Do you live in a bubble?

Charles Murray made waves with his “Do you live in a bubble” quiz, which made the News Hour. I scored poorly on the test. I got something like a 27. Although Vincent and I are frequent Applebee’s customers, I apparently lack sufficient expertise regarding the real America–that is the world of rural working-class white folk who drive pickups and enjoy NASCAR.

I wish that I knew more about the richness of this world, which was certainly familiar to my in-laws who lived in Oneonta, NY. But of course that is only one world, no more authentically American than anyplace else. I wish that I knew more about the world of south-side Chicago, the immigrant communities of Little Village and Chinatown, too.

Speaking of bubbles, here is a profile of Mr. Murray in the New York Times Magazine in 1994:

THE MAN WHO WOULD ABOLISH welfare was flying to Aspen, Colo., sipping Champagne in the first-class cabin and spinning theories about the society unraveling 30,000 feet below. In the past, he says, people were poor because of bad luck or social barriers. “Now,” he says, “what’s holding them back is that they’re not bright enough to be a physician.”

It is precisely the kind of statement that makes Charles Murray so infuriating to so many people: sweeping, callous, seemingly smug. The words are harsh, but the voice is genial and oddly reassuring, suffused with regret. He switches to a Bordeaux and recalls his last approach to Aspen, on a private jet sent by Rupert Murdoch.

“Intelligence seems to blossom in the barest ground,” he says, contesting the suggestion that the South Bronx is less nurturing than Scarsdale. “Now I know that’s an odd thing to say about the inner city, but at least they’re going to school and they have the television on all day. You couldn’t say that about blacks 50 years ago.”

A white wine follows, and Murray is bursting with anticipation about the corks that will pop later that evening at the home of wealthy Aspen friends. He is 51 and balding, but boyish in blue jeans and tennis shoes, and he leavens his sociological theories with personal asides. The stewardesses in Japan offered him “everything short of a body massage”; he boasts that his friends look at his wife with longing, “and think of what might have been.” He is smart enough to know that he is inviting caricature, and bold enough not to care.

Murray is a big jerk, but he is right that we should step out of our bubbles more than we do. Because we do live in narrow worlds in various ways–political, economic, cultural, by race or ethnic background. We live in other bubbles, too.

Caring for someone who lives with an intellectual disability has punctured my own bubble in various ways. By and large, my kids’ generation is better with that. Our local public school kids go to lunch and gym class with peers who live with a variety of developmental and physical challenges. So the waitress at Applebee’s and the young couple at the next table are more comfortable schmoozing an adult with intellectual disabilities than are my own professional peers and many of our privileged children in the curated bubble of our university’s fancy lab school.

That particular bubble exam is another matter. Joe the Plumber would probably ace that particular exam. Good for him. But he’s no more authentically American than I am, no more authentic than the inhabitants of more cosmopolitan or less non-Hispanic American worlds, either.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

19 thoughts on “Do you live in a bubble?”

  1. Strange quiz — I scored a 47. If I had 100, I would in my view be in a bubble. Striking that it asked if you have a close friend who is an Evangelical Christian, but not one who is gay or a different race…Murray is clearly in a bubble of his own.

    1. Well, he's trying to separate working class Americans from the upper middle class, or at least that's the stated goal of the quiz (I always suspected it was more about showing college-educated liberals how out of touch they are, to be honest).

      But even so, his quiz has plenty of oddities. For example, he looks for people who've worked in factories, but not in mines or on farms. And I've got family members who are lifelong Yoopers and who don't follow NASCAR anymore than I do. This sounds more like Murray's 10,000 foot view of what American blue collar life looks like than representative experience.

    2. I'm a 47 too. If my high score is an indication that I'm a reasonably decent fellow by Murray's lights, would I lose points if I've eaten sushi? Made Thai food at home? Seen more than a few subtitled movies? Read literary fiction? (Know what "literary fiction" means?) Watched a low-rated TV show because it was recommended by critics? Prefer hoppy beers to mass market lagers? (At my store, both types are usually about the same price.) Studied foreign languages? Believe passionately that anyone, not matter where they were born or what class they were born in can expand their horizons if they want to?

      If I believe that everyone should try to expand their horizons does that make me a bad person? Or, is Murray the bad person because he condescends to a class he's not part of, and seems to believe that it's okay for them to be proudly and intentionally ignorant of a lot of interesting things in this wide world? The people who live in the bad, upper middle-class overeducated bubble, should of course try their best to understand and empathize with Murray's favored class – certainly they should never shun such folks. (I never have, I'm friends, family and neighbors with plenty.) But, we shouldn't assume cosmopolitanism (for lack of a better word) is inherently evil, nor should we assume that whatever pleasures that can be derived from wide-ranging, open-minded curiosity belong to a limited class of people. A NASCAR race costs as much as an opera, if not more, Applebee's costs more than a lot of more interesting owner-operated restaurants, a Rascal Flatts CD costs the same as an Alabama Shakes or Thelonius Monk CD. Many folks who can afford a trip to Branson can probably afford a trip to NYC. If you've got internet, the whole world is in your lap (or hand or whatever), not just cat videos and biker chicks.

      My Mom was born in a small Texas town in 1930; her Dad died when she was 8. Murray might be surprised to learn that her world as wide as the books she could get at the library, the big band music from Dallas radio stations, the movies that came to town and the magazines she could sometimes afford. She never thought she was worse than anyone. She never carried a chip on her shoulder, and wouldn't appreciate Murray carrying one for her. She certainly never thought she was better than anyone. Her greatest gift to her kids was a bedrock belief that we could do as much as our intellects, drive, determination, and imaginations allowed. In my perfect world, I wish that for everyone. Unless Murray thinks his imagined working class is too benighted to understand or appreciate a world that includes, but is not limited to Applebees, NASCAR and Branson, he should wish that too.

      1. But, we shouldn't assume cosmopolitanism (for lack of a better word) is inherently evil

        I would never do so, unless, of course, it were rootless! But that presumably would not be a problem for the group to which Murray condescends.

  2. I got 51 which mainly reflects that I grew up in a working class environment. Clearly this is targeted at a very particular bubble, the one Murray wants to accost. However, as we have seen in the rapid forward motion of gay rights, values can be very directly affected when you have very direct personal contact with real people rather than seeing people as part of a distant and therefore more easily castigated group . Whatever the issues are about Murray as the messenger, I do think that the lack of direct contact with working class people among elites is reflected in not only what policies are pushed but at least as importantly the tone and attitude with which they are promulgated. It is not paranoia among those generally described as "ordinary" Americans that their way of approaching the world is at best to be pitied and in truth to be deplored.

  3. Charles Murray isn't a big jerk, he's a little jerk. It's a type.


    Height compensation has a lot to answer for. It's far from infallible: Stalin (5'4") was short. Hitler (5'8") and surprisingly Napoleon (5'7") were of average height. Mao was a big man (5 '11"), and Peter the Great a giant (6' 8").
    At 6' 1", I have no axe to grind here but that of natural superiority. We make bullies, snobs, and consiglieres, not assassins and con-men.

  4. I too found this quiz curious, and somewhat trolling. It polishes the spear tip on the argument that lower-class, lower-culture, lower-educated whites are to be resentful of upper-class, upper-culture, upper-educated whites. I find myself wounded by it, and sympathetic – snobbery is real, as is the resentment it creates. I immediately reflect upon my own "hipster" interests, cultured by a process of criticism and evaluation, skeptical and analytic. Music, fashion, movies, television, food, literature: none of which to be taken for granted, accepted as they come from family or community, but rather to be assessed according to an extrinsic rubric of historical contexts, objectives and criteria. Each artifact is never to be accepted according to tradition or default, but rather as something to be explored within a larger cultural expansive. Even when the default option is selected, it is appreciated with a wink of post-modernism – cheese puffs and pabst blue ribbon (or Celine Dion, although I realize I'm in rare hipster air there) are enjoyed for their almost comical yet elegant simplicity, all the while understood as tropes themselves of particular historical manufactural moments.

    All of which is fundamentally progressive. This approach is learned, usually in cognitively enriched home environments, or chance entry into friendship circles that reinforce critical thought, and generally leads to higher education, which reinforces this posture further.

    And it doesn't end with cultural material consumption, but extends as well into social analysis: religion, politics, history, psychology – all of encounters a critical analysis which seeks to transcend tradition and established authority. "Question everything" is the guiding principle to be striven towards. Skepticism and enlightenment become high values. If one is not questioning, critiquing, evaluating, comparing, contrasting, one is failing to perform basic duties. The stance is progressive, liberal, as opposed to conservative. Instead of standing before history shouting stop, one ought be driving the train – past the cheese puffs, Pabst and The Bachelor – on to hummus, Sierra Nevada and Herzog.

    Can the conservative be critical? Of course, just as he can enjoy fine wine and literature. He investigates, questions, evaluates, critiques… and ends up in favor of tradition. But this type of conservative is a rarer breed. This type, often a libertarian (he finds cultural conservatism silly, but so too the pretentions of the statist – all pretentions really, his defense of genre against literary canon is quite high brow analysis, if self-serving). But enlightenment and skepticism are not conservative values. They are defined by subversion of traditional paradigms. Thus conservatives who wield them must do so carefully, building arguments not from sleepy inheritance, but rather from erudite analysis of historical context.

    Which brings us back to the bubble. A bubble refers to one's attention, how one spends one's time. Murray references situational characteristics of an individual's placement in space and time. Certain stores, certain friendships, certain neighborhoods, certain television channels. These define the extent to which one is in a socio-economic bubble. HIs quiz is simple, and designed to target (troll) upper-SES whites. Lower-SES individuals are no less prone to living in bubbles. Eating only cheese puffs, Pabst, listening to Dion and watching the Bachelor are no less insulated from Herzog or World Music.

    But the point of the exercise is to illustrate the power dynamics hidden within these spacial and temporal spheres. The ability – the desire even – to question, analyze, evaluate, critique requires societal capital. It corresponds with cognitive enrichment that comes from social privilege. This is where the resentment lives. The pickup truck with the "redneck" sticker on the bumper is a reaction to a sense of unfairness, of being looked down upon. It is a statement of pride in the face of a perceived and real imbalance of power.

    The conservative movement has been polishing this spear tip for decades…. The "elites'" arrive at their position through privilege…. This privilege grants them the luxury to adopt enlightenment, skeptical values ("book learnin')… this privilege allows them not only better pay, but a whole variety of cultural "goodies": music, food, fashion, tastes that play as status symbols for their privilege, the nature of which is not merely arbitrary, but defined in direct opposition to tradition. Sierra Nevada is not merely fancy beer, but a direct product of critical rejection of "lesser" tastes, derived as they are from tropes, derivations, and unreflective experience…. to engage in such cultural activity is to traffic in a sort of enlightenment masturbation – the organ of pleasure erected from a progressive stance….

  5. Or so goes the argument. But wait for it! …the money shot: just as upper-SES microbrews are emblems of exploitation, products of critique inherited from privilege and defined by a process of discriminative taste-making, so too is the liberal, progressive ideology. Social progress and relativistic values are just as much products of this enlightenment, skeptical stance. Critical thought as decadence.

    However, this is all cheap trickery. Disadvantage is real, and immoral. Critical thought and analysis requires societal capital, and to the extent that there is an inequality of societal capital, there is moral failure. However, critical thought and analysis do not require class inequality. This is the cynical lie being sold. Sure, you can find individual instances of cultural snobbery, where instances of cultural unsophistication are sneered at meanly. But to take the position that the concept of cultural criticism is therefore an immoral act is absurd. Complexity is Go ahead and listen to Shania Twain, read Danielle Steele and eat cheese puffs all day, but the fact remains that they are simplistic and derivative. That is an empirical fact. They may be entirely enjoyable, but complex they are not. Whether or not one has a history of learning appropriate to understand this fact is a spatial and temporal reality that need not be a function of class. Listeners of Phish and Dave Mathews (generally college educated) are a testament to this fact, as both bands are generally considered derivative and uninteresting to music critics, those who's job is predicated on having spent long hours of learning musical contextual analysis. That a learning history of complexity need not be defined by class is evidenced by the wealth of experience in blue collar trades: would you tell a highly-skilled tradeseman that experience (learning history and contextual analysis) doesn't matter? Knowing how to precisely lathe a rocking chair leg or replace the alternator an an '09 Chevy Silverado is hardly less discriminating than an appreciation of micro-brews. That one is more valued than the other is function of SES status as it relates to social privilege, not a critique of the process of critical analysis.

    So, to the extent that the Murray quiz asks us to reflect upon our learning histories and privilege, the exercise is useful. However, to the extent that it seeks to further sharpen a wedge between blue collar and white collar workers by arguing that cultural sophistication is responsible for social inequality, it distracts from the real functional relationships that drive economic mobility. Rather than cower before the notion that my cultural interests are decadent, I prefer to embrace them with pride, meanwhile continuing to actively advocate for social policies that seek to expand access to social mobility for all.

  6. I got 57, which is surprisingly high if you believe in the stereotypes, but not at all surprising to me. Here is the closest archetype for me:

    "A second-generation (or more) upper-middle-class person who has made a point of getting out a lot. Typical: 9."

    Well, if 9 is typical, I'd say Murray isn't very familiar with the concept of "getting out a lot." I was part owner of a computer software consulting company, but I enjoyed bowling, too, and I hung around the bowling alley with my buddies, drinking Budweiser because bowling alleys don't generally serve Guinness. I went to the symphony and the opera with my wife, and to rock concerts with my kids. I played bridge with some of my friends, and went fishing with others.

    I got out a lot. By my standards, Murray's archetypes don't.

  7. The quiz dates back to 2012 and the publication of Coming Apart, which was about the economic and moral decline of the White working class. (Murray was prescient in his choice of subjects, who are now, four years later, much in news stories about Trump voters and about oxy and heroin abusers.) For this trend, Murray blamed liberals, who, although they practiced virtue (education, marriage, etc.) did not get out there and preach these virtues to their less educated brethren. They didn’t preach to them because these two groups lived in separate worlds, and the quiz showed just how separate.

    Murray had not lost his taste for good food and drink. A Financial Times reporter took him to lunch to discuss the book. Murray did not suggest Applebee’s but Al Tiramisu (try the black truffle pasta). The tab – $289 for two, including a Gavi di Gavi that Murray selected and found to be excellent. (The FT piece is here.)

  8. I got 25, which probably reflects the fact that I lived in the South for a long time.

    Edit: I think I got this backwards and, per the test, live solidly in a bubble. But I'm dubious of the merits of the test. For example, while I don't have a close friend who is an evangelical Christian, I've known and worked closely with many, and had good personal relationships with most of them. And why fishing, not bowling, say?

  9. Pretty strange. You "lose" if you don't eat out at all, don't drink, and don't watch much TV, even if you fish all the time, live away from a metro area, and have a blue collar (but not factory) job.

  10. 18. (My kids have described me as an extroverted misanthrope. I try to avoid going out a lot, and they consider noteworthy both when I am willing to accompany my wife to a movie and stay all the way through.).

    Can we start a competition for high and low scores of regular readers?

  11. 55. I suspect my score was hurt by the fact that I don't much like beer, and watch very little TV.

    And that he didn't include Chik-fil-a in the restaurant list.

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