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Our Two Tribes: David Brooks Weighs in on Charles Murray

David Brooks has weighed in Charles Murray’s controversial (but undeniably engaging) Coming Apart.  That’s appropriate, of course, because Murray’s description of our meritocratic elite depends so much on Brooks’ earlier description of our bourgeois bohemians.

Brooks’ judgment on Murray: “I’ll be shocked if there’s another book that so compellingly describes the most important trends in American society.”

Brooks is unparalleled as a summarizer and popularizer of social science.  So we do well to note what he finds especially noteworthy about Murray, with my spin added, of course.

  1. The income gap between rich and poor is wider than ever.
  2. But the word “class” doesn’t describe that gap adequately.  American is divided into two “social tribes,” two comprehensive and segregated ways of life.
  3. The “upper tribe” inhabits “an archipelago of affluent enclaves clustered around the coastal cities.”  Its members move, with their kind, from one enclave to another.
  4. More important than the huge differences in income are “the big behavior gaps.”  They didn’t exist, say, in 1963, when almost all men in both classes were in the labor force and almost all kids weren’t “born outside marriage.”
  5. The behavior of the upper tribe is surprisingly “traditional.”  Its members have gotten over the flaky excesses of the Sixties’ “Do your own thing,” “free love,” and that.  Their residual radicalism is all talk. They are reliable spouses and parents.  Their divorce rate is low. Their families are, as the experts say, bourgeois.  
  6. They understand that “bohemian” enjoyment depends on bourgeois habits, and so I’m surprised Brooks didn’t say straight out that they’re more bourgeois bohemian than ever.  A Darwinian might add that they should be having more children.  The members of our upper tribe don’t seem all that erotic, but they’re often all that entrepreneurial, innovative, and all those other Harvard Business School buzzwords.
  7. The “upper tribe” is richer not because of hereditary privilege but because it is more productive than ever.  It is a meritocratic tribe based on education and I.Q.  Its members understand themselves, not without reason, to deserve the money and status they have.  That’s why “liberal guilt” is becoming an oxymoron.  And that’s why our liberals are morphing into libertarians. (One characteristic of meritocracy, of course, is the vice of ingratitude.)
  8. Even empathy—which is more weak than charity or paternalistic responsibility—depends on common experiences.  And the tribes have fewer common experiences than ever.
  9. Members of the lower tribe “are much less likely to get married, less likely to go to church, less likely to be active in their communities, more likely to watch TV excessively, more likely to be obese.”
  10. Someone might want to say that the upper tribe is smarter and fitter (or at least thinner) and the lower tribe stupider and fatter than ever.
  11. That seems mean.  But consider:  The new meritocracy is based on education and I.Q.   And the gap between whole-food eaters and fast-food eaters might be more pronounced than ever.
  12.  Certainly the members of the lower tribe seem to lack what it takes to be self-disciplined and productive social animals.  Life, for them, seems more “disorganized” or anxious and insecure than ever. And that’s why they take refuge in the mindless diversion of TV, which is mainly for them.
  13. They want to do better than they are;  their values are far more bourgeois and traditionalist than their actual behavior.
  14. The members of the lower tribe are disoriented and out of control.  They’re not displaying the healthy social behavior that Darwin attributed to members of our species, and that used to be displayed by all our classes. 
  15. Particularly telling, perhaps, is the declining role of the churches in socializing and regulating the moral behavior of the lower tribe.
  16. Some conservatives say that this tribal divide is caused by the culture of dependency encouraged by our welfare state.  I’m not that kind of conservative.  And I dismiss that explanation as anything approaching the main cause.
  17. A Marxist would say that as capitalism develops—as the division of labor is globalized and otherwise perfected in the direction of productivity and efficiency—the gulf between the bourgeoisie who do mental labor and the proletariat who do physical (or at least unmental, machine-like) labor becomes more stark.  The lives of the “petty bourgeoisie” (small property owners) are proletarianized.  The safety nets—such as unions and churches and neighborhoods and even families—on which people have relied are eroded by the rigors of market competition.  As a result, the lower tribe is deprived of the moral contents of life.
  18. It goes without saying that the Marxist explanation is incomplete and very much exaggerated.  But we can wonder whether it’s completely untrue.  A real Marxist would say that it’s laughable to believe that there could be an enduring government remedy to our increasingly pronounced and demoralizing division into tribes. 
  19. I could go on and explain why Brooks’ recommendation of compulsory national service wouldn’t work as such a remedy, but I’m out of space or at least patience.
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