On Charles Murray’s “Coming Apart” and the Recent Middlebury College Brouhaha, from a Liberal Who Has Actually Read His Books

So I’ve followed with some interest (and some dismay) the recent brouhaha about Charles Murray’s visit to Middlebury College, that was interrupted by a student demonstration that got out of hand—labeled a “riot” by some media and commentators—and in which he was accused of being a white nationalist and a racist. I know Murray’s work fairly well, having read both Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (2012) and his most controversial book, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (1994). Also noteworthy is that politically I’m liberal/progressive. While I don’t agree with much of what Murray claims, I do think it’s unfair to label him simply a racist or white nationalist/supremacist. The New York Times had a sober op-ed on the subject last Saturday, Wendy M. Williams and Stephen J. Ceci’s  ”Charles Murray’s ‘Provocative’ Talk,” which can be found here: They described an experiment in which they had various people actually read the talk and rate it as Conservative/Liberal, and how it came across by most readers as being somewhat middle-of-the-road.

The most interesting (and disturbing) angle of this story is a phenomenon I’ve noticed of late: Many people will argue with me about books they have not read but have strong, often unfounded opinions about. It’s often the titles (see under Don’t judge by) that set them off, and from which they glean the supposed thesis (and quality) of the entire book. Perhaps the best example I know is Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30), published back in 2008, which I usually presage with the disclaimer, “It’s a pretty good book with a bad title.” Actually that never seems to work, never seems to deflect the knee-jerk reaction that he’s “wrong,” or that he’s “old” and “out-of-touch,” rather than his well-reasoned argument, which suggests we’re all essentially being complicit in the ordinary dumbing-down of culture and education, something that often seems rather hard to ignore (see under Trump’s Presidency).

Bauerlein’s and Murray’s controversial books both begin with a kind of built-in disclaimer for the most damning “data”: Bauerlein begins with a rave about the smart kids, the overachievers, who are effectively using digital age tools to advance their careers, education, and interests. “Great! Lucky us!” would be the natural retort to those introductory remarks. I can also add that I have excellent students who fit his model to a T. But then comes the “controversial” part: Beyond the overachievers, the effects of digital distraction are exacerbating the know-nothingness of many teens and college kids (and all other adults as well, I would add). The easy formulation is: “If you can look it up, why bother knowing it?” Some argue that our computers are becoming an extension of ourselves, in a good way: As if your ubiquitous laptop is itself an external brain. I rather like that idea. But it doesn’t make me ignore the validity of some of Bauerlein’s argument.

Murray’s books are much more trouble-prone: In The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (1994) he discusses the variation in IQ scores along racial lines, which is fraught (obviously) with danger, and critics have rightly called into question his own metrics and use of statistics. For one thing, he notes the fact that IQ tests are very uncommon now, so that the tests he’s relying on are greatly outdated, one of the most substantial data sets coming from from the 1940s, I believe. So instead he talks about “proxies,” such as the SAT, ACT, and other general academic tests, but those are not the same thing as IQ tests.

That’s a fundamental flaw is hard to ignore: We have no real data on, say, how the entire population of the U.S. would do if each citizen took an IQ test in 2017, or even if, say, each 5th grade student took the test. That’s a good reason to doubt his methodology, and to find the book unconvincing. But the real reason critics find the book repugnant is even the suggestion that we analyze IQ through racial categories, so in his much-more convincing book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (2012), he avoids the racial divide and instead focuses solely on “white” America, which makes him a target for the obvious reasons: It can be seen to be arguing for a kind of white nationalism. Actually the book is a lament of sorts—for traditional family values (another loaded term, that)—for the decline of Working Class America, and a convincing argument about the serious repercussions of class divisions and the decline of egalitarian values. It makes some excellent points about the Great Divide that characterizes U.S. society and culture in the 21st century. Some of the statistics are a bit shocking, on the order of Anne Case and Angus Deaton’s recent study about the rise in overdose deaths affecting U.S. mortality rates negatively, “Mortality and Morbidity in the 21st Century” (with a title like that, what’s not to like?).

I tend to be a skeptic of all statistics, and found many in this book questionable. But I don’t think he’s making them up out of the blue. He might be cherry-picking, a flaw that’s quite common, but generally he seems thorough. For instance, he notes the high unemployment rates of working class, non-college-educated white males, and how, without gainful (and rewarding) employment, they can become a detriment to society, vulnerable to dependence on drugs, crime, and all that jazz: Put another way, they might vote for Trump! Elect a strongman/goon to Make America Great Again. (Which is, I think, part of what happened in November 2016.) You’re out of work, and become vulnerable to specious rhetoric, to the idea that all we need to do is build that wall and things will be peachy, to encourage the illusion that working-class stiffs will get their jobs back, even if no robots are coming over or under it.

Ultimately I can’t defend Murray as not being a racist or white nationalist, for the reason I don’t know all his work well enough, or know him, for that matter—but I can argue that we should know the books we’re condemning, and what they actually say, rather than be lured into the same type of knee-jerk condemnation used against so-called “liberal elites”—for instance, the kind that was used against Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

About williamjcobb

William J. Cobb is a novelist, essayist, and short fiction writer whose work has been published in The New Yorker, The Mississippi Review, The Antioch Review, and many others. He’s the author of two novels—The Fire Eaters (W.W. Norton 1994) and Goodnight, Texas (Unbridled 2006)—and a book of stories, The White Tattoo (Ohio State UP 2002). He has reviewed books for the Dallas Morning News, the Houston Chronicle, and the New York Times. He lives in Pennsylvania and Colorado. He may be contacted at wjcobb@gmail.com.
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