by Misha Lepetic
“Look – you're my best friend, so don't take this the wrong way.
In twenty years, if you're still livin' here, comin' over to my house
to watch the Patriots games, still workin' construction, I'll fuckin' kill you.
That's not a threat; now, that's a fact.”
~Good Will Hunting
Culture warriors from the 1990s may remember Charles Murray, who rather stirred the pot with The Bell Curve, a highly contentious book co-written with Richard Herrnstein. The authors hypothesized, among other things, that not only intelligence but also its alleged heritability could be measured and used to explain differences in the success of social (or, perhaps, economic and ethnic) groups.* At any rate, Murray, who seems to be a refreshingly damn-the-torpedoes type of fellow, is back with another doozy, this time concerning inequality in America. But where is this America of which he speaks?
The inequality narrative is nothing new, of course. The Economist has been harping on the threat that income inequality poses for years now (I believe that this is due, in no small part, to that publication’s consistent undercurrent of Burkean anxiety). In 2009, Emmanuel Saez won the John Bates Clarke medal for illuminating how income inequality is not just increasing but is increasing at faster velocities for the more rarefied strata. And the Russell Sage Foundation recently released a pretty authoritative report on the matter, although I’m sure they won’t be the last to do so. And regardless of your opinion of it, the Occupy movement has brought the inequality narrative into the forefront of the “national conversation”, if such a thing actually exists.
But Murray is here to tell us that income inequality is just the tip of the iceberg: what we are really faced with is, as he puts it, “cultural inequality.” As he writes in a Wall Street Journal essay in support of his book, Coming Apart:
And the isolation is only going to get worse. Increasingly, the people who run the country were born into that world. Unlike the typical member of the elite in 1960, they have never known anything but the new upper-class culture. We are now seeing more and more third-generation members of the elite. Not even their grandparents have been able to give them a window into life in the rest of America.**
This isn’t really all that earth-shattering, but Murray introduces a few new angles. The first is his exclusive focus on the white demographic. I will return to the consequences of this choice in a moment, but let’s accept that, as seconded by his soft-ball fellow-WSJ reviewer, this was done “to avoid conflating race with class”.
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