'The Burden of Bad Ideas': Hear the joy of provocation

Tuesday's election holds the nation limply in its palm. Even the bulk of my most fervently Democratic and Republican pals find liberating glee in "cybersatirist" Bob Hirschfeld's observation that "It's hard to understand why Nader so strongly opposes Bush and Gore since he's been a big supporter of air bags."

The fact that vast legions of American voters find little policy distinction between the major-party candidates doesn't mean there're no doctrinal differences in the United States today. If you have the slightest doubt, I urge "The Burden of Bad Ideas: How Modern Intellectuals Misshape Our Society" by Heather MacDonald (Ivan Dee, 242 pages, $26).


This is a political book, a political subject. MacDonald, a nonpracticing lawyer and a fellow of the Manhattan Institute, is a true-believing conservative. She slashes with a flaming sword -- but a surgical one. Her reporting of details, her arraying of background and facts, are punctilious.

I spent more than seven years as editorial page editor of the New York Daily News, and longer in the same precinct at the Philadelphia Inquirer. I have done far too much reporting, editorializing, sermonizing, punditizing and refereeing candidates' debates on matters of public policy to have any illusions about persuading true believers. MacDonald takes no prisoners -- and may make no converts.


Fine. The great value of her book is to stake out a single, simple truth: There are profound doctrinal differences about the intents and results of the most important institutions of the United States -- and those differences are glossed over by most politicians.

This is not a rant. It is an informative, provocative exploration -- nourishing, I believe, even for one who stands on the opposite ideological end of things.

MacDonald has worked hard for more than five years. She has gone to teachers' college classrooms, welfare centers, homeless shelters, endless public hearings. She has trod much pavement and done vast interviews. "If you want to know how well social policies are working, I learned," she reports, "ask the poor -- when their advocates are not around."

For example, her examination of homelessness -- specifically in New York, where a good deal of her research took place -- is as revealing as it should be obvious. The problems that underlie the present-day phenomenon of homelessness are quite easily solvable -- but the advocacy culture is fighting more fiercely for the perpetuation of its own roles than for the homeless or their needs.

"Contemporary homeless policy is one of the odder expressions of utopian political fantasy since Rousseau famously denounced society as oppressive and corrupting," she writes. "Should the left ever lose interest in dramatizing the Rousseauian myth -- an unlikely event -- the homeless will disappear, removed to safer abodes."

The solutions are easy to comprehend, if difficult to implement. Vastly more housing is available than the hard-core homeless will even visit. There's plenty of food and other material help. Most sufferers pathetically need institutionalization.

"To me," MacDonald writes, going far beyond homelessness, "it seemed obvious that if you insulate people from the consequences of their own self-destructive behavior, you're going to get a whole lot more of it. It's obvious to the poor themselves, too. Only the elites don't get it. There are no harsher critics of the welfare system than the people within it."

That has been my experience as well, every time I have dug into such programs, especially in New York City, where a major increment of the Gross Municipal Product is pious hypocrisy.


MacDonald bemoans the fact that many of America's great philanthropic foundations have become factories of radical social engineering, often disrupting the stability and benevolence of American society. This is particular true, she charges, of the Ford, Rockefeller and Carnegie foundations.

Her report on Columbia University's Teachers College is masterful. "For over eighty years," she argues, "teacher education in America has been in the grip of an immutable dogma, responsible for endless educational nonsense. That dogma may be summed up in the phrase: Anything But Knowledge. Schools are about many things, teacher educators say (depending on the decade) -- self-actualization, following one's joy, social adjustment, or multicultural sensitivity -- but the one thing they are not about is knowledge."

In "Law School Humbug," she explores the phenomenon in law schools of critical race theory and feminist jurisprudence -- concepts that run counter to traditional constitutional principles.

Then there are the doctors. Citing case records and journal articles, she argues that substantial elements of the public health community have twisted the science of epidemiology into social engineering. Insisting, for example, that HIV and drug dependency and even rape are products of sexism and racism diverts genuine attention that could do great good.

Perhaps most maddeningly, her chapter "The Revisionist Lust: The Smithsonian Today" traces the takeover of that national institution by multiculturalism and political-theory dogma. The anecdotes are startling -- and fascinating. "The Institution has been transformed by a wholesale embrace of the worst elements of America's academic culture," she writes. "Short of a total housecleaning of the staff, there is little that can save the Smithsonian from being further engulfed by the poisonous trends of identity politics and postmodern theory."

Over all, in her passion, I believe MacDonald overstates the extent to which radical-left power has dominated some national institutions. But -- especially given the vacuousness of much of American political debate -- this is a startlingly valuable book, whether you lean left or right.