Tag Archives: The Athenaeum

Bigotry at the Ath: A Response to the CMC Forum

In the opening line of her recent Forum piece “Why is CMC Promoting Racism and Sexism?” CMC Freshman Liat Kaplan wrote, “I’m not going to summarize political scientist Charles Murray’s recent Ath talk here because if I do, the stress will probably give me a heart attack.” Bracketing a discussion of Kaplan’s coronary arteries, it’s clear that Kaplan should have consulted her notes on the talk – if she took any. Kaplan’s portrayal of Charles Murray’s Athenaeum talk is as false as her ill-thought-out cries of bigotry.

Kaplan asserts that during his speech Murray claimed “that poor people, especially people of color, are genetically predisposed to be less intelligent,” – a thesis which appears in Murray’s 1994 text The Bell Curve. This assertion is factually inaccurate, and wildly so. The subject of Murray’s Ath talk was his more-recent book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, a study on class inequality. Murray clarified in the first five minutes of his speech that he excluded race from consideration in Coming Apart, in order to pinpoint the effect of college admissions on class inequality. The words “The Bell Curve” never left Murray’s mouth.

As a preface to his talk, Murray carefully noted that he was only presenting sociological evidence, not a normative stance on the issue of class inequality. It is difficult to reconcile this very overt sidestep of ethical issues with Kaplan’s claim that in Murray’s address “whole swaths of humanity [were] categorically deemed inferior.” The only very vaguely sexist thing Murray said, over the entire course of the talk, was that wives tend to civilize husbands and make them more productive; however, he noted that this was putting “not too fine a point on it,” and added the caveat that this thesis was only one explanation for the empirical truth that married men tend to be more economically productive than their unmarried counterparts.

What claims did Murray make at the Ath? During his talk, Murray focused exclusively on his thesis in Coming Apart, which is that the new upper class and lower class which have formed in America diverge more sharply than ever before in terms of core values like family and community life. The causal story which Murray emphasized in his Ath talk was that the college admissions process tends to concentrate high-IQ persons together at elite colleges and universities, where they often marry each other, become members of the new upper class and have children who lead sheltered lives in their upper class social bubble. Members of the new upper class, on Murray’s account, are typically insulated from an authentic understanding of the lives of their lower-class counterparts, which poses a grave problem for democracy since, in most cases, America’s governing elite wind up being members of the new upper class – individuals with little understanding of the lives of their constituents.

A crucial point here is that Murray’s thesis in Coming Apart is compatible with a wide range of normative stances. Murray seemed to indicate that he didn’t favor a class of elites who had never lived outside the bubble, but rather thought that a healthy democracy required its leaders to understand the lives of all their constituents. This remarkably progressive vision strongly contradicts the elitism Kaplan attempts to read into Murray’s argument. And although The Bell Curve did not feature in Murray’s talk, a similar principle applies. Even if one accepts the empirical truth that average IQ varies along ethnic lines, one can still, of course, recognize that the evolutionary and historical forces which contributed to racial IQ disparities were arbitrary and oppressive, respectively – and ought to be corrected for through affirmative action or educational reform, for instance. The bottom line is that Murray’s Ath talk involved statistical data, not the highly offensive ethical claims Kaplan thought she heard. The reason students didn’t angrily condemn Murray as a racist or a sexist during the Q & A is that he didn’t defend anything even remotely close to a “racist” or “sexist” position.

My last Claremont Independent article argued that the censorship of oppressive viewpoints is virtually never justified, and, coincidentally, considered Murray’s The Bell Curve. So instead of critiquing Kaplan’s views on censorship here, I’d like to conclude this article with a discussion of the problem of bigotry.

In her article, Kaplan repeatedly characterized Murray as a bigot. A bigot is defined as “a person who strongly and unfairly dislikes other people, ideas, etc.” While Murray’s views may not align with Kaplan’s own, they emphatically do not make him a bigot.

Each of Murray’s views is the result of fair and thoughtful consideration – for instance, Murray recently changed his mind, on reflection and decided to support the legalization of abortion and same-sex marriage. Charles Murray is remarkably open-minded for a man Kaplan essentializes as a racist, sexist, “old white rich man who thinks that women and people of color are inferior beings.” Indeed, Murray is far more open-minded than Kaplan herself. While Murray grounds his viewpoints in statistical evidence and careful reflection, Kaplan writes angry tirades only marginally evidenced by a single peremptory Google search. While Murray favors the open exchange of conflicting viewpoints (and explicitly thanked Claremont McKenna for hosting exactly that kind of exchange at the Athenaeum), Kaplan favors a McCarthy-esque policy of censoring individuals with whom she harbors moral disagreement. Consequently, the true bigot in this episode is Kaplan. If Kaplan genuinely felt Murray’s talk dehumanized and devalued her as a human person, she has some serious soul searching to do.