ickard Herrnstein I never knew, but Charles Murray is a friend and a delightfully good fellow. After reading carefully this brilliant book, I regret that I must say it is mischievous and naive, and may do a great deal of damage to causes that Charles, I, and most readers of this magazine hold dear.
The book tells us much that is important and troubling about the stratification of American society along lines of cognitive ability. It might have provoked a needed debate on merit and equality in American life, and it may still do so. I think it probable, however, that such questions will be eclipsed by yet another rancorous disputation over race, from which nobody will come out ahead.
The statistical data on which the book bases its conclusions about the cognitive differences between whites and blacks are impressive. And, since it would seem to be nearly impossible for anybody to prove the contrary, one can, for argument's sake, stipulate that some differences do exist, more or less, and for reasons that have to do with, in whatever balance, both nature and nurture. It comes as no news that, in terms of life chances, it is generally better to be smart than to be dumb. And I expect that few people in any of the pertinent groups will be surprised by the suggestion that, as a generality, whites are smarter than blacks, Asians are smarter than whites, Jews are smarter than gentiles, and so on.
Intellectual mischief--questioning the taboos, suggesting the emperor has no clothes--can be fun. And it can be destructive. Society depends upon taboos and interdictions. Kindness is no limp or expendable virtue. Blacks will be hurt and infuriated by this book. White racists, of which there are not a few in our society, will relish it. Does this mean that we should prefer the untruth that keeps the peace to the truth that disturbs it? Of course not. But why was it so urgent to speak this truth, if it is truth, about racial differences in cognitive functioning? Why was it necessary to speak it in a way that--and surely the authors knew this--would make it the center of the discussion of their work? Especially when they conclude that there is little or nothing that can be done to narrow the cognitive gap among races? What, then, are we supposed to talk about? How unfortunate it is that blacks, all in all, are not as smart as the rest of us?
But people are already talking that way in private, the authors say. It is time to bring the subject out of the closet. Why? There are lots of things, very important things, that people discuss in private but not in public. The distinction between private and public is an important achievement of civilization. It was the crazy Left that tried to erase that boundary with its sloganeering about the personal being the political, and vice versa. There is an astonishing naivete in the suggestion that we should have a nice, polite national conversation about the alleged cognitive inferiority of blacks. America is not an academic seminar limited to a few utterly dispassionate and socially disengaged intellectuals interested only in "the truth."
We live in the United States of America, which, from its constituting compromise on white slaveholding, has been racked and nearly brought to ruin by conflicts inextricably related to race. The truth is that we are not capable of having a civil conversation on the question posed. We live in a world of limits, and we can live with that limitation, too. The incapacity can be embraced as an interdiction. So we won't make the alleged cognitive inferiority of blacks a subject of public discussion. What of it? Nothing is lost. No truth is denied, no untruth told. The authors give us no compelling reason for having such a public discussion, and there are compelling reasons for not having it. There are many other matters on which public debate should be generated, matters about which we can do something. But now there will probably be a long and bitter debate over the alleged cognitive inferiority of blacks, about which, if the allegation is true, little or nothing can be done.
It is said that the book renders a service by putting to rest the common charge that racial inequities are caused by white racism. Not racism but IQ is to blame. This is not compelling. There are ample studies demonstrating the connection between individual behavior and doing poorly in life, as there are ample studies showing the dramatic decline in white racism. There is no need to play the IQ card.
Of course, there are those who think it is true that blacks are cognitively inferior, and who think a great deal can be done about it. How delicately it was put by Malcolm Browne, science reporter at the New York Times, in an essentially favorable review of the book: "Still, one suspects that the authors ... may have softened their agendas somewhat to parry the expected fury of liberal critics, fellow academics, and hostile mobs. Given their conclusions about intellect and demographics, it is hard to believe that these writers would oppose a eugenically motivated program designed to influence patterns of reproduction." Improving the racial stock, it used to be called. And of course, as history tells, there was a rather dire downside for those who were a drag on eugenic ambitions. Unlike Mr. Browne, I find it very easy to believe that Herrnstein opposed and Murray opposes such eugenic programs, and vigorously so. But why did they not see how they would make it very hard for Malcolm Browne and many others to believe that?
The book opposes affirmative action. There are powerful arguments against affirmative action that do not require any reference to IQ and race. The programs the authors criticize are unjust to all, demeaning of blacks, hostile to the American view of individual effort and reward, and politically inflammatory. Talk about the cognitive inferiority of blacks adds nothing to these reasons for opposing affirmative action. In fact, the belief that inferiority is genetically based may inspire the opponents of equality of opportunity to support stronger programs of affirmative action to assure equality of result.
Similarly, the authors' case against existing immigration practices does not require reference to IQ and ethnicity. For instance, admissions could be based on proven skills and employability rather than on relationship, however distant, to someone already here. The book's criticisms and suggestions regarding public policy are generally sound. It is a shame that they will be lost because of the authors' perversely puckish injection of comparative group IQ ratings.
There are other problems with The Bell Curve, such as the isolation of the IQ variable from other factors that many studies suggest are equally strong or stronger indicators of social behavior and life outcomes. About some variables related to behavior something can be done, beginning with challenging those who indulge in such behavior. By the authors' own admission, little or nothing can be done about IQ. Now the connection between IQ and race has become the central question, and that can only rekindle a strife that is always smoldering in American life. The authors could have made the arguments they wanted to make in a very different way, without denying a bit of the truth that needs to be told. Unless, of course, the cognitive inferiority of blacks is among the arguments they really wanted to make. But I refuse to believe that is the case.
A word to conservatives. The race question has bedeviled varieties of conservatism for a very long time. For conservatives to think that it is to their advantage to seize upon the race factor in The Bell Curve would be very dumb. It would also be very, very wrong.