— Keep Wisconsin Blue (@UniteBlueWI) March 13, 2014
One of the worst traits of some left-liberals is their easy resort to calling those who disagree with them bigots or racists or worse. There are some sites on the web that seem almost entirely devoted to patrolling the discourse for any sign of sin. This one’s a homophobe; this one’s a racist; so-and-so said this and that could be – shock! – prejudiced. It can sometimes be a way to avoid engaging arguments rather than tackling them. And so, on cue, Paul Ryan is taking heat for these remarks:
We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work, and so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with.
When you start off by basing your arguments around the work of Charles Murray you just lose your credibility from the start as someone actually interested in addressing poverty or joblessness or really doing anything other than coming up with reasons to cut off what little assistance society provides for its most marginalized members or, alternatively, pumping up people with racial resentments against black people and giving them ersatz ‘scholarship’ to justify their racial antipathies.
That’s because Murray’s public career has been based on pushing the idea that black urban poverty is primarily the fault of black people and their diseased ‘culture.’ Relatedly, and more controversially, he has argued that black people are genetically inferior to white people and other notional races with regards to intelligence. Yes, that last part should be crystal clear: Murray is best known for attempting to marshal social science evidence to argue that black people are genetically not as smart as white people.
Sigh. Josh seems to be arguing that Murray blames all resilient urban black poverty on culture …. and then blames it all on genes! Pick one canard, would be my advice. And the truth is: in The Bell Curve, Murray was concerned about the role of genes and environment in the resilient IQ differentials among different ethnic groups, as anyone who actually read his book (I did, most liberals wouldn’t) would know. As for the notion that Murray is useless in actually attempting to help urban poverty, has Josh ever heard of the book Losing Ground? It was the key text for the Clinton welfare reforms of the 1990s – which even Obama now concedes he dismissed too easily.
And it is simply untrue that Murray has argued that “black people are genetically inferior to white people and other notional races with regards to intelligence.” Murray’s work specifically insists that there are countless African-Americans with higher IQs than countless whites and Asians and Hispanics. (He has recently focused his efforts on white poverty as well – which would seem to disprove some of Josh’s claims.) It’s just that the bell curve (which was the title of the whole fricking book) starts at a slightly different place for different racial groupings – something that drives blank slate liberals nuts with cognitive dissonance. Years later, the differentials still exist. Why do you think there are de facto quotas to prevent brainy Asians from dominating the Ivy League? But of course, nothing drives ideologues nuts like reality.
One more thing: I’m sure Murray has gotten used to this distortion of his work. But it still strikes me as outrageous that a scholar like Murray is subjected to being called a racist of the worst sort and a dishonest scholar – simply because the resilient data support his core point, and because he dares to cite genetics. (It’s an old and great line that liberals believe nothing is genetic but homosexuality, while conservatives believe everything is genetic except homosexuality. For my part, it seems pretty damn obvious that almost all human behavior is a function of both – and the interaction between them.)
Josh goes another round:
Weigel notes that it’s not necessarily clear that Ryan was referencing The Bell Curve. He might just as well have been talking about Losing Ground, the critique of liberal social policies, particularly welfare, which put Murray on the map in the 1980s or his more recent work on the ‘white underclass’. To which I would say, maybe? Who knows? And really, who cares? At the risk of sounding wrenchingly corny, The Bell Curve is a bell you simply cannot un-ring.
As Joan Walsh notes here, in the years since publishing The Bell Curve, Murray has slightly softened his argument. He now refers to IQ and what he believes is the mental inferiority of African-Americans not as ‘genetic’ but rather as ‘intractable.’ By this Murray seems to mean that there are too many factors playing into intelligence to definitively say genetics are behind what he claims are the mental/intellectual shortcomings of black people. The deficit is simply ‘intractable’ – by which he means that whatever mix of genetics, culture and circumstance create it, nothing can be done to change it in any meaningful way.
But if Josh had read the original book, he would have seen that that was Murray’s argument all along! “Intractable” means a function of both culture and genes. Now I should make clear that I’m not entirely persuaded by Charles’ thesis. I think it’s too fatalist and gloomy. The plasticity of IQ is obvious, and culture may matter far more in the long run. If Murray’s thesis requires no government action to help the poor, I’m as opposed to it as David Frum. But Murray is an intellectual adventurer. He speaks things we only talk about in our own heads. And his original prediction – that modern, SAT-based, liberal economies will, over time, lead to greater and greater inequality has not exactly been proven unfounded, has it? And referencing Murray – along with Bob Putnam, one should add – is perfectly appropriate when talking about arguments about poverty and how to tackle it.
Michael Sean Winters gives Ryan the benefit of the doubt:
First, we on the left have been complaining that Republicans like don’t give a hoot about the poor, and not without cause. I remember Cong. Ryan speaking at Georgetown in 2012 and talking about subsidiarity and federalism and how the federal government should not be the lead actor in anti-poverty efforts. I thought at the time: That would be credible if he could point to any single Republican governor or mayor who was actually attempting some innovative anti-poverty efforts, but he can’t, so the invocation of subsidiarity in this regard is a smokescreen. It is obvious that Ryan has been trying to wrestle with the issue of poverty since then, and I think we have an obligation not to throw his words back in his teeth the second they are uttered. That is not the way to create a bipartisan consensus on the need for our nation to confront lingering poverty in our midst.