“Things fall apart, the center cannot hold,” Yeats wrote in his famous poem. In Charles Murray’s “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010”, it is America itself that has come apart and his work chronicles the undoing of a virtue-based national exceptionalism.
“Coming Apart” would not be as shocking if it were not for a political and academic establishment that is unable to speak about the problems of the working class except in terms of class warfare and racial discrimination. Murray boldly upends the formula that social problems arise from economic problems and that these can only be solved with more social welfare programs. Instead of holding the upper classes accountable for not paying enough into the system that subsidizes the welfare state, he instead holds them accountable for disrupting national values, while maintaining them communally.
While the class warfare model links social ills to an economic deprivation practiced by the rich on the poor, Murray looks instead at a values deprivation which has led to statistics such as a marriage rate of 83 percent for the white upper middle-class and only 48 percent for their working class contemporaries. This has created Two Americas divided not by wealth, as defined by John Edwards in the economic realm, but divided socially by the segregation of communities and the stratification of values.
The music video for Billy Joel’s song, “We didn’t start the fire” followed an idealized young couple from their working class beginnings to middle class prosperity and then through the decay of the sixties and the seventies. But while the couple in the video remains together through bra burnings, draft card burnings and drug experimentation, in real life that was where the fire started and the ashes of that fire can be seen in the statistics that Murray lays out for us.
Murray’s model of Fishtown and Belmont, two neighborhoods representing two classes, shows that an economic gap is an insufficient explanation for the social problems of working class communities. In 1960, a working class neighborhood was only 10 percent behind the upper middle class neighborhood in its marriage rate. Fifty years later after the conflagration that undid the nation’s collective value system that gap had more than tripled to 35 percent.
A marriage rate below 50 percent would have been considered a severe social problem in a nation that had not abandoned, what Murray calls, its “Founding Virtues”, but progressive socialists operating in the haze of an economics centered view of social problems would tend to say that the only social problem is insufficient subsidies for single parent families.
The fundamental question that Murray raises is whether we explain social problems in economic terms or economic problems in moral terms and “Coming Apart” is in its own way a moralistic book. Rather than another direct assault on the welfare state, Murray burrows deeper beneath the welfare debate to the conditions that make welfare necessary.
The class warfare centered model requires of the wealthy that they contribute economically to resolving social problems, but Murray instead calls on them to contribute morally to healing a culture gap which began with the disintegration of national values by a counterculture often spearheaded by the children of the wealthy, who after the experimentation was done, were more likely to continue living by the standards of their parents, than their cousins on the other side of the tracks who saw their values undermined without anything positive to replace them.
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