Charles Murray Interview: On Trump, the chaos at Middlebury, and America’s greatest threat
American Enterprise Institute scholar Charles Murray will be speaking at Intellectual Takeout’s upcoming gala, an event that will be livestreamed on Facebook at 7 p.m. this Thursday.
A Harvard graduate who received his PhD in political science, Murray is the author of nearly 20 books, including his controversial bestseller The Bell Curve. A recipient of the Irving Kristol Award and the Edmund Burke Award, his work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and the Washington Post.
As a prelude to the event, we sat down with Dr. Murray to discuss the state of America’s universities, the Trump administration, and the recent riot at Middlebury College that ensued after the prolific scholar accepted an invitation to speak.
Q: I’ll get right to it. What was that experience like at Middlebury College? Were you frightened?
A: I wasn’t frightened when I was in the lecture hall and we heard the chanting going on outside. I wasn’t even frightened after Professor [Allison] Stanger and I completed our video presentations. Up until the moment we opened the doors to exit the building, I thought all the excitement was over.
But then to open the door and see guys in ski masks, that was scary. The thing is, you don’t get too frightened in that moment, because the adrenaline rush kind of takes care of all that.
But I did have a very strong sense I should not fall down. That I had better not let myself get pushed to the ground. I didn’t like the idea of being on the ground in the middle of that mob.
How deeply divided is America today?
It’s hard to exaggerate how divided we are. Hardly anyone now engages in a civil conversation with people who don’t agree with them politically.
I know very few people on the left who want to engage with the ideas of people on the right. And I’m sure it looks the same way to people on the left.
People are completely uninterested in dialogue. And, of course, those of us who were Never-Trumpers are especially aware of this, because we catch it from both sides.
Which is to say that the left thinks we ought to become liberals and they are mystified that we remain committed to principles of limited government.
The faithful Trumpists think that any criticism of their man is evidence of perfidy and wanting to sell out to the left.
Is technology—social media and so forth—causing some of these problems, or merely revealing them to us?
Technology plays a role in that it gives us unprecedented ability to talk only to people who agree with us. You can tailor your Twitter feed or your Facebook friendships to people who think exactly like you do.
Before we never had that option. Most of us didn’t, anyway. You lived in your neighborhood, and the neighborhood probably had a variety of political opinions in it. People said you’ve got to get along, so they’d still have dinner parties together and backyard BBQs. And those kind of discussions happened there.
Technology has enabled the partisanship. But the ultimate cause of it is that in the last three or four decades whoever controls the federal government has been able to enact policies that deeply offend the other side. That is unprecedented in American history.
Until the 1930s, Congress was constrained by the enumerated powers of the Constitution. After the 1930s, under Supreme Court rulings, the government was freed up to pass legislation on almost anything.
Having a majority in Congress became a whole lot more important. The polarization has been a product of that, I think.
How did our universities become what we see today, these incubators of intolerance?
The administrators. The administrators have it within their power to say that anyone who interferes with people trying to make a civil argument on behalf of a cause will be expelled. That would do it.
You don’t see it because the administrators are captive to the same ideology that the students are impassioned about: Social Justice.
The old ideal of the university—encapsulated by Harvard’s motto Veritas—is dead.
Some scholars, such as NYU’s Jonathan Haidt, have posited that Social Justice is a new sort of religious fundamentalism in America, with its own blasphemies and dogmas. Do you agree with that assessment?
Absolutely. I want to specify that it is primarily in the social sciences and the humanities. But within that caveat, the professors who are willing to stand up for the old idea of free speech are few and far between.
Middlebury is a good case in point. Before my visit a petition was circulated and signed by a few dozen professors saying I should be disinvited. They were all from the social sciences and humanities, especially sociology, anthropology, women’s studies, and ethnic studies.
After the Middelbury affair, another petition was signed by a lot of professors on behalf of free speech in the traditional sense. Almost all of them were from the hard sciences.
The cleavage within the university is clear. The harder the science, the harder the support for free speech. The softer the science, the more it’s being rejected.
Could The Bell Curve be published today? Would a publisher even touch it?
Yes. I don’t want to go into detail on why I know that. But the short answer is that there remains pockets within the publishing world that are willing to take a chance on a book like that. If nothing else, The Bell Curve reached number two on the New York Times Best Seller list. (It never got to number one because the Pope had recently published his autobiography.)
The publishing industry is still a for-profit industry. But beyond that, look at Nicholas Wade’s book. Nicholas Wade, formerly a science writer for The New York Times, published A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History, which directly delves into the issue of race and genes.
I’m not familiar with that book.
Well, there’s a reason for that. It was almost like there was a conspiracy of silence. It was almost as if in academia they said, “Well, look at what happened when we protested The Bell Curve. It made it a bestseller. Let’s just not talk about this.”
But the book itself deals with things associated with genes more directly than anything in The Bell Curve. It was a very good book, very seriously written. And it got published.
When you and Richard Hernstein wrote The Bell Curve, were you expecting it to be controversial? Were you surprised by the reaction to it?
Yes and yes. (laughs)
We expected some controversy. But we also thought we had been very good about making it clear what a minor issue race and IQ was relevant to the thesis of the book. And we also thought we had done a very good job of describing the race differences in a way that was humane and not hysterical.
We thought we might actually be doing a public service by defusing the issue. On that, of course, we were completely wrong.
The intensity of the controversy has always centered on this one paragraph, in which we made the mildest of statements.
(Murray references this paragraph in The Bell Curve: If the reader is now convinced that either the genetic or environmental explanation has won out to the exclusion of the other, we have not done a sufficiently good job of presenting one side or the other. It seems highly likely to us that both genes and the environment have something to do with racial differences. What might the mix be? We are resolutely agnostic on that issue; as far as we can determine, the evidence does not justify an estimate.)
That is the entire discussion of anything that could be considered advocating the position that there is a genetic component to the black-white IQ differences.
Anyone who takes a serious look at this very complicated issue will see something. The judicious way of covering your behind scientifically is to say both causes are involved because it’s too hard to make a case that it’s entirely one thing or the other.
I found it interesting that you’re not a particularly religious man—a self-described agnostic—but you’re calling for a religious awakening. Are you a Christian utilitarian in the William James mold? (i.e. It might not be true, but it’s good.)
(chuckles) Well, that was actually the view many of the Founders took. Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson took that view.
But that’s not quite mine. I am a self-described agnostic, but I am increasingly shaky in my unbelief.
I’ve always been sympathetic to religion, especially the Christian religion and more broadly the Judeo-Christian tradition. In recent years, I’ve been moving closer to getting off the fence.
But having said that, I think the Founders were correct in saying that a free society depends on a people who are self-governing. Self-governing in the sense of individuals governing their own individual selves, and that self-government for an entire people without religion is impossible.
That creates a real problem for us today, because the society is increasingly secular. It seems to me that what is going on in society vindicates the Founders’ viewpoint.
I realize you don’t believe there is a political solution to the challenges America faces; you’ve said as much. But I have to ask: How is Donald Trump doing so far?
The bright side: Neil Gorsuch. Everyone points it out, and it’s true. We have a superb new Justice to the Supreme Court, and not just because he is closer to me ideologically than some of the others. I think evidence suggests he is one of the finest legal minds of his generation.
You have other appointments. People at some of the agencies are excellent. Scott Gottlieb at the FDA is superbly well-qualified. He is going to make a difference in having drugs approved – with appropriate safeguards. He may be able to break up this logjam at the FDA.
There are others, and I suspect you’ll have many more. Because Trump himself is not real interested in the nuts and bolts of governing. Insofar as he has people like Peter Thiel helping him nominate people in some of the more technical positions, I expect we’ll see some very talented nominees. That’s the good news.
And the bad news?
Well, I’m in favor of Trump’s goal of bringing the regulatory state under control, but that brings us to it. Trump is making all of these lavish promises about regulations and how they’ll be cut. And listening to him, the man clearly doesn’t understand a thing about how the regulatory state functions. He doesn’t understand the independence of the regulatory agencies. He doesn’t understand the intransigence of the bureaucracy in undermining presidential actions. To be effective you have to have someone who is adept at using presidential power. And Donald Trump is utterly incompetent at using presidential power.
I enjoyed reading your reflections on popular culture in Coming Apart, particularly those on television. Do you and your wife have any favorite television shows?
Our problem is that these days there is more good TV than anyone has time to watch. We basically have dinner every night in front of the television.
What are we watching now? The Vikings. Fargo. I loved Breaking Bad—my wife not so much—so I am currently watching the second season of Better Call Saul.
Were there any authors or books that inspired you as a young man? Books that awoke something inside you?
Ayn Rand as a teenager. In later life, I read Aristotle and it made an impression. When I read Aristotle’s Ethics as a first-year student at Harvard my eyes glazed over. And then I went back to it in my early 40s, and realized the deep way in which Aristotle was right. His understanding of living an even life. His concepts of happiness. He was profoundly right and he shaped a lot of my writing since then.
Anarchy, State, and Utopia by Robert Nozick was another book that blew me away for just its sheer incandescent brilliance. That one has also provided me with a lot of fodder for some of the things I’ve written.
I asked you about Trump. What are your thoughts on Barack Obama’s presidency?
He was any empty suit. He had such possibilities. The country was so open to a man who was genuinely bipartisan, who genuinely reached across aisles to compromise.
He had a unique opportunity to bring this country together. He utterly blew it. In part because he was unwilling to do the work. He loved to bask in his image, and he had lots and lots of people who were willing to tell him how wonderful he was.
It was a historic opportunity lost.
(RELATED: Listen to Charles Murray speak to Justice and Drew on TwinCities NewsTalk)
What is the primary threat to America today? Climate change? ISIS and Islamic fundamentalism? Cultural nihilism? What?
The formation of a new upper class that has great wealth and power but also great contempt for ordinary Americans. That is completely un-American. The whole point of America is that we didn’t have a class structure akin to Europe’s. Now we do.
We will continue to be rich and powerful, but we won’t be America any more unless we somehow return to a more traditional understanding of the things that bind Americans together, instead of focusing on the things that separate us into social classes.
Image Credit: Gage Skidmore bit.ly/1jxQJMa