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My Problem With David Brooks (and the odd company he keeps)

My Problem With David Brooks (and the odd company he keeps)

Like many liberals, David Brooks is a conservative I can like. But every now and then he falls in with the wrong conservative crowd. And this week it was in his swooning endorsement of Charles Murray and his new book, “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.”

Murray's book is bound to stir up another class, and possibly racial, war over the merit and intent of his own scholarship. Murray, you’ll recall, is the author of at least two racially explosive works. The first is his 1994 book “The Bell Curve,” which argued that blacks are, statistically, less intelligent than whites. Of course Murray phrased it a little more tactfully, but it didn’t take much to read through all the hedging.

The second is his 2007 essay in Commentary titled "Jewish Genius," which showed that Jews have a statistically above-average IQ. That led him to a conclusion no less appalling for its feigned levity: "At this point, I take sanctuary in my remaining hypothesis, uniquely parsimonious and happily irrefutable. The Jews are God’s chosen people."

When anyone starts celebrating Jews' chosen-ness, you better watch out. It's praise we're happy to do without.

The putative reason for Murray’s “Coming Apart” is to show that race isn’t the most salient dividing line in American society today—it’s class. Moreover, it’s not only blacks or Latinos who are in the lower class – the bottom 30 percent of America’s economy – but mainly whites.

That’s certainly true, but what worries me is that Murray still seems to be fixated on race and, even more jarringly, genetic differences. Full disclosure: I haven’t read the book. But the reviews I have read make clear that genetic inheritance is an issue Murray can’t give up. Here’s the quote from his book I keep coming across:

There are genetic reasons, rooted in the mechanisms of human evolution, why little boys who grow up in neighborhoods without married fathers tend to reach adolescence not socialized to the norms of behavior that they will need to stay out of prison and hold jobs….[Liberals] will have to acknowledge that the traditional family plays a special, indispensable role in human flourishing and that social policy must be based on that truth.

You need a bit more context to understand how genetics plays a part in his argument. The book’s main thesis is that white America is increasingly divided between the wealthiest 20 percent and the poorest 30 percent of white folks. These class divisions are only becoming more entrenched, he argues, because the two groups self-select, perpetuating the good behavioral traits he thinks are ultimately responsible for the wealthiest group’s success: namely, two-parent homes and a formidable work ethic.

Murray recommends gives some policy base on this idea, ones befitting a good conservative: getting rid of welfare programs which he believes only reward laziness and are indifferent to marriage (never mind tax laws, which reward marriage; for a fuller rebuttal of Murray’s book, by someone who’s actually read the thing, read this). And never mind the implicit point Murray is making by highlighting that poverty is also a white problem: namely, that whites should care because it’s hurting their own kind. These may not be the views of Murray himself, but he seems to be pitching his book to fellow conservatives who might overlook class issues because they perceive them as really racial ones in disguise. By appealing to the sympathy of fellow white folks, Murray suggests, he might win them over to the real problems of class.

Now for a brief note with Brooks’ unfortunate column.

The good liberal in Brooks – which he has plenty left in him – probably led him to side step the racial argument in the book. He never mentions the book’s subtitle – where the “white focus is obvious – and only refers to the fact that book happens to focus on white people in passing. There’s nothing wrong with a book that focuses on class divisions within white society, by why Brooks would avoid that fact when Murray is most known for his explosive racial book, “The Bell Curve,” bothers me tremendously. Brooks can still defend the book, but at least mention who the author is, even if it’s simply to brush his critics aside.

The corollary issue I have with Brooks is that he doesn’t mention at all the genetic claims Murray makes. Given the explosiveness of this, especially when tied to race, Brooks probably thought is wise to avoid it. But it seems to central a part of Murray’s program, in many of his books, that to avoid it is to misinform Brooks’ readers.

Brooks, anyway, has reason to like Murray’s work: like him, Murray is fascinated by sociology and class, and Murray clearly took a cue from Brooks’ latest book, “The Social Animal.” As in that book, Murray created two fictitious towns to illustrate the statistics that support his work. In many ways, in fact, “Coming Apart” appears to be a circumspect endorsement of “The Social Animal.”

Still, for all his insight, I only wish Brooks would stop turning a blind eye to the limits of conservatives he admires. Nothing wrong with conservative views, but when you get into issues of race and genetics I’m pretty certain conservatives have it backwards. It’s time Brooks had said so.

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