"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Hey, white people – they’re talking about you again!
I argued a few weeks ago that Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum might be able to believe they’re not singling out black people, or “blah” people, when they rail against food stamps and government “dependency” on the campaign trail. Yes, Republicans have long used not just dog whistles but foghorns to tell white working- and middle-class voters that welfare programs only support lazy, undeserving African-Americans. Ronald Reagan gave us those iconic Cadillac-driving “welfare queens” and “young bucks” using food stamps to buy T-bone steaks. Gingrich is certainly playing on that long history with his remarks. (It’s funny how our first “food stamp president” also happens to be black.)
But increasingly the right wing argues that government programs have created a dangerously expanding lower class that includes white people, too. This new white lower class, like the black lower class before it (in the telling of conservatives), is struggling not because of the decline in median wages, the rise of unemployment or the disappearance of middle-class jobs, but because it prefers casual coupling over marriage, and government-subsidized slacking over work.
A little over a year ago, the conservatives behind “When Marriage Disappears: The Retreat From Marriage in Middle America” tied the decline of the American middle and working class to the drop in marriage and the rise in the number of children living in single-parent homes – trends that are most stark, over the last few decades, among white people. Now comes Charles Murray to make the issue of race even more pronounced. In “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010,” Murray identifies a new “white lower class” consisting of men who choose not to work hard, women who choose not to marry, and children who are deprived of the values-generating support of the two-parent family, and are thus doomed to repeat the cycle all over again.
Murray, of course, has said all of these things about black people before. In his 1984 tome “Losing Ground,” he provided the intellectual justification for Reagan’s bromide, “We fought a war on poverty, and poverty won.” The book argued that the explosion of welfare programs didn’t help their intended targets, especially poor African-Americans; in fact it hurt them, encouraging men to forgo supporting their children by substituting government in the role of provider. In “The Bell Curve,” Murray went on to argue that racial and class divisions in society were largely due to genetic intelligence differences that caused whites and Asians to excel and consigned blacks and Latinos to lower status, and there was nothing government could do to fight that natural order. In fact, government made the problems worse, as Murray believed he’d “proven” in “Losing Ground.”
In “Coming Apart,” Murray seems to have learned a little bit from the racial controversies that greeted his earlier work. Now he sets out to show how similar forces are at work among white people. But his premise and arguments in this book are no less skewed or more persuasive.
For a book that purports to be dispassionate and data driven, Murray makes the odd decision to create two fictional towns, “Fishtown” and “Belmont,” to represent the two poles of the white lower and upper classes he’s trying to describe (you can guess where the lower class lives). He only includes statistics for people from 30 to 49, to best get at the marriage and work habits of adults who are most likely to be parents and married (or should be married) couples. It gets even weirder when he includes interviews from a genuine case study of the real-life “Fishtown,” an actual white working-class Philadelphia neighborhood, which happens to be home to Irish Catholics, my people, who have so often been scapegoated in similar class terms. (The lower IQ of Irish Catholics once was used to defend discrimination against them, from Northern Ireland to New England.)
Murray’s odd foray into fiction doesn’t invalidate the actual statistics he assembles on white lower- and upper-class family life, but it makes his conclusions seem less data-driven and objective than anecdotal and subjective.
And that’s because they are.
But let me take a moment to note what I found interesting in the book: Murray’s description of a new white super-elite, whose wealth and education get more concentrated with every generation, as does its isolation from the rest of us. Unfortunately his portrait of this new uber-class draws heavily from David Brooks’ “Bobos in Paradise” for color, making many of its observations about the NPR-supporting, New York Times-reading, helicopter-parenting residents of “latte towns” seem tired. But the data Murray marshals are fascinating, showing the ways the uber-rich have walled themselves off geographically (as well as culturally and economically) in real-live “SuperZips” much like the fictional Belmont: ZIP codes where everyone is wealthy for miles around. Devoted to the ferocious accumulation of more, the new uber-rich are building ever-wider moats and higher walls.
Murray also takes time to show how admission to the most elite universities — Ivy League schools plus the highly selective “Public Ivies” — has become vastly more exclusive than even a generation ago, in terms of student test scores and family income. Roughly 80 percent of the students admitted to these top-tier schools come from the top quartile of American families in terms of income; only 2 percent come from the bottom quartile. Then, because young people tend to find their mates in these hothouses of privilege, that wealth concentrates, as they marry and breed and pass their advantages on to a next generation, which repeats the process. One way that wealth used to redistribute itself – by a high-income, well-educated man marrying someone from another class, maybe a girl he met in high school back when even most privileged folks went to public schools and almost no one lived in exclusive SuperZips – just doesn’t happen much anymore. Elite education facilitates wealth, wealth facilitates elite education, and the rich get richer, like the old song says, in ever more staggering ways.
But the other thing going on at the very top of white America, Murray argues, is that elites are far more likely to get married and to stay married than other people – particularly the new white lower class. Some 90 percent of kids in the SuperZips live with both parents. And where the authors of “When Marriage Disappears” talked mainly about a “marriage gap” — they noted a decline in “bourgeois values” among the unmarried lower class, but didn’t dwell on it — Murray’s book is intended to highlight a values gap. He identifies what he calls the “founding virtues” of America – industriousness, religious practice, honesty and marriage – and finds the new white lower class lacking in all four. Meanwhile, at the very top of society, he says, adherence to those virtues persists, and it’s working very well. Divorce and single parenthood did rise among the rich for a while in the ’60s and ’70s, but then it leveled off.
In Murray’s telling, the ’60s seem like a hoax designed to trick the poor into hedonism while the wealthy stayed abstemious. It’s as if Puritans dressed up and played swingers for a while, then took off the costumes and went back to work. In fact, Murray argues that the white upper class, particularly but not exclusively the liberals within it, has betrayed the lower class, by refusing to “preach what they practice” – that hard work and marital fidelity are the reliable time-tested path to success.
There are so many problems with Murray’s cause-and-effect arguments it’s hard to know where to begin. The marriage and family trends he identifies continued to worsen even after Congress and President Clinton accepted some of the questionable conclusions about the relationship between “dependency” and poverty Murray drew in “Losing Ground,” and abolished with the program he found most disastrous: Aid to Families With Dependent Children. AFDC became TANF, Temporary Aid to Needy Families, 15 years ago, forcing welfare recipients to get work and limiting the amount of time they could spend on the program, and dropping many millions of people from the rolls. Yet the rate of single parenthood among poor and working-class people continued to rise.
I also had an enormous amount of trouble with the premise that the rich are more virtuous than other people. I’m blessed to know a lot of rich people as well as a lot of working-class people (my extended family), and I’ve never noticed that, at all. I found myself wanting to introduce Charles Murray to Charles Ferguson, whose “Inside Job” chronicled not only the greed and corruption of the Wall Street hotshots who brought us the 2008 banking crash, but their depravity: the hookers, the cocaine, the conspicuous consumption of decadence. I thought Ferguson overdid it in his attempt to prove the complete and utter evil of the Wall Street elite, but it’s a welcome correction to Murray’s pale picture of upright, honest businessmen reaping the just reward of their hard work and self-discipline.
To be fair, Murray occasionally nods to bad behavior at the top. He rather comically looks at the 2008 banking crash for evidence that maybe today’s rich lack some moral fiber, too, but finds nothing he believes is reliable. He also acknowledges that the Founders didn’t always practice what they preached, when it came to either marital fidelity or religious observance. The important thing is that they tried to embrace and advance those values. And it’s true that even skeptics like Jefferson thought religion was a good thing — for other people, anyway.
Murray also pretends to consider the possibility that the decline in wages and opportunities for working-class men might be behind the drop in marriage rates within the same group. But he shows that married men work harder and earn more than unmarried men, even within the same social class, and makes the case that the absence of marriage discourages work, rather than that the absence or scarcity of work discourages marriage (or some more subtle interplay between the two). A rise in the number of working-class people declaring bankruptcy proves to Murray that they’re dishonest, not increasingly shackled to debt by a decline in wages. An increase in the number of white working-class Americans who tell pollsters that they value job security over the rewards of a job well done provides Murray with evidence that they’re lazy, rather than rightly insecure about employment in a changing economy.
Of course, Murray never mentions the fact that the country’s so-called red states have the least government and the highest levels of religious practice, yet they have the highest poverty and divorce rates in the country. Conversely, the godless liberal blue states have the lowest rates of divorce and single parenthood. He also ignores the possibility that changes in our tax code have given the wealthy ever more powerful incentives to practice the “moral” behavior that wealth rewards, while a shrinking public sector makes it feel more imperative to secede from the commons into their SuperZips and private schools. And he ignores the way wealth can also save marriages, allowing unhappily married husbands and wives to console themselves with separate vacations, homes, even separate lives.
But hypocrisy on the part of the wealthy or the Founders doesn’t bother Murray at all. The fact is, rich people can mostly be trusted to do the right thing — even if, when it comes to marriage, they sometimes try and fail and fake it, or in the case of religion and our skeptical Founders, they don’t personally practice what they preach. It’s among the lower classes that the loss of “virtue” matters most. Because the non-wealthy have to be forced to do the right thing, whether by strict religious mores or the threat of going hungry. Ideally, in Murray’s view, it’s both.
The fact that these family trends have accelerated even as the U.S. has cut back much of its welfare state would seem to undercut Murray’s argument. Unless, that is, you believe that any government support at all encourages indolence. And Murray does. The only major increase in government social spending has come in the category of Social Security and Medicare, which take care of old people after they work. But maybe those programs let the working and middle classes work less hard, since they don’t have to fully support their parents in old age.
And maybe if we all had to rely exclusively on our kids to take care of us, we’d try harder to make sure they’re thrifty, honest and industrious; that they either don’t have kids before they’re married (or if they slip, they get married ASAP). In fact, maybe we’d do away with child labor laws entirely, and have them help support the household, the way Newt Gingrich thinks they should. Maybe we’d all stay on a hamster wheel of nonstop work, until we dropped dead in our pre-assigned places.
That’s always been the formula the rich use to scapegoat and exploit the poor, of course. Shame, stigma and deprivation are every bit as crucial as honesty, industry, religious belief and marriage in creating the world Murray envisions.
At bottom, Murray’s old genetic fatalism undoes him in “Coming Apart.” Clearly the new lower class can’t be helped by government programs, but Murray doesn’t seem to think they can climb into the upper class by hard work and self-discipline either. Ultimately, he believes the sorting and separation of the classes is inevitable, given the cognitive intelligence differences between them. And here we’re back to IQ again.
Modern society is vastly more unequal, Murray believes, because we’ve created a new sorting mechanism – college, but particularly the elite colleges – that identifies the best and brightest and lets them find one another. Kids of the upper class marry kids of the upper class at least partly because they wouldn’t find partners who would understand them in the new lower class. But even when some benighted lower-class kids manage to climb into Harvard or Yale, they’re not going back either, Murray says. Isolated in their old world of cognitive intelligence losers, they’ve finally found a place where they can be themselves.
Thus the only real way to address the growing gap between the wealthy and the rest of us, Murray argues, is to implore the white uber-class to take more of an interest in the growing underclass. But taking more of an interest, in Murray’s view, basically involves latte-town liberals realizing the only thing that will save the lower class is more self-discipline, and therefore abandoning their traditional support for government programs that try to help them, but only make things worse. Murray takes pains to show that the four most Super of the SuperZips – New York, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area – are also the home of our liberal media and government elite, seeking to prove that the country is being governed by the people who are most isolated from the rest of America.
These liberal elites bear special blame for the problems of the new lower class, because they refuse to face the truth as Murray tells it:
There are genetic reasons, rooted in the mechanisms of human evolution, why little boys who grow up in neighborhoods without married fathers tend to reach adolescence not socialized to the norms of behavior that they will need to stay out of prison and hold jobs….[Liberals] will have to acknowledge that the traditional family plays a special, indispensable role in human flourishing and that social policy must be based on that truth.
Murray tries to correct some of his past mistakes by professing to believe that the lessening of prejudice and discrimination against African-Americans and women was a long overdue victory for justice. Meanwhile he derides “big government,” without which those goals wouldn’t have been achieved, and demands that we return to the traditional family, which makes real equality for women impossible. Murray promises that this will be his “valedictory,” his last book trying to win us over to his libertarian politics and traditionalist values. That’s probably good for everyone, since this new effort simply dresses up his old arguments in a different color, white rather than black.
But maybe one more piece of evidence that the right regards them with the same contempt that they once reserved for poor African-Americans will wake up the white working class to the way the GOP’s politics of scapegoating minorities in fact helped one tiny minority: the top 1 percent.
Joan Walsh is Salon's editor at large and the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."More Joan Walsh.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)