Commentary Magazine


Is the Urban Crisis Real?

The following exchange was occasioned by Irving Kristol’s “Urban Civilization & Its Discontents” which appeared in July. 

In an essay, “Common Sense about the ‘Urban Crisis’” (Fortune, October 1967), Irving Kristol, reviewing the work of a group of scholars, most of them at Harvard and MIT, praised them for their “tough-minded skepticism” toward the familiar “urban crisis.” Mr. Kristol was at pains then, and since, in his capacity as co-editor of the quarterly, the Public Interest, to debunk the crisis syndrome as a way of perceiving problems and to point out the importance and utility of attending to the realities of how public problems are or can be solved by the application of intelligence, power, money, and effective organization. Each issue of the Public Interest has contained an estimable article of this kind, such as Larry E. Ruff’s “The Economic Common Sense of Pollution” in the Spring 1970 number.

The “common sense” promoted by Mr. Kristol is a way of perceiving the nature of “problems” facing a democratic society that emphasizes “fact” as being closely related to the ordinary experience of individual citizens and their elected officials and holding generalization and public policy strictly accountable to it. Mr. Kristol was eager to indicate, in 1967, that when such facts are discerned, it will be seen that housing and transportation services, for instance, are actually better now for most urban citizens than in the past; in discussing this matter, he said pointedly, one should take care to separate fact from fancy.

How surprising, therefore, to find that in “Urban Civilization & Its Discontents” Irving Kristol has apparently abandoned once-solid ground and taken flight, so to speak, discovering in his new airy realm that not only is the “urban crisis” real but that it derives, au fond, from a lack of morals and civic virtue. Can this be the same Irving Kristol who sought to demonstrate that the “urban crisis” was an insubstantial construct (he called the term a “euphemism” in Fortune) based largely on fear (particularly of Negroes) and imprecision in public discussion and debate? Can actuality have changed that much in a mere flicker of historical time, or is Mr. Kristol’s effort at the higher mysticism indicative of a change of heart which in and of itself has significance? If so, what does it portend?

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That a remarkable change has occurred, Mr. Kristol leaves no doubt. If his writings have borne any lesson, it is that “issues that divide” people in a democracy are resolved through the ballot box and occasionally by force—a process that has little to do with ideas, including what Mr. Kristol now declares to be the “idea” of democracy. I am dubious of Mr. Kristol’s present effort to make the “idea” of democracy as important as he now thinks it is. Let it be recalled that it was the practice of democracy that, prior to the Civil War, was considered compatible with slavery, just as it was also considered compatible with a limited suffrage and a great many other matters now regarded as inhumane or unfair.

The genius of American democracy is precisely its aversion to idealization, its capacity to make manifest its nature over time in definition and redefinition that enhances both it and the people who practice it. Mr. Kristol, I fear, has the relationships reversed: it is not the “precise meaning of the democratic dogma [that] can have the most material bearing on the kind of society we live in and the ways in which we live in it,” but the other way around; it is life as it is lived in America that gives meaning to the dogma and from which any attempt to define it must proceed. Ideas in action, not action interpreted in the light of ideas—that is the formula. A complex one, to be sure, but it can be deciphered without running the risk of anti-intellectualism as, I believe, Charles Frankel proves in his superb essay, The Democratic Prospect (Harper & Row, 1962). There is no precise meaning to democracy as an “idea,” and to suggest that there is one waiting to be discovered by those with the proper qualifications or perceptions is merely to give comfort to the new moralists of the Right and Left, who will have us believe that their transcriptions of the Ideal are the only true ones, while the rest of us must struggle as best we can with our severely tested faith in the democratic process.

No one, I think, can dispute Mr. Kristol’s description of the civic virtues and public morality required of a democracy in good working order: self-reliant citizens who know their own interests and how to act on them through self-interest politics in behalf of larger interests we often call “the public interest,” or the arrangements as described by Mr. Kristol through which those interests are defined and resolved, such as a political system in which power is widely diffused. Mr. Kristol’s effort to promote acceptance of the human and public characteristics required is laudable. But I doubt if it is necessary to attach such characteristics to an older America and see contemporary society as a “new” one in which the “old” values are no longer operative or dominant and no longer relevant to the new society’s main concerns.

Mr. Kristol calls his new society into being with such ease that one is constrained to protest. “The causes of this transformation,” he writes, “are so obvious as to need no elaboration: one can simply refer in passing to the advent of the mass media and of mass higher education, and there isn’t much more that needs to be said.” I’m afraid there is a great deal more that needs to be said. By whatever name—Kristol’s is “urban civilization”—the notion of a mass society is repugnant, and to invoke the mass society at a time when, in actuality, American society is be-coming more highly diverse only serves to score a weak argumental point. If something called “higher education” is indeed a mass phenomenon now, I would glory in the fact; my own experience tells me that what Mr. Kristol apparently means by the phrase “mass higher education” is as variegated as “the mass media,” and getting more so every day.

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Mr. Kristol’s main concern, however, would seem to be that most enlightened Americans today are behaving irrationally on matters of public interest, or, as he puts it, like an urban “mob.” But what is his evidence? “The ways in which various strata of our citizenry,” he writes, “are beginning to behave like a bourgeois urban mob are familiar to anyone who reads his newspaper, and I do not propose to elaborate upon them.” I am afraid that elaboration is precisely what is required here too. Certainly Mr. Kristol cannot seriously mean that we are to take that extremely rarefied translation of reality, the daily newspaper (or the TV news show), as so substantial a mirror of society that it tells us more than what is the conventional wisdom of some editors at the moment? Only by making this ludicrous assumption can one state that there is “an apparent incapacity of our democratic and urban civilization to come to grips with the problems” we face. The editors of the New York Times may think that they are founts of wisdom and purveyors of “the record,” but of all the people I can imagine who take such claims at face value, Irving Kristol would be one of the last. His reliance on such flimsy evidence strikes me as a mere negative conceit.

What Mr. Kristol does illuminate, however, is the mounting concern of many intelligent observers of contemporary events over the irrationality of the discussion of public affairs that one does indeed find in the mass media. I refer to the ever increasing politicization that has come to infect life and art—a condition that can be most unnerving, as George P. Elliott has so strikingly set forth in a personal memoir in, of all places, the Public Interest (“Revolution Instead—Notes on Passions and Politics,” Summer 1970). Anyone contemplating the explosive impact of the modern sensibility of the absurd and its corrosive view of bourgeois traditions and pieties must have some unsteady moments; but I question whether fear is the proper response to Mr. Kristol’s confusion between art and life, a distinction between reality as it is lived by most Americans and the more evanescent portrayal of it in the media or by assorted professional observers. Is the “crisis” all that bad, or is it made to seem so only by taking a much too narrow and self-regarding (i.e., an intellectual) view of affairs? The George Washington Bridge, the great interstate highways, television commercials are, after all, just as much the artful products of a democratic society as those works their creators call “art” and which professional observers thereof tell us is art. That does not make it so, however, although taking a more inclusive view requires a more robust faith in the workings of a democratic society and a more expansive feel for possibilities than that which Mr. Kristol evinces.

Is not Mr. Kristol making too much of what he sees as the confusion of intellectuals and rendering their confusion ours? He observes with some horror that among “the most thoughtful” there is a sore perplexity; that “among our political scientists,” for example, there is great “uncertainty” over such matters as the proper organization of cities and that “our ideas about our cities are as unsettled and as uneasy as the cities themselves.” But cities have always been “unsettled,” and in all likelihood, a third-generation American, circa 1900, moving to “uptown” Manhattan to escape the swarming immigrants, was no less despairing of New York than many present-day residents. And since when were ideas of political scientists about cities so important? Anyone with a working knowledge of the output of such experts—and here I claim some professional expertise—must be impressed by the fact that their ideas have normally been not only “unsettled” but irrelevant or simply wrong and have generally been disregarded by most citizens—who study “government” little but practice it much more—and their elected officials. If there is a crisis, is it a matter of comprehension and of ideas, or is it grounded in the facts of life as they appear to human beings other than those concerned professionally with assessing the condition of contemporary Americans?

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These are questions that can be taken down to the philosophical bedrock from which they spring, since Mr. Kristol poses the issue as a question with a substantial “if” in it: “If it is proper to say that we experience the crisis of our cities, it is equally proper to say that we are the urban crisis.” Much depends upon the meaning given to the word “experience,” an onto-logical problem that can be answered quite differently from the way Mr. Kristol assumes it can be answered and which, in any event, he did answer implicitly. It requires less speculation, however, to assert that one real problem to which Mr. Kristol addresses himself, that of drug abuse, is given an illusory answer. Of all the forces which a democratic society should muster to handle this problem, the flexing of moral muscles is perhaps the least helpful. Drug abuse presents a host of “problems” that demand the utmost clearheadedness. There is great need for expensive capital facilities to treat addicts, for equally expensive talent and for leadership in harnessing private organizations, resources, and incentive to deal with a complex, interrelated series of matters whose “public” shape is only just becoming clear. This includes defining the roles of local, state, and national government together with their regulatory and police powers and funds. Above all, what is involved here is the relationship of public power to private activities and interests of the most intimate kind. I for one much prefer a “tedious” approach, which seems to disgust Mr. Kristol, to public policymaking rooted in a firm grasp of the immorality of drug use and abuse.

All that Mr. Kristol is really asking for is a repetition of the response of the 1920′s to a “problem”—the consumption of alcohol—that was taken as a moral issue and as the “ultimate subversive” challenge. It was met by the assertion of the most primitive and simplistic “No” that an aroused society, or an angry parent, could make—Prohibition. As a response, Prohibition was harmful to the public welfare in many ways, not the least being that it diverted and burned up energies which could have been put to far better use by a society whose attention to the realities of the public business was such that they were mismanaged with the most horrible consequences to real people.

We may indeed “solve” the “drug problem,” or at least make it seem soluble by rendering it a moral issue; but I doubt if that is the kind of advice Americans now need, what with the present surfeit of crusaders who are looking to make the solution of public problems a matter of right belief in their moral visions of what is necessary to save the cities, or the planet, or humanity. Were Dr. Billy Graham the author of “Urban Civilization & Its Discontents,” I would not be moved to criticize-but moralizing is not what I would expect from a tough-minded skeptic like Irving Kristol.

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Irving Kristol

I should like to thank Mr. Zukosky for his kind words about the Public Interest. I also wish I could go on to reassure him that there is no significant disagreement between us—but, alas, this is not to be. We are indeed at odds, in an important way. Before getting to what I feel to be the heart of the matter, however, I want to clarify a confusion that exists in Mr. Zukosky’s mind, and no doubt for other readers as well, about my use of the word “urban.”

For practically all of us, in ordinary discourse, “urban” means “city”—and, more often than not, big city. When President Johnson urged Congress to appropriate more money to help solve our “urban problems,” he pointed out that the United States today was, in an unprecedented fashion, “a nation of cities,” with some 70 per cent of the population living in “urban areas.” What he did not mention was that his definition of “urban area,” taken from the U.S. Census Bureau, was any community of more than 2,500 people. Ever since that famous speech, public discussion of “the urban crisis” has been in a state of utter confusion.

With regard to the specific problems of our major cities, Mr. Zukosky and I seem to be of one view, and “tough-minded skepticism” is a fair enough description. Most of these problems are either (a) easy of solution, (b) impossible of solution, (c) temporary and inevitable, (d) not “problems” at all but simply represent demands by a particular body of citizens upon the public purse for a reform or innovation dear to their hearts.

Thus, if one wants—as I want-to make the air and the water and the streets of New York cleaner than they are, it is easy to do: you raise taxes and spend the money to this end. (If you want cleaner streets and air and water but don’t want to raise taxes, you are being all too human, in a childish way, and the issue becomes boring.) On the other hand, if you want a radical, total cure of pollution in New York City you are asking the impossible: to make the Hudson and East Rivers fit to swim in, New York City as a population center and a commercial metropolis would have to cease to exist.

Under temporary and inevitable problems, I would put the condition of our black citizens in our inner cities. The only genuine prospect for these people—whose sufferings I certainly do not mean to minimize—is their achieving enough job skills and education to move out, as other “new immigrants” to the city have done before them. It is reasonable to think that government programs can help them do this; but, in fact, the impact of such programs has been astonishingly small and has even frequently been perverse. Fortunately, our black citizens are not the helpless wards of the nation that many “concerned” whites so patronizingly take them to be. They are displaying considerable initiative and ingenuity, and the suburbanization of the working-class and middle-class Negro will surely be one of the major social phenomena of the 1970′s. The credit for this achievement will belong to—and will, I trust, be claimed by—the Negroes themselves. This may deprive some of my liberal friends of the satisfaction they evidently obtain through strenuous exercise in the politics of guilt and compassion. But we can worry about that deprivation when we come to it.

As a “non-problem,” one can identify the growing demand by the upper-middle classes in a city like New York for more imaginative architecture and planning, etc. I am in full sympathy with this demand, but one must candidly recognize that it represents the imposition of patrician—“elitist,” if you will—ideals upon a democratic polity. Those public-housing monoliths are hideous and I would wish them out of existence. Still, they do represent the only known way of housing large numbers of poor people within the city, and it is therefore understandable that these poor people want to see more of them built. We thus have a clear conflict of interests rather than a general “problem” that anyone can magisterially “solve.”

So much for the cities themselves, and I trust that I have made it clear to Mr. Zukosky that I am not at all apocalyptic about them. But my article was only in small part about cities. It was mainly about urban civilization in America today—a form of civilization that once would have been confined to large cities but is now pervading the entire nation. And here I must confess to suffering from an apocalyptic twinge or two. Moreover, I feel that Mr. Zukosky would experience them too, if only he could realize that enlightening as “tough-minded skepticism” is, it offers only a partial vision of things.

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If I had to single out one habit of mind as the curse of intellectual life in our times, I would choose the approach to social problems which prescribes that if we would understand what is happening to our society, we should look at the material circumstances in which we live. Among such material circumstances are levels of income, rates of unemployment, housing conditions, years of school attendance, rates of social mobility, the distribution of wealth, etc. From a study of all of these social conditions, it is assumed, one can understand the “causes” of human behavior, the real drift of events and probable shape of things to come. This assumption is, in my view, false and dangerously misleading.

Yes, to be sure in some ways conditions obviously influence and shape people. But it is also true that conditions may be seen as, and seized as, opportunities by men who are creators of history as much as creatures of it. In short: the ideas in men’s heads are as important as the conditions under which they live. Just why some men, at some time, entertain a particular set of beliefs or ideas is not something we fully understand—which amounts to saying little more than that we don’t fully understand ourselves. (Since we are only men, not gods, this is not at all astonishing.) But the fact that such ideas emerge and then change the world is what has prevented the study of history from being abolished in favor of sociology.

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The habit of mind I am referring to is so pervasive that indulgence in it becomes almost automatic on the part of anyone who talks about social problems. Mr. Zukosky is correct when he points out that, by all “objective” indices, the standard of living for practically all people in our cities has steadily improved over the past decades. But at the same time, the symptoms of social pathology—crime, delinquency, drug abuse, rioting, political extremism—have also risen. “Everyone knows” that, in order to cure these symptoms, you must attack “the cause”: poverty, bad housing, inadequate job opportunities, and so on. Yet it is clear that what “everyone knows” isn’t so: the behavior of people is not simply the consequence of such “causes.” This is so vexing a state of affairs that the mere statement of it is quickly dismissed as a form of “higher mysticism,” to use Mr. Zukosky’s phrase.1

To take another striking instance: the upsurge of student radicalism during these past seven years, on an international scale, cannot adequately be accounted for by any set of “social conditions” or any constellation of “social causes.” No one, studying the campuses of the late 50′s or early 60′s, could (or did) predict such a phenomenon. The students themselves did not anticipate it, as campus opinion polls prior to the Berkeley events of 1964 and the Columbia insurrection of 1968 reveal. Nevertheless, a Presidential commission has endeavored to ascertain “the causes” of student unrest and a great many commentators are ready to list them at the slightest provocation. What no one seems willing to say is that a number of young people in rather privileged or at least comfortable circumstances, growing up in a liberal, democratic, capitalist civilization, have decided they don’t want any part of this civilization. That comes as something of a surprise—but history is made by such surprises. After all, to this day we do not comprehend the “conditions” and “causes” that made 16th- and 17th-century Englishmen decide that the inoffensive—as it appears to us—Church of England was an intolerable tyranny to be shattered by a violent Puritan revolution.

Now. it seems to be true beyond question that the urban civilization of the United States today is in deep trouble, and that this trouble derives more from the spiritual condition of the American people than from its material condition. I think our society is sick in spirit; and when I say “our society,” I certainly wish to include the rebels against the society, who are in many ways sickest of all. I further think that this sickness of spirit issues in good measure from a vulgar and diseased set of ideas as to what democracy and liberty are all about—a set of ideas that is now conventionally accepted by common people, scholars, and Supreme Court justices alike, and which is inexorably destroying the bonds of civility that make for a civilized nation.

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Mr. Zukosky is a materialist and a pragmatist—and I trust he will forgive me if I say that, in this respect, he is part of the problem. Such materialism and pragmatism are efficacious in analyzing the workings of social policies. They have only a limited usefulness in coping with spiritual turmoil. When basic questions—what kind of life shall we lead? what kind of society should we inhabit? what difference does anything make?—are being posed, technical answers are futile and irrelevant. Mr. Zukosky’s response to the drug problem is to build more clinics and hospitals. That is rather like responding to a mass epidemic of suicide by building more mortuaries. The analogy is not fortuitous, for the taking of drugs by many young people today is exactly a tentative kind of suicide; they know it, they do it, and our problem is to tell them why they shouldn’t. Such an answer has to be moral and philosophical, not medical.

The conception of America as a “mass society” often has been a fiction of glib and self-serving intellectuals who think democracy is insufficiently appreciative of them. But I believe that, today, it is becoming an ominous reality. Oddly enough, these same intellectuals who were so eloquent fifteen years ago are now silent—the reason being that they have been absorbed into the new mass culture (the so-called “counter-culture”) which now reigns supreme on our college campuses, in bohemia, and over a growing portion of our mass media. And the people who participate in this new mass culture are ever more inclined to think and act like a mob. Their example is contagious, and other sectors of the population are following suit. With each passing year, more and more Americans are merging together for “direct, mass action” on all sorts of issues. They think that such behavior is sanctioned by the idea of democracy, as they understand it and as they hear others propound it. Is it really so far-fetched, then, to see a connection between the debasement of our social sentiments and the degradation (as I would call it) of the democratic idea? Is it not something more than “higher mysticism” to believe that this is not the kind of situation that “tough-minded skepticism” can deal with?

In short, I do think that the “real” crisis in America today is largely—not entirely, of course, but largely—a moral-philosophical one, and that it cannot be dealt with simply by a “practical,” pragmatic, matter-of-fact approach. This approach has its virtues, and I wish the state of the nation were such that these virtues were sufficient unto the day. But, regrettably, this does not seem to be the case.

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Footnotes

1 For a real exercise in “the higher mysticism,” one can turn to sociology itself, which tries to explain the fact that people may become more sullen and turbulent, even as their conditions improve, by reference to something called “the revolution of rising expectations.” In plain English, this means that as people get more of what they want, they inevitably want ever more. This proposition makes nonsense of most sociological assumptions about human nature and, if taken seriously, would represent the ultimate argument against any kind of liberal politics. Fortunately, the proposition is as often false as true.

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