Is it a sign of progress in our intellectual life that early published reactions to Charles Murray’s bestseller Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960 – 2010 have been less smugly dismissive, more non-berserk, more—dare we say?—thoughtful than could be expected?
Keep in mind that Murray’s greatest solo book Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950, the product of a half dozen years of original research, disappeared almost without a ripple when published nine years ago. Why? Because Murray was still in Coventry for, along with co-author Richard Herrnstein, documenting in The Bell Curve what most people suspected is true.
But, finally, Murray is apparently being readmitted back into the national discussion.
In the meantime, to get yourself up to speed, the most thorough review is by F. Roger Devlin in The Occidental Quarterly [Elite and Underclass, January 9, 2012]. Other informative analyses are by Ed West in The Telegraph, [How Britain and America are coming apart, February 24th, 2012] Roger Lowenstein in Business Week (the best of the liberal reviews), Foseti at his blog, and mine in The American Conservative [The Bell Curve’s Toll, February 13, 2012].
In brief, Murray argues that the middle class society that dominated white America in 1960 is bifurcating. A flourishing upper middle class continues to follow the fundamental bourgeois norms of monogamy and parental investment in children, but no longer bothers to preach what it practices to the lower orders, who are suffering as a result.
Responses in the first month of publication fall into a number of categories, ranging from the most primitive reptilian brain expressions of loathing to the most sophisticated. Let’s consider the reactions under some stylized categories:
- Why is anybody allowed to talk about Charles Murray? Doesn’t he have cooties? Shame!
CUNY academic and leftist enforcer Eric Alterman is furious that Murray hasn’t been permanently silenced after all of Eric’s past efforts. He risks an aneurysm by recounting for the umpty-umpth time Murray’s sins against goodthink:
“racist pseudoscience … found guilty… outright phony claims … fraud … fraud … fraud … reactionary politics … abuse of science … racist … Nazi sympathizers …”[Think Again: Charles Murray and the Power of Mainstream Media Amnesia, Center For American Progress, February 9, 2012]
Likewise, Joan Walsh complained in Salon:
I shouldn’t admit this, but I almost didn’t review Murray’s Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960 to 2010. I told my editors it was just a mashup of his two most infamous books, Losing Ground and The Bell Curve … Only in this book, Murray confined his analysis to poor and struggling white people, to defuse charges of racism that greeted his two earlier bestsellers. …What do I know? Coming Apart is No. 9 on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list, and it’s been reviewed, with varying degrees of respect, almost everywhere that matters. [My Debate With Charles Murray, February 14, 2012]
But, somewhat surprisingly, these represent the more demented fringe of the early responders.
Of course, Murray isn’t out of the woods yet. Most of the initial responses to The Bell Curve were rational and respectful. Only the berserk mutiny at The New Republic, where 15 staffers demanded to each publish their own ill-informed bile, portended the medium term future dominated by ignorant rage against The Bell Curve. [TNR, October 31, 1994]
A howling mob of liberal commentators not knowing what in hell they are talking about is a dispiriting spectacle, and media reaction to the Herrnstein—Murray book has been infinitely depressing. I cannot remember any other work of scholarship, in any field at all, that has been assailed so cavalierly by writers ignorant of the material and manifestly unconcerned about accurately representing its ideas. [Trashing The Bell Curve, National Review, December 5, 1994]
As Yeats observed:
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Unfortunately, as Keynes is commonly said to have noted, “The markets can remain irrational far longer than you or I can remain solvent.” Similarly, the rageaholics can project their own loathing and ignorance upon you a lot longer than most outside observers can be bothered to try to figure out who the real haters are.
In the very long run, however, there are advantages to being right. Eighteen years after The Bell Curve, despite extraordinary exertions to prove it wrong, it’s hard to see much post-1994 evidence that Herrnstein and Murray weren’t right.
- Charles Murray is, uh, controversial, if you know what I mean …
If you Google “Charles Murray” “Coming Apart” controversial you’ll get 11,000 pages. Talk about a cliché!
(And it’s is particularly amusing if you happen to know Murray, who is perhaps the most careful and judicious thinker in American life. He’s a sensitive soul who gets depressed by the mindless vitriol directed at him. Fortunately for us, he has an inner core on which is etched Illegitimi non carborundum.)
When I started reading newspapers and magazines in the late 1960s, the word “controversial” was used as praise, as a come-on. Today, it’s used to warn readers that you are supposed to avert your eyes.
Why the change? The main reason, I suspect, is that the people who were “controversial” in the late 1960s are now The Establishment.
Consider an intelligent corporate manager browsing in an airport bookstore before flying to DFW on business. He picks up a Murray book, flips through it. The data graphics are elegant and informative, the prose is lucid and understated, and the insights ring true to what’s he’s observed in his own life.
But didn’t he hear something about Murray once? That he was controversial? And the person denouncing Murray as controversial seemed very worked up. What if somebody reported to the HR department that he was seen reading a book by a controversial author? It could come up in discovery in a discrimination lawsuit! Better not risk it. Oh, look, here’s a little book by that Malcolm Gladwell who spoke at the company sales conference a couple of years ago – a much safer purchase!
- “White America”?!? – That’s racist!
A number of the dimmer critics have gotten angry over Murray’s subtitle. Many, however, have accepted Murray’s explanation that looking just at non-Hispanic whites ages 30-49 is simply a methodological necessity to eliminate the impact of demographic change over the last 50 years. Otherwise, how can trends in class be accurately tracked?
So far, Murray appears to have gotten away with using the term “White America.” This marks a subtle landmark: to refer to “white America” with concern and even sympathy, indeed with any purpose other than derision and condescension, is quite new in the Main Stream Media.
I wouldn’t be surprised, though, if there is a backlash over the next few months against the legitimacy of being interested in the welfare of white America, as the volunteer Thought Police start to get clued in to how important this development may be.
- Thank God he doesn’t talk about race.
Jennifer Schuessler wrote in the New York Times:
When Charles Murray and Richard J. Herrnstein’s book The Bell Curve appeared in 1994, it was denounced by social scientists, liberal pundits and a little-known Chicago civil-rights lawyer named Barack Obama, who in a commentary on NPR accused the authors of calculating that “white America is ready for a return to good old-fashioned racism [so] long as it’s artfully packaged.”
Anyone who remembers the firestorm over that 845-page doorstop’s dense arguments about race, class, genetics and I.Q. might be tempted to look at the cover of Mr. Murray’s latest book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, and think, “Here we go again.”
[A Lightning Rod in the Storm Over America’s Class Divide, February 5, 2012]
But, Schuessler goes on to imply, this new book is not about race, so Murray is okay to read now.
From a lot of MSM reviews, you can pick up a widespread sense that being well informed about race is considered “inappropriate.” It’s in bad taste. Ironically, this book about the class system is showing that being ignorant about the basics of race in modern America is a mark of upper class refinement.
Of course, this sort of willful ignorance leads to all sorts of crazy lurches implicitly aimed at trying to Prove The Bell Curve Wrong—such as the No Child Left Behind law…or electing as President a little-known Chicago civil rights lawyer.
- I’m working class, and I know better than Charles Murray.
Actually, in all my reading of reviews, this has not come up—which validates one of the book’s points—Murray makes clear that he expects that virtually all readers of his book will be from the upper end of the social scale.
Tellingly, I have yet to see any reviewer claim he’s wrong. More typical is Timothy Noah’s review in The New Republic, in which he recalls that back when he was growing up in Beverly Hills, there was still “a tacky Polynesian restaurant on Rodeo Drive.” [The Two Americas, February 20, 2012]
Because people love to reminisce about how they had to walk to school five miles through the snow uphill both ways, I suspect that absence of evidence of working class origins implies evidence of absence.
Murray helpfully includes a 25-question quiz so you can evaluate what class you are and how intellectually isolated you are from other classes. A score of 1 is the most insulated upper crust socialite (say, Caroline Kennedy or Theodore Roosevelt V); 100 being Clevon, the philoprogenitive trailer park denizen from the opening scene of Idiocracy. The highest score I’ve seen any reviewer claim for himself is talk show host Michael Smerconish’s 42. (I would guess that both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney would score below 25.)
Murray is from Newton, Iowa, but he grew up more middle class than working class: his father wasn’t a college graduate, but he became a manager for Maytag, the big home appliance company headquartered in Newton. The only MSM commentator to mention a similar small town background is Nicholas Kristof. He wrote a good column in the New York Times about how he sees the signs of decay that Murray describes when he visits his hometown of Yamhill, Oregon. [The White Underclass, February 8, 2012] (Both of Kristof’s parents, by the way, were college professors. Kristof went to Harvard and then to Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship.)
Graham H. Seibert, an American social scientist who has become one of the most valuable Amazon reviewers, writing informative and insightful critiques of serious books, scored 41 on Murray’s quiz. More importantly, he notes that his first wife came from Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood, which Murray uses as a synecdoche of the white working class—in contrast to Belmont, MA, where Mitt Romney long lived. Seibert says that Murray’s portrait of Fishtown is accurate:
“Fishtown in 2010 is a very different place. People simply don`t feel an obligation to either work or get married. There are many never married people, and many out of wedlock children. A lot of the guys are just bums—don`t work, don`t want to work, don`t want to get married, and waste their time watching television. An inordinately large number have figured how to game the system by qualifying for Social Security disability. Their attitude is that work is for chumps.”
- It’s about time to mention the white working class.
Much of the impact of the book comes from the sheer novelty of the topic. I’ve read innumerable essays in this century in the New York Times Magazine alone about how crucial it is for society to send its finest young people into black and Hispanic schools and daycare centers. Kipling expressed this attitude memorably in 1899:
Take up the White Man’s burden—
Send forth the best ye breed—
Go send your sons to exile
To serve your captives` need
But today’s conventional wisdom lacks both the sense of history and the sense of irony needed to get that joke.
On the other hand, nobody has much given a damn about white youths in the exurbs and hinterland.
The unfortunate reality: the white working class isn’t thriving, but it hasn’t caused much trouble for its social betters either, so they ignore it.
It’s striking that the white American working class lacks a non-ethnic expression of vigorous bad taste comparable to the chavs of Britain. In the U.S., we have the Jersey Shore phenomenon for Italian-Americans (and would-be Italians like JWoww), but that epitome of lowbrow vitality excludes most other ethnicities.
A decade ago, NASCAR served as a sort of ethnic pride rally demonstrating stratospheric levels of competence and courage for the kind of Americans who are not allowed to hold ethnic pride rallies. But stock car racing has been fading.
In fact, white working class men mostly seem kind of beaten down these days. They’re getting in a lot of couch time. Murray checks time use surveys and discovers that less educated white males are now spending increasing hours per weeks watching TV and sleeping. One of the book’s most indelible images is of the young dad tagging along behind his woman and her toddlers, head down, playing with his Gameboy.
- What about other countries?
Blue-collar whites are doing reasonably well in Germany, but they seem to be falling apart even faster in Britain than in America.
Neither Coming Apart nor its critics explore this phenomenon.
Back in 2005, I offered half-dozen reasons for why British “youfs” were turning into Ali Gs more rapidly than their distant cousins in America.
One key reason: the chief divide in England is class, while in America it’s race. White working class Americans have retained one subliminal, unspoken bit of racial pride: they believe street crime is a black thing, not a white thing.
In confirmation, last August in England, blacks started looting and white yobs followed them into the streets. It’s hard to imagine that happening on a large scale in America. Historian David Starkey caused a huge uproar by saying on the BBC what everybody was sensing:
“What has happened is that a substantial section of the chavs … have become black. … The whites have become black. A particular sort of violent destructive, nihilistic gangster culture has become the fashion and black and white boys and girls operate in this language together.”
- Things aren’t so bad.
Economist Paul Krugman argues:
“Reading Charles Murray and all the commentary about the sources of moral collapse among working-class whites, I’ve had a nagging question: is it really all that bad?”[A Strange Form of Social Collapse, New York Times, February 9, 2012]
After all, crime is down and so is teen pregnancy. What’s way up among working class whites are out of wedlock births and males dropping out of the workforce.
I would simply point out: Economists used to be familiar with the concept of ceteris paribus, that the way to analyze is by setting “all else being equal.” We live in the age of Moore’s Law, in which computing power doubles every year or two. That’s one of the most remarkable blessings ever bestowed upon humanity. Thus, life ought to be getting better. If it’s not, it may have something to do with whether there are taboos against open discussion of problems.
- Who cares if white working class men don’t marry because they’d rather waste time on gaming, gambling, and porn?
Matthew Yglesias contends in Slate that video games are getting so awesome that it’s okay that dim guys spend more time twiddling X-Box controllers than trying to earn a living, because what kind of living could they expect to earn?
Murray would answer, following Aristotle, that true happiness is “a lasting and justified satisfaction with one’s life as a whole.”
I would add that Americans on the right half of the Bell Curve are going to have to subsidize their fellow citizens on the Left Half of the Bell Curve one way or another. The least corrupting way to do it is through a market system rigged slightly to bribing them into honest toil by not forcing their wages into a race to the bottom against everybody else on Earth. As Stalin might have called it: libertarianism in one country.
Moreover, Krugman and Yglesias are ignoring the impact on inequality. That’s supposed to be 2012’s buzzword, but everybody (including Murray) overlooks how raising, or merely maintaining, a young person’s status in life is becoming ever more dependent upon having two parents pushing him forward as a team. The growth in the number of Tiger Mothers and Eagle Dads makes it increasingly difficult for the children of broken homes to get ahead.
One point lacking in Coming Apart: a sense of how the upper middle class is not just negligent in moral instruction, but is actively re-engineering society to make it harder for working class youths to compete with their offspring. For example, applying to college these days requires two parents cooperating closely, maybe a tutor, a consultant to write the essays, and a well-off extended family to pass along crucial tips. Oh, and it`s a good idea to redshirt your son by having him repeat kindergarten so he`s bigger and smarter and more socially dominant than his classmate. Of course, this means you`ll have to support him for an extra year. And then he`ll need to intern without pay to get started in his career, so you`ll have to support him then, too.
Working class families just can’t compete.
- Murray claims the rich are liberal.
This was one of David “Unpatriotic Conservatives” Frum’s complaints in his fevered five-part denunciation of Coming Apart in The Daily Beast. He cited the distinguished Columbia U. statistician’ Andrew Gelman’s research showing that, especially in Republican-leaning states, a large fraction of the rich are (unsurprisingly) conservative.
The brilliant free-floating web commenter Jason Malloy noted in comments on Bryan Caplan’s blog : “I`m glad that Frum was upfront about his personal issues with Charles Murray, since it makes his shrill, belabored opposition more comprehensible.”
Unfortunately, Frum’s personal animus against Murray and his carelessness led to embarrassment for Gelman, who on his blog took Frum at his word about what Murray’s book is about. When Gelman’s commenters pointed out passages in Coming Apart showing that Murray agreed with him, the author of Red State, Blue State graciously acknowledged “I mischaracterized Murray’s statements …”
Gelman goes on to say:
After his offhand remark about the upper class being liberal …, Murray takes pains to emphasize that this popular impression is exaggerated, writing, “the essence of the culture of the new upper class is remarkably consistent across the political spectrum.” The concept of upper-class people being liberal is not central to Murray’s argument;
if anything, his point is the opposite, to de-emphasize the liberal tilt of “famous academics, journalists, Hollywooders, etc.” and rather make the point that, that whatever the political attitudes are of the new upper class, their attitudes and actions isolate them from mainstream America.
Indeed, another point that’s lacking in Murray’s book is a more probing examination of the ideological commonalities among Democratic and Republican elites beyond mere “nonjudgmentalism.” The chasm between, on the one hand, both the editorial boards of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and the average American on the other, is mostly over globalism versus patriotism. Most Americans feel more loyalty toward their fellow Americans over random foreigners. But American elites across the political spectrum tend to view solidarity among citizens as vulgar, if not downright loathsome.
- What would the Founding Fathers say?
Murray devotes a number of eloquent chapters to the “founding virtues” that made America a middle class republican society. Frum retorts that Noah Webster orated that “vast inequality of fortunes” brought down the Roman Republic.
Yet the first of the Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin, offered a more insightful view than either. Franklin explained in 1754 that life in America is happier than in Europe because we have more land and fewer people, and thus higher wages and lower land prices; and, Ben suggested, we should try to keep it that way—by restricting immigration.
- Good for Murray for showing there are no differences between the races.
Frum commends Murray’s most statistically slippery chapter:
“Murray then presents a sequence of charts showing that marriage numbers for prime-age adults in the white working class have deteriorated to the point of indistinguishability from the numbers for all working class Americans regardless of race and ethnicity. Ditto for the numbers for children living at home with both parents, ditto for labor force participation by prime-age men, ditto for full-time work by prime-age adults.”
Okay, but can’t anybody see what the sleight of hand is here? It’s like saying that among women over six feet tall, an equally high percentage are six-footers as among men over six feet tall. It’s true that that all working class Americans have roughly the same low IQ—but that, proportionately, there are many more blacks with lower IQs.
It’s hard to blame Murray for slathering on the old soft soap in this instance, but you don’t have to praise him for it.
- Coming Apart is all about Murray’s libertarian policy prescriptions.
I was surprised that this was what most of the hubbub has been about, since the policy stuff comes toward the end when Murray’s energy and enthusiasm were clearly running down. Murray’s libertarianism has long been tepid, world-weary, and distinctly limited. Murray, more than anybody, knows the limits of treatment versus selection. We’re not going to solve all our problems by either cutting or increasing taxes, by lowering or raising regulation.
- Where’s the impact of inequality?
Although income inequality is today’s hot topic, it doesn’t particularly interest Murray. Still, Roger Lowenstein has a point in his review in Business Week that the vague libertarian policy suggestions tacked on at the end feel rushed:
Murray says we are becoming a European-style welfare state. That conclusion is debatable, but it is a debate that should follow a different book than the searing sociological study he has written. Coming Apart is, he says, his “valedictory on the topic of happiness and public policy.” But nowhere in this volume are public policies truly discussed; their effect is simply assumed. Maybe welfare kept the lower class low. Maybe assistance programs made the rich want nothing to do with anyone else. Hereby a modest proposition is offered: Vastly diverging wages had something to do with it.
In other words, you get more of what you pay for, and American employers don’t pay workers as much, relatively speaking, as they used to. So, not surprisingly, more guys are finding ways to get on disability or to be supported by their parents or girlfriend(s).
“Still, something is clearly happening to the traditional working-class family. The question is what. And it is, frankly, amazing how quickly and blithely conservatives dismiss the seemingly obvious answer: A drastic reduction in the work opportunities available to less-educated men.”
I would extend this analysis from just wages to standard of living. The traditional American bargain with its native sons was that if they worked hard, settled down, obeyed the law, and married they could eventually afford a house with a yard for their children to play in with a nearby public school that would offer the a decent education without their having to endure a soul-crushing commute. Today, though, what’s the point of putting your nose to the grindstone to pursue the American Dream when the dominant classes, whether Republican or Democrat, think that once you start making a decent wage, you should be replaced by a foreigner?
But the policy implications inexorably point to issue that the Main Stream Media definitely don’t want to discuss, such as the problems caused by free trade, and feminism—and immigration,
Roger Devlin explains in Occidental Quarterly:
“In short, the American dream of a home and family through honest labor is now far out of reach for an increasing number of low-status men. Under these circumstances, what is such a man to do with his life? I’d say an unconstrained bachelor existence with plenty of time for amusements looks very much like a rational choice. The male commentariat may make you out to be a bum, but that sure beats years of performing all the hard work traditionally required to support a family and then not getting the family.”
For a Not Safe For Work version of this line of thought, here’s the game blog Chateau Heartiste:
“If you were a man with diminishing job prospects and stagnant wages thanks to mass low-skill immigration and automation, would you ‘man up’ and ‘do your duty’ for the sake of societal health and elite approval…? In short, men will man up when women woman up. Because women, as the gatekeepers of sex, get the men they deserve. And, more often than not, what they deserve is what they want.”
- What about immigration?
Between 1960 and 2010, the US experienced an unprecedented wave of perhaps 60 million legal and illegal immigrants. It has created whole new ethnic blocs: Hispanics, who have proved especially adept at snagging any new jobs going, increased from roughly 5 million in 1960 to over 50 million in 2010. The impact of this on the white working class’s wages, housing costs, schools, and commutes cannot be ignored. But our punditariat is trying hard to do just that.
And so, unmistakably, is Charles Murray. Immigration is essentially absent from Coming Apart. It does not appear in the book’s index, and a google search finds only three uses of the word in the text.
Maybe Murray judges this part of the price of renewed respectability.
The primary problem with Coming Apart is that Murray`s focus on a cultural divide among whites obscures something else: The destruction of values, economic sectors and entire occupational classes by automation and outsourcing. And don`t forget the massive movements of cheap legal and illegal immigrant labor: This factor sets up a classic conflict, the ethnically split labor market, in which you find unionized working-class whites pitted against minority newcomers who are willing to work for less (sometimes “off the books” and under abysmal conditions).
For Murray, immigration is evidence that “America had jobs for everyone who wanted to work”. He`s rightly depressed by Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam`s research findings of an inverse relationship between ethnic diversity and strong civic culture. But Murray can`t—or won`t—credit as a causal factor the race-to-the-bottom wage spiral propelled by cheap immigrant labor.
Book review: `Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010` by Charles Murray, Los Angeles Times, February 12, 2012
More representative, unfortunately, is David Frum (who knows the immigration score, although he mentions it only rarely according to some obscure calculation of his own). In his five separate attacks on the book, he only mentions immigration when he quotes, with approval, Murray’s inglorious bit of CYA:
Don`t kid yourselves that we are looking at stresses that can be remedied by attacking the legacy of racism or by restricting immigration.
There are many problem in this world that can`t be 100% remedied. But that doesn`t mean we should continue to exacerbate them—as mass immigration worsens, ceteris paribus, the problems of the white working class.
I’ve just decided what I’m going to have carved on my tombstone: “If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.” It ought to be an obvious policy prescription, but it never seems to come up.
[Steve Sailer (email him) is movie critic for The American Conservative and writes regularly for Takimag. His website www.iSteve.blogspot.com features his daily blog. His book, AMERICA’S HALF-BLOOD PRINCE: BARACK OBAMA’S "STORY OF RACE AND INHERITANCE", is available here.]