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Sun May 16, 2021, 04:36 PM

Daniel Patrick Moynihan Was Often Right. Joe Klein on Why It Still Matters.

By Joe Klein

May 15, 2021

“The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society,” Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York said during a lecture at Harvard in 1986. “The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.” Moynihan, an apostle of complexity, lived at the intersection of those two truths, a place where he was free to become one of the most creative American thinkers of the late 20th century. He sensed, and then came to know, that the social problems of what was being called “postindustrial” society would be different from those that came before. He identified these problems, sometimes controversially. In so doing, he predicted the dislocations of the 21st century with uncanny accuracy. He did it with elegance and wit and — this may be a surprise — transcendent humility. His spot-on sense of what truly mattered deserves to be revisited now, if we’re to grope our way past the mess we’ve become as a society.

I knew Moynihan. He was a mentor. He was a delight. He gave me lists of books to read; and encouraged me when, as a young journalist, my reporting ran afoul of convenient assumptions, left and right. Today, nearly 20 years after his death, hardly a week goes by when some new public outrage doesn’t remind me of his prescience — the persistence of ethnicity and racial caste in American life (and in the world), the migration of working-class whites from the Democratic to the Republican Party (which he predicted in 1970), climate change (which he predicted in 1969), the plague of mass shootings, the difficulty of improving public education for the poor, the fragility of family structure in the postindustrial world — and of the aphorisms that he seemed to toss off effortlessly: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” He was equal parts éminence grise and enfant terrible — an intellectual éminence terrible.

He had two defining insights. The first, which he shared with the Harvard sociologist Nathan Glazer, was the persistence of ethnicity in American life. Together — well, it was mostly Glazer — they published “Beyond the Melting Pot: The Negroes, Puerto Ricans, Jews, Italians, and Irish of New York City” in 1963. “The notion that the intense and unprecedented mixture of ethnic and religious groups in America was soon to blend into a homogeneous end product has outlived its usefulness and also its credibility,” they observed. “The point about the Melting Pot … is that it did not happen.”

Thirty years later, in “Pandaemonium,” Moynihan took the notion global. The Soviet Union had shattered into ethnic states, as he, almost alone, predicted in the 1970s. Tribalism — the most primitive form of “culture” — was on the rise throughout the world. There were, suddenly, places called Eritrea and Kurdistan. But Kurdistan was not a state and Eritrea was. He was puzzled by this: What determined self-determination? What was to prevent the world from atomizing into ethnic slivers? He had identified the problem, but was boggled by a solution. So are we.


Full longread article: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/15/books/review/daniel-patrick-moynihan-was-often-right-joe-klein-on-why-it-still-matters.html

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