Symposium: The State of White America (Part 1)

Can the American project continue when Americans stop behaving like themselves? Charles Murray doesn’t think so.

The United States has undergone a significant and perhaps unprecedented shift over the last half century. Since 1960, a new upper class has emerged, more isolated than any other in our history, especially from an increasingly desperate lower class. In order to avoid the usual caveats and hesitations about race that accompany discussions of economic inequality, Charles Murray focuses almost exclusively on the recent history of white America in his latest book Coming Apart: the State of White America, 1960-2010.

A few of us have shared our thoughts on Murray’s analysis, believing that a discussion about where we are as a culture and how we got here is the first step to redeeming a culture from the alarming conditions highlighted in Coming Apart. We will post a response per day for the rest of the week, so check back!

Connor Ewing: A House Divided

What was Charles Murray thinking, writing about class and difference in American society? Does he not know that America is a class-less civilization, where the barriers of wealth, race, parentage, and social standing bow before the potency of the American Dream? Apparently he does not. More accurately, he rejects the notion of a class-less America because he has seen over the past half century the emergence of class-based subcultures divided by divergences in the four “founding virtues”: marriage, industriousness, honesty, religiosity. These cleavages, Murray suggests, might explain the strife echoing through our culture, testing the seams that hold our diverse society together. Characterizing Arnold Toynbee’s theory of history, Murray writes, “To recognize a disintegrating society…look for a riven culture—riven as our culture is today.”

There is much to be praised in Coming Apart. Indelibly marked by his 1994 book The Bell Curve—and, to a lesser extent, Losing Ground (1984) before that—Murray is a known quantity in the intellectual world and, as a result, is free to speak with refreshing directness, an advantage he exploits to great effect. What’s more, Murray brings to bear the rare ability to weave together social science data, political philosophy, and public policy proposals into a compelling and coherent narrative. This is an especially consequential asset because Coming Apart is a sustained argument about the importance of culture. And integral to the success of this task is situating cultural phenomena within broader social and economic dynamics without falling prey to the reductionism that characterizes so many social theories. This is especially evident in the discussions of education, an area that illustrates particularly clearly both the interaction of economics and culture as well as the differences between the new upper and under classes. Murray’s reader is offered a subtle and nuanced contextualization of the dynamics that produce and perpetuate educational inequality. His diagnosis should command the attention of those who recognize the centrality of educational opportunities to a free and self-sufficient society.

If one is looking for faults in this work, the most obvious place to start is the weakness shared by most all works of social science: the crudeness of the categorical constructs employed. For Murray these are Belmont and Fishtown, home to the new upper and under class, respectively. While for the most part these constructs provide great analytical leverage, the inherent abstraction precludes a detailed exploration of how the founding virtues are (and could be) made manifest in each subculture. It is well and good to say that Belmont is more industrious (or religious, or honest…) than Fishtown, but that observation does not address the core concern of how industriousness can be revitalized in Fishtown and what particular challenges exist in light of its prevailing culture. Ultimately, though, this underscores the urgency of Murray’s argument. The emergent class divisions have left Fishtown cut off from Belmont, lacking the diversity and moral exemplars that could stabilize vulnerable social groups, enrich cultural life, and make possible human flourishing. Remedying this isolation, a task ill-suited to the impersonal hand of government, seems to me the most pressing imperative of Murray’s valuable work.

Continue: Part II: Stepping into the Gap (Anne Snyder)