Though I haven’t previously heard Murray speak, his name was familiar because of a highly publicised near-riot last month at Middlebury College in Vermont, when he and a Middlebury professor had to be evacuated from a hall where he was due to speak. About ten minutes internet research reveals all manner of accusations hurled at Murray. Principal among them is that he is a ‘white supremacist’ which, along with ‘fascist’ and ‘racist’ means these days – especially in seats of learning – that his politics are at odds with those of his accuser.
Nevertheless I did expect some inflammatory stuff to come out of this lecture. Let’s see.
The avuncular, softly spoken, first minute is so bereft of phlogiston as to be almost a disappointment. He quickly mentions his book, Coming Apart, and I accordingly expect him to wade into an overt sales pitch. Again I am wrong, though he does refer to it fairly often. He also mentions the (then) upcoming presidential election, though stressing that it will feature in the lecture only obliquely.
The lecture is about cultural as distinct from economic inequality and, when in the first couple of minutes he refers to a statistic relating to income, he confesses that he hasn’t recently checked it. My interest quickens, because already it appears he is working with broad brush-strokes. Let me explain myself on this.
If this lecture covers roughly the same subject matter as his book, then he is doing what I often find myself helping business executives with. In their case they will be probably presenting some report, and in these cases I find myself dragging them away from the detail because the classic mistake is to try to précis that report. What they should be doing is trailing it. Think about a trailer for a movie. How much of the plot does it give you? Essentially none! It cherry picks a few sexy camera-shots to persuade you to see the movie. Thus the executive presenting a report should be doing nothing other than persuading his audience to read the report, and that usually means broad brush-strokes, glossing over detail and cherry picking sexy assertions. Now back to this lecture …
Murray is broad-brush-stroking his findings concerning the cultural polarisation of American society. His statistics here tend to be ‘ballpark’, though the overview is clear. We do not doubt that his book has precise figures and shows its workings. It’s very effective trailing, though it is revealing how the pace of the speech sags only when he gets too deeply into statistics for a brief section about two-thirds of the way through.
The message overlaps that of Tucker Carlson’s in my previous posting. It’s not the same, and it is presented very differently, but the two do support each other. He is describing the way that America has developed a class system, with an insular elite that views the rest with undisguised disdain. Like Carlson he doesn’t blame that elite, describing them as essentially nice folk following an understandable instinct to be around ‘people who get your jokes’; but the consequences of the alienation is socially and politically destructive. It is also fundamentally un-american.
For me this resonates more than merely my viewing another culture from a distance. There seems to be a similar alienation in Britain. It is rooted differently, but…
Perhaps I shouldn’t get started.
P.S. (April 17) Charles Murray, in a tweet that links to this blog posting, tells us that this is the lecture he intended to give to Middlebury. Those rioting students managed to avoid learning something so valuable as to contaminate their university experience.