"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)
I debated Charles Murray today on WBUR’s “On Point” with Tom Ashbrook. You can listen to it here.
I shouldn’t admit this, but I almost didn’t review Murray’s “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960 to 2010.” I told my editors it was just a mashup of his two most infamous books, “Losing Ground” and “The Bell Curve:” Welfare programs make poverty worse, not better, and social support can’t help the poor and struggling rise up, anyway, because they’re low-IQ losers. Only in this book, Murray confined his analysis to poor and struggling white people, to defuse charges of racism that greeted his two earlier bestsellers. I decided to write about the book anyway, but I thought it would be of little interest except to wonky people like me.
What do I know? “Coming Apart” is No. 9 on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list, and it’s been reviewed, with varying degrees of respect, almost everywhere that matters. The good news is, even on the right, some critics reject Murray’s fatalism. I practically never agree with the New York Times’ Ross Douthat, but in his review of “Coming Apart,” he acknowledges that finding “ways to make it easier for parents to manage work-life balance when their kids are young” might help working-class families stay together, and maybe even more important, that “high incarceration rates” are to blame for the shortage of men in low-income communities. Douthat and I found some common ground there, thanks to Charles Murray.
David Frum, a conservative with whom I agree more frequently, wrote a magisterial five-part takedown of Murray’s book here. Frum writes about something I’ve been harping on lately: the way government worked to create the American middle class after the twin shocks of the Great Depression and World War II. He notes that the so-called greatest generation was also “the statist generation,” and ties the troubles of the white working class to the decline of industries as well as policies that once provided it with security and economic mobility. Contrary to Murray’s depiction of a golden, harmonious age of unfettered capitalism, Frum shows that it wasn’t unfettered capitalism that created the mythical middle class; it was quite fettered capitalism.
I winced at one line in Frum’s review, though, and that’s when he noted that he still admires “Losing Ground.” I’m not sure how Frum can be so right about “Coming Apart” and so wrong about “Losing Ground.” Murray’s 1984 work held that poverty programs were to blame for worsening poverty, since they supposedly rewarded indolence and punished two-parent families, and he paid special attention to rising rates of welfare recipiency and single parenthood in low-income black communities. Since then, we sponsored a massive social experiment based on Murray’s claims: We ended welfare as we knew it, requiring that recipients either work or engage in serious job training and capping eligibility at two years consecutively and five years lifetime. While it may have (briefly) looked as though welfare reform encouraged industry in the underclass, more poor people got jobs in the 1990s largely because there were more jobs for the getting: 22 million were created in the eight years of the Clinton administration. Those trends have since reversed, and all the while rates of single motherhood continued to climb. Murray was as wrong about black families in 1984 as he is about white families today.
“On Point” host Tom Ashbrook did a great job parrying Murray’s claims, but we didn’t spend much time discussing Murray’s genetic fatalism. This book continues where “The Bell Curve” left off: It warns that the nation is splitting into a highly educated, highly privileged elite (the residents of his composite “Belmont”) and an increasingly large lower class (the denizens of fictional “Fishtown”). At bottom, though, Murray believes that the widening gulf is due to modern society finding better ways to identify and reward the highly intelligent among us. And since IQ is “intractable” – Murray no longer uses the words “genetic” or “innate” – the various ways we decide to structure society and create opportunity won’t make much of a difference. As I come from a people – Irish Catholics – whose median IQ has climbed along with the opportunities provided to us, I know that Murray is wrong. IQ is not destiny.
I’ve written at length about my problems with the book, and with Murray’s attributing the success of America’s uber-class to their industriousness and religiosity along with their superior intelligence. I don’t need to rehash it. But in preparing for the debate I found an interesting exchange in an online chat hosted by the Wall Street Journal that displays Murray’s thinking on these issues even more clearly than his carefully phrased and (slightly) nuanced book does. One reader asked whether predatory banking conditions in low-income communities might play a role in their unraveling, and Murray quite simply said no.
We’re talking about IQ more than culture. It helps to be living in a neighborhood where smart actions about money are common, but the main breakdown is IQ. Lots of smart people in Fishtown do the right thing, but (politically incorrect warning) there are more smart people in Belmont than in Fishtown.
If you’re looking for a quick synopsis of “Coming Apart,” you’ve got it right there.
Murray closed our debate by telling Ashbrook that he’s pessimistic about reversing these trends. I said I’m optimistic. I joked on Twitter today that my (almost finished) book is a rejoinder to Murray’s pessimism. Maybe I’ll call it “Coming Together: How the White Working Class Woke Up and Realized the Right Now Thinks They’re Dumb and Lazy, Too.” Given the role of race and racism in dividing the Democratic Party, I believe the naked class bias of the GOP might help white working-class voters see that by voting Republican, they’re dismantling the opportunity society that once made success more widely possible.
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.
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)