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How Thick is Your Bubble?

In his forthcoming book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, Charles Murray argues that

A new upper class that makes decisions affecting the lives of everyone else but increasingly doesn’t know much about how everybody else lives is vulnerable to making mistakes.

…As the new upper class increasingly consists of people who were born into upper-middle-class families and have never lived outside the upper-middle-class bubble, the danger increases that the people who have so much influence on the course of the nation have little direct experience with the lives of ordinary Americans, and make their judgments about what’s good for other people based on their own highly atypical lives.

To prove his point, Murray offers a 25-question quiz designed to test an individual’s distance from the life of the average American. “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?” “Have you ever held a job that caused something to hurt at the end of the day?” “Have you ever had a close friend who was an evangelical Christian?” “Have you ever watched an Oprah, Dr. Phil, or Judge Judy show all the way through?”

Take the quiz. Harvard students in particular, well versed as they no doubt are in the arcana of anti-colonial troll studies, might find that improving their scores on this quiz was a way to make themselves more useful and influential citizens of the United States.

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  • LarryD

    Better yet, get out of the bubble. Do a stint in the US Coast Guard, or any job where you co-workers won’t be upper middle class.

  • Kenny

    A realistic view.

    The elite have glib tongues, impressive college degrees, great networks, and significant family capital. This allows them to have their hands on the levers of power in American society – education, the media, government, etc.

    And what does the White middle class have?

    Among other things, it has the numbers and the guns, and it is this latter asset that gives the middle class the ultimate trump card in any showdown.

    What’s that, you say, the elite have the police and military to do their bidding? Well, just who do you think composes those groups, effeminate snots from the Ivy League? No, it’s middle class guy — and even gals these days.

    Conclusion: The current elite will be allowed to rule so long as they 1) don’t really screw things up (which they are very close to doing) and 2) don’t get too arrogant.

  • Matthew

    If you can’t see Murray’s right wing populism for what it is you’re a [darn] fool. Yes there’s a class divide between the elites and the populace, but Murray’s policies and that of the GOP wouldn’t make anything better. Upper middle class people who are cosmopolitan in their sentiments don’t have anything to apologize for.

  • BillH

    I propose a constitutional amendment requiring at least 67% of the U.S. Senate and 51% of the U.S. House be composed of members who can document they have no college, live in a neighborhood where half the residents have no college, and watch Oprah, Dr. Phil, or Judge Judy on a regular basis. This requirement would rotate among the states for each election. Bonus: We would also effectively get term limits out of this.

  • dearieme

    I looked at the quiz. Only one question was impenetrable (what on earth is to “letter”?), in some it seemed easy to replace the question by something that might do as a British equivalent, in others not. N.B. it is not low class to go fishing in Britain, and you don’t particularly expect to know the religion of your friends.

  • Rob L

    I scored a 55, thank you for the link!

    I am a Harvard ’02 graduate, but didn’t even think of wasting my time in such classes as anticolonial troll studies. It came down to Economics to get into finance, Sciences for the medical field, and Computer Science for tech.

    Then again I’m Asian-American w/ a working class background, and only looking back do I see how separated by class (in addition to culture) were my close friends and your upper-middle class Harvard student.

    Once an investment banker, now a dentist, I am an anomaly amongst my college friends who lean liberal and atheist. Don’t lose heart Via Meadia, some of us do make the best of our Harvard education and hold onto our working/middle class roots =)

  • WigWag

    “Harvard students in particular, well versed as they no doubt are in the arcana of anti-colonial troll studies, might find that improving their scores on this quiz was a way to make themselves more useful and influential citizens of the United States.” (Walter Russell Mead)

    Forget the Harvard students; what about the Harvard faculty? After Professor Mead referred us to the quiz that Charles Murray developed, I emailed the quiz to the entire faculty of arts and sciences at Harvard. To my astonishment, over 100 faculty members completed the quiz and faxed the results to me within 15 minutes (I guess they’re not too busy). I have compiled their answers and am happy to provide Professor Mead’s readers with the typical or average answers provided by the Harvard faculty to Charles Murray’s questions.

    “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?”

    No, but I visited a neighborhood like this once. I was returning from my summer rental in Cape when I made a wrong turn coming off the Mass Pike. I meant to turn left towards Brookline but mistakenly I turned right towards Roxbury. It was quite a revelation; not only did most of the people who live there not have college degrees, but most didn’t have high school degrees either. Fortunately the GPS in my Volvo was able to get me home quickly and safely.

    “Have you ever walked on a factory floor?”

    Yes. Once a year my wife and I love to drive up to Freeport, Maine and shop on the floor of the factory outlet of L.L. Bean. We make a day of it.

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

    Absolutely, my job teaching at Harvard causes alot of pain. As a matter of fact a day almost never goes by where my feelings aren’t hurt. Just this semester the Dean hurt my feelings when he asked me to teach two courses instead of one. Can you imagine it; they actually want me to stand in front of students for six hours a week! Last semester my feelings were hurt when I was informed I could only have one graduate teaching assistant instead of two. I actually had to grade some papers; can you imagine the indignity of it? Then there’s all the little ways that Harvard hurts my feelings; my office is too small, I don’t have a reserved spot in the faculty parking lot and I am not happy with the location of my tickets in the stadium for the Harvard-Yale game. I don’t know how I stand working in this place.

    “Have you ever had a close friend who was an evangelical Christian?”

    No, but I do have a couple of friends who are evangelical atheists. Does that count?

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

    As a matter of fact, yes. I agree with Freud’s contention in “Civilization and its Discontents” that our unsubjugated drives cannot be reconciled with the requirements of society. One of my closest friends disagrees. He takes Marcuse’s position that Freud was being undialectical. He actually thinks that a rational organization of time and resources could translate into a liberated society in which our libidinal impulses would not be repressed but would find expression in society itself. Despite this profound disagreement we are both very tolerant and have agreed not to let it spoil our friendship.

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

    No, but I have had a cleaning girl who seldom received grades better than C. I also make a point of always saying hello to the janitor who empties the garbage can in my office. I have a sneaking suspicion that he didn’t excel in school either.

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

    Yes, if marijuana cigarettes count.

    “Have you ever purchased Avon products?”

    What’s an “Avon” product?

    “In secondary school, did you letter in anything?”

    Yes, fencing.

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

    Of course. Every year in full regalia, the faculty parades during convocation.

    “Since leaving school, have you ever worn a uniform?”

    Well, I’ve never actually left school but I have worn a uniform. We always dress in caps and gowns for graduation.

    “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 loved the King’s Speech!

    “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”

    Why isn’t Downton Abbey on the list? I love that show!

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

    I don’t need to actually watch those shows because I teach a course on them. It’s called “Understanding the Zeitgeist of 21st Century America by analyzing daytime television.” So many students want to take the course that I’ve petitioned the dean to let me teach it both semesters. I’m also thinking of turning it into a seminar for really promising graduate students.

  • John Barker

    Obama seems to have gotten the message. He has calculated the political risk in siding with the upper layers of society. The president makes gestures to the elite (poor little lambs) such as the pipeline shutdown but then authorizes increasing domestic exploration and extraction of gas and oil, which will give work to people like my working class parents and friends in the sixties.And probably enrage the green activists.

    Gingrich may not get the nomination or the presidency but he has exposed the great disdain of the middle class for the elite and opened a rich vein for political exploitation. This may be creative or terrible, depending on how it is played. Consider Huey Long.

  • Charming Billy

    I got a 48! I’m sure it’s my bipolar background. My mother’s from a family of New England Ivy League WASPs and my pappy grew up on a ranch in Texas. It didn’t work out too well; hence the childhood poverty (after they split up we were just about the only white kids in my junior high getting free lunch.) When my mom finally got a teaching job in a small Texas town (feeding a four kids on $9000/year in 1976) we got off free lunch. The school cafeteria even had an extra lunch line where they served Frito Pies only. I still love Frito Pies. I also found great summer jobs in packing sheds where they would let me work all day long for minimum wage in 100○ heat! Talk about hurt, but i loved the money. I bought lots of Dungeons and Dragons books (obviously I lettered in nothing.) Fortunately, I was brought up in the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States and my grandfather’s family were Yalies from way back, so I somehow made it to big State U and now earn a lower middle class salary that lets me buy enough Stag beer to stock my fridge till the cows come home. I live in a small Midwestern town and like it but I work in a community college and read this blog. I guess that makes me some kinda crazy Chimera.

  • Eurydice

    Man, you might want to see somebody about that Harvard-envy. And judging people without knowing anything about them places you in a pretty big bubble, too.

    I’m not going to judge Mr. Murray’s work, as I haven’t read more than the quiz, but any analysis of decision-making by the upper class bubble that doesn’t take into account the relationship between money and politics seems problematic to me.

  • John Barker

    @Wig Wag,

    I laughed myself silly. Are you a traitor to your class that you should know such details of the lives of the masters of the universe?

  • Duane

    Tea Party vs “Establishment” = Baccalaureates vs Magisters.

  • Bryan

    Having always considered myself solidly middle-class, this was a pretty sobering test to take. Apparently, I could only be considered even remotely middle-class by the standards of the yuppie, upper-middle-class suburb I grew up in.

    I got a 29, which is pretty close to the average of “upper-middle-class with middle-class parents,” which actually sounds about right.

    And dearieme: in my experience, if you have a close friend who is an Evangelical, you would know because they will tell you.

  • dearieme

    Bryan: we had a friend whose Evangelicalness(?) became clear only when we attended her funeral.

  • Pat Solarz

    Wigwag, I laughed so hard I almost choked on a peanut. That’s one of the funniest blog comments I have ever read.

  • WigWag

    I am so grateful to the Harvard faculty for being so responsive. Since this morning a slew of new responses to the Charles Murray survey have been faxed to me; the results are both surprising and revealing. Let me share some of the most representative responses.

    Murray asks his readers whether they have ever been hurt on the job. I was astounded to learn that being a Harvard professor was so hazardous. It seems that Harvard provides it’s faculty with unlimited free access to it’s athletic facilities and swimming pools. One professor complains that he strained a quad playing handball. Two professors mentioned hernias incurred while working the weight machines in Malkin Athletic Center. Another asserts that he caught vitiligo in the hot tub adjacent to the Blodgett pool (but this seems very unlikely to me), A professor in the law school alleges a particularly severe on the job injury; he claims he caught a toenail fungus in the sauna that he subsequently spread to his whole family. He is suing Harvard and asking for punitive damages of $17 million.

    Several professors complained of injuries to fingers and wrists caused by typing course syllabi, These professors didn’t read Murray’s rules very carefully. He specifically excluded repetitive stress injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome.

    The question about buying Avon products seemed to cause a great deal of confusion up in Cambridge. A professor of English mentioned that he just purchased The Bard’s First Folio for his Kindle. One of his colleagues was even more confused. After explaining that the Boss spent his early years singing in bars in and around Avon, New Jersey, he revealed that he had a bid out on E-Bay for an autographed copy of Spirngstein’s “Born to Run.”

    Murray’s question about what television show people watch caused the Harvard professors a considerable amount of consternation. Several faculty members said that the used to watch “Two and a Half Men” until Charlie Sheen was replaced by Ashton Kutcher (they think he “dumbed down” the show). There was a general sense of outrage that “Downton Abbey” was left off Murray’s list. But that wasn’t the only show that the Professors were angry that Murray left out. It seems that “Jersey Shore” is popular with the faculty set. It was mentioned several times. Fifteen professors say they never miss the show (and yes, they watch it from beginning to end); twelve claim to watch the show for sociological reasons but three admit to having a crush on Snooki.

    The Murray questionnaire revealed that while members of the Harvard faculty do have significant political differences, they work hard on getting along. Let me give just two examples. While the entire faculty hates Israel (especially the Jewish faculty members) they are about evenly divided between Fatah supporters and Hamss supporters. In the Middle East Fatah and Hamas typically resolve their disputes by throwing each other off roofs. Nothing like this has happened in the hallowed halls of Cambridge, Massachusetts (yet).

    While the entire Harvard faculty hates George W. Bush and his Administration, there are dramatic differences in how former Bush Administration officials should be treated. About a quarter of the faculty believe that Dick Cheney should be tried for war crimes. The other seventy five percent believe he should be water-boarded first and then tried for war crimes. While this disagreement often gets heated, President Gilpin-Faust has asked the Dean of the Law School to mediate between the two opposing faculty groups. The Harvard Crimson (or was it the Harvard Lampoon) is reporting that the Dean is setting up a mediation committee based on South Africa’s “Truth and “Reconciliation Commission.”

    As more of the Murray surveys are returned by the Harvard Professors I will attempt to keep Professor Mead’s loyal readers informed about the results.

  • Toni


    What a hoot. The fact that they all answered you promptly shows how much time Harvard’s highly paid faculty has on their hands, and perhaps how little true fun their highly paid careers provide.

  • Toni

    For those interested in more about Murray’s ideas, here’s his Saturday Essay in last weekend’s WSJ:

    You’ll note that the essay focuses solely on white people. I’ll bet this is because his fascinating 1994 book The Bell Curve caused him to be accused of racism. Among many other things discussed, IQ is one, and blacks/Blacks on average came out lower than whites. Whites on average came out lower than those of Asian descent. Guess which part incited vicious attacks on Murray.

    The Bell Curve: Evidently The Bell Curve is now used as a textbook. Gee, I wonder what troll studies professors make of it.

    Another scholarly approach to race and economic outcomes is economist Thomas Sowell’s book Black Rednecks and White Liberals. He’s black, so he can’t be accused of anything but Uncle Tomism. Its Amazon page offers no textbook discount. One is tempted to conclude that the latter fact follows from the former.

  • Toni

    For the record, my score was 45.

    I had to sorta cheat. *I* smoke, I’m disabled, and I’ve let caregivers smoke around me. I’ve been to Chili’s and Outback Steakhouse, and would still patronize such places if I could. I’ve never bought an Avon product — but my mother sold them and gave some to me.

    This same mother saved tens of thousands of dollars as a Wal-Mart sales clerk and/or selling Avon. My father was a civilian with the military for his entire career. They were at the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he was an aircraft mechanic, and they wouldn’t let him join because he knew too much about the planes.

    I think the American Dream is still available for anyone willing to be as disciplined and work as hard as these two 1930s high school sweethearts did, as a couple and then on their own.

  • Kris

    Short version: they don’t even know what they don’t know.

    WigWag, you’ve rarely been as entertaining.

  • Diane

    The majority of comments made so far sound as though they are coming from uptight close-minded fools! Your intolerance and holier than thou attitudes are shameful.

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