October of this year marks the tenth anniversary of the publication of The Bell Curve, Richard Herrnstein’s and Charles Murray’s book about the part played by human intelligence in determining individual destinies in our society, and the implications for the structure of that society. By way of advance preparation I have been re-reading my own copy of The Bell Curve — it’s the 1996 paperback edition, with Murray’s spirited afterword rebutting the book’s critics (Richard Herrnstein died three weeks before the book’s first publication). I’m going to hold off until the actual anniversary before discussing the book in full; here I just want to use one of its lesser-noticed passages as the starting point for some speculations.
This particular passage is in Chapter 21, under the sub-heading “The Coming of the Custodial State.” The authors have been writing about the increasing stratification of our society by cognitive ability across the past half-century. Every American community, they note — working- or upper-class, white or black, urban or rural — used to have at least a sprinking of high-IQ types, who could take leadership positions in that community. That those bright people were stuck in such backwaters for want of larger opportunity was an injustice in itself, and reflected systemic injustices in our society. Now those injustices have been swept away. Now the doors are open for any high-IQ American, of any background, to join the well-paid, high-status cognitive elites of lawyers, administrators, CEOs, professors, journalists, technocrats, etc. The downside of this (on the whole) improvement is that the high-IQ folk are vacuumed up from all those scattered communites, leaving large areas of American society IQ-poor, while the cognitive elites pull away from the rest of us, “coalesc[ing] into a class that views America increasingly through a lens of its own.” By “custodial state” the authors mean a sort of Indian-reservation policy whereby the elites might fence themselves off from the feckless, hopeless, solidly low-IQ underclass.
The authors then indulge themselves in some speculations about how this “stratification of the cognitive elite” will work itself out in coming decades. Here is where they got my attention. One of their suggestions is:
“Racism will emerge in a new and more virulent form. The tension between what the white elite is supposed to think and what it is actually thinking about race will reach something close to breaking point. This pessimistic prognosis must be contemplated: When the break comes, the result, as so often happens when cognitive dissonance is resolved, will be an overreaction in the other direction. Instead of the candor and realism about race that is so urgently needed, the nation will be faced with racial divisiveness and hostility that is as great as, or greater, than America experienced before the civil rights movement. We realize how outlandish it seems to predict that educated and influential Americans, who have been so puritanical about racial conversation, will openly revert to racism. We would not go so far as to say it is probable. It is, however, more than just possible. If it were to happen, all the scenarios for the custodial state would be more unpleasant — more vicious — than anyone can now imagine.”
The reason this got my attention was that I came across it within hours of reading Walter Benn Michaels’s essay “Diversity’s False Solace” in the April 11 New York Times magazine. I knew nothing about Michaels until reading the piece. On the basis of some quick googling, he seems to be a literary theorist of the type that makes my eyes glaze over — “texts,” “signifiers,” “construction of cultural identity,” zzzzzzz. In the Times piece, though, he comes through as an old-style lefty, arguing against “diversity” on the grounds that (I am over-simplifying somewhat here — you can read the piece for yourself) it is all a plot to keep us from noticing that rich folk are much better represented at elite universities than poor folk. “[W]e like policies like affirmative action not so much because they solve the problem of racism as because they tell us that racism is the problem we need to solve.” Whereas, according to Prof. Michaels, the problem we really need to solve is “economic inequality.”
From the Bell Curve point of view, of course, Prof. Michaels has got the wrong end of the stick. The phenomenon he is observing — rich people’s kids over-represented at universities — is just the “stratification of the cognitive elite” that Herrnstein and Murray talk about, caused by meritocratic selection operating on differences in individual ability. Our society is now so friction-free that smart people rise effortlessly to the top: the top colleges, the top jobs, the top incomes. Their kids will, by a well-known statistical principle called “regression to the mean” be smarter than average, on average, if not quite so smart as their parents, and so will naturally be over-represented at top colleges. The interesting thing, though, is that the New York Times, house journal of the liberal establishment, is publishing critiques of the diversity cult. Sure, this one is a critique from the Left, but it’s the New York Times we’re talking about. What do you want, egg in your beer?
There have recently been other straws in this wind. Across the Pond a gentleman named Trevor Phillips caused a sensation recently by saying out loud that multiculturalism had all been a ghastly mistake, and that immigrants to Britain needed to assimilate to British culture a.s.a.p. This was sensational because Mr. Phillips, a black man, is chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, Britain’s leading organizer of anti-racist witch-hunts, and up till now a fervent promoter of multiculturalism. (The U.S. equivalent would be something like the Southern Poverty Law Center.)
Mr. Phillips’s previous appearance in the spotlight was back in January, when he called for the police to arrest an opinion journalist who had written a Sunday newspaper article titled “We Owe Arabs Nothing,” containing such sentiments as that Arabs have contributed nothing to the world apart from oil, referring to them as “suicide bombers, limb-amputators, women repressors,” and wondering aloud: “What do they think we feel about them? That we adore them for the way they murdered more than 3,000 civilians on September 11 then danced in the hot, dusty streets to celebrate the murders?” Mr. Phillips thought these comments likely to “incite racial hatred“, and so he did his duty as a puritanical busybody.
Again, Trevor Phillips’s more recent critique of multiculturalism comes from the Left. From the New Left, in fact: Mr. Phillips is concerned that the swelling unpopularity of multiculturalism in Britain may be undermining support for multi-ethnic immigration, which Phillips, natch, believes to be a jolly good thing. He explains himself in The Guardian, a newspaper so far left it makes the New York Times look like, well, National Review.
Is this the beginning of something? Could American elites dump multiculturalism — the doctrine that any culture is just as good as any other (except of course for the Ice People culture of white Europeans, which is inhuman, oppressive, colonialist, greedy, and cruel)? And could this lead to the prospect that Herrnstein and Murray feared, the prospect of a turn to racism on the part of our cognitive elites?
I wouldn’t rule out either. For all their pompous moralizing, our secular elites are fundamentally amoral, their ideologies founded in nothing but some half-remembered clichés from Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill. As I remarked when reviewing Peter Wood’s book about one of those ideologies:
Where did it come from, this ideology of diversity? Peter Wood notes the oddity of the fact that such a powerful idea, energetically propagated across the whole of society for a quarter of a century, has no founding text to refer to, was inspired by no charismatic teacher, was carried forward with no mighty struggles or cruel reverses, has roots in no significant philosophy. “It arrived unparented,” says Wood, “as a kind of collective emanation of ponderous academic silliness.” We just woke up one morning and there it was, demanding that we “celebrate” it. In its impact on the individual psyche, diversity is indeed an ideology in the sense Wood describes; yet it is a shallow and trivial one — essentially a folk superstition, a pop-culture fad like the Hula Hoop or body piercing, with no intellectual moorings at all. One of the author’s key insights, in fact, is the lightness and essential frivolity of diversity, especially by contrast with actual diversity.
As Herrnstein and Murray say, it is an imaginative stretch to conceive of our elites turning against the settled dogma of forty years. Stranger things have happened, though. “Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it,” and the house of current elite ideology is built on sand, by people who scoff at Divine inspiration. I wish I had a dollar for every time I have had an exchange like the following with a lefty ideologist.
LI: “Racism (or homophobia, or sexism, or whatever) is wrong! Wrong, wrong, wrong!“
JD: “By what standard? What makes it wrong?”
LI: “It causes pain and trauma!”
JD: “So does dentistry, to the patient. So does free-market economics, to the unemployed. So does justice, to the criminal. So do piano lessons, to my son. Are they wrong?”
LI: “Violates fundamental American principles!”
JD: “Which are all premised on ‘Providence,’ or ‘The Creator,’ or ‘God.’ None of which you believe in …”
Without absolute morality, you can adjust “right” and “wrong” to your own convenience. I see no reason to suppose that America’s cognitive elites will be immune to this temptation. In five or ten years’ time, for example, when the Baby Boomers are retiring in large numbers, and looking to their government to help out with paying for their medications, Caribbean cruises, and living expenses, they are going to find that their government does not have enough money to do so. This will cause elite Boomers to look long and hard, and not very sympathetically, at some of the things government spends wads of money on: inner-city school systems, welfare and bureaucratic make-work programs, jails, the Drug War, …
And then there is the fact, not quite respectable to mention in polite company, but indubitable none the less, that quite a disproportionate number of our cognitive elites are Jewish. American Jews have been great supporters of multiculturalism, for reasons perfectly easy to understand. If Jews collectively learned a lesson from the 20th century, it was the terrible danger inherent in being the one conspicuously successful minority in an otherwise-homogenous society. So: The less homogenous the better! Bring on multiculturalism! Unfortunately, if you open the doors of your nation to all the cultures of the world in the early 21st century, and invite them to “celebrate their diversity” on your soil, you will find that an alarmingly high proportion of them are Muslims with viciously antisemitic opinions. Multiculturalism? Hmm, let’s rethink this …
I don’t think, any more than Herrnstein and Murray did ten years ago, that these outcomes are certain. They are surely possible, though. My personal rating of the odds over the next generation (25 years) would be something like:
- The elites will drop multiculturalism (i.e. the idea that every culture is just as worth “celebrating” as any other, and that the old idea of assimilation into a common American culture is “oppressive” and “racist”). — Around 90 percent probability.
- They will drop diversity as an ideal (i.e. the idea that every college class, business office, sports team, or other group should contain a suitable mix of races, sexes, and types). — Around 50 percent.
- They will turn racist, approving a new social order in which legal privileges will accrue to races over-represented in the cognitive elites, and be denied to races over-represented in the underclass. — Perhaps 25 percent.
We are, as Herrnstein and Murray said, living under a regime of cognitive dissonance, pretending to believe one thing while striving not to notice the opposite thing. It’s an unstable situation, and the human sciences are beginning to deliver hard, though unwelcome, results that will destabilize it further — that’s precisely what the fuss over The Bell Curve was all about. What will the resolution be? We can only guess. There are my guesses up above. Feel free to make your own.