The Right-Wing Propagandist Charles Murray Exposes the Truth About Conservatives -- They Hate Poor People, White and Black
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Charles Murray, a leading right-wing polemicist, has spent three decades beating up on poor black people. His new book, however, is an act of more equal opportunity opprobrium, arguing that white working class America is in crisis because it has a fucked up and backward culture. And his main example is Philadelphia's Fishtown.
Murray published summaries of Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010 in the Wall Street Journal and another in the right-wing New Criterion. His argument is a mean and vicious slander against the people of Fishtown and working class people everywhere, detailing the decline of what he calls the “Founding virtues” of industriousness, honesty, marriage, and religion amongst the rabble. It's based on the Philadelphia neighborhood, but Murray uses “Fishtown” as an exemplar to generalize about white Americans with “no academic degree higher than a high school diploma...[and unemployed or working in] a blue-collar, service, or low-level white-collar occupation.”
Murray complains that Fishtown residents are increasingly less moral than people in Belmont, based on the wealthy white Boston suburb full of “successful people in managerial and professional occupations―the elites who are in positions of influence over the nation’s economy, media, intellectual life, and politics.” Which is where Mitt Romney lives―so I suppose he offers a lesson in hypocrisy, avarice and greed, huh? But beyond Murray's poisonous politics, the biggest problem is that his argument is wrong.
He says that the real Fishtown went from “a tightly knit, family oriented, hard-drinking, hard-working, hard-fighting blue-collar neighborhood” in the 1950s to a “a neighborhood that had experienced the decline of industriousness among males, the drop in marriage, rise in nonmarital births, rise in crime, and falling away from religion” today.
He fails to note the the decline in “industriousness” parallels a breathtaking decline in actual industry.
Thanks to deindustrialization there are far fewer good jobs today for people in Fishtown than there were in his 1950s glory days. While Occupy Wall Street condemns corporate greed for fueling Gilded Age-style income inequality, Murray blames working-class people in places like Fishtown for their problems.
Fishtown, and the broader neighborhood of Kensington of which it is a part, have been at the epicenter of the city's deindustrialization, a process that began in the 1950s and wiped out what was once The Workshop of the World. It is hard to know to what degree Murray is a cynical liar and to what degree he really believes it when he says, referring to the 1980s and 90s, “These reductions in work hours occurred in years when men could find work for as many hours as they wanted to work.”
That was not the case in Fishtown, and it was not the case for most of working class America: crappy service jobs with low wages and few or no benefits replaced secure union manufacturing jobs.
His argument that religious piety is the key to working class well-being also rankles. The U.S. has much less “social mobility”―the ability, for example, of someone born poor to make it out of poverty―than European countries like Denmark, a country that happens to be one of the least religious countries in the world. But whatever.
Murray might be a hack, but he's far more than a run-of-the-mill crank: his books have impact. Losing Ground, published in 1984, argued that welfare is the primary cause of poverty, stoking Reagan's make-believe stories about Cadillac driving welfare queens and later, the virtual abolition of welfare by Bill Clinton and congressional Republicans in 1996.
In 1994, Murray published The Bell Curve, making the even more offensive argument that poor people are poor and many black people are poor because they are genetically wired to be stupid. (Incidentally, the thesis of the latter book contradicts that of the former.) The Bell Curve provided pseudo-scientific cover to plain-old-unadulterated racism (and indeed, a good number of the book's citations were to publications written by overt white supremacists and eugenicists).
Murray and the deep-pocketed right-wing foundations that support him, however, have a habit of not releasing his data in advance to competent academic specialists for peer-review. This is likely because once experts in the sciences and social sciences take a look at his data, they overwhelmingly decide that it's bullshit. (read Eric Alterman's three-part takedown here)
In Coming Apart, Murray imagines some historically false halcyon past where Americans of all socioeconomic strata shared “a civic culture that embraced all of them.” But what prosperity existed in working-class neighborhoods like Fishtown were the result of the labor movement's hard-fought victories on the shop floor and New Deal government reforms. FDR, buoyed by a militant labor movement, condemned the nation's “economic royalists.”
What rich and poor Americans before the New Deal “shared” was class warfare.
The rich have long tried to diagnose the plight of the poor and working class (i.e. “regular” people, or the erstwhile construct known as the “the middle class”) and thus absolve themselves of any responsibility for their predicament.
Locally, Fishtown has long been caricatured as a place where you're more likely to hear the “N-word” than the deep South. And while this is more or less true, another and perhaps more important truth is this: the people of Fishtown are squeezed by the same economic vice (though not as brutally) as their Puerto Rican and black neighbors, leaving residents with the tragic impression that all were left to fight against one another for meager economic scraps.
Not only is Murray's analysis of the entire American working class wrong, he can't even get get the facts straight on his own selective case study/punching bag. Take for instance the current Fishtown community mobilization to save St. Laurentius Catholic School from closure. St. Laurentius School is embattled not because of the bad morality of Fishtown residents, but because of the long-running violence of deindustrialization and suburbanization―and the very bad moral behaviors of the Church hierarchy.
The neighborhood is currently undergoing a process of gentrification whereby higher income residents follow artists into the neighborhood, either priced out of parts of Center City or Northern Liberties or looking to make money from real estate. One wonders if Murray thinks that these newcomers-- invariably liberal, sometimes gay, unlikely to attend church―will be an edifying presence.
Oddly enough, Murray does criticize class segregation. Neighborhood segregation by class has risen significantly in recent years, fueled by skyrocketing economic inequality. Unsurprisingly, Murray has nothing to say about segregation's causes. Instead he laments segregation because it is an obstacle to what he argues is the only solution: rich people (people who “prepare yogurt and muesli for breakfast”) should tell working class people what to do and how to live, like missionaries preaching among the savages.
I'm serious: “Married, educated people who work hard and conscientiously raise their kids shouldn't hesitate to voice their disapproval of those who defy these norms. When it comes to marriage and the work ethic, the new upper class must start preaching what it practices.”
Yet I do hope that the book does well. Indeed, I hope that every Republican candidate (and Obama too) is asked what he thinks about Murray's thesis that the travails of the white working class are the result of their own cultural backwardness. The Republican Party has since the 1960s built its majority in part by scapegoating the black poor in effort to recruit so-called “Nixon and Reagan Democrats.” But the truth is that the business elites and professional ideologues have never liked working class people of any race. Murray is now broadcasting that politically inconvenient fact loud, far, and wide. And that is a wonderful thing: the right's divide and conquer strategy fails if working class people see corporate America, and not one another, as the enemy.