The Tattered Public Sphere: A Review of Charles Murray’s “Coming Apart”
By Scott Beyer
There were many advantages to having a sheltered, upper-middle class background in Charlottesville. But one thing it didn’t teach me was what the adult world is really like in America across class lines. Even following college, I still believed most of the nation’s grown men behaved like the professional-level ones from my childhood, holding jobs and raising families.
So you can imagine how shocked I was when moving to New York City at nineteen. The men there were louder than what I was used to. Many led lifestyles—as transsexuals, or black nationalists, or bohemians—that would’ve made them freaks elsewhere. And, to my surprise, many engaged in a culture of indolence that seemed to permeate the entire city. On any given block, there’d be men hanging on corners, lying on benches, and standing in streets even as cars passed. Crazy ones would sing on subways, scream at pigeons, and use sidewalks as their personal toilets. At first I found this insolence fascinating, even hilarious, given it took place alongside the financiers and intellectuals that run our modern world. And back then I figured it was just another quirk of New York culture.
But its charm faded when I began traveling America’s other cities and found the same thing. And because in these cities it wasn’t tempered, like in New York, by the far greater presence of working people, it amounted to a glaring problem. This first struck me in Atlanta, whose downtown is surrounded by some of America’s most dangerous neighborhoods, and rife with homeless people. But after further travels, I found it existed to varying degrees in every major city.
Sit at a crowded public space inside these cities’ downtowns and you’ll see what I mean. There you’ll find inebriates, drug fiends, and other men lying around. An alarming number suffer obvious mental illnesses, and are homeless due to society’s neglect. Others, whether homeless or not, have nothing apparently wrong with them, save that they are public nuisances—by ignoring their own hygiene, taunting women, arguing loudly, and yelling racist comments. But most just sit around saying nothing at all.
This has created a particularly bizarre atmosphere inside downtown public libraries. Rather than attracting scholarly types, most mock this original purpose by serving instead as lounges for the indigent. If, like me, you wish to use them for serious research, you better be able to endure loud conversations, trashed bathrooms, snoring men, and—always my favorite when buried over work—men who sit and stare blankly ahead for hours.
Of course, libraries could reverse this by disciplining against noise, or sleeping, or pointless loitering. But in a depressing symbolism of government priorities, many have policies that do the opposite, like allowing men to openly view porn on public computers. This way, ensured one staffer at a Portland branch, patrons can enjoy their “freedoms.” And such men indeed have, not only in libraries, but in other public facilities, so that visiting them often means entering a twilight zone of glazed-over eyes and lost ambitions.
As a libertarian—and hardly a moralizer—I’m slow to interpret such widespread torpor as a sign of impending collapse. And because I’m young, I can’t fully compare my observations of these dilemmas with past ones. But I have to say this problem of public indigence, which is familiar to most urbanites, seems to me like a demographic crisis. When the Occupiers began their bratty tirade against the rich, I at least had to agree with them on one thing: America does have a class problem. And it’s defined by a vast underclass of men, many within this public sphere, who seem to lack basic cognitive skills. How they reached these conditions is endlessly complex. But one recent book, Charles Murray’s “Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010”, emits some light.
In the book Murray uses census data to document the trajectories, since 1960, of two different groups of American white males, aged 30-49. One group, which he calls “Fishtown,” after a working-class Philadelphia neighborhood, represents the portion with high school diplomas or less, who are mostly in the lower 30% of earners. The other group, nicknamed “Belmont,” after a professional-class township outside Boston, represents the portion with higher educations, mostly in the upper 20%.
Murray begins by explaining that after World War II, not only were income discrepancies between these two classes narrower, but also their cultural differences. The two often lived in the same neighborhoods, shopped in the same stores, and sent their kids to the same schools. But following Kennedy’s assassination, these classes divided, and by the turn of the century were almost fully segregated. The upper class grew numerically and by income, while lower class incomes stagnated, accounting for the wide gap that exists today.
Many have blamed structural changes in the economy for this trend, but Murray uses a mountain of statistics to emphasize how cultural values also factor in. He begins, using pop sociology, by highlighting lifestyle differences in white- and blue-collar America. These observations so closely fit my own—following years of travel around the U.S.—that they could’ve come from my pen. Within this narrative, people in Belmont drink moderately, exercise daily, eat healthily, watch little TV, and read highbrow news publications. Meanwhile people in Fishtown practice all the stereotypical degeneracies associated with poverty. A third of them smoke cigarettes; many eat fast food regularly, and thus have higher obesity rates; and on average, they watch 35 hours—35 hours!—of television a week, mainly soap operas and reality television. Indeed their habits directly refute left-wing buffoons like Paul Krugman, who, writing from his own little planet, still blames class differences strictly on economic determinism rather than lifestyle choices.
In the next section, Murray digs deeper. He explains that the nation’s social fabric was once defined by four virtues: Marriage, Industriousness, Honesty, and Religiosity. These virtues were manifested through high marriage rates; high workforce participation; low incarceration rates; and high church membership. The statistical peak of these virtues for both Fishtown and Belmont came in the early 1960s, before being attacked during the Cultural Revolution as symbols of rigidity. And while most of these attacks came from members of the elite, they scarcely altered the virtuous underpinnings of elite culture itself. From 1960-2010, the rates of Belmont males not in the workforce stayed below 5%, while the workweeks of those within it actually got longer. Their incarceration rate remained almost non-existent. Their marriage rate dropped slightly from 94% to 84%. And their regular church attendance, which even agnostics like Murray and I agree is an important indicator of social capital, went from 65% to 53%.
But for Fishtown, the Cultural Revolution meant sweeping social changes. The Fishtown marriage rate over this same time dropped from 84% to below 50%. Men outside the workforce skyrocketed from 5% to 12%; as did incarceration fivefold, to a full 1% of this group. Regular church attendance—once essential to community life in blue-collar neighborhoods—dipped from 57% to 40%.
This hurt Fishtown’s already-tenuous social fabric, and widened the income gap. And because, Murray notes, these downward trends are not unique to whites, but consistent across racial lines for low-educated and low-income males of similar age, they suggest disturbing trends for America. It means all the more men in their primes are either imprisoned or outside the workforce, and often without basic social bonds. They surely account for a large percentage of those I’ve found sitting lifelessly in public spaces.
What Caused This?
Some will use “Coming Apart” to reaffirm previous notions that mid-20th century America was a stark morality tale between the innocent 1950s and decadent 1960s. But I’m glad Murray doesn’t succumb to this temptation. While he acknowledges that these four virtues predominated far more before JFK’s assassination than after, he doesn’t pretend that together they produced some heaven on earth in America. He rightly notes the persecution of women and minorities during the era. And he also notes some effects these virtues, practiced to extremes, had in stifling the nation’s white men. Borrowing from stereotypes then advanced by books like “The Organization Man,” Murray describes 1950s America as one of tight-knit communities centered on church and family, but also highly conformist. So he’s no more surprised than me that when these norms loosened in the 1960s, it led to a creative explosion across the U.S.
For example, look at how popular music changed during this time. In the Fifties it had consisted mostly of buttoned-up balladeers singing corny lyrics. By 1969 it had become a tidal wave of Dionysian ecstasy put to song, defined by the guttural screams of Led Zeppelin and James Brown. But I’m convinced this never would’ve occurred had certain postwar taboos remained in place. Instead music—and pop culture—would have continued with the sterile innocence of Dean Martin.
Murray believes this loosening of formalities enabled innovation across fields even more important than music. He writes that while in the Fifties a typical young couple would’ve remained in their hometown and married early–with the woman tending house and the man becoming a policeman or small businessman—by the Sixties such couples were avoiding marriage for higher education. What resulted were breakthroughs in science, engineering, finance, and the arts. This helped form our modern meritocratic upper class; and rather than just dividing America, writes Murray, has also improved life for the lower class. In what I found to be a striking admission near the book’s end, Murray himself writes that if given a choice, he’d sooner live in the America of 2010 than 1960, despite the cultural changes. This is because, thanks to Sixties reforms, America is not only more progressive, but more prosperous.
But Murray’s concerns are that over this age of progress, we’ve erred to the point of having no standards at all. Part of this is because our “hollow elite,” as he calls them, no longer hold the lower classes accountable, but cower in the name of “tolerance.” Isn’t public library porn, funded by taxpayers, a great example? If a free-spirited traveler like me can enter Chicago’s central library, walk to a row of computers, find a dozen grown men watching sex scenes, and feel mildly disgusted, what will mothers with children think? They may not say anything right then. But they’ll probably avoid the library in the future, just as, Murray writes, the upper class now avoids much of public life because of its decadence—the decadence this same class is scared to reprimand.
Another concern, addressed by Murray elsewhere, has been the entitlement state. It too was inspired by the Cultural Revolution, which rather than remaining a cultural phenomenon, soon became a governmental one, dragged by policymakers into the vortex of bureaucratic incompetence. Ignoring the maxim that governments shouldn’t legislate morality, these policymakers legislated their own bizarre version of it, wherein newly trending principles like “sexual freedom” and “class equity” were used to justify welfare programs incentivizing single motherhood and downward mobility. Such programs shortly preceded the statistical explosion in broken families, and continue to sustain our unemployed masses.
What to do about it?
I’m not going to list a bunch of policy solutions for this crisis, or even suggest government policies can solve it. But on the cultural front, I’ll echo Murray in saying that the return of the professional class and their values into public life would be a start. I’ll repeat as much in my upcoming book, which is about how America can revitalize its cities. As bastions of what’s usually best about diversity and culture—and tolerance—such cities have for too long tolerated blatant lethargy from many of their own people. And the professional class, feeling disgusted and endangered, has fled for the suburbs. But I believe for such cities to thrive again, this class must return, not at the mandate of urban planners, but at their own doing. Because not only will their reemergence add to these cities’ public coffers, thus improving services. It will create an atmosphere of virtue—particularly in the public sphere—where virtue is often now lacking.
But any way you go about, if America is to change, it will have to begin with a change in culture. Hopefully “Coming Apart” will start that conversation.
Well-written editorial. You must have some interesting political conversations with your brother!
Scott, thanks for the review. I haven’t read the book but I’ve read Murray’s recent WSJ pieces and some of his earlier work with interest and sympathy. (The Bell Curve is another matter).
A few quibbles:
In regards to pop culture role models, Dean Martin was a lush and a womanizer, not a “sterile innocent.” This was a large part of his stage persona and was considered part of his charm. And is sterility really the metaphor you want for the culture you want? But I agree with your larger point. Most pop is more serious and adult these days, which I think is all to the good, but a lot of it is also “adult” in the dirty website sense.
God knows I don’t think the homeless ought to be allowed to loiter and view porn and generally ruin libraries for the rest of us, but calling addicted people “indolent” “drug fiends” in this year of our Lord 2012 when we know how easily addiction takes hold and how hard it is to break is moralizing.
As for liberals ignoring “the maxim that governments shouldn’t legislate morality,” yes they do, but conservatives do the same re: abortion, homosexuality, pornography, and even economic issues. The law is inescapably concerned with morality. Both sides need to admit it.
The professional class has been returning to the cities for decades now – hence the phenomenon of gentrification.
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