Extreme equality and the plight of the poor

Following the debate about Charles Murray’s Coming Apart reminds me of how little actual argument takes place between the left and those who disagree with it. Murray argues that America has been sorting itself according to intelligence since the meritocracy, purposely advocated by the WASPs of an older patrimonial establishment, made SAT scores more important than family connections as a criterion for admission to elite colleges. The irony from Murray’s point of view is that intelligence is largely heritable, and thus the new elites are establishing a patrimonial society buttressed by merit. They are the elite because they are smarter, Murray says.

He doesn’t argue that this is how it should be–only how it is. Although the left also sees a stratified society, it’s important to their egalitarian longings to believe that intelligence is evenly distributed through society, so that the stratification that we see must be caused by some form of social injustice. If poor people had schools and teachers of the same quality as the elites, their children would perform as well, they say.

People in the past justified privilege by claiming merit, and for radical egalitarians any assertion of superior merit is understood as a power stratagem. Most of the push back at Murray has been snide and accusatory, pointing out that his views contradict liberal axioms but without bothering to show that his views are inaccurate. It seems mighty important to many people of the left to believe that social problems are caused by bad people–injustice, oppression and exploitation cause inequality, and any attempt to go beyond these explanations is suspect. In other words, attitude and name calling substitute for finding any actual facts. Believing in witches seems the easiest way for some people to feel righteous.

Murray describes a fictional “Belmont” as typical of the communities where the top 20 percent live. The divorce rate is low, the work ethic is strong, religious observance is high, and out-of-wedlock births are all but unheard of. He contrasts such places with “Fishtown,” where the bottom 30 percent live. The character of Fishtown follows from the collapse of what Mr. Murray calls America’s four “founding virtues” — marriage, industriousness, community and faith.

These virtues didn’t fade away from the culture of the American poor merely because of impersonal economic or cultural forces. They were intentionally debunked and undermined due to ruling class hostility to morality, which was viewed as a form of religious oppression. Heather MacDonald tells the story with ample evidence of how the ruling class for decades sought to help the poor by re-educating them with ideas counter to Murray’s founding virtues.

Murray now argues that to really help the poor, cognitive elites should again champion those founding virtues that were the foundation of America’s progress toward prosperity and happiness for all.

The usual boring and repetitive “debates” have followed. I believe that the founding virtues Murray extols are real virtues, and that attempting to live by them does encourage happiness and prosperity–far more than quixotic quests to eliminate variances in ability or circumstance.

Learning how stories matter

Both social disintegration and moral relativism lead to the same sorry conclusion: the liberal novel is a novel in which not much is at stake. And if you don’t have much at stake, you can’t have a good story. Santiago Ramos

My interest in the argument on Public Discourse about the decline of literature due to liberalism had more to do with the plight of students than with that of writers–that is to say, my interest has more to do with the narrative environment of young people than with the writer’s prospects for literary success. It no doubt remains true that life is a challenge in which both success and failure are really possible, and therefore it remains the case that our stories matter. But how true is it today that young people believe that novels contain the real stuff of life–the insights that lead to wisdom?

I believe that Solzhenitsyn, to follow up Ramos’ example, does tell a story that matters in, for example, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. If one lives in a regime which tries to suppress life’s chosen meanings, then one way to live well is to refuse to grant moral authority to that regime .  One can live amid meanings and trajectories to which society is indifferent or blind. Society may even set your daily tasks before you, compelling you to assist in the construction of its towers, but it may not dictate any meaning whatsoever.

But I share many assumptions with Solzhenitsyn. For one thing, I see modernism as a moral and intellectual dead end, and the his theme resonates in me–the challenge of living in opposition to a regime which is blind to the most important realities. I came to consciousness in a literary culture, and much of the experience that formed me came in the form of novels.