Like a kind of acid reflux of the 90s, Charles Murray has returned to public life. Or to be more accurate, his long-time schtick has gained new exposure at least partly due to the protests against his appearance at Middlebury College. This was followed by a bunch of Very Serious People wringing their hands about liberal intolerance on college campuses and a self-satisfied Murray making the media rounds. Including, apparently, on the podcast of Islamophobe and all-around crank Sam Harris.
The interview itself doesn’t have anything to recommend it. Harris is in enthusiastic agreement with Murray about everything and unquestioningly accepts both his premises and conclusions. If you’re interested in the substance of Murray’s claims, you can do a lot worse than read this explainer by Turkheimer, Harden, and Nisbett, all of whom are professional researchers in the field of intelligence. That covers the scientific side of the question pretty thoroughly, but even so, it seems to me that a lot of the people responding to Murray are failing to understand exactly what he’s up to.
I think it should be fairly clear that Murray is not engaged in a standard scientific dialogue. He does not publish peer-reviewed literature, nor does he hold any actual academic position at any reputable institution. He can’t even be properly called a “popularizer” because his audience is not actually the public at large. What Charles Murray does is write policy documents targeted at a particular stratum of our intellectual class: the self-satisfied “wonk” who wants to imagine they are making decisions based on science but is too lazy to actually learn any.
Looking at Murray as a political advocate makes it clear why he’s engaged in the project of spreading garbage race science. It’s not a project that is, or has ever been, about discovering truth; what it has always been about was finding justifications for already-extant racial hierarchies. The upshot of most of Murray’s work is to argue that interventions to correct racial disparities are fundamentally misguided because any environmental intervention would be swamped by the genetic inferiority of black people. This provides a very convenient reason to achieve many of the desiderata of the conservative movement, chief among them the defunding public institutions and the reinforcement of the American system of racial stratification. If state interventions are shown to be a priori useless, then we can immediately dispense with any corrective measures that might cost money and inconvenience America’s white elite, such as school integration or anti-discrimination measures.
This is actually the game that Murray is playing, but the rules of American political discourse, even in its present debased state, make it difficult to argue this directly. That is the province of the outright fascists and white supremacists, those gauche elements of the conservative mass who provide the votes necessary for operationalizing this ideological program. In order to sell this to the more “elevated” conservative leadership, for whom displaying naked racial animus still contains a measure of the taboo, it has to be clothed in a scientific veneer, and it is Murray’s job to provide that veneer. Since the conservative establishment is constitutionally and intellectually hostile to the sort of genuine inquiry after truth that characterizes real research, it has to rely on simulacra generated by hacks like Murray. As an added bonus, it allows them to try to defeat science-minded liberals by their own logic: witness repeated conservative imprecations that it’s really liberals who are the ones who refuse to follow science to its logical end (that end being racial segregation and a dismantling of the welfare state).
This conservative argument trades on a fundamental dishonesty, a sleight of hand that transforms relatively anodyne questions such as genetic inheritance into questions of value. This blurring of the fact-value distinction is intended to achieve conservative aims that could not be achieved through the direct articulation of the those ends, for the simple reason that those ends are morally repulsive. So, an alternate path has to be found, and “serious” liberals are hoodwinked into going down that path. Instead of making that mistake, we should resist the collapse of this boundary. No matter what the Ayn Rand acolytes might say, questions of value and equity, justice and fairness, can never be reduced to mere questions of fact, whatever they might be. Genetic inheritance can never account for world in which black communities are consistently dispossessed or discriminated against, their wealth confiscated and their people systematically targeted by a system of mass incarceration. It cannot account for a world in which black children in Flint have to drink lead-tainted water, or a world in which black and Hispanic children in New York City are shunted into segregated schools that are starved of resources. Those things don’t happen because of genes, no matter what those genes are; they happen because we make them happen, because it is advantageous to an elite of white power for those things to happen. They are moral choices that we make as a society, and the job of a Charles Murray is to obscure those choices, to provide spurious rationales for making them so that polite society doesn’t have to look in the face of the horrors that it’s wrought.
In my view, the mistake made by well-intentioned interlocutors like Turkheimer et al. and others is that they either don’t understand or don’t acknowledge this basic ideological function of people like Murray. The debate still revolves around questions of scientific fact, despite the fact that research has long indicated that the simplistic conclusions proffered by Murray are entirely without justification. This is a failure to understand that Murray and his ilk are not engaged in scientific debate at all, but rather in an ideological project. Of course the fake science can and should be called out, but if there’s anything we’ve learned from the global warming debate, it’s that for the hacks the science won’t ever be settled. Murray’s successors will be writing the same books fifty years from now, just as Murray inherited the race science mantle from earlier generations of white supremacists. What needs to be realized is that we’re not going to get very far taking Murray seriously as a scientist; anyone debating him needs to treat him not as a serious interlocutor but as a propagandist. There is no value to be gained from treating any of this trash as intellectually respectable or worth rebutting for the hundredth time.
None of what I’m saying here is new; Stephen Jay Gould made these same points decades ago. But coming to terms with this would require white society to undergo a self-examination that it would rather not. Discussing the barely-hidden ideology of Murray and the attendant remora that have latched on to him in order to undermine the welfare state is the kind of impolite threat to The Discourse that cannot be tolerated. So instead, the boundaries of polite conversation are drawn and Charles Murray admitted therein, because he wears a suit and is employed by a “respectable” organization like AEI, and we all have to listen to insinuations that black people are subhuman and undeserving of equality. That’s an opinion that The Discourse is perfectly comfortable with.