Review by Jack Criss
Towards the end of Charles Murray’s latest book released early last year, “Coming Apart: The State Of White America, 1960-2000,” he writes, in summarizing some key closing points, “A large part of the problem consists of nothing more complicated than our willingness to say out loud what we believe.”
Charles Murray has shown throughout his career a rare willingness to “say out loud” things about important issues of our time. This latest book is clearly no exception. And while it is has been out for over a year now, perceptive readers of all political stripes still refer to Murray’s arguments mainly in agreement. It is, therefore, important to revisit this work which, like so many other titles of Murray’s, is still reverberating in influential circles.
Charles Murray burst upon the sociological and political scene in 1984 with the highly influential (and intensely controversial) “Losing Ground,” a work which called into serious question the welfare programs of the U.S. Government since the advent of The Great Society. What that book did to create dialogue on welfare I believe “Coming Apart” may also do for culture.
In his latest work, Murray assumes the role of social scientist trying to objectively prove a hypothesis he has produced regarding the current state of white America and show the consequences his theory has―and will have―for the nation as a whole. Unlike the screeds of other fellow conservatives like Mark Steyn or Ann Coulter, Murray takes a calm and intellectual look at the issues he addresses, relying more on empirical data than inflammatory accusations. When he does move from the numerical to the personal and observable, though, it drives the points home even harder.
Murray defines what the “American way of life” is―or used to be―and then shows methodically how the nation (and some specific communities) have rapidly fallen from this ideal. And the “ideal” it is: Whatever your political persuasion, race or gender it’s clear that rule of law, respect for rights, religiosity, civic pride and industriousness, among others, was the social capital that made America the model for all of the world and such a shining beacon to immigrants. Murray includes marriage among his highest “Founding Virtues” which, especially today, may incite considerable controversy. To be sure, though, Murray does not preach in “Coming Apart” and presents his case persuasively. Agree or disagree, his views must be addressed―and soon―which is what makes this new book so vital and timely.
Contrary to what I think is a gross mis-characterization of the man’s ideas (and persona) I believe Murray talks rationally and equitably enough to appeal to moderates and liberals alike. For that reason, he is severely castigated by the conservatives but, conversely, he’s despised by the Left as a supposed racist (an unfair strawman acquired after his co-authored book on human intelligence in 1994). I find Murray to be a brilliant commentator and one of the few self-proclaimed libertarians trying to offer workable suggestions and solutions within this country’s existing framework (as opposed to those “true believers” who will give no quarter to any viewpoint not considered pure enough or desirous of razing the system entirely.)
I find that “Coming Apart” offers compelling, albeit disturbing, reading even though it didn’t really tell me anything I had not already sensed. It is very statistic-laden (which tends to distract me and is one reason why I could never finish “Losing Ground”) but, ironically, left me oddly optimistic upon completion.
A critical caveat, though: One of Murray’s solutions to the deterioration of the lower class is apparently for people like him (well-educated, affluent) to interact with such less-privileged individuals and groups. Is this, then, a case of noblesse oblige? Or does Murray think, through some form of cultural osmosis, the crude, crass types on the bottom rungs will somehow be culturally elevated simply by the presence of people such as himself? Couldn’t the reverse happen? In actuality, that appears to be the case today as witness the slang and malapropisms of the rap culture becoming the norm in so much of everyday modern communication.
And why those of Murray’s status would willingly leave their perch high atop American culture to interact with the lower social strata is never fully explained. Would it be out of altruism? Ultimate self preservation? Duty? Murray does not satisfactorily address my questions. If anything, since the release of the book, the chasm seems to be growing between what is called, in the vernacular, the “haves” and the “have nots.”
Hinting in the Acknowledgments that this may be his last book, Murray does offer some grounds for optimism at the closing of “Coming Apart.” So as not to spoil the conclusion, I’ll just say that Murray advises the elites in this country to, once again, “fall in love with what makes America different” and to be much more vocal―not apologetic―about it.
While not my favorite Murray title―that distinction goes to 1989′s excellent and woefully-under-appreciated “In Pursuit: Of Happiness And Good Government”―”Coming Apart” is a much-needed appraisal of where our country is currently headed, why that destination is not a good one and what could be done to reverse the course. It is still too early to appraise its influence; but its content is surely—and frighteningly—quite accurate.
(Coming Apart: The State Of White America, 1960-2000, Crown Forum, New York, NY, 407 pages, 2012.)
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