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Charles Murray and the challenge of being rich and white

Unemployed Americans line up to enter a job fair on the first day of the Labor Day long weekend in the City of El Monte outside of Los Angeles on September 4, 2010. US unemployment jumped to 9.6 percent in August, the Labor Department said, showing the recovering economy is still struggling to create jobs.
Unemployed Americans line up to enter a job fair on the first day of the Labor Day long weekend in the City of El Monte outside of Los Angeles on September 4, 2010. US unemployment jumped to 9.6 percent in August, the Labor Department said, showing the recovering economy is still struggling to create jobs.
Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

I've held off for a bit on writing about Charles Murray's new book, "Coming Apart: The State of Whiteness in America 1960-2010." I wanted to see how his thesis was sorted out by various commenters, after I first came across an excerpt a few weeks back in the Wall Street Journal. It might be Murray's best work yet, although it's sure to provoke years of heated debate. The book is vintage Murray: it's "Bowling Alone" with a right-ish agenda, "Stuff White People Like" with piles of hard data. NPR gets hammered. The "elites" are scolded like spoiled children.

Just for the record, I've strongly disagreed with Murray's views on education, outlined here a few years ago. I think everybody should go to college, if they want. And it's up to us as a society to figure out how to make that happen. Murray thinks that a four-year university education may not a useful path for many Americans. But it's increasingly the only path to economic competitiveness.

As for Murray's other lightning-rod views, I've steered clear of them. Not my area.

"Coming Apart," because it's about how much economically better some white people in America are doing than other white people in the U.S.A., is in my area. So far, major statements about the book, which is solidly ensconced on the New York Times bestseller list, have come from NYTimes columnist David Books, as well as from David Frum, a former Murray colleague at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.

At Salon, Joan Walsh lays into it without remorse, accusing Murray of an "old genetic fatalism."

The Economist's "Lexington" column, which considers the Former Colonies for the British weekly, has also weighed in, with a certain amount of skepticism.

The action here is mainly with Brooks and Frum, however — Murray's fellow travelers.

First Brooks, who certainly owes Murray one, as "Coming Apart" can be seen as a natural shelf-mate and a more academic successor to Brooks' own "Bobos in Paradise" from 2000:

I’ll be shocked if there’s another book this year as important as Charles Murray’s “Coming Apart.” I’ll be shocked if there’s another book that so compellingly describes the most important trends in American society.

Murray’s basic argument is not new, that America is dividing into a two-caste society. What’s impressive is the incredible data he produces to illustrate that trend and deepen our understanding of it.


America has polarized. The word “class” doesn’t even capture the divide Murray describes. You might say the country has bifurcated into different social tribes, with a tenuous common culture linking them.

The upper tribe is now segregated from the lower tribe...members of the upper tribe have made themselves phenomenally productive. They may mimic bohemian manners, but they have returned to 1950s traditionalist values and practices. They have low divorce rates, arduous work ethics and strict codes to regulate their kids.

Members of the lower tribe work hard and dream big, but are more removed from traditional bourgeois norms. They live in disorganized, postmodern neighborhoods in which it is much harder to be self-disciplined and productive.

Brooks of course sides with Murray in suggesting that the upper tribe needs to lead by example and reform the lower tribe. The Boboism has been replaced (or modified) by the upper tribe's mimicry of "bohemian manners" and made economically powerful by the restoration of "traditionalist values." At a critical level, the Brooks' Bobos has fully integrated their "latte town" attitudes with stuff like staying married and going to church (synagogue, temple, etc.).

David Frum — who has endured a public spat with Murray over Frum's getting canned by AEI — is so not in agreement with Murray that he's undertaken a rebuttal in four parts at the Daily Beast. Here's a critical paragraph, from Part 1:

Murray nostalgically regrets the lost America of his 1950s Midwestern boyhood. But to describe in any true way how that America was lost would require a reckoning of how that America was made. Unwilling, as he acknowledges, to submit his politics to the check of uncongenial evidence, Murray prefers to avoid encountering the evidence that might shake his politics.

And another, from Part 4:

Despite all its perverse omissions and careless generalizations, Coming Apart deserves credit at least for this: It takes seriously the challenge of reconstituting America as a middle-class republic. At a time when many conservatives refuse to acknowledge the simple statistical fact of intensifying inequality, Murray has at least joined the discussion. Congratulations for that.


The odd thing is: I'm exactly the right market for Murray's rhetoric. I'm predisposed to accept everything he says about the importance of individual achievement and the negative consequences of government that provides too much. All I ask is some skein of connection, no matter how thin and fragile, between the "whereas" and "therefore" clauses of the Murray argument. Murray doesn't draw any at all, and doesn't seem even to be aware that any such skein is required. The conclusions of Coming Apart are pure dogma, not only unsupported but even unrelated to anything that went before.

So Brooks, who can often be something of a soft-focus conservative, digs Murray's directives. Frum spends four days expressing his disappointment. I haven't read the book yet (stay tuned), but at this point I can say that Murray's argument boils down to a single word: "judgment." Some white people — the lower tribe — have shown poor judgement. Other white people, the upper tribe, have shown excellent judgment. The upper has been economically rewarded and is pulling away from the lower. But if the upper tribe would simply be more willing to judge the lower tribe, it would be able to create the much-desired middle-class mash-up ans restore our nation to state of Eisenhower Era grace.

For its part, the Economist boils it all down to the most salient point: will higher taxes, a horror to conservatives like Murray, substitute for the needed judgmentalism? "The upper class might go along with this," Lexington writes, "because it is easier to pay higher taxes than to become involved in the lives of fellow citizens whom the rich no longer understand."

You might review all this and raise an obvious question: Why can't we have both? That is, higher taxes on the wealthy — really just a reversion to historic norms, especially where capital gains are concerned — and a higher level of civic engagement across the two tribes of white people? 

Murray is on to something here. My own life has been one of middle-class mixing, the upper and lower tribes coming together more often than being apart. And I've seen firsthand how much more difficult it's becoming to keep this type of American-ness — white, black, brown, or otherwise — healthy.

But it's not clear to me that Murray needs to distort his basic message with the same conservative policies that have been tried before, plus a new sense of upper-tribe responsibility. The full argument awaits. And while Brooks may be right about the book's importance, he may be right for the wrong reasons.

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