Can Charles Murray Do for Your Lifestyle What He Did for Race Relations?
How do you go from arguing that black people are poorer because of their DNA to advising ladies about love?
How do you go from arguing that black people are poorer because of their DNA to advising ladies about love? Charles Murray, the conservative political scientist best known for arguing that genetics might explain why some minorities have lower average incomes, is reinventing himself as a lifestyle guru. On Tuesday, Greg Abbott — who is running against Wendy Davis for governor of Texas — cited Murray in his new education plan. Last month, Paul Ryan referenced Murray's thoughts on inner city poverty. But as The Guardian's Oliver Burkeman wrote on Tuesday, Murray's restyling himself as a straight-talking advice giver, with a recent story in The Wall Street Journal.
That story is a precursor to a book coming out next week, The Curmudgeon's Guide to Getting Ahead: Dos and Don'ts of Right Behavior, Tough Thinking, Clear Writing, and Living a Good Life. Burkeman's theory is that this revamp was inspired by the fact that "he simply considers himself exceedingly wise in most contexts, whether he's explaining the fecklessness of the poor or offering counsel to the children of the better off."
But The Wire's theory is that this is the last frontier for Murray. He's whittling down his political philosophy to its blandest and least controversial elements — good old Middle American values. He's going down a well trodden path — like Gwyneth Paltrow, Sarah Palin and Bethenny Frankel before him, he's making a comeback as a dispenser of (hopefully) good life tips that promise a lifetime of happiness as long as you follow one or two old weird tricks. As Burkeman wrote, "Murray thinks you should marry young, become deeply involved with religion, and prioritize virtuous conduct over fame and fortune." That's a lot easier to swallow than some of his older writings.
Early Charles Murray
Murray made his name as a political scientist and author. His 1984 book Losing Ground argued that social welfare programs increase poverty by encouraging people to work less. In 1994 he co-wrote The Bell Curve, which argued that intelligence is a better indicator of success than education or socio-economic status, and that some combination of genetics and environment might explain why Asians are better than white, who are better than black and latinos. A young civil rights lawyer named Barack Obama argued at the time that Murray was "interested in pushing a very particular policy agenda, specifically, the elimination of affirmative action and welfare programs aimed at the poor."
Second Wave Murray
Murray's next major work came 10 nearly 20 years later, and made no mention of minorities. In 2012, his book Coming Apart: The State of White America, argued that white people are falling into the same patterns that claimed African-Americans. "The belief that being a good American involved behaving in certain kinds of ways, and that the nation itself relied upon a certain kind of people in order to succeed, had begun to fade and has not revived,” Murray wrote. Bad behaviors lead to problems like "illegitimacy, crime or joblessness," according to a New York Times review. The Times was skeptical of the book, and ended its review with "Working-class whites are different from the cognitive elite in at least one way: They have less money."
Murray, in an interview with The Times, argued that this latest work was less partisan, towards conservatives or white people. “It’s not a brief for the right,” he said “The problem I describe isn’t a conservative-versus-liberal problem. It’s a cultural problem the whole country has.”
The Curmudgeon's Guide Murray
Every so often Murray pops up in conversations where you least expect him. A reader of Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish argued this week that Murray and Ta-Nehisi Coates share "a bleak, unchanging view of race relations." Rick Santorum referred to Coming Apart during the 2012 Republican Primary debates.
But with this latest phase he's distilled Murrayism he's given up on changing the way we think of social welfare programs or the gap between rich and poor whites. He wants to help young women get married, ideally in their twenties, and hopefully to someone who's religious.
His Journal piece offers five pieces of pretty simple advice — watch Groundhog Day, marry your soul mate — but there are still references to the high-IQs and his past writings. His advice to "consider marrying young" is reminiscent of his ideas on feminism and marriage. Specifically, as Salon notes, that Murray found common ground with anti-feminist write George Gilder. “Gilder saw disaster looming as women stopped performing (civilizing men), a position derided as the worst kind of patriarchal sexism,” Murray noted. “But put in less vivid language, the argument is neither implausible nor inflammatory: The responsibilities of marriage induce young men to settle down, focus and get to work … George Gilder was mostly right.”
We're not sure how long this latest phase will last. "Marry someone with similar tastes and preferences," as he writes in The Journal, is solid advice, but it's also too straight forward and common sense to be controversial. And therefore, it's pretty boring. In that sense, it's like nothing Murray's done before.