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The Animating Concern of Charles Murray

In his interview with Charlie Rose, Charles Murray speaks about his new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.  Murray’s argument is that the upper middle class and working class in America are separating on some key, core behaviors and values. We’re seeing the “collapse of the central cultural institution in one particular part of America” – meaning the collapse of marriage among the working class. The most stunning statistic in his data-filled book, Murray says, is this one: In 2010, among the white upper middle class, 83 percent of adults 30-49 years old were married. In 2010, only 48 percent of working class whites were married. (Murray, by the way, says he has changed his mind on same-sex marriage, an arrangement he once opposed.)

In addition, we’re seeing a “clustering” among the new upper class and elite, which is leading to an increasing isolation between them and the rest of American society, something Murray believes is creating problems for both the upper class and the working class. Murray praises the new upper class for its commitment to traditional values, something he would not have done in the early 1970s, but criticizes it for not “preaching what it practices.” He says they should act more like the elite in Victorian England at the end of the 19th century, who helped “re-moralize” their society (for more, see the groundbreaking work of the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb).

In speaking about what concerns him the most, Murray mentions the increasing denial of access to what he calls “institutions of meaning” – marriage, community, faith, and vocation. Those are the domains within which human beings find deeply satisfying lives. Murray argues that we have “denuded those sources of satisfaction” for the working class in ways we haven’t for the upper class, and that has harmful human consequences.

A personal word on Charles Murray. For some of us of a certain age, Murray was an influential figure in our journey to conservatism. His 1984 book, Losing Ground, argued that the ambitious social programs of the Great Society not only did not accomplish what they set out to do (help the poor and disadvantaged); they often made things worse. I recall hearing Murray speak about welfare and poverty at an event and being struck by his decency, intelligence, and obvious care for the poor. (Murray was a member of the Peace Corps in the late 1960s.) His critique wasn’t based on indifference to their condition; it was based on concern for their well-being. He believed liberalism had failed “the least of these” and conservatism had something to offer in its place. (I would call it an early iteration of compassionate conservatism. Murray would not.)

The world has turned many times since Losing Ground was published. And now, almost 30 years later, Murray has written yet another climate-changing book. He ranks among America’s most important public intellectuals. And among its most humane as well.

 



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