260 A Scintillating Curmudgeon: Charles Murray

         That few conservatives are invited to speak on college and university campuses is a rarely lamented but easily discovered matter of public record. But when conservatives, (such as Condoleezza Rice) or critics of Islam (such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali) are “disinvited” now and again they make the headlines.  So we recently learned that Charles Murray (“arguably the most consequential social scientist alive” in Jonah Goldberg’s opinion) was recently notified by Azusa Pacific University that his invitation to speak on the  institution’s campus had been rescinded so as to salve the sensitivities of “faculty and students of color.” 

         Ever controversial and generally espousing a libertarian perspective. Murray has, for more than three decades, prodded us to confront and frequently re-think important public issues.  In 1984 he published a landmark treatise, Losing Ground–a persuasive demonstration of the tragic failure of LBJ’s “war on poverty” and the welfare state in general—and has continued to issue well-researched, tightly-reasoned  works. Quite different from his usual publications is his latest work—the treatise he planned to discuss at Azusa Pacific University—The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead:  Dos and Don’ts of Right Behavior, Tough Thinking, Clear Writing, and Living a Good Life (New York; Crown Business, c. 2014).  Though mainly targeting voting adults wanting to find good jobs and live a good life, the book began as a “lark” sparked by emails at his place of employment, The American Enterprise Institute.  Thinking some of the younger folks needed sound advice in order to succeed, he identified himself as typical of “highly successful people of both genders who are inwardly grumpy about many aspects of contemporary culture, make quick and pitiless judgments about your behavior in the workplace, and don’t hesitate to art on those judgments in deciding who gets promoted and who acts fired” (#90 in Kindle).  

         Murray sets forth and defends 34 rather basic injunctions, collected under tour categories.  Addressing “On the Presentation of Self in the Workplace,” he advises such things as:  “don’t suck up,” “don’t use first names with people considerably older than you until asked, and sometimes not even then,” “excise the word like from spoken English,” banish obscenities, shun tattoos and body piercings, dress modestly and (especially) work hard, even when the tasks are routine and menial. The people who reallv matter—often curmudgeons to the core—are demonstrably serious “grown-ups.  So cater to them” (# 138).  Toss aside immature self-expressiveness (reflecting the sophistic  “It’s All About Me Syndrome” launched by baby boomers) and snarky rebelliousness!  Learn to do things (i.e. speaking and writing) as they must be done simply because that’s the way the world works.  Could college graduates entering the work force heed such advice, they’d quickly advance, because:  “Good help is hard to find.  Really hard to find.  Sure there are lots of people with the right degrees and resumes, but the kind of employee we yearn for sticks out almost immediately” (#460).  To find one’s true vocation may well involve a period of trial and error.  So even as a student it is wiser to find summer work as a waiter rather than hang around bankers or politicians as an unpaid intern.  And once graduated, you must first leave home and gel a “real Job,” taking responsibility for your life.

         “On Thinking and Writing Well” brings together Murray’s advice for aspiring young adults.  “Unless you’re in the hard sciences, the process of writing is the dominant source of intellectual creativity” (#508).  Take to heart Mark Twain’s classic assertion that  “’The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter.  It’s the difference between the lightening bug and the lightening.’”   So learn to write well by absorbing the perennially valuable Strunk and White classic, The Elements of Style.  Take seriously grammatical rules and the spelling and meaning of words.  Carefully reread and edit—preferably on hard copy—what you’ve written.  Relish the intellectual ‘rigor’ required for good writing just as you embrace the exertion needed for physical fitness.  

          In the process of working effectively, it’s also important to give attention to “the formation of who you are” and “the pursuit of happiness” found embedded in vocation, family community, and faith.  “Find  work that you enjoy, and find your soul mate” (#1015)—“a good marriage is the best thing that can ever happen to you” (#1382).  It’s important 10 become a fully-developed good person, possessing the classic cardinal virtues (prudence; courage; temperance; justice).  And this leads to an awareness of the perennial truth that “a life well lived has transcendent value” (#1059) most explicitly detailed in religion.  (Though rather irreligious m his early life. Murray has gradually—largely due to his wife’s spiritual odyssey—come to a positive evaluation of the need for and goodness of religious life. He has aJso developed a deep appreciation for the profundity and wisdom of great religious thinkers such as C.S. Lewis).  

          Exasperated by the state of education (and more specifically the harm done by the “kindly lies” permeating the federal government’s “No Child Left Behind” endeavors), Charles Murray published three articles in The Wall Street Journal in January 2007.  Urged to more fully flesh out his ideas, be elaborated them, in Real Education:  Four Simple Truths for bringing America’s Schools back to Reality (New York:  Three Rivers Press, c. 2008).  His truths are quite simple:  1) ability varies; 2) half of the children are below average; 3) too many people are going to college; and 4) America’s future depends on how we educate the academically gifted.  

         Ability varies!  Some of us are outstanding athletes.  Others excel in music or math or chess or forging friendships.  There are many important realms of activity and socially valuable endeavors.  But in the academic world—the world schools should especially address—only three things really matter:  linguistic, logical-mathematical, and certain spatial abilities.  To imagine that all children can fully develop these abilities leads one into the world of fantasy rather than reality.  (Any adoring mother will naturally imagine her child is “above average”).  Yet while most parents may be persuaded that only a few children will be gifted athletes they refuse to accept the equally demonstrable fact that only a few children will be academically gifted and that half of all children are below average.  Such children can certainly learn many things. And they may very well become good, productive persons.  But they should not be misled to think they can excel academically.  “This is not a counsel of despair.  The implication is not to stop trying to help, but to stop doing harm.  Educational romanticism has imposed immeasurable costs on children and their futures. It pursues unattainable egalitarian ideals of educational achievement … at the expense of attainable egalitarian ideals of personal dignity” (p. 66).

         Neither more money nor better schools can obviate the fact that only a few have the intellectual ability to successfully master college material.  Denying this reality prods too many people to go to college, which is suitable, Murray insists, for only 10 to 20 percent of high school graduates (the percent enrolling in the 1950s).  Denying this reality has led all-too-many Colleges and universities (welcoming large numbers of students and banking their money) to “dumb-down” their curricula and compromise their integrity.  Denying this reality leads great numbers of sincere students (70 percent of high school seniors think they will become “professionals” (e.g. doctors or lawyers) to enroll in programs they cannot complete and take out loans they struggle to repay.

         Yet Colleges and universities merit our respect and support,, because “America’s future depends on how we educate the academically gifted.  Inevitably the elites (whether political or business or artistic or religious) that run the country will be highly intelligent.  We must give them the best education possible.  More importantly, we must try to help them become wise as well as smart!  “The encouragement of wisdom requires a special kind of education.  It requires mastery of the tools of verbal expression” and “mastery of the analytical building blocks for making sound judgments.   The encouragement of wisdom requires extended study of philosophy because it is not enough that gifted children grow up to be nice.  They must know what it means to be good.  Finally and indispensably, the encouragement of wisdom requires that we teach students to recognize their own intellectual limits and fallibilities—teach them humility” (p. 113)

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         In Ameriam Exceptionalism:  An Experiment in History (Washington, D.C,; AEI Press, c 2013), Charles Murray argues that the United States was “the first nation in the world [to] translate an ideology of individual liberty into a governing creed” (#31), something widely recognized by observers in Europe as well as America in 1789.  Carefully defined, “American exceptionalism is a fact of America’s past, not something you can choose whether to ‘believe in’ any more than you can choose whether to ‘believe in’ the battle of Gettysburg” (#53).  To Murray, America’s early exceptionalism resided in four factors:  her geographic setting (the North American continent, with its expanding frontier); her ideology (celebrating the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence): her distinctive cultural traits (i.e. “honesty, industriousness. religiosity, and morality”); and her political system (a democratic representative republic with significant checks and balances). 

          The distinguishing factors that marked America 200 years ago appear less evident todav. The geographic setting, once providing isolation and opportunity, “now must be guarded against terrorists and illegal immigration” (#326). Ideologically. “The common understanding of the limited role of government that united the Founders, including Hamilton, are now held only by a small minority of Americans, who are considered to be on the fringe of American politics” (#335). A nation conceived with a commitment to limited government; which “never spent more than 4 percent of the GDP in anv of the 140 vears from the founding until 1931,” has morphed into a highly centralized federal system spending (in 2011) some “25 percent of GDP” (#344).

          Such an “erosion would not have surprised the Founders.  As Benjamin Franklin left Independence Hall on the final day of the Constitutional Convention, a woman asked him ‘Well, Doctor, what nave we got?  A republic or a monarchy?’  Franklin replied:  ‘’A republic, if you can keep it.’  His answer epitomized the views of all the Founders’* (#392). ‘Half a century later, young Abraham Lincoln, just twenty-eight years old,” gave a speech in Springfield, Illinois, that “first brought him to public attention His topic was ‘The Perpetuation of Our Political institutions.’  In it, he reflected on the prospects of maintaining the American experiment.”  He noted, in “1838, that the nation was facing a new environment’ due to the fact that the revolutionary generation (“a fortress of strength”) had passed awav and “the silent artillery of time” threatened to demolish their handiwork (#401).  

          Lincoln, of course, effectively preserved the Union.  But whether the nation he loved still exists is, at least to Murray, quite debatable.

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         In Coming Apart:  The State of White America 1960-2010 (New York: Crown Forum, c. 2012), Charles Murray endeavors to describe and explain “an evolution in American society that has taken place since November 21, 1963, leading to the formation of classes that are different in kind and in their degree of separation from anything that the nation has ever known.  I will argue that the divergence into these separate classes, if it continues, will end what has made America America” (p. 11).  What made America America is what Murray frequently calls “the American project,” which “consists of the continuing effort begun with the founding, to demonstrate that human beings can be left free as individuals and families to live their lives as they see fit, coming together voluntarily to solve their joint problems.  The polity based on that idea led to a civic culture mat was seen as exceptional by all the world.  That culture was so widely shared among Americans that it amounted to a civil religion.  To be an American was to be different from other nationalities, in ways that Americans treasured.  That culture is unraveling” (p. 12).  (Having learned—after publishing data in The Bell Curve that documented IQ scores for African Americans—that scholars cannot truthfully report unfavorable information regarding minority communities without igniting, a firestorm of “racist” accusations, Murray determined to study only while Americans?  Had he included data from non-white groups one assumes the picture would be even more bleak.)

         A new upper class has emerged—variously referred to as “bourgeois bohemians” (Bobos), “the educated class,”  or “the creative class” that Murray labels “the new upper class,” amounting to no more than five percent of the population (and perhaps as few as 10,000) “people who run the nation’s economic, political, and cultural institutions” (p. 17).  They arc highly intelligent, affluent College graduates (generally from elite universities), religiously devoted to physical fitness, well-informed about current events, dogmatic liberals, “helicopter parents” determined to insure their children’s future, and (though city-dwellers) staunch environmentalists.  They marry one another and cluster together in fashionable enclaves (most often gated communities) effectively cut off from the rest of society.  They gravitate to places such as the Upper East Side in New York, the swank suburbs of Washington, D.C., Chicago’s North Snore, and Beverly Hills and the Palo Alto area in California.  “The culture of the new upper class carries with it an unmistakable whiff of a ‘we’re better than the rabble’ mentality.  The daily yoga and jogging that keep them whippet-thin are not just healthy things for them to do; people who are overweight are just less admirable as people” (p. 84).  Failing to recycle is “irresponsible” and smokers are “to be held in contempt” (p. 84).

         Conversely, there is an emergent, poorly educated, frequently unmarried “new lower class” that is distinguished by its lack of the founding virtues that once marked ordinary Americans:  “industriousness, honesty, marriage, and religiosity” (p. 127).   Without these traits, manifestly displayed throughout the nation’s history before 1950, our nation cannot succeed, and today’s lower class clearly lacks them.  Lower class males—and especially unmarried ones—increasingly lack industriousness and seem unable to hold jobs.  Whereas virtually no crime takes place in upper class neighborhoods, it pervades lower class areas.  The decline of religiosity during the past half-century marks both upper and lower classes, but the secularizing trend is far more pronounced in the lower class.  On a purely sociological level religion contributes much to the well-being of a society, for religious people are far more likely to visit friends, join service organizations, support local schools and .give money to charity.  They live longer, form more stable marriages, and do better as parents.  The decline of religious life bodes ill for the nation,

          The dramatic break-down of marriage—“the fault line dividing American classes”—should especially alarm us. Healthy marriages and intact families sustain healthy societies.  “No matter what the outcome being examined—the quality of the mother-infant relationship, externalizing behavior in childhood (aggression, delinquency, and hyperactivity). delinquency in adolescence, criminality as adults, illness and injury in childhood, early mortality, sexual decision making in adolescence, school problems and dropping out, emotional health, or any other measure of how well or poorly children do in life—the family structure that produces the best outcomes for children; on average, are two biological parents who remain married” (p. 158). Never-married women do the worst in child-rearing.  The scholarly evidence is overwhelming.  Yet it is “resolutely ignored by network news programs, editorial writers for the major newspapers, and politicians of both major political parties” (p. 158),

          Having made his case that the nation is “coming apart” Murray urges us to consider this:   “The trends of the last half-century do not represent just the passing of an outmoded wav of life that I have  identified with ‘the American project.  Rather the trends signify damage to the heart of American community and the ways in which the great majority of Americans pursue satisfying lives.  The trends of the last half century matter a lot.  Many of the best and most exceptional qualities of American culture cannot survive unless they are reversed” (p. 235).  More than acknowledging what is, he urges us to recover what has been lost, for the founding virtues truly matter.  Indeed, they largely constitute the good life and enable people to find happiness.  This leads Murray to underscore (as he does in other works) the perennial truths inscribed in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.  By nature man desires to be happy, and he finds happiness by living virtuously—prudently, courageously, temperately, justly, generously, magnanimously, doing good work, forging a good family, belonging to a good community, following a good faith. Careful, quantitative Studies show that “the qualities in individuals that make them happy in their marriages, satisfied with their work, socially trusting, and strongly involved with their religion are also qualities that are likely to make them successful m their jobs” (p. 265).

          Such qualities, however, are rapidly disappearing in America’s new lower class, threatening this nation’s future. By embracing the welfare state, exchanging individual freedom for social security, and becoming increasingly more like Europe.   We are abandoning our inheritance.  In many ways Murray fears we are undergoing what Arnold Toynbee, in A Study of History, identified as a “Schism in the Soul,” evident in “a ‘lapse into truancy’—a rejection of the obligations of citizenship—and ” ‘surrender to a sense of promiscuity’—vulgarization of manners, the arts, and language—that “are apt to appear first in the ranks of the proletariat and to spread from there to the ranks of the dominant minority’” (p. 286).  What was once clearly understood and embraced as “the code for males” has been generally repudiated.  To be courageous and faithful, to consider your word as your bond, to protect women and children (as did the men on the Titanic) was the ideal.  But no longer!  “The code of the American gentleman has collapsed, just as the parallel code of the American lady has collapsed” (p. 2S9).  Replacing it, especially among the upper class, “is a set of mushy injunctions to be nice,” and being nice means, above all, being “’nonjudgmental.”

         But “nice” and “nonjudgmental” qualities don’t make a great nation!  Indeed, they probably insure its decline.  They promise us a country much like Sweden or France, where “the purpose of life is to while away the time between birth and death as pleasantly as possible, and the purpose of government is to make it as easy as possible to while away the time as pleasantly as possible—the Europe Syndrome” (p. 284).  Europeans appear to prefer leisure to work, show little interest in traditional marriages or offspring and take little interest in religion.  “The alternative to the European Syndrome is to say that your life can have transcendent meaning if it is spent doing important things—raising a family, supporting yourself, being a good friend and a good neighbor, learning what you can do well and then doing it as well as you possibly can. Providing the best possible framework tor doing those things is what the American project is all about” (p. 284).

         To repudiate the Europe Syndrome, Murray thinks, requires more than some minor corrections.   A major cultural overhaul—indeed a revival of some sorts—is needed.