In Shelby Steele's new book, "White Guilt," he mentions an encounter with a white liberal who fiercely defended the welfare state programs and policies of the 1960s.
"We saved this country!" he all but shouted. "This country was about to blow up. There were riots everywhere. You can stand there now in hindsight and criticize, but we had to keep the country together, my friend."
Before we turn to facts, we need to understand the vision. This is a vision of the world more precious than gold. To those who believe it, this vision is a treasure beyond price because it is also a wonderful vision of themselves — and they are not likely to give it up for anything so mundane as grubby facts.
For those liberals who lived through the 1960s, that was often also the springtime of their youth, increasingly treasured as a memory, as the grim realities of old age settle down upon them today. It is expecting an awful lot to expect them to consider any alternative vision of the world, especially one that shatters the beautiful picture of themselves as wise and compassionate saviors of society.
But what are the facts?
While liberals may think of the 1960s as the beginning of many "progressive" trends in American society, cold hard facts tell a very different story. The 1960s marked the end of many beneficial trends that had been going on for years — and a complete reversal of those trends as programs, policies and ideologies of the liberals took hold.
Teenage pregnancy had been going down for years. So had venereal disease. Rates of infection for syphilis in 1960 was half of what it had been in 1950. There were similar trends in crime. The total number of murders in the United States in 1960 was lower than in 1950, 1940 or 1930 — even though the population was growing and two new states had been added. The murder rate, in proportion to population, in 1960 was half of what it had been in 1934.
Every one of these beneficial trends sharply reversed after liberal notions gained ascendancy during in the 1960s. By 1974, the murder rate had doubled. Even liberal icon Sargent Shriver, head of the agency directing the "war on poverty," admitted that "venereal disease has skyrocketed" even though "we have had more clinics, more pills and more sex education than ever in history."
Liberals looking back on the 1960s take special pride in their role on racial issues, for civil rights laws and the advancement of blacks out of poverty. Those riots that threatened to tear the country apart were race riots — and supposedly the liberals saved us all.
But what do the facts show?
Both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had a higher percentage of congressional Republicans voting for their enactment than the percentage of congressional Democrats.
You can check it out in the Congressional Record.
As for black economic advances, the most dramatic reduction in poverty among blacks occurred between 1940 and 1960, when the black poverty rate was cut almost in half, without any major government programs of the Great Society kind that began in the 1960s.
Liberals love to point to the rise of blacks out of poverty since 1960 as proof of the benefits of liberal programs, as if the continuation of a trend that began decades earlier was proof of how liberals saved blacks.
As for saving the country from riots, the facts show the direct opposite. It was precisely when liberals were in power that riots rocked cities across the country. There were never as many riots during the two presidential terms of Ronald Reagan as during one term of Lyndon Johnson.
Even during the 1960s, riots were far more common and deadly in liberal bastions like New York City than in Chicago, where the original Mayor Richard Daley announced on television that he had given his police orders to "shoot to kill" if riots broke out.
Daley was demonized for saying such a thing, even though Chicago did not have the loss of life suffered in liberal cities where mayors pandered to grievance-mongers and pleaded for restraint. In other words, the net effect was that Daley saved lives while liberals saved their vision.
Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.