Following up on our blog discussions a year ago, I published a review of Charles Murray’s recent book, “Coming Apart,” for the journal Statistics, Politics, and Policy. I invited Murray to publish a response, and he did so.
Here’s the abstract to my review:
This article examines some claims made in a recent popular book of political sociology, with the intent not being to debunk any claims but rather to connect some important social and policy positions to statistical data on income, social class, and political attitudes. The thesis of Charles Murray’s book is that America’s upper and lower classes have become increasingly separate, with elites living more disciplined, orderly lives (characterized by marriage, work, and stable families) while being largely unaware of the lifestyles of the majority of Americans. I argue that some of Murray’s conclusions are sensitive to particular choices of whom to label as elite or upper-class. From my analysis of survey data, I see the big culture war occurring within the upper class, whereas Murray focuses on differences in attitudes and lifestyles comparing rich to poor. Coming Apart is a lively contribution to current debates and complements more statistical analyses of political and social polarization.
Murray’s reply had no abstract, but here’s the text of the whole thing. I think the discussion was productive.
Before leaving the conversation, I just want to point to a bit in Murray’s article that I thought inadvertently illustrated Murray’s points about implicit assumptions and cultural divides. Near the end of his reply to my review, Murray writes:
When a society’s elite is confident that its own values are the ones that all of society ought to adopt, those values get communicated. They’re in the air—in the way journalists cover stories, editors write editorials, television networks choose the new season’s series, and screenwriters create plots. They are reflected in the way that members of the elite talk with their children, with their professional colleagues, and whenever those topics relating to their values come up in a public setting. In all of those settings, today’s new upper class tends to be obsessively nonjudgmental.
If you doubt it, try bringing up the issue of single women having babies at your next dinner party, and see how many of your companions are willing to say, even in a private gathering of friends, that it is morally wrong for a woman to bring a baby into the world knowing that it will not have a father, and morally wrong for a man to impregnate a woman knowing he will not be a father to the child. Fifty years ago, no one at the same kind of dinner party would have said that it was not morally wrong.
It is statistically highly likely that all of the biological children of the people at a dinner table of today’s upper-class adults have been born within wedlock. If there are childless never-married women at the table, it is likely that they have deliberately foregone having a baby, even though they might want one, because they have decided it is unfair to the child not to have a father. Put another way, it is likely that all of the people at the table have made moral evaluations and behaved accordingly. “Preach what you practice” simply means to stop being nonjudgmental in public about moral principles that you hold in private.
I have no idea what Murray’s personal view is on the matter, but from the above passage I take it that he thinks it is OK for people to think that “it is morally wrong for a woman to bring a baby into the world knowing that it will not have a father,” and that it is “obsessively nonjudgmental” to not think it is morally wrong for a woman etc.
I think there’s something generational going on here. I actually know several women who’ve knowingly brought fatherless babies into the world—and they and their kids seem to be doing just fine. Yes, I realize there are people who find this sort of thing objectionable, but I’d actually think it was kind of rude for them to say something like that over dinner—at least, it would be rude if one of our friends with children were around.
So, yes, I agree with Murray that there have been big changes over the past few decades—but these changes go deeper than he might realize. In the last two sentences of the quotation above, Murray implies that members of the upper class hold in private the principle that it is morally wrong for a woman to bring a baby into the world knowing that it will not have a father. That might be true among the upper class of Dallas or other conservative parts of the country, but where I live, not so much.
At this point, Murray could of course respond that I’m making his point for him, that I’m illustrating how distant I am, in my Manhattan lifestyle, from average Americans. And I could respond with some poll data showing liberal attitudes on social issues among Americans under 40. But really this particular discussion would not be needed, because my point is simpler than that. Murray thinks it’s obsessionally nonjudgmental to think it’s OK for a woman to have a baby with no father, and I think it’s an odd sort of retro throwback to believe that such a woman’s behavior is morally wrong. In this case it can be difficult to communicate in general, although perhaps it would be possible in special cases. (Murray might, for example, agree that my friends might be OK having brought babies into the world knowing they will not have a father. Perhaps he could consider it morally wrong in general but accept my friends as special cases, perhaps arguing that this sort of think can work in Morningside Heights but not in many other places in the country.)
P.S. There’s a bunch of discussion below but I think some of it misses my main point, which is the following. Murray wrote, “try bringing up the issue of single women having babies at your next dinner party, and see how many of your companions are willing to say, even in a private gathering of friends, that it is morally wrong for a woman to bring a baby into the world knowing that it will not have a father.” I agree that my friends wouldn’t be “willing to say” this, but for the simple reason that I think most of my friends don’t think it is wrong for a woman to do that. Times have changed. Then again, lots of Americans would agree with Murray on the moral condemnation. Attitudes vary by geography, by generation, by many factors.