Illustration by O.O.P.S.
Illustration by O.O.P.S.

Charles Murray knows that people who read fat books of social criticism aren’t normal. They weren’t normal when the books had titles like “The Affluent Society,” “The Hidden Persuaders” and “The Organization Man,” and they aren’t normal today.

One way they aren’t normal is that they expect to do well on exams. So “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010,” Murray’s new book arguing that America’s distinctive civic culture is unraveling, cleverly includes a 25-question test. He jokingly frames it as a pre-computer SAT (“Please take out your no. 2 pencil and begin”), but it’s more like the kind of quiz you’d find in Cosmopolitan magazine. Here, instead of revealing your sexual habits, you get points for eating at Applebee’s, owning a pickup, recognizing military insignia and correctly identifying Branson (a flamboyant entrepreneur named Richard isn’t the right answer).

Like a Cosmo quiz, Murray’s test is a great marketing tool. But its primary purpose is rhetorical. It takes people who are used to feeling smart and in the know and makes them feel dumb and out of it. It reminds them that they’re not normal. It suggests they’re living the wrong sort of lives.

“The higher the score,” Murray explained in a Facebook thread, “the less likely that you are an overeducated elitist snob who doesn’t have a clue what America is all about.” (The full quiz from the book is available online and there’s a short, interactive version as well.)

Misleading Fable

“Coming Apart” is really two entirely separate works of potentially valuable social science held together by a misleading fable. Because Murray is best known as the author of “The Bell Curve,” we might call the two subjects the Upper Tail (the quiz is for them) and the Lower Tail (MTV’s trashy “Teen Mom” is for them).

The Upper Tail includes roughly the top 20 percent of the white population by education and occupation, although Murray focuses primarily on the much smaller slice he calls the “new upper class.” These people constitute maybe 5 percent of the population as a whole and “run the nation’s economic, political, and cultural institutions.”

The Lower Tail is roughly the bottom 30 percent of whites. Here, again, Murray is most interested in the extremes: the third or so of the Lower Tail, maybe 9 percent of the population as a whole, who are seriously messed up. The vast middle -- the people who do eat at Applebee’s and vacation in Branson, Missouri -- rarely appear in “Coming Apart,” except as a foil to make the Upper Tail feel bad.

The fable that connects the two subjects is that back in 1963, before President John F. Kennedy was assassinated and the country split into a million fractious pieces, American culture was sounder and more united. True, the problems of racial segregation were yet to be overcome, but at least among whites everybody shared essentially the same values and experiences. Americans ate the same food, watched the same movies and TV shows, read the same books, took the same sorts of vacations, and adhered to the same basic religious beliefs and social mores. For example, Murray writes, “It was taken for granted that television programs were supposed to validate the standards that were commonly accepted as part of ‘the American way of life’ -- a phrase that was still in common use in 1963.”

All of this sameness expressed and reinforced a “national conceit that had prevailed from the beginning of the nation: America didn’t have classes, or, to the extent that it did, Americans should act as if we didn’t.” That conceit, he argues, has disappeared. Rather than mere differences of income, which have always existed, we now see “the emergence of classes that diverge on core behaviors and values--classes that barely recognize their underlying American kinship.”

Different Threat

These classes, he warns, are “different in kind and in their degree of separation from anything that the nation has ever known” and that difference threatens to “end what has made America America.”

There are two big problems with this fable. The first is that the old consensus was an illusion. Editing out anomalies was essential to the whole concept of a single culture as defined not merely by basic values but by taste and experience. Some of those anomalies were huge.

Take religion, a topic that looms large in Murray’s analysis. In 1976, Gallup for the first time asked people whether they had had a “born again” experience in which they committed themselves to Jesus Christ. It was a concept largely unknown to the popular media before the emergence of Jimmy Carter.

The answer was 35 percent. More than a third of the population. More than the number of Catholics. Even a narrow definition of evangelical Christians puts them at nearly a quarter of the population. Yet in the consensus picture of America -- the picture created by people Murray assures us came from all sorts of diverse backgrounds -- these born-again Christians were completely invisible: not mocked, not dismissed, not attacked. Invisible. Unknown. Utterly foreign. The gulf between the old elite, who had never heard of evangelicals, and the new elite, who don’t know many, is not as great as Murray would have us believe.

Anticipating such objections, he acknowledges that America in 1963 did have a few peculiar regional subcultures. Today not knowing about evangelical Christianity, Nascar or Branson makes you an overeducated elitist snob. Back then it just made you a Yankee.

Actually, a little regional fragmentation might work in favor of Murray’s ideal culture, because his real worry is that it’s gotten way too easy for smart people to meet one another. In 1963 they were still scattered about the country. Even the brightest college-bound students tended to stick close to home. As a result, “there was still no critical mass of the people who would later be called symbolic analysts, the educated class, the creative class, or the cognitive elite.” Now smart people go to the same colleges, live in the same ZIP codes, work at the same jobs and, worst of all, marry one another.

Too Friendly

“Instead of feeling sorry for the exceptionally able student who has no one to talk to,” Murray writes, “we need to worry about what happens when exceptionally able students hang out only with one another.”

As someone known for writing defenses of chain stores and explaining Plano, Texas, to puzzled pundits, I agree that way too many smart people, particularly on the coasts, are quick to condemn middle-American culture without understanding why people value one or another aspect of it. But they were even worse in 1963.

That’s the second problem with Murray’s fable: The cultural consensus was not just an illusion. It was an unhealthy one. Instead of promoting understanding, it fed contempt.

One piece of evidence is right on page 2 of the book: “The Beverly Hillbillies,” the highest-rated TV show the week Kennedy was killed. As Murray points out, nearly a third of American households watched it on CBS every week -- astounding numbers by today’s standards. “The Beverly Hillbillies” was not just popular. It was, by most measures, the biggest hit in sitcom history. By its fourth week on the air, it had knocked Lucille Ball out of her top spot, and it only fell from the top 10 in its ninth and final season. It even saved “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” a flop in its original slot, by providing a big lead-in audience in an era when it was hard to change the channel. In a true consensus culture, everyone would have loved it.

But even Mike Dann, the network’s vice president for programming, found the show “perfectly awful. I hated it,” he later told an interviewer. The best he could say was that “it appealed to a certain kind of people.”

Critics damned “The Beverly Hillbillies” as utter trash. The New York Times called it “steeped in enough twanging-guitar, polkadot gingham, deliberative drawl, prolific cousins and rural no-think to make each half hour seem as if it contained 60 minutes.” Variety declared it “painful to sit through.” Newsweek said it was “the most shamelessly corny show in years.”

Antithesis of Corny

Back then “corny” was a word sophisticates used to sneer at the common folks’ sentimental bad taste. John F. Kennedy, wrote his friend Benjamin Bradlee of the Washington Post, “could not bring himself to be ‘corny’ at a time when ‘corniness’ is a hallmark of American politics.” Jacqueline Kennedy said after his death that before her elegant young husband came along, “Politics was just left to all the corny old people who shouted on the Fourth of July.” Kennedy was the antithesis of corny. That’s why he was so popular among the Eastern elite.

The truth is that during Murray’s golden age, a lot of smart people were constantly irritated and angered by what they saw as America’s lowest-common-denominator bad taste. “A vast wasteland,” Newton Minow, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, called television.

Some critics wanted to impose their idea of better taste on everyone. Others simply wanted to pursue excellence as they saw fit. Either way, mass culture offended people with refined or idiosyncratic preferences. They may not have lived next to each other or constituted an identifiable social class, but these people definitely felt different from, and in most cases superior to, their fellow Americans.

Hence all those scathing reviews of “The Beverly Hillbillies” -- and all those midcentury books about the horrors of mass culture, consumerism and other-directed conformism. These books were written by and for a self-selected elite. A blockbuster like Vance Packard’s anti-advertising tome “The Hidden Persuaders” might sell a million copies, but even that represented barely half a percent of the population.

With five decades’ distance it’s clear that books as seemingly different as “The Organization Man,” “The Lonely Crowd,” “The Feminine Mystique” and “Atlas Shrugged” were really all about the same thing: the alienation and discomfort of gifted, independent-minded individuals in a society in which the “normal” ruled. The “cognitive elite” felt left out of or oppressed by the country’s culture and, as a result, scorned it.

Now these people have one another. “People like to be around other people who understand them and to whom they can talk,” Murray writes. “Cognitive segregation was bound to start developing as soon as unusually smart people began to have the opportunity to hang out with other unusually smart people.” If you care about happiness, that seems like a good thing.

Interestingly, when smart people feel less alienated, they seem to buy different sorts of books. Instead of condemning American society for not honoring the author’s personality or tastes, the new bestsellers explore the mysteries of human behavior. Think of Malcolm Gladwell’s various books or Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow.” Perhaps once you accept that people really are different -- that nobody’s normal and, at least when it comes to food or entertainment or vacations, there’s no one best way to live -- you can, paradoxically enough, start to think about the commonalities known as human nature.

(Virginia Postrel is a Bloomberg View columnist. She is the author of “The Future and Its Enemies” and “The Substance of Style,” and is writing a book on glamour. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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To contact the writer of this article: Virginia Postrel in Los Angeles at vp@dynamist.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net.