What’s the matter with Mosman?

Mosman is failing the nation, says Miranda Devine. The residents of Australia’s richest suburb might be honest, hard working and committed to their families but they’re failing to demand the same behaviour from the lower classes. As a result, social norms are collapsing in lower working class communities where joblessness, family breakdown, and single parenthood are now common.

Of course it’s not just Mosman. According to Devine, the problem is a whole class of people, a "new legal/political/media ruling class of insiders" who run our major institutions. Increasingly disengaged from the rest of society, this new elite has failed to accept the obligations of leadership. Instead of condemning people who have children out of wedlock, commit crimes and refuse to work, the elite turns a blind eye.

Devine argues that the new elite have lost the vocabulary of virtue. They lack the confidence to demand the rest of the population to adhere to the moral code that governs their own lives. Devine is channeling American think tank scholar Charles Murray who argues that the new elite needs to engage with the rest of society and accept the responsibility of moral leadership. As Devine explains:

This new ruling class of clever, highly disciplined people marry each other and have children who are even brighter. They are the top 5 per cent, the cognitive elite, who run the institutions of America or Australia and who share tastes, preferences and culture. They are increasingly isolated and ignorant of the country over which they have so much power.

They cluster in the same elite suburbs, such as Vaucluse and Mosman, where crime rates are low and waists are thin. They are more likely to be married than their average countryman, less likely to have experienced divorce or live in single-mother households. The men are more likely to be employed and work longer hours.

While they privately practice such virtues as self-restraint, honesty, frugality, prudence, fortitude, temperance and humility, they refuse to preach what they practice.

They remain blind to the collapse of social norms in lower class communities, where marriage and intact families, the bedrock of civil society, are increasingly rare.

The ruling class that resides in suburbs like Mosman and Vaucluse is not the left-leaning elite of conservative mythology. In the last federal election, residents of both suburbs voted overwhelmingly for the Liberal Party (see results for polling places in Mosman & Vaucluse).

Murray’s attack on the behaviour of the new elite is not an attack on elitism. He argues that elite control of our institutions is inevitable. While he does want to shrink the state, he does not want to diminish the wealth or power of business elites. His approach is to establish an aristocracy within democratic mass society.

According to Murray, leadership roles increasingly demand academic giftedness. An IQ of 120 or more is a basic prerequisite for most upper class jobs, he says. And because he believes intelligence is largely genetic much of tomorrow’s elite is likely to be drawn from children of today’s upper class. Murray argues there is little we can do to promote social mobility.

In a 2007 piece for the Sydney Morning Herald He wrote that in America and Australia "Our economies and cultures are run by a cognitive elite that we do not choose. It is a reality embedded in the nature of modernity. All we can do is try to educate the elite to be conscious of, and prepared to meet, its obligations."

In his 1994 book The Bell Curve he wrote about the new elite’s distinctive tastes and lifestyle. They watch less commercial television than most Americans, he says. They don’t read tabloid newspapers or listen to talk radio (p 513). They send their children to school with other elite children where they prepare for entry into elite universities. In his latest book, Coming Apart, he continues the argument and presents readers with a quiz to assess how thick their own bubble is (try it yourself here).

In a society with increasing inequality and diminishing social mobility, the elite must make a conscious effort to preserve the legitimacy of the regime that sustains them. They must show that they understand and respect the moral code and way of life of the majority. They must not express contempt for their religious beliefs, their patriotism or their fondness for fried food. They must give the appearance of humility.

In his 2008 book Real Education, he says gifted children "must be told explicitly, forcefully, and repeatedly that their intellectual talent is a gift that they have done nothing to deserve". He wants them to learn humility through the experience of failure. Their teachers must challenge them to develop their abilities to the full.

Because the elite will be drawn from the pool of academically gifted young people, their education must also prepare them for leadership. Murray wants gifted students to be given a liberal education that includes a heavy dose of the classics. In Real Education, Murray complains that new elite is that they are unprepared for the role they are destined to perform.

According to Murray, many of the elite are statistically illiterate. He complains about the "amateurishness of the scientific reporting from even the biggest news outlets, written by reporters who attended the most prestigious colleges." But statistical illiteracy is only the start:

What we see on television and in films, hear in our music, read in our newspapers and books, is all produced by members of the elite. The content is filtered through their impoverished understandings of virtue and the Good, or through a sensibility that is innocent of any such understandings. The depressing reality is that hardly any of the people who have such enormous influence on our culture have ever been in a school that made sure they thought about these issues. Most of the members of today’s elite are ethically illiterate.

Murray argues that most university students "have imbibed the reigning ethical doctrine of contemporary academia: nonjudgmentalism." While they are tolerant of other cultures and their ways of life, they are incapable of the judgment needed for moral leadership.

Of course Murray has to admit that his elite are judgmental about some things. For example, they’re openly critical about smoking, obesity and fundamentalist Christianity. But he sees these as the wrong things to be judgmental about.

So what’s the matter with Mosman? According to Devine and Murray, they are shirking their duty to tell the rest of us how to live our lives. It’s a failure that endangers the capitalist regime. As Murray writes in Coming Apart: "The history of England in the last half of the nineteenth century can be seen as the Victorian elite’s success in propagandizing the entire English population into accepting its code of morals." When elites like the French aristocracy lose their grip on morality, regimes fall.

Murray doesn’t direct his arguments to working and middle class readers. Instead he wants to engage members of the educated upper classes in a struggle between rival elites. The American conservative movement has always worried that it’s opponents have a disproportionate influence in the universities, the media and the entertainment industries. They worry that a liberal left elite controls the culture. Think tanks like the one Murray works for are a way for business elites to convert economic power into cultural power. If university intellectuals won’t say the right things, then think tank intellectuals will.

Readers of the Daily Telegraph don’t have much of role to play in this struggle. While Murray wants his new elite to humbly praise the work of plumbers, cabinet makers, aged care workers and shop assistants, he doesn’t want to engage the non-elite in political life. For him they are consumers of propaganda. He is talking to the producers.

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11 years ago

Take up the White Man’s burden–
The savage wars of peace–
Fill full the mouth of Famine
And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
The end for others sought,
Watch sloth and heathen Folly
Bring all your hopes to nought.

Julie Thomas
Julie Thomas
11 years ago

Amanda Vanstone who is now the Counterpoint presenter on RN, had Murray on last week. She also seemed impressed with his ideas about how to fix ‘our’ broken society and of course he had some new ideas about who is to blame now.

I didn’t listen to all of the interview, but I heard enough to understand that he has found a new target group that we can pejoratively judge and tut tut about, is the ‘feckless young male’. Not the welfare queens anymore. I wonder if he is blaming feminists for the increase in feckless young men?

Uncle Milton
Uncle Milton
11 years ago

One reason the elite of Mosman or Vaucluse have nothing to say to or about the lower classes is that they never see them. They don’t see them at school, university, work, on holidays, or anywhere else. This is the result of the complete geographic social stratification of Sydney, with a social and economic dividing line that runs northwest to southeast that is as impregnable as the Berlin Wall.

When does someone from Mosman ever venture into the badlands of the southwest suburbs of Sydney? Answer: never, except possibly when they are driving down the Hume Highway on their way to Thredbo, and that doesn’t really count.

At best, a Mosmanite or Vaucluseite might be aware of what is going on in the southwestern suburbs through the media, which is the way they find out about what is going on in Syria. The difference is that Syria is probably more relevant and of greater interest, especially to people from Vaucluse.

This social and economic apartheid really is a problem even if not for the reasons Devine thinks.

Besides the geographic aspect Murray’s and Devine’s biggest frustration is that people who are highly educated, financially successful and worldly aren’t right wing social activists, when, dammit!, they should be. Their biggest fear is that the process of becoming highly educated, financially successful and worldly causes a distaste for right wing social activism.

The induction programs at the investment banks and major law firms clearly have a lot to answer for.

Nich Hills
Nich Hills
11 years ago

Miranda Devine is crafting a column from the opinions of Charles Murray. Charles Murray the coldly racist, IQ- and elite-worshiping co-author of The Bell Curve.

Nothing to see here. Move along.


11 years ago

That the “eilte” have a liberal take on society and offend Murray with their “nonjudgmentalism” fills me with a great deal of hope.

I do think Vaucluse needs a decent kebab joint, but.

Tim Macknay
Tim Macknay
11 years ago

The words “says Miranda Devine” were as far into the piece as I got.

11 years ago

So essentially we have the arrogance of cultural elitism corrupting (or perhaps being corrupted by) the humility of “with great power comes great responsibility”.

john r walker
11 years ago

“virtues as self-restraint, honesty, frugality, prudence, fortitude, temperance and humility” Mosman ? Vaucluse?… my dad used to say that the only time the residents of these suburbs talked to their neighbors was when they were suing each other in court.


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