Charles Murray on his propaganda playing field

I have some notes on Charles Murray’s new book Coming Apart, and the reactions to it, for a would-be essay. Since I haven’t read the book yet, I’m not ready to write that essay, but there are some things you can say without reading the book. Maybe this will be handy or interesting for those who operate in the faster information lanes.

First, remember who we’re dealing with: Murray is not a scholar doing (peer reviewed) research to advance our collective understanding of social life. He is a political propagandist. So we can hold him responsible primarily for the consequences of his work rather than its scientific veracity (which does require reading the book). He works for the American Enterprise Institute, a charitable-in-the-legal-sense front for corporate interests, which launders the tax-free contributions of its donors — a who’s-who of right-wing elites — to create “expert” opinion that in turn shapes and justifies the actions of government leaders.

Of course, they are not alone in this, but they are leaders of the form. This is from their latest annual report:

By treating their representatives as legitimate experts we play into their diabolical schemes.

Stop the presses

In addition to wasting everyone’s time in Congress, AEI is also very effective at promoting their representatives’ work in the media — where hardly anyone does more than mention AEI in passing. Murray’s book has been reviewed not once, but twice in the New York Times. And AEI achieved a near-perfect placement record among the Times‘s top columnists, including David Brooks (“I’ll be shocked if there’s another book this year as important”) and Ross Douthat (“brilliant”), Paul Krugman (“the new book at the heart of the conservative pushback”), and Nicholas Kristoff (“he’s right to highlight social dimensions of the crisis among low-skilled white workers”). The latter two are critical, too, but not enough to overcome the adage about publicity. (The Times also ran a good roundup by Thomas Edsall.)

The marketing campaign includes, naturally, advance bashing of sociologists, the small corner of academia that did the best job of debunking his last big book, The Bell Curve. “I am sure there are still sociology departments where people would cross themselves if I came into the room,” he smirked to the Chronicle of Higher Education. But in that article, sociologist Dalton Conley is quoted as calling Murray, “probably the most influential social-policy thinker in America” (before offering some critical comments as well).

As Anne Coulter might say, though, “our sociologists” aren’t so bad. Brad Wilcox, for example, has joined the fawning chorus at the Wall Street Journal (which previewed the book), declaring we (Whites) are “a nation where millions of people are losing touch with the founding virtues that have long lent American lives purpose, direction and happiness … The scope and cost of government grows, and liberty withers, when the family breaks down.”

Like old times

Like Newt Gingrich, Murray uses the looming specter of Black pathology to whip up apocalyptic fears among Whites (while somehow convincing some people he’s not a racist because he describes “America” with data on Whites). The two were anti-welfare soul-mates in the 1990s, when Murray wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal called “The Coming White Underclass” (10/29/93), which was a preview of Coming Apart.

He wrote then:

Every once in a while the sky really is falling, and this seems to be the case with the latest national figures on illegitimacy… now the overall white illegitimacy rate is 22%. The figure in low-income, working-class communities may be twice that. How much illegitimacy can a community tolerate? Nobody knows, but the historical fact is that the trendlines on black crime, dropout from the labor force, and illegitimacy all shifted sharply upward as the overall black illegitimacy rate passed 25%. … But the brutal truth is that American society as a whole could survive when illegitimacy became epidemic within a comparatively small ethnic minority. It cannot survive the same epidemic among whites.

For what it’s worth, the “illegitimacy” rate is 41% nationally, and 29% for non-Hispanic Whites. And, of course, the crime rate is through the … floor. So, look to him for reliable predictions about whether “American society as a whole [can] survive” at your own risk.

His solutions then, in addition to zeroing out welfare for single mothers, included dropping the sentimental attachment to letting people raise their own children:

Those who prattle about the importance of keeping children with their biological mothers may wish to spend some time in a patrol car or with a social worker seeing what the reality of life with welfare-dependent biological mothers can be like.

This is a very partial rundown. Feel free to add your own links in the comments.

9 thoughts on “Charles Murray on his propaganda playing field

  1. It appears that a majority of the reviews (and reviewers) are free from just as much critical thinking as Mr. Murray. no wonder you have not read the book, yet…It is not on my summer reading list, either. There is a fine line between propaganda and positive press…and it is hard to swallow a passage that in one sentence praises a man and his divisiveness, then in the following provides surface critiques…

    Keep the the critical (very partial) work on Murray, Wilcox, and their ilk.


  2. 29% for non-Hispanic Whites

    So has it held steady for 18 years? (Anecdotally, I’ve seen celebration of out-of-wedlock birth creep surprisingly high into rural, conservative/Blue “white America”.)

    the crime rate is through the … floor

    We’ve had that discussion before: with 846,000 black men (The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness), and 1% of the total population, in prison, I’m not surprised the crime rate has dropped.


  3. I missed some of those reviews, but Brooks is not uniformly positive. In another column he notes, “Over the past two weeks, Charles Murray’s book, “Coming Apart,” has restarted the social disruption debate. But, judging by the firestorm, you would have no idea that the sociological and psychological research of the past 25 years even existed.”

    And then is even more dismissive: “Social repair requires sociological thinking. The depressing lesson of the last few weeks is that the public debate
    is dominated by people who stopped thinking in 1975.”

    So, I agree with Prof. G. “not on my summer reading list”


  4. I read this post actually expecting something to be said about the book. Most was spent on what is scholarly-ese for conspiracy theory. You could discredit Murray and his affiliations without mention of the book, donthca know, but reading your post where you confess not having read the book, then going on with laying the premise of his bias, is well, indicative OF bias. Thats OK, but lets keep it straight please.

    I see a real correlation between opinions of works such as Murrays and the relative obscurity of the scholar reviewing it. Check that please


  5. Murray & Hernstein’s arguments in the Bell Curve hasn’t been debunked. As Steven Pinker wrote in the New York Times article “My Genome, My Self” Jan 2009:

    “To study something scientifically, you first have to measure it, and psychologists have developed tests for many mental traits. And contrary to popular opinion, the tests work pretty well: they give a similar measurement of a person every time they are administered, and they statistically predict life outcomes like school and job performance, psychiatric diagnoses and marital stability.”

    In other words, the exact claims of Murray and Herrnstein. And do groups differ on average? Yes, that is in fact not controversial. (see Philip L Roth’s 2001 meta analysis in Personal Psychology, Volume 54, Issue 2, pages 297–330, June 2001).

    The hard question is what causes these differences. When privately polled in the 1980′s relatively few academics seemed to think these were purely environmental, compared to those who thought they are due to both environmental and genetic variation (see Snyderman Rothman survey).

    Also, see Robert Weinberg’s biology lecture at MIT. You can find this on Professor Steve Hsu’s website under “forbidden thoughts”.


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