an appraisal of Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010 by Charles Murray.
by Ian R Thorpe
Nobody will ever know who invented the phrase "broken society" bit there are plenty of broken and derelict societies littered around the western world. And as more nations develop ominous clunks and rattles at at time social cohesion is so important, nobody seems to have a clue what needs to be done to break out of the cycle of selfishness and self indulgence and cement fragmented national and local communities back together.
A big trend in political thinking at the moment seems to be the American cleavage book which is not a soft porn tome, but cleavage in the sense of nations being torn apart by the polarising rhetoric of self serving politicians and partizan politics, social stresses, the wealth gap, the growing proportion of old people in the population and the activities of minority interest groups. Late last year Pat Buchanan’s volume, Suicide of a Superpower, suggested that America was breaking up along cultural and ethnic lines. The former presidential contender argued that as whites became a minority race would become more, not less, of an issue. It is easy to observe the evidence on which Buchanan based his theme. Under the Obama administration "community organiers" (or seditionists as someone more intelligent and articulate than President Omama would say) supported by white pseudo - liberal crypto - fascist guilt junkies have been pushing the odious line that it is OK for members of ethnic minorities to racially abuse whites or for sexual minorities to display hetrophobic attitudes.
The same people as are behind this divisive glorification of blacks, Hispanics and Asians were in 2008 pointing fingers and yelling racist at anybody who dared to criticize Obama. The only reason anyone would oppose him, they chanted like so many automatons, was they could not stand the thought of a black man in The White House. Oh really, nothing to do with his loonytoons economics, his secretiveness about his past, his foreign policy based on object surrender to terrorists and his pledge that in any east west conflict he would take the side of the Muslims?
Later in 2012 The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt, writing from a different part of the political spectrum, tackles the increasingly bitter and unbridgeable political divide between conservatives and liberals, explaining why each side thinks the other is evil. It is precisely this kind of irreconcilable differences which have been increased tenfold under the presidency of the man who styled himself a conciliator, who in his campaign said "let there be no red states and blue states, only United States," and who on his inauguration immediately set about provoking the opposition with a gloating, sneering performance through his first few months in office.
Meanwhile one of the hottest non fiction books in the USA right now is Charles Murray’s Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010, which looks at the most pressing divide, between the rich and poor (confining his commentary to white society to avoid complicating the issue). The United States is lumbered with some shocking levels of inequality. As Murray writes: “Real income for the bottom quartile of American families fell after 1970… Real family income for families in the middle was flat. Just about all of the benefits of economic growth from 1970 to 2010 was to people in the upper half of the income distribution.”
But while inequality is a very hot topic, Murray is one of the few people looking at it from a conservative point of view, which is strange when one looks at what is most likely causing this divide. Perhaps Mr. Murray is more aware of the history and philosophy of conservatism than most of his contemporaries. The Conservative movement, founded in Britain shortly after the Napoleonic Wars was the first great reforming movement. At the time the Conservatives were extending voting rights beyond the wealthy elite the liberals of that time were more like modern bankers, They believed anything that got in the way of their making money was an unjust infringement of their personal liberty
But America does not have as long a history as Britain so the author restricts himself to contrasting American society as it was in 1963 with how it had evolved by the beginning of the credit crunch.
In the year that John F Kennedy died, he tells us, America had an elite and there were rich and poor people, but they generally had similar lifestyles and cultural tastes, watched the same television programmes, ate the same food and lived in socially mixed neighbourhoods. As he writes: “A narrow elite existed in 1960 as in 2010, but it was not a group that had broadly shared backgrounds, tastes, preferences, or culture. They were powerful people, not a class.”
Generally speaking the wealthy of the earlier era did not come from established wealthy backgrounds, old money. President Eisenhower’s cabinet might have been called “nine millionaires and a plumber” but only two had been born into affluent families
Within a generation American society had changed. Today's new “creative” class, what David Brooks christened “BOBOs” (Bourgeois Bohemian), have vastly different tastes to the rest of society, go on new kinds of holidays, educate their children in a far more rigorous and planned way, and have more creative occupations in more dynamic, informal places of work, in contrast to the working class whose working environment has changed little (if their jobs haven’t been outsourced to India or China).
More disturbing, though, is that the new elite have become increasingly cut off from the rest of America as a whole, not just culturally but physically, congregating in a series of ultra-exclusive developments in a few urban areas.
Why has this happened? Partly it's the nature of meritocracy; in the 1950s America’s top universities opened up to the best people, so that the average Harvard freshman in 1952 would have been placed in the bottom 10 per cent of the incoming class by 1960. Within a generation the smartest people from the smallest communities across the land had been taken away, while the opening up of educational opportunities for women meant that highly intelligent women were now vastly more likely to meet highly intelligent men, leading to intellectual homogamy.
Although Murray laments the isolation of America’s new rich, he does not wish for a time machine, arguing that the creation of a new "cognitive elite" has helped to bring about huge advances in American society. The political and professional classes and opinion makers and those from whom such thought leaders are recruited are totally detached from the lives of people who hold down ordinary jobs and earn ordinary wages.
The real downside however is the destruction of the middle class and the destruction of values and aspirations among the poor.. This has much more of an echo in Britain, a country whose large underclass Murray has written extensively about.
The statistics are shocking. The number of working-class men who declared themselves “disabled and unable to work” grew from 2 per cent in 1970 to 10 percent in 2010, compared to only 0.2 per cent of the wealthy (despite great improvements in overall health).
In 1960, some 94 per cent of wealthy middle-aged white Americans were married, compared to 84 per cent of working-class whites. By 2010 the gap had grown to 35 percentage points, less than half of the latter now married. Divorce continued to rise among the poor while remaining stable among the rich, a similar trend being found with people declaring their marriages to be unhappy. Financial pressures, lack of opportunity and alienation from a society that seems to be run by and for an alien elite and the breakdown of family and community networks have been blamed for this by social scientists. I would apportion a lot of blame to the politically correct consensus in the higher echelons of society. This has ushered in a culture of self indulgence and solipsism which as well as eroding the work ethic has led to difficulties in forming relationships and constructing a framework for an ordered life.
in 1960 births were below 3 per cent among all classes of whites; today the rate is between 6 and 8 per cent among wealthy women but between 43 and 48 per cent for the poor. Murray records that he has been writing about the impact of illegitimacy for three decades, and argues that: “whether the parents remarry or remain single while the children are growing up makes little difference. Never-married women produce the worst outcomes. All of these statements apply after controlling for the family’s economic status. I know of no other set of important findings that are as broadly accepted by social scientists who follow the technical literature, liberal as well as conservative, and yet are so resolutely ignored by mainstream news programs, editorial writers for the major newspapers, and politicians of both major political parties.” (my emphasis.)
The decline of marriage has also had a big impact on working-class men's health, since married men tend to be more stable, sober, sociable and employable. Murray suggests that the “causal arrow for the marriage premium goes mostly from marriage to labour force behaviour”.
Murray’s book has got America’s chatterati talking, many critically of his views, although few feel able to dismiss them. Of course there are economic causes to inequality: manufacturing jobs have disappeared, and those service jobs that replaced them are badly paid, less likely to be long term and often involve an intermediary, a labour agency, rather than direct employment ; rising housing costs have also made life much harder for the working poor although this is more pronounced in Britain where many young working couples are finding it impossible to save a deposit to buy a home (since the crash of 2008, 100% mortgages have disappeared) while others are having to forego starting families as the loss of one income would plunge them into penury. This does not apply to the unwaged, the underclass. Housed by the state and paid by the benefits system, they are rewarded by generous child benefits for having children and are often better off than childless, working couples.
This is producing a horribly distorted society in which claiming benefits has become a career option for many and in some inner city areas in up to a quarter of households no adult has ever held a job. Such people are unemployable and their children lean the habits of work avoidance.
I don’t know why that is; America’s media and academia are so politically biased towards the left when the politics of their left are so abhorrent to voters, but smaller countries still tend to have less open-minded debate (the range of thought encountered in Ireland or Norway is far narrower than in England). Perhaps it is that Britain has invested so much emotionally and financially in its welfare system that the libertarian-social conservative Murray contends is destroying the structure of society.
How often do you hear Murray’s views represented on BBC news bulletins or news magazine programmes. How often do you hear representatives from taxpayer-funded groups dedicated to lone single parent families or youth unemployment arguing that more support from government and more money from taxpayers is the only solution to the problem?
Murray's conclusion is optimistic however, because America has been able to reinvent itself before, and as a society is very effective at solving problems. The solutions are already presenting themselves, as Murray argues: “During the next ten or twenty years, I believe that all of these intellectual foundations of the modern welfare state will be discredited by a tidal change in our scientific understanding of human behaviour that is already under way.” The news is not so good for Europe, he points out that the approaching collapse of Europe’s welfare states under the burden of sovereign debt and the social turmoil this brings will give Americans enough warning before they too reach the waterfall. We truly do live in interesting times.
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Work and Play
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