The Corner

Living in the Bubble: More Thoughts on Cultural Divides

To promote Charles Murray’s new book, AEI has put together an interesting and amusing quiz that asks, “How thick is your bubble?” Murray’s thesis, as I discussed Monday, is that there exists an unprecedented and troubling cultural separation between not just rich and poor but between upper-middle class and working class. Simply put, we are living separate lives, defined by increasingly distinct core values and practices.

I scored a 17 on the quiz, which apparently means I need to spend more time on the Upper East Side to better understand the cultural elite. (If my father weren’t a professor, I would have been nearly-perfect on the “keepin’ it real” scale.) Quizzes like these are thoroughly unscientific, but they do help illustrate a troubling reality — our policy-making elite is increasingly (and often completely) disconnected from the very people they claim to “fight for.”

I taught at Cornell Law School for two years (until my wife declared Ithaca “too cold” for our southern blood), and during that time I was surrounded by faculty and students who talked incessantly about poverty, race, and class. Yet as they talked, I realized that few — if any — had ever spent significant time outside their own “superZIPs” (to borrow Murray’s term). They hadn’t seen how policies worked on the ground, they didn’t understand the real-life incompetence of anti-poverty bureaucracies, nor did they comprehend the tremendous social forces tearing at the fabric of poor families. In their well-meaning, wonkish minds, poverty was like a computer virus that needed just the right update to the anti-virus policy software.

On Monday I discussed and endorsed Murray’s call for successful Americans to leave the bubble and to consciously engage across the entire spectrum of American society. There are a number of ways to do this, all requiring more than a little self-sacrifice, and there’s certainly no “one way” to engage (each of us has our own strengths and weaknesses). Some commenters took my post as some sort of hectoring scold to put your kids in public school. Not at all. In fact, though I went to public school from kindergarten through high school, my own kids are in private school. There are many, many other ways to reach out, and public schooling is only one option.

The great challenge of our lives is to truly live our values (as much as we fallen men can). It’s one thing to point out the massive and enduring failures of the liberal public-policy establishment — and that’s certainly a good and valuable contribution to public life — but it’s another thing entirely to do the much harder, more exhausting, and perilous work of rebuilding our culture from the ground up.

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