As I hunched over Charles Murray’s latest book, my three-year-old son Augusto pulled a book off his shelf, plopped it on top of Murray’s and said, “Read to me, Papa.” There was Janet Frank’s Daddies, a children’s book first published in 1953. Turning the pages, I realized it captured an America that Murray describes in Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. It is an America that Murray says scarcely exists today.
Daddies begins by posing the question, “What do daddies do all day? Daddies work while children play.” The book runs through a series of color illustrations of fathers at jobs that are overwhelmingly working class. Farmers, factory workers, builders and bakers all toil away in noble work scenes. At the end, daddy rushes home and sits contentedly at dinner with his wife and three children. He may have been straining over a jackhammer all day, but his family life makes the exertion worthwhile.
A new Daddies, based on what Murray describes, would begin like this: “What do daddies do all day? White upper-middle-class daddies work while white lower-class daddies play.” Along with a few hard-working daddies in shirtsleeves, the drawings might depict a saggy-pants-wearing lower-class dad sauntering down the street playing a portable video game while his girlfriend staggers 10 paces ahead holding groceries and a toddler. Another scene might have him smoking weed on the couch at 10 a.m. And at the end of the day, Mommy might be sitting in front of the TV eating a bowl of cereal while the kids run the streets. Daddy is nowhere to be found, and perhaps never to be seen again.
At the moment, Charles Murray is America’s official prophet of doom. In Coming Apart, he tells us that at least two distinct nations are forming. One can be found in the advanced degree-holding, organic-food-munching—but also churchgoing, hard-working, family-oriented, community-friendly—upper middle class. The other can be found among the increasingly miserable lower classes, in which single motherhood is the norm, working-age men are often ne’er-do-wells, church attendance is declining, and community participation is weak. Murray, an agnostic, is not concerned for moralistic reasons. He is concerned about the resulting social pathologies and dim prospects for lower-class offspring. The pillars of civilization, which he notes also happen to be the pillars of human happiness, are eroding.
Meanwhile, an incestuous new elite at the tippy-top is concentrating in a few zip codes in places like Boston, Washington D.C., New York and San Francisco. Because its members have become so isolated, the elite is oblivious to real American life. It has abdicated its “responsibility to set and promulgate standards,” subscribing instead to a nonjudgmentalism that extends to everyone but those with “differing political views, fundamentalist Christians, and rural working-class whites.” Even if this elite wanted to exert influence, however, this would be difficult because its members’ own unseemly behavior has eroded its standing. Think Goldman Sachs.
To Murray, the assassination of John F. Kennedy marked a turning point. That November day, the United States of shared values and narrow class differences began a steady decline. It is being replaced by a caste system. Large numbers of the lower class have forgotten how to live stable, family-oriented lives. And because industriousness has declined, the problem is not one that can be solved by more jobs, higher wages or more government money—at least not in Murray’s libertarian mind.
As does many a prophet, Murray enrages his critics. The co-author of 1994’s most notorious book, The Bell Curve, remains unflinching (though courtly) in his politically incorrect pronouncements as to I.Q., education, class and behavior. In this case, he plays it a bit safer by focusing mainly on whites.
But toward the end of the book he adds lower-class African-Americans and Latinos to his measures of lower- class family stability, industriousness, honesty and religiosity. And guess what? It does not make much of a difference in the numbers. It turns out that class, not race, is what matters.
Of course, Murray cannot resist distilling his points in a libertarian barrel. Government, he argues, has fostered both single motherhood and deadbeat fatherhood. Government is not part of the solution. Rather, with less government intervention, lower- class people would again be forced to enjoy the challenges of taking responsibility for their lives. They would be enlivened by the pressure to perform. He says this shift in the welfare state must be accompanied by a cultural shift, led by the elite, in which hard work and two-parent families are once again celebrated, while irresponsibility is stigmatized. The rest depends on the people themselves. Assuming these are the correct prescriptions, however, there is not much comfort one can take in them.
It should be noted that Murray undermines the data-driven portions of his analysis with the occasional sweeping generalization. He discusses the European character, for example, as though there were no difference between Germans and Greeks. Furthermore, while we hear much about the lower class and the upper middle class, the book is mute on everybody in between, which hangs a big question mark over its pages.
Murray clearly loves the America of the founders, of Alexis de Tocqueville’s age—and of his own childhood, when Janet Frank wrote Daddies. Out of his devotion, he offers a deeply dispiriting, numbers-driven jeremiad. But it is one that may inspire readers to take greater ownership of this nation’s future and, in some cases, to take a closer look at themselves.