Ph.D. Octopus

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Charles Murray vs. Frederick Douglass

with 2 comments

By Peter

There are racist execrable hacks, and there is Charles Murray. Murray, of course, is the libertarian thinker and cross-burner best known for his 1994 book The Bell Curve, which argued that intelligence is genetically determined and that, well golly gee, white people just happen to have it and blacks and Mexican don’t. Solution: no more welfare so that poor (aka stupid) people stop having so many babies. As Bob Herbert wrote at the time, “Mr. Murray can protest all he wants, his book is just a genteel way of calling somebody a nigger.” Stephen Jay Gould, who actually knew a thing or two about biology, wrote that the Bell Curve was “a manifesto of conservative ideology, and its sorry and biased treatment of data records the primary purpose – advocacy above all. The text evokes the dreary and scary drumbeat of claims associated with conservative think tanks – reduction or elimination of welfare, ending of affirmative action in schools and workplaces, cessation of Head Start and other forms of preschool education, cutting of programs for slowest learners, and application of funds to the gifted.”

Well Mr. Murray is back in the news with his book Coming Apart, his explanation about how the white working class is to blame for economic inequality. David Brooks– while failing to actually include the subtitle of the Murray’s book (that would be “the State of White America”), since it might reveal a bit more than Brooks wanted–writes that “I’ll be shocked if there’s another book this year as important.” Charles Pierce responds aptly: “David Brooks is impressed that Charles Murray, career hack, has found some white people he can treat like black people, and just in time, too.”

Anyways… there isn’t a ton left to say about Murray. His entire career, from Losing Ground on, has been providing intellectual justification for the base prejudices of the ruling classes. Welfare hurts the poor (and thus, must be removed for their own sake), racial inequality is simply a result of biological determinism (so, once again, might as well get rid of the Great Society so that we don’t upset nature), rich people are that way because they are just so innately smart, etc… And now we learn that economic inequality doesn’t have anything to do with 30 years of top-down class warfare: its not off-shoring, union-busting, privatization, deregulation, tax-cuts for the rich, or the corporatization of our entire society. Its not that one major political party has relentlessly tried to divide Americans by race, using the arguments that Murray provided. Nope, its, as Brooks writes, the fact that the (white) poor “are more removed from traditional bourgeois norms.” And we already knows what he thinks of the black and latino poor…

I think Frederick Douglass had something to say about this, a quotation that pretty much sums up Charles Murray’s career:

Pride and selfishness, combined with mental power, never want for a theory to justify them—and when men oppress their fellow-men, the oppressor ever finds, in the character of the oppressed, a full justification for his oppression. Ignorance and depravity, and the inability to rise from degradation to civilization and respectability, are the most usual allegations against the oppressed. The evils most fostered by slavery and oppression, are precisely those which slaveholders and oppressors would transfer from their system to the inherent character of their victims. Thus the very crimes of slavery become slavery’s best defence.

That pretty much sums it up, right? Murray is part of a long tradition that seeks to change the topic from systematic injustice to the personal failings of the oppressed. This has three advantages for the oppressor: 1. It makes the oppressor feel good about how smart and civilized they are (in Douglass’ time that would be paeans about how great the Anglo-Saxons are, for Charles Murray… well, pretty much the same, except take out the poor ones); 2. it creates hostility towards the oppressed (who are now viewed as lazy, uncivilized, unintelligent, etc…);3. It changes the subject so that we’re no longer talking about whether the system is just, but now we’re talking about whether or not the oppressed group really is or isn’t lazy, stupid, unintelligent.


Written by Peter Wirzbicki

February 2, 2012 at 16:29

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. The research on race and IQ finds that Chinese, Japanese and Ashkenazi Jews have higher IQ than white people. I have not read Murray’s book; does it mention this fact in his book?

    There has been a lot of research on IQ and outcomes. It looks like IQ has a causal effect on people’s outcomes: The jobs that they get, their health and all kinds of stuff. It looks like there is a genetic component to IQ (whatever the hell it is). This has been shown through numerous twin studies. The lower bound is that it is 30% heritable. It is also affected by early life nutrition and in utero nutrition (which can be affected by your mother’s early life nutrition etc.).

    We know that there are lots of things, such as diseases, that are more prevalent in certain “races” (read race as used in common language, I know there is a debate as to whether it is accurate to say that we can categorize groups of people by race). Here is a site about the propensity of certain illnesses amongst Ashkenazi jews If nutrition in early life can affect IQ then a propensity to an illness could also do so. Do not write off the possibility of something being the case that could truly be the case.

    The more I try to find evidence that gene’s don’t affect outcomes the more evidence I find that it does, likewise with race and IQ. I’m not sure what the answer is in the scientific debate over IQ and race, or race and economic/social outcomes. However, we should not let our political convictions run our evaluation of the evidence.

    Progressives are getting involved in the wrong fight on this one. Its quite likely that there will be some fairly conclusive proof on this issue in the near future.Very many geneticists think it is already conclusive, they stay quiet about it because they are afraid of public opinion. There are two important things that we must do in regards to these issues.

    First, do not attack scientists for saying things that we don’t like (attack Murray though). I have not read Murray but suspect that the big problem with Murray is not the science but his political response (i.e. he is not a scientist but a right wing ideologue) to the possibility of genes in affecting outcomes.

    Second, what does it imply for our attitude towards the rights/priveleges of a group should it be true that they are born with lower IQ. There is a non-right wing response to such a possibility. Do we really believe that because someone is born with inherited wealth (genetic or otherwise) that this means they should get given greater economic rewards by society? No! So if there is a race/IQ link it means that targeting equality of opportunity is not sufficient to achieve a fair and just society. We must also target inequality in the rewards that people receive (wages and capital income).

    One of the fundamentals of progressive thought and political action is that our conclusions about the world are due to evidence and reasoned debate. If we lose that we will become reactionaries that make the world worse. It is too easy to dismiss discoveries/research that seem to go against what we want politically or otherwise.

    Look at the number of people who dismiss the scientific consensus on climate change because they don’t want to cut back on their current consumption. Their justification however is that the climate change community is involved in some pseudo-conspiratorial activity (the more sophisticated come up with institutional capture stories). We cannot allow wishful or conspiratorial thinking to guide our beliefs, otherwise we will fight for something that doesn’t work and makes the world a worse place.

    The other fundamental, I would say, is our moral goals. Human betterment; giving people the ability to develop their capacities as human beings; and standing against exploitative (I use the word carefully) and oppressive relationships within our society.

    This is the goal; it cannot be achieved if we eschew the use of evidence and reason.


    February 5, 2012 at 14:57

  2. […] inequality. A blogger named Peter, at Ph.D. Octopus (disclosure: he shares half my genes) says all that need be said. Sphere: Related […]

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