Comments on Charles Murray’s Belmont&Fishtown. The New Criterion. January 2012

What was I thinking? Or,

Comments on Charles Murray’s Belmont&Fishtown. The New Criterion. January 2012 [http://www.newcriterion.com/articles.cfm/Belmont—Fishtown-7250] (downloaded January 3, 2012).

Martha W Rees

(January 8, 2012)

Belmont&Fishtown. First, authors should state their position right up front—the American Enterprise Institute’s libertarian stance, that uses the discourse of ‘freedom’ (free to exploit you and me) as opposed to ‘equality’ (equal access to resources), locates inequality in the field of values rather than material life—wages, etc. My position is a critical position that analyzes events, practices and discourse in terms of who benefits? If the benefits increase inequality, then I’m against it.

A few points:
1. Data. This data is in the US census, but the definition of non-Latino whites is problematic and a bit troubling. First, does it include Serbs, Turks, Italians, Greeks (all at one time labeled ‘non white’)? There has always been a significant percentage of non-white people in the US, see the 1890s, for starters. Second, would including Latinos reverse his conclusions—are Latinos more honest, family-oriented, religious and industrious? Or does the brown brush taint?
2. Class. American explanations of success have been based on individualism since de Toqueville, but the current avoidance of class talk is more a result of the McCarthy era of the 1950s, when talk of class was labeled communism. The pact between (industrial, union) labor and capital in the 1950s accepted rapid growth in capital gains, as long as wages also increased (even though not at the same rate). Today avoiding class analysis is more about obfuscating growing inequalities.
3. Class—History. In the long view, archaeological evidence shows that inequality (measured by house size, goods, etc.) increases at the height of empire, and decreases with the fall. You might speculate that increasing inequality is a precursor of subsequent collapse (Maya, Zapotec, Valley of Mexico—600-1000CE).
4. Marriage cannot be called not a virtue, except perhaps for male property owners (whites, since blacks couldn’t own property) who needed to ensure that their heirs were their biological children. A feminist analysis of marriage characterizes its restrictive nature. Marriage is rather a way of reproducing the population (the work force) in a socially legitimate way. Today as the nuclear family is increasingly irrelevant in the engendering, support and raising of families, the structure of population reproduction is changing accordingly. Certainly marriage never kept people honest or faithful….
5. Industriousness. Again, not a ‘virtue’ but the result of a system where labor is captive, and the more you work, the more you earn—where there is over-time pay, etc. In societies where money is not the principal way surplus is stored, human beings work to get enough, then stop and look at the stars, write poetry, and think….
6. Honesty is reflected in crime rates? Honestly? How about graft? Tax evasion? Knowing who the criminals are is a product of small-town life, not honesty. This sounds like a lament for the lost small-town/rural idyll of a putative American past…. A past where (non-Latino) white (men) ruled!
7. Religion. May not be a virtue either, anymore than actually being virtuous is. Rather it is a reflection of general secularization over time. Religion doesn’t guarantee any of the above virtues—the exceptions are too numerous to count.
8. Class and taste. Taste as a marker of class is universal wherever there are class systems–the upper class distinguishes itself (See Bourdieu, Distinctions) from the class immediately below through taste, and so on down the line. When the rich grow their hair long, the upper-middle (to use another dubious term) start growing theirs; then the rich cut theirs off, and the working class grows theirs….
I guess I should be out snorkeling instead of reading this tract—anyone who blames individuals for systemic conditions is obviously congratulating themselves for doing such a good job and justifying it based on their ‘values’, rather than their class origins, race, or… gender….

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