Popping Bubbles

Charles Murray’s new book seems to be drawing considerable attention from the chattering and blogospheric classes. His contention, in the words of NRO‘s David French:

Our class divisions are increasingly framed by differences in marriage and family status, with rich and poor inhabiting entirely separate cultures. Rich and poor live apart, watch different television shows, attend different movies, and eat different kinds of foods. Classic class-mixing institutions (like the military or public schools) divide even further as the rich shun the military and either shun public schools or live in wealthy enclaves where there’s little difference between public and private education.

A (very) blunt instrument (think something like a cello) that has been used as a rough guide to this cultural Balkanization is the “bubble quiz” you may have seen floating around Facebook recently. It asks questions like “Can you identify this NASCAR champion?” as a way of identifying members of what Murray describes as elite and mass culture (and what Codevilla might call the Ruling and Country classes). On a scale of 0 to 20, higher numbers indicate greater exposure to mass culture. Full disclosure: I scored a 12, which marked me as (quoting someone whose identity I regret that I’ve forgotten) “a bit of a fancy lad, but beloved by the common folk”, not too surprising for an English prof from a non-elite family/educational background, working and living in Mondoville.

In some respects, Murray’s thesis is perhaps another form of shyster John Edwards’s “Two Americas” demagoguery (This is not a slam on Murray, but a simple reminder that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who divide people into two kinds and those who don’t). In others, it may be read as a continuation of the “self-segregation” Murray predicted in his controversial 1994 book, The Bell Curve (with Richard J. Herrnstein). In any case, quite a few folks are getting exercised about the whole thing, which brings us to something I think is a Very Bad Idea.

Like many Very Bad Ideas, this one comes to us from the NYT, and is perpetrated by the paper’s token conservative (YMMV), David Brooks. To his credit, Brooks makes some solid observations:

Murray’s story contradicts the ideologies of both parties. Republicans claim that America is threatened by a decadent cultural elite that corrupts regular Americans, who love God, country and traditional values. That story is false. The cultural elites live more conservative, traditionalist lives than the cultural masses.

Democrats claim America is threatened by the financial elite, who hog society’s resources. But that’s a distraction. The real social gap is between the top 20 percent and the lower 30 percent. The liberal members of the upper tribe latch onto this top 1 percent narrative because it excuses them from the central role they themselves are playing in driving inequality and unfairness.

It’s wrong to describe an America in which the salt of the earth common people are preyed upon by this or that nefarious elite. It’s wrong to tell the familiar underdog morality tale in which the problems of the masses are caused by the elites.

The truth is, members of the upper tribe have made themselves phenomenally productive. They may mimic bohemian manners, but they have returned to 1950s traditionalist values and practices. They have low divorce rates, arduous work ethics and strict codes to regulate their kids.

Members of the lower tribe work hard and dream big, but are more removed from traditional bourgeois norms.

Unfortunately, he goes off the rails in his conclusion, in which he calls for a National Service Program, and I get the impression he isn’t calling for a voluntary version — after all, we have those already:

We need a program that would force members of the upper tribe and the lower tribe to live together, if only for a few years. We need a program in which people from both tribes work together to spread out the values, practices and institutions that lead to achievement.

First of all (to get my cheap shot out of the way), I haven’t been real thrilled about previous efforts of that sort. I also note that when the punditti call for drafts of any kind, they tend to be outside the draftable class. Additionally, I oppose mandatory government service on 13th Amendment grounds (I know the Supreme Court disagreed with me when it came to the military draft in 1918 and thereafter. Fine; the Supreme Court is wrong.)

One of the things I wonder, however, is whether we’ve actually ever had some sort of monoculture to lose in this way — the high/middle/lowbrow divisions are old ones. If so, I would suggest that it is disappearing as the result of numerous factors — some good (a greater range of cultural artifacts with which to entertain/amuse/absorb oneself), and some more dubious (an emphasis on self-esteem that works against the value of concepts like shaming and shunning.) In neither case, however, do I see the necessity for still another top-heavy government program, and still another opportunity to submerge individual activity for the purpose of the State, even if the State is a well intentioned one.

H/T: Morgan K. Freeberg, via Facebook.

About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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11 Responses to Popping Bubbles

  1. Ahem. I would be the fancy lad.

    Much love. xoxoxo

    • profmondo says:

      Thought that might be you. Thank you for taking the appropriate credit and promoting my overall accuracy. And tell the Sleestak I’m sorry he was played by Bill Laimbeer — Laimbeer never properly conveyed Sleestak’s raconteurial spirit and general bonhomie.

  2. Andrew Stevens says:

    I “don’t even have a bubble.”

  3. Withywindle says:

    I am a bottle of champagne.

  4. The Ancient says:

    1) Back in the mid-eighties, when the idea of National Service was at its zenith, every single one of the principals promoting it (Sam Nunn and Chuck Robb in the Senate, a claque of forgotten men in the House, the now defunct Democratic Leadership Council, and Charles Moskos* at Northwestern) privately believed it should be compulsory, even for people with modest disabilities. But not one of them was willing to say that in public.
    *Moskos is now remembered primarily as the architect of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

    2) Last time I heard, Murray was living out in Frederick County, Maryland — in more or less the sort of environment his new book commends.

  5. Jeff says:

    The “national service program” suggestion comes as such a non sequitur at the end of the Brooks column that when I read it, I thought I’d encountered an editing error.

    There are around 3 million high school seniors in the United States. I’d like to see Brooks explain what the heck the government would do with them all, and how big of a bureaucracy we’d need to babysit them, and what the effect would be of removing millions of young adults from the economy (and from potentially more fruitful educational or vocational training) for “a few years.”

  6. Robbo says:

    Oops! I was about to post on this column myself when I noticed you had scooped my point. State-mandated reeducation camps. What could go wrong? “All your kulturny are belong to us!”

  7. Pingback: On The First Of February « The Port Stands At Your Elbow

  8. ricki says:

    “We need a program that would force members of the upper tribe and the lower tribe to live together, if only for a few years.”

    I smell a new reality show coming!

    (Any program that tries to “force” me to live with anyone else, regardless of “tribal” affiliation….well, I think I’d have to invoke the Castle Doctrine on them.)

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