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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Coming Apart . . . Why?

     It's been a long time since my last blog, hasn't it? I was just getting ready to describe a couple of beautiful recent cycling trips in northern and southern Thailand, but my attention suddenly got caught by something else.

     Someone I new had just written a new book, and it was getting a fair amount of  national press in the U.S. So, after checking it out, I put off the travelogue for just a bit longer so as to get a good rant off my chest.

      Charles Murray, author of Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, was in my Peace Corps group. That is, in 1965 we trained together in Hilo, Hawaii, to go to Thailand in the eleventh batch of volunteers the United States sent to Thailand. In Thailand we had different jobs—I was an English teacher, and he was in a village health program, but we studied Thai and had other classes together. I knew his first wife, the gentle and beautiful Suchat, as did all the trainees. She was one of our favorite Thai teachers. I saw her again in the late ‘90’s in Bangkok, and met two or three of Charles’ children then, too.

            If you want a good summary judgment on the book, I think Joan Walsh does a fairly thorough demolition of it in her Salon article (follow link). I hadn’t actually read that all the way through until just now. While she may be too snide here and there (a failing I may share), and I think misses some of what our boy is getting at—Seems to me he is actually trying hard to be warm and fuzzy, and does actually care about the country and its people—she’s still pretty much on the money. But I have a slightly different perspective, so I might as well put my two cents in, too.  So here goes!

      I have good memories of Charlie (that is indeed what I remember everyone calling him in those days). He was certainly more slick and “preppy” than most of the folks I hung out with in college—well, duhh, I went to U.C. Berkeley—but he was always friendly and looked you straight in the eye. I was pleased when in 1966 he asked to interview me on Louis Armstrong for a Bangkok radio show, and was excited to hear it on the restaurant sound system one morning in Bangsaen as we were having breakfast before a training seminar.
     I hadn’t been in touch with him since then until recently friending him on Facebook. In the ‘80s I did read with interest a short book he wrote on the way the Communist insurgency in northeastern Thailand was brought to a peaceful conclusion. I heard about his The Bell Curve, a book published in the 90’s which aroused a lot of controversy on the subject of race and intelligence. But I didn’t actually read anything else of his until another member of Peace Corps Thailand Group 11 mentioned that he’d come out with Coming Apart, and that it had become a national topic of conversation. That got me interested enough to pick up a copy, read it, and take voluminous notes. In the end I simply could not resist writing a critique of it.

     In the opening paragraph of the penultimate chapter, “One Nation, Divisible,” he writes, “. . . my thesis: our nation is coming apart at the seams—not ethnic seams, but the seams of class.” Reading this, I noted, “This is what’s odd. We more or less agree on this big item. But why has he needed all this gobbledegook to say that?”

     I don’t know what Charles’ M.I.T. doctoral thesis was about, but I’d guess it used a lot of graphs, ratios, and progressions, referred to “LOESS data smoothing,” and relied heavily on IQ testing data. It appears he gets a lot of comfort from couching his arguments in such. But near the outset, in a section called “The Nature of the Evidence,” he pretty much admits the uselessness of the voluminous data—you might even say he loudly proclaims it—and that the primary evidence for his analysis is subjective and anecdotal:

      "As I describe these differences (between the “new upper class” and mainstream USA), most of the evidence must be qualitative. For the measures that are covered in the standard government surveys, the samples are not large enough to zero in on the top few centiles of the socioeconomic distribution. (p.37). "

      I read the word “qualitative,” here, as a euphemism. Has the ring of “quality,” suggesting “high quality.” I almost read right past this. But actually, it implies the subjective and anecdotal.

      On most of the book’s points I do disagree with him, so will only briefly mention the areas—major ones, oddly—where we agree: that influence-peddling in Washington is at an obscene new high, that the less fortunate in our society are becoming more alienated, and that the rich are out of touch and unconcerned with what’s going wrong with the United States.

      Okay, first, what does the book say? In a nutshell, “white” society has been breaking down since the sixties along socioeconomic lines (and let’s not forget intelligence! Charles loves the IQ tests, though in this book, in order to simplify things, he says, he leaves out discussion of other races). So, whites. The ruling elite are now a tiny percentage of the whole population who have been selected out by the system according to intelligence and economic capacity and are now living separately from “working class” folks in their own Zip Code areas, walled off from and out of touch with those less intelligent and well-off. The cultural gap between these two demographics is wide and getting wider. The more well-off are still in touch with the old values of “the founders” of our nation and keep to what Charles has labeled “the founding virtues,” but unconcerned with what’s happening outside of their own “Superzips.” Their lessers are drifting off into existential emptiness and immorality, and this is dragging the country down. As a result, the USA is losing the qualities responsible for “American exceptionalism,” a set of dreams to which the good doctor is quite attached. Ah, what to do?

      The book ends by suggesting (optimistically, he admits) that not many years off, mainstream social thought will come around to his opinions and dump the concept of what he calls “the welfare state”:

      ". . . to reflect my confidence that the more we learn about how human beings work at the deepest genetic and neural levels, the more that many age-old ways of thinking about human nature will be vindicated. The institutions surrounding marriage, vocation, community, and faith will be found to be the critical resources through which human beings lead satisfying lives. It will be found that those institutions deteriorate in the advanced welfare states (here he means Europe) for reasons that are intrinsic to the nature of the welfare state. It will be found that those institutions are richest and most robust in states that allow people to work out their lives on their own and in company with the people around them." (p. 301)

And, in the best of all possible worlds, the USA will say “Aha!” at this point, in what he calls “a great civic awakening.” The country will wake up, because “the United States has a history of confounding pessimists.” (p. 302) He harks back to the Christian evangelical “great awakenings” in our country’s history for this image, rather than to the secular Enlightenment, and holds up the Victorian age in England as a model. We aren’t told exactly how the country will wake up and get everyone going to church, interested in finding work, and married again. Presumably this will be by dismantling all welfare programs, and the superzip church groups (“social capital,” he calls them) reaching out to the lower-class communities and teaching them the paths to virtue. Just guessing, but it seems to be the sort of thing our good Dr. Murray feels is effective. Other than one fleeting and rather bizarre mention of providing “a basic income” for all adults “to be financed by cashing out all income transfer programs,” whatever that means, Charles himself offers no specific suggestions that I can find.

      Whew! Where to begin critiquing this? I could go on and on and on, and maybe that’s what it will seem I’m doing anyway . . . but I’ll keep this as brief as I, in my astonishment, can. I’ll address three of the book’s major elements: the “founding virtues,” “American exceptionalism,” and Charles’ vision for the future. Let’s look at the “founding virtues.” To define these, Charles comes up with two qualities which are generally considered virtues—though of the more stodgy sort: honesty and “industriousness.” To these he adds marriage and the quality of “religiosity.” These four concepts he dubs “the founding virtues,” and he claims they are the basis for all that sets our country up as better than others, that they defined American society in its early years, and that their decline in modern American society is the root of our problems.

     I think he is the only prominent social theorist to give center stage to this particular grouping. He doesn’t attempt to justify choosing these four by using graphs, thank goodness, so we can assume they are the product of his own Weltanschauung. He made up and populated the term “founding virtues” by himself. Apart from the fact that the very words “religiosity” and “industriousness” sound awkward, and I usually see “religiosity” used in a pejorative sense (i.e. indicating excessive or dogmatic belief), I don’t understand the sense of this particular construct. My questions to him in my own notes were, “why this particular set of virtues? What about compassion and good judgment? Fairness? Courage, imagination, and enthusiasm? The spirit of innovation? Patience and endurance? Egalitarianism? Or liberté, fraternité—after all, this was a revolution that sprang from the European enlightenment, was it not?” There are so many wonderful virtues, why single out those?

     Were our founding fathers more lacking in the other virtues that honesty, industry, piety, and devotion to the institution of marriage stand out as particularly “founding?” Were the others less important in the development of the new society? I really don’t see how that could be so. He supports his thesis with some of the cherry-picked quotes I mentioned, and uses no quotes supporting other virtues. Several times the quotes are on the line of “cannot exist without . . . ,” and run something like this, from James Madison:

      “To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people is a chimerical idea.

      This is faint endorsement, indeed . . . insisting that at least some virtue has to exist! And here Charles’ special four aren’t singled out. In any case, those four are certainly not my own favorite “virtues,” and I would rather see a society that includes others as at least as important. In fact, marriage is not a virtue at all: it’s an institution, or a social convention. It may serve a good purpose—that could reasonably be argued—but I can’t see how being married is necessarily to be living in virtue. As far as “religiosity” goes, “moral” and “ethical” seem to me better words to describe a virtuous life. And being “ethical” includes “honesty,” another of Charles’ virtues. Industriousness? Well, the Nazis were certainly industrious, wouldn’t you say? Ants are industrious.

      I’m about as “American” as it gets. Born in Arkansas, lived on both coasts and in the South. Mom’s Presbyterian ancestors not only entitled her to membership in the D.A.R.—not that she availed herself of the opportunity—but even in “The Colonial Dames,” who are descendents of officers in the American Revolution. Somewhere along on that side one of her forbears married a Cherokee, so I’ve got Indian blood. My dad was first-generation Italian-American; the grandfather I was named after came to the U.S. in the early years of the 20th century. What I learned of history from the books the public schools gave me to read along the way instilled in me a fierce belief first of all in equality of opportunity and equality under the law, and fairness to everyone. Separation of church and state and complete freedom of belief and expression—I was taught, and in a school in the American South, yet, that these were the very cornerstones of our democracy and our liberty. So if this American were to pick the noblest virtues of our early American heroes, they certainly would not be the four Dr. Charles points to here. Far from it.

     One basic concept I don’t get here is why Charles thinks the hallmarks of “falling from virtue”—high divorce rate, fewer going to church, etc.—are causes! They look more like symptoms to me. What are the causes behind these? Those, it would seem to me, might be more what need to be dealt with.

      My second target: “American exceptionalism.” To Charles this phrase means something like “the set of qualities that make our society better than others.” I think the word “exceptionalism” in common usage has more to do with being an exception than being exceptionally good, and dislike its use here—and in general political discourse these days—for that reason alone, but if America does have such good qualities as he believes, of course they should be tended and nurtured. Who would want to lose them? To the contrary, they should be held up as examples, in hopes the world can learn and become more like us in those ways, assuming it wants to! But what might these qualities be?

      The impression I get is he thinks we have little or nothing to learn from other societies. Neither Norway nor Japan, I gather, is exceptional in any significantly useful way. “American exceptionalism,” on the other hand, is practically equivalent to a birthright of superiority which is currently being pissed away, but which is terribly needed as a guiding light in the modern world. He ties exceptionalism into his “founding virtues” with this:

      America will remain exceptional only to the extent that its people embody the same qualities that made it work for the first two centuries of its existence. (p. 145)

      By “the same qualities,” he means those four “founding virtues.” Well, who knows? I already have said those four aren’t among my favorites. But shouldn’t it be asked first whether this should be about being exceptional in the world, or being a good democracy? The two may come together, but which is more important? In my view, if something as good, it will stand as an example by itself. We won’t need to spend a lot of energy saying how exceptional we are if it’s true.

      It is true anywhere, and was be even in the “virtuous” early America, that when you have a bunch of bastards in charge they will make nasty decisions. What’s so great about appearing as a shining light and beacon of truth to oppressed masses around the world if we’re actually living under arrogant and corrupt politicos and a system which is badly in need of repair? Unfortunately, this is the way the country looks to me now. And this state is nothing new for America.

      Regarding those first two centuries, I’d point out that going to church and remaining married didn’t help the Cherokees, who had embraced the American democracy and even Christianity, to escape Jackson’s forced “trail of tears” march from the Southeastern U.S. to Oklahoma in the early 19th century. How many of the “virtuous” white Americans stood up to protest that? John Marshall, for sure, but even a judgment by his Supreme Court couldn’t stop it. How about those church-going, family-loving, hard-working and honest slavers who formed the Confederate States, which brought so much bloodshed and misery? Some of those stayed on after to form the KKK, which terrorized the South for more than a hundred years. Strom Thurmond, rest his virtuous soul, came out of that. Or how being so “virtuous” helped the American people see through the jingoism and yellow journalism that brought on the completely unnecessary Spanish-American War, which first made the U.S. a colonial power? And what about the Viet War, with all the lies, from start to finish, so easily swallowed by the still “virtuous” public?

      Like quotes from de Tocqueville? Here’s a goodie which Dr. Murray did not use, recalling the migration of the Choctaw Nation from the Southeast U.S. in 1831:

      In the whole scene there was an air of ruin and destruction, something which betrayed a final and irrevocable adieu; one couldn't watch without feeling one's heart wrung. The Indians were tranquil, but sombre and taciturn. There was one who could speak English and of whom I asked why the Chactas were leaving their country. "To be free," he answered, could never get any other reason out of him. We . . . watch the expulsion . . . of one of the most celebrated and ancient American peoples.

      I want to say to my old friend, “Charles, the US has had a lot of good moments, sure, but let’s not pretend that it worked consistently well for its first two centuries.” When Charles Murray and I joined the Peace Corps, I, for one, was proud of my country. Some of that pride you could probably chalk up to the enthusiasm of youth, but it was undeniably true that the country had done great things. We had won a war to end slavery, pioneered air travel and automobile production, created jazz and baseball and established an incredible array of national parks, changed with the times to—finally!—give women the vote, stopped Hitler, had just passed the Civil Rights Act, and were on our way to the moon! We had a constitution which seemed to have been written by geniuses, with its checks and balances (influenced by the Iroquois League, no less, talk about open-minded!) and a bill of rights which insisted on freedom of speech and thought. We had (we thought) put McCarthyism behind us, and I for one didn’t mind saying the Soviet Union was a sinister police state that had to be stopped, and that we should be helping do just that. The Vietnam War was starting to look weird, but we couldn’t yet imagine how ugly and meaningless it would get. RFK and Martin Luther King were, it seemed, fighting the good fight, and the martyred JFK loomed large in my pantheon.

      I imagine Charles’ pride in country is still something like that, only wounded pride. Well, mine has been seriously wounded, as well. One difference between us may be that I don’t think anybody’s “good old days” were nearly as good at the time as they might now think. Rereading some of the early history of our republic I actually see a lot of the same faults there as have caused my disillusionment now. Another difference between us may be that I don’t blame society’s ills on “big government,” or mindless bureaucracy.

      Regarding the decline of our society, I’d say, “old friend, if we can rephrase what you’re saying as ‘life appears to have lost its meaning for many working-class people,’ I’ll agree with you. I’d add that many in the ‘new upper class,’ they of the superzips, are also having a hard time finding meaning. No, I don’t agree with you that folks in the new upper class ‘are doing just fine.’ Their little ingrown society may have enviable security and the trappings of respectability, but they have the same problems with finding meaning as everyone else. Life is truly easy for no one, and if these people are as out of touch with the rest of society as you say, don’t you think that must haunt them, whether they’re aware of it or not?”

      To Charles it appears that seduction by what he calls the European model, the “welfare state,” is a cause for our loss of virtue:

      "The European model assumes that human needs can be disaggregated when it comes to choices about public policy. People need food and shelter, so let us make sure that everyone has food and shelter. People may also need self-respect, but that doesn’t have anything to do with whether the state provides them with food and shelter. People may also need intimate relationships with others, but that doesn’t have anything to do with policies regarding marriage and children. People may also need self-actualization, but that doesn’t have anything to do with policies that diminish the challenges of life." (p. 280)

      "A man who is holding down a menial job and thereby supporting a wife and children is doing something authentically important with his life. He should take deep satisfaction from that . . . If that same man lives under a system that says the children of the woman he sleeps with will be taken care of whether or not he contributes, then that status goes away." (p.284)

      The first quote implies a twisted view of European social thought. Physical necessities, a bottom line, can certainly be provided without making people into robots or cause them to lack industry or self-respect. I’ve lived in Europe, and have close friends there. I know how they live. One of my sisters lives in Spain, and the other died in a hospital there. I have many anecdotes of my own. This story about the scary “welfare state” that supposedly deadens life there is a nonsensical myth. The different countries have various sorts of social “safety nets,” some stronger, some weaker, nearly all stronger than the United States has, yes, but the concept in all is to provide a last resort, not to guarantee a life of leisure where no one has to face life’s challenges. In fact, when I compare what I’ve seen in the U.S. workplace to what I’ve seen in Europe, Americans appear to be having at least as much trouble with self-respect and self-actualization as Europeans, and probably more. But Charles consistently paints Europe with a broad and disfiguring brush. He says he feels sorry for Europeans because they don’t understand the meaning to be found in work. He gets especially preachy here, saying, “Industriousness is a resource for living a fulfilling human life instead of a life that is merely entertaining.” (p. 170)

      The second quote tells me that Charles has no clear understanding of the kind of job market that exists for most of the people in our country. He has certainly never had to face it himself. Of course a man or woman who provides for his/her family should take satisfaction from doing it. But that may come at a great cost. These days jobs of any kind are hard to get, and even in the best of times the ones that of themselves give meaning to a person’s life are hard to find. Chances are any job someone in the “lower class” can get will be of a mind-numbing sort, provide inadequate pay, will have bad working conditions and few if any job benefits. Throw in an unreasonable boss, hardly uncommon, and you’ve got a recipe for misery, not for meaning. To me, the very fact that Charles writes as he does proclaims his membership in that upper class which he says is so out of touch.

      The final paragraph of Charles’ book summarizes his hope for the future:

      "What it comes down to is that America’s new upper class must once again fall in love with what makes America different. The drift away from those qualities can be slowed by piecemeal victories on specific items of legislation or victories on specific Supreme Court cases, but only slowed. It is going to be stopped only when we are all talking again about why America is exceptional and why it is so important that America remain exceptional. That requires once again seeing the American project for what it has been: a different way for people to live together, unique among the nations of the earth, and immeasurably precious." (p. 306)

      This conclusion is one of the elements in the book that most astonishes me. Solution to our problems: the upper class has to—and according to Dr. Murray, it will—fall in love! Then we all will start “talking again about” American exceptionalism, and I assume he means that not only will we all talk, we’ll all agree! Good luck on that one.

      Charles calls himself an optimist. Well, I’ve always thought of myself as one, too. I’ll say, though, that this optimist is extremely discouraged about the state of affairs in the United States. I would love for our country to be exceptionally good, and be a world leader in many things. I agree with Charles that a lot of people in the U.S. are alienated and drifting, and that a lot of the more well-off are clueless, and with him, long for better times. But I see the divisions in society and the disillusionment of the less fortunate as symptoms, rather than causes. Even if we could treat the symptoms, the malaise would still be there.

      Charles and I had the privilege to go to college when it was affordable. I graduated from one of the world’s finest universities and went into the Peace Corps with no student loan debt at all. I doubt very much that I could do the same today. Both my kids—top students, who were also awarded scholarships—wanted to go to fancy private universities in the East. I could not afford to pick up all their costs, so they took out loans. My daughter graduated in 1997 a “modest” $20,000 in hock. Thank yegods, she was able to pay that off, too. My son graduated in 2009 owing $60,000! He’s now decided to enter med school, which I am just not in a position to help with, and will probably come out of that set back another $200,000! How did that kind of inflation happen? People need skills to realize their dreams and have the sort of meaningful work that both Charles and I think is important, but getting educated for those skills is more and more beyond the reach of most people. I have friends who are paying much more for the home they bought ten years ago than it is now worth. How did that come about? The nation is spending trillions on killing people in far-off countries, while people here are caught up in irrational fears of having Sharia law forced on them or having their children seduced into being gay.

      If America is lacking in virtue, I would suggest it start with building up its courage, integrity, and compassion. And then, I don’t care what someone’s Pollyanna idea of the early Republic is, I don’t care what anyone thinks about how Europeans live and work, I want some concrete ideas for our time. How do we get politicians to stop talking in sound bites and appealing to our worst instincts? How do we guarantee a level playing field in financial matters? How can we make sure that people who can be helped by our medical establishment don’t have to bankrupt themselves doing so? How can we finally curb our warlike nature and learn how to use peaceful means to gain our ends? How can we cope with the world population explosion, help end hunger, minimize our negative impact on the environment, and learn to be brothers and sisters with people worldwide? “Let’s live the virtue of humility, as well. No empire lasts forever,” I would say to Charles, “so if there is anything exceptionally good about what we are, why don’t we forget about bragging on it, but rather consider how to pass it on and share it with the world? That way, maybe what is good about us can last beyond the United States of America.”

      Such thoughts first motivated me, and presumably Charles, to join the Peace Corps. Reading what he has written, I wonder how he now fits an organization such as that into his political views. It doesn’t seem the sort of thing he’d want our most exceptional American government bothering with.

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