Frank Furedi reviews the latest book by Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.
The nineteenth-century British politician Benjamin Disraeli once characterised ‘the rich and the poor’ as ‘two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets’. It is a description that applies uncannily to contemporary American society.
I recall the first time I travelled to America — back in 1967 — having a discussion with my then girlfriend about how difficult it was to distinguish between the well-off and the not so well-off people on the streets of the places we visited. That was then. When I visit these days, I am struck by the contrast in appearance between rich and poor white citizens. They now look so different. They eat different food; they pursue different cultural interests; they speak differently; and, most important of all, they communicate values and attitudes that are often strikingly at odds with one another. It is all very redolent of the kind of social and cultural polarisation so prevalent during the nineteenth century.
Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, Charles Murray’s exploration of the socioeconomic segregation that divides the US, is a valiant attempt to give a coherent account of this polarisation. What is important about Murray’s discussion of the intensification of the socioeconomic segregation of America is that it shows not simply the economic but also the cultural drivers of this process. So differences in income and living standards, and growing economic inequality, are also paralleled by a divergence in ‘core behaviours and values’. For example, Murray focuses on divergent attitudes towards marriage, industriousness, honesty and religion to demonstrate the disturbing fact that upper-class and lower-class Americans inhabit very different moral communities. His thesis is that this polarisation of cultural attitudes threatens the coherence of society and puts the American project at risk.