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The Reader is advised to hold fast to the old adage about not judging a book by its cover. Charles Murray has returned, this time with a study of class in America endowed with a (perhaps needlessly) provocative title.

Title: Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, by Charles Murray

Completed: March 10, 2012 (#18)

Recommendation: Love him or hate him, Mr. Murray is fulfilling the role of gadfly in precisely the sense that Socrates intended. (Time will tell whether American society will force him to drink hemlock.)

*****

The Reader may be familiar with The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, Murray’s 1994 analysis of the (alleged) interrelationships between race and IQ, which was perceived as so heretical that it all but provoked an auto-da-fé of Murray and his co-author, Richard J. Herrnstein. The reaction to Coming Apart has been more muted, but it has nevertheless caused a stir in certain circles. (Incidentally, Murray focuses on “white America” so as to test his hypothesis that class, rather than race, is today the most important dynamic in American society. One wonders whether his maladroit subtitle has improved sales or driven them away.)

There is a long line of populist tracts bewailing classism in all its multifarious forms and an equally long line of conservative laments about the Untergang des Abendlandes. Although it shares certain features with both of these strains, Coming Apart is distinct in that it is more rigorous than the former and slightly less morose than the latter. According to Mr. Murray, what is “coming apart” at the seams is American society, and it’s been getting progressively worse ever since the symbolic inflection point of November 22, 1963, the date of President Kennedy’s assassination:

In retrospect, a single day often comes to demarcate the transition between eras. Never mind that the Continental Congress voted to declare the colonies’ independence on July second and that the document probably wasn’t signed until August. The Fourth of July, the day the text of the Declaration of Independence was adopted, will forever be the symbolic first day of the new nation. In the twentieth century, December 7, 1941, became the symbolic end of an America that held the world at arm’s length and the beginning of America the superpower. November 22, 1963, became the symbolic first day of what would be known as the Sixties and of the cultural transformation that wound its course through the subsequent decades. The symbolic last day of the culture that preceded it was November 21, 1963.

To borrow our terms of reference from H.G. Wells, Mr. Murray’s thesis may be distilled into the observation that American society has become stratified into a small, effete, overly educated, and well-compensated class of Eloi and a large, unwashed, dysfunctional class of cohabiting Morlock bastards. This stratification, Murray argues, is a recent phenomenon of the past two generations and bodes ill for the future cohesiveness of what he terms the “American project.”

Murray claims that four interrelated developments have created a chasm between, roughly, the top 5% of society (measured by income, prestige, power, and education) and the rest of the hoi polloi:

  • “The increasing market value of brains,”
  • The dramatic spike in income enjoyed by those who work in a managerial or professional capacity,
  • “The college sorting machine,” whereby enormous effort is expended to channel the best and brightest young mandarins to ever more rigorously selective universities, and
  • “Homogamy,” or the self-selecting marriage and residential patterns of the cognitive elite.

Note that Mr. Murray’s “new upper class” is qualitatively different from the elites of yesteryear. The primary distinction between “haves” and “have-nots” in 19th century or early 20th century America, he asserts, was simply that the rich had money and the poor…didn’t. The tastes of the wealthy differed from those of the poor in degree rather than kind, e.g., the same lamb chop and mint jelly was served to Mr. and Mrs. Carnegie as to their carriage driver, though the robber baron’s flatware may have been smarter and his smoking jacket top-notch. Andrew Carnegie was also far more likely to live and work cheek-by-jowl with members of a different social set than a Manhattanite banker or lawyer in 2012.

Today, it may still be arugula for me and iceberg for thee, but there’s much more to American class distinctions than what money can buy. One gets the picture that Murray’s new cognitive elite imagines attendance of a state university to be something akin to a visit to the local Department of Motor Vehicles: One follows a felt-rope queue into a 5,000-person lecture hall to hear some surly public servant deliver a lecture on “business administration” or double-entry accounting; then it’s off to the frat house for a domestic beer and a cigarette before the Big Game, which is attended without the slightest trace of Ivy League irony.

To avoid such demotic horrors, the cognitive elite focus with passionate intensity on running the college admissions gauntlet:

One of the major preoccupations of upper-class parents during their children’s teenage years, the college admissions process, is almost entirely absent in mainstream America. Only a small proportion of colleges in the United States are hard to get into. Everywhere else, all you have to do is apply and attach a halfway decent high school transcript and ACT or SAT score. Outside elite circles, there may be mild angst about whether children get into their first choice in the state university system, but no more than that.

After college, the cognitive elite move to neighborhoods (“SuperZips”) whose most salient characteristic is that you don’t live there, so that their elevated progeny don’t have to be educated with your ingrate children–although it would be unforgivably gauche to admit this preference aloud. When Murray says that a “small proportion” of colleges is selective, he is not thinking of nice, private, liberal arts colleges with “selective” admissions, let alone State U. He’s talking about Harvard, Princeton and Yale (N.B.: alphabetical order is one of the many ways that Harvard graduates, like Mr. Murray, oppress and diminish Yalies).

Indeed, one of his most striking statistical analyses demonstrates the precision with which one is able to predict an individual’s future postal zip code based solely on the knowledge of whether such individual attended one of the “HPY” colleges at 18-years-old:

As mature adults, fully a quarter of HPY graduates were living in New York City or its surrounding suburbs. Another quarter lived in just three additional metropolitan areas: Boston (10 percent), Washington (8 percent), and San Francisco (7 percent). Relative to the size of their populations, the Los Angeles and Chicago areas got few HPY graduates—just 5 percent and 3 percent, respectively. Except for the Philadelphia and Seattle areas, no other metropolitan area got more than 1 percent.

To residents of Belmont, Massachusetts, bravo!–to the folks in Fishtown, Pennsylvania, well…maybe the Eagles will have a better season next year…

This review has been playful, but the outcomes that Mr. Murray describes are grave:

Many of the members of the new upper class are balkanized. Furthermore, their ignorance about other Americans is more problematic than the ignorance of other Americans about them. It is not a problem if truck drivers cannot empathize with the priorities of Yale professors. It is a problem if Yale professors, or producers of network news programs, or CEOs of great corporations, or presidential advisers cannot empathize with the priorities of truck drivers. It is inevitable that people have large areas of ignorance about how others live, but that makes it all the more important that the members of the new upper class be aware of the breadth and depth of their ignorance.

The latter chapters of Coming Apart analyze how the other half lives and put forth some surprising and often counter-intuitive evidence with regard to the marriage, illegitimacy, and crime rates of middle America. It also turns out that “average” folk may be less religiously observant than is generally believed and certainly less than was formerly the case. Each of these phenomena are evidence of a general crumbling of the society America thought it had.

*****

Has the above summary gotten under your skin, dear Reader? If so, you now have an inkling of what it is like to read a book by Charles Murray. Murray’s gift–perhaps his curse–is the ability to join his considerable analytical prowess as a social scientist to the lively wit of a humanist. When he turns his attention to topics that make polite company uncomfortable, as he invariably does, his opponents tend to dissolve into spluttering rage.

For those interested in whether they “qualify” for this elite that is slowly but surely chipping away at the very foundations of America, Murray has included a (slightly tongue-in-cheek) quiz to determine whether you’ve lost touch with the Common Man, with questions like “What does the word Branson mean to you?” If you answered, “It’s a town in Missouri whose country-music establishments make it one of the largest tourist attractions in the United States,” there’s still hope for you, so go back to enjoying your line dance. If you answered, “Why, Sir Richard Branson, the entrepreneur behind the Virgin empire,” you fail, but you knew that already.

And if, like the proprietor of A Superfluous Man, you mistook Branson, Missouri for Fulton, Missouri, where Churchill gave his famous Iron Curtain speech, then you’re just plain hopeless. In my defense, however, I note that I was successfully able to identify Jimmie Johnson as a NASCAR driver, not to be confused with Jimmy Johnson, former coach of the Dallas Cowboys, thanks to having once attended a race at the “Talladega Superspeedway,” the Confederacy’s answer to the Bayreuth Festival.