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Charles Murray's Fatal Conceit
What's the matter with wealthy, white Massachusetts?
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As a European historian specializing in the 19th century, I’ve never been able to figure out what American journalists and politicians (not to mention academic sociologists) mean when they refer to “classes.” This term has two time-tested meanings. Either we’re talking about social groupings with legally recognized statuses which until the 19th century had certain political rights that other groups did not, or else what we mean is what Marx understood as “classes,” socio-economically dominant forces like the medieval aristocracy or the bourgeoisie that replaced them. Classes are not simply people who fall at one point or another into a particular income bracket or who buy SUVs rather than compact sedans or high-definition TVs instead of pick-up models at Kmart. It drives me absolutely nuts when I hear geeky-looking “economic experts” yapping on about how the “middle class,” that is, middle-income families or clusters of co-inhabitants, are hurting for this or that. “Middle class” used to translate as “bourgeois,” which referred to a social class of many centuries, as opposed to those who are moving up and down the income scale. The indiscriminate bandying about of the term shows how culturally ignorant we’ve become.

A former colleague of mine who teaches political theory observed that it’s now impossible to teach students about Aristotle’s conception of the family as a household. The kids get annoyed that an ancient Greek thinker held such a skewed view of family relations. It makes no sense, for example, that an aging dude was put in charge of other family members. After all, women should be wage-earners as well as make their own decision about reproductive rights. One young Brazilian exchange student went ballistic when the instructor failed to scold Aristotle for not discussing gay marriage. Isn’t this about family togetherness, the student asked, an attitude we should be praising instead of ignoring?

This present-mindedness applies, admittedly in a less dramatic way, to those who improperly use “class.” It even shows up in Charles Murray’s otherwise informative, recent best-selling book of social commentary Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. Hailed by the celebrated British historian Niall Ferguson (in a special Amazon.com plug) as a defense of traditional family values, the work calls for a return to “the republic’s original foundations of family, vocation, community, and faith.” Presumably the folks among whom these nice things are being practiced are the high achievers, awash in college degrees, and those whom Murray locates in his not-so-fictitious Boston suburb of Belmont. The well-heeled model residents are contrasted to the less well-educated and often unemployed white population of Fishtown, a place outside of Philly that exists for what have become our white social dregs.

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According to Murray, the white working force has been declining economically and morally since the second half of the last century, and he marshals loads of statistics to drive home this point. Among a sizable white population one now sees the effects of chronic unemployment, low educational performance, and dysfunctional family life. In Belmont (which by the way is the Massachusetts home of Mitt Romney and was once that of Robert Welch, the founder of the John Birch Society), the residents are doing fabulously well, earning multi-digit double incomes and sending their 1.2 kiddies (or whatever the current reproductive rate is for yuppies) to tony schools. Unfortunately, Belmont residents do nothing for their disadvantaged cousins in Fishtown. They engage in “condescending non-judgmentalism” instead of holding themselves up as social models to those who need their example of bourgeois success.

Despite my respect for Murray’s research and occasionally bold arguments, I find nothing in his book that resembles a traditional class among Belmont’s residents. They are mostly super test-takers, who, according to Murray, are endowed with high IQs. They marry people who are culturally and professionally like themselves (although not usually particularly photogenic). Strong gender roles, which were characteristic of traditional classes, hardly exist among the Belmonters, and while both parents are out amassing wealth, the kiddies are being raised mostly by hired help. Wealth-gatherers may have a relatively low divorce rate because divorce is an expensive, time-consuming commercial transaction for those in their income bracket. But their apparent monogamy does not prove these people have vibrant family lives and even less that they’re brimming with “faith and community.”

Belmonters do not spout their radical social views entirely by accident. It’s been my impression these busy beavers usually don’t feel that they’re part of a bourgeois, white Christian society. That’s because these workaholics are Jewish agnostics, Chinese atheists, and whatever other category our real Belmonters fit into. Urban high achievers think of themselves as outsiders, not as those who are assuming the mantle of leadership from 19th-century WASP Brahmins. According to Murray, his successful earners include Hollywood movie-makers and may also be in gay marriages, which he explains in a WSJ interview is “no big deal” for him. Those who excel in school and afterwards make loads of money may have their material value. But they form neither a resurrected bourgeoisie nor those who are likely to bring to fruition what Murray takes to be the vision of America’s Founders.

Paul Gottfried is the author, most recently, of Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America: A Critical Appraisal.

(Republished from The American Conservative by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Ideology • Tags: Charles Murray 
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  1. Any negative losses of family values of the so called “Middle Classes” in the last half Century such as dysfunctional families,loss of faith and or morals,the rise of non nuclear “families,” juvenile problems and the general breakdown of the traditional family can be laid at the feet of the onslaught of Cultural Marxism into the Western World. Like a virus injected into a healthy body, Cultural Marxism has poisoned the soul and rotted the bindings that hold together the body of the Western traditional family. This is done gradually but incessantly to pave the way for the collectivist,elitist move toward a one world government New World Order. In other words in order to destroy the traditional family unit and replace that unit with loyalty not to one’s family but to the state,first,the family unit had to be undermined and then destroyed. What we are witnessing today is the implementation of what had happened in the novel 1984. But now it is fact not fiction.

  2. Gerard says:

    One could argue that these Belmont achieves are the ones that start up biotech/hi-tech firms in Cambridge and create jobs. But then these jobs go to BU or Tufts engineering/science grads who are looking to move out of their Somerville quadplex to a nice place in Newton or Needham with good schools. This is not the middle class that was the backbone of the country. We are rapidly becoming a country of achievers (good schools, lucrative jobs, and cushy lives) and non-achievers (the 47%). A man could not make middle-class wages and expect to be able to raise a family in a traditional, all-American neighborhood nowadays. To be able to raise a middle-class family in a decent American neighborhood he better be a systems engineer making well into the six-figures and she better be a senior account manager at some firm making six-figures.

  3. Procopius says:

    You should recognize that any work praised by Niall Ferguson is likely to be pretty bad. Ferguson loves him some “counterfactual,” which translated is fiction. Why he is widely acclaimed baffles me, since I haven’t seen anything he has said in the last decade that was worth taking the time to listen to or read.

  4. Lulu says:

    When these high achievers become enamored of a cause, that cause will never be to help “uplift” poor white folk (aka white trash), whom high achievers probably see as the least sympathetic people on the planet. Abstract concern over the rights of women in far away places or the rights of more appealing minorities here in America (who are seen as having more of an excuse to be pathetic) seems more likely to move people of means.

    The New York Times recently ran an article about the shocking decline in life expectancy of white women without high school degrees–who is going to champion that cause?

  5. collin says:

    This article seems needlessly nasty towards the upper middle class and their life choices. Suggesting the divorce rate is lower because it is too costly seems very unfair without knowing the families. I would suggest that a lot of these couples got married later in life (~30ish) and that might be optimal age to marry in current society.

    Not that I am impressed with Charles Murray, but men and women being married and set in career path by 23 is no longer true.

  6. Richard says:

    My one comment is the bizarre combination of the photo shown with Mr. Gottfried’s article. If that row of houses is anywhere near any upper end Massachusetts suburb, I will print this thread and eat it. The look of the sky suggests a location about ten degrees latitude or more south of Massachusetts, and possibly many lines of longitude west as well.

    Best,
    Richard

  7. Rossbach says:

    Fishtown is not “a place outside Philly”. It is part of the old Northeast just like Bridesburg, Kensington, and Port Richmond. These river districts are all within the city limits. It is, however, as you suggest, a white working-class neighborhood that is being successfully globalised.

  8. jamie says:

    Why he is widely acclaimed baffles me.

    He has a British accent, and proudly asserts that western cultural hegemony was a good thing for the wogs. He’s a laissez-faire centrist who writes long books that everyone fakes to have read. He has a british accent. He’s married to the Ayn Rand of the Neocons and he’s pretty far over on the “guns” side of the “guns/butter” continuum. He has a british accent and
    Did I mention he has a british accent?

  9. Re. Gerard and lives of the lower half, do we err in not creating an environment for the civilized poor?

    You only have to be barely upper half to start hating on bicycles and public transportation, but those have value in maintaining civilization.

  10. I should have mentioned but didn’t in my article that my longtime friend Lew Rockwell also hails from Belmont. Unlike the high achieving parvenus described by Murray, however, Lew does indeed come from a patrician Massachusetts family. His parents were socially respected Episcopalians and his father a socially conservative physician. Pardon the oversight!

  11. Pete says:

    I thought Murray’s main point,a correct one based on my observations, was that the middle middle class had been fatally damaged by the double whammy of lost industrial jobs and the influence of anti-family pop culture, while the Upper middle class, basically a professional class, had fared much better on both counts, and had raised the drawbridge against most of the social rot infecting our society, particularly single parent families. Hard to see any conceit there, let alone fatal, based on my daily interactions with their children and families.

  12. Libertarian Jerry appears to be in search of a Pope, or some kind of moral police, to restore decency and good order. The problem with a pure libertarian philosophy is that everyone makes exceptions as to what the lesser beings should be strictly prohibited from doing.

  13. It is the upper middle class (in Murray’s sense, certainly not in mine) that has manufactured the rotten culture from which the inhabitants of Fishtown are decaying. Would Peter consider the Mafia a successful representative of bourgeois or aristocratic values because it has a lower rate of divorce than those people in the inner city whom the Mafia corrupts? Note my objection is not to Murray’s argument that the professional class and its Hollywood-media adjunct are doing better financially and socially than the declasse working class. What I reject is the attribution of high moral virtue to this group and the nonsensical idea that it is somehow renewing the values of America’s Founders.

  14. IanH says:

    “This article seems needlessly nasty towards the upper middle class and their life choices.”

    Hardly. Those people are scum who represent everything that is wrong with Western society.

  15. cameyer says:

    Mr. Gottfried,

    Hasn’t America always presented itself as a place where class does not exist in the European sense. Even Marx said a revolution might be avoided in America because the state was not a bureaucratic system solely serving the ruling classes and was still accessible to other segments of the population.

    I’d say that’s why the classless (or multi-class) 1% slogan of the Occupy Movement resonated with so many people, like your residents of Belmont, who would never consider themselves ‘working class.’

    At the same time, just because ‘class antagonisms’ in America don’t manifest themselves in the same way as in Europe, doesn’t mean they don’t exist in other forms. Nor are demands for ‘economic justice’ in the US anything like the ‘class in itself’ self-identification of European classes in the 19th and 20th century, each with a Party closely identified in its service.

    Aren’t these the factors that made American democracy resilient for over 200 years? Isn’t this why American politics are so baffling even to us who live here?

  16. Cultural Materialism bids us all to worship at the altar of a fully realized realized, here and now, achieved by our own efforts for our own pleasures.

    Belmont MA men are men without chests; but equipped with bellies that incessantly hunger, for a gain which is passing. Belmont MA women are women without chests, but equipped with plastic surgeons that incessantly amplify, for a gain which delivers passes.

    Discarding the transcendant, we’ve completely animalized ourselves, whether we are of Belmont or of Fishtown. I suppose the folks of Belmont do employ a better cologne.

    “This article seems needlessly nasty towards the upper middle class and their life choices.”

    Yes, yes. Precisely why it’s best to mention m’lord and milady’s taste in parfum, as well as their ravenous mercantilism and the mammary molding.

  17. CK says:

    “Those who excel in school and afterwards make loads of money may have their material value. But they form neither a resurrected bourgeoisie nor those who are likely to bring to fruition what Murray takes to be the vision of America’s Founders.”

    Right. In other words, those formed in the mantle of Cultural Marxism are not going to bring about a bourgeoisie renaissance. The denizens of Belmont are proletariat like their cousins in Fishtown.

  18. CK says:

    “I would suggest that a lot of these couples got married later in life (~30ish) and that might be optimal age to marry in current society.”

    Don’t confuse preference with optimality. While the income might be higher, women who get married at 30 plus are not optimal in reproduction. Further, women with careers instead of working within the bourgeoisie gender roles are spending boat loads of capital and resources to have others raise the children, even at the infant stage. Further, in such a paradigm, children are seen as portals for never ending consumption from day care to college, putting unnecessary economic bounds on reproduction.

    “This article seems needlessly nasty towards the upper middle class and their life choices.”

    That’s because the life choices discussed above are unsustainable “fatal conceits.”

  19. CK says:

    “but men and women being married and set in career path by 23 is no longer true.”

    Actually, was that ever true? Back when men and women were married by 23, were women on career paths?

  20. FredR says:

    This is a really good response to Murray’s book, which I read as more of a revision than a refutation. I thought of Murray’s praise of the upper class as his strategic attempt to make the best of a bad situation; the meat of his account is entirely consistent with recognizing that the American elite no longer have a coherent identity, much less the moral or social standing required to exercise what Baltzell called “class authority”.

  21. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    I guess the real point is that the people in Belmont have embraced the liberating aspects of the 1960s without destroying their lives or becoming government dependents. They have displayed personal responsibility, which is more then you can say for the people in Fishtown.

  22. Paul Gottfried writes : “it’s now impossible to teach students about Aristotle’s conception of the family as a household.”

    Putting aside the obvious exceptions such as TAC or Christendom where teaching Aristotle’s conception is not only possible, but is currently being done.

    I have my doubts because the nature of the family is intrinsic to man much as the natural law is, and so while the youth of today may disordered, much of modern society is enough of a shadow of a rightly ordered society for those students to find common ground in their cultural experience.

    I suspect the prof.’s experience has much more to do with where he teaches and the students the school attracts than it does with society at large. Among the blue collar types I work with they would not have the same objections as his students.

  23. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    The residents of Belmont didn’t have their sources of employment liquidated and outsourced. This cannot be overemphasized. A man without gainful steady employment is bad news for everyone. All classes in this country suffer from moral and spiritual disintegration. Belmont is just the clean version of the same rot. No work equals no morals. Belmont had employment while Fishtown didn’t.

  24. Hugh says:

    Since the Bell Curve Murray has been arguing that the USA is sorting itself into an elite class and an underclass based on IQ.

    Nothing in his writing suggests that he is enamoured of this phenomenon, indeed much of his writing is concerned with the problems caused by this.

    Murray is critical of the elites in his latest book as he feels they provide no moral leadership to the rest of America. I find his thesis persuasive, and am surprised that you are so dismissive.

  25. The answer to this seems easy intellectually.

    Rich or poor children by and large reflect the moral character of their parents. My mother may not be promiscuos, but if she or my father are permissive allowing me that option with little or no challenge —– then my economic status just does not matter.

    I have to take exception to the notion that poverty equals some level of moral degridation.

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