Want to find out how out of touch you are with ordinary Americans? Charles Murray has just the thing for you. His publishers have posted a chapter from his new book which includes a quiz for you to take that will, in his words, “calibrate the extent of your own ignorance.” Ignorance, he means, about mainstream America. Go ahead and take it. Quizzes are fun! You’ll have to write your answers down because it’s a facsimile of the quiz from the book. But that just makes it more fun! I want to say a few things about Murray’s book, but I think it’d be more fun if you take the quiz first.
I got a 56 “Access to the Rest of America” score. I won’t pretend I didn’t feel kind of proud about scoring what seems to me fairly high. This puts me way above the average of the “first-generation upper-middle-class with middle-class parents” group, which is I guess the group I would most fit in, even though I’ve never yet lived a day in my life as an upper-middle-class person. But I’m a graduate student (in the humanities, no less!) so Murray would probably insist that I’m really upper-middle-class, and Murray’s rubric assumes an automatic upward class mobility from the middle class, so if my parents were middle-class (which is probably slightly more accurate than calling them working-class), I guess that’s my group.
Charles Murray is most notorious for being one of the co-authors of The Bell Curve, the book which put forward the racist idea that non-whites are inherently less intelligent than whites with just enough of a scientific smokescreen that to this day certain conservative commentators like to decry the PC censorship that keeps this work from getting the serious discussion they think it deserves. So Murray is both used to stoking controversy and wily enough to make his work seem difficult to dismiss by claiming the objective authority of science. And with this election season just getting underway—an election which, thanks to the Tea Party movement and even more to the Occupy movement, figures to center around the problem of inequality in America—the timing of this new book will let Murray hi-jack a certain amount of the national discussion about inequality. If you pay attention to politics, you’ll probably hear more about this book over the coming months. Coming at this particular moment, the book represents an attempt to reshape the issues the Occupy movement has brought more clearly into the open back into the familiar form of the Culture Wars.
We get a clear sense of how Murray wants to define this problem based on the Tocqueville quotation he kicks the chapter off with. Tocqueville wrote that America should be immune to the problem of despotism because “the more opulent citizens take great care not to stand aloof from the people.” Murray’s central claim in Coming Apart is that the upper-middle-class elite live in an increasingly thick bubble that separates them from the rest of America. Therefore, logically, this elite class is becoming despotic. Where Murray does most of the work of solidifying this as a Culture Wars issue is in the way he defines “the people” and the elite. Just so you don’t suspect him of being simplistic, Murray acknowledges that “in one sense, there is no such thing as an ‘ordinary American.’” And then he goes on to describe the characteristics that unite all non-elites, who “have to send [their] kids to public school,” and who “live in a part of town where people make their living in a hundred different ways instead of a dozen, and [who] always eat out at places where [they] don’t spend more than $50 tops, including tips,” and who share a common popular culture. Contradicting himself, Murray decides that “the American mainstream may be hard to specify, in detail, but it exists.” In other words, Murray says while it’s true that you can’t actually claim there is in reality an ‘ordinary America,’ on the other hand, actually you can and here’s how you define it. And when Murray defines this ordinary rest of America, what he’s actually referring to is poor rural white Mid-westerners. In fact, according to the scoring of his quiz, you get bonus points for living in a town of less than 10,000 people. He notes how surprised he was to learn that “21 percent of Americans still lived in rural areas as of the 2000 census.” Maybe that’s a figure you do find surprisingly large, but Murray’s suggestion of surprise serves to mask the entirely unsurprising fact that not nearly as many Americans live in rural areas as non-rural areas. Murray’s even more excited to let you know that “10 percent lived in towns fewer than 10,000 people.” If you’re tracking Murray’s scoring system, this means that you get the most bonus points on this question if you live in a situation that’s different from the way 90 percent of Americans live. Which means nine out of ten Americans aren’t as ordinary as that remaining one—Murray’s ‘ordinary’ has slipped from the supposedly objective standard defined by certain common experiences of the majority of Americans to the purely mythical idea of the ordinariness of small-town Midwestern life.
But Murray’s ordinary was never objective to begin with. The entire exercise is built to invoke the salt-of-the-earth pride small-town Midwesterners are supposed to take in their ordinariness while making the rest of us feel ashamed for our ‘ignorance.’ Not even the rest of us, really—I scored pretty high on Murray’s test, primarily because I actually am from a small Midwestern town, I was raised an evangelical Christian (and pursued that identity as strongly as I could through my teenage years), the parts of the small towns I lived in were populated more by people who didn’t have college degrees than people who did, my closest friends for most of my childhood struggled to do well in school, I even know what Branson is because my mom goes there like every summer. But I still feel the twinge of shame Murray’s after when I reflect on how different my life as a graduate student is from all of that, and how my likely career from this point forward precludes me from having a ‘real’ job, one that leaves my body sore after a full day of work. This is all because this version of ordinary is defined entirely by those aspects of poor small-town Midwestern life that people wear as a badge of pride. They drink ‘real’ beer. They smoke cigarettes. They know all about NASCAR. They watch Oprah and Dr. Phil and Judge Judy. But Murray leaves out all the parts of straddling the working class fence that show how this ‘ordinary’ life is actually a struggle for those people who live it. No questions like, “Have you ever known anyone who was forced to live off of welfare? Have you ever watched the health of someone you care about fall apart because they can’t afford regular medical upkeep? Have you ever lived through or known someone who’s suffered long-term unemployment, or had to string together a series of part-time jobs just to stay barely behind on the bills? Have you ever known anyone who’s gone through bankruptcy several times?” Attention to these things would lead to questions about how the economy has been reoriented in order keep shrinking the share of it allotted to the poor, how the social safety net constructed by the government from FDR through Johnson has been gradually cut away. And questions along those lines would point to a different kind of ordinary and elite, and a different set of problems than Murray has in mind. Murray’s way of defining ordinary specifically targets the rural white poor, hiding the way more purely economic common experiences are shared by rural and urban poor, by white and non-white poor. Nobody wears those aspects of poverty as a badge of pride precisely because they don’t separate a small group into a mythically privileged normal.
Murray claims he’s trying to raise awareness of the increasing separation between normal and elite Americans. And, really, it is bad for the country when the people holding the strings of government are increasingly unaware of what life is like for poor and working class Americans—Tocqueville was right about that. But this is because unawareness of what poor life is really like leads people to think things like that people are on welfare because they’re lazy and like it, not because it makes you an objectively better person if you happen to have grown up around poor, rural Americans. Murray essentially describes the solution to this problem as “bringing that experience into the bubble,” but really this is just a prescription for the elite business class of the Republican party to double-down on its fetishization of country music and NASCAR and to keep exaggerating their own claims of having roots in the white working class. When the discussion turns to inequality in America, this is just a way of answering, “Well that would all go away if you’d start driving pickups and drinking Bud Light and watching more popular movies! See, here’s scientific proof!”
 At least in the chapter that’s online, it’s not clear whether this average is something Murray just made up or if it represents the average score of a number of people Murray had take the test prior to publication. My guess is the former.