* Coming Apart by Charles Murray

Posted by Lew Weinstein on March 25, 2012


  • “I’ll be shocked if there’s another book this year as important as Charles Murray’s ‘Coming Apart.’” —David Brooks, The New York Times
  • “Mr. Murray’s sobering portrait is of a nation where millions of people are losing touch with the founding virtues that have long lent American lives purpose, direction and happiness.” —W. Bradford Wilcox, The Wall Street Journal

It’s always daunting to disagree with such eminent authorities, but I see “Coming Apart” as little more than right wing political screed dressed up in the trappings of the author’s “alleged” research findings. 

It seems to me that Charles Murray decided first on the point of view he wanted to espouse, i.e., that the declining lower middle class is the cause of its own problems due to their failure to maintain what he calls the “founder virtues” (especially industriousness and marriage). Answers clearly in mind, he then selectively dug out data and prepared analyses to support his pre-ordained conclusions.

In my view, Murray didn’t do much of a job with either the data or the analysis, and his conclusions therefore remain little more than an expansion of his original biased speculation.

Murray’s “facts” are concocted according to rules which do not come close to conforming to the kind of rigorous investigative procedure practiced by researchers who really want to learn something. Mostly derived from census data, Murray excludes any categories which would complicate his conclusions (like blacks, mixed-marriages, scholarship students), and groups the rest of America’s humanity into two over-simplified constructs he calls “Belmont” (the elite ones sort of like him) and “Fishtown” (some imaginary lower middle class group that none of the elite know much about). Finally, Murray camouflages this highly selective witches brew with a patina of mostly obvious observations which, while often true, do nothing to buttress his conclusions.

Of course Murray, and the American Enterprise Institute, the conservative think tank of which he is a part, have a serious right wing agenda, and it is within this context that “Coming Apart” must be viewed. It is a political document – nothing more – which should not be accepted as sociological or demographic or any other kind of disciplined analysis. It is intended to blame the poor for their problems, and even more importantly, excuse the wealthy from any responsibility towards the less fortunate among us.

Now, I do not argue that every aspect of what liberal government seeks to do for its poorer citizens is successful. Some of it is horribly conceived and incompetently executed. Some of it is corrupt. Murray points out these failures, and in this he is correct. But there have also been significant successes (voting rights for minorities, equal rights for women, early education programs in disadvantaged neighborhoods, diversified admissions programs at elite colleges), and the goal to enable all Americans to have a fair chance to engage in “the pursuit of happiness” was and is critically important.

Here’s why: If our country does not figure out how to help those who are now spiraling downward become productive members of our economic and political society, they and their children will continue to be a serious drag on America’s ability to succeed in a competitive world. How will we fare as a country where many of our citizens contribute little and an ever-larger percentage of our resources must be devoted to their support? This is one of those instances where compassion and self-interest are perfectly aligned.

Murray’s analysis, which I see as both wrongheaded and poorly argued, does serve one useful purpose. It gets us talking about political issues which we ought to be addressing, although not perhaps in the way Murray and his group would like.

Let’s see, where do you think contraception, universal healthcare, education and broad electoral rights fit into this discussion?



2 Responses to “* Coming Apart by Charles Murray”

  1. Given the recent “War on Women” as undertaken by a host of Republican politicians, I should like to address, to a recent friend on Goodreads, a discussion of where reproductive rights might fit into the distorted picture that Murray provides in his book “Coming Apart,” which suffers from preordained conclusions. I am the granddaughter of Jewish immigrants from the Pale. My grandparents, Eva and Julie, left the Ukraine to avoid a pogrom, and, when settled here, started once again to practice what had been customary to them in their “homeland.” My grandmother Eva had been a midwife who had also performed abortions–totally without the interest or interference of the so-called government (either the local Jewish one or that of the Czar). With this in mind, my understanding of recent Republican statements is that birth control of all varieties is a threat to the family and has had a demonstrable effect on familial breakdown. I do not believe this argument, but declining rates of marriage (in which I believe not only because I am happily married, but also because I am an observant Jew from a culture which values marriage) and increasing rates of dysfunctional “live in” relationships and single parenthood have given it the color of legitimacy. Here is an area in which much research is needed; but research free of Murray’s foregone conclusions. I suspect that women once endured unhappy domestic situations and, while seeking liberation from the same (which the upper classes obtained due to education and “social capital”) now find themselves trapped in new versions of the same old problems. My view is that without education (and these days this means higher education) the promises of new technologies (birth control, the internet, etc.) to advance freedom become caught up in the downsides of these technologies. Hence, people without sufficient education in an environment of enhanced freedoms and new technologies, appear likely to experience more social fracture as their fragile systems of adaptation are taken down by innovation.

    • Lew Weinstein said

      Corinne … Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I don’t believe Charles Murray deals in any way with the reproductive rights issues raised recently by Republican presidential candidates. However, he does decry the declining rate of marriage and the increasing number of children born out of wedlock, both of which would seem to lead to a policy where contraception was encouraged rather than discouraged. Such logic seems to escape both Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney, who oppose contraception and promise to eliminate support for Planned Parenthood. I cannot imagine why any woman would vote for either of those men.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: