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.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is the Helen Ross Professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago.