Editor’s note: Susan Bodnar is a clinical psychologist who works with people from diverse backgrounds and teaches at Columbia University’s Teachers College and at The Stephen Mitchell Center for Relational Studies. She lives in Manhattan with her husband, two children and all of their pets.
By Susan Bodnar, Special to CNN
(CNN) - “He’s back,” said Cornelius Fudge upon Voldemort’s return. So too is Charles Murray, a political scientist at the conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute, who turns intelligent perceptions into scary proof that everything he believes is true.
Known to interpret statistical research through a conservative lens tinged with racial bias, Murray has taken on the educational system, the welfare system, as well as intelligence, class, race and genetics in his controversial and contested 1994 work, "The Bell Curve" (written with the late Richard J. Herrnstein). In his recent book "Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960 – 2010," Murray sees the major differences between the classes as a dark sign that America “is coming apart”.
To depict our national demise, Murray turns the real-life communities of Fishtown and Belmont, into towns of decrepit working class and exemplar upper class America. In working-class Fishtown, “the men don’t make a living”, “single woman raise minor children”, families exhibit “welfare dependency” and the religious core has become “a one–out-of-eight group of people who are increasingly seen as oddballs.” Upper class Belmont is “affluent,” 67% college educated, 83% married with “only 3% of children living with a lone divorced or separated parent” and participates in “robust” civic engagement.
Murray later notes, “expanding the data to include all Americans hardly makes any difference at all.” In other words, the data from Latino and African Americans doesn’t impact the statistical cleavage between Fishtown and Belmont. “. . . it is a lower class that is changing American life” he writes. White working class America is losing touch with the founding disciplines of this country. Upper class elites have “isolated themselves” into success perpetuating “bubbles,” leaving behind their lower class brethren.
Yet what if Murray is missing something? His statistical analysis describes the upper 20% and the lower 30%. What would happen if he included the rest of the population’s data? Murray’s description of the outer edges of American society may be an artifact of social change.
A more inclusive look at the United States might reveal some commonality between beer drinking slouches and latte-sipping, yoga-loving elites who live in accomplishment ghettos. Perhaps this country is undergoing a developmental transition, a kind of socio-cultural adolescence. Teenagers typically manage the onslaught of hormonal and cognitive growth by splitting reality into volatile oppositions, like adults versus kids, up moods versus down moods, or acceptable versus unacceptable ideals of good and bad. They seem chaotic but in between the oppositions kids forge a new adult identity. In our country today, what if the distance between the upper and lower classes is a middle stage from which a more mature and interconnected nation can grow?
Consider what this country has lived through from 1960 – 2010: the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert F. Kennedy; Watergate; birth control, in vitro fertilization, organ transplants, a man on the moon, cell phones, computers and the Internet; wars in Vietnam, the Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan; September 11; two recessions; the Exxon Valdez, Three-mile Island, and the Gulf oil spill; Columbine, Virginia Tech and the shooting in Tucson, Arizona. They have also enacted civil rights legislation, created opportunity for those with disabilities, accepted changing roles of women and started to comprehend different types of sexuality. After all these emotionally complex societal events, it makes sense that there are still aspects of our national life that don’t work perfectly. The country hasn’t finished cohering from the messy process of change.
Murray insists that the lapse of the founding fathers’ four core values – industriousness, honesty, religiosity and marriage – has undermined society. And as a result, Belmont flourishes due to an adherence to those values; a lesser adherence yields Fishtown.
In my exemplar American town, Everyville, representing the middle and the majority of the nation, values have not lapsed. Rather, the citizens haven’t finished building a new social base. Murray’s observations about the current social order, which he likens to the collapse “of the possibility of community” or “social capital,” can also describe people who are simply still trying to get comfortable with the changes of recent decades.
Where Murray sees hardworking Belmont dwellers and dependent slackers in Fishtown, the economic crisis in Everyville hurt the workers and executives alike. Industries that had sustained generations of family members have disappeared. Investors who profited from risky mortgage backed securities learned a painful lesson. While still hovering between a squeaky old economy and a new one that hasn’t quite launched, new American businesses have started to flourish: 200 windmill technology jobs created in Eaton Rapids, MI; 11% growth in biotechnology industries; and 25% growth in the field of internet publishing and broadcasting. Even the auto industry is coming back!
Fishtown people exhibit deceit and Belmont residents tell the truth, according to Murray. In Everyville citizens of every race and economic status have come together for large and small acts of integrity. Passengers fought back against the terrorists on United Airlines flight 93. Soldiers defended the United States in times of war. The staff of a local hospital came to the rescue of a neighboring building that caught on fire, providing blankets, water and triage services.
In contrast to the successful marriages of Belmont, Murray points out that Fishtown marriage rates have declined and unwed motherhood increased. Residents of Everyville recognize that love and support create healthy children, not the gender or marital status of the parents. The complexity of love and the naturalness of sexuality warrant tolerance. Worry about the excess of popular culture has not fomented an interest in returning to shotgun marriages, closets, or chastity belts.
Finally, Murray upholds Belmont’s religiosity and chides Fishtown for poor church attendance. In Everyville some practice orthodoxy and others are agnostic, most holding onto personal faith. There’s a plurality of religion and a tolerance of different belief systems. They have birthed children and celebrated successes together; and they have also buried parents, siblings, friends, and sometimes even their own children. Learning to accept the prayers of each other’s hearts, religions seek modern day incarnations, like the New Ways Ministry connecting gay people to Catholicism, or Congregation B’nai Jeshurun linking Judaism to social responsibility.
Wide scale social changes of the past 50 years challenge Everyville citizens; much like impending adulthood challenges the adolescent. For some kids and adults, apathy healthily expresses the angst of change. Others express that angst with an unwavering know-it-all egocentrism. A transit authority official sells real estate on the side to keep the kids in school. A philanthropist sponsors a financial aid program. A person without a job takes a longer time than expected to find a new one. A house may have been foreclosed or a fortune diminished but everyone rebuilds together. Even the most complicated of teenagers can grow up to become a fascinating adult.
Like a stern father trying to shape up an irreverent son, Murray recently proposed solutions in response to his critics: the upper class has to inculcate Fishtown with its values. In a New York Times editorial he offers practical tips to the elites for how to do just that: change unpaid internships into minimum wage jobs, drop the SAT from college admissions, replace ethnic affirmative action with socioeconomic affirmative action, and abolish the bachelor’s degree as a job prerequisite. He gives advice. He doesn’t listen.
If he did, he would hear that working class people also have a thing or two to teach the upper class, like an acceptance of vulnerability and authenticity, a talent for endurance and emotional hardship, and a unique intelligence about human motivations. After experiencing fragmenting social change, Americans might be culling pieces of everyone’s story to create a better society.
I like better what Murray writes at the end of his op-ed: “The changes that matter have to happen in the hearts of Americans.”
He sounds like a dad who finally looks up from his bar charts and line graphs and realizes how much he loves his son. Almost invisible to Murray’s eye, that kid and the people of Everyville have been quietly applying their talents to compassion’s victory over fear.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Susan Bodnar.