Book Review: Coming Apart

ComingApartby Steve Lancaster    5/4/14
Murray is perhaps best known for a book co-authored with psychologist Richard J. Herrnstein in 1994, The Bell Curve. Herrnstein passed away before the book was published and as the only living author Murray took both the kudos and the critical arrows.

The American project is a phrase you will read often in Coming Apart. To Murray, the American project is the effort over 400 years to create a society where free individuals can live as they see fit, joining together to solve common challenges.  In the opening chapters Murray explores the American world on 21 November 1963, the good, the bad and the ugly. He places the turning point on 22 November 1963.

THIS BOOK IS about an evolution in American society that has taken place since November 21, 1963, leading to the formation of classes that are different in kind and in their degree of separation from anything that the nation has ever known. I will argue that the divergence into these separate classes, if it continues, will end what has made America America.

It is not the existence of classes that is new, but the emergence of classes that diverge on core behaviors and values— classes that barely recognize their underlying American kinship. My primary goal is to induce recognition of the ways in which America is coming apart at the seams— not seams of race or ethnicity, but of class.

Murray argues that for the first time in American history we have a group of people who constitute a different class than any we have seen in our past. With the latter parts of the industrial revolution it was possible for a broad cross section of people to achieve success. Not only was it possible for someone like Jay Gould to come from humble beginnings but it was almost the trend, and rich or poor Americans shared very common values, today:

A growing majority of the people who run the institutions of America who do share tastes, preferences, and culture. They increasingly constitute a class. They are also increasingly isolated. The new isolation involves spatial, economic, educational, cultural, and, to some degree, political isolation. This growing isolation has been accompanied by growing ignorance about the country over which they have so much power.

On the other hand, the poor have also become a class and, “when families become dysfunctional, or cease to form altogether, growing numbers of children suffer in ways that have little to do with lack of money. The neighborhood becomes a sterile place to live at best and, at worst, becomes the Hobbesian all-against-all free-fire zone that we have seen in some of our major cities.” Detroit, Chicago, Washington DC.

So while the lower cohort on the economic scale are not doing very well, Murray contends that the people who are running the country are doing just fine and they have become so isolated that they fail to see or engage in the problems that exist among their opposites. Murray cites specifics in Europe and summarizes about Europe, “The purpose of life is to while away the time between birth and death as pleasantly as possible, and the purpose of government is to make it as easy as possible to while away the time as pleasantly as possible— the Europe Syndrome.”

MY PROPOSITION IS that the hollow elite is as dysfunctional in its way as the new lower class is in its way. Personally and as families, its members are successful. But they have abdicated their responsibility to set and promulgate standards.

Those in the new upper class who don’t care about politics don’t mind the drift toward the European model, because paying taxes is a cheap price for a quiet conscience —much cheaper than actually having to get involved in the lives of their fellow citizens.

Coming Apart, is a curious book, on one hand Murray fillets the elites for their isolation from the rest of America and on the other offers that the only way out of a death spiral for the poor is for the elites to set an example of how to behave. He uses two quasi-fictional towns to illustrate his point. Belmont and Fishtown. Belmont is upper middle-class where almost everyone is college educated and professional. Fishtown is lower class where blue collar work is predominate and no one is college educated. If you are a charts and graphs kind of person you will find Murray’s arguments compelling and disturbing. If you are not just follow the drift, assume the charts present good sociology and consider the conclusions. In the end Murray concludes with statements any conservative will nod in agreement:

The traditional family plays a special, indispensable role in human flourishing and that social policy must be based on that truth.

Human beings enjoy themselves when they are exercising their realized capabilities at the limit of those capabilities.

Challenge and responsibility for consequences is an indispensable part of human motivation to exercise their realized capabilities at the limit of those capabilities.

People grouped by gender, ethnicity, age, social class, and sexual preference, left free to live their lives as they see fit, will produce group differences in outcomes, because they differ genetically in their cognitive, psychological, and physiological profiles.

Regardless of whether people have free will, human flourishing requires that they live in an environment in which they are treated as if they did. Actually, it turns out that humans do have free will in a deep neurological sense.

At some point over the next decade or two, the finances of the welfare state must become ridiculous to everyone.

In the end, we come back to my father’s rules for success in America:

  1. Get all the education you can
  2. Work at any job and seek a better one
  3. Stay with the other parent of your children.



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4 Responses to Book Review: Coming Apart

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    This book has certainly come under discussion here lately, and I’ll probably get it myself when it’s available either in trade paperback or at Half-Price Books (and we go there several times a year, since we have bimonthly coupons from their calendar). I will also point out that Murray has been discussing this concern already in other works, so this is simply working the problem out in more detail or perhaps with a different slant.

  2. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Murray cites specifics in Europe and summarizes about Europe, “The purpose of life is to while away the time between birth and death as pleasantly as possible, and the purpose of government is to make it as easy as possible to while away the time as pleasantly as possible— the Europe Syndrome.”

    That’s definitely in line with what Mark Steyn says. And in line with what I, and others, state is the “entertainment culture” or “passive amusement culture.” The job of today’s Westerner is not to raise a family (children are now more of an adornment), not for the flesh of two to become one (and try to erase from you mind picture of homosexual sex), not to struggle and provide a petter living for you children than you had, not to honor the foundation of one’s culture and country, not to honor one’s God, and certainly not to suffer nobly. It’s all about utopia now.

    We, in the West, are somewhat victims of our own success. Life is expected to be a 24/7 carnival ride and if it’s not then it is considered somebody’s fault. And the great productivity of our political system (which, historically, did not punish innovation and success) combined with science and technology has allowed us to fabricate that carnival ride, or at least to imagine it as the end goal of living.

    As I’ve noted many times, we are no longer a serious people. We want our passive amusements (including drugs) and anyone who stands in the way is considered uncool, at best, or reactionary, at worst.

    I’m getting a feel for this book, Steve. And Murray impresses me as an intellectual who makes this five times harder than it needs to be. How is everything he saying not simply a product of the ideology of the Left combined with the destruction and dependency caused by the nanny state?

    I’ve started reading a book titled How the West Won. It includes an excellent introduction about what it is that makes (made) the West different. Long story short, it is the ability to innovate and to prosper from one’s hard work. These traits have always been stifled by a ruling class (emporer, chieftain, king, pharaoh, mullah, whatever) who wished to monopolize power. One of the examples he states is a Chinese emperor, via fiat, disposing of their burgeoning private-sector iron industry simply because it was seen as a threat to the monopoly on power by the ruling class. This is the exact same thing we are running into now with B. Hussein Obama and quite a few Republicans. We can call it “statism,” “the nanny state,” “Big Government,” “the ruling political class,” or any number of things. But it’s surely as simple as this: A free, innovate, and productive private sector is a threat to those who would be our rulers. And if that is consistent with what Murray is saying, then good.

    And once this kind of institution is in place, it is human nature to try to align with the source of power. This is what Dinesh D’Souza and others have noted as the “brain drain” that plagues many countries today. It can become established that the path to power is via government because that government exerts so much power over the private sector (often to the point of eradicating it). This will result in many otherwise productive and innovate people getting lost in the deadwood of a bureaucracy as they try to move to where they can at least make the best living possible. The other result is that people who want to prosper and innovate will simply leave the country, Atlas-Shrugged-style.

    This is who the mainstream media is. They are aligning with the ruling class. They are the wannabe “elites.” And to have an elite means you must have an underclass. And as Rush Limbaugh frequently states, the Democrat Party depends for its success on creating a permanent underclass.

    And whether it was the chicken or the egg that came first, it hardly matters. Did Big Government produce the elitist and underclass mindset via entitlements and things or was that mindset — always lurking in humanity — finally increment its way to full expression? Whatever the case may be, there is no going back without reducing the nanny state and requiring a culture of self-responsibility combined with traditional moral values.

    Think about it. If you want to see the absurd ends that a passive-amusement culture can go, we now have people seriously considering that homosexual marriage is not only a good thing but a civil right. No culture could announce its non-seriousness in a more profound way.

    We are indeed coming apart. I can certainly agree with the book title. And I like this bit from Murray:

    MY PROPOSITION IS that the hollow elite is as dysfunctional in its way as the new lower class is in its way. Personally and as families, its members are successful. But they have abdicated their responsibility to set and promulgate standards.

    This is consistent with what Theodore Dalrymple is a saying about Europe, particularly England. The “elites” are fine with leaving the lower classes to their vices and social anarchy. They easily convince themselves (having been corrupted by Cultural Marxism, which is key to all this) that to expect more of these classes is some kind of “cultural imperialism.” And making it doubly easy to abandon people to lives of unnecessary misery are the ideas of “multiculturalism” and “non-judgmentalism” which, again, says “Who are we to tell others how to live?”

    Cultural Marxism combined with Big Government is our problem. You can analyze this until the cows come home, but that’s the gist of it. You can’t recklessly knock over the pillars of Western Civilization and expect utopia, not social anarchy, to emerge. You can’t grow a government that is gaining control over the minutest aspects of our lives and expect innovation and productivity to flourish.

    And Cultural Marxism is not just a corruptive influence in terms of economics or government. It has a moral system that has deeply and badly infected our world and made everything that it touches worse. I hope that Murray understands this. The antidote for it is not easy. But it does mean adopting a more or less Judeo-Christian ethical standard.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      Cultural liberalism is like the Shakers — it refuses to replace its members (i.e., to reproduce), and thus relies on converts. Not wishing to go the way of the Shakers, the cultural liberals seek (mostly with success) to control the means of communications (education and the media), thereby creating many converts who simply never learn any better.

      Even so, their success isn’t total; note that their success with normalizing homosexual behavior followed from their clever trick of linking it to marriage. People approve of such serious relationships, but not the bathhouse culture that incubated AIDS. They disapprove of adultery and abortion, and retain some basic common sense on economic issues.

      But the hollowness of the culture is that when it becomes sufficiently dominant (as in Europe), the nation as a whole starts to decline in population — which means that eventually someone will come in a replace them. In Europe that will be Muslims, which is why some of the self-indulgent Europeans have been among the anti-immigrant leaders (such as Pim Fortuyn in the Netherlands); they realize that immigration eventually means Shariah, and the end of their toleration of homosexuality.

      In America the takeover will take longer because a larger part of the indigenous population continues to reproduce (e.g., Mormons and some other religious types). In addition, there’s the theoretical (though unlikely) possibility that the Hispanic and Asian immigrants will adopt American traditions (which is how the GOP Useful Idiots persuade themselves to support the eventual takeover).

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        My Jewru, Dennis Prager, breaks an understanding of America down to three things:

        1) In God We Trust
        2) Liberty
        3) E Pluribus Unum

        These are completely opposite to the Leftist counterparts:

        A) relativism
        B) equality
        C) multiculturalism

        These systems produce two different kinds of people and societies. And it’s worth fighting for the better one.

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