WHY CHARLES MURRAY'S NEW BOOK IS HIS WEAKEST
.. despite that he is 1) brilliant and 2) not a bigot.
I come not to bury Charles Murray, but not to praise him, either.
He has a new book out, Facing Reality. It’s a doozy.
His books have a way of being doozies, going up against ideas sacred to the American intelligentsia on race as well as class.
He is also one of America’s most brilliant thinkers.
To many familiar with Murray’s work, I have already revealed myself as a “racist” in engaging his work at all, and/or not calling him one.
However, Murray’s work is too carefully reasoned and too deeply founded on scholarly sources to be dismissed as “racist,” except by people whose definition of “racist” is “That which people of the black American race don’t like for any reason.”
Rather: I salute Murray’s brilliance while being disturbed by many of his arguments. What many will call racism is what I call being able to walk and chew gum at the same time.
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Yet Facing Reality is seriously disturbing. Murray gives a great deal of evidence for two points. One is that black people aren’t, on the average, as intelligent as other people. The other is that black people in America are more violent than others.
Those who on some level celebrate the latter as black people getting back at the white man in the only way they can, should know that the facts don’t lend themselves to that vigilante justice analysis. More specifically, black people kill each other more than members of other groups kill each other.
I find the violence point relatively unsurprising. Murray stays agnostic as to what the cause of it is; he proposes no genetic analysis, for example. And really, let’s try this. In the 1960s, a new and powerful fashion in black thought, inherited from the general countercultural mood, rejects championing assimilation to proposing that opposition to whiteness is the soul of blackness. Meanwhile, white leftists encourage as many poor black women as possible to go on welfare, hoping to bankrupt the government and inaugurate a fairer America. Soon, being on welfare in poor black communities is a new normal – hardly the usual, but so common that people grow up seeing not working for a living as ordinary. Then at this same time, a new War on Drugs gave poor black men a way of making half of a living by selling drugs on the black market, amidst a violent culture of gangland turf-policing. This feels more natural to them than it would have to their fathers because 1) the new mood sanctions dismissing traditional values as those of a “chump,” 2) it no longer feels alien to eschew legal employment, and 3) the Drug War helps make it that most boys in such neighborhoods grow up without fathers anyway.
The question might be just how black men amidst these changes would not have embraced violence in a new way.
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The point about intelligence, however, is tough reading. Many will try the usual arguments – that race is a fiction (but while there are gray zones, humans do divide into delineable races genetically), that all races have a range from genuises on down (but the issue is that some races have more geniuses than others), that intelligence tests are “biased” somehow (but no one will specify just how, and this sort of bias is decades gone now).
The data, unless Murray is holding back reams of data with opposite results, cut brutally through all of this. It isn’t that black people are on the bottom on one big test in one big study, but that a certain order of achievement manifests itself in one study after another with relentless and depressing regularity. Asians on top, then come the whites, then Latinos, and then black people.
People will insist that none of this has anything to do with intelligence, but one thing cannot be denied – whatever it signifies, black people have a big problem performing on intelligence tests. The consistency of the results, if it is unconnected to intelligence, is clearly connected to something, or the results wouldn’t be so damnedly consistent.
I suspect, in my gut, that the issue is cultural, for reasons I discussed here. Abstract tests are a highly artificial thing, requiring a truly weird – or WEIRD, in the sense of Professor Henrich – way of thinking. Black American culture may be less consonant with that way of approaching things than white or Asian culture, and a fundamental sense of that way of approaching things as “not us,” which would have been encouraged amidst that oppositional mood I mentioned, could subtly discourage black kids from mastering the knack of jumping through the hoop.
I openly admit, though, that this is also the way I hope it is, and that’s not science. And Murray’s point is that this lower performance on tests suggests lesser cognitive ability, with all intraracial variation acknowledged.
Here is where most who are likely to know of Murray and the book will just sniff “racist” and walk on. But whether black people’s consistently lower placement on these tests is due to the intelligence factor g or to subtle cultural resistance to demonstrating it, the idea that it makes you a bigot to spell out this data is incoherent.
That is, many will suppose that either the data must be wrong – but without showing how – or that Murray shouldn’t have aired it because airing something that shows black people in a bad light “is racist.” As if we are the only group of humans in the world with only positive cultural traits? If the answer to all of this is an eye-roll and a cluck of the tongue, then there has been no answer.
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Yet it’s reasonable to ask of Murray: Why are you airing this information? To what end? And it’s here that I find Facing Reality weak.
Charles Murray knows how to make a point. Anyone in the line of fire to the extent that he has been makes sure to argue on a lawyerly level – he anticipates every possible counterargument, refuses to raise his voice, acknowledges historical factors. Facing Reality’s footnotes are almost a book in themselves, for example – and yet, only cover the six chapters laying out the data.
Murray explains why the data he has given us are significant in the final chapter, but it is a mere hiccup compared to the others, and is backed by no footnotes at all. We read the first six chapters and internally ask, “Okay. Let’s say these things are true. What now?” and Murray has exactly three observations. None are up to his standard.
One is that Affirmative Action too often puts semicompetent people in government jobs. However, I have a hard time seeing this as precisely a national tragedy, and would be more moved to consider otherwise if Murray provided any data. Instead, he tosses off the point as if he were answering a question after a talk.
Another point is that identity politics – as in racial set-asides and a tacit media conspiracy to keep disproportionate rates of black crime under wraps – is about to create a revolutionarily inclined white identity that will plunge America into a race war. I know that many find that easy to imagine after what happened at the Capitol last January and reading about groups like QAnon. It also makes for a good editorial. But again, here Murray is just guessing. We must eliminate Affirmative Action to ward off a transnational mob of yahoos of a sort we have been warned about endlessly for the past twenty years – anybody remember this book making the same argument and the attention it got for bit 15-plus years ago? -- whipped up into a bizarre stunt by an unprecedentedly unqualified brute of a President who is now safely out of office? This is an argument to which one must bring one’s proverbial A-game. Murray brings his C-game here at best, despite having brought his A-game for the past 100 pages.
Finally, Murray urges that we open up to thinking of black people as less intelligent – on the average, mind you, but still – but approach each black person as an individual. To wit, one is to be as ready for a black person to be brilliant as we are for an Asian or white one to be, despite a baseline assumption that black people are generally less intell…
See how this doesn’t work? It’s a homily – the way we would like it to be even though it never will. “Black people aren’t as smart. But this one might be a genius!” A brave new world indeed. Of course, the idea is that there are other ways of being valuable to a society than braininess, and our job is to remember – perhaps on the other side of that doily with Black People Can Be Geniuses! on it – that people can also be brilliant artists, athletes, and such, that empathy is valuable, that maybe we can even start celebrating not just grit but “spunk” … (?). Smart’s Not The Only Good Thing!
Aw. I have known good people who truly believe in this argument, but it doesn’t go through for me. This is why: in the end, Murray avoids stating too directly what the obvious implication of his argument is. He thinks that we need to accept an America in which black people are rarely encountered in jobs requiring serious smarts. We need to accept an America in which almost no black people are physicists or other practitioners in STEM, have top-level jobs in government, or are admitted to top-level graduate programs at all. Black people will invent little, there will be many fewer black doctors and lawyers, and many fewer black experts in, well, anything considered really intellectually challenging.
In other words, Murray thinks – although I doubt he conceives of it in just this way – that beyond entertainment and sports, we need to go back to the level of achievement that American society allowed black people in roughly 1960 — except now, we are to consider this level of participation the best black people can do anyway.
We don’t need to consider only how this sounds as the counsel of a white person. This article interviews a black valedictorian recounting being told by black kids that advanced placement classes are “for white kids.” Or, watch here how gruesome it is to see a black schoolteacher openly espousing the idea that black people aren’t analytical thinkers as her colleagues nod warmly.
Now, her idea is that black people are “communal” or “holistic” thinkers and that this is the equal of being an analytic thinker. But most of us know damned well that “analytic” thought – as in abstraction, detachment, separating the head from the heart – is, well, intelligence. This black person, in her soul-deep suspicion of “whiteness,” buys in to the idea that black people aren’t supposed to be smart in the way that those white people are.
Murray’s book is arguing that we need to agree with her.
Even as someone who tries very hard to put myself into other people’s heads, to imagine ways of seeing things beyond what is congenial to me, I would have to work very hard to come up with a way of accepting that world as the one we need to seek. I’m also afraid that Murray has not worked terribly hard to convince someone like me of the wisdom of his counsel.
Maybe he just feels that the facts are what they are, that their implications for society are what they are, that strong people face unpleasant truths, and that having done his job, he wishes us our best.
Okay. But while I will not join the bandwagon of people who can see nothing but “racism” in his presentation, neither will I join the other bandwagon cheering that “somebody needed to finally say it” and leaving it there.
If “it” is that black people should be satisfied with getting little further than being America’s middle managers, grunt workers, athletes and singers, then I’m not with it. I dearly hope we can do better.