The first chapter of leading right-wing moral-crusader, Republican political strategist, and educational magnate William J. Bennett’s The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Moral Stories (NY: Simon and Schuster, 1993) is titled “Self-Discipline.” “There is much unhappiness and personal distress in the world,” Bennett writes, “because of failures to control and temper appetites, passion and impulses.” As an illustration, Bennett includes a short story titled “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” Written by Leo Tolstoy, this narrative tells the cautionary tale of a greedy Russian landowner who died because he couldn’t limit his desire for more. Bennett describes it as “a marvelous metaphor for the need for us to set definite boundaries to our appetites.”
The second chapter is titled “Compassion.” Compassion, Bennett argues, “comes close to the very heart of moral awareness, to seeing in one’s neighbor another self.” “Treat no one,” Bennett instructs, “with callous disregard” (108). Compassion is a big theme for Bennett, who in 1999 told journalist Jake Tapper that “I was compassionate before ‘compassionate’ was cool. I’ve been arguing for years Republicans should never concede the ‘compassionate’ ground to Democrats” (Tapper, “Brains for Hire,” Salon.com, October 26, 1999).
Chapter four is titled “Work.” It includes the famous story of “The Little Red Hen,” the children’s tale where all the other animals in the barn wanted to eat the bread that only the hen had been willing to work to make. “From this longtime favorite,” Bennett comments, “we learn, as it says in the third chapter of Genesis, ‘In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread’” (352) – a rather Stakhanovite interpretation. As a small child, I understood that story in more social-democratic terms, to mean that, in George Orwell’s words, “we must all cooperate and see to it that everyone does his fair share of the work and gets his fair share of the provisions” (Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier, 1937, p.144).
A Hypocrite Joyously and Liberally Exposed
The Book of Virtues is just one part of Bennett’s imposing record of speeches and publications arguing that America is the homeland of virtue and opportunity, where people who work diligently and honestly and honor God and country are rewarded with reasonable prosperity. Those who fail to exhibit Bennett’s virtues – self-discipline, capitalist work ethic, courage, responsibility, compassion, and honesty – are justly denied the riches they could attain but for weak moral character. Such is the rich moral reward structure of the United States, argues Bennett, whose recent Why We Fight (2002) claims that America’s supposed “war on terrorism” is a noble effort to defend and advance the superior values of “western civilization,” epitomized by the US.
Certainly, this structure has worked out nicely for Bennett, the former Drug Czar, onetime Secretary of Education, and past Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Bennett heads a conservative agency called “Empower America” and collects $50,000 for each of his many speaking appearances. He receives hundreds of thousands of dollars from wealthy right-wing foundations, including Scaife and John M. Olin. He is a regular media personality, using his position as America’s national scold to lecture moral degenerates at home and abroad on their need to be more, well, virtuous … like him.
It was interesting, then, to watch Bennett revealed three weeks ago as a serious problem gambler, a casino-owners’ dream who “has lost more than $ 8 million” playing Las Vegas slot machines during the last decade alone. (Katherine Q. Seelye, “Relentless Moral Crusader is Relentless Gambler,” New York Times, 2 May 2003). “In one two-month period,” the New York Times reported, “Mr. Bennett wired one casino more than $1.4 million to cover his losses.” According to Bennett, it was not unusual for him to “cycle several hundred thousand dollars” through Las Vegas slot machines and video games in a single evening.
To be sure, Bennett is hardly the only American to eat from the apple of legalized gambling. “During Bennett’s years as a public figure,” the Washington Monthly has reported, “casinos, once restricted to Nevada and New Jersey, have expanded to 28 states.” State lotteries, which the National Gambling Impact Study Commission rightly describes as a form legalized gambling, have also exploded in the last 30 years. They currently exist in at least 37 states and the District of Columbia, coaxing $36 million dollars out of Americans, sold by commercials proclaiming that “All You Need Is a Dollar and a Dream” and “Anyone Can Win.” Of course, Bennett’s habit was so large and so curiously juxtaposed against his position as the Lord of Virtue that it inevitably attracted significant attention and elicited liberal delight once it was revealed.
As liberal Washington Post columnist Michael Kinsley put it, “if there were a Pulitzer Price for schadenfeude (joy in the suffering of others), Jonathan Alter of Newsweek and Joshua Green of the Washington Monthly would surely deserve it for bringing us” the Bennett gambling story (see Jonathan Alter and Joshua Green, “The Man of Virtues Has a Vice,” Newsweek, May 2, 2003). Bennett, who Kinsley described as a hypocritical “virtue magnate,” had “been exposed as a humbug artist who ought to be pelted off the public stage if he lacks the decency to slink quietly away as he is constantly calling on others to do.” (“Bad Bet By Bill Bennett,” Washington Post, 5 May 2003, A21.)
It was amusing to learn that the nation’s leading preacher of “self-discipline” was incapable of reigning in his compulsion to “cycle” massive amounts of surplus wealth through the slot machinery of morally challenged Las Vegas. How delectable, moreover, to read that “Empower America” includes chronic gambling as one of America’s leading behavioral problems – along with marijuana, rap music, homosexuality, and other hideous “vices” so terribly tolerated in Bennett’s view by spiritually weak and “moral-relativist” liberals and leftists.
And since one of the virtues to receive chapter-level status in The Book of Virtues is “Honesty,” it was especially fabulous to hear Bennett claim to have “won more than he has lost” in the casinos. Everybody knows that casino managers do not calibrate their slot machines so that people can break even on millions of dollars worth of pulls. Bennett didn’t attain “high-roller” status, replete with free rooms and limousine service, by miraculously breaking even on the slots.
Machines Over Children
It was less entertaining to learn that this Founding Father of “compassionate conservatism” was content to feed the Nevada gambling-industrial complex while much of the American population slipped farther into poverty. In one indication of the spreading socioeconomic homeland insecurity that Bennett explains as God’s punishment for irresponsible behavior, the Children’s Defense Fund reported, in a story that broke right before the Bennett revelations, that more than one million African-American children live in families with incomes less than half the poverty level (Sam Dillon, “Report Finds Number of Black Children in Deep Poverty Rising,” New York Times, 30 April, 2003). This is up dramatically from early 2000, when “only” 686,000 black children were that poor – an accomplishment to be deleted from the campaign rhetoric of Bennett’s fellow “compassionate conservative” George W. Bush.
Just for the record, a family of three living below the notoriously inadequate US
poverty level receives a disposable income at or below $7,060 per year. Quick, somebody get those kids a rush order of The Book of Virtues!
What could the Children’s Defense Fund or some other advocacy or service organization – say the Christian Salvation Army, which certainly passes the Bennett virtue test – have done with $8 million? Quite a bit, God knows. At the turn of the glorious new American millennium, as Bennett gazed into screens of Nevada’s slot machines, more than 12 million or 17 percent of US children lived in poverty, including more than 4 million under the age of six. More than one in three US children lived in or near poverty and more than 8 million people, including 3 million children live in homes that frequently skipped meals or ate too little. One in eight US households reported reducing the quality of their diet to utilize financial resources in other essential areas. America’s Second Harvest, the nation’s leading network of food banks, reported that 23 million Americans relied on their agencies in 2001. Forty percent of those Americans came from working families, a fact that sits awkwardly alongside Bennett’s lectures on the rewards of work. (See links on hunger at end of story.)
Things have since gotten considerably worse for those at the widening bottom of America’s steep socioeconomic pyramid during the last two years, thanks to regressive policies pushed by Bennett and his ideological brethren in White House and Congress. Too bad Bennett and his ilk don’t see the need to cycle a few more million (or better yet billion) dollars worth of food and other enrichment through the bodies and minds of America’s poorest children. The latter are now proclaimed even more irrelevant than usual in the face of America’s virtuous drive to “liberate” Iraq, to the great “collateral” advantage of Haliburton, Bechtel, and other needy subjects lining up for their share of the general welfare.
Talk about your “callous disregard.” “More? You want more,” Bennett says, like the schoolmaster in Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist,” to America’s abandoned youth? “Certainly not.” Persevere, young degenerates, put some sweat on those brows, and some day, perhaps, you can join me on the air-conditioned floors of the Sands, your pockets jingling with the rewards of moral virtue and Republican social policy!
Dickens Over Marx: The Limits of Acceptable Debate
After enjoying the overdue public humiliation of a reactionary nag, however, it was darkly interesting to observe three key and related omissions from the faded mainstream debate over Bennett’s nasty little habit, which ended with Bennett promising to quit. American commentators on both the right and the liberal “left” were stuck at the Dickens level, arguing in good bourgeois-moralist terms about the propriety of one aspect of a rich man’s behavior and the possibly negative consequences of a particular public policy. Was Bennett’s gambling ok, as Grover Norquist (a leading conservative tax “reform” advocate) argued, because “it’s his own money and his own business,” and/or because Bennett was able to “handle” or (more to the point) afford it? Is the behavior in question ok because his family remains unharmed, and/or because his “work ethic” has apparently remained intact? Was Bennett exonerated, as the creepy neo-conservative William Kristol claims, because he never specifically targeted gambling in his screeds and sermons? Should Bennett have been condemned because “legalized gambling” is a “vice,” even a sin and/or “a cancer on the body politic,” as the Christian Coalition, the Catholic Church (Bennett’s denomination) and some liberals think? This was a widely held view among American cultural and political authority figures for much of the 19th and 20th centuries. “As gambling spreads,” Joshua Green wrote, “so do its associated problems … including divorce, domestic violence, child abuse, and bankruptcy.” According to The National Gambling Impact Study Commission, a panel created by Congress in 1997, “residents within 50 miles of a casino are twice as likely to be classified as ‘problem’ or ‘pathological’ gamblers than those who live further away.” (Green, “Bookie of Virtue”).
The chief original American “elite” concern with gambling, legal and otherwise, was
well summarized by Eric Zorn, a liberal columnist at the Chicago Tribune, ruminating on Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley’s push to open a casino in that city. “The lure of gambling – the large payoff for a minimal investment – is antithetical,” Zorn preached, in words that might have appeared in The Book of Virtues, “to the connection between effort and reward that we know to be associated not only with strong successful individuals, but also with strong societies.” (Zorn, “Inescapable Cost of Casinos Goes Beyond Money,” Chicago Tribune, 8 May, 2003, Sec. 2, p. 1.)
What the mainstream commentators didn’t have much to say about, however, was the higher yet deeper immorality whereby one man possesses so much money he can afford in one decade to entertain himself by cycling through machines a sum greater than the lifetime earnings of most of his fellow citizens. To tackle that uncomfortable topic, of course, we must leave Dickens behind to confront difficult social-structural forces like class, practically banned from meaningful public discussion thanks to the likes of Bennett and his far-right ilk, who insist that the essential explanation of differences in American wealth and income boil down to personal responsibility and moral behavior. These structural factors are of no small significance in the “winner-take-all” United States, sometimes referred to as “the casino society,” the industrialized world’s most unequal and wealth-top-heavy society by far, where a small and super-privileged slice of the American population enjoys considerably greater behavioral leeway than the rest. Most Americans would be bankrupted or close to it by one or two of Bennett’s Nevada nights.
Meanwhile, children of the American upper class are free to push the boundaries of acceptable behavior – numerous examples come to mind from the Bush clan – with minimal risk of losing lifelong access to the special privileges and pleasures of wealth. How many Americans could run for the presidency after a miserable school record, at least one conviction for drunk driving (Bush’s Texas driving record has been erased and is unavailable to the public), and going AWOL from the National Guard “in a time of war”? These are the current American president’s most well known transgressions prior to entering public office.
The second thing omitted was the strong complementary relationship between this deep inequality and the explosion of legalized gambling in America. Casino gambling and state lotteries arose from the ashes and swept across the nation during the last thirty years thanks largely to the special political and policy influence exercised in America by those perched atop the nation’s unmentionable class structure. With the rollbacks of corporate and wealth taxation, welfare and job security that America’s privileged minority has imposed, casinos and lotteries became attractive both as a (supposed) solution to lost public revenues and job opportunities and as a diversion for Americans seeking to overcome and/or merely forget their economic misery. If Zorn and others concerned about the erosion of the relationship “between [workplace] effort and [labor market] reward” in the US want to get to the root of that problem, they ought to examine wage and hour patterns for unskilled American workers in recent decades. The relevant statistics certainly demonstrate a deterioration in the relationship, thanks largely to employer actions and public policy, including the export of jobs to the low-wage periphery, the roll back of unions and collective bargaining, increased reliance on immigrant labor, welfare “reform,” and much more.
At the same time, legalized gambling deepens America’s class inequalities in ways that escape mainstream attention. Generating massive revenues for corporations that manufacture lottery equipment and advertising firms that sell the “dream,” the lotteries exact their highest price on people at the bottom of the socioeconomic hierarchy. The poor and the working classes tend to buy the lion’s share of the tickets, with less chance of hitting the “jackpot” than of being struck by lightning. In a carefully researched report that mirrors national trends, Chicago Reporter writer Leah Samuel recently showed that “low income Chicago communities generate the highest lottery sales in” Illinois. “Residents in these communities,” Samuel shows, “spent a higher portion of their incomes on the lottery than people in more affluent areas.” In one South Side zip code, Samuel learned, “people spent more than $23 million on lottery tickets in fiscal year 2002.” The top ten Chicago zip codes for lottery purchases over the last six years,” she reported “all had average incomes less than $20,000 a year in 2000, compared with a citywide average of $24,000. Eight of these ten zip codes had unemployment rates higher than the citywide average of 10 percent.”
In Illinois as throughout the nation, lotteries are sold as a progressive mechanism to generate funds for public education. “In reality,” notes sociologist David Nibert, lottery-generated money “constitutes a relatively small part of state educational revenues” and tends to be used to replace educational funds slashed from other sources. (David Nibert, Hitting the Lottery Jackpot: Government and the Taxing of American Dreams, New York, NY: Monthly Review, 2000, p. 61). It is part of what Nibert calls a “fiscal shell game” whereby state governments pretend to boost school spending while cutting or merely maintaining already inadequate public school funding streams, which remain overly and regressively reliant on local property taxes in the US. Lotteries are, in essence, a form of regressive taxation that shifts wealth and income further away from those who can least afford to pay.
Beyond their role in making regressive social policy, moreover, the lotteries play a related dark pedagogical role in American life. They work, Nibert shows, to legitimate economic inequality by teaching Americans that the acquisition of a vast personal fortune is the single best thing that could ever happen to someone. They instruct us that the best thing to do about alienating and oppressive job conditions is not to struggle collectively for a better workplace but to escape those conditions in purely individualistic fashion by shooting for pie-in-the-sky. They falsely preach the existence of “equal opportunity” by advancing the false idea that everybody has an equal shot at making it big (“Anyone Can Play, anyone Can Win”) in a rigidly hierarchical society.
The Color of It All
The third thing omitted was the strong and all-too hidden racial dimension of all this. Bennett’s claims of morally virtuous color-blindness notwithstanding, a very disproportionate share of the people he blames as personally, morally and/or culturally responsible for their presence at the bottom of the American pyramid are black. On the other side of the race-class coin, whites are very disproportionately present in the socioeconomic heights where, according to Bennett and his ilk, virtue is most heavily concentrated and justly rewarded. As should occasion little surprise, the people who turn in desperation to the lotteries happen to be very disproportionately African-American. So, we might add, do the youthful captives of the nation’s scandalously under-funded, hyper-segregated, and (surprise) “under-performing” urban public school systems that are supposedly receiving wonderful shots in the arm from legalized gambling.
How appropriate, then to read the title of a recent article criticizing Bush and Bennett’s educational ideas and policies, which work to undercut the nation’s core commitment to public schooling: “Gambling With the Children.” (Dr. Jamie McCkenzie, “Gambling With the Children”, No Child Left, January 2003.)
How interesting, furthermore, to learn that Bennett broke into publication with a book titled Counting By Race (New York, NY: Basic, 1979). Co-authored with the reactionary editor of the Greensboro (North Carolina) Record, Counting By Race was a vicious assault on the use of affirmative action to offer partial redress for the massive historical and contemporary disadvantages experienced by blacks in every phase of American life. The book claimed to argue its regressive case in the name of “true racial equality,” consistent with the rules of what Elaine Brown calls “New Age Racism,” whereby the social and economic stigma of race is ironically deepened by use and abuse of color-blind rhetoric.
How perfect, finally, to recall the comments of Lt. General T. Michael Moseley, the air-war commander of the recent attack on Iraq, a fundamentally racist action Bennett sees as a glorious expression of America’s moral virtue. Walking through the ruins of a once-proud Iraqi palace, Moseley thought that the structure had interesting potential in the age of American globalism (Michael Gordon and John Kifner, “U.S. Generals Meet in Palace, Sealing Victory,” New York Times, 17 April, 2003). “This,” he said, “could make a pretty nice casino.”
Such a conversion, however, could pose a public relations problem for the Bush administration if, as some suggest could happen, Bennett is appointed civilian Viceroy of occupied Iraq (Larry Magnuson, “William Bennett: Next Viceroy of Iraq?” Common Dreams, May 8, 2003). Bennett may have recently announced his intention to stay away from the slot machines of Nevada and New Jersey. Could he safely keep his distance from the ones in Baghdad, in the highly stressful context of a not-so “virtuous” occupation that is widely hated by members of “liberated” Iraq?
Paul Street (e-Mail: [email protected]) is an urban social policy researcher and political essayist in Chicago, Illinois.