Coming Apart

Charles Murray has a new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010. It examines the bubble that surrounds an elitist class of white Americans who generally see themselves as the “best and brightest” and gravitate toward careers that control the lives of others. He argues that there is a new upper class that makes decisions affecting the lives of everyone else but increasingly doesn’t know much about how everybody else lives…and that makes them vulnerable to making mistakes.

He writes:

“No voice of the human heart is so acceptable to [a despot] as egotism,” wrote Alexis de Tocqueville. “A despot easily forgives his subjects for not loving him, provided they do not love each other.” That couldn’t happen in the United States, Tocqueville argued, because of the genius of the founders in devolving power:

Local freedom . . . perpetually brings men together, and forces them to help one another, in spite of the propensities which sever them. In the United States, the more opulent citizens take great care not to stand aloof from the people. On the contrary, they constantly keep on easy terms with the lower classes: they listen to them; they speak to them every day.[Alexis de Tocqueville]

That’s not true anymore. As the new upper class increasingly consists of people who were born into upper-middle-class families and have never lived outside the upper-middle-class bubble, the danger increases that the people who have so much influence on the course of the nation have little direct experience with the lives of ordinary Americans, and make their judgments about what’s good for other people based on their own highly atypical lives.

Go to the link and take the test, I scored a 65, making me a part of what he describes as:

A first- generation middle-class person with working-class parents and average television and movie going habits.

Range: 42–100. Typical: 66

He continues:

In one sense, there is no such thing as an “ordinary American.” The United States comprises a patchwork of many subcultures, and the members of any one of them is ignorant about and isolated from the others to some degree. The white fifth-grade teacher from South Boston doesn’t understand many things about the life of the black insurance agent in Los Angeles, who in turn doesn’t understand many things about the life of the Latino truck driver in Oklahoma City. But there are a variety of things that all three do understand about the commonalities in their lives—simple things that you have no choice but to understand if you have to send your kids to the local public school, you live in a part of town where people make their living in a hundred different ways instead of a dozen, and you always eat out at places where you and your companion won’t spend more than $50 tops, including tip.

Those specifications embrace an extremely large part of the American population. Tack on a few other specifications—that you watch at least twenty-four hours of commercial television a week (still well below the national average of thirty-five hours) and that you see most of the most popular new movies, either in theaters or on DVDs—and you have guaranteed a substantial degree of common familiarity about the culture as well. So while there is no such thing as an ordinary American, it is not the case that most Americans are balkanized into enclaves where they know little of what life is like for most other Americans. “The American mainstream” may be hard to specify in detail, but it exists. Many of the members of the new upper class are balkanized. Furthermore, their ignorance about other Americans is more problematic than the ignorance of other Americans about them. It is not a problem if truck drivers cannot empathize with the priorities of Yale professors. It is a problem if Yale professors, or producers of network news programs, or CEOs of great corporations, or presidential advisers cannot empathize with the priorities of truck drivers. It is inevitable that people have large areas of ignorance about how others live, but that makes it all the more important that the members of the new upper class be aware of the breadth and depth of their ignorance.

To my knowledge, sociologists haven’t gotten around to asking upper-middle-class Americans how much they know about their fellow citizens, so once again I must ask you to serve as a source of evidence by comparing your own experience to my generalizations. This time, I have a twenty-five-question quiz for you to take.

I hope it will serve two purposes: first, to calibrate the extent of your own ignorance (if any); second, to give you a framework for thinking about the ignorance that may be common in your professional or personal circles, even if it doesn’t apply to you. The questions you should take most seriously are the opening ones that ask about the places you have lived and the variation in conditions of life that you have experienced. The ignorance they imply is certain. If you have never lived or worked in a small town, you must be ignorant about day-to-day life in a small town, no matter how many movies set in rural Georgia you’ve seen. If you have never held a job that caused a body part to hurt by the end of the day, you don’t know what that’s like—period. When I move to informational questions about sports, popular culture, and some American institutions, you are free to complain that some of them aren’t fair. Some questions have a gender bias (though I’ve tried to balance those). Some are sneaky and several poke fun. In no case does an inability to answer reflect on your intelligence, character, or all-around goodness of heart. Some of the questions are ones that whites will get right more often than minorities, and that people who do not live in metropolises will get right more often than people who do. That’s because I am writing about the problems of the new upper class, the new upper class is overwhelmingly white and urban, and the readers of this book are overwhelmingly white and urban. Note, however, that had I included questions that would be more easily answered by minorities in working-class urban neighborhoods, your score would probably be even worse. Unless I specify an age range, the questions apply to experiences that occurred at any point in your life.

Please take out your no. 2 pencil and begin.

The Wall Street Journal has a review here. I’ve downloaded the ebook version to my iPad from Amazon here.

I have witnessed the phenomenon that Murray speaks about – not in a pure sociological setting but in relationship to academics and business. I graduated from a 21 month executive MBA program at the University of Utah in 2005 that focused on international business with  54 of some of the brightest people that I have ever shared a classroom with. These were all experienced business people and professionals (the minimum threshold was 10 years of upper level business experience or the equivalent) – we had doctors, lawyers, health care administrators, finance and accounting professionals and people like me – dirty finger-nailed manufacturing folks. The amazing thing was this – even though each could speak intelligently about international conditions – only about 30% had ever traveled outside North America (other than on a Mormon mission), less than 15% for business and only 5 people had ever actually worked abroad.

Having been one of the 5, I was able to see that while the academic theory and research was accurate and correct, the “flavor” of actually doing the work in an alien environment consisting of an unfamiliar language and culture was simply missing. My classmates were like technically perfect concert pianists playing a classical piece of music and striking every key with precision and perfect timing, yet not really “interpreting” the emotion of the music – there was no feeling or understanding of the work.

My understanding of the academic work was greatly enhanced and informed by my experiences – like John Locke said:

No man’s knowledge here can go beyond his experience.

They had never had the experience in negotiating in dining room of the last mainland China residence of Chiang Kai-shek and frustrating the local Communist Party leader so much that he threw a bowl of rice across the conference table at them – I have had that cultural experience.

5 thoughts on “Coming Apart

  1. Maybe this book is different than his last one. “The Bell Curve” postulated that Blacks were inherently inferior to whites.

    David Brooks just did a mini review of Changes and got soundly fisked by Charles Pierce of Esquire magazine.

    • Did you actually read “The Bell Curve”?

      Because that was a conclusion drawn by critics of the book – that never was his assertion that Black people were inherently intellectually inferior, that is just what the data said. The authors actually specifically in the preface to the infamous Chapter 13 that:

      “The debate about whether and how much genes and environment have to do with ethnic differences remains unresolved.”

      • I’ve just read excerpts of “The Bell Curve” in addition to critical reviews, so I could be wrong. Wouldn’t be the first time.

        But that being said, I don’t think much of Social Psychologists. I equate them with political pollsters. The samplings they use can be skewed to show the results they want the public to see. I think of Social Psychologists and pollsters as propagandists.

        I’m struggling through “The Social Animal” by Elliot Aronson right now. And even though it’s supposedly written for the layman, it’s still sometimes quite difficult to understand where the author is coming from.

        • Mr. G,

          I have a degree in sociology, but I am sympathetic to your opinion on this issue. However, might I suggest the problem has nothing to do with the color of one’s skin and EVERYTHING to do with the culture within which one lives?

          Just a thought, but, if applied to most arguments accused of being racist, things tend to change – quickly!

          • I agree 100% with what you said. The outcomes of some of the studies might also be politically skewed one way or the other.

            I’m reading about “self justification” right now and some of the studies done in that realm. It has to do with attitude adjustments and the different ways it can be accomplished.

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