Charles Murray has done it again. With the publication of his latest book, “Coming Apart,” he has set off a firestorm of debate. At the heart of the controversy is his selection of white America as his test subjects. Using graphs, pie charts, data points, and anecdotes, he concludes that white America is coming apart at the seams, with highly educated, highly compensated, professionally successful elite whites at the top of the ladder who have segregated themselves into enclaves and insulated themselves from the concerns of “average” Americans. The two groups are drifting further and further apart, economically and culturally.
Murray calls these enclaves “superzips.” If we put names to them we get the picture. Georgetown is a “superzip.” So is Shaker Heights, Ohio. The most prominent and powerful are the suburbs of Washington, D.C.
Most of the criticism of “Coming Apart” is coming from elites singled out in the book. That’s not surprising. As Eric Hoffer once observed, “We do not mind having our hair ruffled, but we will not tolerate any familiarity with the toupee which covers our baldness.”
Murray’s primary problem lies in his use of potent language to describe what his data has shown him. Someone like Robert Reich, speaking from within the elite core, can describe the same phenomenon using the term “the secession of the successful” and find his fellow elites nodding their heads in agreement. But, in spite of the polarizing language, I think Murray may be on to something. We might just be witnessing America “coming apart.”
Does it matter? And, if it does, where do I (we) fit into the scheme of things?
Murray provides a quiz as a means for determining where we fit. There are 25 questions, ranging from whether or not we’ve ever worked on a factory floor, lived in poverty, known an Evangelical Christian, purchased a pickup truck, gone fishing, lived in close proximity to 50 or more people who didn’t graduate from college, whether or not we know who Jimmie Johnson is, or had a friend with whom you could disagree without becoming disagreeable.
The test results can range from zero to 100.
A low final score is an indicator of someone who might be insulated or consider themselves to be part of the “elite” class. A higher score would be an indicator of someone is close to or is a practicing member of the huddled masses.
If you’re wondering where you might fit the test is available at http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/2012/03/white-educated-and-wealthy-congratulations-you-live-in-a-bubble.html
I took the test. My score was 82, which marks me as being as close to being a Neanderthal as a modern man can be. And, worse yet, I’m proud of it.
Murray was particularly interested in the results of the test. I’m also interested in the reaction people, particularly elites, have had to him. Some samples follow:
“It's like I said, I'm down with the people and I hate elitists! All my college friends who majored in sociology with me at Berkeley feel the same way! We hate elitists! We are the 99%! It's those Wall Street guys who are elitists! I'm burning over with populist fury and it's too bad the vast majority of Americans are too stupid and fat and superstitious and brainwashed to agree with me.”
“People are becoming more and more trash-like - with little value placed on future generations - they breed quicker than those of us with a plan - it is not elitist - it is a fact of life - open your eyes.”
“I don't see why just because I don't watch mindless TV shows and corporate blockbusters, and because I don't drive a pickup truck like some stupid redneck, and I don't eat at chain restaurants with a bunch of middle-aged fat people, and because I hate ignorant evangelicals and love scientists, and because I chose to live in a neighborhood with creative educated people - why should any of these things make me an elitist!”
In addition to criticism from rank and file elitists, Murray has incurred the wrath of the pantheons of the powerful. Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Peter Schmidt observed “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.” Some, like Jonathan Chait, haven’t even read the book, but feel wise or educated enough to chime in, claiming that Murray’s work is - “an attempt to change the subject,” whatever that subject might be.
Murray may be on to something, and it sure is fun to watch the reaction of the elites or the elite wannabees. Seeing it, I’m thinking they’d be better off climbing back into their cocoons. Their very public protests have demonstrated, as St. Paul once said, “Professing themselves wise, they became fools.”