Charles Murray: Searching for a New Foundation for Society

5Charles Murray, in Coming Apart, points out that the American experiment in minimizing the extent of the powers of the federal government, is premised on self-governance involving honesty, industriousness, religiosity, and morality. European visitors in the early nineteenth century often considered Americans uncouth, but they also regarded them as unusually moral, for instance, regarding the rarity of infidelity between spouses, practically de rigueur in France. Once that self-governance diminishes, all is lost. The more base, primitive, and impulsive the population, the more a hardline is required to achieve order. George Washington wrote: “Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” This is because morality depends philosophically on religious ideas, such as the notion that man is made in the image of God, but also because church-centered communities will have various kinds of social enforcement of moral norms, and, for the least developed among us, it is fear of God that stops pathological behavior.

Industriousness, religiosity, and marriage have not significantly diminished among the elite; the Ivy League graduates who earn 6the most and live in secluded expensive enclaves only among themselves. They continue to get married and not to have children out of wedlock much as people have always done, though they are likely to tell the rest of us that marriage is an outmoded patriarchal institution. They are highly industrious and work very long hours. Contrary to the stereotype of faith being a benighted working-class thing, faith and church attendance among the working class has drastically diminished, but less so for the upper class. Murray points out that the elite normally set the tone for the rest of us, but the ethos of egalitarianism means that they are unwilling to criticize the slothful and promiscuous. Tattoos, normally a sure sign of lower-class membership, have spread upward. 30% of the bottom group of whites are unemployed and do not seek employment.[1] Normally, it is marriage and children that drive men to work hard to provide for their family. Without that impetus, many men choose to do nothing instead. Possibly, work a couple of months to qualify for unemployment again, and then live on that.

One of Charles Murray’s central points in Coming Apart is that people from humble origins used to be common aspects of American government. Members of JFK’s cabinet were children of simple shop keepers, and the like. Richard Nixon had no illustrious familial background, a fact that was repeatedly rubbed in his face, of course. Old money had no particular connection with intellectual accomplishment, and Murray gives examples of people who were fantastically rich, but whose basic mode of life and values were not too different from other Americans – gold-plated items and private planes – notwithstanding. The restaurants in Harvard square were similar to those found elsewhere. Basically, what is now considered red state flyover country characteristics were once ubiquitous. The school brainiac and nerd had to do his or her best to fit in with his or her less intelligent classmates, and would struggle to find someone else with similar interests. Universities like Harvard wanted no more than 10% of their students to be “scholars,” and were in no way repositories of elite intellectuals. Scholars are destined for poverty, and Ivy League schools wanted to be associated with US presidents and the rich and successful. That is how they increase their endowments and also function as sources of aspiration. However, the “knowledge economy” has now made a firmer connection between high IQ and success. 7Within short order during the 1960s, the admission standards for the Ivy Leagues became much stricter and the students much brighter. What that has meant is that Ivy League students are now members of an intellectual elite with their own specialized tastes and preferences quite different from the majority of Americans. Murray gives an example of parking lots filled with imported cars in elite areas, and American made in lower rent parts of town or areas. Mass TV or mass movies are anathema. The rich are thin and exercise, the poor fat and do not. The rich do not drink, or drink sparingly. There is no need for the local brainiac to associate with those less smart – and they can marry their equivalent in Harvard Law. They go from one rich enclave to another and associate only with their kind. They have no feel for, nor understanding of regular Americans exemplified in Hillary Clinton’s famous description of everyone not a mirror image of her as “the deplorables,” thus demonstrating her complete alienation from pickup truck driving working men in particular, and her ignorance of them. Obama’s stereotype of these others were as Bible clutching and gun toting.

Murray provides a self-test to see into which camp you fall. Questions include: Have you ever lived for at least a year in an American neighborhood in which the majority of your fifty nearest neighbors did not have college degrees?[2] (In 2000, 92% of Americans lived in such a neighborhood). Did you grow up in a family in which the chief breadwinner was not in a managerial or high prestige profession (attorney, physician, dentist, architect, engineer, scientist, or college professor). During the last month have you voluntarily hung out with people who were smoking cigarettes?[3] Have you eaten at a chain restaurant in the last year? (Applebees, Waffle House, Denny’s, Outback Steakhouse, Ruby Tuesday, etc)[4]

It can be hilarious listening to these elite speculate about why anyone would vote for Trump. Their ignorance was exposed precisely by Trump’s election, which caught them by surprise. In Soviet Union style, Trump voters are considered retrograde counterrevolutionaries to be suppressed at all costs. They are “enemies of the state,” to quote Nancy Pelosi. People from countries like Iran, where school children were taught to chant “Death to America,” or refugees from North Korea, find modern America with its suppression of free speech and attempts to enforce conformity to liberal ideologies frighteningly similar to the countries and cultures they sought to escape.

Notice that honesty and morality are not included as aspects of the modern elite. While they apply such standards and behavior 8within their class, they have decided that the rest of us must be relentlessly lied to and propagandized – either making things up from whole cloth, or lying by omission, and editing videos to make someone seem like he is saying something he is not, such as the fine people hoax. This kind of consequentialist “moral” behavior is startingly sickening to anyone with an intact conscience. They are convinced that they serve a higher moral truth, in their outright lies. Presumably, these elite have no idea just how evil they have become while rejecting their role in truth discernment and preservation. Instead, colleges and mass media, judges, and bureaucrats, have embraced social justice and activism, leaving absolutely no institution that exhibits actual standards of honesty and morality.

Oppression, and the monied elite, are nothing new. But, an extreme economic divide is now joined to a cultural divide with radically incompatible worldviews. Frankly, it makes mutual succession from the USA seem quite attractive.

Sitting around trying to come up with alternatives to liberal democracy just seems to replicate the repulsive social engineering popular among liberal technocrats, in which the rest of us are pawns manipulated according to the philosopher king’s decisions. These manipulations ignore the incentives that drive human beings and also deny human nature. Human nature puts a severe limit on utopian fantasies. Having mischaracterized the human condition, things go wrong from there. Removing God from the picture, the technocrat sets himself up as a God replacement at the top of the metaphysical hierarchy. Thomas Sowell in Visions of the Anointed comments that professors typically detest religion and the church partly because they are competitors for setting social agendas and for ideological dominance. If a professor were to defer to God and religion, then the influence of priests and the Church would increase and that would be no fun at all.

The United States federal government is supposed to have very limited powers – mostly concerning commerce with foreign nations and between states. Unfortunately, what counts as “regulating commerce” has been expanded beyond recognition. The Tenth Amendment provides that “powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” This has done little to curtail federal expansionism. Limiting the ability to impose new fancies on an unsuspecting populace is no fun at all for the busybody professor and the activist judge, and they have 9succeeded very well at enlarging federal oversight and interference.

The alternative to top-down social engineering by a self-appointed elite is tradition. Tradition represents solutions to problems arrived at by trial and error, rather than theory. Tradition relies on a certain level of coercion, for instance, shaming couples into getting married to avoid out of wedlock births, pressuring men to achieve so as to be a main provider, and encouraging women to stay at home and have children so the community can continue to exist. This can be contrasted with modern preferences for a “free for all.” In the past, the Greeks would have one day a year where all bets are off – the population would get drunk outside the city walls and engage in a big orgy – only to return to ordinary life the next day. Or, periodically, debts would be forgiven and a new status quo established. Someone has commented that now, every day is Carnival.

Ironically, the modern “free for all” turns out to be coercive too. Anyone who does not favor libertine debauchery and a mélange of male, female, adult, child, gay, straight, bisexual, etc. is now regarded as retrograde. Women who want to stay home and raise children commonly suffer condemnation.  When women joined the workforce the number of workers nearly doubled and depressed demand as the supply went up, so that total family income was not significantly raised. Women’s happiness has not increased. They have become competitors in the workplace with men and when they prove not to be as single-minded and driven as many of their male co-workers their relative lack of success becomes another source of grievance.

Marriage is traditional. Married men are generally more peaceful and harder working than the unmarried. Its main beneficiaries are children. Charles Murray points out that the children of cohabiting biological parents share exactly the same outcomes, on average, as children of single mothers. He states that this is one of the best documented of social science facts that is not open to dispute. Like many empirical facts, the only room for disagreement concerns the theoretical or hypothetical explanation. One possible 10explanation is that cohabiting couples have premised their relationship on the ease of separation should either party choose to quit the household. No firm and fast public promises have been made to each other, with friends and family bearing witness, and this translates down into their attitude to their offspring. By not getting married, the primary concern is ease of separation rather than concern for the welfare of children.

The other fact that Charles Murray identifies that seems surprising was that religious belief without church attendance confers no happiness advantage. Apparently, my philosophical preoccupation with Voltaire’s statement that “Were God not to exist, it would be necessary to invent him,” quoted by Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov, is somewhat misguided. It is not nearly enough to simply believe in God and to recognize Him as the prerequisite for moral values, the admiration of beauty, and for truth and goodness. It is additionally necessary to join with other people in worship of God. Also of significance is that at least half of all charities and social organizations come from churches and community involvement factors high in people’s feeling of happiness. People who are very happily married, with high social trust, who regard their jobs as a vocation, who join community organizations like the Elks, and who both believe in God and attend church regularly, are the happiest members of society, on average. The questionnaire asks people whether they are very happy (31%) pretty happy (59%) not too happy (10%).[5] As someone from New Zealand, where understatement is the norm, as it is in England, then I would expect the “very happy” category to be mostly empty. Perhaps the smiling Dalai Lama would qualify – although he has stated that he smiles also as a matter of policy. But, to the American Charles Murray, he thinks that the “very happy” category is the only one that would demarcate a significant factor. “Very happy – the only answer that means much. You might answer ‘pretty happy’ when what you really mean is ‘I’m doing okay, can’t complain’ or ‘Things could be a lot worse.’ People don’t answer ‘very happy’ so haphazardly. It is likely to be a sign that a person really does assess his life positively.”[6] The unhappiest section is reserved for the never married at 9% with divorced at 17% and widowed at 22%. Only 12% of people dissatisfied with work are very happy. Very satisfied housewives are 57% very happy and 44% of those very satisfied with paid employment are very happy. Those who go to religious services more than weekly are 49% very happy, 41% weekly, while only 23% of those who never attend are very happy.[7]

It seems like dreaming up some new constitution, some new governmental arrangement, is not a remedy, just as having state of the art books, buildings, and equipment helps not at all if students are unmotivated. “What Is To Be Done?” was the old utopian communist catchphrase indicative of top-down central planning. We can speculate about the demise of society, but dreaming up something with which to replace it is simply to continue modern pathologies.

Berdyeav is alarmingly indifferent to modes of government. He seems to think that there can be reasonable monarchies, even communist governments, while “ideal” governments are unworkable if the populace is corrupt. Probably most Americans are still decent people. The Borat movies, which I refuse to watch, make fun of decent, well-meaning Americans trying to accommodate the increasingly bizarre antics of a pretend foreigner from Kazakhstan. Instead of being a beautiful testament to American wholesomeness, the movies are supposed to be understood as an indictment of Americans as gullible rubes. I would like to live with those Americans any day over the sneering Sasha Cohen Baron. But, the Blue State Americans who share his contempt make truly revolting overlords.

[1] Murray focuses on white Americans to remove issues of race. He is focused on class. However, adding in black, Asian, and Hispanic Americans, does not actually change the social science data he relies upon to any great degree.

[2] p. 105.

[3] p. 109.

[4] p. 111.

[5] Coming Apart, Charles Murray, p. 255.

[6] Ibid, p. 256.

[7] Ibid,. pp. 258-259.

23 thoughts on “Charles Murray: Searching for a New Foundation for Society

  1. Good essay. Murray’s book clarified many things that I had until then vaguely perceived in the world around me, and once I saw this class division, I could never unsee it. What makes it more odious is that Belmont hides its contempt for Fishtown behind solicitude for the immigrants who will further atomize Fishtown and depress Fishtown wages. What makes it more odious still is that many residents of Fishtown are degenerates and not salt of the earth.

    My takeaway from the book was that libertine culture is very bad for people with low intelligence. Consequentialism is not morality, but consequentialism can in some degree substitute for morality. But consequentialism requires mental traits that are in short supply in Fishtown. The people of Fishtown require a repressive culture that censures and sanctions deviant behavior because the people of Fishtown cannot see the consequences of deviant behavior for themselves.

    I’ve seen this in my own extended family. My grandparents were of rural protestant working class. They never “let their hair down” and therefore led good, albeit frugal, lives. It was my generation where things really began to come apart with all the pathologies Murray describes. Some of my cousins did fine, and now live on the outskirts of Belmont, but other cousins who needed a culture with guardrails are living in Fishtown.

    At a philosophical level this teaches us that freedom is incompatible with equality, and that we are mad to think that freedom and equality form a natural pair. Obesity is a striking visual exhibit of disastrous effect of freedom on people with relatively low intelligence and self-control. It is almost exclusively confined to Fishtown and it began when low food prices remove external restraints on gluttony.

  2. I look to the Wesleyan movement of preaching in fields and factories as the ideal in my Anglican background. I will not rejoin the United Methodist Church, so I wish someone else knew what I’m talking about here. Apparently only in the UMC is the tale ever told. You bookish men might want to read Adam Bede. Maybe you’ll recoil from the lady preacher, but note that the lady preacher quits preachin’ once she’s married. When preachers go to actual people in actual places and just give them the Good News, then interestingly good things happen.

    People like Wesley have sprouted up in most every Christian tradition. Once upon a time, Catholicism was packed full of people willing to preach in fields and factories, but it wasn’t only Catholics. Where are those people today? TV evangelists are not at all what I’m talking about. I’m talking about sister in full habit suffering with people in trailer parks…

    • I walked past a preacher who was sharing the gospel in the old Methodist style on campus the other day. He wasn’t getting much traction one way or the other. Many students already are Christians, or at least believe that they are, and most of the remainder are immune to this kind of thumping appeal. I don’t know how to penetrate the satanic armor of a modern secularist, but I strongly suspect it will not be with arrows designed to penetrate the satanic armor of a secularist of the nineteenth century. I think it was Reinhold Niebuhr who said that modern man has an essentially easy conscience, and therefore very little anxiety about personal sin.

      I know that college students are not the class of people you are talking about. There are a number of “cowboy churches” hereabouts that try to speak to working-class whites. There is one about twenty miles from here where people sit at picnic tables. The place is normally a sort of beer garden, and I’m not sure that the taps are turned off while the preacher is at work.

      I think the middle-class flight from fundamentalist literalism did tremendous harm to working-class Christians. They understood the faith with pictures of God, the Devil, Heaven, Hell, etc. Telling such people that these pictures are symbols has much the same effect as telling them that these symbols are make believe. I don’t say this to be condescending. Crude faith is often very real and sophisticated faith is often nothing but swank and hot air.

      • JMSmith You write “Telling such people that these pictures are symbols has much the same effect as telling them that these symbols are make believe.” I was discussing this problem in class today. It’s intractable. Avicenna, a sophisticated thinker, stated “Do not reveal the secret of destiny – it is a deep sea, do not sail upon it” he meant, to hoi polloi. The fancy Christian thinker can seem indistinguishable from an atheist to the less fancy.

      • Exactly how this new Wesleyanism should be done is something I think about often. The closest I know is the Christian motorcycle clubs my husband is dimly aware of but thinks are stupid even though he is a Christian and a biker. I think that Orthodox outfit Death to the World was onto something. I think that anyone trying this must be willing to live in the “trailer park” (which wouldn’t necessarily be an actual trailer park) and live there for at least a year getting to know people and live like them for at least one year before ever uttering one word of teaching or preaching. They would preferably be working class or poor themselves and from a similar background.

        I’m a coal miners’ schoolteachers’ daughter. I’ve spent my life in between the professional and working classes. I’ve been pondering this for years, decades I just now realized.

      • I think anyone doing this must truly wish to save trailer-park souls, not wish to be known as the missionary to the trailer-park heathens.

      • “Telling such people that these pictures are symbols has much the same effect as telling them that these symbols are make believe.” I must be a working class Christian in mentality, because I tend to suspect this myself. The suspicion is heightened if the one saying it doesn’t proceed to tell me what the symbol is a symbol of. If, on the other hand, I am told what what the symbolism means, and it turns out to be vague moralism or phenomenological mumbo-jumbo, my suspicion is confirmed.

      • I suffer from the same suspicion when I am told that the pictorial symbols of my childish religion actually signify (very imperfectly) some verbal symbol of the metaphysicians. Then I remember that both symbols are signifiers and should therefore be judged as instruments of communication. The pictorial symbol is therefor vastly superior as a symbol since it tells me what I need to know in a way that I can comprehend. One of the great merits of traditional Christianity is that it requires very little mumbo jumbo.

      • The story of Adam and Eve would be a good example of something crying out for interpretation. It doesn’t help that historical literalism, invented by Herodotus and Thucydides after this story was created, is then retrospectively projected back onto the story’s originators as though they too were trying to engage in objective literalism.

        I know one former fundamentalist who insists everything Jesus ever said was straightforward. But then, she mistakes understanding a general principle with how to apply it to specific domains. E.g., love your enemy. Exactly what that would mean in every circumstance is not apparent.

      • Indeed it is, but any proper interpretation would have to definitively address the suspicion that it’s just saying that the story of Adam and Eve didn’t really happen.

    • Eliot references are always welcome! Have you read _Scenes of a Clerical Life_? If not, then I recommend it — the third story (“Janet’s Repentance”) has some colorful reflections on the embrace and rejection of Methodism within an English community.

      About _Adam Bede_, I loved Dinah . . . as the reader is meant to, I reckon. She strikes me as the low-church version of Dorothea in _Middlemarch_ — though far more Mary and less Martha, which is the opposite of what I initially would expect. Anyway, I’ve never seen a film adaptation of AB, but Dinah must be beautiful in a sublime Bethlehem, Lord God Almighty in a stable sort of way.

      It’s funny that Eliot was such a free-thinker, but she clearly valued her ancestral faith. Many (most?) of her protagonists are faithful, admirable, salt of the earth people. A few weeks ago, someone (Prof. Smith perhaps) commented something like the world we have being the result of liberals like Eliot. How wonderful it would be for the leftists of our age to have the humanity and sensibility of those 19th century specimens! Well, even Norman Lear seems like Louis IX in comparison with the folks in charge today. I miss the good liberals.

  3. Good, succinct essay. Brett Stevens over at Amerika would be in complete agreement. We’ve eliminated Hierarchy and Transcendence so nobody really knows their place any more. The elites with their big brains and wealth withdraw into Belmont. Fishtown will just have to fend for itself.

    Addressing nell and JM’s points: the Sacramental Churches were, to my observation, the last best hope for replacing empty, Bible-thumping protestantism by careerist pastors. In practice, the Orthodox parishes and traditionalist Catholic parishes seem to be revolving-door book clubs for high-IQ, middle-aged converts. In my personal experience, they’re also fully onboard with the secular authorities’ COVID madness. I have to say, I never saw that one coming.

    At this point, I don’t know what is to be done with us not-so-elite and proles. Maybe creedal communities like the Amish or Hasidim.

    • “Revolving-door book clubs” is a great phrase. As another commenter here recently put it: “Coffee. Noise. Exit.” As our schools become more like churches, our churches become more like schools.

    • Thanks, Anti-Gnostic. Nice name with Voegelin overtones. Agreed about hierarchy and transcendence. If the elite would only stay in Belmont and leave the rest of us alone, that would be great. On a side note, it puzzled me why our overlords supported Walmart but not mom and pop stores. Someone pointed out that mom and pop stores don’t have chief diversity officers – i.e., worthless, overpaid, middle-management positions that the elite crave.

      • I went through the article in bird-view mode. One thing that called my attention:

        “Industriousness, religiosity, and marriage have not significantly diminished among the elite; the Ivy League graduates who earn6the most and live in secluded expensive enclaves only among themselves.”

        This does not seem true when you know that a satanic mass was planned to be offered in Harvard a few years ago. It was displaced out of campus in the last minute due to Christians who protested. No disciplinary actions were taken against the satanists. Harvard authorities seemed indifferent to the issue. Bishop Barron has recently pointed out that the Chaplain in Harvard is now an atheist.

        “They continue to get married and not to have children out of wedlock much as people have always done, though they are likely to tell the rest of us that marriage is an outmoded patriarchal institution.”

        The fact that no children are extramarital does not rule out infidelity, contraception and abortion. Those numbers should also be included in the study.

        “They are highly industrious and work very long hours.”

        Working long hours is not a virtue, it is a vice. In the monastic life there is the rule of the three 8. 8 hours to work, 8 to sleep, 8 for all the rest. The extra hours you put in work are taken either from sleep, Family life, leisure, or prayer.

      • Hi, APC Carrier. I’m a bit skeptical about Belmont’s religiosity too – but social science seems to say they are. An instance of an attempted satanic mass does not provide evidence to the contrary. To make generalizations we need data about lots of people.

        The chaplain at Harvard is indeed an atheist. I read a little article written by the usual progressive journalist who thought it was great.

        I doubt there is too much infidelity in Belmont. Too much to lose if they are caught and they get to where they are by following the rules. Contraception will be used for sure, which obviates the need for abortion. Abortion is more of a Fishtown thing.

        Being industrious is good, but I agree that working very long hours can be a vice. If the father works long hours and the mother is prepared to be responsible for the children then it could be OK. Men work 9 hours longer per week than women even when both are employed in full time jobs. It’s a major reason for the wage gap between men and women. Personally, I’m not a fan of super long hours. Often people are not actually being productive – it is sometimes derogatorily called “presentism.” And, I agree that the rule of three sounds good. However, you are not going to make your huge salary working 8 hours probably and will drop out of the elite.

      • You and I may be biased by exposure to the academic and media elite, where religiosity is quite rare. But there are many well-to-do Christian businessmen. I think regional differences in religiosity are also becoming more pronounced.

        My experience in middle age was that John Updike novels gave me very inaccurate ideas about infidelity in America. Things are no doubt different on the coasts and in the social strata above my head, but unchastity seems to be a lower-class thing. I’ve never been tempted by an affair, but I have sometimes considered that an affair would be, for me, almost impossible as a practical matter of money and time.

        I like your usage of the word “presentism.” I once met a woman at this university who boasted that she was suffering severe headaches because she had resolved to publish at least one academic paper a month. I suppose she is dead now and all of her papers are forgotten.

      • Yes. It seems like my academic milieu is not representative. I’m glad I don’t write academic articles. Just whatever I feel like writing – though, sometimes it is because I am reading something for class preparation.


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