Sunday, April 5, 2009

Charles Murray and American Exceptionalism

Ah, The Sunday Times, that wonderful organ of the press guaranteed to make me riled pretty much every time I open it (I know which question that begs, but I think it's pretty dangerous to sit reading only the papers that make one feel the warm-fuzzy of recognition of one's own perhaps limited vistas and views in print). This week, it was a condensed version of Charles Murray's speech for the 2009 Irving Kristol lecture.

The lecture is a two-fold attack on certain ideas. Here we go:

"First, I will argue that the European model is fundamentally flawed because, despite its material successes, it is not suited to the way that human beings flourish--it does not conduce to Aristotelian happiness. Second, I will argue that twenty-first-century science will prove me right."

Umm, sure, Mr Murray. That's why five out of the ten happiest countries are European...I'm not counting Iceland, as it is bang in the middle of the Atlantic and perhaps two years after the University of Leicester study on which I've based that assertion, is in a severe case of financial meltdown, but it is worth noting that there are nine European countries ahead of the US in the survey apart from Iceland.

Murray is mistaking the nature of Europe: despite the best efforts of the European Commission and Council, there actually is no 'European model' and there is no uniformity in the way in which governments approach the issues of social justice and regulation that exercise Murray. So he's fundamentally misunderstanding the way 'Europe' works.

Murray has an apocalyptic vision of Europe where because of falling birth-rates and increasing immigration 'from cultures with alien values' the 'European model' is doomed, the barbarians are at our gates and Europeans cannot and will not experience what he defines as Arisotetelian happiness, which he defines as a '
sense of lasting and justified satisfaction with life as a whole'. As if America, with its huddled masses from here, there and everywhere is not the epitome of a country made by immigration from 'cultures with alien values' - it is not so long ago that only WASPS were welcome at most country clubs: if you were Jewish or Catholic or Asian, let alone black, fuggedaboutit. Oh, and as if our planet needs more and more humans.

Of course, my perspective from a hunka chunka Old Europe which has plenty of its own craziness (no need to do much more than mention the weirdness of Flemish-Walloon rivalry and Flem on Flem rivalry that continues to snap, crackle and pop in Belgium) is different. Murray is clearly a man jealous of our general trend towards long holidays (i.e. more than 10 days a year), beautiful countryside, fine food, excellent wine and beer, families who actually sit down and eat together instead of snarfing up microwaved garbage in front of the TV, town squares where people walk (yes, that most unAmerican of activities, walking) together and meet up and chat to their friends at cafes, watch lovely non-obese girls go by, and gaze in pleasure at the church spires where they are neither compelled to go nor to finance through tithes equivalent to 10% of their incomes, where science is well-respected and some might argue, rather too well-funded, where faith is a matter of private conscience not public display with all its attendant hypocrisy.

Murray builds his vision of happiness on four pillars: family, community, vocation and faith. He feels that America excels in modelling all of these four pillars, where the 'European model' is 'sclerotic'. This is based chiefly on his observation that Sweden is dotted with squeaky clean, well-maintained and empty Lutheran churches. He fails to acknowledge that in America, family is falling apart (let's look at those Palins, shall we, that model of American family life, held up before the Republicans as the way to go - I believe the latest in the soap is that Todd's half-sister is in the dock and Bristol won't let the father of her child see the baby). He fails to acknowledge that the American worship of the car has led to the destruction of the small independent retailer and the consequent emptying out of small-town America. He somehow misses the American worship of money that has led to the US producing a generation of Harvard MBAs who have happily led us to the poorhouse with their great sub-prime gimmickry and an equivalent worship of celebrity that permits vacant bimbettes like Paris Hilton to occupy people's minds to the extent that children in the US and UK believe that 'celebrity' is a viable career option. And finally, he cannot see that religion is a hypocritical straitjacket constraining the very science that he believes will come to substantiate his views.

So let's come to the science now...Murray believes that equality is a premise that will soon lose its underpinning thanks to advances in neuroscience. Interesting idea from a man whose Founding Fathers wrote: "
we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal". Equality and social justice are blind alleys according to Murray, and genetics will explain all. Well, not quite. Scientists are quite frank about their considerable uncertainty over the interface between nature and nurture: there are all sorts of studies going on, but genetic predisposition to breast cancer, say, is quite different to genetic predisposition to violence, which has been by no means proven...and the effects of diet, chemicals, pollution, tv and a host of other day to day influences on our personalities, hormones and behaviour are by no means clear. Of course, Murray has fallen for this kind of theory before - he is the co-author of the notorious book, The Bell Curve, which sought to explain all the inequalities and dysfunctions in US society and the particular lack of achievement in the Afro-American sections of US society based on IQ tests... The book was not properly researched or peer-reviewed and came in for a considerable pasting from real scientists like Stephen Jay Gould.

No surprise that Murdoch would provide a platform for Murray, given the press baron's anti-European views. But it only discredits him and his newspaper, for Murray, with his divisive, unsubstantiated and error-laden aspirations for American triumphalism - sorry, 'exceptionalism' - is the kind of man who takes the chic out of retro and stamps on it. The American Dream has been so thoroughly debunked by America's own thinkers and writers that it is quite odd to see an American claiming that Americans assume that they are in control of their own destinies just as the shadow of mass unemployment falls over a nation. Mass unemployment caused by handing over the destinies of the American people to free-market capitalists who have made a royal mess of just about every consumer market that exists in the US.

Anyway, if you'd like to laugh, roll your eyes or raise your blood pressure, here's the link to Murray's own words:

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