Charles Murray, Author of ‘The Bell Curve,’ Steps Back Into the Ring
Publishers, forget about carefully reasoned, nuanced discussions of the issues of the day—that stuff is for college professors, or yuppies off yammering away in their salons. If you print politically oriented books and you want to make the big bucks, you need to think like a boxing promoter and stage fights that will get attention. And nothing, but nothing, draws hype like a match-up between liberal pundits and the man they love to hate, the belligerent behind the The Bell Curve, the warrior against welfare, the proudly politically incorrect Charles Murray.
Mr. Murray’s newest book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (Crown Forum), makes a pretense of making nice. It bills itself as an attempt to alleviate divisiveness in American society by calling attention to a growing cultural gap between the wealthy and the working class.
Focused on white people in order to set aside considerations of race and ethnicity, it discusses trends, like the growing geographic concentration of the rich and steadily declining churchgoing rates among the poor, that social scientists of all ideological leanings have documented for decades. It espouses the virtues of apple-pie values like commitment to work and family.
But Mr. Murray, a Harvard and MIT-educated political scientist, seems wired like a South Boston bar brawler in his inability to resist the urge to provoke. In the midst of all of his talk about togetherness, he puts out there his belief that the economic problems of America’s working class are largely its own fault, stemming from factors like the presence of a lot of lazy men and morally loose women who have kids out of wedlock. Moreover, he argues, because of Americans’ growing tendency to pair up with the similarly educated, working-class children are increasingly genetically predisposed to be on the dim side.
(This is the point where heads turn, fists clench, and a hush is broken by the sound of liberal commenters muttering, “Oh no he didn’t.”)
Speaking here last week at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, a free-market-oriented think tank where he is a resident scholar, Mr. Murray, 69, argued that the nation’s greatness arose from its founders’ belief in industriousness, honesty, marriage, and religiosity. In today’s working-class communities, however, religious people are seen as “oddballs,” he said, and men deride each other for getting off the couch and taking perfectly adequate jobs commensurate with their training. Divorce and crime rates are exceptionally high, and the “collapse of social trust” has left people unable to count on others to be fair, trustworthy, or helpful.
Assuring the crowd that his book is not politically partisan, Mr. Murray took shots at the wealthy as well. He waved his arms toward the neighborhoods of northwest Washington and its Virginia and Maryland suburbs that he calls “SuperZips” because of their residents’ exceptionally high incomes and education levels, and he argued that people clustered in such communities are losing touch with mainstream America and much of what it has to offer. He protested that the upper class “has lost self-confidence in the rightness” of the value system that brought it wealth, and, rather than proclaiming the importance of hard work, religious faith, and family commitment, instead abides by “a set of mushy injunctions to be nice.”
His audience—a standing-room-only crowd consisting heavily of white, male SuperZippers in button-down business attire—seemed unoffended. It applauded enthusiastically as C-SPAN’s Book TV broadcast the event nationwide. His book has hovered near the top in Amazon’s sales rankings since its release in January.