In Which, For Reasons Unfathomable, I Turn to Charles Murray to Tell Me If I Have Working Class Cred

OK, so the loathsome Charles Murray, of Bell Curve fame (for those who don’t recall, The Bell Curve was a controversial book back in the ’90s about how certain races just weren’t as intelligent on average as certain other races) has a new book out called Coming Apart about how the white upper class and the white working class are growing apart from each other because we don’t have the same values we used to. Not values like paying your employees a fair wage. Values like going to church and getting married. It seems like a frightfully stupid book. David Frum does a good job describing why here.

He’s also got a quiz, “How Thick Is Your Bubble” where you can see how you measure up to Murray’s platonic ideal of a working class person. Of course, since he appears to have no appreciation of the diversity of the working class, the result is a mess. It reads like he learned about working class and elite life from reading David Brooks columns, rather than actually, you know, meeting real people.

Although I know I’m not actually an elitist, let’s see how this goes. I’ll stick it under a “read more” so I don’t take up your whole dash, but it’s the sort of witty original content I always wish I wrote more of, so you should click through.

1. Have you ever lived for at least a year in an American neighborhood in which the majority of your fifty nearest neighbors probably did not have college degrees?

I’m going to say that when I lived over in one of the cheap parts of Cambridge, this may have been true. It may be true now, as much as this neighborhood has gentrified a bit. They’re both high-density urban neighborhoods where a lot of people rent, so I’m not necessarily most familiar with the people closest to me. I pass well out of the range of the fifty people closest to me by the time I get to the bar at the end of my street. I’ll guess that at some point I probably was somewhere that fits this criteria, or close enough, anyway.

2. Did you grow up in a family in which the chief breadwinner was not in a managerial job or a high-prestige profession (defined as attorney, physician, dentist, architect, engineer, scientist, or college professor)?

I’ll go for a yes. Sure my father’s some sort of engineer, but he was a cab driver way back when I was very young. And my mother was an elementary school teacher until she retired recently. Definitely get some points there.

3. Have you ever lived for at least a year in an American community under 50,000 population that is not part of a metropolitan area and was not where your college was  located?

Nope. I’m a city guy. Always have been. Always will be. I don’t see how this matters to this test, though. There are plenty of poor people in the city. Really. I really don’t get this. It’s just one example of Murray’s obsession with one stereotyped subset of the white working class, and using it as a basis for class distinctions.

4. Have you ever lived for at least a year in the United States at a family income that was close to or below the poverty line? You may answer “yes” if your family income then was below $30,000 in 2010 dollars. Graduate school doesn’t count. Living unemployed with your family after college doesn’t count.

Since I’m (perpetually) single, I think the $30,000 baseline is well above any definition of the poverty line. But I’ve only barely managed to earn over $30,000 one year in my life. That’s gotta qualify me as working class, especially when you figure in the cost of living in Boston, right?

5. Have you ever walked on a factory floor?

Again with the focus on one part of the working class. The US has been shedding factory jobs for decades. Today’s wage slaves are in service jobs. This is a completely stupid distinction to make. Fuck, Mitt Romney probably walked on more factory floors while looking into buying the damn factory than, say, every illegal immigrant doing stoop labor in the hot sun put together. This is just asinine.

6. Have you ever held a job that caused something to hurt at the end of the day?

This one’s at least a lot better than the last one. A lot more jobs get included. Still leaves out whole categories of the working class. As a bike messenger, I’m going to say I qualify for maximum points. I’ve been pretty lucky, and my body’s really quite resilient, but still, it can hurt quite a bit.

7. Have you ever had a close friend who was an evangelical Christian?

I actually did know a decent number of really religious types way back in college. That was odd. I don’t see how this relates to class, except in Charles Murray’s visions of a liberal, secular, isolated elite class. But hanging around Republican Party bigwigs puts you around more evangelicals than anywhere the working class in heavily Catholic cities like here in Boston does. Another example of ways in which huge sections of the working class are completely invisible to Charles Murray. Somehow being a gay atheist in Boston makes me have more in common with the elites than schmoozing with George W. Bush.

8. Do you now have a close friend with whom you have strong and wide-ranging political disagreements?

What the hell does this have to do with anything? I’m not going to answer it and I’m not even going to explain what’s stupid about it. I’ll just ask if there’s any correlation at all between answers to this question and class distinctions. Next!

9. Have you ever had a close friend who could seldom get better than Cs in high school even if he or she tried hard?

I’ll go with a yes. This doesn’t really seem like a very useful question, but whatever.

10. During the last month, have you voluntarily hung out with people who were smoking cigarettes?

Totally. Max points here. If I hang out with my friends for long enough, all my clothes reek of tobacco smoke. And I think this one might even have some relationship to class. Apparently, Murray’s prototypical prole is a smoker.

11. What military ranks do these five insignia represent? [you can see the picture in this link if you need]

I got them all right! I suppose I can see how the working class are more likely to know this. But it’s still more indicative of the prejudices and assumptions behind the test than anything about the people taking it.

12. Choose one. Who is Jimmie Johnson? Or: Have you ever purchased Avon products?

I was not thinking of the NASCAR guy (who I only know about because I follow politics and his endorsement of Obama got some coverage in 2008) but the owner of the Dallas Cowboys (who’s actually Jimmy). Either way, I’m a lot closer to one of those huge chunks of the working class (urban northeasterners, and really we’re a big group) that this quiz seems designed to miss.

13. Have you or your spouse ever bought a pickup truck?

Great, now my working class cred is being called into question because I’m too poor to buy a truck? Get the fuck out of here. Also, again with the whole idea that living in a city makes you part of the elite. This is getting silly.

14. During the last year, have you ever purchased domestic mass-market beer to stock your own fridge?

I’ve certainly bought domestic mass-market beer to drink. It has a tendency not to really do much fridge-stocking. But I’m going to say that polishing off a twelve pack of Miller High Life from time to time gets me max points in approximating Charles Murray’s caricature of a working class person.

15. During the last five years, have you or your spouse gone fishing?

Fishing? Seriously? That’s what Murray read somewhere that typical working class households do? I’d call this another example of not qualifying because I can’t really afford to go fishing, but I primarily don’t go fishing because it’s fucking boring. Maybe this summer I’ll manage to go out drinking on a boat on Jamaica Pond, and I’ll think to borrow a fishing pole so I can act “working class.” Probably not, though.

16. How many times in the last year have you eaten at one of the following restaurant chains? Applebee’s, Waffle House, Denny’s, IHOP, Chili’s, Outback Steakhouse, Ruby Tuesday, T.G.I. Friday’s, Ponderosa Steakhouse

Wow. So those are the nine chain restaurants closest to stereotypical working class guy. He must not live in a big city. But I guess we’ve established that pretty convincingly already.

17. In secondary school, did you letter in anything?

If I mention that it was sailing, I probably get whatever points I earned forcibly revoked. We’ll call this a wash.

18. Have you ever attended a meeting of a Kiwanis Club or Rotary Club, or a meeting at a union local?

I’d love to have a union job. But that’s not actually something that the working class can do any more, now is it? I’ve really never been sure of what exactly the Kiwanis or the Rotary Club do.

19. Have you ever participated in a parade not involving global warming, a war protest, or gay rights?

Can we go all the way back to Cub Scouts for this? My pack marched in the Roslindale Day Parade back in 1988.

20. Since leaving school, have you ever worn a uniform?

I have managed to avoid jobs that require uniforms, thank God.

21. Have you ever ridden on a long-distance bus (e.g., Greyhound,Trailways) or hitchhiked for a trip of fifty miles or more?

Hey, I get some working class cred for risking my life on the Chinatown bus to New York. I knew I was doing it for a reason. Also, this question makes sense. I think Murray must have copied it from somewhere else.

22. Which of the following movies have you seen (at a theater or on a DVD)? Iron Man 2, Inception, Despicable Me, Tron Legacy, True Grit, Clash of the Titans, Grown Ups, Little Fockers, The King’s Speech, Shutter Island.

I’m pretty notorious among my friends for the quantity and variety of movies I have not seen. I haven’t seen any of these. I wouldn’t have pegged Inception, True Grit, or The King’s Speech as hallmarks of what this quiz considers working class taste.

23. During the 2009–10 television season, how many of the following series did you watch regularly? American Idol, Undercover Boss, The Big Bang Theory, Grey’s Anatomy, Lost, House, Desperate Housewives, Two and a Half Men, The Office, Survivor

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that Glee doesn’t make the list. So, yeah, none of the ones listed.

24. Have you ever watched an Oprah, Dr. Phil, or Judge Judy show all the way through?

I think I can honestly say that at some point in my life I managed to have nothing better to do than make it through an episode of Judge Judy. Well, if I was in college, I may have had homework to do. But there’s nothing that motivates me to watch mediocre TV than homework assignments that I can put off until later (OK, usually it was never). I watched CSPAN coverage of Clinton impeachment hearings during finals week. I wasn’t a very good student. Sorry, sometimes I go off on tangents.

25. What does the word Branson mean to you?

From what I’ve heard of Branson, Missouri, it sounds like hell on earth. Also, isn’t it like so painfully white that it makes Donnie and Marie Osmond look like Wu Tang Clan? Seriously, this is the ultimate in the fantasy vision Charles Murray has of a specific working class monoculture. He seems to have started with a vision of a liberal elite class, then imagined what they condescend to, and figured that must be the working class. There’s a whole point system to scoring this but I’m not actually going to try to tally this all up. I’ve wasted enough of my life on this nonsense.

It’s all just fucking stupid. The family-friendly “country” of Branson isn’t the music of the working class. There isn’t such a thing. He’s got a whole big book about how the working class and the elite class are growing apart, but he seems to miss out on the huge range of culture within the working class. Somehow, being a leftist, gay, atheist, Bostonian loses me points, but I could get them back if I bought a pickup truck, and went out on a flyfishing trip with the local Rotary Club. I’m going to imagine that this tells me everything I need to know about the book.

(hat tip: Jared Bernstein, who I c&p’d all the questions from)