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08 July 2011

The Left's Blood Libel: Pope Pius XII Was Not "Hitler's Pope"

From the end of World War II until at least five years after his death, Pope Pius enjoyed an enviable reputation amongst Christians and Jews alike.  At the end of the war, Pius XII was hailed as "the inspired moral prophet of victory," and "enjoyed near-universal acclaim for aiding European Jews." 

Numerous Jewish leaders, including Albert Einstein, Israeli Prime Ministers Golda Meir and Moshe Sharett, and Chief Rabbi Isaac Herzog, expressed their public gratitude to Pius XII, praising him as a "righteous gentile," who had saved thousands of Jews during the Holocaust.  In his meticulously researched and comprehensive 1967 book, "Three Popes and the Jews," the Israeli historian and diplomat Pinchas Lapide, who had served as the Israeli Counsel General in Milan, and had spoken with many Italian Jewish Holocaust survivors who owed their life to Pius, provided the empirical basis for their gratitude, concluding that Pius XII "was instrumental in saving at least 700,000, but probably as many as 860,000 Jews from certain death at Nazi hands."  To this day, the Lapide volume remains the definitive work, by a Jewish scholar, on the subject.

The campaign of vilification against Pope Pius can be traced to the debut in Berlin in February 1963 of a play by a young, Protestant, left-wing West German writer and playwright, Rolf Hochhuth.  The Deputy, in which Hochhuth depicts Pacelli as a Nazi collaborator, guilty of moral cowardice and "silence" in the face of the Nazi onslaught, is a scathing indictment of Pope Pius XII's alleged indifferences to the plight of European Jewry during the Holocaust. 

"Being a lover of freedom, when the Nazi revolution came in Germany, I looked to the universities to defend it, knowing that they had always boasted of their devotion to the cause of truth; but, no, the universities immediately were silenced.  Then I looked to the great editors of the newspapers, whose flaming editorials in days gone by had proclaimed their love of freedom: but they, like the universities, were silenced in a few short weeks.  Only the Catholic Church stood squarely across the path of Hitler's campaign for suppressing the truth.  I never had any special interest in the Church before, but now I feel a great affection and admiration because the Church alone has had the courage and persistence to stand for intellectual truth and moral freedom.  I am forced thus to confess that what I once despised, I now praise unreservedly.” -  Albert Einstein

In 1943, Chaim Weizmann, who would become Israel's first president, wrote:

"...the Holy See is lending its powerful help wherever it can, to mitigate the fate of my persecuted co-religionists."

Moshe Sharett, who would become Israel's first Foreign Minister and second Prime Minister, reinforced these feelings of gratitude when he met with Pius in the closing days of World War II:

"I told him [the Pope] that my first duty was to thank him, and through him the Catholic Church, on behalf of the Jewish public for all they had done in the various countries to rescue Jews…We are deeply grateful to the Catholic Church."

In 1945, Rabbi Isaac Herzog, the Chief Rabbi of Israel, sent a message to Msgr. Angelo Roncalli (the future Pope John XXIII), expressing his gratitude for the actions taken by Pope Pius XII on behalf of the Jewish people:  "The people of Israel will never forget what His Holiness and his illustrious delegates, inspired by the eternal principles of religion, which form the foundation of true civilization, are doing for our unfortunate brothers and sisters in the most tragic hour of our history, which is living proof of Divine Providence in this world."

In September 1945, Dr. Leon Kubowitzky, the Secretary General of the World Jewish Congress, personally thanked the Pope in Rome for his interventions on behalf of Jews, and the World Jewish Congress donated 20,000 dollars to Vatican charities "in recognition of the work of the Holy See in rescuing Jews from Fascist and Nazi persecutions." 

Dr. Raffael Cantoni, head of the Italian Jewish community's wartime Jewish Assistance Committee, who would subsequently become the President of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, similarly expressed his gratitude to the Vatican, stating that "six million of my co-religionists have been murdered by the Nazis, but there could have been many more victims had it not been for the efficacious intervention of Pius XII."  On 5 April 1946, his Union of Italian Jewish Communities, meeting for the first time after the War, sent an official message of thanks to Pope Pius XII:

"The delegates of the Congress of the Italian Jewish Communities, held in Rome for the first time after the Liberation, feel that it is imperative to extend reverent homage to Your Holiness, and to express the most profound gratitude that animates all Jews for your fraternal humanity toward them during the years of persecution when their lives were endangered by Nazi-Fascist barbarism.  Many times priests suffered imprisonment and were sent to concentration camps, and offered their lives to assist Jews in every way.  This demonstration of goodness and charity that still animates the just, has served to lessen the shame and torture and sadness that afflicted millions of human beings."

 In 1955, when Italy celebrated the tenth anniversary of its liberation, the Union of Italian Jewish Communities proclaimed April 17 as a "Day of Gratitude" for the Pope's wartime assistance in defying the Nazis.  Dozens of Italian Catholics, including several priests and nuns, were awarded gold medals "for their outstanding rescue work during the Nazi terror."  

A few weeks later, on 26 May 1955, the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra flew to Rome to give a special performance of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, at the Vatican's Consistory Hall, to express the State of Israel's enduring gratitude for the help that the Pope and the Catholic Church had given to the Jewish people persecuted by the Nazis during the Holocaust.  That the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra so joined the rest of the Jewish world in warmly honoring the achievements and legacy of Pope Pius XII is of more than passing significance.   

As a matter of state policy, the Israeli Philharmonic has never played the music of the nineteenth century composer Richard Wagner because of Wagner's well-known reputation as an anti-Semite and as Hitler's "favorite composer," and as one of the cultural patron saints of the Third Reich, whose music was played at Nazi party functions and ceremonies.   Despite requests from music lovers and specialists, the official state ban on the Israeli Philharmonic's playing Wagner's music has never been lifted.   During the 1950's and 1960's, especially, a significant sector of the Israeli public, hundreds of thousands of whom were survivors of the Nazi concentration and death camps, still viewed his music, and even his name, as a symbol of the Hitler regime.  That being the case, it is inconceivable that the Israeli government would have paid the travel expenses for the entire Philharmonic to travel to Rome for a special concert to pay tribute to a church leader who was considered to have been "Hitler's Pope."   

On the contrary: The Israeli Philharmonic's historic and unprecedented visit to Rome to perform for Pius XII at the Vatican was a unique Jewish communal gesture of collective recognition and gratitude to a great world leader and friend of the Jewish people for his instrumental role in saving the lives of hundreds of thousands of Jews. 

On the day of Pius XII's death in 1958, Golda Meir, Israel's Foreign Minister, cabled the following message of condolence to the Vatican: "We share in the grief of humanity…When fearful martyrdom came to our people in the decade of Nazi terror, the voice of the Pope was raised for the victims.  The life of our times was enriched by a voice speaking out on the great moral truths above the tumult of daily conflict.  We mourn a great servant of peace."

Before beginning a concert of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, conductor Leonard Bernstein called for a minute of silence "for the passing of a very great man, Pope Pius XII."

Similar sentiments were expressed in the many tributes and eulogies for Pius by numerous rabbis and Jewish communal leaders, as well as by most of the Israeli press, several of whose readers suggested in open letters that a "Pope Pius XII Forest" be planted in the hills of Judea "in order to perpetuate fittingly the humane services rendered by the late pontiff to European Jewry."   

Joachim von Ribbentrop, German Foreign Minister, wrote to the German Ambassador to the Holy See:

“[T]here are signs that the Vatican is likely to renounce its traditional neutral attitude and take up a political position against Germany . You are to inform him (the Pope) that in that event Germany does not lack physical means of retaliation.”

The German Ambassador reported back to Ribbentrop:

“[H]e did not care what happened to himself, but that a struggle between Church and State could have only one outcome – the defeat of the State. I replied that I was of the contrary opinion….. an open battle could bring some very unpleasant surprises for the Church. … Pacelli (Pius XII) is no more sensible to threats than we are. In event of an open breach with us, he now calculates that some German Catholics will leave the Church but he is convinced that the majority will remain true to their Faith. And that the German Catholic clergy will screw up its courage, prepared for the greatest sacrifices.”

One Israeli Consul in Italy wrote at the end of the war:

"[T]he Catholic Church saved more Jewish lives during the war than all the other Churches, religious institutions and rescue organizations put together. Its record stands in startling contrast to the achievements of the International red Cross and the Western democracies… the Holy See, the Nuncios and the entire Catholic Church saved some 400,000 Jews from certain death.”

That the leading Jewish organisations knew the extent of Vatican protection afforded them is demonstrated in the letter of thanks from the Chief Rabbi Herzog to the Nuncio in Turkey and Greece (Mgr Roncalli, later Pope John XXIII), and from the American Jewish Welfare Board in July 1944 to the Pope. In a dramatic response the Chief Rabbi of Rome himself converted to Catholicism at the end of the war, taking the baptismal name “Eugenio” as a personal tribute.

In July 1943 the encyclical Mystici Corporis, Pius XII condemned the “legalised murder“ of the handicapped, insane and incurable.

In 1944 he intervened on behalf of Jewish victims directly with the Regent of Hungary, Horthy, having received direct information about the death camps from two.

Approximately half of the Jews in Rome were already being sheltered in ecclesiastical buildings, while many others escaped with Vatican papers (over three thousand Jews were hidden successfully, while one thousand deported and killed). 
On 19 January1940, at the Pope's instruction, Vatican radio and L'Osservatore Romano revealed to the world "the dreadful cruelties of uncivilised tyranny" that the Nazis were inflicting on Jewish and Catholic Poles.

The following week, the Jewish Advocate of Boston reported the Vatican radio broadcast, praising its "outspoken denunciation of German atrocities in Nazi [occupied] Poland, declaring they affronted the moral conscience of mankind."

In his 1940 Easter homily, Pius XII condemned the Nazi bombardment of defenseless citizens, aged and sick people, and innocent children.

On 11 May 1940, he publicly condemned the Nazi invasions of Belgium, Holland, and Luxembourg and lamented "a world poisoned by lies and disloyalty and wounded by excesses of violence."

In June 1942, Pius spoke out against the mass deportation of Jews from Nazi-occupied France, further instructing his Papal Nuncio in Paris to protest to Marshal Henri Petain, Vichy France's Chief of State, against "the inhuman arrests and deportations of Jews from the French occupied zone to Silesia and parts of Russia."

The London Times of 1 October 1942, explicitly praises him for his condemnation of Nazism and his public support for the Jewish victims of Nazi terror. "A study of the words which Pope Pius XII has addressed since his accession," noted the Times, "leaves no room for doubt. He condemns the worship of force and its concrete manifestations in the suppression of national liberties and in the persecution of the Jewish race."

Pius XII's Christmas addresses of 1941 and 1942, broadcast over Vatican radio to millions throughout the world, also help to refute the fallacious claim that Pope Pius was "silent."

The Pope's Christmas message of 1941, as reported by The New York Times and other newspapers, was understood at the time to be a clear condemnation of Nazi attacks on Europe's Jews.

So, too, was the Pope's Christmas message of the following year.

Pope Pius XII's widely-discussed Christmas message of 24 December 1942, in which he expressed his passionate concern "for those hundreds of thousands who, without any fault of their own, sometimes only by reason of their nationality or race, are marked down for death or progressive extinction," was widely understood to be a very public denunciation of the Nazi extermination of the Jews.

Indeed, the Nazis themselves interpreted the Pope's famous speech of Christmas 1942 as a clear condemnation of Nazism, and as a plea on behalf of Europe's Jews:

"His [the Pope's] speech is one long attack on everything we stand for…he is clearly speaking on behalf of the Jews…he is virtually accusing the German people of injustice toward the Jews, and makes himself the mouthpiece of the Jewish war criminals."

In his recent history of the modern papacy, Professor Eamon Duffy of Magdalen College, Oxford University, substantiates the fact, ignored by Pius' critics, that the Nazi leadership viewed the Pope's 1942 Christmas message as an attack on Nazi Germany and as a defense of the Jews. "Both Mussolini and Ambassador Ribbentrop were angered by this [the Pope's 24 December 1942] speech," notes Duffy, "and Germany considered that the Pope had abandoned any pretence of neutrality. They felt that Pius had unequivocally condemned Nazi action against the Jews."

During and for close to two decades after World War II, Jewish praise and gratitude for Pius XII's efforts on behalf of European Jewry were virtually unanimous.  Indeed, as Pinchas Lapide has so aptly stated: "No Pope in history has been thanked more heartily by Jews."   

Because of Pius XII's exemplary humanity toward European Jewry, no other Pope has earned such gratitude from the Jewish people.  

 In recent decades, new oral history centers have been established, to record and preserve the oral histories and personal testimonies of Jewish Holocaust survivors and their Catholic rescuers.  As a result, an impressive body of new oral history interviews, with Jewish Holocaust survivors and military chaplains, Catholic clergy and laity, in Italy and other countries of Nazi occupied Europe, have been conducted and transcribed.  These provide a new basis for understanding Pius XII's role in the Holocaust, and his relationship to Italy's Jews.  An invaluable archival resource, these provide the basis for the new Jewish understanding of Pius XII and the Holocaust that cries out to be written.  

The new and existing oral history testimony of Jewish leaders in Israel, Europe, and America, as well as that of Jewish chaplains and of numerous Jewish Holocaust survivors, bear elegant witness to the heroic and often forgotten role played by Pope Pius XII in sheltering and rescuing hundreds of thousands of Jews.  It is hard to imagine that so many of the world's greatest Jewish leaders, on several continents, were all misguided or mistaken in praising the Pope's wartime conduct.  Their enduring gratitude, as well as that of a generation of Holocaust survivors, to Pius XII was genuine and profound, and bespoke their sincere belief that he was one of the world's truly "righteous gentiles."  

The Talmud, the great sixth century compendium of Jewish religious law and ethics, teaches Jews that "whosoever preserves one life, it is accounted to him by Scripture as if he had preserved a whole world."  More so than most other twentieth century leaders, Pius XII effectively fulfilled this Talmudic dictum when the fate of European Jewry was at stake.  Pope Pius XII's legacy as a "righteous gentile," who rescued so many Jews from Hitler's death camps cannot and should not be forgotten.  Nor should the fact that the Jewish community, and so many of its leaders, praised the Pope's efforts during and after the Holocaust, and promised never to forget.  

These points are especially significant in evaluating Pope Pius XII's enduring legacy for twentieth, and twenty-first, century Jews.  It needs to be remembered, as noted earlier, that no other Pope in history has been so universally praised by Jews.  So, too, the compelling reason for this unprecedented Jewish praise for, and gratitude to, a Pope needs to be better remembered than it has been in recent years: Today, more than fifty years after the Holocaust, it needs to be more widely recognized and appreciated that Pius XII was indeed a very "righteous gentile," a true friend of the Jewish people, who saved more Jewish lives than any other person, including Raoul Wallenberg and Oskar Schindler.  

 A new authentically Jewish history of Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust, emphasising his historic role and accomplishments as a "righteous gentile," may help to bring some long-overdue recognition to his too little known and appreciated legacy as one of the century's great friends of the Jewish people.

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07 July 2011

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06 July 2011

The Shame of the Cities and the Shade of LBJ

President Lyndon Johnson and the “best and the brightest” who staffed his administration led this country into three quagmires.  By far the most famous, but perhaps not the most expensive and dangerous resulted from LBJ’s escalation of the Vietnam War.  More than 50,000 Americans and many more Vietnamese died as a result of that policy; our country was bitterly divided in ways that still weaken us today, and the economic cost of the war was immense.  It contributed to the wave of inflation that shook the country in the 1970s and in addition to the interest on the debt from this ill-starred venture we are still paying (as we certainly should) pensions and medical costs for the vets and their spouses.

The Second Great Johnson Quagmire now destroying the nation is the Medicare/Medicaid complex.

These entitlement programs are the biggest single financial problem we face.  They dwarf all the Bush-Obama wars; they make TARP look like small change.  They not only cost money we don’t have — and are scheduled to cost inexorably more until they literally ruin the nation — they have distorted our entire health system into the world’s most bloated and expensive monstrosity.  Thanks to these programs, we have a health system that marries the greed of the private sector to the ineptitude of government, and unless we can somehow tame these beasts America and everything it stands for could be lost. (Note, please, that by comparison Social Security can be relatively easily reformed to be solvent for the next 75 years.  The New Deal, whatever its shortcomings, was almost infinitely more realistic and sustainable than the Great Society.)

But that is a subject for another day.  The third Johnson Quagmire is the War on Poverty, and specifically the attempt to treat inner city poverty primarily as a racial problem.  After the Medicare/Medicaid catastrophe the single greatest policy failure of modern America is urban policy.  Since the Great Society era of Lyndon Johnson, the country has poured hundreds of billions of dollars into poor urban neighborhoods.  The violence and crime generated in these neighborhoods costs hundreds of billions more.  And after all this time, all this money and all this energy, the inner city populations are worse off than before.  There is more drug addiction and more social and family breakdown among this population than when the Great Society was launched.  Incarceration rates have risen to levels that shock the world (though they make for safer streets); the inner city abortion rate has reached levels that must surely appall even the most resolute pro-choicers not on the Planned Parenthood payroll.  Forty percent of all pregnancies in New York end in abortion, with higher rates among Blacks; nationally, the rate among Blacks is three times the rate among white women.  Put it all together and you have a holocaust of youth and hope on a scale hard to match.

This is not a lot to show for almost fifty years of fighting poverty — not a lot of bang for the buck.
We need to do better.  The state of the American inner city is an unacceptable human tragedy, and the costs in money spent and prosperity forfeited create an unsustainable drag on the national economy at a time when we need all the help we can get.

There is more.  Those neighborhoods — and the prisons in which so many young urban men spend large chunks of their lives — threaten the peace and security of the country as a whole.  Extremist cults, some domestically based and others relying on foreign money and enthusiasm, fish in these troubled waters for souls, and sometimes they catch a few.  This could turn ugly.  An old friend who has spent much of his life fighting violence and extremism in the inner city puts the danger like this: think about “The Wire” and think about all the talent, ingenuity and training that goes into the drug gangs.  Think about their ability to operate in defiance of the police, think about their connections with international crime and the amount of money they can raise.

Now think about what life would be like in this country if the leaders of those groups embraced violent religious extremism and sought, as many have done overseas, to finance a terror campaign through drug money.

This is, I believe, a serious threat down the road; there are already a few early warning signs and while we should not be stampeded into panic about them, the situation is one to watch with concern.  Where there is no real hope, people clutch at straws — and on present trends conditions in the inner cities are likely to get significantly worse.  Bad and dysfunctional as the remaining Great Society programs are, we are entering an era of government budget cutting.  Given the power that unions, middle class and elite lobbies have, inner city residents stand to take a disproportionate share of any cuts.  If it’s a choice between helping poor children in the inner city or paying inflated pensions to retired union workers, where will the politicians come down?

The Great Society legacy is not all bad.  The voting rights legislation and the affirmative action programs introduced at that time helped a solid African-American middle class to expand.  Increasingly, the country now has second and third generations of African-American families who have college educations and who are represented at all levels of business, the professions, politics and the arts.

Not that the Great Society deserves as much credit as its backers like to claim.  Most of African-American progress since 1965 is due to the dogged hard work of people determined to change their own lives.  Government action did play a role, but clearly racial attitudes in the United States have dramatically changed, perhaps especially so among conservatives.  When conservative Republicans whose parents were Dixiecrat segregationists cheering on Lester Maddox now swoon at the rhetoric of Herman Cain, give standing ovations to Condoleezza Rice, write angry letters to editors when liberal journalists attack Clarence Thomas and elect an African American Republican to the House of Representatives from Charleston, SC, we must recognize that something has changed.

In any case, the Johnson-era approach to urban poverty was largely predicated on the idea that our urban problems were a race and justice problem.  Discrimination in housing, jobs and education had created the “ghetto”; ending those practices, compensating for them through affirmative action and providing infusions of cash to jump start urban investment and “renew” down at heels urban neighborhoods would win the war on urban poverty.

To the extent these ideas and the policies they inspired had merit, things got better.  The middle class grew and many African Americans moved out of segregated neighborhoods and public housing projects into the suburbs.  But this wasn’t the whole story, and even as Great Society era programs worked for some, conditions in the inner cities worsened for many who remained.

The result is the urban quagmire in which we now find ourselves.  We are spending massive amounts of money and conditions are getting worse.  Liberals recognize this as a problem in Afghanistan; they are more reluctant to see it in St. Louis — but it is true.  What we are doing now isn’t working and while some of the reforms being tried (especially in education and perhaps also new ways of handling drug issues) offer promise, there is no light at the end of the urban tunnel.

The urban quagmire into which the Johnson administration (blue thought at its zenith) led the United States reflects a massive intellectual failure.  We still have racial problems in this country, but the urban problem at its core about much more than race.  To think clearly about the inner cities, we are going to have learn to think less racially — to for example learn to think about our inner city problem as if most of the urban poor were white.

Inner Cities in Context

The first step is to put the African-American presence in the cities in historical context.  The Great Migration of African-Americans from southern farms to northern cities was one of many such movements in the modern era.  For hundreds of years now, changes in agriculture have been sending people from the countryside into the city.  The rising productivity of agricultural workers, the growing concentration of land ownership in the hands of well-capitalized large proprietors and the mechanization of farm work meant that peasants have been leaving the field for the city all over the world.

The African American urban migration was one of these mass movements of population.  It was not unlike waves of migration to the US from much of Europe; farmers and farm workers were either pushed off the land or drawn to the possibilities of urban life and many of them came to America’s burgeoning cities in search of better lives.  As cotton culture was mechanized and sharecropping gave way to large estates directly worked by the owner, millions of African-Americans streamed to northern cities between 1910 and the 1960s  just as Italians, Greeks, Russians, Poles and Jews had done between the Civil War and the immigration restrictions of the 1920s.

We are, incidentally, seeing many more Great Migrations today: in North America we have rural Mexicans and Central Americans are streaming into cities in Mexico and across the US.  The Turkish migration into Germany followed this pattern; much of the North African migration to western Europe and the internal Chinese migration from country to city is of this kind as well.  Rural migrants are swelling the population of African cities from Capetown to Cairo; they are filling the cities of South and Central Asia.  Globally we are in the middle of a Great Migration that sometime in this century will put a majority of the world’s population into cities for the first time ever.

Historically, cities were tough places to move to.  Back in the eighteenth century and in most of the nineteenth, mortality rates were often higher and in many cases much higher in cities than in rural areas.

Sanitation was primitive; food transport was slow and uncertain and refrigeration did not exist.  Social safety nets were porous and weak.  The cities were regularly scourged by disease and fire.  Urban populations tended to shrink in those years if not continually renewed by fresh migrants from the countryside.

Economically and culturally it wasn’t easy, either.  Back in the country, young people (the bulk of the migrants then and now) were integrated into strong social patterns.  They were mostly honest and hardworking.  There were relatively few opportunities for the sons and daughters of poor peasants and laborers to be anything else.

When they got to the city, there were no strong extended family networks to provide a social safety net in bad times — or to enforce social discipline and healthy habits in good ones.  Cities, classically, have more temptations than the country does — that is one reason adventurous young people in particular like to move to them.  With no social safety net, no public health and no support system, many migrants became statistics on the urban mortality rolls.  Drinking badly made gin, eating poorly preserved and often contaminated food, and living in unsanitary neighborhoods was not a recipe for longevity. Throw in venereal disease in an era that knew very little about prevention or treatment, and it is easy to understand why cities needed constant replenishment from the countryside.

The old urban migration was a kind of Darwinian test.  Migrants had to maintain their social discipline and sharply limit their indulgences in the dangerous but alluring diversions of urban life.  Failing to do that meant an early and often very unpleasant death.

The growing European cities of the eighteenth and early to mid-nineteenth century had what Marx called a lumpenproletariat of deracinated residents who had lost their footing in the country but been unable to establish themselves on steady terms in the city.  They were the petty thieves, prostitutes and hustlers of the day — the pages of Dickens are full of them.  Their numbers tended to grow as the pace of urbanization sped up, but epidemics and hunger continued to take their toll.

Beginning in the nineteenth century and continuing through to the present day, urban demography changed.  Mortality rates in cities dropped as people grew to understand the importance of clean water, learned how to fight or prevent infectious disease and the quality of the food supply dramatically improved.  Add the provision of a social safety net and the conditions existed for what we have seen: the development of a cycle of urban poverty spanning many generations.

When the Great Migration of rural African-Americans came north, beginning around World War One, they were more like the Mexican immigrants of today than like a Marxist lumpenproletariat.  By and large they were hard working and clean living people who were willing and able to work at sometimes backbreaking jobs to provide for their families.  Despite the corrosive effect that slavery had on family ties and despite the inevitable strains that great poverty places on family life, African American family ties were much stronger then than they are in today’s inner city.

Many African Americans established themselves in urban middle class communities; Harlem and Queens (this most glamorous and cosmopolitan of New York boroughs included Jackie Robinson, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and Malcolm X among its residents) contained vibrant, exciting and safe neighborhoods.  Schools often worked much better than many do now; the social infrastructure of African-American neighborhoods was comparable and in some cases stronger than in other neighborhoods of recent urban immigrants from around the world.

Over time, two trends appear in such neighborhoods.  Some residents (luckier or more talented) establish secure lives in the urban economy.  Over time they tend to move away from the old neighborhoods to less crowded parts of the city and to the suburbs.  Those who do not for whatever reason make this transition successfully begin to lose the inherited culture and discipline of the country.  In the old days a high mortality (and high infant mortality) rate would limit this population.  These days, though abortion, violence, drug addiction and crime take a toll, the modern scourges are less effective than the older ones and many more people survive physically in the city while failing to find secure livelihoods there.  As one dysfunctional generation gives rise to another, inherited social structures weaken further, and we see what we see.

African Americans formed the first nucleus of what is likely to be an ongoing underclass not so much because of their skin color (though with many craft unions and employers holding to white only hiring practices discrimination had an effect) as because of their timing.  African Americans were the last wave of migrants to hit the American industrial belt; while the 1920s immigration laws cut the flow of European immigrants to a trickle, the African American influx continued into the years when American factory employment stagnated and then began its (so far) inexorable decline. Black America showed up for the party just as the bar was closing down.

Many African Americans transitioned to the modern economy.  Even as factories stopped taking on new workers and laying off old ones, African Americans went to college in record numbers.  Like second and third generation European migrants to city life before them, they found middle class jobs on police forces, in schools, in fire departments, sanitation departments and in the civil service.  Some pursued military careers and others went into business, finance, politics and law.

A critical mass, however, did not make the adjustment in time.  Early generations of American immigrants headed quickly from the cities onto family farms up through the Civil War; from the Civil War through the Vietnam era the factories provided a bridge into the middle class.  For the last forty years that avenue has been closed; new waves of immigrants have been forced to find new paths into the middle class.  For some, it is proving difficult, and we have already seen the signs of social and family breakdown and a growing gang culture among some newer immigrant groups.

Once a community has reached the levels of dysfunction and defeat that characterizes the third, fourth and fifth generations of the modern American underclass, conventional social programs no longer work particularly well.  Affirmative action does not help a thirty year old illiterate with a drug habit get a job.

The most dedicated teachers in the best schools cannot compensate for the lack of basic parenting at home.  A community of young men who have never known a father’s care or even seen a father caring for a family cannot be prepared for adult life by anything the government can do.

There are no magic solutions to problems this deeply rooted, but we are going to dispel the shadow of LBJ from our urban policy and find new approaches to urban problems that break with the core assumptions of the catastrophically wrongheaded ‘best and the brightest’ of the 1960s.  Thinking less racially about urban problems is part of the answer; in future posts I will make more suggestions.  This is a complicated subject and clear answers are not easy to find; I will be looking to responses from readers to help me figure things out.

Beyond The Big City Blues

In my last post, I argued that we need to stop thinking about our inner city problems so heavily in terms of race.  Racial problems in the US contributed to the particular history of the urban underclass and race can never be totally ignored in this country, but the inner city today is haunted by three serious problems, none of which is racial in nature: a lack of jobs, an advanced state of social disintegration and decay, and the presence of the illegal drug industry.

There are no silver bullets for any of these problems; they were built up over many decades and progress at dismantling them will likely be measured on the same timescale.  There are also no hundred percent solutions to these problems; when Jesus said that the poor will always be with us, he knew what he was talking about.

Government is inevitably going to be part of the solution for these problems — if only by correcting so many of the misguided policies that in many cases make existing conditions worse.  Drug policy and prison reform are inevitable parts of addressing inner city problems; the government’s role as the provider of medical services to the poor, and especially to poor children, should not go away.

But even as we work on getting the government side of the equation right we need to realize that many of the most pressing problems of the inner city cannot be solved by the government.  We can find ways to decriminalize drugs and to reform the legal system so that fewer young people are incarcerated for long periods for non-violent offenses — but government cannot mend broken homes or put addicts in touch with a higher power able not only to ease their craving for drugs but to help them rebuild their lives.  

Government cannot take a nine year-old child who has never seen a healthy family and give the child the kind of psychological balance and strength children get from growing up in a loving and stable home.  All the social workers in the world can’t fix this stuff.

What goes on in some of these families and communities after generations of breakdown and decay needs a kind of healing and care that government programs can’t provide — especially in a country like ours that for good and valid reasons has chosen to separate church and state.  Some demons only come out with fasting and prayer, and the US government isn’t much good at either one.

Additionally, some of the government action required to change the inner cities is almost exactly the opposite of what urban advocates have historically supported.  Blue model policies and their consequences often contribute to the problems of the inner city.  Helping those cities often will require wrenching change in the way government works and in the assumptions behind government programs.

The one real policy success in many inner city neighborhoods in recent decades has been the restoration of some measure of safety and security by better police work.  Thanks to smarter and faster law enforcement, the lives and property of the innocent and the weak are safer than they used to be.  To get to that point, thinking and policy had to change.  Some of these changes (like bringing more African-Americans onto the police force and improving relations between the police and community leaders) appealed to the left.  Others, like having cops spend more time patrolling on foot or using computers to track crime so that police resources could be concentrated where they were needed most, were just common sense.  Others involved ideas from conservatives — like the idea that personal security is a civil right and that aggressive law enforcement in poor neighborhoods is a good thing.  Government had an important role to play, but it could not play that role until the paradigm shifted, and government thought about its responsibilities in a new way.

To go beyond this success (and to get around some of its consequences including the very high incarceration rate of young Black men) we are going to need new thinking in a variety of fields.  Stagnant ideas from the last century — some liberal, some conservative, some middle of the road — need to change.

Take economic development.

Currently, America’s largest cities are failing at the number one task that can help the inner cities: creating jobs.  Between April 2001 and April 2011, Chicago, New York and Los Angeles lost more than 668,000 private sector jobs.  Unless that changes and changes dramatically, our inner cities will continue to decay and millions of lives will be unnecessarily blighted.  Worse, the millions of new immigrants now streaming into our cities in the latest Great Migration will form the nucleus of a new and larger underclass that could haunt this country for the next one hundred years.

The first and most important precondition for returning health to poor urban neighborhoods is the creation of large numbers of private sector jobs that relatively unskilled people can do.  These jobs are unlikely to be in large scale manufacturing plants.  The days when domestic manufacturing anchored an emerging urban working class and provided a ladder into the middle class are as dead as the days when family farms gave the majority of the American people secure livelihoods.

The idea that manufacturing will return and save us is, I fear, a snare and a delusion.   The road is closed.  Foreign competition is part of the story, but technology is the real driver.  As factories become more automated, you can make more and fancier stuff with fewer people.  Ending free trade will wreck our economy and the world economy, put the world on the road to World War Three and give a boost to the robotics industry, but it won’t bring back the days of high wage unionized manufacturing labor in the United States.

Generally speaking, manufacturing employment is going to shrink in the US over the medium to long term and large factories for big employers will be shedding workers as they update their technology rather than hiring.  GM and GE will not propel the next generation of Americans into the middle class.

So where will the jobs come from?

Answer: if they come at all they will come from small business and many of these jobs will not be particularly attractive.

Smokestacks from a wartime production plant (Wikimedia)
Businesses that hire low skilled workers without much experience or with checkered work histories are often smelly and noxious.  They are unlikely to pay particularly well.  There will be lots of casual day labor involved with not many benefits — and perhaps little information sent to the IRS.  Casual construction work and small repair shops where people bang metal and use power tools all day long are the kinds of employers we need in the inner city.  Working conditions are not always great — and these industries do not always attract the most humanitarian and generous people on earth.  The factories that hired illiterate and unskilled urban workers 100 years ago were offensive from many points of view;  they did, however, actually hire those workers and put tens of millions of people on the thorny, difficult and uphill path toward middle class life.

Think of the path to successful middle class living as a ladder; the lower rungs on that ladder are not nice places to be, but if those rungs don’t exist, nobody can climb.  When politicians talk about creating jobs, they always talk about creating “good” jobs.  That is all very well, but unless there are bad jobs and lots of them, people in the inner cities will have a hard time getting on the ladder at all, much less climbing into the middle class.

Many sensitive and idealistic people in our society work very hard to keep from connecting these dots and admitting to themselves that bad jobs are something we need. Quacks abound promising us alternatives (“green jobs” is the latest fashionable delusion), but ugly problems rarely have pretty solutions.  We need entry level jobs that will get people into the workforce, and we need ways that they can learn useful skills at affordable prices that will help them climb the ladder and move on.

To get these jobs, we have to change the way our cities work.  Essentially, we have created urban environments in which the kind of enterprises that often hire the poor — low margin, poorly capitalized, noisy, smelly, dirty, informally managed without a long paper trail — can’t exist.  The kind of metal bashing repair shops that fill the cities of the developing world are almost impossible to operate here. 

Plumbers, carpenters, electricians, pushcart vendors and day care operators need licenses; construction work has to comply with elaborate guidelines and city bureaucracies disgorge the required permits slowly and reluctantly.

I know of a day care center here in our ultra-glamorous borough of Queens that wanted to expand the services it provided to mostly low income families.  To do that the center needed to use a church basement.  The last I heard the staff had been trying for several years to get a definitive answer out of the city bureaucracy about whether this would be possible and under what conditions.  They had hired  an “expediter” (a person who specializes in getting New York City bureaucrats to act slightly less slothfully than usual) for a cost they could not afford and still had no answer.

As a member of a coop board I have learned that the building I live in frequently spends months and even years simply trying to get questions answered from the city about how to proceed with needed repairs. 

Rich people and established businesses can survive this kind of thing; small businesses with no capital cushion and untrained, perhaps poorly educated proprietors cannot — but these are the only people who can generate the jobs the urban poor so desperately need.

The combination of a tangled thicket of regulations that interact with one another in unpredictable ways and a bureaucracy that for whatever reasons cannot manage the process in a timely way is a massive job killer.  The number of small enterprises that have not started, of small businesses that have given up on expansions or on simple repair jobs deferred is incalculable but large.  Our cities are strangling themselves in red tape; we need to a better job of balancing the legitimate need for safety and health regulation with the need to promote enterprise and the kind of jobs that our fellow citizens can actually get.

Changing the way cities work matters a lot. If we want new businesses and new jobs in our inner cities, we are going to have to declare war on the cost structures of cities like New York and Chicago.  The tax load must come down drastically, implying both a reduction in government activities and a revolution in the way services are provided.  The forest of regulations that makes everything from opening a new business to repairing a building complex and expensive must be dramatically thinned.  If we are serious about creating conditions in which workers with poor skills can make a living inside great cities, we have to move away from regulations and practices which make it prohibitively expensive to do business there.

When you travel around the world one thing you notice is that very often the worst countries in the world are the hardest to get into.  Try getting visas for North Korea or Myanmar.  Many of our cities act exactly like this: they are not very good places to do business — and they make you fill out pages of applications and wade through oceans of red tape before they will let you in.

The process of debating and evaluating regulations in our society is broken.  We do not measure the full costs in lives blighted and hopes denied when employment dries up in poor neighborhoods and regions.  

This imbalance in our measuring system needs to change.  Just as ecologists look at the externalities of factories and power generation, we need to measure the externalities of regulation: who pays for the cumbersome set of overlapping and usually illogical regulations that hamper business (and small business especially) in urban areas?  Who benefits?  Is this decent and fair and is it really what we want?

The air on the Upper West Side is sweet, and the fish are returning to the Hudson River.  I am glad.  The Hudson is now said to be safe for swimming; I plan to take a dip one of these days up by my rural retreat in the glamorous Dutchess County hunt country.  But in New York City, throughout the Hudson River watershed and across the Erie Canal to Buffalo, large inner city populations have had their futures killed.  The blue social model of high regulation, high cost economies is strangling America’s cities and wrecking the hopes of the poor.

The Hudson River from Bear Mountain Bridge (Wikimedia)
The bien-pensant gentry politics that dominates political discussion in respectable circles has lost touch with the realities of American life and no longer really comprehends the issues at stake.  To some degree this impoverished policy conversation reflects the declining financial and intellectual firepower of the private sector labor movement — itself a consequence of the automation driven transformation of American and world manufacturing.  The “clean” wing of progressive politics has almost entirely driven the “smokestack” wing out of business, so that liberal policy discussions tend to revolve around quality of life issues primarily of interest to the upper middle class.

Adding to this problem is the capture of Democratic party power by the producers of government services as opposed to the (intended) beneficiaries.  From New England to California we are witnessing a series of bitter battles that pit the interests of public sector employees against the interests of those who depend on the services government provides: teachers’ unions versus schoolchildren, healthcare providers versus patients and so on.  Because public sector workers are among the best organized and most voluble constituency groups and poor people are among the least organized, the balance of benefit in many government activities has shifted over time to the deliverers.

“Progressive” policy now increasingly means policy that benefits genteel upper middle class liberals and public sector government workers; the resulting mix of complex and poorly applied regulations, high costs and high taxes throttles the only kind of job creation that could offer most inner city residents a feasible step up.

The answer is not a return to the sweatshops of the early twentieth century or to the rampant pollution of the past.  The answer is a reconfiguration of government and a new commitment to rapid economic growth in our cities.  Cities once prospered because they were the places where entrepreneurs found the best opportunities.  Writers like Joel Kotkin have been exploring these ideas for some time and looking at ways in which cities, suburbs and exurbs can grow faster.

Kotkin grasps the most important facts about urban development today: without rapid, small business led growth, there is no way that the residents of our inner cities can escape the cycle of poverty that has them in its grip.  And progressive blue politics as conventionally understood systematically squeeze and crush growth in our cities.  The bluer a city, the bluer a state, the fewer private sector jobs it tends to create.

Until our urban leaders grasp these truths, conditions in the inner city will continue to go downhill as more and more cities start to look more and more like Detroit.

None of this will help the underclass; none of this will help the poor.