Myron Magnet, now editor-at-large of City Journal, brought that quarterly magazine of urban affairs to prominence as he edited it from 1994 through 2006. His book, The Dream and the Nightmare: The Sixties' Legacy to the Underclass (Encounter, 1993), was one of two books that underlay the development of compassionate conservatism. Magnet, also an expert on Charles Dickens, has spent his life in New York City, and loves it.
WORLD: What do you love most about this city?
MAGNET: I love the energy, the openness. There is not a more democratic city on earth than this. There's not a city that's more open to talent. There's not a truer meritocracy than this. And here people are willing to think new ideas, although political ideas are a little harder to get them to think about. But it's also a business city so people are not in cloud cuckoo land here.
WORLD: You wrote Dickens and the Social Order. What did you learn from Victorian England that could be applied to New York City?
MAGNET: That you can be a reformer without being a revolutionary. The Victorians experienced the full brunt of the industrial revolution with all the abuses that came with it initially. They looked around and said, "This has the potential to improve wealth for everybody, the standard of living for everybody, so let's make it work. Let's make sure that little children don't work in factories, that people work only so many hours a day, that if there is a benefit with costs attached to it, we can figure out a way to reduce the costs." We can learn about the importance of the social order. We can learn about the importance of the morality that they had even though they were beginning to lose their religious faith.
WORLD: The Victorian talk of reform was very different than the 1960s talk of revolution.
MAGNET: We believed in the sixties that we were trying to create two separate liberations, a political one in which we were trying to bring the black and the poor into the mainstream, and a personal one in which we were essentially saying the good of life is self-realization. If it feels good we should do it, and all of the things that the past had taught us about the single wife, the steady job-that was all the past and we could move on from it. We were all going to be free and there would be a kind of millennium.
WORLD: What were the consequences of such thought?
MAGNET: On the social level, an explosion in welfare because we said there's no stigma in taking handouts from the government and no stigma in having children out of wedlock; that if people created crimes and were excluded, the reason they were creating crimes was our fault because there was no opportunity and it was a manly protest against oppression. In the higher reaches of society the consequence was a vast explosion in divorce. And crime was the very worst the year before Rudy Giuliani took over, 2,200 murders a year. We're down to under 600 murders now. What was happening? We weren't policing because policing was blaming the victim, punishing the victim.
WORLD: What was it like to live in New York then?
MAGNET: I can remember the fear that we felt. When I was a student, then a professor at Columbia, I lived in a building without a doorman. I remember the fear one felt when one approached the front door of the building and one had one's keys ready so that one could open the front door of the building and quickly get into the vestibule and slam the door behind one because that was a very typical kind of mugging. New York was dying at that point because nobody wanted to go out; it was much too dangerous. Nobody wanted to go to the theater, nobody wanted to go to restaurants to be out in New York. New York was open for crime. It was open for the bad guys but not the good guys.
WORLD: How did this affect the economy, and the poor?
MAGNET: Companies were leaving; anybody who could leave was leaving; in a decade we lost a million upper-middle-class citizens and many, many tens of thousands of jobs. The civil order is a huge boon not just to the haves but to the have-nots because the most dangerous neighborhoods were the poorest neighborhoods where there was no civil society whatsoever. You couldn't teach your kid how to ride a bike because you'd much rather have your kid play inside where it was putatively safer, although sometimes people were shot eating dinner by stray bullets coming through the windows of the housing projects.
There was a story in those days of one housing project in which people ate their dinner sitting on the floor so that they wouldn't be in the trajectory of bullets fired from the courtyard of the project. This is life really becoming solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
WORLD: You don't minimize the material but you emphasize the psychological and the spiritual.
MAGNET: I believe strongly that what's in your mind and heart allows you to take advantage of such opportunities as exist if you have an open society. And that if what fills your mind and heart is, "I'm a victim of society," "society is to blame," "there is no way I can get ahead, it's all stacked against me," "getting married is stupid," "women are horrible," then you are defeated from the start.
WORLD: What do you think of media depictions of homelessness during the 1980s?
MAGNET: I can't tell you what it was like to live for those 10 years when homelessness was the No. 1 domestic problem, and to read the mainstream media that were lying all the time. They said that these were all good, middle- and working-class people who've lost jobs in deindustrialization, they're victims of a heartless economy-when, in fact, the homeless were either mentally ill people who had been chucked out of the mental institutions due to the failed policy of deinstitutionalization, or users of drugs and alcohol. I remember thinking, it's been over a hundred years since this society was so cruel as not to try to take care of the true victims, people who are incapacitated by mental illness and really can't take care of themselves. It became the height of liberal compassion to let them live in the cold and the dirt, and die, which they did, or course, by the hundreds.
WORLD: Is there a political solution to our problems?
MAGNET: The most important thing we can do in our politics, after making sure that we have a strong defense, is keeping back the encroachment of public functionaries who actually do not do help to their clients but in the case of welfare, in the case of so much social work, in the case of so much homeless outreach services, actually do harm to those clients.
WORLD: You argue that churches, synagogues, and other religious organizations should step up.
MAGNET: And stop being a part of the problem. I mean, if you're preaching from the pulpit the gospel of social justice-which, translated, means society is unjust-and we need to have a written redistribution of income, that also is part of the problem. If from the pulpit people are preaching that God loves you and you're important because you're a human being and God puts into your hands the ability to help yourself and God is willing to forgive . . . that's the right message to preach.