Can You Pass the Beverly Hillbillies Test? Virginia Postrel on Charles Murray


Charles Murray has a new book out: Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. I haven't read the whole thing yet, but it's very much of an update of basic themes in The Bell Curve (read Reason's review by future Nobel Prize-winner James J. Heckman). For a taste of Coming Apart, read Murray's recent Wall Street Journal piece.

Former Reason editor Virginia Postrel writes up Murray's latest in her Bloomberg column. Anything she writes is worth a read, especially when it relates to how elites interface with the hoi polloi. At the heart of Murray's take is the belief that America's "new upper class" is pulling away from the rest of the culture (a theme that pervades The Bell Curve as well). Postrel argues that the notion that elites are somehow more alienated from the masses than they used to be is wrong.


"Instead of feeling sorry for the exceptionally able student who has no one to talk to," Murray writes, "we need to worry about what happens when exceptionally able students hang out only with one another."

As someone known for writing defenses of chain stores and explaining Plano, Texas, to puzzled pundits, I agree that way too many smart people, particularly on the coasts, are quick to condemn middle-American culture without understanding why people value one or another aspect of it. But they were even worse in 1963.

That's the second problem with Murray's fable: The cultural consensus was not just an illusion. It was an unhealthy one. Instead of promoting understanding, it fed contempt.

One piece of evidence is right on page 2 of the book: "The Beverly Hillbillies," the highest-rated TV show the week Kennedy was killed. As Murray points out, nearly a third of American households watched it on CBS every week—astounding numbers by today's standards. "The Beverly Hillbillies" was not just popular. It was, by most measures, the biggest hit in sitcom history. By its fourth week on the air, it had knocked Lucille Ball out of her top spot, and it only fell from the top 10 in its ninth and final season. It even saved "The Dick Van Dyke Show," a flop in its original slot, by providing a big lead-in audience in an era when it was hard to change the channel. In a true consensus culture, everyone would have loved it….

With five decades' distance it's clear that books as seemingly different as "The Organization Man," "The Lonely Crowd," "The Feminine Mystique" and "Atlas Shrugged" were really all about the same thing: the alienation and discomfort of gifted, independent-minded individuals in a society in which the "normal" ruled. The "cognitive elite" felt left out of or oppressed by the country's culture and, as a result, scorned it.

Now these people have one another. "People like to be around other people who understand them and to whom they can talk," Murray writes. "Cognitive segregation was bound to start developing as soon as unusually smart people began to have the opportunity to hang out with other unusually smart people." If you care about happiness, that seems like a good thing.

Interestingly, when smart people feel less alienated, they seem to buy different sorts of books. Instead of condemning American society for not honoring the author's personality or tastes, the new bestsellers explore the mysteries of human behavior. Think of Malcolm Gladwell's various books or Daniel Kahneman's "Thinking, Fast and Slow." Perhaps once you accept that people really are different—that nobody's normal and, at least when it comes to food or entertainment or vacations, there's no one best way to live—you can, paradoxically enough, start to think about the commonalities known as human nature.

More here.

The title of Postrel's piece comes from a quiz that Murray includes in the book (take it here). The goal of the quiz is to ascertain just how thick your "bubble" is—how hived off from mass culture you are. It's worth taking, especially if you fancy yourself either close to the masses or oh-so-alienated from them.

As something of a public service, I include below a full episode of The Beverly Hillbillies. It's the one where Granny mistakes an escaped kangaroo for a giant-sized jackrabbit. I read somewhere that when it aired, it became the highest-rated episode of TV (discounting specials, finales, etc) for many years. Certainly it showcases that The Beverly Hillbillies was a pretty smart and funny show, Newton Minow be damned.