Heralded Books Get It All Wrong

Poor Assessments of America's Woes by Neoconservatives

Wrong-Headed: Two much-heralded new books try to assess America’s problems, from unemployment to our place in the world. Too bad they get it all wrong.
getty images
Wrong-Headed: Two much-heralded new books try to assess America’s problems, from unemployment to our place in the world. Too bad they get it all wrong.

By J.J. Goldberg

Published February 21, 2012, issue of February 24, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share

America’s chattering classes periodically fall in love with a new book that seems to alter the way we see the world by exposing a hidden crisis or explaining one that defied comprehension. One blockbuster can change history.

In the 1960s, best-sellers launched liberal crusades: the war on poverty in Michael Harrington’s 1962 “The Other America,” environmentalism in Rachel Carson’s 1962 “Silent Spring,” feminism in Betty Friedan’s 1963 “The Feminine Mystique,” consumerism in Ralph Nader’s 1965 “Unsafe at Any Speed.” After 1980, the top ground-breakers pushed us rightward: Charles Murray’s 1984 “Losing Ground,” E.D. Hirsch Jr.’s 1988 “Cultural Literacy,” Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 “The End of History,” Samuel Huntington’s 1996 “The Clash of Civilizations.” To a degree, books shaped the political culture. To a greater degree, the culture spawned the books.

In the past few days, in a rare double-header, two new releases swept the elite buzz machine simultaneously, both by conservative scholars: “Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010,” by the aforementioned Charles Murray, and “The World America Made,” by neoconservative historian and Romney adviser Robert Kagan. Both offer important observations about America’s current crises.

Both also offer spectacularly wrong-headed diagnoses of the crises’ origins. And both propose solutions that essentially repeat what got us in trouble. No surprise here: The authors are among the ground-breakers whose previous prescriptions helped create the problems.

Kagan’s book is already influencing events. Its core thesis, published as an 8,500-word New Republic article in January, reportedly impressed President Obama and inspired part of his State of the Union address. The idea is simple: America is not in decline, doomsayers notwithstanding. We can dominate the next century the way we dominated the last one if we decide to.

Political gridlock? No problem — we’ve muddled through worse. Economic crisis? Just a hiccup, free-market capitalism “going through one of its periodic bouts of doubting itself.” China catching up? They’re miles behind in per capita GDP. Besides, nobody likes them. Military overreach? Bullying image? Hey, it ain’t easy being a global hegemon.

“The lesson of the twentieth century,” Kagan writes, “…is that if one wants a more liberal order, there may be no substitute for powerful liberal nations to build it and defend it. International order is not an evolution; it is an imposition.” The key is to believe in ourselves. Also, maintain a strong navy to police sea lanes. The world will love us for it.

It bears noting that Kagan was co-founder in 1997, with William Kristol, of the Project for a New American Century, a key promoter of war with Iraq. It was one of his major preoccupations for a decade. Oddly, his book mentions the Iraq War only in passing, as one of America’s many interventions to topple “monsters” and promote democracy. Any book on preserving American power should begin with that war as a case study in alienating allies, inflaming enemies and sapping national resolve. But that would be awkward.

For sheer misguidedness, though, Murray’s book wins out. Mind you, it starts well. Perhaps ruing the racism of the 1994 tome he co-authored on black inferiority, “The Bell Curve,” he now argues that America’s deepest achievement gap is marked not by race but class.

His America is divided into two main groups living in separate zip codes, rarely meeting or intermarrying, yielding diverging IQ gene pools. He describes them with voluminous graphs and statistics on income, SAT scores, college graduation, church attendance, out-of-wedlock births and even fishing habits. One is a “new upper class” of lawyers, professors and corporate executives who eat organic food and listen to NPR. The other is a “new lower class” that drives pickup trucks, watches “American Idol” and does grueling physical work that the elites don’t understand. Or doesn’t work, preferring to “goof off” and live on government handouts, depending on what point Murray is making at the moment.

Murray’s “new lower class” is descending into chaos, losing the virtues of marriage, religiosity, “industriousness” (essentially workforce participation and pride in achievement) and “honesty” as measured in crime and incarceration.

Despite conventional wisdom, he says, elites retain these virtues far more than commoners do. Unfortunately, the elites no longer celebrate these virtues. Consequently, the masses lack moral guidance.

Some blame poor folk’s troubles on unemployment. Rubbish, says Murray. If there’s a job cleaning offices for $27,680 at 2009 wages — “not great incomes,” but “enough to be able to live a decent existence” — why not take it? The answer: Men don’t “need to work to survive” [his emphasis] thanks to the welfare state. So they stay home, watching television.

This has been the trend since the mid-1980s, he writes, despite “one of the longest employment booms in American history.” Before that, men worked when there were jobs. Since then, welfare-state coddling and upper-class permissiveness have corrupted them, leading to less marriage, more single-motherhood and rising crime.

Alas, his dates betray him. Cleaning offices in 2009? That year saw six applicants for every American job opening, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Hopping onto the government gravy train since the 1980s? That’s when Washington began dismantling the welfare state, thanks partly to Murray’s own “Losing Ground.”

Come to think of it, the 1980s were when working-class wages began their long, steady decline; the upper classes began rapidly diverging from everyone else, and the national debt started skyrocketing, thanks to the deregulation, de-industrialization, de-unionization and tax-cutting policies of Republican administrations that Charles Murray and Robert Kagan helped to inspire. Hmmm.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at goldberg@forward.com

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.