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Opinion: Beer drinking slouches and latte sipping elites
Susan Bodnar says Charles Murray’s analysis of the Unites States may be missing something.
March 17th, 2012
07:00 AM ET

Opinion: Beer drinking slouches and latte sipping elites

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.

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Filed under: History • How we live • Race • What we think
soundoff (59 Responses)
  1. Homestead the suburbs. Grow a garden.

    I'd rather be beer poor than latte rich.

    March 20, 2012 at 12:17 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Amit

    How many would like to try "latte flavored beer"? I am conducting some statistical market research for my new business idea.

    March 20, 2012 at 10:11 am | Report abuse |
  3. A

    I live in Boulder. The latte-sipping, yoga-loving elites are also the beer drinking slouches.

    March 20, 2012 at 9:10 am | Report abuse |
    • Kissfan07

      mmmm. Left Hand Brewing.

      March 20, 2012 at 2:53 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Tom

    Charles Murray is an elitist dik. 'Nuff said.

    March 20, 2012 at 8:20 am | Report abuse |
    • Andrew

      Did you read any of his work, or are you basing that on her interpretations. Because she's taking his work and characterizing it to suit her argument.

      March 20, 2012 at 8:34 am | Report abuse |
  5. Andrew

    Many liberals and feminists cannot tolerate Murray's work. The Bell Curve was not politically correct enough for left, although done with fantastic data and methods, it did not produce the data the liberals want, so they demonize it. We all know that liberals are the enemy of science when it clashed with political correctness and conservatives when it clashed with religion. This women has been known to hold a hatred of Murray.

    March 20, 2012 at 8:10 am | Report abuse |
    • DA

      Actually, The Bell Curve was poor science – plain and simple. It was heavily contested by scientists for a reason.

      Since most Americans actually believe blacks are dumber than whites (and as the book tried to argue, unsuccessfully, due to genetics), challenging this belief was actually not politically correct. However, believing the status quo is politically correct.

      March 20, 2012 at 10:55 am | Report abuse |
  6. Vincent Wong

    I thought it is about beer and latte.

    March 20, 2012 at 4:03 am | Report abuse |
  7. BBB

    i believe these comments are just as well written as the article ! BRAAVVOOOO 😉

    March 19, 2012 at 9:07 pm | Report abuse |
  8. A

    What the hell did I just read.

    March 19, 2012 at 9:06 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Jimmy

    One big thing missing from the list of things we've had to endure 1960-2010, HIV and AIDS.

    March 19, 2012 at 7:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • Susan Bodnar

      yes, that is true.

      March 21, 2012 at 8:07 pm | Report abuse |
  10. giggity

    got that billy bob

    March 19, 2012 at 7:03 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Working Class American

    Neither one of these people has ever actually spoken to a working class American. We are neither Murray's stereotype nor Bodnar's. We work - hard - and we get less for our work than we ever have. We don't write obnoxious academic polemics, nor do we write whiny blogs. We're too busy trying, desperately, to make ends meet in this world that the Upper Middle Class has shoved down our throats in order to feather their own nests.

    Want to solve America's class problem? Bring back the draft. *FORCE* people of different classes to work together, sleep together, and possibly die together. We've got a culture where nobody wants anything to do with anyone the slightest bit different from them, unless it's to give them an excuse to prattle about their diversity and tolerance, but what we need is an America where the different classes are thrown into one big pool and forced to sink or swim together.

    March 19, 2012 at 6:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • Paul Cantor

      Well said. While I don't agree with the Golden Mean Fallacy (Theory), I do believe that more acceptable truths will be found toward the middle than in any extreme.

      March 20, 2012 at 1:02 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Philo99

    Susan Bodnar counters Murray's research and facts with opinions, emotions and extreme prejudice. This is a common practice and great failure of the lower failing class.

    March 19, 2012 at 5:14 pm | Report abuse |
  13. J.L.

    Another ignoramus if she thinks only two recessions took place from 1960-2010. She's optimized the article for "arm-chair" wannabe news junkie, and GenX 'ers who think everything that's "real news" began with Clinton.

    March 19, 2012 at 3:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • bczu

      We just want to forget everything pre-Clinton. Like Regans dream, deregulation of the banks leading to the housing bubble and the current mess we are in.

      March 19, 2012 at 4:17 pm | Report abuse |
      • bczu

        Cutting taxes during his first term and then raising them 11 more times. Never recouping what he lost after the tax cut.

        March 19, 2012 at 4:18 pm | Report abuse |
      • bczu

        Saying Reagan was the reason for the economic boost of Wall Street is like giving Jon Corzine credit for Goldman Sachs success after they went public.

        March 19, 2012 at 4:19 pm | Report abuse |
  14. JennieLaurie

    I'm finishing up Murray's book now. I think juxtaposing Murray's name with Voldemort's does indeed indicate a pre-existing bias, which makes this person's opinion limited in value. None of the reviews I've read have actually presented any evidence to counter Murray's theses. They all (including the one reprinted in my local newspaper) presented personal scorn as proof, or what I like to think of as the Richard Dawkins school of "I'm right and you're stupid" school of oratory. To me, Murray's main point is that the breakdown of marriage (and the upbringing of children within it) is one of the primary causes of many of the negative changes that have occurred in the last few decades. Come to think of it, you're right! That's heresy! Burn the witch!

    March 19, 2012 at 12:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • JustALady

      I would be inclined to agree with you, for the most part ,JennieLaurie. But I'd also like to point out to other commentors that when authors write books of fiction, novels, biograp[hies or even medical journals, they do so with an audience in mind. Here it looks like Murray's audience is the upper class and as he builds them up with a story of how right they seem have been in history, in the end, it is with this flattery that he is able to push his "advise" which could ultimately provide more jobs to the lower class. SO who's side is he really on? I think we all need to be cogniscent that everyone, no matter how smart, kind hearted, or even evil they may seem is equipt with a motive of some sort or another. So while we all converse over what Murray is plainly stating, we should look for all the other hidden/subconscious messages too.

      March 19, 2012 at 2:01 pm | Report abuse |
      • JennieLaurie

        I was also ambivalent about whose side he was on – I'm not sure it was the happy intellectuals who select themselves into elite overlord status, of which Murray is actually one, though on the conservative side. Or the high-school-diploma-or-less beer-drinking marriage-flouting working poor. However, it was pretty easy to tell whose side Bodnar was on.

        March 19, 2012 at 3:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jim T.

      Alcohol kills millions of people every year – shame on you CNN for praising this deadly narcotic.

      March 19, 2012 at 2:17 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Michigander5

    I really thought this was going to be about Coffee connoisseurs and Beer connoisseurs when I saw it under the " Living and Eatocracy"....I don't know if i should feel ashamed or mislead.

    March 19, 2012 at 12:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dawn

      Me too, Mark! I'm so bummed!

      March 19, 2012 at 1:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • sksk

      agreed....I feel mislead.

      March 19, 2012 at 2:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • Lila

      Me too. This isn't a bad article, just not what I was expecting.

      March 19, 2012 at 2:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • atroy

      Actually the headline mentions nothing about coffee. You do know that Latte is Milk right? Unless of course you happen to be one of those mindless American hipsters who just use certain words for things because it's trendy even though you aren't intelligent enough to know the meaning.

      March 19, 2012 at 8:01 pm | Report abuse |
      • rick

        got to call people names, do you?

        March 20, 2012 at 5:08 am | Report abuse |
      • latte

        You do know that if you go into a cafe and order a latte you're not going to get milk ....right?

        March 20, 2012 at 9:03 am | Report abuse |
  16. Kovrin's Monk

    Murray's book was based on data; Bodnar's critique is just based on her own fantasies and wishes.

    March 17, 2012 at 3:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • ErniePF

      The point is that authors (or anyone, for that matter) can cherry pick any statistic that fits the scope of the article or book.

      Statistics are moving targets. How about Murray get different and bigger samplings for his study?

      March 19, 2012 at 12:03 pm | Report abuse |
      • mr_science

        can they really, or is that just another way to disbelieve the facts presented?

        March 19, 2012 at 10:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • DA

      This is the kind of thinking that makes people believe anything they read on the internet. "They verified it with data" or "but they cited statistics" or "they provided a reference." Poor information literacy is killing this country – and is rampant. All you have to do is look at the popularity of people like Rush Limbaugh to understand how stupid our country has become.

      March 20, 2012 at 10:58 am | Report abuse |
  17. SamLv

    Bottom line, the rich don't care because they don't have to, and regardless, if we keep paying people to be slouches, we'll get more slouches.

    Only a strong policy of middle class first has a chance to correct both.

    After all, the middle class pays for, and builds the country every day. Neither of the other two do that.

    March 17, 2012 at 3:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • red4re

      Rich people are much more important and carry the largest burden when it comes to constructing and sustaining society.

      March 20, 2012 at 8:05 am | Report abuse |
  18. SamLv

    When we forced employers to promote people based upon EEO, we abandoned success and competence for promotions.

    That really started happening in the mid 90's, got hot and hotter around 2000.

    And since that time, we've been on a steady, slow downward slide.

    Funny enough, the last major human accomplishment, putting a man on the moon, was done by a bunch of smoking white guys with wives at home.

    I rest my case.

    March 17, 2012 at 3:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ojsimpsonsghost

      Those same "smoking white guys" built the hydrogen bomb. Great accomplishment.

      March 19, 2012 at 12:30 pm | Report abuse |
  19. Sean

    The writers obliviousness to the growing microbrew culture shows in the slavish outlook on beer drinkers. At least a reference of Coors as opposed to say Doghead, Left Hand etc... would have given some sense of stret cred as she types away her egalitarian vision from floor whatever of her Manhattan loft.

    March 17, 2012 at 3:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • A

      Love Left Hand! Live right down the street from it... I was miffed by the "beer drinking slouches" description too. I live in microbrew central, there is as much beer snobbery around here as one would expect wine snobbery elsewhere. Riding my bike down to the nearest microbrew to sample a new seasonal hardly fits in with her description.

      March 20, 2012 at 9:13 am | Report abuse |
  20. Mike

    ok ok ok, we can talk philosophy about american class divides all we want. I think that the author and the guy she was criticising both made points that are totally true. The fact is that, with 308million people in the country, there are many examples to fit each of their arguments. The thing that neither of them even mentioned is how to turn any of their ideas into reality. It doesn't matter how hard poor people work, they still only have a one in a million chance of making it big. And rich people will never know what it is like to truly be poor, they just simply won't have those experiences to learn and grow from.

    March 17, 2012 at 3:17 pm | Report abuse |
  21. ufadoof

    I drink beer and lattes. Does that make me an elitist slouch?

    March 17, 2012 at 3:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • Fred

      I fit the "all of the above" category, too. Maybe we are the vanguard of the classless brave new world.

      At least it explains why I need to go to the bathroom so often in the middle of the night. I've got to start cutting back on the liquids...

      March 17, 2012 at 3:10 pm | Report abuse |
      • Sean

        No thats because you have Adult Overactive Bladder...and need the newest medication fro it immediately!

        March 17, 2012 at 3:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ken

      Well, I join you in my enjoyment of both. The class size of elitist slouches just got a little bigger. Either that or I'm just self medicating...

      March 19, 2012 at 11:56 am | Report abuse |
  22. Stan

    What Murray proposes sounds reasonable, Bodnar seems to want to ignore the growing class divide. As the U.S. culture becomes more uncouth, nasty, and violent, it is the middle and working-class people who suffer. High standards of personal behavior, that is having class is not just for the wealthy. It is for everyone.

    March 17, 2012 at 3:01 pm | Report abuse |
  23. joedog

    "...industriousness, honesty, religiosity and marriage" are absent everywhere; but in particular in the elites: Goldman Sachs, High Brow Journalists who pimp for their own causes, Bill Maher and Rush Limbaugh as one character based on snide comments and rudeness (of course only one is routinely mocked by the MSM), NY Times Editorial page editors, who are so out of touch with the greater majority of our Republic's citizens that they are rapidly becoming irrelevant. And for Ms. Bodnar, one can easily recognize her bias and the shading and slanting of the facts as she interprets them. Relational studies? Ugh!

    March 17, 2012 at 3:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • mr_science

      It is hard to judge any group by the actions of the loudmouths you mention. Their business is to say provocative things in order to get attention. It is not clear that any of them conservative, liberal, libertarian or whatever really represent any particular group of people, just as Jerry Springer doesn't represent Ohioans by how he conducts his talk show.

      March 19, 2012 at 10:25 pm | Report abuse |
  24. Paul

    "“He’s back,” said Cornelius Fudge upon Voldemort’s return. So too is Charles Murray,..." I think starting out like this indicates that bias is an implicit part of the article. How about an honest analysis of what is discussed, not opening with obvious bias then ripping him because of what is not said.

    March 17, 2012 at 2:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • DA

      Charles Murray is hated by scientists for good reason – poor science in the service of bigotry. An introduction like hers, one little line by the way, in an OPINION piece, is completely appropriate. This is not a scientific journal, so get over yourself.

      March 20, 2012 at 11:04 am | Report abuse |
    • DA

      And Murray is famous for what he leaves out – because what he leaves out disproves his beliefs. So again, very appropriate on her part. Sadly, this man will make millions of dollars on this book, which will, of course, be touted by Romney, Santorum, Gingrinch, Limbaugh, etc.

      March 20, 2012 at 11:06 am | Report abuse |
  25. cb1

    Another CNN attempt at a counterculture article – run just one article on the anti-cancer properties of cannabinoids in marijuana and I will stop complaining.

    March 17, 2012 at 2:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • Lisa L.

      I smoke it for pain during cancer treatments and I wish Obama would stop harassing us when we have a legal right to do so in California.

      March 17, 2012 at 2:45 pm | Report abuse |
      • Homestead the suburbs. Grow a garden.

        Darn that right-wing, old-guard, inflexible conservative – Obama! Oh wait...

        March 20, 2012 at 12:24 pm | Report abuse |
  26. Tr1Xen

    But the best beer costs much, much more than the best latte!

    March 17, 2012 at 2:41 pm | Report abuse |
  27. Mark

    I don't understand the premise of an article like this. What if the author just wanted to compare/contrast the 'haves' and 'have nots' of white society? Murray identified differences between the upper 20% and the lower 30%. He is acknowledging that there's a middle 50% indirectly but does not examine them. Murray just has a different set of assumptions and looks at the data differently than Bodnar. I suggest that Bodnar abandon the Voldemort references and examine how her biases may color her perception. If she has a problem with the book or the author, she should make every effort to set that aside, made valid counterarguments, and not build an Everyville analysis that piggybacks off of Murray's book. It's a short cut in critical thinking that makes Bodnar resort to namecalling from Potter books.

    March 17, 2012 at 2:35 pm | Report abuse |