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How The Bell Curve Turned Charles Murray Into A Wine Collector

2012 February 24
by Mike

I don’t know if this qualifies as wine minutiae, scholarly minutiae, or some combination thereof. I do know that it is a tiny footnote to a controversial book and that I only discovered it because I am very adept at trivial pursuits, particularly when I’m looking to procrastinate. Anyway, given the fabulously erudite crowd that we have here, I thought some of you might find this interesting or at least amusing.

The famed political scientist Charles Murray is all over the news these days. He has a new book called Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010, which examines the economic, social, and moral decay of the white working class and how completely detached upper middle class Americans have become from this increasingly lumpen proletariat. Murray, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank, is best-known for a book that he published in 1994 with the late Richard Herrnstein entitled The Bell Curve, which looked at issues of class, race, and I.Q. and which many critics claimed amounted to an argument that blacks were innately less intelligent than whites.

I saw Murray being interviewed by Brian Williams the other night and was instantly reminded of something that had been a source of curiosity to me. Years ago, when I first started frequenting wine boards, I would often visit Robin Garr’s site, Wine Lovers’ Discussion Group, and I noticed that a person named Charles Murray seemed to be a regular there. At some point, it occurred to me—and I don’t recall exactly why—that this was very likely the Charles Murray of Bell Curve fame. However, I never confirmed that, and when I came across Murray while channel-surfing the other evening, my curiosity was reignited.

With a few clicks of the mouse, I found a bio that Charles Murray had posted on Garr’s site (the link doesn’t work, but if you Google “Wine Lovers Discussion Group biographies” and scroll through the names, you’ll come to Murray’s bio). In addition to confirming that it was indeed the same guy, the bio included some interesting details. Although Murray didn’t mention The Bell Curve, he indicated that the controversy surrounding the best-selling book (plus the money he had earned from it) had led him to take up wine collecting. “I had always enjoyed wine,” Murray wrote, “but about six years ago (this is written in 2000) I found myself with some discretionary income and the need to distract myself from some unpleasant things going on in my life (I had coauthored a book which people were saying extremely weird things about) and started a cellar.” There are lots of different paths to wine geekdom, but this was surely one of the more unusual ones. Murray went on to say that he had amassed a collection of around 2000 bottles. He had initially loaded up on California and Bordeaux but had since diversified to the Rhone, Germany, and Italy, and was now especially smitten with Burgundy (there may be different paths to wine geekdom, but they ultimately all converge in the same place—Place Carnot).

I haven’t read Coming Apart, so I don’t know if it includes anything about wine. It does, however, mention beer. The book includes a quiz called “How Thick is your Bubble?”, which is meant to test how attuned or out of touch members of the upper middle class are with working-class culture. One of the 20 questions is as follows: During the past year, have you stocked your own fridge with domestic mass-market beer? My answer was no (the beer question, incidentally, has generated some pushback). I took the entire quiz, and this was the result:

“On a scale from 0 to 20 points, where 20 signifies full engagement with mainstream American culture and 0 signifies deep cultural isolation within the new upper class bubble, you scored between 0 and 4.

In other words, your bubble is so thick you may not even know you’re in one.

Well, at least my bubble is stocked with decent wines (and, yes, most of them are French, as if that even needs to be said). I’d love to know if Murray keeps any Budweiser or Coors in his fridge and if he actually drinks the stuff, and what the status of his wine cellar is these days. Maybe he’ll stop by to answer those questions and to talk wine; my bubble may be thick, but I can assure him that it is a very welcoming place.

11 Responses leave one →
  1. Michael permalink
    March 5, 2012

    Dan, while you correctly point out some interesting particularities about the US relationship with intelligence, I think you may be woefully misinformed about who has wealth in this country. Certainly the idea of a 1% is a bit misguided as a specific indicator, and is better suited to its real job as a focusing point and touchstone, but to think that most of the very wealthiest in this county are transitory in that group is ridiculous. I agree with Mike’s take that social mobility in the US has strongly declined, and data bears that out, showing that real income vs. inflation has left more and more with less and less. Further, I would be willing to bet Romney-style that a strong majority of the top 1% (and an even stronger majority of the top .5%, .1%, etc) were born in that position and have seldom lost their membership cards.

    Oh, and I find that quiz to be quite poorly designed. Apparently I am not as enshrouded as Mike, faring the same as Bill, but also I “need to get out more” where getting out more includes wearing a uniform to work or watching NASCAR. If that’s all that awaits me outside a bubble, I say vive la bubble!

  2. Saúl permalink
    February 29, 2012

    Claude Fischer, one of my sociology professors at UC Berkeley (along with other faculty) wrote a wonderful book in response to Mr. Murray’s book titled: Inequality by Design: Cracking the Bell Curve Myth (1996). It thoroughly trashes Murray’s thesis and conclusions. Let us hope Murray’s cellar has better longevity than his ideas regarding race and intelligence. Anyone who cheers Murray’s conclusions should take a look at the above mentioned title and reconsider. Cheers!

  3. February 25, 2012

    Bill, that’s the best you could do, despite being a West Virginia native and a current resident of North Carolina? It’s a damn good thing you are becoming an Italian, because if your neighbors found out how you scored on this test of gen-u-wine ‘merican-ness, you’d be in trouble!

  4. February 25, 2012

    Jay, thanks for stopping by. So I guess Parker and Murray were friends? It is too bad that you weren’t able to have a conversation with Murray about the book, but obviously a Christmas Party was not the time or place for it. That’s fascinating, too, about those tests and the inherent bias that you detected. As I recall, there was a lot of criticism not just about the conclusions that Murray and Herrnstein drew, but about the methodology they used to arrive at those conclusions. Murray’s new book is also drawing flak, not so much over methodology as over the seemingly obvious conclusions that Murray, perhaps for ideological reasons, refused to draw. Murray’s former colleague at the American Enterprise Institute, David Frum (now something of a conservative apostate), wrote what I thought was a very insightful review of the book that’s well worth a read.

  5. Bill Klapp permalink
    February 25, 2012

    Bill H., I, too, scored 5-8, but only because I was born and raised through 4th grade in West Virginia. I now live in a bulletproof-glass bubble and am well on my way to becoming an Italian, so embarrassed and disillusioned am I with America…

  6. Bill Klapp permalink
    February 25, 2012

    Copy that, Dano. Brain pageants do not exist today, beyond the groups of high school kids shows with names like “High-Q” on local TV stations, hitting buzzers and answering questions that kids that age are supposed to know anyway. Even GE’s College Bowl (and alas, Allen Ludden, too) are long gone, the College Bowl since circa 1970, with its demise hastened by Agnes Scott College’s embarrassing defeat of Princeton a few years before. To understand why, wade through historian Richard Hofstader’s magnum opus from the 60s, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. We don’t cotton to no in-tee-lek-you-als in this country. The book explains why Dubyah and Rick Perry but no Adlai Stevenson, without even needing to name names…

  7. Jay S. Miller permalink
    February 24, 2012

    Many years ago, Robert Parker held an annual Xmas party for 20+ friends and acquaintances. I met Charles Murray at those parties a couple of times after his book The Bell Curve had been published. I have a Ph.D. in Psychology and administered many WISC and WAIS intelligence tests and there is no doubt in my mind that those tests were racially biased to the detriment of African-Americans. Whether subsequent revisions of the test have reolved the issue I don’t know because I left the field in 1998. I wish I could have had a conversation with Dr. Murray about his conclusions but it would not have been appropriate in that environment. BTW, he was not the first to draw conclusions about race and intelligence from biased data; the issue goes back almost to the historical beginnings of psychological testing.

  8. February 24, 2012

    Dan, it would be fun if he joined in. I don’t want to get into a discussion about The Bell Curve and race, but the critiques that I read at the time–and The New Republic magazine devoted an entire issue to the book–were pretty persuasive. I disagree with you, too, about social mobility in this country; it has eroded terribly over the last 30 years, and that’s really the crux of this entire debate about the 1 percent and inequality. We now have less social mobility and greater inequality than most other Western industrialized nations, and the advantages at the top are more self-reinforcing than ever.

    Bill, you scored better than I did; in fact, I’m half-expecting to be deported to France any moment now. That bread sounds great, by the way!

  9. Bill Haydon permalink
    February 24, 2012

    Dan, I have no problem agreeing that people are born with varying levels of innate intelligence from imbeciles up through geniuses. Considering that the stupidest person that I’ve ever known well in my life had every socio-economic and educational advantage growing up, I couldn’t help but conclude that the guy was just born stupid.

    Murray went too far when attempted to show that innate, natural intelligence was racially pre-determined.

  10. Bill Haydon permalink
    February 24, 2012

    Well, I scored 5-8.

    I gained the factory/sore body points since I did work in small winery. I grew up in a blue collar family, and (since I’m a Chicagoan) do keep the occasional PBR/Old Style/Schlitz (but NEVER bud/coors/miller) cans in my refrigerator.

    We just won’t tell Murray that I often use my PBR to make artisan no-knead boules of bread.

  11. Dan McCallum permalink
    February 24, 2012

    Hearing from Mr Murray here would be a great treat.
    On the bell curve theme, we have a cultural prohibition in play. While we readily accept that have of us cannot run as fast as the other half, mention that half of us are not as intelligent as the other half is verboten. Beauty pageants are Americana; ditto various forms of brawn pageants. Brain pageants? Not so much.
    I haven’t read Coming Apart, and I will. I’d agree that we most assuredly have a very class structured society; but what distinquishes ours from most others is the remarkable individual freedom and ability to move around the class scales. That is what causes me to just scratch my head with all the current political talk about “the 1%”. I’d venture to say that not 10% of that 1% is there with any constancy– the majority just there once or twice or thrice via some provident outcome, and then replaced. There has always been a 1%, and will always be- and ours are actually less likely to have strongarmed others to get there; as is the case in most of the world.
    And the wine progression– that’s my business, deal with it every day. Burgundy is not for everybody, but those who get there never go back.

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