Musings on Moynihan
My father used to tell me about Daniel Patrick Moynihan. He took classes with him at the Harvard Ed School back in the 1970s, and always admired his concise advice about writing: “seek simplicity.” I’ve done my best to heed Moynihan’s suggestion, often sacrificing elegance in the process. Moynihan didn’t. As Hendrick Hertzberg notes, “Moynihan was first, last, and always, a writer.” He was elegant in his simplicity.
This came out in his teaching as much as his writing. My father also told of an incident when a Marxist student offered some objection in the name of the working class. Moynihan responded: “You snot-nosed scion of the upper-middle-class, what do YOU know of the working class?” He grew up a poor shoe-shine boy in New York City, and though he later became something of a dandy, he never forgot his roots.
My father also told me about Moynihan’s prodigious drinking. He was invited to a party at his professor’s house, and witnessed Moynihan down 6 pints of beer in an hour. Wanting to fit in, my father ordered the same alcoholic beverage as a fellow student, and after the liquor sickened his sensitive Jewish stomach, secretly poured the rest of it into a potted plant. Moynihan, for his part, kept downing drinks as if he had a hollow leg.
I don’t know if stories like these appear in the new collection of Moynihan’s letters described in the The New Yorker by Hertzberg. His most controversial ideas, however, are making a comeback. In 1965, he wrote “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” which later became known as “The Moynihan Report.” Scholars today criticize Moynihan for blaming the victim for their own “culture of poverty.” As Hertzberg correctly points out, “in truth, he had blamed the vicious legacy of slavery,” however shoddy his scholarship surrounding that “peculiar institution.”
Moreover, whether you believe that out-of-wedlock births are symptom or a cause of poverty, or in fact not causally related at all, they are unquestionably correlated, Moynihan was prescient in highlighting this correlation so early in the African American community.
A years earlier, he had co-authored a book, Beyond the Melting Pot, with Nathan Glazer (my father’s doctoral advisor). The book, which described the “Negroes, Puerto Ricans, Jews, Italians and Irish of New York City,” argued quite simply that culture matters in terms of socio-economic outcomes. Not that it’s the only thing that matters, or even necessarily that it’s the most important thing that matters, but it’s crucial enough to warrant significant study.
Though the New York Times was silly to proclaim that Moynihan’s ideas are making a “comeback”–in truth, they never left, particularly among conservatives–their recent article spawned this brilliant post from Ta-Nehisi Coates, reminding us that Moynihan’s legacy is important and worth discussing.