopianism. Having read him, I simply knew that he had urban policy right and the Kerner Commission had it wrong. He saw people and situations as they were, not as, were the world a different place than it is, they might be. Edward Banfield taught me (more precisely he reminded me) that the wisest social policy—and yes, the most compassionate—begins in an utter disdain for illusions. To do good we must be undeceived.