"It really is social science pornography," says Murray, as he pulls income and IQ statistics off his laptop computer. In a 1994 interview with New York Times reporter Jason DeParle, the think tank researcher talks about race, intelligence, poverty and Thai bar girls.
Murray is best known for the book he co-authored with psychologist Richard Herrnstein — The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life — a controversial book that argues that low IQ is a major cause of black disadvantage. In an earlier book — Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980 — he argues that anti-poverty programs make social problems worse not better.
"Where others rant," says DeParle, "Murray seduces with mountains of data and assurances of his own fine intentions." And for many non-black, non-poor Americans Murray’s message is irresistible:
Social science pornography. The phrase may explain more about Murray’s influence than he intended, and possibly more than he fully understands. Much of that influence has stemmed from his ability to express, through seemingly dispassionate analysis, many people’s hidden suspicions about race, class and sex. His writings comprise a kind of Michelin guide to the American underpsyche.
The phenomenon is one that he himself has at least inadvertently acknowledged. "Why can a publisher sell it?" he asked in the proposal for "Losing Ground." "Because a huge number of well-meaning whites fear that they are closet racists, and this book tells them they are not. It’s going to make them feel better about things they already think but do not know how to say."
Murray is fond of moralizing about illegitimacy. He argues that fatherless boys are more likely to grow up to be violent unsocialized criminals. But, according to DeParle, he’d hate you think he was prudish about sex, "No young man who spent as many years in Bangkok as I did can be against sex", he told the reporter.
What then, took place in Bangkok? Quite a lot, it seems, since his friends from those days still tell tales of Murray’s barroom antics, ones that he nostalgically repeats. Murray explains that he and a Peace Corps friend once sat for 12 hours at a place called the Patpong Terrace, interviewing bar girls as they returned from their liaisons, taking "all sorts of intimate notes about who did what, that I don’t care to repeat." The resulting document became an underground thriller among his friends.
Murray also makes clear that he did more than take notes, though he theatrically objects to hearing the women described as prostitutes. "Don’t use that word," he says. "They were women of the evening. Courtesans. We liked them, and they liked us.
"In a lot of the places you had to woo the ladies," he continues. "It involves money on the man’s part, yes, but it also involves consensual relations."
Charles Murray is in Australia as a guest of the Centre for Independent Studies. He will speak at the Centre’s Big Ideas Forum — In Praise of Elitism — an event that will involve money on your part. $15 for members and $10 for non-members.