February 2012 Archives

A Modest Explanation of Why Human Beings Behave as They Do.



The Ol' Bloviator's recent scarcity around these parts owes primarily to the arrival of our new granddaughter, Virginia Catherine, on February 1. Though the O.B. feels precisely the same flood of emotions as overwhelmed him when her older brother showed up just twenty-two months ago, he has sworn to spare his long-suffering readers the tsunami of gushy sentimentality that he unloosed on that occasion. He does, however, want to pass along one thing that failed to register so much in the first instance but caught his attention this time around is the remarkable facial elasticity of newborns. At various times within a single day even, the OB was struck by V.C.'s  absolutely astonishing resemblance to her mother, father, brother, and paternal great-grandmother, not to mention Winston Churchill and John Goodman.

In addition to the ongoing Republican primary saga, which just keeps getting funnier/sadder/scarier, much of the shouting, posturing, and general agitation that managed to penetrate the O.B.'s grandparental entrancement revolved around Charles Murray's new book, Coming Apart: the State of White America, 1960-2010. Terms like "inequality" and "disparity" are typically associated with liberal laments about interracial gaps in income, opportunity, or educational achievement. In this case, however, Murray confines himself to the honky side of the color divide. Yet he, too, is upset about a growing class divide between upper-income and lower-income whites, not so much in economic standing as in basic human values. Despite his long-standing affiliation with a conservative think-tank, Murray performs the Republican equivalent of a "Black Mass" in his new book by essentially chanting backward what one reviewer describes as the familiar GOP/Tea Party mantra  about the silent majority of "devout and industrious" working-class whites whose rock-solid virtues and values are held in absolute contempt by a "politically liberal elite that disdains family, despises religion, and celebrates indolence with government handouts." In Murray's view, nowadays, it is actually  affluent, highly-educated white "swells" who are  the more virtuous, morally elevated Americans, while the working-class whites who were traditionally hailed as the embodiment of the most admirable aspects of our national character have obviously gone to Hell in the proverbial handbasket. 

In support of what the lit-crit types might call this "declension narrative," Murray points to survey data indicating that although "secularism" has been on the rise among  Americans across the board, nearly 32 percent of upper-class whites between 30 and 49 now attend religious services regularly while their working-class counterparts are only half as likely to darken the church door on a consistent basis. Likewise, where the share of well-heeled whites in this age group who are married has held relatively steady at 84 percent since the mid-1980s, among the corresponding segment of the white working-class population, this figure has plummeted from 70 to 48 percent. Finally, for all the outcry about unwed mothers among blacks and Latinos, Murray's numbers show that the rate of out-of-wedlock births among white women with no more than a high school education has soared from just 6 percent in 1962 to an astonishing 44 percent in 2008.

On the face of it, this data would appear not only to offer little comfort to the Republican right but to affirm liberal arguments that such a disintegration of social fabric is primarily the consequence of declining economic circumstances and prospects for lower-income groups. Murray will have none of this bleeding-heart claptrap, however. The withering of what he sees as traditional American values within the white working class is not a function of their slumping economic prospects, a phenomenon he sees as exaggerated in any case, despite mountains of evidence to the contrary. Rather Murray believes that the "deterioration" we are witnessing now was actually "jump-started" by the radically changed social policies of the 1960s, which he charges, "made it economically more feasible to have a child without having a husband . . . or to get along without a job if you were a man." In the latter case, Murray cites figures showing that the share of "prime-age males" with no education past high school who identify themselves as "not available for work" rose from 3 percent in 1968 to 12 percent 40 years later. For good measure, he points out that only 10 percent of employed working-class white men in 1960 worked fewer than 40 hours a week, as compared to 20 percent today. (It's not clear whether Murray realizes that massive employers like Wal-Mart and a number of others specialize in holding worker hours under 40 per week, either to evade certain benefit obligations or perhaps in some cases to avoid further layoffs.)

Murray is a smart and skilled provocateur known for dishing out evidence he likes with real flair, while blowing past anything that seems to undermine his arguments. He has raised hackles before by arguing that the rich are not only smarter but more deserving than the working class. In his view, you see, intelligence is fundamentally genetic,  and since brainiac , high-achieving adults celebrate and nurture it in their spawn, the nation's so-called white elite is purely and simply both an economic and intellectual meritocracy.  (Contrary to widespread perceptions, apparently there is really no such thing as a lucky slug who just happened to inherit well.)  There's a ton of both economic and sociological evidence that undermines Murray's arguments, many of which also involve leaps of faith across chasms gaping enough to make Evel Knievel pee himself. For instance, he seems to assume that up until the 1960s, the great majority of low-income Americans pursued and practiced virtue as its own reward, independently of their economic standing or their genuine prospects of bettering it. As someone of working-class origins who came of age in the 1960s, the O.B. simply took it as a given that he would have to work his tail off to elevate his circumstances. He also realized long ago that he was nonetheless quite fortunate in confronting a good many opportunities to do just that. His parents had, in fact, taught him that virtue was its own reward, but the old Puritan notion that "doing good" in the human realm was critical to "doing well" in the material realm was  still part of the American social ethos at that point, and it likewise encouraged the O.B. to simply internalize the feeling that an aggregate of affirmative traits such as a good work ethic, marital fidelity, parental responsibility, respect for the law, and regard for the feelings and needs of others, went hand-in-hand with improving his lot in life.  (The O.B. vigorously denies any intent here to suggest that the good fortune that has actually come his way is by any means a reflection of his personal virtue. Rather, this good fortune  seems more likely an affirmation of the old precept that "The Lord looks after fools and children.")

The point is, though, that among the young adults of O.B.'s generation and perhaps the one that followed it, there was noticeably greater confidence in the prospects for self-betterment than we have seen since, and indeed, today the relative deficiency in such faith is almost as readily apparent among many of the young collegians the O.B. encounters in the classroom as it is among today's unemployed offspring of welders, pipefitters, and longshoremen, many of whom, as Murray's own data suggests, now despair of ever finding work doing anything that has a real future.  Yet Murray seems unwilling to concede that the decline of morality and virtue he sees among the white working class is related in any significant way to a corresponding decline of real and perceived opportunity for advancement.   Whether he is correct or not will be easy to discern soon enough in the conduct of the currently maturing generation of Americans born to upper-middle-class circumstances that they will almost certainly find far more difficult to sustain than their parents did to achieve.

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