Coming Apart, Coming Together

Charles Murray's new book chronicles the decline of a nation.

Editor's note: Charles Murray will be speaking at the Freedom Center's Wednesday Morning Club on Monday, April 30th at the Four Seasons in Los Angeles at 11:30 a.m. For more information, click here.

“Things fall apart, the center cannot hold,” Yeats wrote in his famous poem. In Charles Murray’s “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010”, it is America itself that has come apart and his work chronicles the undoing of a virtue-based national exceptionalism.

“Coming Apart” would not be as shocking if it were not for a political and academic establishment that is unable to speak about the problems of the working class except in terms of class warfare and racial discrimination. Murray boldly upends the formula that social problems arise from economic problems and that these can only be solved with more social welfare programs. Instead of holding the upper classes accountable for not paying enough into the system that subsidizes the welfare state, he instead holds them accountable for disrupting national values, while maintaining them communally.

While the class warfare model links social ills to an economic deprivation practiced by the rich on the poor, Murray looks instead at a values deprivation which has led to statistics such as a marriage rate of 83 percent for the white upper middle-class and only 48 percent for their working class contemporaries. This has created Two Americas divided not by wealth, as defined by John Edwards in the economic realm, but divided socially by the segregation of communities and the stratification of values.

The music video for Billy Joel’s song, “We didn’t start the fire” followed an idealized young couple from their working class beginnings to middle class prosperity and then through the decay of the sixties and the seventies. But while the couple in the video remains together through bra burnings, draft card burnings and drug experimentation, in real life that was where the fire started and the ashes of that fire can be seen in the statistics that Murray lays out for us.

Murray’s model of Fishtown and Belmont, two neighborhoods representing two classes, shows that an economic gap is an insufficient explanation for the social problems of working class communities. In 1960, a working class neighborhood was only 10 percent behind the upper middle class neighborhood in its marriage rate. Fifty years later after the conflagration that undid the nation’s collective value system that gap had more than tripled to 35 percent.

A marriage rate below 50 percent would have been considered a severe social problem in a nation that had not abandoned, what Murray calls, its “Founding Virtues”, but progressive socialists operating in the haze of an economics centered view of social problems would tend to say that the only social problem is insufficient subsidies for single parent families.

The fundamental question that Murray raises is whether we explain social problems in economic terms or economic problems in moral terms and “Coming Apart” is in its own way a moralistic book. Rather than another direct assault on the welfare state, Murray burrows deeper beneath the welfare debate to the conditions that make welfare necessary.

The class warfare centered model requires of the wealthy that they contribute economically to resolving social problems, but Murray instead calls on them to contribute morally to healing a culture gap which began with the disintegration of national values by a counterculture often spearheaded by the children of the wealthy, who after the experimentation was done, were more likely to continue living by the standards of their parents, than their cousins on the other side of the tracks who saw their values undermined without anything positive to replace them.

The architects of the counterculture and its present day proponents have weathered their own assault on the culture better than their victims in the lower classes have. And as the rebels have become the leaders, the counterculture has been institutionalized by social policies which disregard the devastating impact of their own ideas on the rest of the country.

“Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010” leads one to the conclusion that the poor are not only more economically vulnerable, they are more culturally vulnerable and less able to maintain communities and values in the face of an assault on those values from the high ground of the cultural elites. Where middlebrow culture once taught aspirational moral and economic values, the popular culture of the present panders to the worst impulses and encourages the very forms of dissolution that make for serious social problems.

Just as the decline of marriage hit the working class harder than the upper class, Murray’s statistics show that secularism is equally far more devastating in the working class with a 19 percent gap. Communities with below 50 percent marriage rates and above 50 percent secularism rates are, in the favored word in the progressive jargon, unsustainable. Even given the widespread availability of jobs, they will produce numerous social problems. When the jobs are declining, they become open sores.

Both sides of Murray’s divided America need one another. Together Fishtown and Belmont are a country, apart they resemble the walled suburbs and lawless barrios of Latin America, and they suggest that our greatest challenges are not economic, they are moral. Cutting budgets and implementing economic reforms cannot heal a nation which has lost its founding virtues.

Though packed with data, “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010” is less a call for social policies and more of a call for a moral awakening. Beyond trickledown economics, Murray would like to see trickledown values replace the disintegration of the national founding virtues that occurred when culture met counterculture. The segregation of the two Americas has created two cultures, both decaying in their own ways, the effete culture of Belmont and the decaying culture of Fishtown, one wrapped in its own insularity, the other drowning in popular culture with no moral center to cling to.

Michael Harrington’s “The Other America” helped kickstart Kennedy’s “War on Poverty” whose legacy only deepened the social problems being created in tandem with Great Society sloganeering. Charles Murray’s “Losing Ground” began to turn the tide against the welfare state. His latest book, “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010”, may equally help turn social policy toward a moral center.

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Tags: U.S., decline