Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Holding together at the seams

So I've now read all of the review copy of Charles Murray's Coming Apart that arrived in the mail. A few thoughts:

One, I still agree with what I said in this old post about an essay that Murray wrote a couple of years ago foreshadowing the major themes of this book. It would be good to get more novels, television shows, and movies about a wider swath of America. This includes, but is not limited to, more sympathetic portrayals of Red America. So I am generally in agreement that there should be more television shows not set in New York and also more that are sympathetic generally toward small-town life (I can't fault Glee too much here, first because I have never seen an episode of it, and secondly because I kind of felt much the same way in high school.  I am not troubled that there is one particular TV show in the world representing such experience, but I am more concerned that there is a dearth of shows generally showing small-town life favorably.)

All that said, I can't move from there to the conclusion that more Red State friendly art will lead its viewers to more Red State politics. Ayn Rand was not a subtle writer. Yet I have seen her influence work on people in dozens of different ways. More often that not, Rand leads to libertarianism, but often to different flavors of it, and every once in a while, one comes across ex-Objectivist-ish progressives or social conservatives. It's rarely one step from politically inflected art to political ideology. It's more like twenty, and it's often not the same twenty steps for each person.

I'm a libertarian, but I work professionally on an issue where there generally isn't much daylight between us and conservatives.  My conservative young lawyer friends do not seem to have substantially different tastes and preferences than my progressive young lawyer friends. Some from each camp fit the Whole Foods shopping, latte-drinking stereotypes to a T; others not at all; and most have a combination of tastes that don't fit neatly into either camp. What's relevant is that, somewhere along the way, they became convinced that conservatives have the better side of the argument on policy questions. So if Murray wants more people from this class to become Republicans (or conservatives or libertarians), he is best off pitching straight policy arguments to them and encouraging others to do likewise. Wagging one's finger at these people about their sushi-eating habits might lead to some fun form of navel-gazing, but in my experience, it is unlikely to lead anyone politically in the direction that he wants them to go in.

Second, there is a long section in which Murray encourages the elites to "preach what they practice." That is, Murray notices that people in his elite groups are more likely to stay married longer, less likely to bear children out of wedlock, and so on. Yet these same people are, according to him, overly shy about condemning illegitimacy and divorce as kind of bad. I'm with him, sort of. I do want elites (and everyone else) to preach why these behaviors are good. But I do want Murray to recognize that the gospel that he would like elites to preach looks very different from most contemporary varieties of social conservatism. It is common for members of Murray's Belmont class to enjoy not-particularly-risky varieties of premarital sex (e.g. within well-established relationships and with use of contraception.) It is also generally common within this class to treat gay relationships as on an equal footing with heterosexual ones. Yet both of these practices draw jeremiads from many contemporary socially conservative politicians. Because Murray doesn't acknowledge that his social conservatism is much more modest than what's out there on the market, I'm afraid that he'll too easily lose liberal and progressive readers who confuse Murray's conservatism with, say, Rick Santorum's or Michelle Bachmann's.

1 comment:

  1. "the gospel that he would like elites to preach looks very different from most contemporary varieties of social conservatism."

    Precisely. The "Belmont" crowd has realized that for marriage to work, straights need some experimentation out of their system, and gays need to enter marriages with same-sex spouses.