Page 13


Without the support and endorsement of conservative founda tions and prominent Republicans, it is likely Olasky would have remained an obscure professor of public relations and journalism history. But when The Tragedy of American Compassion was first issued by conservative publisher Regnery in 1992, with the promotion of the Heritage Foundation it caught the wave of conservative reaction which peaked with the 1994 Republican Congress, and won the personal endorsement of Newt Gingrich. Olasky became a media star and a much-quoted congressional witness on welfare reform, and Regnery re-issued the book in 1995, with an introduction by Charles Murray, co-author of The Bell Curve. \(Olasky’s other major books sport introductions respectively by Gingrich and Watergate felon turned born-again In earlier books \(e.g., Prodigal Press, 1988; The Press and Abortion, 1838-1988, 1988; Central Ideas in the Development of American Journalism, method: tendentious, heavily anecdotal histories purporting to demonstrate the political and spiritual decline of the U.S. press \(and the culture at and especially since the early twentieth century. Central Ideas argues that mainstream journalism has abandoned its crusading roots in Christian individualism in favor of sinister liberal federalism. The polemical thrust of Prodigal Press is accurately reflected in its subtitle, The Anti-Christian Bias of the American News Media. The Press and Abortion laments that newspapers, which once sensationally excoriated abortionists and condemned any woman who might consider abortion, are now “lapdogs for the abortion lobby.” The Tragedy of American Compassion is the result of what Olasky describes as a two-paragraph grant proposal to the Heritage Foundation, on the historical meaning of “compassion.” The book offers an argument from history for public policy based on Olasky’s central principles of “conservative compassion”: all government-run public assistance programs are inevitably counterproductive, because only charity that is directly personal, requires the able-bodied to work, and includes explicit spiritual counseling, has any hope of success. He derives his argument primarily from an anecdotal positive history of church-based services, juxtaposed with a negative narrative of federal programs, uniformly described as failures. The title suggests these failure are ones of good intentions gone bad: since the word “compassion” \(as Olasky never tires fering with,” any welfare program derived from taxation and gov ernment funding short-circuits this personal connection, deprives the giver of spiritually edifying empathy, and turns charitable compassion into false, liberal conscience-salving. Tragedy is the best of Olasky’s books, in that it provides a thumbnail sketch of the historical debates over welfare policy, and describes always with a strong bias toward punitive religiosity the explicit political battles that took place over wel fare in the various eras. To his credit, Olasky attempts to refute social Darwinist arguments for the abolition of welfare, argu ing that the poor should not be abandoned as hapless losers in the modern jungle but instead of fered a Christian hand of solidarity and opportunity. \(The book is laudingly introduced, however, by the leading social Darwinist of our time, Charles Murray. Olasky says he disagrees with his good friend concerning the genetic basis of in primly inattentive to the larger his torical contexts of social policy: good times and bad, war and peace, recession and expansion. It seems never to occur to Olasky, for example, that welfare rolls might wax and wane not in accordance with the available distribution of spiritual enlightenment, but rather with the avail able opportunities for gainful employ ment and that elite political pressures for welfare “reform” coin cide almost precisely with those peritight and cheap labor in short supply: ergo, kick the poorest people back into the labor market. More unhappily, Olasky’s presumptive poor are, virtually without exception, the conventional right-wing caricatures of the underclass: shiftless drunks and addicts, derelict fathers and irresponsible teenage mothers, able-bodied men who just don’t want to work. The many more millions of working poor earning minimum wages or less, often with two or more family members trying desperately to make ends meet with little hope of social compassion, conservative or otherwise are largely invisible in Olasky’s universe. In a 1995 interview, contemporary with his books on poverty and welfare, he concluded bluntly, “Today’s poor in the United States are the victims and perpetrators of illegitimacy and abandonment, of family non-formation and malformation, alienation and loneliness; but they are not suffering from thirst, hunger or nakedness, except by choice, or insanity, or parental abuse.” In Texas, where one fifth of the children live in families with working adults who earn insufficient income for food, such a declaration amounts to wilful if not malicious ignorance. Amhor z>f the Ttive4 CehlA,t,f iMS &mon Egt,Low, PzMel:RW 4.4’0 fiRE.1.4,PAI Pin:rJ144-rifix ow rompauion fiir the needy can turn or citizens into kero4,3 12 THE TEXAS OBSERVER MAY 14, 1999