Posted by: Chris | February 9, 2012

Coming Apart

Charles Murray’s most recent book, Coming Apart, on the separation between the American working and upper-middle classes in terms of values, culture, and outcomes , has been getting considerable press recently and David Frum offers a pretty comprehensive four part critique of the book’s central thesis (and a fifth was added as this post was in production).  Frum makes a number of good points against Murray’s argument: that Murray conflates the relationship between economic stagnation/inequality and cultural decline/divergence; that he traffics in common shibboleths about the beliefs of “the Founders;” that he explicitly ignores racial and ethnic minorities in a country rapidly becoming minority-majority; that he offers little more than supposition to support many of his causal claims and even less to address the country’s imputed problems.

However, to me, the most convincing element of Frum’s critique is his highlighting of Murray’s blinkered and often contradictory categorizations of the two classes that are “coming apart” in America, for which he offers as synecdoches the wealthy suburb of Belmonte near Boston and the working-class neighborhood of Fishtown in Philly:

To be assigned to Belmont, the people in the statistical nationwide databases on which I am drawing must have at least a bachelor’s degree and work as a manager, physician, attorney, engineer, architect, scientist, college professor or content producer in the media. To be assigned to Fishtown, they must have no academic degree higher than a high-school diploma. If they work, it must be in a blue-collar job, a low-skill service job such as cashier, or a low-skill white-collar job such as mail clerk or receptionist.

The problem with this categorization is two-fold.  First off, the simplicity of the divide seems to induce Murray to argue at cross-purposes. On one hand, he wants to act as a moralizing scold, bemoaning the decline of stable marriages and a strong work ethic in amongst the American working-class.  On the other, he cannot shake the impulse to place himself as a vanguard of conservative populism whenever he contemplates the differences between Real America and the bicoastal elite.  This tension between these two aims, straining simultaneously to be aghast at both cultural decline and cultural pretentions, leads to an argumentative muddle.  Murray will, for instance, lament a decline of industriousness and religiosity in Fishtown relative to Belmonte only to later defend them as hard-working God-fearing people standing up to a lazy, secularist elite.  He sees liberal bastions packed with Murphy Browns raising kids on their own simultaneous to explosions of single motherhood and out-of-wedlock births in the heartland.  Most strikingly, as Frum perceptively points out, he diagnoses as the main malady afflicting America as “non-judgementalism,” wherein Belmonte refuse sto reprove Fishtown for its putative moral failings but then decries “overeducated snobs” who look down their noses at the heartland for not sharing their values.  Frum points out two revealing passages along these lines:

If you are of a conspiratorial cast of mind, nonjudgmentalism looks suspiciously like the new upper class keeping the good stuff to itself. … Nonjudgmentalism ceases to be baffling if you think of it as a symptom of … loss of self-confidence among the dominant minority. The new upper class doesn’t want to push its way of living onto the less fortunate, for who are they to say that their way of living is really better?

The culture of the new upper class carries with it an unmistakable whiff of a ‘we’re better than the rabble’ mentality. The daily yoga and jogging that keep them whippet-thin are not just healthy things for them to do; people who are overweight are less admirable as people. Deciding not to recycle does not reflect just an alternative opinion about whether recycling makes sense; it is inherently irresponsible. Smokers are not to be worried about, but to held in contempt.

The people who suffer from this syndrome have been labeled by many other Americans as overeducated elitist snobs [OES]. The OES syndrome does not manifest itself like Margaret Dumont playing society lady to Groucho Marx. Overeducated elitist snobs may even be self-deprecating about their cultural preferences. They just quietly believe that they and their peers are superior to the rest of the population, intellectually and in their nuanced moral sensibility.

In the article from the WSJ that I linked to above, Murray even puts those two sentiments back-to-back in his prescriptions for saving American culture:

The “something” that I have in mind has to be defined in terms of individual American families acting in their own interests and the interests of their children. Doing that in Fishtown requires support from outside. There remains a core of civic virtue and involvement in working-class America that could make headway against its problems if the people who are trying to do the right things get the reinforcement they need—not in the form of government assistance, but in validation of the values and standards they continue to uphold. The best thing that the new upper class can do to provide that reinforcement is to drop its condescending “nonjudgmentalism.” Married, educated people who work hard and conscientiously raise their kids shouldn’t hesitate to voice their disapproval of those who defy these norms. When it comes to marriage and the work ethic, the new upper class must start preaching what it practices.

Changing life in the SuperZIPs requires that members of the new upper class rethink their priorities. Here are some propositions that might guide them: Life sequestered from anybody not like yourself tends to be self-limiting. Places to live in which the people around you have no problems that need cooperative solutions tend to be sterile. America outside the enclaves of the new upper class is still a wonderful place, filled with smart, interesting, entertaining people. If you’re not part of that America, you’ve stripped yourself of much of what makes being American special.

I cannot fathom what “condescending nonjudgmentalism” entails.*

The various incongruities between Murray’s two Americas are somewhat resolved by the other major problem with his characterizations: they are largely fanciful.  Murray, who usually portrays himself as more numerate than the average bear, has bifurcated the United States into the Upper West Side and Peoria based on little more than personal observations.  Despite evidence suggesting that additional wealth correlates (albiet more weakly as of recent) with conservative politics, Murray imagines the upper class as primarily liberal concern-mongers and their opposites as redneck yokels.  Its telling that the his idea of the New York elite is not a Wall Street financier but a Columbia academic.

Even more telling is the quiz included at the front of the book.  Intended to shock the typical reader (who, statistically speaking, will likely be a Belmonter) into realizing how isolated they are from the mainstream, it mostly serves to shock the reader into realizing how removed Murray’s idea of outside-the-mainstream actually is.  Even before the questions begin, he presupposes that the hypothetical reader does not send their kids to public school and regularly eats out for $25/person.

The questions themselves are for the most part unsupported by any data but instead completely predicated on Murray’s caricature of how he imagines the average American with a graduate/professional degree lives.  He cites, amongst other totems of having comingled with Real America, having played varsity sports, marching in parades (so long as they aren’t too gay), and drinking bad beer.  Many of the other selections come across as more random.  He asks the reader if they’d ever been on a factory floor largely because Murray himself went on one once and thought it might be something that the imaginary upper class would never do.  The readers are questioned if they know stupid people (because Murray with little justification imagines them rare in upper-middle class enclaves) or if they eat regularly at sitdown chains (an expensive proposition for the typical family, given that the average dish costs ~$12).  The chain restaurant example is even more absurd when one considers that Murray explicitly excludes Chipotle from the list, despite being the cheapest place to eat on his list and the only fast food restaurant.  The key seems to have been which restaurants receive disdain from a sliver of food critics whose opinions Murray imputes onto the entire population.

The rest if the questions, though less random, seem entirely unrepresentative of the distinctions Murray attempts to draw.  He queries, for instance, about NASCAR and Missouri kitsch, which seems to better track to geography, and popular movie/television viewership, which track better to age (15-24yo males and 50+yos, respectively).  He seems to think having had a series of shitty jobs in one’s youth or having ridden a busline are indicators of rare realness, despite being near-universals.  Likewise, living in urban/suburban areas is taken to denote belonging to the new upper crust, despite describing the majority of Americans (a statistic that Murray himself cops to).

Of course, no evidence beyond Murray’s own say-so is given to validate that any of these traits serve as good indicators of one’s cultural isolation.  Murray seems to have created, in his mind, some archetypal effete liberal elite and constructed the test such that this entirely fictional character would get a zero (and deserve it).  He even offers, at the end, predicted ranges for each of his two catergorizations, as well as for certain intermediate groups, entirely devoid of empirical justification.  Murray imagines, in this section, that the typical second-generation Belmonter “with the television and moviegoing habits of the upper-middle-class,” a group of people Murray suggests (again, no justification) makes up as much as 20% of all Americans, should have an expected score of 2 (out of 100) on his quiz.**  The absurdity of this number (as well as the remainder of the predictions) and the assumptions, belie how hollow Murray’s notions of cultural identity really are.

The problems with Murray’s thesis are especially troubling because he addresses obliquely an issue that few people do (and one that Murray himself has been grappling with more explicitly for sometime).  People generally approve of our nation’s shift towards meritocracy, but we have not fully sounded out the depths of the new systems implications.  Our system currently encourage all parties to take a stab at cracking into the upper echelons of the meritocracy, even those who have little chance of success, burdening them with near useless degrees and crippling student debts.  We have no good answer for those who don’t or can’t make it and face the prospect of lapsing into a social structure more ossified than that it replaced (especially if the cognitive abilities meritocracy rewards are significantly heritable).  Murray seems to gesture towards these issues, but regretably gets tripped up by his own biases and conflicting goals.

*Though I guess it could be a relative of “a pretentious lack of pretention.”

**I got a 39, largely because I don’t go to the movies or watch CBS.  I am curious how the remainder of the Lure did.



  1. While your criticisms are generally fair, I think it is disingenuous to claim that “condescending nonjudgementalism” is gibberish. It is similar to, and exactly as sensible as, “passive-aggressive.” “Condescending” refers to the (somehow divined) inner beliefs of the person/stereotype, while “nonjudgmentalism” refers to their explicit statements.

    Murray does not accept that someone could be a yoga-practioner without either openly or secretly believing that those who do not are despicable. Because he doesn’t hear many liberal caricatures castigating those who decline to practice yoga, he assumes there is just a vast conspiracy of silence in which all “upper-class liberals” sneer down their noses but refuse to comment. It’s paranoid, but it isn’t self-contradictory.

  2. I agree that it goes too far to say that “condescending nonjudgmentalism” is necessarily gibberish. But it does serve as a pithy summary of the incoherence Frum points out. It also enabled a parenthetical reference to a similarly absurd claim a certain member of this blog leveled at another and in-jokes are always good.

    I do think you are reading too much into things, though, with the later portion of your comment. Murray’s argument re: “non-judgmentalism” is that the liberal elites do not criticize the decline in family values outside of their enclaves, prefering to “live and let live” on that front. The second claim is that they are too judgmental because they sneer at those outside their enclaves who do not share their same cultural and lifestyle indicators. It is less about what is vocalized and what isn’t and more about what is emphasized and what isn’t.

    One plausible way to reconcile these two arguments, which, based excerpts, summaries, and reviews, Murray does not do, is to claim that the liberal elites’ value-priorities are out-of-whack, that they put too much emphasis on certain “good behavior,” like exercise or recycling, and not enough on other types, like hardwork and fidelity.

  3. Also, did you try the quiz? If so, how did you score?

  4. I wondered why Murray ragged on Chipolte (and its patrons). Matt Yglesias tries his best to justify Murray’s scorn:

    “In light of perennial hand-wringing about the state of America’s industrial base, it’s worth emphasizing that the North American Industrial Classification System regards food packaging as a form of manufacturing. If the Chipotle kitchen in Chicago were an independent firm, in other words, it would be considered a “manufacturer” of carnitas, just like the people who bring you canned peas and Spam.

    As it stands, Chipotle is instead classified in the much-derided service sector. And yet it’s impossible for me to look at a Chipotle during a busy time and not see a modern version of an assembly line. Each worker is responsible for one or two steps and then hands the package off to the next. The production inputs—rice, beans, meat, salsas—are assembled backstage and delivered at the command of the line workers.”


  5. One more comment on my own post:

    Andrew Gelman’s review of Coming Apart is recommendable:

  6. I just finished the book. Note: I didn’t read the book to pick it apart. I read it for the ideas, the themes, not for the facts. I’ll leave it to professional sociologists to dissect it.

    My thoughts: Murray is correct.

    I turn on the TV and see smokers stigmatized, but marijuana users are characterized as persecuted would-be artists/expressives. I hear the phrase “pissed off” repeatedly. I was raised to believe that phrase was crude, low-class; I mentioned that to a liberal friend of mine and she rolled her eyes. I see some perky, twenty-something blonde on a daytime talk show telling me about the dangers of red meat. I like steak.

    I see neighborhoods falling apart because children are having children, because parents are bringing home different mates every six months, and because drug abuse is prevalent. But what’s the response that I encounter from — to use Murray’s phrase — “over-educated snobs?” I get a lesson on the alleged dangers of high fructose corn syrup, and how corporations must be evil to use it.

    Where is the leadership? Why is it so easy to criticize other elites, or corporations, or ideas, but not the coarse or self-destructive behaviors of other people, of poor people, of people with more melanin?

    I won’t claim that Murray is correct. But I will say that his arguments resonate with the reality that I experience.

    By the way, I took his quiz — a quiz that I understood him to have crafted somewhat tongue-in-cheek. I scored a 36. I am the only college-educated person in my middle class family.

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