(If you haven’t already (and if you have, thanks for the support), check out my memoir of the inaugural Occupy fall, now on sale at Amazon.)
Two weeks ago my father sent me a series of enthusiastic text messages regarding conservative “social scientist” Charles Murray. Apparently there was an appreciative retrospective article done in Time Magazine about him. The name didn’t sound familiar, but with a little research I remembered who he was.
I wrote back to my father:
A cursory search of Wikipedia gives me two immediate red flags. They are:
1) He is employed by the American Enterprise Institute. This is a very shady institution. As their Wikipedia page puts it: “AEI is the most prominent think tank associated with American neoconservatism, in both the domestic and international policy arenas.”
2) In his book The Bell Curve he makes claims that amount to modern race science. “Much of the controversy erupted from Chapters 13 and 14, where the authors write about the enduring differences in race and intelligence and discuss implications of that difference. The authors were reported throughout the popular press as arguing that these IQ differences are genetic. The authors write in the introduction to Chapter 13 that “The debate about whether and how much genes and environment have to do with ethnic differences remains unresolved,” while also saying that “It seems highly likely to us that both genes and the environment have something to do with racial differences.'” I’d have to read the chapters in question to say whether or not that is completely accurate, but it seems, well, to use their terms, highly likely.
“Welfare has definitely stripped the middle class and underclass of it’s dignity and stake” (a quote from the text message) sounds like the sort of argument that gets people who have nothing to actually gain from a Republican administration to vote Republican. If you make it about “dignity” etc., you play off pride, which is incredibly important to people who don’t own much else and therefore a key means of controlling the working class rhetorically. Listen to Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity, they’re making pretty similar arguments but at a louder volume.
Everyone I know on welfare isn’t really factoring it into their dignity or idea of having “a stake” at all. Why do people not feel like they have a stake in the current system? My guesses would be the following:
1)The social contract has been broken because the rule of law no longer holds. For the underclass (urban minorities etc.), the second they’ve been stopped and frisked without a warrant, they’re going to feel like the system has no stake in them and that any chance for dignity they have is in spite of said system. For the economically oppressed, when they find out their taxes are going toward graft (the war) and that the economic upper class aren’t paying their fair share of these taxes, they feel like the government isn’t representing their interests. In either instance, the sense that the government is anything besides a barrier of protection for the upper class can only be sustained through outlets of rhetoric like Fox News or any of the conservative think tanks.
2)The elections seem too rigged by money for voting to feel like anything more than an empty exercise at best, at worst a fraudulent act helping to cover up the rigged nature of said elections.
3)We’re a culture built politically around a creation myth, namely that of The American Revolution. This myth emphasizes repeatedly that government is only justified in its existence insofar as it serves the needs of the population of said country (Thomas Paine says as much in the first 5 pages of Common Sense, and no one who has gone to school past the 4th grade is unfamiliar with “No taxation without representation!”) The first two points, seen through the lens of this myth, seem like a) betrayals, which invalidate the idea of America and leave the citizen ideologically adrift or b) an argument that America isn’t actually the current government, that the current government is therefore invalid and filled with impostors. The recent wave of Founding Father fetishizing is a manifestation of the second feeling.
Though I never did find the Time Magazine article he was referring to, I did find a review of Murray’s most recent book Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 at the New York Review of Books. It’s pretty damning, and also quite entertaining. Murray is in fact one of the few remaining race “scientists” and his most recent book seems to have a date put in the title mostly so confused readers don’t justifiably, having taken in the ideas discussed, think the book was written some time around 1900.
Andrew Hacker’s review begins with a sentence that speaks to his enthusiasm: “Charles Murray has written another book about race.” Note the similarity in construction to “The kids left another mess in the kitchen.” or “The dog chewed up another one of my shoes.” With a calm bemusement Hacker goes through the books numerous ridiculous claims.
He charges large swaths of “white America”—his designation—with indolence, self-indulgence, and failing to understand the nation’s “founding virtues” of honesty, industriousness, marriage, and religion.
Where do we find said “founding virtues”? Nowhere in The Constitution or The Declaration of Independence. Maybe in Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick? Or 1950s educational film reels?
This thesis might be acceptable with some evidence, or excusable if the book weren’t a dishonest mashing together of suspect statistics and memories of an older America seemingly plagiarized from Leave it to Beaver and Andy Griffith reruns. Someone needs to block TV Land from Mr. Murray’s cable package. Hacker explains that the statistics are set up to focus on, after narrowing the candidates for study to those who responded “white” and only “white” on the Census (specifically excluding Hispanics), only those families making $135,724 dollars a year or more or $52,057 a year or less. This is problematic, says Hacker, because “No discussion is given to the remaining 50 percent, which is odd, since they are literally mid-America and cast most of the votes in presidential elections.” Seems like quite a problem!
Murray is worried there is a social rift between the rich and poor in this country. Fair enough, I’d agree with that. But how to show this? I’m not making this up:
Murray supports his point by setting his upscale readers a quiz: When did they last watch Judge Judy or dine at a downmarket Applebee’s?
Downton Applebee’s, an American chamber drama, a study of class consciousness considered, coming to PBS this fall. But seriously, I honestly can’t remember the last time I did either, and I’m pretty firmly entrenched in the lower income portion of Murray’s study. Maybe it’s a product placement? If so, I hope Applebee’s didn’t pay too much for it…
Murray then goes on to claim the issue is that the underclass is too resentful of the upper class, and creates a theoretical family of four “living comfortably” on $26k a year. This is insane.
In part three of the review, Hacker goes over Murray’s strong nudging in the text that there is a “genetic” tie to white performance in society. How do we determine genetic inheritance? According to Murray, by what people wrote on the census. According to a friend of mine who worked the census, multiple people wrote their race as “Muppet”. Mo’ pages mo’ problems! (And let’s not even begin on the fact race is a cultural invention…)
Murray goes on to mangle statistics further. In 2005, out of 31 million corporations, proprietors and partnerships that sent in tax returns, only 217 were given civil tax fraud penalties. Murray sees this as a sign of upper class honesty in the US, and besides that, given the locus of his study, is presuming all corporations, proprietors, and partnerships are a) making more than $137k a year, and b) are composed of “white” people. Black people can own businesses too, and Murray has no excuse on this count, since TV Land has shown Sanford and Son reruns.
Murray finds an…unorthodox scapegoat for his claimed decline of the “white race” in America. Says Hacker: “Apart from blaming Lyndon Johnson, he seeks no deeper explanation behind his race’s fall from grace.”
And this man, Charles Murray, is employed and comfortable. If this is the best the right can do for academics, I can understand their generalized distaste for “academic elitism”.