Category Archive 'Charles Murray'

12 Mar 2017

Intersectionality as Religion

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Andrew Sullivan takes time off from crying over the election of Donald Trump to identify and explain the new religion that has taken charge on elite campuses all over the country.

Intersectionality” is the latest academic craze sweeping the American academy. On the surface, it’s a recent neo-Marxist theory that argues that social oppression does not simply apply to single categories of identity — such as race, gender, sexual orientation, class, etc. — but to all of them in an interlocking system of hierarchy and power. At least, that’s my best attempt to define it briefly. But watching that video helps show how an otherwise challenging social theory can often operate in practice.

It is operating, in Orwell’s words, as a “smelly little orthodoxy,” and it manifests itself, it seems to me, almost as a religion. It posits a classic orthodoxy through which all of human experience is explained — and through which all speech must be filtered. Its version of original sin is the power of some identity groups over others. To overcome this sin, you need first to confess, i.e., “check your privilege,” and subsequently live your life and order your thoughts in a way that keeps this sin at bay. The sin goes so deep into your psyche, especially if you are white or male or straight, that a profound conversion is required.

Like the Puritanism once familiar in New England, intersectionality controls language and the very terms of discourse. It enforces manners. It has an idea of virtue — and is obsessed with upholding it. The saints are the most oppressed who nonetheless resist. The sinners are categorized in various ascending categories of demographic damnation, like something out of Dante. The only thing this religion lacks, of course, is salvation. Life is simply an interlocking drama of oppression and power and resistance, ending only in death. It’s Marx without the final total liberation.

It operates as a religion in one other critical dimension: If you happen to see the world in a different way, if you’re a liberal or libertarian or even, gasp, a conservative, if you believe that a university is a place where any idea, however loathsome, can be debated and refuted, you are not just wrong, you are immoral. If you think that arguments and ideas can have a life independent of “white supremacy,” you are complicit in evil. And you are not just complicit, your heresy is a direct threat to others, and therefore needs to be extinguished. You can’t reason with heresy. You have to ban it. It will contaminate others’ souls, and wound them irreparably.

And what I saw on the video struck me most as a form of religious ritual — a secular exorcism, if you will — that reaches a frenzied, disturbing catharsis. When Murray starts to speak, the students stand and ritually turn their backs on him in silence. The heretic must not be looked at, let alone engaged. Then they recite a common liturgy in unison from sheets of paper. Here’s how they begin: “This is not respectful discourse, or a debate about free speech. These are not ideas that can be fairly debated, it is not ‘representative’ of the other side to give a platform to such dangerous ideologies. There is not a potential for an equal exchange of ideas.” They never specify which of Murray’s ideas they are referring to. Nor do they explain why a lecture on a recent book about social inequality cannot be a “respectful discourse.” The speaker is open to questions and there is a faculty member onstage to engage him afterward. She came prepared with tough questions forwarded from specialists in the field. And yet: “We … cannot engage fully with Charles Murray, while he is known for readily quoting himself. Because of that, we see this talk as hate speech.” They know this before a single word of the speech has been spoken.

Read the whole thing.

30 Jan 2012

“How Thick is Your Bubble?”

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Norman Rockwell, Saturday Evening Post cover, August 27, 1960 (click to enlarge)

As the paintings of Norman Rockwell frequently attest, pre-1960s America was not nearly so thoroughly divided by class as today’s America.

We recently linked the New Criterion article by Charles Murray, excerpted from his forthcoming book, on the damaging impact to both sides of class separation in contemporary America.

To illustrate his theses, Mr. Murray subsequently offered a 25 Question test, designed to indicate exactly how isolated from ordinary America the individual subject may be.

Murray’s test seems pretty accurate, as I got a score of 67, placing me in the “first- generation middle-class person with working-class parents and average television and moviegoing habits” category, which is quite right. I’m the descendant of Turn-of-the-Last-Century Lithuanian immigrants, and grew up in the Anthracite coal mining town of Shenandoah, Pennsylvania. My father and grandfathers were coal miners. As a consequence, I think Murray is right in believing that I’m much less infatuated with the moral and intellectual superiority of the urban community of fashion.

08 Jan 2012

Class Separation in America

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Charles Murray, in the New Criterion, discusses the threat of American upper middle class arrogance and provincialism to American exceptionalism.

As recently as half a century ago, Americans across all classes showed only minor differences on the Founding virtues. When Americans resisted the idea of being thought part of an upper class or lower class, they were responding to a reality: there really was such a thing as a civic culture that embraced all of them. Today, that is no longer true. Americans have formed a new lower class and a new upper class that have no precedent in our history. American exceptionalism is deteriorating in tandem with this development. …

The members of America’s new upper class tend not to watch the same movies and television shows that the rest of America watches, don’t go to kinds of restaurants the rest of America frequents, tend to buy different kinds of automobiles, and have passions for being green, maintaining the proper degree of body fat, and supporting gay marriage that most Americans don’t share. Their child-raising practices are distinctive, and they typically take care to enroll their children in schools dominated by the offspring of the upper middle class—or, better yet, of the new upper class. They take their vacations in different kinds of places than other Americans go and are often indifferent to the professional sports that are so popular among other Americans. Few have served in the military, and few of their children either.

Worst of all, a growing proportion of the people who run the institutions of our country have never known any other culture. They are the children of upper-middle-class parents, have always lived in upper-middle-class neighborhoods and gone to upper-middle-class schools. Many have never worked at a job that caused a body part to hurt at the end of the day, never had a conversation with an evangelical Christian, never seen a factory floor, never had a friend who didn’t have a college degree, never hunted or fished. They are likely to know that Garrison Keillor’s monologue on Prairie Home Companion is the source of the phrase “all of the children are above average,” but they have never walked on a prairie and never known someone well whose IQ actually was below average.

When people are making decisions that affect the lives of many other people, the cultural isolation that has grown up around America’s new upper class can be disastrous. It is not a problem if truck drivers cannot empathize with the priorities of Yale law professors. It is a problem if Yale law professors, or producers of the nightly news, or CEOs of great corporations, or the President’s advisors, cannot empathize with the priorities of truck drivers. …

Tocqueville, when explaining why the American system ensured that a despot could never successfully divide Americans against each other, wrote that “local freedom . . . perpetually brings men together, and forces them to help one another, in spite of the propensities which sever them. In the United States, the more opulent citizens take great care not to stand aloof from the people. On the contrary, they constantly keep on easy terms with the lower classes: they listen to them, they speak to them every day.” That’s not true any more. Our propensities do sever us, and the new upper class shows no inclination to reach out across the widening divide. And so the unraveling of the civic culture in Fishtown occurs without the knowledge or the concern of Belmont, let alone with any attempt by Belmont to assist the people of Fishtown who are still trying to do the right thing. Fishtown is flyover country, or those ugly suburbs that the people of the new upper class view from afar as they drive from their enclave in Greenwich to their office in midtown Manhattan.

20 Mar 2009

Saving American Exceptionalism

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In the American Enterpise Institute’s 2009 Irving Kristol Lecture, Charles Murray argued that the key to preventing America’s descent into European-style permanent class division and economic paralysis beneath the rule of a technocrat bureaucracy must lie in overcoming the provinciality and disloyalty to the American project of the American elite.

American exceptionalism is not just something that Americans claim for themselves. Historically, Americans have been different as a people, even peculiar, and everyone around the world has recognized it. I’m thinking of qualities such as American optimism even when there doesn’t seem to be any good reason for it. That’s quite uncommon among the peoples of the world. There is the striking lack of class envy in America–by and large, Americans celebrate others’ success instead of resenting it. That’s just about unique, certainly compared to European countries, and something that drives European intellectuals crazy. And then there is perhaps the most important symptom of all, the signature of American exceptionalism–the assumption by most Americans that they are in control of their own destinies. It is hard to think of a more inspiriting quality for a population to possess, and the American population still possesses it to an astonishing degree. No other country comes close. …

The exceptionalism has not been a figment of anyone’s imagination, and it has been wonderful. But it isn’t something in the water that has made us that way. It comes from the cultural capital generated by the system that the Founders laid down, a system that says people must be free to live life as they see fit and to be responsible for the consequences of their actions; that it is not the government’s job to protect people from themselves; that it is not the government’s job to stage-manage how people interact with each other. Discard the system that created the cultural capital, and the qualities we love about Americans can go away. In some circles, they are going away.

Why do I focus on the elites in urging a Great Awakening? Because my sense is that the instincts of middle America remain distinctively American. When I visit the small Iowa town where I grew up in the 1950s, I don’t get a sense that community life has changed all that much since then, and I wonder if it has changed all that much in the working class neighborhoods of Brooklyn or Queens. When I examine the polling data about the values that most Americans prize, not a lot has changed. And while I worry about uncontrolled illegal immigration, I’ve got to say that every immigrant I actually encounter seems as American as apple pie.

The center still holds. It’s the bottom and top of American society where we have a problem. And since it’s the top that has such decisive influence on American culture, economy, and governance, I focus on it. The fact is that American elites have increasingly been withdrawing from American life. It’s not a partisan phenomenon. The elites of all political stripes have increasingly withdrawn to gated communities–“gated” literally or figuratively–where they never interact at an intimate level with people not of their own socioeconomic class.

Haven’t the elites always done this? Not like today. A hundred years ago, the wealth necessary to withdraw was confined to a much smaller percentage of the elites than now. Workplaces where the elites made their livings were much more variegated a hundred years ago than today’s highly specialized workplaces.

Perhaps the most important difference is that, not so long ago, the overwhelming majority of the elites in each generation were drawn from the children of farmers, shopkeepers, and factory workers–and could still remember those worlds after they left them. Over the last half century, it can be demonstrated empirically that the new generation of elites have increasingly spent their entire lives in the upper-middle-class bubble, never even having seen a factory floor, let alone worked on one, never having gone to a grocery store and bought the cheap ketchup instead of the expensive ketchup to meet a budget, never having had a boring job where their feet hurt at the end of the day, and never having had a close friend who hadn’t gotten at least 600 on her SAT verbal. There’s nobody to blame for any of this. These are the natural consequences of successful people looking for pleasant places to live and trying to do the best thing for their children.

But the fact remains: It is the elites who are increasingly separated from the America over which they have so much influence. That is not the America that Tocqueville saw. It is not an America that can remain America. …

What it comes down to is that America’s elites must once again fall in love with what makes America different. I am not being theoretical. Not everybody in this room shares the beliefs I have been expressing, but a lot of us do. To those of you who do, I say soberly and without hyperbole, that this is the hour. The possibility that irreversible damage will be done to the American project over the next few years is real. And so it is our job to make the case for that reawakening. It won’t happen by appealing to people on the basis of lower marginal tax rates or keeping a health care system that lets them choose their own doctor. The drift toward the European model can be slowed by piecemeal victories on specific items of legislation, but only slowed. It is going to be stopped only when we are all talking again about why America is exceptional, and why it is so important that America remain exceptional. That requires once again seeing the American project for what it is: a different way for people to live together, unique among the nations of the earth, and immeasurably precious.

Read the whole thing.


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