ickard Herrnstein and Charles Murray might not feel at home with Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Lani Guinier, but they should. However vast the differences between Mr. Moynihan's ill-fated report on the black family, Miss Guinier's remarkable attempt to resurrect Calhoun's concurrent majority, and the message of The Bell Curve, they have all been brave attempts to force a national debate on urgent matters that will not go away. And they have met the same fate. Once again academia and the mass media are straining every muscle to suppress debate. That the liberal and radical Left is doing so in the name of multicultural diversity merely proves that, contrary to the ignorant complaints of right-wingers, the Left does have a sense of humor--of sorts.
The New York Times has led the way. The editors, apparently appalled that their usually PC Sunday Book Review treated The Bell Curve fairly, immediately launched a day-by-day campaign on their op-ed page, in their letters-to-the-editor column, and in their own editorial space--a campaign marked not so much by gross distortion, puerile reasoning, and "McCarthyite" slander as by flagrant lying about the contents of the book.
So what else is new? But they may well accomplish their objective if conservatives and others committed to the rational discussion of burning issues rise to the defense of this thoughtful, challenging, and deeply flawed book by papering over its grave weaknesses, its carelessness, and its self-defeating tendencies. If the debate becomes polarized in that fashion, The Bell Curve may sell well, but its honorable larger purpose will be defeated.
The Bell Curve has much to offer. Its excellent analysis of the transformation of the American elite deserves high praise and a many-sided elaboration and critique, as do its cautious and modest proposals for reforms that, happily, do not fit any particular ideological pigeonhole. And the authors get three cheers for their ruthless exposure of the powers that be who cynically preach antielitism while they practice a sinister elitism that assaults our family life, educational institutions, and political culture. Whether we can build on the constructive efforts of The Bell Curve will depend heavily on our willingness to separate wheat from chaff and, especially, to challenge the book's incoherent treatment of race.
For incoherent it is. Herrnstein and Murray begin by rejecting "race" as a category that will not stand scientific analysis--as a category at best useless and at worst pernicious. They then go on for more than eight hundred pages to explore the ramifications of the category they have rejected. They use sleight of hand, speaking throughout of "ethnicity." Well then, why do they lump all blacks together? Where, apart from a few inadequate and unhelpful remarks, do we find an examination of the ethnic differences among blacks in, say, performance on IQ tests? And the same criticism could be extended to the treatment of whites, not all of whom might respond to other comparisons with the equanimity they show for comparisons involving blacks. Personally, I am pleased to be told that blacks are not as smart as Sicilians, but I would not recommend that anyone try to tell me that Sicilians are not as smart as WASPs or Jews.
Herrnstein and Murray insist that genetic endowment plays a significant role in intelligence--they do not, as mendacious critics charge, make it the whole story--and that IQ scores are in fact meaningful and must be taken into account. I find nothing here to have a kitten over, although, as I hope they would acknowledge, the state of scientific investigation should render all generalizations tentative and subject to further research. To be sure, liberal critics seem determined to suppress such research, lest it end in ideologically unpalatable findings. The trouble with suppression is that it will not work: sooner or later the truth will out. Still, Father Neuhaus and other conservatives may be excused for suggesting that civilized societies have always found it prudent to restrict the range of public discussion when it threatens to rend society to no good end.
And here the authors come close to a plunge into socially dangerous irresponsibility when they insist that blacks, considered not individually but as a group, have lower intelligence than whites. If race is an unsustainable category, and if we lump all blacks and all whites together in that unsustainable category, exactly what, we may ask, is the subject of this discussion?
Herrnstein and Murray slip into chilling naivete, if not disingenuousness. Incredibly, they argue that whites need not be led into discrimination against individual blacks just because the collective IQ ratings of blacks fall below those of whites. Each person, they solemnly aver, should be taken as an individual and treated accordingly. What world do they live in? Do they seriously believe that any such sermon would, could, or should dictate the policy of employers with bills to pay, payrolls to meet, and profits to make? May I suggest that employers would have to be either saints or idiots not to be influenced by the collective statistics in choosing between competing individuals? The state could, of course, intervene to make employers act like saints or idiots, but Herrnstein and Murray advocate no such political program.
Conversely, do they seriously believe that the allegedly scientific demonstration of the inferiority of blacks as a group would not have devastating effects on the ability of black individuals to cope with the discrimination described at length in this book? Individual blacks would have to rise to heroic stature to resist such an assault on their self-confidence. And I do wonder if Herrnstein and Murray have reflected on the probability and consequences of the caste war between mulattoes and blacks that their argument invites. Once again, they may tell us that we must always be ready to face the truth bravely, but there is nothing brave, wise, prudent, or sensible in proclaiming a "truth" based on an unsustainable category of analysis that threatens society with civil war and threatens individuals with unspeakable and unnecessary pain in their everyday lives.
Given the explicit opposition of Herrnstein and Murray to racism and discrimination, given their no less firm commitment to the treatment of each person as an individual, and given their thoughtful proposals for improving the position of blacks in American society, how are we to understand their obsession with racial categories, the justification for which they reject at the outset? By proceeding as they have, they have done a disservice to themselves and to their salutary program of social reform by deflecting what should be a discussion of a wide variety of pressing problems onto terrain on which constructive discussion will be difficult to conduct. Which is too bad. For this is on balance a rich and valuable book, the constructive features of which far outweight its mischievous nonsense.
The most valuable contribution of The Bell Curve lies in its exposure of the egalitarian swindle that is being promoted not only by a deranged Left but also by an ideologically driven free-market Right that reduces people to individual units in the manner of discrete commodities in the marketplace. (And be it noted: since free-market right-wingers also have a sense of humor--of sorts--they promote this twaddle while they preach family, religious, and community values, which the consumer choice and radical individualism of the marketplace have everywhere been undermining.) Herrnstein and Murray bluntly call upon us to learn--or, rather, relearn--to live with inequality. God bless them for it. But we dare not forget that it is inequality among individuals that remains the issue. It will take a maximum effort to bring a high-spirited American people, whose virtues do not include a readiness to accept authority or limits on what men may accomplish in this world, to a realistic appraisal of the narrow range within which it is sensible to speak of equality.
No such political effort will have a prayer without maximum intellectual clarity. The greater part of this infuriating book contributes manfully to that clarity. The lesser part--which is getting all the attention, thanks in part to the authors' obsession with a pointless, not to say destructive, sideshow--threatens to ruin the project. We must not let that happen.