I do not know if the title of this review is going to prove to be too melodramatic or not. I doubt it. I am doing my best to only take breaks from my financial crisis book review series for really special exceptions, but the problem is that my reading list has been overwhelmed with really special exceptions. Charles Murray, author of the absolute must-reads Losing Ground and The Bell Curve has done it again, only this time, he has truly out-done himself. The underlying theses in the aforementioned books were highly controversial, and hardly accepted for the profound thinking that they represented within the leftist academic community. Coming Apart, though has not (and will not) see such resistance. The reason: The empirical data and raw conclusions one derives from such data leave very room for dispute.
I do not want to set up this book as a mere collection of data points from a Harvard sociologist, though it is all that. What the book ultimately is, though, is a courageous attempt to examine why many things are happening within the class system of America (there is not much need to prove what is happening, but he ably does that as well), and then to suggest some modest suggestions for how the American project can be saved from this disturbing trend. Readers of the book will be treated to a first half of the book that paints a painfully real assesment of what is going on in the upper class of American society. The social reality of colleges (elite colleges at that) being breeding grounds for two intelligent people to meet each other, marry each other, and one day have kids together, is rather obvious. The general sense in which the life of the upper elite has very little contact with middle class America (contra just fifty years ago, where such separations were very different) has created a system that is very concerning. Murray is careful not to bemoan the income inequality that has widened over the last 20 and 50 years; rather, he merely notes it for the empirical fact that it is, and instead harnesses in on the far, far more concerning developments in middle America vs. the upper class chambers of American society. The stunning conclusions Murray brings his readers is that the economic plight in middle America is indisputably inter-connected with the complete disintegration of the family, the community, the pillars of faith, and attributes of character within middle America. The data Murray provides on the levels of single parenting, illegitimate births, 25-49 year old males who are able to work but not doing so, divorce rates, church attendance, and a plethora of other such categories leaves you speechless and frozen. Oh, did I forget to mention: Murray decides to do this only with data from the white population of America!!! He knew that critics would accuse his data of racial bias if it included non-white America (or at least racial affectation), so he uses an exclusive set of data within white America. And sadly, even with the rather tragic realities of family life in many minority communities excluded, Murray shows beyond any shadow of any doubt that in upper class America, the percentage of 30-49 year olds who are married has declined from 95% to 85% or so, while in middle America it has declined from 85% to below 50%. I will spare review-readers the divorce rates, never-married rates, and children living with a single parent rate, and so forth and so on. What Murray does is evaluate middle America (Fishtown) and upper class America (Belmont) using the four attributes and institutions he believes were most foundational in the early successes of the American project: Industriousness, Honesty, Marriage, and Religion.
My intention is not to undermine the book itself by giving away all its secret sauce in the review. I recommend the book with the highest degree of conviction, and hope it launches a national conversation. I am optimistic that the American project can be saved, and I am in agreement with Murray that much of the responsibility for this comes down to those of us in the upper class. We need to do a better job “preaching what we practice”. The proper attitudes and practices in matters of industriousness and marriage are the need of the hour, but the postmodern tendency to act as if “what works for us may not need to work for you” is disingenuous, dishonest, self-serving, and disastrous. Europe has been unaopologetic in their desire for greater secularization, less attention to family and children, and less industriousness in the workforce. The future of the American project comes down to the upper class of America convincing her middle class that the keys to a happy and flourishing society are known and obtainable. As Murray has said:
“America’s new upper class must once again fall in love with what makes America different. The drift away from these qualities can be slowed by piecemeal victories on specific items of legislation or victories on specific Supreme Court cases, but only slowed. It is going to be stopped only when we are all talking again about why American is exceptional and why it is so important that America remain exceptional. That requires seeing the American project again for what it has been: a different way for people to live together, unique among the nations of the earth, and immeasurably precious.”
At the end of the day, this book is as apolitical as any book I have read all year. The agenda is almost anti-political. This is a book about culture. This is a book about human dignity. Those on the left and right who claim to care about the plight of human struggle here in our own national borders can not ignore the implications of this book. If nothing else, perhaps a reading of it will reinvigorate your own personal commitment to your marriage and your work. On a grander scale still, perhaps this book will be a catalyst towards reminding middle America: You, too, can come into the land of milk and honey. But you can not get there apart from a human spirit that cherishes hard work and values the family unit for what it is – the foundational block on which all thriving nations are built.”