Think Again: Charles
Murray and the Power of Mainstream Media Amnesia
by Eric Alterman | Center for American Progress
Liberals are always searching for a conservative whom they
consider to be honest, intelligent, and worthy of respectful debate. They have,
sad to say, been harder and harder to find in recent years as the conservative
movement has drifted away from its 20th century embrace of the precepts of the
Enlightenment and normative science into a land where assertion and ideology
take precedence over testable truth.
One name that keeps popping up in the running, however, is
that of the pundit David Frum, who despite more than a few pockmarks on his
record involving his book-length
love letter to George W. Bush and an
even worse tome authored with Richard Perle, has nevertheless justified
many of the kudos offered him of late with an absolutely devastating dissection
of a new book by the right-wing propagandist Charles Murray. Frum’s multipart
critique of Murray’s Coming Apart: The
State of White America, 1960-2010, published on The Daily Beast, can be
found here, here, here, here,
(Frum’s critique is too complex and multifaceted to summarize but let us note
that he earns the right at the end of part four to conclude that “The
conclusions of Coming Apart are pure
dogma, not only unsupported but even unrelated to anything that went before.”)
To be honest, it is a shame that Frum’s critique is as
important and necessary as it is turning out to be. But it is hardly
surprising. Charles Murray, after all, is a special kind of genius — not the
kind who writes brilliant books, or even decent ones. Rather he’s the kind of
genius who gets an enormous amount of media attention — especially “liberal
media” — no matter how flawed his arguments may be.
Coming Apart has
been out barely a week and has not really been reviewed in any major
publications but has already been the subject of an admiring New York Times news story, a
positively ebullient New York Times op-ed by David Brooks,
another friendly (albeit critical) plug a few days later on the same page by Nicholas
Kristof, a gentle promo on NPR’s “All
Things Considered,” and an unusual exclusive Amazon plug from Daily Beast
columnist and Harvard Professor Niall
Ferguson. (All of these sources, I must point out, are members in good
standing of the so-called liberal media.) As I write this, the book is already
in Amazon's top 20 list, again, without any actual reviews yet appearing.
Murray’s genius rests on multiple foundations. As the social
scientist Christopher Jencks observed in The
New York Review of Books back in 1985:
popularity is easy to understand. He writes clearly and eloquently. He cites many statistics, and he makes his
statistics seem easy to understand.
Most important of all, his argument provides
moral legitimacy for budget cuts that many politicians want to make in order to reduce the federal deficit.
He has also, in the past, shown a remarkable ability to
convince powerful institutions, both in the media and the think-tank world, to
support his arguments regardless of their reception among the experts who would
be qualified to judge them.
And finally, he has been able to inflict a degree of
apparent amnesia on those who write about him that borders on mass hypnosis.
For if anyone took seriously the degree of inconsistency of logic, speciousness
of argument, and open reliance on racist pseudoscience, among other
intellectual tricks of which Murray has been found guilty in the past, then no
serious writer or reader would bother wasting any time with him at all.
Murray’s initial entry into the public arena, Losing Ground, was a product of the
investments in Murray, a then-unknown Iowa-based academic, by Richard Mellon
Scaife, the Olin Foundation, the Manhattan Institute, the American Enterprise
Institute, and especially Milwaukee's Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, all
of whom saw in Murray’s arguments the potential to challenge America’s system
of welfare and entitlement payments.
According to Losing
Ground, America’s welfare state did not improve the lot of the poor.
Rather, it sapped their energy and destroyed their initiative. "We tried
to provide more for the poor and produced more poor instead," Murray
complained. His solution: to scrap the entire system and invite the poor to
fend for themselves.
Unfortunately, Murray's assertions were based on a series of
internal contradictions, specious arguments, and outright phony claims
unsupported by his data. As I argued in What Liberal Media? — where
citations for all the facts noted below may be found — for instance, his
assertion that the hope for welfare payments was the main source of
illegitimacy among black teenagers posited no evidence for this claim, and
failed to explain why the rate of illegitimacy rose for everyone — and not just
welfare recipients — after 1972, while the constant-dollar value of those
welfare benefits declined by 20 percent.
Moreover, Murray never once explained the development of the
black middle class during this period. He also found it convenient to ignore
the decline in black labor participation that predated the programs he sought
to attack. Using more reliable data than that upon which Murray chose to
depend, Christopher Jencks calculated that contrary to Murray's central claims,
the percentage of the population defined as poor in 1980 was only half the size
it was in 1965, and one-third the size it was in 1950.
After Losing Ground,
Murray soon shifted gears and decided instead to focus his research on the
alleged genetic inferiority of black people. As a result, in 1990 the Manhattan
Institute, which had previously housed Murray and promoted his work,
disassociated itself from him as it was uncomfortable with what Murray called
"the genetic inferiority stuff."
Fortunately for Murray his $100,000 grant from the Bradley
Foundation was happily picked up by the American Enterprise Institute (though
refused by the Brookings Institute where he initially hoped to land). By the
time he completed his second book, The
Bell Curve (co-authored with Richard J. Hernstein, who died before its
publication), he had received more than $750,000 in Bradley money with more
than $500,000 coming after Losing Ground.
Interestingly, while The
Bell Curve sets out to achieve the same aims as Losing Ground — the reduction and eventual elimination of all
transfer payments to the poor and indigent — it did so by directly
contradicting Losing Ground's central
In Losing Ground,
Murray placed the lion's share of responsibility for the creation of the
American underclass at the feet of government antipoverty programs, primarily
welfare. "Focusing on blacks cripples progress," he declared in a
1986 op-ed piece (titled "Not a Matter of Race").
But in The Bell Curve,
Murray attributed the existence of an underclass to the "true"
difference between blacks and whites — the intellectual deficiency of blacks
(among others), whose IQ scores averaged 15 points below those of whites. In The Bell Curve, Murray argues that entry
to the welfare rolls almost qualifies as prima facie evidence of a low IQ,
while in Losing Ground, he argued
that welfare could be a defensible, even sensible choice over some jobs and
often even over marriage.
While the book enjoyed a remarkable ride in the media,
including among many, many other things, a cover story in The New York Times Magazine and an
amazing issue of the once-liberal New
Republic, then edited by Andrew
Sullivan, it had completely fallen apart by the time it reached the expert
community familiar with the kind of research upon which Murray had relied.
To take just one of many examples, writing in a special
issue of The American Behavioral
Scientist — exactly the kind of journal that would have offered a peer
review-reading of The Bell Curve had
the authors been willing to submit to one — Michael Nunley, a professor of
anthropology at the University of Oklahoma, charged:
this book is a fraud, that its authors must have known it was a fraud when they were writing it, and
that Charles Murray must still
know it's a fraud as he goes around defending it. By "fraud," I mean a deliberate, self-conscious
misrepresentation of the evidence.
After careful reading, I cannot believe its authors were not acutely aware of what they were including and what
they were leaving out, and of how they
were distorting the material they did
The Bell Curve "would not be accepted by an academic journal. It's that bad," added
Richard Nisbett, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. They
were joined by many scholars, perhaps most notable among them, Leon J. Kamin, a
noted professor of psychology at Northeastern University and author of The Science and Politics of IQ. He
warned, "To pretend, as Hernstein and Murray do, that the 1,000-odd items
in their bibliography provide a 'scientific' basis for their reactionary
politics may be a clever political tactic, but it is a disservice to and abuse
But the footnotes in The
Bell Curve raised even more troubling questions about the authors' agenda
than mere incompetence or even ideological fervor. At least 17 researchers
cited in the book's bibliography, it turned out, were contributors to the
racist journal Mankind Quarterly.
Thirteen “scholars” cited had received grants from the Pioneer Fund,
established and run by Nazi sympathizers, eugenicists, and white supremacists.
The fact that despite all of the above, and despite even the
thorough demolition of Murray’s new work by his fellow conservative (and former
fan, it must be sadly noted) David Frum, it remains necessary to note that
taking account of Murray at all is only in part a tribute to the man’s skills
as a self-promoter and the conservative machine’s ability to create the appearance
of controversy where none actually exists. (See under: "Warming,
It is also spectacular evidence, as if any were needed, of
the mainstream media’s commitment to amnesia. Murray himself contradicted the
primary argument of Losing Ground in The Bell Curve and that book stands
today as possibly the single-most thoroughly debunked work of social science of
all time. And yet he is back, once again, to blame poor and black people for
their lot in life.
You’d almost think that conservatives were desperate to find
someone —anyone — to reassure them that the unequal rewards they enjoy at the
expense of the rest of us are not merely deserved but actually consistent with
the natural order of the universe. The bigger mystery, however, is why, time
after time, journalists feel the need to help them do so.
Eric Alterman is a
Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a CUNY distinguished
professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College. He is also “The
Liberal Media” columnist for The Nation.
His newest book is The
Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack
Obama to be published in April. This
column won the 2011 Mirror Award for Best Digital Commentary.