Chron of Higher Ed: Charles Murray’s New Book

Peter Schmidt over at the Chronicle of Higher Ed has a new article that takes a long look at Charles Murray’s new book “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.  Murray is one of the authors of the (in)famous book The Bell Curve, if you didn’t already know.  Schmidt writes:

Mr. Murray’s newest book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (Crown Forum)makes a pretense of making nice. It bills itself as an attempt to alleviate divisiveness in American society by calling attention to a growing cultural gap between the wealthy and the working class.

Focused on white people in order to set aside considerations of race and ethnicity, it discusses trends, like the growing geographic concentration of the rich and steadily declining churchgoing rates among the poor, that social scientists of all ideological leanings have documented for decades. It espouses the virtues of apple-pie values like commitment to work and family.

The thing about Murray, Schmidt argues, is that he is particularly prone to controversy, and this book is no exception.  Ironically, as Schmidt points out, one of Murray’s underlying themes is the social fabric of society has broken down–his book is in part a call for a return to the days of mutual trust and togetherness.  However, Schmidt writes, here is where the argument heads down a path that stirs up heated reactions and controversy:

In the midst of all of his talk about togetherness, he puts out there his belief that the economic problems of America’s working class are largely its own fault, stemming from factors like the presence of a lot of lazy men and morally loose women who have kids out of wedlock. Moreover, he argues, because of Americans’ growing tendency to pair up with the similarly educated, working-class children are increasingly genetically predisposed to be on the dim side.

Here is the link to Schmidt’s article again.  Check it out.  See what you think.  Murray sells a lot of books, and has a certain amount of influence in the policy world…and he also treads into social science territory.  His messages definitely get heard.  These are absolutely the kinds of conversations that we, as anthropologists, can and should find a way to address.

Ryan Anderson is a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Kentucky. He is currently writing up his dissertation, which is about the politics of development in Baja California Sur, Mexico. You can reach him at ethnografix AT gmail dot com or @publicanthro on twitter.

20 thoughts on “Chron of Higher Ed: Charles Murray’s New Book

  1. “Focused on white people in order to set aside considerations of race and ethnicity”

    How does that work? Is race not important in the lives of white people? (And has the idea of who is and is not white stayed constant over the period covered in the book?)

  2. @Rachel – Yeah, being white is the absence of race, dontcha know?

    But srsly Charles Murray, behaviors drive ideologies, not the other way round.

  3. A few years ago I did a small project with a group of apprentice toy designers. A portion of the “new” toys were simply a series of unexamined background assumptions about children and play mashed together – for example a toy gun with an oversized handle for young boys. The old timers, who were instructing and evaluating the workshop, always called these pointless toys “chatsky.”

    Murray’s work is the most pernicious form of “chatsky.” There is no there, there. He simply finds a way to reconfirm the same whiggish assumptions he started with.

  4. It is easy to turn up one’s nose at Murray. But why, if his arguments are so thin, is his work a story in the mass media? This is the question that those who wish to challenge Murray’s views effectively must address. A tip from a guy in advertising—academic logic won’t do the job.

  5. Thank you, Ryan, for highlighting this commentary. The one good thing about this book is that Murray has promised it’s his last–although those book-writer promises get broken regularly. Murray has never found anything wrong with The Bell Curve and continues to spout policy suggestions from that guidebook.

    I am in complete agreement that “these are absolutely the kinds of conversations that we, as anthropologists, can and should find a way to address.” However, in this specific case I think it represents a place where anthropology might be better off not responding.

    For me, the Krugman column Money and Morals said it all. It was concise, hard-hitting, and on the mark: the issues Murray describes have more to do with economic possibilities and inequality than they do with moral decline. It also appeared in the New York Times and is written by a Nobel Prize winning economist. It will surely be ignored.

    So in this case I doubt anthropology can add. Anthropologists are already expected to not have anything to say about politics and economics. To the degree we enter the debate we could actually sanction the point–“here’s an anthropologist, so Murray must be right, it’s all about culture!”

  6. Why is his work in the public eye?

    Well, Marshall McLuhan had Howard Gossage and Charles Murray has William Hammett. The McLuhan and Murray we experience are , in many ways, the creation of PR machines unleashed by their respective patrons.

  7. Academic logic definitely won’t do the job, I agree. We need more powerful and persuasive rhetoric.

    My wife, a fish biologist, recently returned from a conference for VA state fish and wildlife scientists and agents. At a panel on sharing scientific findings with the public a communications professor told them that too often academics approach such a task with a “deficit” model. Meaning that scientists believe that the public has a deficit of knowledge and that if only they had the right information then they would accept the scientists’ conclusions. (To see how well this is working see: global climate change, evolution.)

    That almost always backfires on the scientist, the communications professor went on to say, because people in the non-academic world don’t always base their opinions on whether they have the right information. Frequently what’s more important is whether or not they trust the speaker.

    Following this advice we might conclude that combating Murray in the public sphere would not mean having better data and more sound conclusions, but getting the audience to perceive our messenger as more trustworthy then him.

  8. @Matt

    Can you say a bit more about what we might do to be perceived as more trustworthy?

    @Michael

    Having worked for one of the world’s largest advertising agencies I can say with confidence that big PR machines often fail to achieve their objectives. They can certainly be useful when an audience has particular concerns that good messaging and strategic distribution can exploit effectively. Why, then, do they fail?

  9. @Michael

    Forgive me if I simply failed to appreciate it correctly, but were your old timers using the venerable term “tchotchkes”?

    @Matt

    “…behaviors drive ideologies…” Let me guess what theorists you read; we could recommend other…. WWWS — What Would Weber say?

  10. @Rachel:

    “How does that work? Is race not important in the lives of white people?”

    I think this is basically Murray’s backdoor attempt to make the case that race isn’t a key issue…so he focuses on “white” people, and class.

    @John M:

    “But why, if his arguments are so thin, is his work a story in the mass media? This is the question that those who wish to challenge Murray’s views effectively must address.”

    Good questions. Murray’s conclusions are obviously useful for particular constituencies. So that may be a big part of it.

    @Jason:

    “It was concise, hard-hitting, and on the mark…It also appeared in the New York Times and is written by a Nobel Prize winning economist. It will surely be ignored.”

    Ha! Of course it will be ignored if it’s on point and written by an actual economist. Funny.

    “To the degree we enter the debate we could actually sanction the point–’here’s an anthropologist, so Murray must be right, it’s all about culture!'”

    That was the reason why I thought an anthro perspective might be useful–since Murray is trying to make this weird cultural argument. There are certain pundits out there (David Brooks is another) who often employ “cultural” arguments that are pretty misleading. And since culture is basically one of anthropology’s specialities, well, maybe we have something to add. Maybe we need to start co-writing responses with economists when books like this come out. That way we cover the economics and the culture angle all at once!!!

    @Matt:

    “Meaning that scientists believe that the public has a deficit of knowledge and that if only they had the right information then they would accept the scientists’ conclusions.”

    Your point about the “deficit” model is really interesting, Matt. I agree with you–that is a model that scientists often take, and it doesn’t always work. Sometimes I think the problem is that scientists come off sounding condescending the way they approach certain topics…so that’s a good thing to watch out for and avoid. Both the global warming and evolution debates are really good examples in which these important issues are often presented in very polemic ways that basically argue that the “other side” is stupid. That may work for preaching to the choir, but I don’t see how it’s going to help anyone rethink their position.

  11. Please don’t be deceived/seduced into thinking only non-academics, or non-anthropologists, will discount facts and be more swayed by whether or not they see the speaker as (more) credible. Academics, anthropologists included, can easily exhibit the same speaker-over-facts bias, especially as we are also products of the same social worlds and also have implicit and unconscious biases that allow some speakers to be deemed as credible even in the presence of overwhelming facts to the contrary. The issue is also power: the reasons and incentives for not believing the facts (because it would be too disturbing to one’s entire worldview and sense of self, for example; or would require structural change, loss of power/control/authority/certainty/comfort one does not want to cede). I am very wary of the academic/non-academic dichotomy, even if the deficiency-model explanation is spot-on. Anthropologists should just not be so quick to excuse themselves from also using this model, engaging in this behavior at times.

  12. Academics, anthropologists included, can easily exhibit the same speaker-over-facts bias, especially as we are also products of the same social worlds and also have implicit and unconscious biases that allow some speakers to be deemed as credible even in the presence of overwhelming facts to the contrary

    Yes, oh yes, indeed. We should also remember that speaker and facts address only two of the three modes of classical rhetoric, character, logic, and trope. An effective persuasive strategy must address all three.

    “Trustworthy?” is the question we ask of character. The typical attack is ad hominem. How to become trusted is the the key strategic issue.

    “Sound?” is the question we ask of logic. The typical attack is to demonstrate weakness in evidence or inference. The key strategic issue is how to build an argument.

    “Compelling?” is the question we ask of trope. The typical attack is to demonstrate lack of felicity—trite, inappropriate, boring. The key strategic issues are familiar to people who create ads.

    1. Does it grab attention?
    2. Is it fresh?
    3. Is it memorable?
    4. Does it add value?
    5. Does it move people in the direction we want them to go?

  13. @Barbara

    I asked them to spell it and they wrote it as”chatsky” and pronounced the a as in “at.” I would guess it is a variation (or a playful elaboration) on “tchotchkes”, but they always used it specifically to refer to toys which lacked “designerly” elements and not as a general term for a class of toys. The toy could be intended for any demographic or market and if it lacked “designerly” elements it was “chatsky.”

    As both mantra and activity “design” has a large gravitational pull.

    @John

    They often succeed as well! Gossage certainly plucked McLuhan out of obscurity and made him into a sensation. Have you ever read “That Not-So-Silent Sea” by Edmund Carpenter?

    In any case, I don’t know why you are so fixated on PR and advertising, the important issue is patronage. McLuhan bestowed a certain academic respectability on Gossage and his PR methods just as Murray bestows a certain respectability on Hammett and his interests.

  14. As far as how to generate more trust (or perceived trust) among an ignorant/apathetic public we might take the route of the politician and slime our enemy, thus making ourselves look better by default. To be honest I don’t know. Perhaps a wise first step would be enlisting the aid of some mass communication specialists to help us craft sound bites. Yes, sound bites. It sounds completely antithetical to the very enterprise of anthropology, a discipline that frolics in the face of complexity and big problems.

    Just look at the point that Discuss White Privlege brings up. What about radical reflexivity? If you’ll pardon the military metaphors, to me this is a double-edged sword – at once anthropology’s most powerful weapon and its Achillies heel. To turn our lens onto ourselves and consider the politics of knowledge creation is incredibly important and rarely done by other disciplines (well, feminist literary criticism does this, but sheesh), giving us the power to transgress the ancient regime and really break through to something genuinely new.

    It also threatens to sidetrack debate to the point of paralysis. When everything is a process then there are no conclusions, only more layers, more steps. And the public hates that. They want clear and certain answers. So while I agree that the academic/public split may be a false dichotomy and an important point to raise, its precisely that kind of critical thinking, of problematizing everything, that’s going to drive Jose Six-Pack batty.

    Just look at this editorial from Charles Murray in today’s WaPo – if you dare. On the subject of the decline of marriage in U.S. society he writes:

    The share of upper-middle-class whites ages 30 to 49 who are married has been steady since 1984, hovering around 84 percent. During that same period, marriage for working-class whites in the same age group has fallen from 70 percent to 48 percent. This is not a statistical artifact that can be explained by class differences in the age of marriage or the frequency of remarriage, nor by hard economic times for the working class. Marriage now constitutes a cultural fault line dividing the socioeconomic classes among white Americans.

    So even though marriage rates break neatly along class lines it has nothing to do with “class difference… nor hard economic times.” Its a result of cultural differences: poor people don’t value marriage. End of story. Why? Because I say so.

    That’s precisely the kind of move an anthropologist would never make in a million years. We problematize everything. There’s always a caveat, there’s always an exception. Charles Murray buries that sh*t. He says, “This is the way it is.” And people who are socialized to kowtow to authority, who value fellow rugged individualists who give it to ‘em straight say, “Right on.” You want to win those people over? Then give it to ‘em straight and don’t beat around the bush, or any other cliche.

    Getting back to my first, more flippant response to Murray above. For Murray difference is rooted in biology. He writes, “Educational attainment is correlated with intelligence… And children’s IQ is tied to that of their parents. How genes and environment conspire to produce these relationships is irrelevant.” Your genes make your body, your body makes your mind, your mind makes your ideas, your ideas drive your behavior.

    And this makes my blood boil the way it ignores everything. Everything! Ideologies stem from environmental and economic conditions in everyday life, Weber or no. But you start trotting that kind of language out and people’s eyes will glaze over. You’ve got to dumb it down. Skip over the part about politics of knowledge and Foucault (or whatever) and just make a bald assertion. A nugget. A sound bite that CNN can cut to, or that Fox can run in a ten word ticker across the bottom of the screen.

    We simply don’t value that kind of communication in academia (here I nod to DWP’s point although I’m at a loss as to how to repair my language with more politically correct terminology) the way its valued outside the so-called ivory tower.

    This all underscores the importance of Ryan’s earlier post on Jared Diamond. The man sells books. If we want to do battle with Charles Murray we need to sell more books, take up more bandwidth. Look at Michael Pollan, he wrote some popular books and wound up a dark horse candidate for Secretary of Agriculture in 2008. Or Malcolm Gladwell – super popular but he writes of nothing of social consequence. We live in times of radical inequality and he gives us Blink. Really?

    But maybe those who problematize everything are right. Maybe anthropology doesn’t belong in the realm of mass communication because our greatest strength is micropolitics. Ethnography (the process, not the product) is where the rubber meets the road for us. It is here on the small scale that we really shine, for as dedicated researchers and teachers have shown time and again no “difference” is so mighty that it can’t be overcome with patience and care. And that’s how you build real and lasting trust.

  15. Sorry for highjacking your post, Ryan, but I get really worked up about Charles Murray. I should probably stop drinking while I blog too.

    Gah!! He doesn’t even give us a working definition of who is “white”. Okay, okay. I’ll stop. I’m going to quit blogging for tonight and just drink.

  16. @Michael

    If I appear to be hung up on PR and advertising, it has something to do with having been deeply involved with both industries for a bit over three decades now. I write as an observing participant. And seriously, cherry picking cases to justify a a theory is BS, whatever the field.

    Consideri the following facts from my current research. I have data on seven thousand creators of nearly four thousand award-winning ads in six examples of one of Japan’s largest advertising contests sampled at five-year intervals from 1981 to 2006. My network analysis software identifies for me a subset of forty-five creators, who are, in their own cultural context the peers of a Gossage—they write and are written about and all have amazing and multiple success stories to tell. They are, however, only 0.06% of my sample, all seven thousand of whom have been associated with at least one ad that made it into a contest annual, at least as a runner up. And the contest in question receives every year roughly ten times as many submissions as make it into the annual, themselves a subset of all the advertising produced the previous year in Japan—most of which wasn’t considered worth the bother of submitting. Are my super creators typical? A representative sample of advertising genius or how most advertising gets done? On the contrary, they are a very rare breed, indeed, for whom, as far as I can make out, a combination of genuine talent, extraordinary persistence, and exceptional opportunities, including mentors and clients who have supported their careers, have won the renown they enjoy.

    I make no claim to similar expertise about academic or trade publishing, fields in which my experience is much more limited. I do know enough, however, to know that when someone points to a couple of famous cases and says, “See, that’s how it’s done,” they needn’t be taken too seriously. So I take your claim that patronage is The Answer with large lashings of soy sauce.

    Do patrons or PR operations always get what they want? How about Sheldon Abelson, whose just dropped over 20 million dollars on Newt Gingrich, or the nameless backers of Mitt Romney’s Super PAC?

  17. @John

    I don’t think (nor did I say) that patronage is the answer (let alone The Answer), but I do think it is The Question when considering how durable Murray has been in the face of ongoing criticism.

    My feeling is that you have the formulated problem from the wrong end. The interesting question isn’t his (individual) success (or failure) as a producer of new and unique content in a marketplace of ideas. We need not assume that Murray is a rare breed with the “genuine talent” and “extraordinary persistence” to predict the changing appetites of the reading public, as you very oddly and obliquely imply.

    On the contrary, the curious phenomena is why Murray has repeatedly been able to write the same book time and again over the last 30 years. Murray essentially has one mutat-ing thesis: Differences in occupational attainment (1984), educational attainment (1994) and/or class (2012) are genetically determined and cannot be altered by social interventions aimed at changing material conditions. This thesis has been refuted in the academic, and popular press, every time it has been introduced. But, most every year Murray gets a generous fellowship from his patrons at the Bradley Foundation so he can devote his full attention to conducting research, gathering materials, hiring assistants and writing his books – each of which puts forth the same thesis as the previous book.

    How the ensemble of writer(s), researchers, funders, policy organizations, receptive audiences, etc., etc.. are organized to allow this pattern to persist over time is the interesting question. It is especially pressing because his ideas actually enter the realm of law on occasion – think of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act – and change, for the worse, the immediate material conditions of millions. Even more depressing these policies damage the chances of future generations to effect positive material change in their living conditions.

    I found this gem the other day:

    “We destroy people with the inappropriate tools we use to study them” – Ray Birdwhistell

    Every time I read Murray I have the overwhelming urge to revisit what Boas wrote in his debate with Mason as well as “The Study of Geography” , “The Instability of Human Types” , and so on. Classification is still not explanation!

  18. @Michael

    Let us agree that patronage can be an important part of the mix. Is there anything that anthropologists can do besides bemoan their lack of patrons? Can we identify potential patrons? Present ourselves in ways that attract their support? Satisfy them well enough to secure continuing patronage? Without selling out?

  19. @Matt:

    Thanks for jumping in on this thread. I think it’s great.

    “That’s precisely the kind of move an anthropologist would never make in a million years. We problematize everything. There’s always a caveat, there’s always an exception. Charles Murray buries that sh*t. He says, “This is the way it is.” And people who are socialized to kowtow to authority, who value fellow rugged individualists who give it to ‘em straight say, “Right on.” You want to win those people over? Then give it to ‘em straight and don’t beat around the bush, or any other cliche.”

    See, but isn’t that exactly the point where anthros can and should jump in and say that this use of “culture” is flawed? This use of culture to explain away poverty and inequality actually happens quite a lot–David Brooks falls into the same sorts of arguments. And I think these are good, strategic places where anthropologists can and should take part in these conversations/debates. Part of the issue, for me, is that many of the ways in which writers like Murray use culture are either seriously flawed or way outdated. It’s like they are working with early 20th century conceptions of culture. Anyway, I know we problematize anything and everything, and always have some sort of caveat, but I think there’s a point when someone like Murray or Brooks is flat out wrong or using faulty logic where we can make convincing and clear counter arguments. I mean, all argumentation is a matter of strategy in many ways, and I think that when people start flagrantly using things like the culture concept to make false arguments, that opens space for anthros to get involved.

    Anyway, I am also wondering about different ways that anthros could take part in these discussions. Try for more op-eds? Write reviews of books that are geared for the general audience? Actively try to cover these sorts of issues more in blogging? I think there are lots of ways to go…we just have to start doing it.

  20. I think this Salon article is of interest in relation to why people, even when ostensibly well-educated, choose not to believe facts: http://www.salon.com/2012/02/24/the_ugly_delusions_of_the_educated_conservative/singleton/?mobile.html. Here the dividing line is conservative/liberal instead of non-academic/academic, but I think the larger argument about authoritarianism and emotional-political investments (in structural inequality, hierarchy, the status quo–if not the status quo ante, domination and exploitation) is worth thinking about, especially for anthropologists and in relation to the situations in which the dividing line between us/them in ignoring (social) facts does not cleave neatly onto an anthropologist/non-anthropologist binary.

Comments are closed.