The Corner

Charles Murray’s Sobering Call to Conservatives

In Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, Charles Murray penned a true must-read essay previewing his new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. For those who follow Murray’s work closely (and you should), much of the essay’s raw information wasn’t surprising. Our class divisions are increasingly framed by differences in marriage and family status, with rich and poor inhabiting entirely separate cultures. Rich and poor live apart, watch different television shows, attend different movies, and eat different kinds of foods. Classic class-mixing institutions (like the military or public schools) divide even further as the rich shun the military and either shun public schools or live in wealthy enclaves where there’s little difference between public and private education.

While Murray recognizes the role of bad public policy in creating and sustaining these divisions, he rightly notes that better public policy won’t cure our culture. The cure — to the extent one exists — relies on the very institutions of marriage and family that are most beleaguered. The answer relies on individual choices, not just to model the right values but also to reach out, to leave the Disneyland of the cultural elite (the “superZIPs” of wealthy, influential suburbs) and engage. Here’s Murray in his own words:

The “something” that I have in mind has to be defined in terms of individual American families acting in their own interests and the interests of their children. Doing that in Fishtown requires support from outside. There remains a core of civic virtue and involvement in working-class America that could make headway against its problems if the people who are trying to do the right things get the reinforcement they need—not in the form of government assistance, but in validation of the values and standards they continue to uphold. The best thing that the new upper class can do to provide that reinforcement is to drop its condescending “nonjudgmentalism.” Married, educated people who work hard and conscientiously raise their kids shouldn’t hesitate to voice their disapproval of those who defy these norms. When it comes to marriage and the work ethic, the new upper class must start preaching what it practices.

Changing life in the SuperZIPs requires that members of the new upper class rethink their priorities. Here are some propositions that might guide them: Life sequestered from anybody not like yourself tends to be self-limiting. Places to live in which the people around you have no problems that need cooperative solutions tend to be sterile. America outside the enclaves of the new upper class is still a wonderful place, filled with smart, interesting, entertaining people. If you’re not part of that America, you’ve stripped yourself of much of what makes being American special.

Such priorities can be expressed in any number of familiar decisions: the neighborhood where you buy your next home, the next school that you choose for your children, what you tell them about the value and virtues of physical labor and military service, whether you become an active member of a religious congregation (and what kind you choose) and whether you become involved in the life of your community at a more meaningful level than charity events.

Isn’t this the true conservative solution? We can’t wave a magic wand in Washington, make the welfare state disappear, and replace it with smarter policies that incentivize just the right kinds of behavior. The welfare state is too entrenched, and we’re too limited in our own wisdom to even be sure that the policies we design will have the impact we want. Peers and parents influence people more than presidents and policies. If parents are absent and peers are aimless, what can a president do?

We can and should argue about the Florida primary and debate the Ryan budget and debt ceilings, but the importance of our voice in the process pales in comparison to the importance of the example and practice of our lives. Volunteer for military service, foster a child, mentor a struggling family, adopt an orphan — all of these actions (and that’s hardly an exclusive list) leave a legacy that outlasts our vote, our blogs, or our ideology.

David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Most Popular

Culture

Jussie Smollett Jokes Declared Off-Limits

The Jussie Smollett story has been declared not fit for jokes. "It's a straight-up tragedy," declares the co-creator of a Comedy Central show, South Side, set in Chicago. Bashir Salahuddin, a former Jimmy Fallon writer, says “The whole situation is unfortunate. Particularly for the city, there’s bigger ... Read More
U.S.

What The 1619 Project Leaves Out

“The goal of The 1619 Project, a major initiative from The New York Times that this issue of the magazine inaugurates, is to reframe American history by considering what it would mean to regard 1619 as our nation’s birth year,” The New York Times Magazine editors declare. “Doing so requires us to place ... Read More
PC Culture

Courage Is the Cure for Political Correctness

This might come as some surprise to observers of our campus culture wars, but there was a time, not long ago, when the situation in American higher education was much worse. There a wave of vicious campus activism aimed at silencing heterodox speakers, and it was typically empowered by a comprehensive regime of ... Read More
Film & TV

The Movies Take On Limbaugh, Levin, et al.

Oh, good, here’s the lefty British comic Steve Coogan to give us his take on American right-wing talk radio. Let’s all settle in for some deep insights. The comedy-drama is dismally titled Hot Air. No, seriously. That’s what they came up with. Coogan’s Lionel Macomb is introduced to us via his ... Read More
White House

Trump’s Ignorant Comments on Israel

Making the click-through worthwhile: figuring out what President Trump meant when he said Jews who vote for Democrats show “either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty”; examining the data on how American Jews actually feel about Israel; and why Democrats will always find a way or a reason to avert ... Read More