Posted by David A. Lehrer
Ten days ago Community Advocates wrote an op/ed in the Los Angeles Times decrying a recently passed statute that authorized the state to survey all judges and judicial applicants in California as to their sexual orientation. We commented that the law was “pernicious in its application and insidious in its potential impact.”
In today’s editorial the Times agreed,
State lawmakers may have had the best of intentions when they approved legislation last year to require that California judges be asked in an annual demographic survey about their sexual orientation. The goal was to assess diversity on the bench. Instead,
the Legislature has inappropriately and ineffectively intruded into the private lives of judges
A good portion of the judiciary seems to think so too. Answering all or any of the survey questions is optional, and 40% of those who responded opted not to answer the question about sexual orientation, according to the recently released survey, which also queried jurists about their race, ethnicity and gender. The Administrative Office of the Courts — the staff agency to the Judicial Council of California — is required by the law to collect the information on all judges and judicial officers in the state. The data are released in the aggregate, arranged by court systems, not by individual jurists; no one is identified. However, in some small jurisdictions, that anonymity may be meaningless. For example, in the Mariposa court, both judges who responded to the survey declined to say whether they are heterosexual, gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. Overall, 672 judges and officers, from the Supreme Court to the trial courts, declined to answer. An additional 1,005 did answer the question. (Nineteen said they were lesbian, 17 said they were gay, and one answered transgender.)
This was an ill-conceived attempt at promoting diversity on the part of the Legislature (emphasis added).
Read the full story here.
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March 16, 2012 | 3:48 pm
Posted by David A. Lehrer
Last Friday we had an op/ed in the Times about Senate Bill 182 that mandates that California’s Administrative Office of the Courts (“AOC”) survey every judge and justice in California and all judicial applicants as to their gender, their gender identity and their sexual orientation.
Since that op/ed was published we have heard from judges and others intimately involved in this sorry story. One judge informed us that the AOC in its e-mails to sitting judges never mentioned that their intrusive queries were voluntary. That, despite the fact that the legislative analysis by both the Assembly and Senate staffs concluded that the questionnaire was voluntary.
In fact, not only did the AOC not note the voluntariness of the survey, its tone was demanding:
We have not received your response to the survey as of noon today. Please follow the link below and provide your information at your earliest convenience on or before this Friday. If you prefer to provide your information by telephone, please contact Romunda Price at the AOC.
Betraying their amazing obtuseness regarding what they were asking about, the AOC suggests that perhaps the judges would like to offer their responses as to sexual orientation and sexual identity “by telephone.” I can imagine a Bob Newhart-like telephone routine where the questions probe a judge about his/her bisexuality, transgenderness and gayness and what it means to him/her (i.e.“sexual identity”).
The AOC’s emails felt compelled to offer a rationale for their prying beyond simply the mandate of SB 182. Gathering the data, they wrote, “is crucial to garnering legislative support for securing critically needed judgeships.” In other words, the judiciary has to satisfy the legislature’s demand for their personal information or likely no new judges down the road.
In fact, the legislature has made clear; it is the personal data they want. Senator Ellen Corbett, the author of the snooping legislation, has written that she wants to collect information on “sexual orientation or gender identity and gender expression” to help identify who’s who and if there is a “lack of diversity” on the bench.
You can’t make this stuff up. As the federal government abandons “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”, California embraces its antithesis, “Ask and Tell.”
Imagine receiving a survey like this and trying to parse what it all means. As one of our correspondents from the bench sagely observed,
What does gender identification mean? ‘Is it a purely sexual inquiry or is it broader than that?’ I asked myself. I concluded that survey questions were clearly prying into sexuality. This is how I processed the question; ‘gender identification’ in the survey context given the purported survey purpose was inextricable interwoven with sexuality. For example, if a survey subject were biologically a woman with a male gender identification, and a sexual orientation as “lesbian” then this means one type of sexuality though the survey subject could be a biological woman with a male gender identification with a sexual orientation of heterosexual which connotes a very different type of sexuality. Bottom line, the survey demanded sexual information which is my own damn business.
Even just asking the question as a mandate for the judicial branch subjects us to criticism analogous to that of our military, albeit at least the military doesn’t ask. The legislatively enacted policy directed at the California judicial branch of “Do ask, and tell” outranks “Don’t ask, don’t tell” when considered side-by-side.
The legislation, its implementation by the bureaucracy, and its impact bespeak an attitude in Sacramento that is deeply troubling.
Despite the fact that the electorate has made transparently clear that it endorses equality of opportunity and rejects preferences, the legislature seems to have no compunction about setting up systems that seem ultimately designed to promote preferences and mandates for sexual orientation-based outcomes. Since Sen. Corbett declared the intent of the legislation was to determine whether there is a “lack of diversity” on the bench, one has to wonder not only how she will determine that “lack of diversity,” but how she will know when the “lack” is gone (i.e. what is the goal?).
Determining whether there is a “lack of diversity” is the first hurdle. Forty percent of the judges surveyed refused to provide the information on sexual orientation. Does the legislature act on the data received (i.e. in the latest survey 1.1% of judges said they were lesbian, 1% said they were gay, .06% said they were transgender, 0% were bisexual). If that’s not sufficient, do they force the mute judges to talk?
If it were up to Equality California, which lobbied for SB 182, the absence of knowledge is not a bar to concluding that the “California judiciary suffers from a substantial lack of diversity…..While LGBT people represent a sizable and important part of the state, their representation in the judicial branch of government is virtually unknown.” But, if we don’t know the number of LGBT judges and a significant number of judges are clearly not interested in telling us about their sexual orientation how does Equality California conclude that there is a “substantial lack of diversity?”
This begs another practical question, how will the legislature know when the proper “diversity” has been reached, what percentage is the appropriate percentage of judges who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender? Is the Kinsey Report (10% of the population is gay) the benchmark, or is it the Hite Report, or is it “just a feeling”? Is it judges who are openly gay or do closeted folks count too?
The problem is that the legislature and the AOC are in quicksand and can’t get out of it. They want to resolve what may or may not be a problem, absent information that will probably never be forthcoming, with a remedy that Californians and reasonable concerns about privacy say should be rejected out of hand.
Thank goodness the judiciary has more sense. They are, by a sizeable minority refusing to provide the intimate details of their sexual interests, telling us it’s none of our or the state’s business.
It will be telling whether the legislature amends an offensive statute that asks the unaskable and has engendered such substantial resistance from the folks it probes. Sadly, I doubt they will see the light.
March 9, 2012 | 1:57 pm
Posted by David A. Lehrer
The following op/ed appears in today’s Los Angeles Times:
The results are in. Of the 1,005 California judges who responded to a government survey released last week, 969 identified themselves as heterosexual, 19 as lesbians and 17 as gay men.
We know this — though it’s none of our business — because of a highly intrusive law passed by the Legislature last year. Under its provisions, every judge in the state, as well as all judicial applicants, nominees and appointees, is asked to provide information about his or her “gender, gender identity and sexual orientation.”
The statute that authorizes this new intrusion into judges’ private lives was enacted after lopsided votes in both the Assembly (52 to 25) and the Senate (23 to 15). But if the Legislature seemed to have no concern about the bench’s privacy, many of the state’s judges do. Some 40% of those surveyed didn’t answer the question on this year’s survey.
The goal of the legislation, according to those who backed it, was to promote greater diversity on the bench. But treating sexual orientation as if it were totally analogous to race, gender or ethnicity is wrong. Of course people should be protected from discrimination in employment or public accommodations because of their sexuality. But there’s no justification for the next level of intrusion — seeking to develop demographic data to ostensibly further “diversity.”
The law’s author, Senate Majority Leader Ellen Corbett (D-San Leandro), said she was trying to rectify a “deficiency in current law” by collecting “self-reported information to help identify diversity of sexual orientation or gender identity and gender expression, or lack thereof.” But do we really want sitting judges and justices, and prospective appointees, to be asked to reveal to a government bureaucrat what their preferences in the bedroom are? Is it anyone’s business? Is it relevant?
In an effort to balance the obvious privacy issues caused by a prying governmental agency, the statute mandates that answering the question is voluntary, and the agency reports that only “aggregate” statistical information by “specific jurisdiction” will be released. Aggregating information, however, is not enough to protect judges’ privacy. In counties with hundreds of judges such as Los Angeles and San Diego, it might be. But what about in jurisdictions where there are very few judges? Mono, Alpine, Plumas, Sierra, Calaveras and eight other counties have only two judges, and nearly 30 of the state’s counties have 10 or fewer judges.
People might start speculating about which judges are the straight, gay, transgender or bisexual ones among the handful in each county. Would that really promote diversity on the bench? Or would it be more likely to lead to a reluctance by some prospective gay jurists to put themselves forward?
There is a further lapse in logic in the seemingly well-intentioned effort to know “how the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community is being represented in the judiciary.” Is it relevant to the administration of justice or the appearance of fairness to engage in promoting sexual orientation diversity on the bench?
In the case of visible minorities, one can make the argument that litigants and others with business before the courts are put at ease by seeing individuals on the bench who look like them or who share their ethnic background. Having an all-male or all-white judiciary can distance the bench from both the bar and litigants. But a judge’s sexual orientation isn’t automatically discernible, nor should it be. It’s something we simply don’t need to know, just as we don’t need to know whether a judge is left-handed or right-handed, or a twin.
One might argue that diversity of sexual orientation is necessary for the sake of the type of justice dispensed, but a ruling in the recent Proposition 8 case (the ban on gay marriage) disproved that notion out of hand. The fact that the trial judge on the case was a gay federal jurist in a long-term, same-sex relationship was found by a higher court to be irrelevant to the substance of his ruling. The presiding judge hearing the appeal ruled that assertions of differential justice being dispensed because of the judge’s sexual orientation and relationship were “warrantless” and were, in fact, “intimate but irrelevant details of his (the judge’s) personal life.”
California’s legislators mindlessly enacted a law in service of political correctness that is pernicious in its application and insidious in its potential impact.
March 8, 2012 | 3:22 pm
Posted by David A. Lehrer
We argued that it was a misguided effort to deal with childhood obesity and nutrition with an over-reaching and poorly thought out strategy. Neither the evidence nor logic supported such a draconian measure.
We are not alone.
This morning the Los Angeles Times editorialized on the very same bill and raised issues similar to ours: 1) the problem of childhood obesity is a large and complicated one, 2) the presence of countless other sources of unhealthy foods near schools calls into question the efficacy of a food truck ban, 3) academic studies have found that adults often make the poor food choices for the kids from near-school vendors, it’s not clear that the state has a role in those decisions, and 4) research suggests that the evidence isn’t at all clear that proximity to junk and fast food is a major contributor to obesity.
The Times’ editorial shares our view, that “once school is out of session…it’s time for the government to bow out of personal food decisions.”
Also of interest and relevant, is a column that my son, Jonah Lehrer, wrote this week in his Head Case column in The Wall Street Journal, about obesity and why some of the facile conclusions (e.g. gluttony) as to the causes of obesity are off-base.
What makes us consume that last slice of pizza or chocolate cake, even when we’re no longer hungry? One common answer is that obesity is a byproduct of gluttony: People can’t stop eating because they love eating too much. In a puritanical world, this leads many to view obesity as a kind of character flaw.
But this explanation turns out to be exactly backward. According to a new study from Kyle Burger and Eric Stice at the Oregon Research Institute, those who overeat may actually get less pleasure from food. So they’re forced to consume larger quantities (and added calories) to achieve an equivalent reward.
The researchers began by asking 151 adolescents about eating habits and food cravings. Then, they stuck the teens in a brain scanner while showing them a picture of a milkshake followed by a few sips of the real thing. They were particularly interested in looking at the response of the dopamine reward pathway in the brain, a cortical network responsible for generating the pleasurable emotions triggered by pleasurable things.
By comparing the response of the reward pathway to the eating habits of the adolescents, the scientists were able to show that those who ate the most ice cream showed the least activation in their reward areas when consuming the milkshake. This suggests that they were eating more in desperate compensation, trying to make up for their indifferent dopamine neurons. People crave pleasure, and they don’t stop until they get their fill, even if means consuming the entire pint of Häagen-Dazs.
This research builds on previous work by Dr. Stice documenting the dangerous feedback loop of overeating. Although people struggling with obesity tend to have less-responsive reward pathways—they even have fewer dopamine receptors—overeating makes the problem worse, further reducing the pleasure from each bite. Like an alcoholic who needs to consume ever-larger quantities of liquor to achieve the same level of intoxication, individuals with “hypofunctioning reward circuits” are forced to eat bigger portions in search of the same level of satisfaction. It’s an addiction with diminishing returns.
What the research that Jonah cites confirms and what the Times buttresses is the wrongheadedness of the simplistic solution offered by Assemblyman Monning (the author of AB 1678). Limiting choices may be the exact wrong answer—-Jonah concludes his column with an admonition,
Besides, we need all the help we can get, as Americans keep on gaining weight. At base, obesity is the fault of biology, which has programmed us to derive primal pleasure from food.
But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do. This latest study also offers a modest suggestion for dieters: Because people quickly adapt to the pleasure of any single food, it’s important to seek pleasure from many sources. Variety really is the spice of life.
He may be half joking, but more, not less, food trucks and a greater variety of them may help with the over-eaters.
March 6, 2012 | 5:39 pm
Posted by David A. Lehrer
KogiBBQ, Coolhaus, and Canter’s mobile food trucks are not a usual topic of interest to The Wide Angle blog. We don’t opine on which of the food trucks are better or more accessible or offer more variety—- that’s not our thing.
But a report in The Los Angeles Times over the weekend piqued our interest. The Times’ Sacramento correspondent reported that Assemblyman William Monning of Carmel has authored legislation (AB 1678) that will ban mobile food trucks from “sell[ing] or otherwise provid[ing] food or beverages within 1,500 feet of the property line of an elementary or secondary school campus from the hours of 6:00 AM and 6:00PM, inclusive on a day that school is in session.”
The predicate for this draconian bit of legislation is the author’s view that “mobile food vending diminishes participation in the school nutrition programs, reinforces the stigma associated with eating school meals, and jeopardizes the fiscal viability of school nutrition programs at the local level.”
In the press release published by his office, Monning facilely rationalizes his plan to limit the public’s access to food trucks,
mobile food vending poses a threat to student safety as well as student nutrition. Mobile vending near school campuses incentivizes students to leave school grounds, which increases students’ exposure to off-campus hazards such as heavily trafficked streets. Creating a buffer zone, free of mobile food vending around school campuses will decrease student’s access to unhealthful foods; help bolster school nutrition programs; and help protect the safety of students.
If Monning were a shill for the restaurant owners of California his arguments would make more sense than the rationale he proffers for the bill. Restaurant owners don’t like food trucks for obvious reasons—-the competition and their sudden popularity. If that were the “threat” that animates Monning’s legislation so be it.
But to argue, as he does, that today’s food trucks are a threat to “student safety and nutrition” is bizarre. The notion that the mere presence of food trucks within five blocks of a public school will cause students to leave school, expose them to dangerous traffic, diminish school nutrition programs and stigmatize school food programs is absurd. He assumes causal relationships that are arguable at best and then takes his assumptions to illogical conclusions.
It’s as if there were no McDonalds or convenience stores or drug stores or mini-marts or car washes with snacks in the world of 2012. Enter Hollywood High School in Google Maps and see how many fast food joints, convenience stores, and other sources of junk food there are within the 1,500 foot perimeter that Monning would ban food trucks from.
The bill also belies a notion of food trucks that is antiquated; as if they were the greasy spoon “roach coaches” of yesteryear. Monning writes that food trucks as offer “food and beverages that are calorie rich, nutrient poor, and contribute to negative health outcomes like being overweight and obesity.”
The most serious issue with Assembly Bill 1678 is really not its limitation on food trucks and its antiquated assumptions, troubling though they are. It’s the underlying mindset that the route to better nutrition and health for our citizenry is through limiting choices and regulating our lives as opposed to encouraging greater choices and more education.
The concept that there is a silver bullet emanating from Sacramento that will solve the problems of kids and traffic, kids and achievement, kids and poor food choices, and kids and obesity is nonsense. There are no quick fixes to any of those problems and the presence or absence of food trucks within five blocks of a school may be the least likely solution.
Hopefully, the legislature (and if not them, the governor) will think better of over-regulating one of the most creative and exciting new areas of cuisine in California by succumbing to a silly notion of how to help our kids.
February 17, 2012 | 2:48 pm
Posted by David A. Lehrer
This week The New York Times announced its new correspondent in Jerusalem, Jodi Rudoren. A Times’ staffer who has had a long career as a domestic reporter for the paper and with no discernible experience or expertise in foreign affairs or the Middle East.
Inevitably, given the interest in the Middle East and press coverage of that region, there are numerous articles (including a blog on the Jewish Journal website by Shmuel Rosner) purporting to assess Rudoren’s competency for her new job.
Rosner writes that Rudoren is sunk before she has even set foot in Israel because of some tweets she recently sent out, “She can write from Jerusalem of course, as I expect she might still do. She can write fine stories from Jerusalem, she can have sources and can gain more knowledge and can even break some news. What she will not be able to do is to pretend to be unbiased.”
He’s not alone in reaching a conclusion as to Rudoren’s future work and her capacity to offer fair and unbiased reporting from Jerusalem. By Tuesday, Commentary’s Jonathan Tobin had already concluded that Rudoren had exhibited “not only questionable judgment but also an overt bias against Israel even before she landed in the country.” There must be others who are opining on Rudoren with practically no evidence to go on. A simple Google search of “Jodi Rudoren and Israel” turns up 18,200 results and the appointment was just announced on Monday.
I don’t know Rudoren, I don’t presume to be familiar with her journalistic skills (but then I suspect neither do Rosner nor Tobin). But what I do know is that the reflexive anticipation of bias and lack of professionalism from a career professional is an often wrongheaded approach.
I distinctly remember the hue and cry that came from some leaders of the Jewish community when George Shultz was selected as Secretary of State by Ronald Reagan after Alexander Haig’s resignation in 1982. You might have thought that Yassir Arafat would be running American foreign policy by the tone of the commentary.
In fact, there was more to arouse suspicion about Shultz than there is today. Shultz was coming to office after serving as president of the Bechtel Group, a company that was among the largest, if not the largest, contractors in the Arab world. He would serve alongside Caspar Weinberger, the Secretary of Defense, who had been vice president and general counsel of Bechtel. There were ample grounds for suspicion as to where Shultz’s sympathies might lie. The smart voices in the Jewish world kept quiet and decided to give Shultz the benefit of the doubt. The yellers and demagogues who wanted to impress their constituents and donors with their cojones—let loose on Shultz.
The error of the critics’ attitudes became apparent in fairly short order.
Shultz was among the most sympathetic American leaders on matters related to Israel, Soviet Jews and a slew of other topics. His historic six and a half year tenure as Secretary of State was remarkable for its fairness and support for Israel in very difficult times (the Lebanon War, terror attacks, etc.). The folly of the pre-emptive critics stands as amodel of stupidity and constituent pandering
to this day.
Clearly, it is wiser to hold your fire and not assume what you can’t know—-someone’s future conduct. Most people want to do their job well and be fair. Let’s assume that’s the case with Rudoren, as it was with Shultz.
February 16, 2012 | 6:29 pm
Posted by David A. Lehrer
Rarely do two events juxtapose themselves so perfectly so that the contrast between the right path and error is transparently clear.
Last week, news media reported on studies that found a growing education gap between rich and poor. Dramatic data indicate thatthe gap in achievement between the children of the rich and poor has increased by some 40% since the 1960
s. Two studies reveal that parental income may be the single most significant determinant of educational success. The test score imbalance between rich and poor kids has grown as has the gap in college completion rates (which has increased by about 50% since the late 1980s). Former Harvard president Lawrence Sommers describes this divide as “the most serious domestic problem in the United States today.”
This gap in achievement far surpasses the much discussed black white achievement testing gap; in fact, it doubles that differential.
That was last week.
This week, in what seems like an all-too-frequent ritual, yet another case was litigated to declare California’s now nearly 16-year-old Proposition 209, barring the University of California from granting preferences on the basis of race, unconstitutional. Challenges to 209 have failed in federal court on other occasions and have twice been unsuccessful before the California Supreme Court.
The arguments now before the Federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals are similar to those that have been proffered to federal courts and before the California Supreme Court—-allegations that the failure to re-impose racial and ethnic preferences (the status quo ante Proposition 209) will continue a “state commanded apartheid system….a new Jim Crow” (actual remarks by one of the attorneys arguing in Monday’s Ninth Circuit session).
It might be useful to examine what this so-called “apartheid system” is really like and why the policies that the plaintiffs advocate threaten to undermine the most vigorous programs in the country aimed at promoting diversity, of the most needed kind, on campus.
Even a cursory review of the data on admissions to the University of California reveals that, despite the assertions of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, the presence of minorities in the University of California has increased substantially from what it was in 1996—-the last year of racial/ethnic preferences. That means that minorities, without the benefit of preferential treatment, are a larger presence in the university system than they ever were.
The number of minority admissions to the University of California in 2010 — without the benefit of preferences — exceeds that of 1996, in absolute numbers and, more important, as a percentage of all “admits.”
Latino students have gone from 15.4% (5,744 students) of freshman undergraduate admissions in 1996 to 23% (14,081) in 2010 (a 145% increase). Asian students have gone from 29.8% (11,085) of the freshman admits to 37.47% (22,877). Native American admits have declined slightly, from 0.9% to 0.8%, but their absolute number increased, from 360 to 531. African American admits have gone from 4% (1,628) to 4.2% (2,624), a modest gain in percentage but a 61% increase in numbers of freshmen admitted.
The only major category that declined in percentage terms was whites, who went from 44% (16,465) of the freshmen admits to 34% (20,807). If this is “Jim Crow” at work there are some pretty dumb bigots implementing the plan.
The arguments against 209 are nothing new (although the latest wrinkle is to attack the admittedly smaller numbers of minorities at the UC’s flagship and most competitive schools—-Berkeley, UCLA and San Diego). They seem particularly stale at a time when the evidence, as widely reported last week, is clear that socio-economic status, not race or ethnicity, is the far greater impediment to the academic success of the disadvantaged.
Presently, the UCs consider the socio-economic status of their applicants, believing that the extent to which an applicant has overcome hurdles of economic disadvantage (e.g. Pell Grant eligible students come from families earning approximately $60,000 per year or less) will be a measure of their ability to achieve success as a college student.
As a result of those efforts, the two most “economically diverse” (measured by Pell Grant eligible students) top tier universities in the country, are UCLA at 37% and UC Berkeley at 36%. As a comparison, Harvard is at 17%, Duke at 13%, Princeton at 11% and a comparably large public university, Ohio State, was at 17.8% in 2008.
It is ironic then that the University of California, which has made a concerted and successful effort to seek out and admit students who, because of socio-economic disadvantage (independent of race, ethnicity or national origin), need a leg up, is the subject of inflammatory accusations of bigotry and racism.
There is some irony as well, that neither the University itself nor the governor are vigorously contesting this lawsuit; apparently, simply following numbers and preferences is easier than the challenges of a merit-based system that involves a serious examination of potential for success.
To be truly concerned about equality of opportunity in our society is to be supportive of aggressive policies to identify and recruit the disadvantaged—-no matter their race or ethnicity. This is precisely what the UC is doing better than anyone else in the country. To revert to a crude system where race and ethnicity are the determinants of access (pre-209)—-independent of socio-economic status—-would undo a decade and half of work by the UC and would re-inject historically divisive considerations where they don’t belong.
Hopefully, the Ninth Circuit, like every court before it, will acknowledge the good sense of the voters of California and the wisdom of some of the folks at the University of California.
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.