Think Again: Charles Murray and the Power of Mainstream Media Amnesia
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Liberals are always searching for a conservative whom they consider to be honest, intelligent, and worthy of respectful debate. They have, sad to say, been harder and harder to find in recent years as the conservative movement has drifted away from its 20th century embrace of the precepts of the Enlightenment and normative science into a land where assertion and ideology take precedence over testable truth.
One name that keeps popping up in the running, however, is that of the pundit David Frum, who despite more than a few pockmarks on his record involving his book-length love letter to George W. Bush and an even worse tome authored with Richard Perle, has nevertheless justified many of the kudos offered him of late with an absolutely devastating dissection of a new book by the right-wing propagandist Charles Murray. Frum’s multipart critique of Murray’s Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, published on The Daily Beast, can be found here, here, here, here, and here. (Frum’s critique is too complex and multifaceted to summarize but let us note that he earns the right at the end of part four to conclude that “The conclusions of Coming Apart are pure dogma, not only unsupported but even unrelated to anything that went before.”)
To be honest, it is a shame that Frum’s critique is as important and necessary as it is turning out to be. But it is hardly surprising. Charles Murray, after all, is a special kind of genius—not the kind who writes brilliant books, or even decent ones. Rather he’s the kind of genius who gets an enormous amount of media attention—especially “liberal media”—no matter how flawed his arguments may be.
Coming Apart has been out barely a week and has not really been reviewed in any major publications but has already been the subject of an admiring New York Times news story, a positively ebullient New York Times op-ed by David Brooks, another friendly (albeit critical) plug a few days later on the same page by Nicholas Kristof, a gentle promo on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” and an unusual exclusive Amazon plug from Daily Beast columnist and Harvard Professor Niall Ferguson. (All of these sources, I must point out, are members in good standing of the so-called liberal media.) As I write this, the book is already in Amazon’s top 20 list, again, without any actual reviews yet appearing.
Murray’s genius rests on multiple foundations. As the social scientist Christopher Jencks observed in The New York Review of Books back in 1985:
Murray’s popularity is easy to understand. He writes clearly and eloquently. He cites many statistics, and he makes his statistics seem easy to understand. Most important of all, his argument provides moral legitimacy for budget cuts that many politicians want to make in order to reduce the federal deficit.
He has also, in the past, shown a remarkable ability to convince powerful institutions, both in the media and the think-tank world, to support his arguments regardless of their reception among the experts who would be qualified to judge them.
And finally, he has been able to inflict a degree of apparent amnesia on those who write about him that borders on mass hypnosis. For if anyone took seriously the degree of inconsistency of logic, speciousness of argument, and open reliance on racist pseudoscience, among other intellectual tricks of which Murray has been found guilty in the past, then no serious writer or reader would bother wasting any time with him at all.
Murray’s initial entry into the public arena, Losing Ground, was a product of the investments in Murray, a then-unknown Iowa-based academic, by Richard Mellon Scaife, the Olin Foundation, the Manhattan Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, and especially Milwaukee’s Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, all of whom saw in Murray’s arguments the potential to challenge America’s system of welfare and entitlement payments.
According to Losing Ground, America’s welfare state did not improve the lot of the poor. Rather, it sapped their energy and destroyed their initiative. "We tried to provide more for the poor and produced more poor instead," Murray complained. His solution: to scrap the entire system and invite the poor to fend for themselves.
Unfortunately, Murray’s assertions were based on a series of internal contradictions, specious arguments, and outright phony claims unsupported by his data. As I argued in What Liberal Media?—where citations for all the facts noted below may be found—for instance, his assertion that the hope for welfare payments was the main source of illegitimacy among black teenagers posited no evidence for this claim, and failed to explain why the rate of illegitimacy rose for everyone—and not just welfare recipients—after 1972, while the constant-dollar value of those welfare benefits declined by 20 percent.
Moreover, Murray never once explained the development of the black middle class during this period. He also found it convenient to ignore the decline in black labor participation that predated the programs he sought to attack. Using more reliable data than that upon which Murray chose to depend, Christopher Jencks calculated that contrary to Murray’s central claims, the percentage of the population defined as poor in 1980 was only half the size it was in 1965, and one-third the size it was in 1950.
After Losing Ground, Murray soon shifted gears and decided instead to focus his research on the alleged genetic inferiority of black people. As a result, in 1990 the Manhattan Institute, which had previously housed Murray and promoted his work, disassociated itself from him as it was uncomfortable with what Murray called "the genetic inferiority stuff."
Fortunately for Murray, his $100,000 grant from the Bradley Foundation was happily picked up by the American Enterprise Institute (though refused by the Brookings Institute where he initially hoped to land). By the time he completed his second book, The Bell Curve (co-authored with Richard J. Hernstein, who died before its publication), he had received more than $750,000 in Bradley money with more than $500,000 coming after Losing Ground.
Interestingly, while The Bell Curve sets out to achieve the same aims as Losing Ground—the reduction and eventual elimination of all transfer payments to the poor and indigent—it did so by directly contradicting Losing Ground‘s central argument.
In Losing Ground, Murray placed the lion’s share of responsibility for the creation of the American underclass at the feet of government antipoverty programs, primarily welfare. "Focusing on blacks cripples progress," he declared in a 1986 op-ed piece (titled "Not a Matter of Race").
But in The Bell Curve, Murray attributed the existence of an underclass to the "true" difference between blacks and whites—the intellectual deficiency of blacks (among others), whose IQ scores averaged 15 points below those of whites. In The Bell Curve, Murray argues that entry to the welfare rolls almost qualifies as prima facie evidence of a low IQ, while in Losing Ground, he argued that welfare could be a defensible, even sensible choice over some jobs and often even over marriage.
While the book enjoyed a remarkable ride in the media, including among many, many other things, a cover story in The New York Times Magazine and an amazing issue of the once-liberal New Republic, then edited by Andrew Sullivan, it had completely fallen apart by the time it reached the expert community familiar with the kind of research upon which Murray had relied.
To take just one of many examples, writing in a special issue of The American Behavioral Scientist—exactly the kind of journal that would have offered a peer review-reading of The Bell Curve had the authors been willing to submit to one—Michael Nunley, a professor of anthropology at the University of Oklahoma, charged:
I believe this book is a fraud, that its authors must have known it was a fraud when they were writing it, and that Charles Murray must still know it’s a fraud as he goes around defending it. By "fraud," I mean a deliberate, self-conscious misrepresentation of the evidence. After careful reading, I cannot believe its authors were not acutely aware of what they were including and what they were leaving out, and of how they were distorting the material they did include.
The Bell Curve "would not be accepted by an academic journal. It’s that bad," added Richard Nisbett, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. They were joined by many scholars, perhaps most notable among them, Leon J. Kamin, a noted professor of psychology at Northeastern University and author of The Science and Politics of IQ. He warned, "To pretend, as Hernstein and Murray do, that the 1,000-odd items in their bibliography provide a ‘scientific’ basis for their reactionary politics may be a clever political tactic, but it is a disservice to and abuse of science."
But the footnotes in The Bell Curve raised even more troubling questions about the authors’ agenda than mere incompetence or even ideological fervor. At least 17 researchers cited in the book’s bibliography, it turned out, were contributors to the racist journal Mankind Quarterly. Thirteen “scholars” cited had received grants from the Pioneer Fund, established and run by Nazi sympathizers, eugenicists, and white supremacists.
The fact that despite all of the above, and despite even the thorough demolition of Murray’s new work by his fellow conservative (and former fan, it must be sadly noted) David Frum, it remains necessary to note that taking account of Murray at all is only in part a tribute to the man’s skills as a self-promoter and the conservative machine’s ability to create the appearance of controversy where none actually exists. (See under: "Warming, Global.")
It is also spectacular evidence, as if any were needed, of the mainstream media’s commitment to amnesia. Murray himself contradicted the primary argument of Losing Ground in The Bell Curve and that book stands today as possibly the single-most thoroughly debunked work of social science of all time. And yet he is back, once again, to blame poor and black people for their lot in life.
You’d almost think that conservatives were desperate to find someone—anyone—to reassure them that the unequal rewards they enjoy at the expense of the rest of us are not merely deserved but actually consistent with the natural order of the universe. The bigger mystery, however, is why, time after time, journalists feel the need to help them do so.
Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a CUNY distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College. He is also “The Liberal Media” columnist for The Nation. His newest book is The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama to be published in April. This column won the 2011 Mirror Award for Best Digital Commentary.
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