So wonders David Frum in his great review of Charles Murray’s new book Coming Apart.
The book, as far as Frum is concerned, has several problems. It starts in the wrong place, with the bugaboo 1960s rather than earlier, which Frum argues would yield a rather different and more accurate perspective. It says nothing about the rise of manufacturing in Asia, which is a very big thing if you want to understand what happened to working classes in America.
It also blames the 1960s for our current social and cultural ills, which in turn are responsible for the white working class’ decline. But Frum replies, “once you spell out the implied case here, it collapses of its own obvious ludicrousness.”
Let me try my hand:
You are a white man aged 30 without a college degree. Your grandfather returned from World War II, got a cheap mortgage courtesy of the GI bill, married his sweetheart and went to work in a factory job that paid him something like $50,000 in today’s money plus health benefits and pension. Your father started at that same factory in 1972. He was laid off in 1981, and has never had anything like as good a job ever since. He’s working now at a big-box store, making $40,000 a year, and waiting for his Medicare to kick in.
Now look at you. Yes, unemployment is high right now. But if you keep pounding the pavements, you’ll eventually find a job that pays $28,000 a year. That’s not poverty! Yet you seem to waste a lot of time playing video games, watching porn, and sleeping in. You aren’t married, and you don’t go to church. I blame Frances Fox Piven.
How you can tell a story about the moral decay of the working class with the “work” part left out is hard to fathom.
As he explains, the gaps aren’t just details: they go right to the heart of Murray’s argument.
To understand what Murray does in Coming Apart, imagine this analogy:
A social scientist visits a Gulf Coast town. He notices that the houses near the water have all been smashed and shattered. The former occupants now live in tents and FEMA trailers. The social scientist writes a report:
The evidence strongly shows that living in houses is better for children and families than living in tents and trailers. The people on the waterfront are irresponsibly subjecting their children to unacceptable conditions.
When he publishes his report, somebody points out: “You know, there was a hurricane here last week.” The social scientist shrugs off the criticism with the reply, “I’m writing about housing, not weather.”
This is the kind of book review I love to read, and never want to be the subject of!