A man is stealing your home, poisoning your food and burning the forests around you, all the while explaining why you should thank him. Maybe you are allowed to question his genius, and maybe he answers. Some nod; others frown.
And you watch the flames rise, knowing at least you have engaged in “discourse.”
Last week, I learned via Facebook that the American Enterprise Institute plans to bring Charles Murray to speak at Duke. Finding little background information listed, I compiled some myself to add to the page.
The note I quickly composed included, among others, the following details:
Charles Murray is perhaps best known for the 1994 book he co-authored, “The Bell Curve.” A columnist at the New York Times called it “a scabrous piece of racial pornography,” blasting the thesis that black people are genetically less intelligent than whites as “just a genteel way of calling somebody a n----r.” Months after its publication, a FAIR report found that “nearly all of the research Murray and [his co-author Richard Herrnstein] relied on for their central claims about race and IQ was funded by The Pioneer Fund,” which has been described as a “neo-Nazi organization” by the Telegraph. The Fund’s founder, Wickliffe Draper, supported shipping blacks back to Africa, and its first president, Harry Laughlin, called for the forced sterilization of the “genetically unfit,” testifying in Congress that 83 percent of Jewish immigrants were “innately feeble-minded.”
Murray’s book lauds Laughlin as “a biologist who was especially concerned about keeping up the American level of intelligence by suitable immigration policies.”
“The Bell Curve” also acknowledges how it “benefitted especially from the advice of” Richard Lynn, identified as “a leading scholar of racial and ethnic differences.” A vocal eugenicist, Lynn is known for penning such charmers as: “What is called for here is not genocide, the killing off of the population of incompetent cultures. But we do need to think realistically in terms of the ‘phasing out’ of such peoples… Evolutionary progress means the extinction of the less competent. To think otherwise is mere sentimentality.”
Today, we find Charles Murray on a speaking tour for his latest book, “Coming Apart: The State of America, 1960-2010.” In it, he laments a diverging America where culturally and genetically inferior poor people largely reproduce among themselves, and the isolated rich hoard all their perfection. The problem isn’t, say, that an overwhelmingly white, male and educated group (call them “investment bankers”) have made record profits at the expense of minorities and the impoverished, along the way orchestrating a financial crisis that has intensified class inequalities and produced historic wealth disparities between white and minority households. It’s that the proles just haven’t been programmed into that kind of work ethic—poor things.
This is Charles Murray: a straight, white, libertarian man who, in high school, burned a cross on a hill with his buddies, a guy raised in a country club neighborhood where gentlemen like his father, a Maytag executive, “worked, golfed and voted Republican together.” He has built a career espousing a hierarchy of humans in which babies born poor, brown or female are responsible for their own miserable lot.
And, still, all of that would be fine if those of us poor, brown and female didn’t have to suffer by him. Because Murray’s talk—as some of the event’s organizers have tried to argue—is not simply about talking, as if in a coffee shop. It’s about lived relations of exploitation and the packaging in which they are marketed.
Someone may well pose a question after his lecture on October 28 that makes him look like a racist or sexist or worse, but will it matter? Bill Clinton has already cited him in his decision to slash welfare to struggling families, stating Murray “did the country a great service”—a country, incidentally, whose single mothers both work longer hours and live in deeper poverty than those in other high-income nations. Charles Koch, the billionaire industrialist who has invested millions of dollars opposing action on climate change, filling universities with rightwing economists and engineering Tea Party takeovers of states like North Carolina among other forays, names Murray as one of “the authors who have had the most profound influence on his own political philosophy.” The 170,000 jobless North Carolinians who’ve lost federal unemployment benefits, the half million denied Medicaid coverage, the 30,000 kids now without pre-K programs… one could say they all met Charles Murray before his upcoming visit. If only they could have had a little Q&A.
A common response to my opposition against such speakers as Charles Murray or David Petraeus mistakes my dissent for a desire for silence. Daylight as disinfectant for odious views, free and fair exchange, goes the refrain. Where, though, is the disinfectant for the exploitation excused by these views, the fairness in the vast sums spent by those who profit by turning them into policy?
No, all I want is to protest the world Charles Murray’s words perpetuate. He may preach that the powerful—those who can starve and sicken human bodies—are good and righteous, and we may have to listen in our lecture halls, legislatures and foreclosed living rooms.
But the bodies are ours, and with them we can build our own power.
We can walk out.
Prashanth Kamalakanthan is a Trinity senior. His column runs every other Wednesday. Send Prashanth a message on Twitter @pkinbrief.