Charles Murray’s ‘Coming Apart - the State of White America’
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 as 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.”
But “Coming Apart,” which depicts members of white elites as hypocrites living in a bubble and the white working class as succumbing to moral decay, is hardly a flattering portrait of white people, let alone, Mr. Murray insists, a partisan barnburner.
“It’s not a brief for the right,” Mr. Murray said in a recent interview at the American Enterprise Institute here, where he has been a scholar since 1990. “The problem I describe isn’t a conservative-versus-liberal problem. It’s a cultural problem the whole country has.”
“Coming Apart,” which shot to No. 5 at amazon.com immediately upon publication last week, has certainly prompted much conversation, if little in the way of consensus. David Brooks, a columnist for The New York Times, pre-emptively declared it the most important book of the year, saying, “I’ll be shocked if there’s another book that so compellingly describes the most important trends in American society.”
But to critics on the left Mr. Murray’s arguments are just an effort to change the subject. Defining the problem as one of cultural inequality instead of economic inequality, as the New York Magazine blogger Jonathan Chait put it, allows one to start talking about marriage and industriousness and “steer the debate back onto comfortable conservative terrain.”
Looking at America Mr. Murray sees a country increasingly polarized into two culturally and geographically isolated demographics. In Belmont, the fictional name Mr. Murray gives to the part of America where the top 20 percent live, divorce is low, the work ethic is strong, religious observance is high, and out-of-wedlock births are all but unheard of. Meanwhile in Fishtown, where the bottom 30 percent live, what Mr. Murray calls America’s four “founding virtues” — marriage, industriousness, community and faith — have all but collapsed.
The book says little about the roots of Fishtown’s problems, but in conversation Mr. Murray doesn’t hesitate to name the villain. “The ’60s were a disaster in terms of social policy,” he said. “The elites put in place a whole set of reforms which I think fundamentally changed the signals and the incentives facing low-income people and encouraged a variety of trends that soon became self-reinforcing.”