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From my interview archive: Charles Murray (2008), Jay Caspian Kang (2012), and “the Great Liberal Freakout of 2017”

This year, I’m listening again to selections from the archive of long-form interviews I conducted on the public radio program The Marketplace of Ideas and podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture between 2007 and 2015.

This week I enjoyed an essay called “The Great Liberal Freakout of 2017,” and while reading it I realized I’d interviewed both its author, journalist and novelist Jay Caspian Kang, and one of its subjects, political scientist Charles Murray. (If ever I need an example of my range as an interlocutor, I guess I know what to point to.) In the piece, Kang deals with the fallout of a recent incident in which Murray’s very presence at Middlebury College, where he’d been invited by the school’s conservative American Enterprise Institute Club, caused such a fuss that the scheduled on-stage debate, for the safety of all involved, had to be relocated to a closed room and live-streamed instead.

The clash drew incensed responses, incensed responses to the incensed responses, and incensed responses to the incensed responses to the incensed responses (with the next layer surely coming soon). Me, I just feel relieved that when I conducted my own interview with Murray on a college campus, I did it at a radio station over the phone rather than in front of an implacable chanting mob. He shows a sense of humor about the reactions he gets (Twitter bio: “Husband, father, social scientist, writer, libertarian. Or maybe right-wing ideologue, pseudoscientist, evil. Opinions differ”), but to this day I do wonder whether it wrong-footed him to take a call from someone at a university-based public radio station in California who didn’t proceed to attack him.

We talked about his then-new book Real Education, a critique of what Murray sees as the dominant form of less-than-real — or anyway less-than-realistic — education in America. I don’t remember particularly disagreeing with anything he wrote in it, and I often complain myself about the American (and increasingly international) practice of ramming as many students as possible through college and hoping for the best. We only talked a little bit about The Bell Curve, the book he co-authored in 1994 that his critics frame as a kind of jerry-rigged pseudoscientific justification for treating some races better than others due alleged differences in their innate intelligence level. How many of those critics, I wonder, read the book? And as Kang asks, does it even matter whether they did or not?

I, incidentally, did read the book. It’s pretty long and dry, all the controversy turned out to have centered on one chapter in particular, or at least the various floating interpretations thereof, and I can’t say I came out much changed by it. (If you’re looking for a fun reading experience, I recommend Kang’s novel The Dead Do Not Improve instead.) The conclusion that people of different races get significantly different scores on IQ tests — and I’m not sure to what extent it’s even true — would mean more to me if I gave a rat’s ass about IQ test scores. The charge of racism made against those who make such claims seems to me premised on a sort of “IQ-ism,” the unspoken assumption than someone with a higher IQ test score is better than someone with a lower IQ test score, and that, therefore, to ascribe a comparatively low average IQ test score to a race is to malign that race.

Personally, I’d rather submit to the rule of William F. Buckley’s first two thousand names in the Boston telephone book than that of the highest standardized test-scorers (known, in some quarters, as “meritocracy”), but that’s just me. Some of my fellow liberals disagree. And whether or not Murray’s own research holds up, I do think that Paul Graham had it right when he recently tweeted that “the people saying ‘Eppur si muove’ in our time are those studying the effect of biology on human behavior” (though sufficiently advanced research of that kind might not even have any use for the concept of “race”). Some of my fellow liberals disagree with that as well.

And though the Middlebury incident doesn’t strike me as any special threat to free speech in itself, I do believe that we have a problem with the concept overall, one deep enough that we may lack the tools even to acknowledge it. As David Bromwich put it in “What Are We Allowed to Say?”, for my money the most important essay of the past decade (the previous decade’s most important essay being Graham’s “What You Can’t Say”),

The heroic picture of the individual heretic standing against the church, the dissenter against the state, the artist against the mass culture, has been fading for a while and we have not yet found anything to put in its place. Asked in a late interview how he fell away from his belief in Catholic doctrine, Graham Greene said he had been converted by arguments and he had forgotten the arguments. Something like this has happened to left liberals where freedom of speech is concerned. The last two generations were brought to see its value by arguments, and they have forgotten the arguments.

Still, none of my fellow liberals have started a brawl with me over any of this. Civil discourse lives, I guess!