I originally posted this on my humor blog specifically about DC, but decided that since the majority of this essay isn’t about DC but about the idea of civic participation via a critique of Charles Murray’s latest research, I’ve decided to also post it here, a place where the ideas and thoughts are (a little) more important than the guffaws.


I’m not sure if I’ve ever written anything about how seemingly baseless some of Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy’s arguments usually are, but a bunch of other people have. See, Milloy occasionally writes about race and when he does he almost always insinuates how racist white people are. And no, he’s never talking about a particular white person, but all white people. We’re all racist, apparently, and if you think you’re not, using Milloy’s logic, it probably means you’re actually even more racist.

Really, the only thing this brand of Milloy writing proves is that he isn’t a particularly insightful columnist. And no, just to be clear, I’m not asserting that because Milloy is black, I’m asserting that because he sometimes sounds like a reactionary moron.

Which brings me to his latest piece of “work,” which supposedly is based on a recent talk given by Charles Murray called “The State of White America.” OK, so at first, that sounds like something kinda racist to write about. But if you actually click the link to watch Murray’s talk, the first thing said is, “Despite the title of this evening’s lecture, those expecting to hear a discourse on race, are not going to hear it.” (Which begs a question for Murray, why the f*ck did you pick such a race-baiting name?)

Instead, here’s Murray’s argument, which I actually have a whole set of problems with that I’ll get to later (and yes, I watched the whole damn 90 minutes). Basically, Murray says he decided to study “non-Latino whites” because this group is usually the reference point for sociologists/politicians/wonks when they study American societal trends. He says: “When you read about the latest poverty statistics, for example, what you read is usually like, ‘Here’s the black poverty rate compared to the white poverty rate,’ ‘Here’s the latino poverty rate compared to the white poverty rate, and here are the implications for how America is doing.'” The problem here, he says, is that it’s easy to lose sight of what that reference point actually means — who are these pale people we’re comparing everyone else to? And so he decided to study white people for the sake of illuminating the depth of the larger cultural trends that “are tearing America apart at her seams” that “cannot be remedied by eliminating racism or restricting immigration policy.” The conclusion, of course, is white people have problems, too.

Well, duh, says anyone who’s ever seen an episode of Cops/Jerry Springer/The Real World/Bad Girls Club or any other reality-based programming featuring white people acting like rodeo clowns without the rodeo.

But for Milloy, this seems to have been revelatory news, causing him to utter a Nelsonesque “ha-ha!” and write this sentence of pure vitriol, describing all whites as “a group that has long managed to deny the extent of its character flaws by projecting the worst of them onto black people.”

I’m not about to deny that some members of this “group” definitely do that. Those people are called racists and they should be described as a subpopulation of a group. But to categorize all white people as racist is inappropriate, shortsighted and destructive because had Milloy made his argument more accurate, it could’ve been great. Instead, it’s just kind of stupid — as dumb as, say, those idiotic white people who blame everything bad about America on black people.

But because I’m bored with Milloy’s easily argued-away thesis (and extra shame on him for not taking advantage of the material Murray really gave him), I’d rather go back to some of the things Murray said in his lecture. Like I said, there’s a lot to contend with here. But unlike Milloy, whose argument is based on inaccurate assumption, Murray’s arguments are actually based on facts and statistics, meaning it’s not the rationale I don’t agree with, but Murray’s basic worldview. (Again, Milloy, why did you choose to skip the main course for the garnish?)

Murray’s study compares statistics from 1960 and 2010 among the top 20 percent of rich white Americans to the bottom 30 percent of the poor white Americans. Then, with the addition of some de Tocqueville quotes he makes a basic moral argument, which is not dissimilar to that of the religious right. He thinks marriage, heterosexual two-parent homes, greater industriousness and religion will save the United States from becoming a big un-American blob. Lo and behold, the average rates of those things have declined slightly among rich folk and greatly among the poor, leading Murray to conclude sh*t be funky now.

OK, well he didn’t word it like that, but he did say the decline in the number of marriages, the rise of single-parent households, and a whole new slew of lazy-ass white working-class secularist hobos, who refuse to coach the local Little League team are changing us for the worse — they’re evidence of the “unraveling of our civic culture.”

Hmm, fine, I suppose, if Murray’s only point is to point out possible causes for why everyone’s bowling alone these days then sure, maybe. (Incidentally, Murray did mention Bowling Alone author Robert Putnam.) What was missing, however, at least from this 90-minute talk, was evidence that the above and this perceived civic unraveling are definitely connected. That is, I don’t buy, at least with the evidence Murray provides, that the decline of traditional values necessarily correlates to a worse-off nation.

Times change, people’s minds change, their lifestyles and attitudes change. This is the natural course of events, which is why when it comes to very morally conservative folk, I tend to find their almost worshipful devotion to eras past wholly unrealistic and a little bit creepy. Let’s not forget, in 1960 segregation still existed (and prior to the aptly named Loving vs. Virginia, interracial couples still couldn’t marry in some states under the law!), most homosexuals were forced to suffer in the closet, women were largely discouraged from working outside of the home, and this would have been my hairstyle:

Let’s just say the 1960s weren’t necessarily pretty. And because of that, I have a hard time finding practical value in studies like Murray’s. While I admit civic involvement is important to a nation like ours (and probably to sustainable nations around the world), and yes, there was higher participation in it when more people happened to be married or going to church in 1960, saying those were the reasons why and then advocating either of those things today as a solution (or, as Murray puts it, “the right track”) seems suspect. Should we start forcing poor people to get married? Do we send them unwillingly to mass on Sundays? One, that’s not even possible; and two, even if it was, that’s inhumane. Really, It seems the only solution for re-achieving life as it was in the past is a time machine, preferably of the Hot Tub variety.

And so maybe a more feasible and useful question to ask would be what can civic groups and communities do to attract more participating members in 2011? Obviously, if a group is unwelcoming to thirty-something single moms, those single moms (who are growing in numbers, say statistics) will not participate.

Perhaps, what we need to study is a way to start purporting a different set of values to get people engaged (and not necessarily to be married) again — a more evolved set that emphasizes personal responsibility and education. And I’m not just talking about formal or public education, but the ideas of knowledge, inquisitiveness and, most importantly, critical thinking, which is something I think, unfortunately for their survival, organized religions often discourage. (For the record, like Murray, I’m also a self-described agnostic, but I strongly believe in living my life as it intersects with others’ in a secular humanist manner.) With increased personal engagement with our own brains, it seems industriousness — the one point I agree completely with Murray on — might improve on its own.

In short, while I don’t have any empirical evidence to support my loosely crafted theories, which I admit need a ton of tons of work that what I have time for on this blog, I believe I’ve at least touched on a few counterpoints worth exploring. At the very least, I didn’t just pull a Milloy. (I hope.)