One of my favorite songs when I was young was Betty Hutton’s Arthur Murray Taught Me Dancing In A Hurry. Because of the way my mind plays with words, the song always pops into my head whenever I think of Charles Murray, the deservedly famous libertarian thinker and writer. The rhyming names are, of course, a facile connection between the man and the song. The deeper, more meaningful connection is that Murray’s 1994 book, Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, was one of the pivotal books that hastened my transition from knee-jerk liberal to thinking conservative.
Bell Curve was so relentlessly logical it dealt a death-blow to the cognitive dissonance that is a necessity for a moral, rational Jew who lives in the real world, but who continues to vote the Democrat ticket. I read the book in 1995 and became hungry for more and more books that inevitably destroyed my Jewish, San Francisco, UC Berkeley, PBS, New Yorker, New York Times world view. (Some of those books were Keith Richburg’s Out Of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa; Charles Sykes’ Profscam: Professors and the Demise of Higher Education; and, believe it or not, Arthur Schlesinger’s The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society, in which an old Leftist mourned multiculturalism without realizing that he ushered it in America’s front door.) It took until 9/11 before I was able to sever completely the cord between me and the Democrat party, but I never would have reached that state had it not been for The Bell Curve.
As always, there’s a point to one of my meandering introductions. I was fortunate enough today attend a luncheon in San Francisco at which Mr. Murray spoke. The theme of the speech was the same theme he sounded in his best-selling book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010: namely, that 21st century America is experiencing a class divide the likes of which has never been seen before in this country.
We’ve all seen this divide in the responses to the previous and current occupants of the White House. George W. Bush may have come from an old American family, and been educated at all the right (i.e., Ivy League schools), but he was considered a class traitor by the Leftist elite, who relentlessly mocked his speech (“new-cu-lar,” “misunderestimated,” etc.), and sought to portray him as an ill-educated yokel who squeaked into the Ivies because of family connections. Meanwhile, Barack Obama, the stoner who drifted into the Ivies on a cloud of marijuana smoke and affirmative action, is held up to the world as the most intelligent president ever to occupy the White House (never mind his staggering ignorance about everything but Leftist cant), in large part because he plays the class game so adroitly.
I certainly saw the class divide in my own world when a liberal family member was horrified to learn that I admired Sarah Palin — a gal who didn’t go to the Ivies, who believes in God, and who shoots moose. He didn’t even bother to challenge me on political substance. He simply said, “She’s not one of us.” We stared at each other over a giant chasm of value differences. To me, she’s “one of us,” because she believes in American exceptionalism, distrusts big government, supports the Constitution, recognized the inevitable loss of freedom that comes with socialized medicine, supports Israel, supports the troops, etc. While this relative disagrees with Palin on every one of those issues, her real crime was being a yokel. If he was the bumper-sticker type, he’d have had one that said “We don’t vote for yokels.”
The point Murray made in his speech is that the Bush/Obama or Obama/Palin divides are more than just political. He began with something simple: marriage. Upper middle class white people marry — 84% of them today, as opposed to 94% of them when I was born. Lower class people have abandoned marriage — 84% of them were married when I was born; only 48% of them are married now. The problem isn’t just an economic one, although the economic effects of single-motherhood are so catastrophic that even the New York Times has had to acknowledge it. Two-parent families are the glue that holds a community together.
As Murray said, single dads don’t coach Little League and single moms don’t go to PTA meetings. In Marin County, Tiburon and Ross moms bring their formidable energy and skills to scarily efficient and excessive PTAs and school plays, while in San Rafael and Marin City (Marin’s genuinely poor communities), those same Tiburon and Ross moms, as charity work, try to do the same in communities that have virtually no parental participation.
It’s not just that the rich are richer and the poor are poorer (although that too is a problem, because it means the middle is vanishing). It’s that the rich and the poor live entirely separate lives. Back in 1960, even in affluent neighborhoods, neighborhoods were more blended than they are today. Incidentally, much as I hate to give any praise to my former law-prof and current-Massachusetts Senator, Elizabeth Warren, she diagnosed this problem almost a decade ago. In The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Parents are Going Broke, she pointed out that the upper middle class drive for public schools that offer the same quality as prep schools drove up housing prices in certain areas, making it impossible for middle and working class families even to remain within the school district’s boundaries. While Warren had the smarts to divine the problem, she’s so ideologically blinkered that she thinks government control and intervention is the solution.
Murray describes a lost American world in which the upper classes and upper middle classes sought to blend in, not to stand out. They bought Buicks, not Cadillacs, because it was déclassé to flaunt ones wealth. Nowadays, with stratospheric incomes propelled by information technology, you’re failing the new upper class if you don’t have the $100,000 Tesla.
Our children grow up untouched, not just by poverty, but by a connection to the blue-collar working class. Many of the children in Marin have never met a parent who makes his living using his body (unless he’s a chichi personal trainer) as opposed to his brain. I certainly know that’s the case for my little community. I like to describe my delightful neighborhood as one populated by old people with young children. This used to be a nice suburban working class neighborhood, with stay-at-home moms and blue collar or low-level white collar (i.e., teachers and clerks) dads. Now it’s an expensive, upper class neighborhood where every adult has at least one degree, where all the fathers are professionals, and where the mothers were professionals before their income level gave them the luxury of staying home to raise their children. All of us worked like the dickens in our 20s and 30s so that we could afford these homes in this top-flight school district for our late-in-life kids.
Popular culture has also divided. As I like to tell my kids, back in the 1940s, everybody listened to Bing Crosby and Benny Goodman, and in the 1950s, everybody watched I Love Lucy. Now, our popular culture is divided up by 500 cable channels, God-alone-knows-how-many pop music charts, and movies targeted to micro-stratum demographics. Murray saw this as a class issue, and I agree. He pointed out that the audience before him watches Mad Men, Downton Abbey, and Breaking Bad, while that other class is watching shows we don’t even know exist. (Although I do know about Duck Dynasty and one day, if I can drag myself to the TV, a box I usually avoid, I might watch it.)
I’m very aware of the pop culture chasm, of course, because I have kids. My blogging means that I know everything my kids know, which is very fortunate. I’m usually a step ahead of them, and can deconstruct Miley Cyrus or “I kissed a girl and I like it.” They wouldn’t listen to me if I just concluded that it’s “nasty” or “inappropriate.” They do listen to me because I can describe the behavior in detail and, in the same detail, explain why it’s destructive. Most parents, of course, don’t have the freedom to be as informed as I am, and the children pay the price. They grow up in a pop culture world where it’s not just that “anything goes,” it’s that anything that is base, demeaning, and immoral is elevated and emulated.
I do believe, though, that children are beginning to see through the noise of a sleazy, degrading pop culture, and they’re recognizing that, no matter how much they’re forced to read a second-rate, civil-rights-era play such as Raisin in the Sun, that they’re being lied to. Whatever pathologies may be plaguing today’s black community, they understand that systemic institutional racism is no longer an issue., especially when there’s a black man in the White House.
In other words, the fact that the Left controls the discourse in the media and the schools, so that children get a monolithic Leftist world view, also means that the cognitive dissonance grows and grows. In this way, we’ve become like the Soviet Union, where people became cynical as they looked at housing shortages and hunger while the government trumpeted the stunning success of whatever iteration of Stalin’s Five Year Plan happened to be in vogue that year. Our children too are struggling with cognitive dissonance. It’s a slow process, as I know personally, but a real one.
All in all, it was a very good lunch. The meal was delicious (perfectly prepared chicken, wild mushrooms, and fruit tart), and the intellectual food was just as good. If you live in the Bay Area, I strongly suggest that you get on the Pacific Research Institute (“PRI”) mailing list. The speakers that PRI brings to San Francisco are always worth hearing.