Among the Intellectualoids

Just-Do-It Liberalism

Nothing changes: the "it" is always "spend, spend, spend" to save the poor and solve all problems.

By 1.11.06

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Shotgunning through the hundreds of channels which now lurk mysteriously and redundantly inside my cable box, I recently chanced upon an HBO film from last year called The Girl in the Cafe. It tells the story of the unlikely romance between an excruciatingly shy English numbers-cruncher named Lawrence assigned to the British delegation for the 2005 G8 Summit and a lonely young woman named Gina he meets at a coffee shop. After several tentative encounters, he invites her to accompany him to the Summit itself -- set not in Gleneagles, Scotland (where the actual 2005 G8 Summit took place), but in Reykjavik, Iceland.

Gina at first has a hard time fathoming what Lawrence does for a living. What do all those numbers mean? He explains to her that a billion people worldwide now live on less than a dollar a day, that AIDS and malaria are ravaging vast populations in Asia, Africa, and South America, and that scores of thousands of human beings perish every day because they are too poor to survive. The good news is that the G8 Nations have pledged to do what they can to relieve poverty; the ideal to which the nations aspire, known as the Millennium Development Goals, consists of "eight objectives to accelerate human development, achieve universal equality, and attain a more peaceful world by 2015." The bad news, Lawrence tells Gina, is that the leaders of the G8 Nations are not living up to their pledges.

When Gina accompanies Lawrence to Iceland, she comes out of her shell -- sexually, of course, since this is an HBO movie, but also politically -- confronting the British VIPs and then the foreign dignitaries about their dillydallying while so many people are suffering. How dare the richest nations not dispatch boatloads of foreign aid immediately to save the poor? "It's not that simple," she is told again and again. She insists it is that simple. People are dying! Shame on the leaders for their hesitations and compromises!

For her outbursts, Gina is eventually sent packing. Lawrence is compelled to resign his position.

But in the end, Gina's words have an effect. The hearts of the British VIPs are moved. Their consciences are pricked. They return to the summit negotiations the final day with a single non-negotiable demand: The Millennium Development Goals must be met! Poverty must be eradicated! Boatloads of money must be dispatched!

It is that simple!

Cue the credits.

The Girl in the Cafe was written and directed by Richard Curtis, whose earlier screenplays (especially Four Weddings and a Funeral and Love Actually) reveal a crass and relentlessly snarky anti-Americanism. There are touches of that here; the obnoxious American delegation seems to be the chief obstacle to fulfilling the Millennium Goals. But Yank-bashing is secondary. As Curtis explained in an interview, "I work for a charity for six months out of every two years. And I thought, well maybe instead of fundraising I should do some consciousness-raising."

Because Curtis's goal was consciousness-raising, The Girl in the Cafe serves as a perfect dramatization of what might be called Just-Do-It Liberalism. The thought process behind it is almost syllogistic, and always seductive. In this case: 1) Poverty is killing millions of people worldwide; 2) Poverty is a lack of money; 3) Therefore, the obvious solution to poverty is to funnel cash in its direction until it is eradicated. In the just-do-it liberal imagination, exemplified here by Gina's determination to speak truth to power, policymaking is, or at least should be, altogether straightforward. Only gutless bureaucrats and greedy conservatives stand in the way.

Just-Do-It Liberalism is indeed the synaptic tic that rules show business, the intellectual slop served up in thousands of faculty lounges and university classrooms, the spirit of the 1960s to which good hearted people everywhere are supposed to genuflect. It is simply beyond the depth of just-do-it liberals to recognize that the obvious thing to do is often precisely the worst thing to do. Funneling billions in cash to Third World countries sounds humane; the problem is that substantial percentages of the money are certain to be skimmed off the top by repressive regimes, thereby solidifying their genocidal grip on their people. Recall, in this regard, that abject poverty -- the fly-on-the-baby's-cheek variety -- is almost always due to governmental policies and civil unrest. Lack of food and medicine is an effect, not a cause.

Just-do-it liberals, in other words, cannot come to grips with the idea that opposing a program intended to help poor people is not the same as opposing helping poor people. The textbook example of this, of course, is the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program enacted during the 1960s as part of the Johnson Administration's Great Society. The intention -- to provide a cash benefit to unwed mothers struggling to support their children -- was undeniably noble. The outcome, however, was the dramatic rise in out-of-wedlock births among African Americans, which soared from 26% in 1965 to its current level of 68%. Good intentions resulted in the greatest setback to black progress in America since slavery.

The next fiasco of Just-Do-It Liberalism seems certain to be the effort to rebuild New Orleans. Overlooked will be the fact that, long before Hurricane Katrina made landfall, the city was in deep decline, languishing under incompetent local government and corrupt law enforcement, plagued by high crime rates, high drop out rates, high unemployment rates and high out-of-wedlock birthrates. The fix for New Orleans is not hundreds of billions of dollars -- which is the only fix just-do-it liberals ever seem to understand. Rather, the fix is individual and collective discipline; it must come from the citizens themselves, or else no amount of money will make the city livable again.

As always, just-do-it won't get it done.

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About the Author
Mark Goldblatt teaches at Fashion Institute of Technology (SUNY). His latest novel, Sloth, was published last year by Greenpoint Press.