Short story long:
I got held up by Peretz’s extended recounting of TNR publishing Charles Murray’s and Richard Herrnstein’s notorious 1994 essay, which was way before I came onto the scene there. I did that in 2007, (catching I think its last good wave).
Their piece is “straight outta” The Bell Curve. Typically, reading his memoir, I don’t linger over anything, just keep reading and I guess unconsciously form my varying impressions as I go. Peretz glosses the article, recounts the toing and froing over publishing it, notes the reaction and then goes on to make general observations about how the content relates to what he sees going on in America.
I got held up because I’d never read the infamous chapter in The Bell Curve about race and IQ, only snippets and then a whole host of commentary. I by that formed some notions about that chapter. Peretz’s gloss has a different emphasis than what mine was.
So I decided to see for myself. As Internet magic would have it, I found the 1994 TNR essay. It’s long, and while I didn’t digest every argument, I got a decent sense of the whole. I saw that my emphasis was off. I then went back and forth between Peretz’s extended account and the essay itself. The essay, an “apologia”, is a fairly long defence of what’s in that Chapter.
My mis-emphasis was my thought that CM and RH were more diffident about, and more qualified in, saying genetics were predominantly causal in group IQ differences as opposed to nurture. The authors here candidly state the “settled social science” (my phrase) is that there exist heritable group IQ differences among races/ethnicities—two concepts they treat synonymously, and that environment does not explain away much of those differences.
They note, for one example, the backwards recital of a sequence of numbers as a reliable G indicator, noting how that’s about about as culturally neutral and neutrally accessible as testing can get. For another, they note that when socioeconomic apples are compared to other racial socioeconomic apples as one moves up the socioeconomic ladder, then the Black White/Asian IQ gap tends to widen.
Fwiw, I found in some respects CM and RH, their version of the social science granted, at places paradoxical and at others at odds with themselves in mounting their conclusions.
They speak of “ethno-algorithms” and a certain kind of positive ethnocentrism in noting identifiable cultural and achievement markers among groups in which group members do and should take pride; yet they stipulate that no individual is predetermined by those identifiable features; individuals are just that and what may be general for the group need not be specific for any one person.
They indirectly plant the idea of inferior intelligence by saying that it’s not that important to the whole of the group or the individual; they say groups and individuals with lesser intelligence shouldn’t be judged on that account and should do whatever it is that they do best; otoh, the broad thrust of The Bell Curve is that IQ is a major general determinant of who’s successful. So how not important?
As an odd capper, they conclude with questions to be answered. One is, if group differences are irrelevant to specific individuals within the group, then individuals must be treated as such. If so, then why even study group differences? Of course they provide no answer, just say it needs further discussion.
But for all of this, it sets the stage for what I want to say about Peretz’s account. He’s often incomprehensible or inapt or inaccurate or just plain wrong or some combination of them.
For example, just after he notes the general conclusion as to heritable group differences in IQ, Peretz says CM and RH:
…used a statistical study of race, genetics, and intelligence to argue that group differences were so important that they made human beings more different than similar and human values relative…
If you can unravel this and map it all fours on to the essay, then I yield to you. CM’s and RH’s precise and recurrent point is that no individual is necessarily bound in endowment or conduct by their ethnic group. So strong is this point with them that, as noted, they end by questioning the viability of such group studies.
…Murray thought his research showed that different racial and ethnic groups had different heritable traits—whites had higher IQs than blacks, and blacks had more artistic “vitality” than whites. Genes, he said, coupled with culture, made differences like these impossible to bridge. His philosophy of “conservative multiculturalism” was to accept what each group can do…
Trouble here is, Peretz too quickly puts a gross overstatement in their mouths. They say something more qualified and nuanced and finally the opposite of what Peretz ascribes to them. They do speak, as I mentioned, of ethnic groups having identifiable cultural markers. That’s an irreducible quality among all groups, by definition as it were.
Their point is that African Americans were marginalized and put down throughout US history to the point of interiorizing feelings of inferiority. They should recognize and take pride in all of the many major achievements of their group both as a good in itself and to countermand that terrible history of oppression, psychological and of course horribly otherwise.
Peretz misses this point and has CM and RH reductively making Blacks vitalistic and leaving it at that. Nowhere are CM and RH so reductive. Nowhere do they speak of, as Peretz has it, anything “impossible to bridge”. Peretz has them straitjacketing Blacks into a caricature while Murray and Herrnstein have decidedly not spoken in these terms. Again, just the opposite, black individuals’ potential, like individuals from any group, can be unlimited.
….Practically speaking, this meant no more affirmative action, no more worrying about the inner cities, and no more efforts at integration: let the tribes coexist in peace, and let the outliers in each tribe—whites with a sense of rhythm, blacks who excelled at math—rise and thrive in the free American open…
None of this follows from the piece’s analysis. And you can tell by my last few paragraphs how insultingly, vulgarly off, offensive and reductive what Peretz says is.
I have innumerable examples of these inaccuracies and distortions. I don’t want to dun you with them. So I’ll just offer one more among the many.
….Murray’s was the mirror image of Michael Lerner’s vision, a *particularist response to a collectivist one. Lerner pointed to politics as the ultimate solvent; Murray said politics could solve nothing. Lerner escaped from individuality through the solidarity of the state; Murray escaped from individuality through the solidarity of the tribes. Lerner used utilitarian corporate systems to justify and apply his statism; Murray used social scientific systems to justify and apply his tribalism….
Here isn’t Peretz internally inconsistent? He speaks of CM’s “particularist vision” in contradistinction to Michael Lerner’s (who was Hillary Clinton’s guru, according to Peretz) “collectivist one”. What can a particularist vision be but one that focuses on the individual? Whereas doesn’t a collectivist vision focus on the group or maybe all citizens as the collective?
There’s a debate as to the meaning of “We the People” in the preamble to your Constitution: one view is, it’s about individual American citizens within a group; the other is, it refers to all people as but one collective group. I’d think Peretz’s distinction tracks that same difference.
If so, if Murray’s vision is “particularistic”, then what does it mean further on in this quoted paragraph for Peretz to speak of Murray escaping from “individuality through the solidarity or the tribe” or to speak of Murray justifying and applying his tribalism? Btw and for that matter I don’t know what Peretz means by “Lerner used utilitarian corporate systems to justify and apply his statism;”. Elsewhere Peretz ascribes this same indecipherable “utilitarian corporate systems” smear to both Clintons.
Here by contrast is Murray’s and Herrnstein’s more capacious view: (paragraph breaks mine)
….We are also not trying to tell African Americans or anyone else what qualities should be weighted in their algorithm. Our point is precisely the opposite: no one needs to tell any clan how to come up with a way of seeing itself that is satisfactory; it is one of those things that human communities know how to do quite well when left alone to do it.
Still less are we saying that the children from any clan should not, say, study calculus because studying calculus is not part of the clan’s heritage. Individuals strike out on their own, making their way in the Great World according to what they bring to their endeavors as individuals—and can still take comfort and pride in their group affiliations.
Of course there are complications and tensions in this process. The tighter the clan, the more likely it is to look suspiciously on their children who depart for the Great World—and yet also, the more proudly it is likely to boast of their successes once they have made it, and the more likely that the children will one day restore some of their ties with the clan they left behind.
This is one of the classic American dramas…
So, to sum up this short story long, Peretz’s account here is revelatory of certain weaknesses that most of us are likely to gloss over without double checking the various things he writes. Most of us don’t read that way. I don’t. It was only by chance that what he said about publishing Murray got me curious enough to check it out more critically.
So, in his theorizing and opining, he must be taken with boulders, never mind grains, of salt. I remember now from his TNR blog that he wasn’t a close reasoner. He made many of leaps of logic; he often made wild unsupportable pronouncements parading as incisive, telling insights; and he made many just plain mistakes. I had fleeting glimpses, senses, of some head scratching generalizations in reading along with him here but I glided over them until his account of the Murray Herrnstein essay caused me to to pause and linger.
Much of what he says in his memoir by way of: analysis of issues; what various thinkers say; social and cultural conditions; his opinions, judging by this example, is badly and baldly slap dash and leaves a lot to be desired.
*(Updated note: it may be that Peretz’s reference to CM’s and RH’s “particularist vision” is meant to apply to particular groups as in ethnicities rather than to particular individuals. That would obviate the internal inconsistency between individuals and tribes. But Peretz’s thrust, RH and CM finding resolution in tribes, still contradicts their transcending emphasis on every individual’s unique endowments and possibilities, their “tribe” notwithstanding.
Moreover, where here Peretz criticizes what he sees as an escape, a descent, into tribalism, pervasively elsewhere in his memoir, he lauds the reality of “peoples”, how their inheritedness comprises them, as a starting point for how better to see the world and approach its problems. He raises “peoples” so understood over global internationalists who see “one people, one world”, which to him is but gauzy cant.)