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The Tragedy of American Compassion.

The Tragedy of American Compassion. Marvin Olasky. Regnery Gateway, $21.95. Politicians invoke it. Urban dwellers suffer fatigue from it. Fundraising letters appeal to our sense of it. The eighties are scorned for lacking it. The term "compassion"- like "democracy" and "fatfree"--is gradually losing its meaning through overuse. Seeking to recover that meaning, Marvin Olasky, a professor of journalism at the University of Texas, traces our changing understanding of the concept from colonial days. "The word 'compassion,' which once had the power to compel action, is now merely a rhetorical device trotted out regularly by Republicans as well as Democrats," Olasky writes in his introduction. By recapturing the vision of an earlier era, when our concept of compassion "was not so corrupt,'' he believes, "many lives can be saved." It's an innovative idea, and Olasky's swipe at both political parties promises a clear-eyed, even-handed approach.

From the start, though, the warning flags of partisanship abound. In his acknowledgements, Olasky cites the Heritage Foundation (for providing financial support and a "stimulating research and writing environment"), Milton Friedman, and God, "who had compassion on me almost two decades ago and pushed me from darkness into light." The preface is by conservative scholar Charles Murray, who made a name for himself by attacking welfare mothers.

In the opening chapter, which discusses colonial attitudes toward chaffty, Olasky writes most approvingly of those with the most skinflinty of views. In 1698, we learn, Cotton Mather warned his congregation, "instead of exhorting you to augment your charity, I will rather utter an exhortation . . . that you may not abuse your charity by misapplying it." In the 18th century, volunteers distributing aid to the poor diligently checked the character and circumstances of each applicant to make sure that "alcoholism was not contributing to the general misery."

By the 19th century, however, relief groups tried to do "too much too fast" and did not "sufficiently discriminate between the needy and the lazy." 01asky points to one study showing that during the recession of 1873, more than half the money spent on soup kitchens in New York supported "reckless bums" and "imposters."

By the time it enters the 20th century, The Tragedy of American Compassion has become a neoconservative morality tale, full of liberal activists working to hijack the concept of compassion and twist it to their own ideological ends. Rather than distinguish between the deserving and undeserving poor, as did an earlier generation of relief workers, modern-day liberals promoted the idea that public assistance is a "right" to which all needy people should feel entitled, whatever the cause of their destitution.

Predictably, Olasky traces the change to the Great Society years, when "it became better to accept welfare than to take in laundry." It was a period, Olasky writes, when young men came to feel that "shining shoes was demeaning" and that accepting government subsidy was a way to keep one's "dignity."

Such conclusions only highlight the shallowness of Olasky's analysis. Noting, for example, that the nation's welfare caseload more than doubled between 1965 and 1974, Olasky refers to "studies" showing that "the size of the pool of eligible people did not change much during those years. The major change was that a much higher percentage of those who were eligible suddenly decided to take advantage of welfare benefits." This is a critical point, underlying Olasky's contention that it was a change in values, not socioeconomic conditions, that fueled the rise in welfarism in the sixties. Anyone curious about these "studies," though, will come away frustrated; Olasky cites them in neither the text nor the footnotes. Similarly, he refers to "officials" who "observed that a prime reason for the surge [in welfare cases] was a 'changing outlook among many poor and the near poor.' They had been taught by organizers that welfare is 'nothing to be ashamed of."' The source of this quote is a single 1970 article in the Newark Star Ledger--a slender reed indeed on which to support so sweeping an analysis.

Surveying the current scene, 01asky finds fault with the soup kitchens and shelters set up to help today's poor. In the book's most memorable passage, the author, seeking a "first-hand look at contemporary compassion toward the poor," decides to join the ranks of the homeless. He dons two dirty sweaters, removes his wedding ring, puts dirt on his hands, and walks "with the slow shuffle that characterizes the 40-year-old white homeless male." During his two days on the street, Olasky receives plenty of food and clothing. He comes away dissatisfied, however. Describing a breakfast at a Congregational church, he writes,

a sweet young volunteer kept putting food down in front of me and asking if I wanted more. Finally I asked, mumbling a bit, "Could I have a Bible?" Puzzled, she tried to figure out what I had said: "Do you want a bagel? A bag?" When I responded, "A Bible," she said, politely but firmly, "I'm son'y, we don't have any Bibles."

For Olasky, the sweet young volunteer embodies the false sense of compassion permeating modern America. By offering food indiscriminately to the worthy and unworthy homeless, she was only aggravating the problem. In Olasky's view, the reprobates, like alcoholics and drag addicts, should be made to take spiritual nourishment before being offered the physical kind.

Needless to say, the current welfare system has many flaws, among them the way it discourages two-parent families. And besides, the idea of differentiating between worthy and unworthy poor is an undeniably appealing one. In today's America, though, the distinction is completely meaningless. The inner-city resident who is beaten as a child and left unattended as a teenager; who drops out of school and joins a gang; who has no skills and hence can find no work; who lives in a garbage-strewn, ratinfested, violence-swept neighborhood; who, in his despair, turns to crack or cheap red wine and becomes dependent on these substances, until in the end he loses all his worldly goods and ends up sleeping in shelters-is this person worthy or unworthy of assistance? Olasky would place him squarely in the latter category and, consequently, deny him food and shelter--everything, in fact, but a Bible.

In its own way, The Tragedy of American Compassion is an illuminating book. The spectacle of its author sitting in his air-conditioned aerie at the Heritage Foundation while condemning soup kitchens for handing out too much food shows just how corrupt our notion of compassion has become.
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Author:Massing, Michael
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1992
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