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Sunday, September 24, 2023

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Libertarian author divides University on class


Libertarian author and political scientist Charles Murray spoke to a full Rockwell Pavilion Friday evening on the vanishing morals of the white, American working class and an upper class that is becoming increasingly solitary. | Justin Tijerina/The Daily Cougar

Despite the controversy that has followed him in Houston this past week, libertarian political scientist and author Charles Murray spoke at UH on Thursday evening to a full room and little fanfare. Murray, a W.H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, spoke about marriage, ethics and the growing cultural gap between the upper and lower classes in the latest event with the Hobby Center for Public Policy and the Phronesis minor in The Honors College.

Assistant political science professor Jeffrey Church, who introduced Murray and said he was a fan of his work, spearheaded the move to bring Murray to UH. The talk was funded in part by a grant from John A. Allison IV and the BB&T Bank, with which Allison formerly worked.

“It’s (a) great grant — it allows us to have the Phronesis Fellows, who are 15 to 20 of our best Phronesis minor students with The Honors College, and bring in the speakers,” said philosophy associate professor and co-director of the Phronesis minor Tamler Sommers. “Not all of them do public lectures like this, but they also have private seminars with the Fellows, who have read in advance something the speaker has done.”

“The people who are in charge of the money would like to see a balance in ideas. They have not told us we have to invite anybody or anything like that, but there are people in the Phronesis program with ideological commitments more conservative than most academics.”

Sommers called the grant “controversial,” due to Allison’s strong libertarian beliefs and vocal support of libertarian writer Ayn Rand.

“I think it’s worth it,” Sommers said. “I think it’s doing so much good, allowing us to bring in amazing people from all sides. It really offers great opportunities for our students.”

The lecture was originally planned to be held in the Honors Commons but was moved across the hall to the Rockwell Pavilion in anticipation of a large — and irate — crowd. Political science senior Crystal Sowemimo planned on bringing students from the UH NAACP and UH Mexican American Studies Student Organization to protest the talk, but the plans fell through. Still, the Rockwell Pavilion was full, and Sowemimo and other students carried signs with messages such as “Coogs do not welcome racism” in informal protest. 

Murray visited Rice University on April 7, and the protests by Rice students made headlines. Jim Granato, director for the Hobby Center for Public Policy, said he was “very proud” of UH students for their behavior.

“I’ve been in academia for over 30 years, and I’ve seen talks that some disagreed with. People were totally disrespectful, nobody got to hear what the person had to say so they could decide for themselves. The fact that the people protesting let him talk — that’s such a credit to the University, to you guys,” Granato said.

Murray’s speech was a summation of his 2012 book, “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.” In the book, Murray says that American moral values have declined since 1960 and America’s white upper class has “segregated” themselves.

“Over the course of the last 50 years, we have seen the development of classes in this country that are different in kind from anything we have known before,” Murray said in his speech.

“The United States has always had rich people and poor people from the very beginning — that’s not new. But one of the things that made the United States exceptional was the degree to which all the classes participated in the institutions of American civic life in very similar ways. That is no longer true. We have developed a new lower class and a new upper class that are different than the ones we have had before.”

Murray cited falling marriage rates among lower-class, white Americans as a major cultural failing. He said that 48 percent of lower-class, white Americans are married, down from 84 percent in 1960.

“You are very hard put to think of any other social norm that has changed so dramatically in so short a period of time as that. That community life of lower-class communities no longer consists of the same kind of (morals),” he said. 

“When you do not have marriage you slice in half — at the very least — the amount of human resources that are available, because … (people) do not have time to engage in civic activities; they are doing double duty in raising children and working, in most cases.”

The speech’s reception was mixed, with some saying that his avoidance of mentioning non-white Americans and his recent controversies are related.

“I don’t think he hit on all the issues; I think he was pretty much covering his (expletive). I feel like he didn’t even … leave it open enough to have a real vigorous debate on the content of his book and a lot of the controversies surrounding his theories and politics,” said political science junior Allegra Conwell.

Murray is mostly controversial for his 1994 book “The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life,” which he co-authored with the late Harvard professor Richard J. Hernstein. In it, Murray argued that there is a correlation between race and intelligence.

“I thought it was an interesting lecture. I thought it was interesting how he was researching the difference between upper-class and lower-class whites,” Sowemimo said.

“However, I feel like he’s completely removing the minority perspective on things. He says there needs to be a cultural awakening of the upper-class whites instead of government intervention on things, and I feel you can’t really do that when you’re completely ignoring the minorities who are clearly affected.”

She said that despite his avoidance of minority issues, the speech displayed “subtle racism.”

Murray’s visit was the latest of several lectures held by the Phronesis program this semester, including lectures by Paul Cantor, a University of Virginia English professor who spoke on the “economics of the apocalypse,” and William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., who spoke in the “Conservatism and Progressivism in America” lecture series.

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