Thursday, May 16, 2013

Book Review: “Coming Apart” by Charles Murray (2012)

“The Bell Curve” co-author returns with another racially-tinged sociological analysis, this time pleading the question “what’s up with white people?”


In “Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010,” author Charles Murray tells us what we pretty much already know; that the breakdown of the American family -- and in particular, the phenomenon of father absenteeism -- has lead to a whole host of social problems in the United States over the last half century.

There’s really not a whole lot of debate regarding some of Murray’s other claims, either. He cites a general idleness among “prime aged white males” (those ages 30-49) that was fairly aberrational in the 1960s as yet another catalyst for why things, all of a sudden, went to shit in America’s working class communities. Literally echoing the sentiments of Robert Putnam in his seminal 2000 work “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,” he also believes that diminishing “social capital” has made it a lot more difficult for working class whites to live life on the straight and narrow. If only working class chalkies would return to their roots -- marriage, industriousness, honesty and religion, Murray claims -- than their respective lots in life would dramatically improve.

With the notable exception of the “religious” aspect -- which, to Murray’s credit, he somewhat reshapes into “civic engagement” as the tome progresses -- the author’s suggestions seem not only convincing, but almost blindingly apparent. If fathers actually took care of their kids, had steady employment and weren’t criminals, of course children in working class environments would be in much better positions to escape poverty and become members of the American middle class. Some of the advice Murray dispels seems so guldarn obvious, you wonder why he’d even feel the need to jot it down.

The problem with Murray’s book -- an otherwise fine, well-thought-out, somewhat persuasive analysis of classism in modern American --  is that the dude’s remedies are…well, kinda’ non-existent. After taking us on a statistics-heavy slog chronicling the numerous socioeconomic changes American Caucasians have experienced over the last 50 years, his final words on the subject are just a wee bit disappointing. After several pages worth of jibber-jabber about the U.S. turning into a “nanny state” (not that I need to tell you this, but Murray is one of those “Libertarian” folks whose approach can be almost intolerably dramatic at times) the absolute best he can muster is that blue collar white neighborhoods -- by their own devices, out of a clear blue sky one day -- ought to just “remedy themselves” and restore their communities to their former glories, without any of that coercive “governmental aid.” In other words? Murray has a keen eye for pinpointing what the problems are, but try as he may, it’s pretty damn apparent that even he has no idea how to reverse course and bring about sweeping civic changes to America’s post-recession, lily-white, tank top and Budweiser communities.

It’s a real shame, too, because Murray does a pretty commendable job of painting a portrait of the vast “separation” of powers in the modern, Caucasoid community up until then. Ingeniously, Murray elected to only examine white communities in the book, to demonstrate that the parallel community hardships of African-Americans and Hispanics had roots in something other than racism or institutional prejudices. Later on, he compares data of upper lower class honkies with nationalized data of all working class/upper lowers in the U.S., and whaddayoknow, the statistics seem to synch up quite nicely. As stated earlier, Murray illustrates the structure of classism as America’s greatest social obstruction very well, and considering the surfeit of numbers he throws to back it up, I think you’d have to be incredibly hard-pressed to argue to the contrary.

It’s really impossible to talk about “Coming Apart” without talking about Murray’s most (in)famous work, 1994’s super-hyper-oh-my-god-you-have-no-idea-just-how-controversial “The Bell Curve.” Alike “Coming Apart,” that little treatise offered a somewhat impolite -- yet virtually impossible to deny -- premise: that intelligence level is a major corollary with academic performance, criminality, and economic stability. Now, where things got a little contentious was in Murray’s assertion that there’s a genetic component to one’s IQ, and where things get volcanically contentious is his assertion that -- maybe, just maybe -- certain races may be genetically inclined to be smarter than others. To say that Murray’s conclusion (and for the love of God, remember that it’s his and not mine) wasn’t welcomed warmly by some might just be the understatement of the 1990s.

Now, outside of painting Murray as a potential racist, you have to cite “The Bell Curve” to address “Coming Apart” for another reason; because in the 1994 book, Murray suggested that, due to selective breeding, all the smart folks would eventually marry all the other smart folks, and they would wind up locking themselves away from society while a working class plurality was destined to remain average, if not get stupider and stupider, “Idiocracy” style. In “The Bell Curve,” Murray nicknamed these hypothetical eggheads “the cognitive elite,” a term which seems to have been picked up and rebranded by others under descriptors such as “the creative class” and "bourgeoisie bohemians."

The primary argument  in “Coming Apart” is basically this; all of the well (perhaps, even over-) educated white folks are living with only other well (perhaps, even over-) educated white folks, so they’ve become shuttered away from society at large. With their six figure salaries and new-wave yuppie mentalities (somewhat ironic, since Murray posits that most of these cognitive elitists tend to lean left in terms of political identity), the upper middle class whites have more or less formed enclaves within “Super ZIP codes” -- neighborhoods that are mostly filled with new-money Caucasians -- and as such, they have no goddamn idea how anybody else in the country lives. In “Coming Apart,” Murray compares these individuals -- referring to them as the denizens of a hypothetical, all-white upper-middle-class community called “Belmont” -- with lower class and working class whites living in a hypothetical neighborhood referred to as “Fishtown” (which the author later reveals to be patterned after a real neighborhood in Philadelphia, an extraordinarily white-urban community that just so happened to be the subject in Peter Binzen’s book “Whitetown, U.S.A.”)

The meat and potatoes of “Coming Apart” -- which is told mostly in chart and bar graph form -- involves a cross-examination of the two “enclaves”, in regards to the four major variables mentioned earlier. The connections Murray draws here are pretty much indisputable: the inherent economic stability of “Belmont” -- which has higher rates of marriage and much higher employment numbers -- is buttressed by the social stability of low-crime and social capital, and since folks in “Fishtown” don’t have any of the above, they remain perennially effed in the aye as social system inhabitants.

As stated before, there’s hardly any denying what Murray writes in “Coming Apart,” but it’s quite difficult to consider his “solutions” to be either viable or desirable. Yes, I am sure that having more urban children grow up in non-broken homes would more than likely lead to more economically stable home lives for children (which, in turn, would probably produce more socially responsible youth), but as to how that sudden shift comes together, the author remains suspiciously mum. How do you make people become responsible fathers and hard workers and individuals with a sense of neighborliness? Well, reading “Coming Apart” isn’t going to tell you how, that’s for darn sure.

One of the problems with Murray’s book is that he oftentimes equates “economic stability” with general wellbeing. OK, so living in a family with two married parents MAY have the positive economic impact of two paychecks, but what if you live in a family with two parents, without jobs, or worse, two parents, without jobs, that are on drugs or always fighting with one another? I highly doubt the extra income there is going to negate all of the social problems that seem to be hallmarks of the much maligned “single parent home” -- a subset of the America population that, alike many right-wing analysts, Murray seems to hold in about the same esteem as insect-eating rodents.

The employment angle really goes without saying, so I’m not going to waste any bandwidth on the matter, but I do have quite a few qualms with Murray’s assertions that honesty and religiosity are mechanisms that the downtrodden could use to lift themselves out of working class nothingness.

First of all, Murray’s definition of what constitutes “honesty” is a little problematic. Yes, it’s probably a good idea that individuals refrain from committing crimes to achieve their social ambitions, but beyond that, how is it possible to gauge “decency” among one’s peers? Well, deciding to go “Full-On Libertarian,” Murray argues that one’s inability to pay off debts (particularly singling out those that file for chapter 7 bankruptcy) is a clear indicator of Fishtown anti-values…this, despite the fact that upper class white folks ALSO tend to be saddled with gargantuan debt levels (what else are mortgages, after all?) and that a lot of these hyper-capitalists tend to do some highly-illegal, un-neighborly shit to better their social predicaments, too. The argument Murray makes is that, despite this, folks in Belmont trust their community co-dwellers, whereas those in Fishtown are more leery of their neighbors -- a mentality, he believes, that drives down social capital, which in turn, makes the community, as a whole, more isolated and non-altruistic.

Religious institutions, Murray then argues, could be the primary vessel for those in Fishtown to reestablish social capital. In some ways, his argument that the church, as a civic tool, could help improve the lives of the working class has some merits (networking possibilities and cheap aid and assistance, for the most part), but I fail to comprehend how something as polemic and divisive as religion can be utilized to reshape entire neighborhoods. Unless everyone in town is the exact same denomination, I just don’t see Murray’s proposal having any bearings whatsoever. And despite making the correlation between educational obtainment and higher earnings among the Belmont elite, guess which factor Murray NEVER brings up as a possible escape route for the working class poor?

At the end of the book, Murray states that the only way for the working poor to overcome economic and social stagnation is to embrace “fourth-awakening values” (i.e., become Reagan Republicans) and eschew “third-awakening values” (i.e., all of that FDR Commie bullshit.) Interestingly, Murray never really goes after LBJ’s “Great Society” programs, which seem to be much easier targets for his thinly veiled “welfare just makes poor people poorer” argument -- basically, the bullhorn message of the entire tome, which Murray (perhaps still licking the third degree backlash burns he received from “The Bell Curve”) just doesn’t have el cojones to come out and directly state.

Clearly, I don’t agree with most of Murray’s “solutions” in “Coming Apart.” However, I did find the book to be a very entertaining, informative analysis of what makes classes different in American society. Of course, as a “cognitive elitist” himself (the hypothetical turd in the proverbial punchbowl that Murray never even thinks about bringing up to the reader), I don’t believe has the firmest grip on the pulse of the working poor. In fact, for the most part, he seems to be literally writing about them from above, using anecdotal material to beat out as many stereotypical portraits of shiftlessness and aimlessness as he can (and just wait until you get to the part about “The Sunshine Club.”) And while some may consider the author’s deep-down-data-drilling a little excessive, I actually liked all of that dollar-to-dollar, inch-for-an-inch evaluation going on. If you’re looking for just a textbook comparison of the sociological makeup of the haves and have-nots in American society -- than “Coming Apart” is most certainly something worth taking a gander at.

All in all, there’s some decent referential stuff in “Coming Apart,” especially with all of these meaty data chunks in the stew. Furthermore, Murray does a very good job of explaining the structural pros and cons of the upper middle class and the “new” American lower class; unfortunately, all Murray seems capable of expressing here is the severity of the problem…if you’re looking for some workable, real-world solutions to social and economic inequality, though, just don’t think you’ll be uncovering anything of value here.

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