Whether the students know it or not, the protests that recently turned violent at Middlebury College over an appearance by conservative scholar Charles Murray ironically — and deplorably — demonstrated the national social crack-up that Murray has been writing about.
Murray’s 2012 best-seller, “Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010,” presciently described the emerging socioeconomic divide that, among other developments, led to the unexpected rise of President Donald Trump.
Since the 1950s, Murray argued, Americans have been coming apart along educational and economic lines. Americans with more than a high school education or skill level have become increasingly isolated from the less well off — they are all living in tribal and cultural bubbles, and the trend is tearing our social fabric apart.
I called “Coming Apart” the most important book of 2012, and I was not alone. Many of Murray’s revelations have become common knowledge. For those with fewer skills, as he pointed out, wages have stagnated, jobs have automated or moved overseas, marriage rates have plummeted and opiate overdose rates have soared. In many ways, these were the “forgotten Americans” to whom Trump said, “I am your voice.”
But that wasn’t the book that aroused the Middlebury mob that disrupted Murray and left one professor injured. The protestors — and 58 faculty members who signed a petition — were upset that Murray had co-authored “The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life.”
I, too, didn’t care a lot for that explosive 1994 best-seller. Co-authored with psychologist Richard J. Herrnstein, it set the stage for “Coming Apart” with its argument that a high-intelligence “cognitive elite” was rising and separating from those with less intelligence.
But it also argued that IQ tests are a better measure of human intelligence than numerous other experts believe, that intelligence is largely the result of inherited traits and that there is not much government can do to improve the outlook of people who are born less gifted cognitively than others.
I objected to that book because I thought the authors were too quick to pin poverty, crime, welfare dependency, unwed pregnancies and a host of other social dysfunctions on low IQ — and too reluctant to account for countless other cultural, familial and environmental factors.
But, as much as I hated “The Bell Curve,” I thought Murray redeemed himself with his 2012 work, “Coming Apart.”
This time, as he wrote in the introduction, he avoided racial suspicions by focusing purely on white Americans, a group that has been struggling increasingly over the past half-century with the same growing income inequality, family breakdown, drug addiction and other social disorder that has too often been identified solely with the black underclass.
As opiate addiction rates have soared among displaced working-class whites in such previously unlikely places as Vermont and small-town Ohio, some of us cannot help but notice the increased interest in treating addiction as a disease, not a crime, as it usually was when the crack epidemic ravaged low-income black neighborhoods in the 1980s and ’90s.
What a difference perceptions can make on public action. That’s why I, as a liberal African-American, was thankful to see “Coming Apart” confirm an argument I had been making for years: Poverty, despite some media-driven perceptions, is not an issue for minorities only.
Unfortunately, the “cognitive elite,” as Murray calls us, his fellow members of the college-educated classes, have become increasingly distanced and alienated from those who have not benefitted from an economy that rewards brains over muscle.
As a result, the elite’s isolation grows and deepens as we pull back into our “bubbles” of self-interest and tribal loyalties.
That’s why a lot of us received a jolting wake-up call on election night with Trump’s upset victory. He’s not the best messenger for the woes of economically struggling Americans, but he found the right message to win their votes.
Now, as Republicans struggle to find a way to replace Obamacare with “something terrific,” as Trump promised, Grand Old Party leaders are surprised to find how divided they are over values and ideas within their own party. Bubbles everywhere.
That, too, offers a lesson to today’s students. If you want to succeed in the next America, get out of your bubbles. The world outside needs you.
Clarence Page is a member of the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board. Readers may send him email at [email protected]