February 8, 2012 | 3:00 pm
Posted by David A. Lehrer
Rarely does an issue, an article or a book generate such differing responses from people on the same side of the political spectrum as Charles Murray’s just published Coming Apart.
David Brooks, the conservative-leaning op/ed columnist at The New York Times, has described the book with the following superlatives, “I’ll be shocked if there’s another book this year as important as Charles Murray’s ‘Coming Apart.’ I’ll be shocked if there’s another book that so compellingly describes the most important trends in American society.”
Brooks describes the thrust of Murray’s work, “Murray’s argument is not new, that America is dividing into a two-caste society. What’s new is the incredible data he produces to illustrate that trend and deepen our understanding of it.”
I am a fan of David Brooks and his usually trenchant analysis of current ideas and events. I read his piece in the Times and ordered the Murray book from Amazon. I cited Brooks’ analysis in an email to my kids and nieces and nephews (who in typical millennial fashion dismissed my observations as dated)—-as evidence of the overly simplistic analysis that marks much of our political discourse.
According to Brooks,
Murray’s story contradicts the ideologies of both parties. Republicans claim that America is threatened by a decadent cultural elite that corrupts regular Americans, who love God, country and traditional values. That story is false. The cultural elites live more conservative, traditionalist lives than the cultural masses.
Democrats claim America is threatened by the financial elite, who hog society’s resources. But that’s a distraction. The real social gap is between the top 20 percent and the lower 30 percent. The liberal members of the upper tribe latch onto this top 1 percent narrative because it excuses them from the central role they themselves are playing in driving inequality and unfairness.
It’s wrong to describe an America in which the salt of the earth common people are preyed upon by this or that nefarious elite. It’s wrong to tell the familiar underdog morality tale in which the problems of the masses are caused by the elites.
The truth is, members of the upper tribe have made themselves phenomenally productive. They may mimic bohemian manners, but they have returned to 1950s traditionalist values and practices. They have low divorce rates, arduous work ethics and strict codes to regulate their kids.
Brooks’ description of Murray’s narrative seemed compelling and accurate.
Then I read another analyst’s view, David Frum. He’s the neo-con pundit and former Bush speechwriter who has evidenced a willingness to be less than doctrinaire in his opinions and analysis of current events. He too is a thoughtful and frequently incisive analyst. His take on the same Murray book is quite different.
He acknowledges that Coming Apart is “an important book that will have large influence. It is unfortunately not a good book—but its lack of merit in no way detracts from its importance.” He then proceeds to eviscerate Murray for his line of argument and methodology, “…this kind of polemical use of data is one—but only one—of the things that discredits Coming Apart as an explanation of the social trouble of our times.”
His book wants to lead readers to the conclusion that the white working class has suffered a moral collapse attributable to vaguely hinted at cultural forces. Yet he never specifies what those cultural forces might be, and he presents no evidence at all for a link between those forces and the moral collapse he sees…..
If you’re going to claim the mantle of social science for your claim that reducing government will ameliorate class disparities, then at some previous point in your work, you should make at least some minimal effort to demonstrate that government activity has caused those class disparities. Yet that effort is absent from Murray’s book. Indeed, at the outset of his book, Murray emphatically disclaims any interest in the causes of widening inequality…..
Yet at the end of the book, without ever suggesting any reason to believe that government is the problem, he insists that the reduction of government is the solution….
It’s puzzling, truly. The prescription comes without an etiology, the recommendation without any discussion of causation, verdict without proof or trial. Social science’s claims to be science are troubled enough without this wholesale jettisoning of—not only scientific method—but even the scientific outlook.
Frum’s critique is so impassioned that it has taken up four lengthy posts on The Daily Beast.
What these two thoughtful, yet divergent, commentators make clear is that this critically important issue—-the increasing gulf between the educated and successful and the unschooled and frustrated—- is a problem that may have myriad explanations and causes but is one that demands attention and a response from our leaders and citizenry.
Take a look at the links in this blog for some entertaining reading.
One thing is for sure, I’m going to read this provocative book.
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