Root causes

I wrote the following for American Thinker, and republish it here:

Root Causes

One of the hallmarks of the Left is its fervent belief that, if poor people behave badly, the fault is not theirs, but instead it lies with “root causes.” For example, a word search in the New York Times for “root causes and crime” returns over 100 articles from that newspaper alone.

A significant number of these Times articles, which were especially prevalent in the 1980s and 1990s, have a politician arguing that, in dealing with crime, it’s pointless to punish the criminals themselves. Instead, it’s the government’s job to destroy crime at its root, a concept that invariably translates into pouring more money into social welfare programs. I’ve gathered a small collection of these articles. In each of them, I’ve emphasized a few key words, the significance of which I’ll explain below.

In 1987, New York Police Chief Benjamin War shocked the liberal establishment by stating one of New York’s dirty little secrets: Young black men were disproportionately responsible for the City’s crime. The liberals were quick to respond. Although they couldn’t deny the statistics, they placed the blame squarely where it belonged – on white society and ineffectual (Reagan-era) government:

Poor people historically have been more prone to commit street crime, and blacks are disproportionately poor (though most, of course, are law-abiding). Blacks are uniquely burdened with a legacy of slavery and violence. I. Blame is abundant. So are drugs. Opportunity. is not


Unless root causes of crime are addressed, Mr. [Charles] Rangel said, “there will never be enough prosecutors, judges and courts or jails to sweep our secrets under the rug.” (Emphasis mine.)

Three years later, liberals were still singing the same root crime song. Here’s the lead from a 1990 article about Mayor Dinkins:

Mayor David N. Dinkins took his anticrime campaign on the road today as he lobbied here for stricter national gun-control laws and an all-out effort against “the root causes of crime,” including poverty, homelessness, drug addiction and growing despair. (Emphasis mine.)

Fast forward another four years, to the Gubernatorial election 1994, and you’ll see that Mario Cuomo, who was seeking reelection, still knew the words to that root crime tune:

For his part, Mr. Cuomo, especially in recent months, has spoken more about crime’s root causes, of draining what he has begun to call the “poisoned lake” of poverty, racism and lack of opportunity that many people believe is at the heart of violence. At the state trooper graduation in Albany, for example, he complained that “so far we have not discovered the cure for the greed, the viciousness, the despair that drives this traffic in drugs.” (Emphasis mine.)

I could come up with more examples, but I suspect you get the point: In Liberal land, as sure as night follows day, poverty, a lack of opportunity and despair add up to the dangerous pathology of crime.

Barack Obama, however, has taken the root crime concept to a whole new level, by adding pathologies that I suspect, to him, are far more dangerous than garden-variety felonies. Here is the infamous bitterness speech that Obama made before the very rich San Francisco liberals gathered to hear him at the Getty mansion::

You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, a lot of them – like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they’ve gone through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. So it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, and they cling to guns, or religion, or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them, or anti-immigrant sentiment, or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.

Obama’s much more verbose than the others I’ve quoted, but it seems to me he’s seeing precisely the same pattern that Dinkins, Cuomo and Rangel identified: Poverty creates bitterness, and bitterness creates dangerous pathologies.

There is a difference in the speeches, of course. As you see from the quotations, liberals of twenty years back were primitive enough to define as pathologies actual criminal activity (drug use, theft, assault, rape). Obama’s argument makes a dramatic break with that traditional by targeting as pathological, not crime, but standard American beliefs.

To that end, he explicitly says that the garden-variety root causes that have been part of political discourse for twenty years (poverty and despair), when visited upon primitive white Pennsylvanians, inevitably lead to the horrors of faith in God; a belief in the Second Amendment; and a pervasive sense that it is fundamentally unfair for illegal aliens to come waltzing into America so that they can hold American jobs, send their kids to American funded schools, get American healthcare, and dine (not well, admittedly) off of American food stamps.

Already back in the 1980s and 1990s, I was unimpressed by the way in which the “root cause” doctrine was being used to relieve people of any responsibility for their actions. I’m even less impressed with the bizarre new use to which Obama has put it. Nevertheless, despite the theory’s silliness, his making the argument does serve a purpose: While it tells us nothing about Pennsylvanians, it does give us another look into the mind of a man who has a profound disdain for the values that Americans have held dear for centuries.