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'Coming Apart': Charles Murray sees an America divided, but not by race

'Coming Apart' by Charles Murray is being called an important book. But is it a good one?

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“I’ll be shocked,” writes noted conservative and New York Times columnist David Brooks, “if there’s another book this year as important as Charles Murray’s ‘Coming Apart.’”

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He goes on to praise Murray for bursting the ideological class-divide bubble both parties have been blowing hot air into: “Republicans claim that America is threatened by a decadent cultural elite that corrupts regular Americans, who love God, country, and traditional values,” Brooks writes. “That story is false. The cultural elites live more conservative, traditional lives than the cultural masses.”

Democrats claim America is threatened by the financial elite, who hog society’s resources. But that’s a distraction…The liberal members of the upper tribe latch onto this top 1 percent narrative because it excuses them from the central role they themselves are playing in driving inequality and unfairness.”

But New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait calls Brooks’ argument, above, a “sleight of hand” that Murray’s latest work has enabled conservatives to perform to “safely steer the [inequality] debate back onto comfortable conservative terrain.” 

“The appearance of income inequality on the political agenda has left conservatives casting about for a response,” writes Chait, "and after several months of floundering, it has increasingly narrowed down to two words: Charles Murray.” Chait goes on to write that the focus on deteriorating social norms is simply “an attempt to change the subject” from “the problem of income inequality.”

But perhaps the most impassioned critique comes from conservative Republican journalist and former speechwriter for George W. Bush, David Frum, in a review in the Daily Beast.

Frum calls “Coming Apart” “an important book that will have a large influence. It is unfortunately not a good book,” he writes, arguing that Murray details the social problems that have burdened the working class with “remarkable – and telltale – uncuriosity as to why any of this might be happening.”

“'Coming Apart' is an important book less because of what it says than because of what it omits,” he writes, “less for the information it contains than for the uses to which that information will be put."

No doubt “Coming Apart” will continue to divide readers. But if it sparks awareness, conversation, and hopefully, action towards uniting Americans, then perhaps it will have accomplished what it was after. 

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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