Charles Murray speaking in 2013. / Gage Skidmore

From a Darling of White Supremacists, a Shrug and a “Who, Me?”

Bell Curve author Charles Murray wants students to know that he has nothing in common with Steve Bannon

Charles Murray speaking in 2013. / Gage Skidmore
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When Charles Murray took the podium at Columbia University last week, one thing became clear: here was a man used to denying his bedfellows.

You would think that the author responsible for The Bell Curve—the shoddiest piece of pseudoscience to appear in the 1990s—would have learned something from that book’s long and noxious afterlife. Once you invite white supremacy into your “scientific” process, you can’t say it was never there. When you start with the conviction that some races are intellectually superior to others, you’re bound to end there too—and the extremist ideas you unleash on the world are now yours to keep. Why pretend otherwise? But that’s exactly what Murray did Thursday night in a student center basement, addressing a small crowd of around seventy people.

Murray, it turns out, is not keen to be associated with the kind of far-right white nationalism now roosting in the White House, despite its more than passing resemblance to his own Bell Curve-era work. As protesters gathered outside of Lerner Hall clutching signs declaring “No Free Speech for Racists,” Murray asked the central question of his lecture: “Are Elites to Blame for Donald Trump?” But more than anything, he wanted us to know that he himself was not to blame.

The Murray of 2017 has little to say about the racial hierarchies he and Richard Herrnstein peddled in The Bell Curve (remember how it “must . . . be acknowledged [that] Latino and black immigrants are, at least in the short run, putting some downward pressure on the distribution of intelligence”?). Instead, he focuses on the divisions within white America and how to mend them—an indication of how carefully he has repackaged his sloppy sociology in recent years. Still, implicit in this shift is the suggestion that white America—his America—is the only one worth saving.

An artificial rift has opened up between an underclass of unskilled whites and a “new upper class” of white elites, Murray told the Columbia audience, lamenting that instead of working to repair the rift, too many are content to drown their sorrows “watching television and playing video games stoned.” Whatever happened to those who strove for a better order, in which each would know his rightful market- and morality-appointed place?

You would think that the author responsible for The Bell Curve would have learned something from that book’s long and noxious afterlife.

So far, Murray was sticking closely to the script of his latest book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010, published in 2012. It was when he attempted to update this script to account for the rise of Trumpism that his hand-washing, nose-holding “Who, me?”-ism really began to show.

The 2016 election, Murray explained, underscored how needlessly divisive America has become. A resentful white underclass, whipped into a frenzy of class resentment, rose up in revolt against the new elites, heedless of the moral bankruptcy of their leader, Trump. Though Murray may take pride in his pair of degrees from Harvard College and Massachusetts Institute of Technology—not to mention the three decades he has spent working in the intellectual bubble known as the think tank industry—he sees himself as an unbiased observer of this class war, standing outside it rather than within.

While American elites are the great divider, Murray is, by his own telling, a great uniter. He spent a good chunk of the evening bragging about his decision to move his family to a blue-collar town, stopping just short of, Believe me, I have tons of blue-collar friends. He was even more eager to tell us about his ability to influence others. One couple, he gleefully recounted, was so moved by the exhortations of Coming Apart that they abandoned their home in Greenwich, CT, in favor of a life of peaceful coexistence (each according to his own ability!) with the beer-drinking hoi polloi.

We, too, can be like him, Murray urged us. “I’m just saying get out of this claustrophobic class that we live in, and maybe you’ll love it,” he told the room. “And maybe you’ll even learn to love America.”

And here, in a nutshell, is the crux of Murray’s feinting act. How can Murray ask us to marvel at the force of his ideas even as he maintains that his most memorable ones—the scientific racism of The Bell Curve, for example—are just fangless, free-floating things, detached from any responsibility for the virulent white-nationalist movement that claims his work as inspiration?

Or to put it another way: Can a man cheered on by the likes of Radix Journal (published by Richard Spencer’s National Policy Institute), VDARE, and American Renaissance really convince us that he has nothing whatsoever to do with the twisted visions that dance before Steve Bannon’s lidded eyes?

Apparently, he can try. Though Murray contends that he has long ignored those critics at the Southern Poverty Law Center who dubbed him a “white nationalist” several years ago, he has scrambled to distance himself from the label in recent months. In late March—after protesters swarmed his appearance at Middlebury College—Murray took to American Enterprise Institute’s blog to “copy-edit” his own SPLC profile in an effort to downplay the emphasis on genetics and hereditability that characterized his early work. (Fear not, readers: Murray’s cross burning days in Iowa are behind him! And as for that money he received from a foundation whose original mission was to pursue “racial betterment”—well, it wasn’t all that much.)

Murray has worked even harder to obscure the similarities between him and the vulgarian Trump—if not in substance, then at least in style. His beef with Trump, he made clear throughout his talk at Columbia, isn’t so much an ideological one, though Murray contends that Trump isn’t a “conservative” in any meaningful sense of the word. Instead, he sees Trump as “a man without principle.” And while he’s careful not to invoke Trump’s name too often, Murray bemoans the vulgarity and dishonesty that now threatens our all-important “American creed.” (There is, it would seem, just one such creed, immutable and eternal.)

While American elites are the great divider, Murray is, by his own telling, a great uniter.

According to this view, Trump’s win marks the untimely death of America’s unique “creedal culture,” in which everyone—rich and poor, smart and stupid—got along just swimmingly. Diversity didn’t have to be divisive back then, because people were polite, and because men were men, and . . . well, you get the idea. A return to decorum is what we need now, according to Murray. Though this call for civil discourse may seem like a departure for the scholar whose seminal work columnist Bob Herbert described as a “scabrous piece of racial pornography,” it’s not. It’s just more of the same—more vitriol in sheep’s clothing, more “separate but equal,” more nostalgic fever-dreaming for a time before the sixties counter-culture started making trouble.

Hell, even Gavin McInnes—the VICE co-founder who now spends his time leading a “pro-Western fraternal association” called Proud Boys (and, evidently, attending dreary campus lectures)—is onto Murray’s act. As audience members began to file out of the lecture, McInnes remained behind to give some stray reporters an unvarnished assessment of why he wasn’t buying what Murray was selling. “He was talking about Rodney Dangerfield in Caddyshack, and he’s saying, ‘That’s who America is!’ . . . But that’s who Trump is,” he said. “I don’t understand why Murray can’t see that.”

Steve Bannon and his crassly vulgar boss have brought out Murray’s ideal America. So why is Murray pretending to turn up his nose at it? In this way, at the very least, Murray has found common ground with Trump, who is endlessly shrugging off the foulest deeds of his followers with a smug “Who, me?” grin. Both men can’t seem to own up to the company they keep.

Hannah Gais is The Baffler’s audience development associate and a curmudgeonly freelance writer. Her work has appeared in Pacific Standard, Commonweal, Outline, Al Jazeera America, U.S. News and World Report, First Things, and many more outlets that she’s too lazy to name. 

You can find her on Twitter @hannahgais.

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