Intellectual brown shirts.
It is certainly understandable that Murray - who, despite a Harvard/MIT pedigree, basically knocked around doing nothing special until the threshold of middle age, when in an epiphany he discovered the novel truth that people with power and privilege really are superior and that everyone else is defective - would avoid the "p" word. You know, like Dracula and mirrors.
The Bell Curve is a vile, disingenuously vicious book by two truly odious men, Murray and Richard Herrnstein, the Harvard psychologist known outside the academy - like his Berkeley counterpart, Arthur Jensen - for a more than twenty-year crusade to justify all existing inequality by attributing it to innate differences in intelligence. Murray's epiphany led to Losing Ground, in which he argued that the source of poverty among black Americans in particular, the so-called urban underclass, is the attempt to alleviate poverty through social provision. The welfare system, he argued, provides perverse incentives that encourage indolence, wanton sexual reproduction, and general profligacy.
Appropriately for a book bearing a 1984 publication date, Losing Ground proposed that the best way to help the poor, therefore, is simply to eliminate all social support. A regimen on the good old-fashioned model of root, hog, or die would shape up that lazy human dreck on pain of extermination. This argument made him the Reagan Administration's favorite social scientist and pushed him into a seat on the standing committee of the politburo of the social policy industry.
Imagine the celebrity of Thomas Malthus (maybe even an American Express commercial or a Nike endorsement?) if he could come back into a world with computers that do multiple regression analysis.
As their title implies, Murray and Herrnstein contend that the key to explaining all inequality and all social problems in the United States is stratification by a unitary entity called intelligence, or "cognitive ability" - as measured, of course, by "IQ." This claim has resurfaced repeatedly over the last seventy-five years only to be refuted each time as unfounded class, race, and gender prejudice. (See, for instance, Stephen Jay Gould's The Mismeasure of Man.) Yet The Bell Curve advances it with the same deluge of statistical and logical sophistries that has driven its predecessors.
Murray and Herrnstein reject a substantial body of scholarship discrediting the idea that there is some single thing identifiable as "intelligence" that can be measured and assigned numerical rank. Instead, they see rigid IQ stratification operating through every sphere of social life.
But The Bell Curve adds two new wrinkles. First is the claim that IQ stratification is becoming ever more intense and central in a supposedly postindustrial world that requires and rewards cognitive ability over all else. Second, they shy away from expressing the strength of their eugenic convictions, the memory of the Nazi death camps having not yet faded. Instead of direct endorsement of extermination, mass sterilization, and selective breeding, which nonetheless implicitly shadow the book, Murray and Herrnstein propose a world in which people will be slotted into places that fit their cognitive ability.
The effect will be to end resentment from and against those who seek more than their just deserts. Of course, we'll have to have controls to make sure that dullards do what is best for them and don't get out of line. But that price is necessary to avoid continuing the social breakdown that will eventually force the cognitive elite, increasingly merged with the intellectually ordinary petite bourgeoisie, to mobilize in self-defense and use its superior intelligence to establish itself as an oligarchic caste. We may, that is, have to destroy democracy to save it.
The Bell Curve is - beneath the mind-numbing barrage of numbers - really just a compendium of reactionary prejudices. Despite their insistence that it is not so reducible, the authors frequently infer "cognitive ability" from education or simply class position. For example, corporate CEOs must have high IQs, the authors decide, for how else could they have risen to lead large complex organizations?
IQ shapes far-sightedness, moral sense, the decisions not to get pregnant, to be employed, not to be a female head of household, to marry and to remain married to one's first spouse (presumably the divorced and remarried Murray has an exemption from this criterion), to nurture and attend to one's offspring, etc.
Simply being stopped but not charged by the police becomes evidence of an IQ-graded tendency to criminality. (White men who never have been stopped have an average IQ of 106; those who have been schlep along at 103.) Instructively, they restrict their analysis of white criminality to a male sample and parenting to a female sample. "Parents"=mothers. And while they examine abuse and neglect of children among this female sample, spousal abuse is mentioned nowhere in the book, much less considered a discrete form of male criminality.
The analysis of supposed white variation in IQ, though, is ultimately a front to fend off charges of racism. What really drives this book, and reflects the diabolical power of the Murray/Herrnstein combination, is its claim to demonstrate black intellectual inferiority. They use IQ to support a "twofer": opposition to affirmative action, which only over-places incompetent blacks, and contention that black poverty derives from the existence of an innately inferior black underclass. (They actually waffle on their key claim, that IQ is inherited and fixed by nature, but, having granted in passing that it may not be, they go on to treat it as immutable.)
As has been conventional to a stream of racism claiming scientific justification since Thomas Jefferson, Murray and Herrnstein feign a posture of neutral, if not pained, messengers delivering the indisputable facts. Since the book's publication, Murray has insisted that he and Herrnstein in no way want to be associated with racism, that the book is not even about race, which is the topic of only one of the book's twenty-two chapters. Beneath his distinctively sibilant piety, here, as elsewhere, Murray is a liar.
In addition to the infamous Chapter Thirteen, "Ethnic Differences in Cognitive Ability," three others center on arguments about black (and, to varying degrees, Latino) inferiority. The very next chapter, "Ethnic Inequalities in Relation to IQ," is a direct attempt to explain existing racial stratification along socioeconomic lines as the reflection of differences in group intelligence. The other two chapters in Part III seek to pull together claims about racial differences in intelligence and behavior. Those four chapters set the stage for the book's only two explicitly policy-driven chapters, "Affirmative Action in Higher Education" and "Affirmative Action in the Workplace," both of which are about initiatives directed toward blacks and slide into stoking white populist racism with hypothetical cases of poor or working class whites shunted aside in favor of under-qualified, well-off blacks.
Murray's protests suggest something about his views of race, however. The Bell Curve makes a big deal of restricting the eight chapters of Part II to discussion of whites alone. Whites, presumably, are also a "race," as much as blacks, Latinos, and Asians are. Therefore, well over half the book is organized consciously around race as a unit of analysis. Moreover, the theme of racially skewed intelligence runs through the entire book. And how could it be otherwise in a book whose point is that the society is and must be stratified by intelligence, which is distributed unequally among individuals and racial groups and cannot be changed in either.
Despite their attempts to insulate themselves from the appearance of racism, Herrnstein and Murray display a perspective worthy of an Alabama filling station. After acknowledging that genetic variations among individuals in a given race are greater than those among races, they persist in maintaining that racially defined populations must differ genetically in significant ways, otherwise they wouldn't have different skin color or hair texture.
Most tellingly, however, they attempt explicitly to legitimize the work of J. Philippe Rushton, the Canadian psychologist who resuscitates classic Nineteenth Century scientific racism in its most literal trappings - measuring cranial capacities, brain weights, and penis sizes to argue for racially separate rates and patterns of evolution. They announce self-righteously that "Rushton's work is not that of a crackpot or a bigot, as many of his critics are given to charging." This about a man who attempts racial rankings on "Criteria for Civilization" (only "Caucasoids," naturally enough, have met all the twenty-one criteria on his checklist) and "Personality and Temperament Traits," in addition to erect penis size (by length and circumference, no less) and who computes an "Interbreeding Depression Score" to help clarify his statistical findings!
The Rushton connection reflects a particularly revealing and sinister aspect of the Herrnstein/Murray collaboration. It is embedded in the intellectual apparatus of the cryptofascist right. The central authorities on whom they rely for their claims about IQ, race, and heredity are nearly all associated with the Pioneer Fund, an ultrarightist foundation that boasts of having been almost entirely responsible for funding IQ and race and heredity research in the United States in the last twenty years, and much of it worldwide. (Rushton, along with almost everyone else who writes jacket blurbs for his book, is a major recipient of Pioneer grants.)
The Fund is also deeply implicated in the movement to restrict immigration (see Ruth Conniff, "The War on Aliens" in the October 1993 issue of The Progressive) and has helped bankroll California's nativist Proposition 187. Wealthy American eugenicist racists created the Fund in the 1930s, as Stefan Kuhl recounts in The Nazi Connection: Eugenics, American Racism, and German National Socialism, to "'improve the character of the American people' by encouraging the procreation of descendants of `white persons who settled the original thirteen colonies prior to the adoption of the constitution.'"
Professor Barry Sautman of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology notes that this international network of racist scholars, quite like Herrnstein and Murray, recently has converged around tentative claims that Asians, especially Northeast Asians, rank above whites on the scale of competence. The researchers hold up this thesis, which is gaining adherents among Asian reactionaries, as a way of deflecting charges of racism.
What makes this international vipers' nest so dangerous is that many of its members have maintained academic respectability. Rushton, for instance, as recently as 1988 won a Guggenheim Fellowship. Others routinely do contract research for the U.S. military. Most hold respectable university appointments. I can't account for the others' legitimacy because their academic precincts are far enough away from mine that I don't have a sense for the protocols that govern them or what other kinds of scholarship they may do.
But Murray is a different matter. He has been an intellectual Brown Shirt since he first slithered into public life. He has neither changed nor done anything else that might redeem his reputation as a scholar. We can trace his legitimacy to the spineless opportunism and racial and ideological bad faith of the liberals in the social-policy establishment. They have never denounced him. Instead, across the board they have acquiesced in his desire to be seen as a serious and careful, albeit conservative, scholar. They appear on panels with him and engage him as a fellow worker in the vineyard of truth. They have allowed him to set the terms of debate over social welfare and bend over backward not to attack him sharply. Take a look, for instance at the first chapter of William Julius Wilson's catechism of liberal underclass ideology, The Truly Disadvantaged, and compare the way that Wilson treats liberal and left critics of the culture of poverty notion and the way he treats Murray.
Indeed, their response to The Bell Curve should give us important insight into just how bankrupt the new technicians of dispossession are. There's not much reason for optimism on this score. This past July, Daniel Patrick Moynihan announced at his Senate Finance Committee hearing on welfare reform that we could be witnessing the processes of "speciation" at work among the inner-city poor. And he did so with the assent of Secretary of Health and Human Services, Donna Shalala, and her two world-class liberal poverty-researcher under secretaries, Mary Jo Bane and David Ellwood (the originator of the "two years and off" policy who, incidentally, shows up in The Bell Curve's acknowledgements). Just how different is that from Rushton or the Aryan Nation or the old White Citizens Council?
Adolph Reed Jr. teaches political science at Northwestern University and serves on the boards of the Public Citizen Foundation and the Chicago-based Coalition for New Priorities. His column appears in this space every other month.
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|Title Annotation:||Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, authors of 'The Bell Curve'|
|Author:||Reed, Adolph, Jr.|
|Date:||Dec 1, 1994|
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