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When Helping You Helps Me
by Murray Soupcoff
The Iconoclast
09 January 2003 

Behind The Left's Selfish Mask Of Caring.


When will the "caring" activists of the left ever learn? Never have so few individuals with so many good intentions created so much misery for so many people whom they wanted to help. As the social-engineering debacles of the last half century in the United States have demonstrated, carelessness in "caring" for the disadvantaged in our society only leads to a glaringly uncaring result.

After all, it was pioneering liberal-left social engineers in the 1940's and 50's who came up with the not-so-creative idea of fighting poverty in American slums by ripping down existing for-profit rental housing and replacing the existing rental stock with the cold, massive, impersonal concrete human stockyards we now know as public housing projects -- the equivalent of urban hell for several generations of the poor in North America. Not only was poverty not checked by this urban "reform," but the absence of cheap rooming houses and other lodgings for society's marginalized citizens ultimately created the phenomenon of urban homelessness. And of course, we all know the many wonderful benefits that come with living in comfy, government-subsidized "projects" -- rampant drug addiction, vandalism, family breakup, gang wars, killings and social decay.

Oh, and did we mention an even more ingrained "cycle of poverty"?

Yet, the obvious bitter fruits of the liberal-left do-gooders' all-knowing beneficence in providing "better housing" for the underclass did nothing to stop further clumsy social-engineering efforts by this lot. For example, in the 1960's, confronted with the demoralizing "evidence" -- most of it imaginary -- that poor self-esteem and a cycle of "failure" was hindering the educational achievement of poor black students, liberal-left educational reformers set about dumbing down the schools in disadvantaged black urban slums. Unfortunately, the only noticeable result of this attempt to treat the educational system as a social laboratory was that standard test scores plummeted in these enlightened educational enclaves, literacy became the equivalent of an endangered species, student conduct deteriorated dangerously and precipitously, and a unique new "let's stay stupid" ethic (otherwise known as not "going white") evolved among poor black students -- harassing any fellow students who showed any desire to get an education to improve their lot and break the chains of poverty.

Oh, and did we mention that schools in poor black urban slums quickly became a mirror image of government-subsidized housing projects -- run-down urban fortresses afflicted by the scourge of gangs, vandalism, hard drugs, random violence and social anarchy?

However, not surprisingly, that hasn't stopped the liberal-left cognoscenti from coming up with ever-more innovative ways to waste taxpayer dollars on ever-more destructive "cures" for various real and imagined social injustices through the years.

The $64,000 question is why? Enter a most educational book, The Careless Society: Community & Its Counterfeits by community activist John McKnight (Basic Books, 1995), a crusading tome whose insightful pages I recently revisited. Even more specifically, I would single out Chapter One ("Professionalism") and McKnight's groundbreaking essay in that chapter, entitled "Professionalized Help and Disabling Service"

Granted, watching a Friends rerun is probably a more entertaining diversion. However, if you're one of those people who feels guilty after being accused by liberals of not being a caring enough person in your politics, then you'll probably find this book most enlightning. It's a golden-oldie that still packs a punch, even though it received minimum attention when it was first published.

So what new insight does Mr. McKnight bring to an understanding of the educated "caring" classes and the ever-expanding "helping" industry they helm. Well, if I might serve as your interpreter, let me first posit that I think he would suggest that we all should recognize that no matter how intrinsically idealistic and caring today's social "dogooders" might be, they are still human. Therefore, self-interest is bound to intrude at times into even the most idealistic of initiatives to help the less advantaged.

In other words, today's social reformers and activists may be well intentioned, but they're fooling themselves about the nature of their mission. According to McKnight, the language of the helping professions may be one of caring (just like Bill Clinton, they feel the needy's pain). But behind what McKnight calls the mask of caring lies simply one more expanding service industry -- a unique business (distinguished by its emphasis on doing good) in need of markets, staffed by an ever-growing cadre of caring professionals in need of income.

According to this scenario, today's caring elite of policy wonks and service professionals need "need". They derive their livelihoods -- not to mention their sense of superior goodness -- from servicing the "needs" of those whom they define as "the needy."

So from McKnight's point of view, professional caring in modern society has become just another business, but one whose true mission is masked by its aura of caring and love for those whom it helps. Or to put it in his own words:

It is clear, therefore, that the word 'care' is a potent political symbol. What

is not so clear is that its use masks the political interests of servicers. This fact is further obscured by the symbolic link between care and love. The result is that the political-economic issues of service are hidden behind the mask of love.

Behind the mask is simply the servicer, his systems, techniques, and technologies -- a business in need of markets, an economy seeking new growth potential, professionals in need of an income....

The masks of love and care obscure this reality so that the public cannot recognize the professionalized interests that manufacture needs in order to rationalize a service economy. Medicare, Educare, Judicare, Socialcare, and Psychocare are portrayed as systems to meet needs rather than programs to meet the needs of servicers and the economies they support.


Most important, from McKight's point of view, this is not a shell game where "helpers" consciously set about to exploit the needy for their own selfish ends. Instead, servicers are well-intentioned individuals who so strongly identify with the caring "face" of doing good that they cannot let themselves recognize its negative consequences. The "mask" of goodness is so important to their sense of self, they can't let themselves see its true face -- the exploitation of society's disadvantaged classes, by a credentialed elite, to enhance both the economic well being and sense of moral superiority of that elite.

In McKnight's words, "removing the mask of love shows us the face of servicers who need income, and an economic system that needs growth." And within this framework, "the client is less a person in need than a person who is needed." Or in pure economic terms, the client is less the consumer than "the raw material for the servicing system." In other words, today's dogooders need the needy, and must continually identify new "need" (social problems) to grow their business (government-funded social initiatives to "help" those in need and to create lucrative employment for the enlightened classes who help them).

Therefore, even though it might not be the original intention of social dogooders, it doesn't take long for those whom they set out to help to ultimately become commodities in the business of caring -- and for the helpers, by implication, to become the new industrialists of caring. And those helpers, I might add, include a whole new educated class of professional social workers, psychologists, child- care workers, government bureaucrats, administrators, legislators, social-policy wonks, community activists, and even self-appointed ethnic spokespersons like Jesse Jackson.

Not surprisingly, one particular power dynamic most usually emerges from such "helping" efforts: the helper is the expert who holds all control and power, and the one who is helped is chronically consigned to the role of the dependent, needy victim . For example, within this power paradigm, social-policy wonks and social workers possess the professional training and expert knowledge to know what's required to rescue the needy; and the needy "need" that professional intervention since they are seen as being incapable of helping themselves.

Of course, when self-interested career "activists" like Jesse Jackson are involved, another dynamic inevitably kicks in. The rich (come on down, Jesse) get richer (from government and corporate "donations"), and the poor get nothing (from Jesse and his associates).

Ironically, as John McKnight also suggests, many of today's much-advocated social-problem-solving efforts are actually iatrogenic -- the equivalent of doctor- created disease. Meaning that doctors like to gather the sick in infection-ridden hospitals, where ill patients often contact infectious diseases which make them even more sick than they were when they first entered hospital. Consequently, for many hospitalized patients, the doctor-prescribed cure is worse than the disease.

In the same way, most liberal-left social "cures," via government-mandated social engineering, are iatrogenic-- social "remedies" bedeviled by a bevy of harmful unintended social consequences created by government agencies recklessly intervening in the private sphere.

The problem is that public intellectuals of the left suffer from the hubris of thinking they know more than they do. And over and over again, we are confronted with more grim evidence that mere humans -- even the most schooled and brilliant -- cannot control complex social processes sufficiently to achieve the societal outcomes they desire. For example, the fabled War on Poverty in America may have been based on the accumulated sociological wisdom of the academic intelligentsia of the 1960's, but it quickly turned into a rout -- as a host of unintended social consequences (created by the experts' ill-chosen social- engineering remedies) ambushed all the good intentions and left the equivalent of a social killing field among the hapless victims of left-wing largesse. Aside from the countless billions of dollars wasted on needlessly enriching the educated helping classes in their battle against the "social ills" afflicting the disadvantaged, the celebrated campaign to eradicate poverty and its ills only reinforced the cycle of poverty in black disadvantaged neighborhoods, creating a frightening social contagion of ever-escalating welfare dependency, family breakdown and neighborhood violence -- and ushering in a shining new era of urban social anarchy and hopelessness. Doctor-created social disease at its worst!

In the language of John McKnight, too often modern professional social service is actually a form of disabling help. Rather than empowering those whom it intends to help, it leaves them isolated, passive and dependent. Rather than getting better, the socially ill only get sicker.

In other words, it shouldn't be surprising then that, since the mid 1960's, all the efforts to dumb down the education system to enhance the self esteem of disadvantaged students, or to "understand" the social roots of crime and "reform" the justice system to recognize the corrosive effect of such inequities on the "powerless," or to financially aid the needy because the system is so rigged against them, have produced nothing more than increased illiteracy, crime, poverty and general social misery.

Through the years, we've seen numerous "caring" initiatives like the Great Society programs emerge, and we've witnessed the iatrogenic results of these past initiatives ultimately turn into today's social problems. Unfortunately, attempting to "cure" those problems with more of the same "helping" medicine today will only result in more unintended iatrogenic consequences tomorrow, and so on.....

If this cycle of left-wing "caring" is allowed to continue, the expanding helping industry will simply continue to get richer and more powerful while its disadvantaged customers get "sicker" and poorer.

"Yadah, yadah, yadah..." retort liberals. "We've heard this refrain before from uncaring conservatives who don't give a damn about the suffering of the less privileged." But the interesting thing is that John McKnight is a former Executive Director of the Illinois division of the American Civil Liberties Union, as well as a former Director of the Midwest Office of the United States Commission On Civil Rights. Not only that, but Mr. McKnight started his career as a community activist working with the celebrated radical left-wing community organizer, Saul Alinsky. And today, McKnight is still an aggressive community activist with an otherwise strong left-wing perspective.

Obviously, unlike most of the left, though, Mr. McKnight has had a few enlightening insights during the course of his efforts to change society. Perhaps we might even view him as another liberal who was "mugged by reality" -- although he has not become a conservative. But he's definitely a man of the left who has recognized some of the left's limitations.

If there's a problem with John McKnight's insightful analysis of today's burgeoning helping industry, however, it's his too narrow Alinsky-influenced focus on the politico-economic interests at play in the growth of the caring industry. What McKnight chooses to underemphasize and even ignore are the purely narcissistic status interests also motivating today's caring elite -- in particular, the sense of moral superiority, self-congratulation and specialness that they derive from adhering to the caring ethic. Today's "caring" progressives not only need "the needy" to bolster their economic interests. They need them to bolster their sense of superiority and specialness in relation to other social strata and special-interest groups.

For today's caring classes, it's their perceived sensitivity to the plight of the disadvantaged, and their support of efforts to "help" the needy, that makes them feel superior to the rest of society, even those wealthier and more powerful than them. It's their caring that's the defining lifestyle trait that, in their minds, sets them apart from the rest of society and allows them to feel socially "advantaged" in respect to others. Billionaire financiers may make more money than them. Republican presidents may have more power. But it's the caring classes who are society's true elite, because they "care" more.

In their minds, it's not the results of their helping initiatives that count (most of which are disastrous). It's their enlightened values and words. Only they are sensitive and enlightened enough to care -- which demonstrates their social and moral superiority over others (even those wealthier and more powerful).

Caring, then, is the unique currency that buys them status superiority and upward social mobility within today's fragmenting social hierarchy (from their perspective anyway).

Regardless, John McKnight and his work are still a helpful aid in identifying the economic interests lurking behind what McKnight identifies as the mask of love and caring worn by today's professional dogooders. And once it's possible to recognize the economic interests subverting the caring language and deeds of today's credentialed "helpers," it's not much of a stretch to identify the narcissistic status ambitions also driving this escalating push for a "caring society."

Too bad it's only one privileged class that benefits from all this caring.


Murray Soupcoff is a Toronto sociologist who is the author of 'Canada 1984' and a former radio and
television producer with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. He also was Executive Editor of We Compute Magazine for many years, and is now the Managing Editor of the popular conservative Web site,
The Iconoclast. Iconoclast.ca


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