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 firstname.lastname@example.org
Heralded Books Get It All Wrong
J.J. Goldberg is editor emeritus of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).