Peter Pringle's America: Moynihan's a breed apart

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The Independent Online
DANIEL Patrick Moynihan, New York's senator, professor, philosopher and former dockworker, has at least two characteristics that make him stand out from his colleagues in the US Congress. He always wears bow ties, and when he speaks about the social problems of America he is uncannily insightful. The problem is the way he talks. It makes people mad.

It happened again the other day. In discussing the epidemic of children born to unmarried mothers, Moynihan said so many teenagers are having babies that 'if you were a biologist, you could find yourself talking about speciation'.

As an intellectual, he was clearly tickled by the idea that he had stumbled upon a possible scientific explanation for the social phenomenon. In the biological sense, 'speciation' means the creation of a new species that cannot be interbred with the one from which it evolved.

All Moynihan said about 'speciation' was, 'It has something to do with a changed condition in biological circumstances,' and, lacking further explanation from the former Harvard professor, some people interpreted his words as meaning just that: a new species was indeed forming.

This is, of course, science fiction. Illegimate babies are not and will not become distinct biologically and reproductively from the rest of the human race.

But Moynihan's words caused an uproar, nowhere more than in the African-American community, which immediately concluded he was referring to the break-up of black families and illegitimate children among black inner-city youth. Black leaders such as Jesse Jackson, who have admitted the problem and tried to urge blacks themselves to do something about it, were furious, and blamed Moynihan for casting blacks as a group that was evolving into a separate and inferior sub-species.

When thinking politicians like Moynihan attempt to address such serious issues, to use words such as 'speciation' puts them in danger of being too clever by half. It is a trap that Moynihan, who should know better, keeps falling into.

What the senator was trying to do - I assume - was to speak metaphorically, or figuratively, about the 'evolution' of a new type of American who inhabits a sub-section of society utterly isolated and devoid of basic social traditions, such as marriage and the traditional family group. By using an emotive, albeit scientifically inappropriate, word, he was trying to point up the problem. Nothing wrong with that - except for his record on the subject.

In 1965 Moynihan, then Assistant Secretary of Labour under President Johnson, wrote a report entitled 'The Negro Family: The Case for National Action'. While reporting how blacks had been 'battered and harassed by discrimination, injustice and uprooting', to some, Moynihan seemed to be saying that blacks were in a terrible state of their own making and it was unnecessary, therefore, to try and do anything for them. A storm of protest erupted.

Worse was to come. In 1970 Moynihan, then serving under Richard Nixon as Assistant for Urban Affairs, wrote an internal memo about the problems of blacks in America: 'The time may have come when the issue of race could benefit from a period of 'benign neglect',' he said, adding that the problems of blacks had been 'too much talked about. The forum has been too much taken over by hysterics, paranoids, and boodlers on all sides'.

He was really calling for a cooling of the rhetoric, but many thought he was saying, 'Stop worrying about the race problem, it doesn't help'.

After he was elected senator, he clashed with the leading black civil rights group, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, when he compared a federal order requiring that the New York City public school system assign teachers on the basis of race to Hitler's Nuremberg racial laws. In those days, he was accused of being a racist, even a fascist. Today, in politically correct America, he is even accused of being homophobic because of his traditional approach. Liberals sniff at his 'back to the family' values.

They claim, for example, that lesbian and gay parents are at least as successful as heterosexual ones, adding that fatherless families have not been, as Moynihan has suggested, the root of all that is evil in American society.

His harshest critics say his clever but ill-considered words show that Moynihan is at heart a racist. But this is nonsense. His congressional record shows he has consistently voted in favour of issues important to minorities, especially African-Americans.

The choice of the word 'speciation' may have got people's attention but it was clearly a mistake to use such a term. The best response is to turn it back on the perpetrator, as some wag did in the newspapers last week. Seeking advice from a fictional 'Institute for the Biological Explanation of Social Problems', this writer in New York's Newsday adduced evidence that 'profound isolation of senators, lobbyists and other Washington insiders is creating a new species - politicus plutocraticus'. And, of course, we cannot forget Homo Moynihanus.