So-called 'intellectuals' can't let go of "The Bell Curve" - 2018-04-02
It has been 24 years since Charles Murray and Richard J. Herrnstein first published The Bell Curve, their 800-page attempt to reboot discredited race science for the Clinton era. The 1994 book, which argued that differences in hereditary IQ, not opportunity, can largely explain away American social and economic hierarchies, was the latest in a long series of efforts by privileged groups to use pseudoscience to explain their station in life as natural and immutable. Like the fraudulent race science used to justify slavery in the 19th century, this thesis was highly attractive to those at the top of the social ladder. Whenever arbitrary hierarchies exist — from feudalism to modern structural racism — those who benefit will always grasp at straws to cast their good luck as personal merit. Although Murray and Herrnstein's conclusions were quickly revealed to be hokum by more competent researchers, the book's remaining fans have yet to get over it. Unfortunately, many of The Bell Curve's remaining fans are prominent thought leaders writing for some of the largest publications that still exist, proving that middle-aged white male "intellectuals" think very little of resorting to racism to justify their privilege.
One of the most consistent, committed defenders of the race-IQ link is Andrew Sullivan, formerly of the New Republic and The Atlantic and now of New York. As TNR's editor in the early '90s, Sullivan published excerpts from The Bell Curve and defended Murray and Herrnstein's conclusions, causing a backlash among the staff that eventually led to him resigning. Despite the damage to his career, Sullivan remains convinced that white people are genetically superior to other races, and every so often he recapitulates this stance in increasingly wishy-washy terms. Last year, he compared protests against Murray's appearance at Middlebury College to the Salem Witch Trials. Last week, he jumped into an existing argument over The Bell Curve between Vox's Ezra Klein and the militant atheist podcaster Sam Harris. Yet again, he defended Murray and himself against charges of racism, all while cosigning The Bell Curve's conclusion that some races are genetically superior to others. Hilariously, he accused Klein of racism for (accurately) describing Charles Murray as a "white man." "Where I do draw the line is the attempt to smear legitimate conservative ideas and serious scientific arguments as the equivalent of peddling white supremacy and bigotry," Sullivan wrote.
The controversy Sullivan is referencing is convoluted and exhausting, but here's a relatively brief summary: Sam Harris is a sort of store-brand American Richard Dawkins who somehow survived the mid-2000s heyday of pedantic New Atheism. He rose to prominence with his 2004 book The End of Faith, a critique of fundamentalist religion that reached number 4 on the New York Times bestseller list. He now expresses his opposition to religion — and, curiously for someone living in a one-percent Muslim country, Islam in particular — on his podcast "Waking Up," which is currently the 7th-most popular podcast in iTunes's "Science & Medicine" category. In May 2017, Harris had Murray on the podcast after the latter was shouted down during an appearance at Middlebury. While other campus-PC obsessives like Sullivan and The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf wrung their hands over Murray's right to be heard, Harris lauded Murray's ideas themselves and slammed his critics as being politically motivated in their dismissal of the research cited in The Bell Curve (much of which was bankrolled by the Pioneer Fund, an SPLC-listed hate group tied to both the original Nazis and their modern counterparts in the white nationalist movement).