Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Coming Apart

“I’ll be shocked if there’s another book this year as important as Charles Murray’s Coming Apart.”

--David Brooks, New York Times

“Coming Apart is a must-read for [mainly] its insistence on drilling down beyond materialism.”

--Heather Wilhelm, “RealClearBooks”

We have already discussed Charles Murray’s Coming Apart (here and here). Now raves are beginning to pour in. To David Brooks, Murray has shown that America’s “real social gap” is between “the top 20% and the lower 30%.” Brooks chides liberals for “latch[ing] onto [the] top 1% narrative” that the financial elite is our biggest problem. Liberals do so because it “excuses them from the central role they themselves are playing in driving inequality and unfairness.” Excellent point.

Yet Brooks himself says,
It’s wrong to describe an America in which the salt of the earth common people are preyed upon by this or that nefarious elite. It’s wrong to tell the familiar underdog morality tale in which the problems of the masses are caused by the elites.
Good old Brooks, again quick to defend his elite.

Brooks’ solution for Murray’s sharp division is oh so 1970s: a National Service Program that would “force members of the upper tribe and the lower tribe to live together.” Right. How exactly does that bring people together once national service is over? How did that work out for the last draft (or national service) generation, once Vietnam was over?

Heather Wilhelm, as her above quote states, is struck by how committed Murray is to moving life beyond materialism:
"If we ask what are the domains through which human beings achieve deep satisfactions in life -- achieve happiness," Murray writes, "the answer is that there are just four: Family, vocation, community, and faith." The advancement of the welfare state, he argues, results in the slow gutting of these domains, as well as personal responsibility, which are "the institutions through which people live satisfying lives." This cultural disintegration has had a disastrous human cost for the working class.
Wilhelm seems to agree with Murray’s jaundiced take on the upper class. She quotes him writing,
the new upper class . . . don't mind the drift toward the European model, because paying taxes is a cheap price for a quiet conscience -- much cheaper than actually having to get involved in the lives of their fellow citizens.
Charles Murray himself, in a recent TIME essay, concentrates on the “new upper class,” which he defines as well under 100,000 nationally, as well as a “broader set, numbering a few million people, who hold comparable positions of influence in the nation’s major cities.” This “upper class” is the “Gated Country” we earlier wrote about, and much smaller than the upper-middle class 20% (over 60 million) college graduates who make up Murray’s fictional “Belmont” (though the “Belmont” folks are culturally similar to the upper class, echo their politics, and aspire to join them).

The “Gated Country”-“Belmont” distinction is one both Brooks and Wilhelm seem to miss. Murray’s especially unhappy with those at the top,
so sheltered from the rest of the nation that they barely know what life is like outside Georgetown, Scarsdale, Kenilworth or Atherton. [They can] completely destroy what has made America’s national civic culture exceptional: a fluid, mobile society where people from different backgrounds live side by side and come together for the common good.

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