Posted: May 5, 2012 in Culture, Debate, Economics, Television
Tags: , ,

I caught an episode of Real Time where Bill Maher interviews Charles Murray (see embedded video at bottom), the latter of whom became notorious with his book The Bell Curve and is now hawking a new book called Coming Apart. Murray is a psychometrician, a type of scientist Wikipedia describes as follows:

Psychometrics is the field of study concerned with the theory and technique of psychological measurement, which includes the measurement of knowledge, abilities, attitudes, personality traits, and educational measurement. The field is primarily concerned with the construction and validation of measurement instruments such as questionnaires, tests, and personality assessments.

Using psychometrics, a researcher can take the pulse of society and presumably make observations and spot trends virtually impossible to obtain through other means, but as Murray discovered, can also lead to killing the messenger if those observations run counter to conventional wisdom or cherished fables we tells ourselves, such as gender and racial equality, which we have not yet achieved or even really approached very closely in spite of earnest protestations pointing to great strides we have made. Psychometrics give the lie to those self-congratulations.

In the Real Time interview and in Coming Apart, Murray distances himself from the issue of race that was so problematic in The Bell Curve and tries to focus instead on social issues of white Americans from 1960 to 2010. However, Maher hammers away at underlying socioeconomic causes, namely, that concentration of “virtuous” attitudes and behaviors within the upper class is not because they are social leaders, models, or “elites” as Murray asserts but because their prerogatives are greatly enhanced by their wealth. In contrast, the middle and lower classes (the former getting sucked down into the latter) exhibit increasingly base attitudes and behaviors because of financial stresses and/or inhibitors. Both Murray and Maher make good points, but from my perspective, their respective punditry — at least in the soundbites that fit a TV interview, since I’ve not read the book — simplify very complex psychosocial and economic interactions.

My impression is that both gentlemen (social critics with much higher profiles than mine) believe that if psychometric information can be ascertained and interpreted correctly, social policy can be developed in government and American institutions (e.g., church and school) to encourage or inhibit desired outcomes. The trick is agreeing on desired outcomes, and for that matter, correct interpretations of underlying data. I think that’s a pipe dream, as cultures behave with the mindlessness of the mob, drifting and flowing with considerable resistance to being channeled openly and honestly with application of enlightened policy. Consider two of the dominant memes of the moment: personal freedom and the legitimacy of wealth inequality. We all desire freedom from restriction in our personal choices, be they foods and drugs, consumer and sexual habits, or speech and intellectual pursuits. Yet the great marketing and propaganda machines do in fact manage, by hook and by crook, to channel our options, in effect telling us what we should want via persistent hott-and-not lists, and the lackluster public response to civil liberties ebbing away in the nascent fascist and de facto surveillance state discomfits very few. Similarly, the ability of the so-called 1% to commandeer an entire economy for their own benefit is a quintessential example of the tail wagging the dog, where true freedom is quietly being removed and reserved for those who can afford it while the masses beg for scraps.

If I were to referee the debate, I’d probably give the nod to Murray, unpopular as his approach may be. Taking 1960 as the starting point (a golden moment assumed to exist then), limiting himself to data on white Americans (nope, no racism there), and projecting a nice, round fifty years forward to 2010 are arbitrary lines in the sand, and so, too, I suspect, are his social virtues, especially the Ozzie-and-Harriet type of family unit that was the presumptive model in 1960 despite its remarkable exceptionalism if one takes an even modestly longer historical view.

On the other hand, Maher’s social criticism is based on turning news bits into jokes, just like The Daily Show or The Onion. He’s clearly a news hound and is remarkably well informed (if one accepts the notion that attending to daily news ephemera is equivalent to being informed), and the writers and producers of his show undoubtedly provide ample support so that the jokes are well crafted, but the structure of the one-hour show forecloses development of mature, nuanced views and discussions. First there’s the opening monologue, then a one-on-one interview (typically either fawning or hostile — Murray’s was hostile), a shouting match panel discussion, another brief, fawning one-person question and answer, and finally New Rules, which closes out the show with puns and jokes in case the interviews and discussions got too heavy. None of these are sufficient to unpack the real complexities behind social issues, especially in the panel discussions where most participants are clearly elbowing each other for airtime with prefab content and bon mots. The show and its host succeed at their ostensible purpose — entertainment — but I would not look there for serious criticism or rely on Maher for substance over celebrity.

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