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."
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).
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,
Hypocrite Joyously Exposed
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.
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.
has been interesting, then, to watch Bennett revealed during
the last week 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 has not been unusual
for him to "cycle several hundred thousand dollars"
through Las Vegas slot machines and video games in a single
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" (Joshua
Green, "Bookie of Virtue," Washington Monthly).
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.
liberal Washington Post columnist Michael Kinsley put
it earlier this week, "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
Man of Virtues Has a Vice," Newsweek, May 2, 2003).
Bennett, who Kinsley describes as a hypocritical "virtue
magnate," has "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.)
has been 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 slutty 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 is 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.
is 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 has recently reported (in a scandalous
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.
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!
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.)
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.
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
Over Marx: The Limits of Acceptable Debate
\After enjoying the overdue public humiliation
of a reactionary nag, however, it is darkly interesting to
observe three key and related omissions from the mainstream
debate over Bennett's nasty little habit. American commentators
on both the right and the liberal "left" are 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. Is Bennett's gambling ok, as Grover Norquist (a leading
conservative tax "reform" advocate) argues, because
"it's his own money and his own business," and/or
because he 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? Is Bennett exonerated, as
the creepy neo-conservative William Kristol claims, because
he never specifically targeted gambling in his screeds and
sermons? (see Seeyle,
"Relentless Moral Crusader"). Should Bennett
be 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 writes, "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").
chief original American "elite" concern with gambling,
legal and otherwise, was recently summarized quite well by
Eric Zorn, a liberal columnist at the Chicago Tribune,
ruminating on Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley's recent push
to open a casino in that city. "The lure of gambling
- the large payoff for a minimal investment - is antithetical,"
Zorn preaches, 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 don't have
much to say about, however, is 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. Here 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.
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
second thing omitted is 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.
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." (Samuel, "The
Poor Play More," Chicago Reporter, October
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
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.
Color of It All
third thing omitted is 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
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.
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,
With the Children",
No Child Left, January 2003.)
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.
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."
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
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,
but could he safely keep his distance from the ones in Baghdad?
Street (e-Mail: email@example.com)
is an urban social policy researcher and political essayist
in Chicago, Illinois.
on Hunger and Poverty: National Facts and Figures on Hunger
and Food Insecurity in the U.S.
For the World, "Hunger Basics"
About Hunger and Poverty"
Center for Children in Poverty, "Child Poverty Fact Sheet
Issue Number 42
May 15, 2003
Other commentaries in this issue:
The Jayson Blair - New York Times Affair: Blaming affirmative
action for white folks mistakes
05/19/1925 - 02/21/65
Neighborhood Chemical WMD
Sex less a factor in African AIDS... U.S. plots "regime change"
in Haiti... Danny Glover targeted as MCI spokesman
Commentaries in Issue 41 May 8,
Bush's Harvest of Shame - One Million Black Children in Extreme
Welfare Safety Net
Black Spinelessness in High Places: DC Mayor sells out on vouchers
- for nothing!
Lieberman seeks crossover GOP in SC... Ashcroft targets Haitians
as threat... The quickest route to death row
The forbidden word, revealed... Enduring effects of "deep
racism"... Can love bloom in the White House?
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