We spoke with Charles Murray, author of the new book, “The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead: Dos and Don’ts of Right Behavior, Tough Thinking, Clear Writing, and Living a Good Life,” and most famously the still-controversial “The Bell Curve,” on a variety of topics from why Professor Murray has increasingly given up on policy solutions to America’s problems altogether, to grammar, the importance of Harold Ramis’ “Groundhog Day,” and religion.
We conducted our interview via e-mail, reproduced below with minimal edits and modified to include links.
And in case you missed it, be sure to check out our full review of Murray’s book as well.
Make the pitch to readers young and old for why they should pick up a self-identified curmudgeon’s guide to self-improvement? Did you intend for your book to appeal to an audience beyond ambitious young adults and their parents?
Murray: You have to understand that this book wasn’t planned. It just happened. I started writing tips to [American Enterprise Institute's] AEI’s young staff, getting some pet peeves off my chest (for example, tip #2, “Don’t use first names with people considerably older than you until asked, and sometimes not even then”) and it grew from there. A lot of the readers told me this was useful stuff and that they were emailing my tips to their friends. So why not make a book out of it? In answer to your question, the book is pretty specific in its target audience: Smart, ambitious 20-somethings, usually with a college degree.
Having read (and thoroughly enjoyed) “Coming Apart,” towards the end you note that those living in super-bubbles should and in a sense have a duty to reassert their values in order to fix the cultural divide. Given the advice in “The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead,” is there meant to be any continuity between the two works?
Title: Shattered Consensus: The Rise and Decline of America’s Postwar Political Order
Author: James Piereson
Murray: I didn’t plan it that way, but many of the tips draw directly from my earlier work, and not just “Coming Apart.” The discussion of judgmentalism, using the example of Titian’s “Venus of Urbino,” draws directly from a similar discussion in “Human Accomplishment.” The tip that talks about the cardinal virtues draws directly from a passage in “Real Education.” The discussion of the sources of human happiness draws from “In Pursuit.” Many of the things that in earlier books I discussed in the abstract have found concrete applications in “Curmudgeon’s Guide.”
Most social scientists observe the world as it is, but you go a step further and propose how to change it. In “In Our Hands“ you take a macro perspective and explain how to abolish the modern welfare state; in “The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead” you focus on the micro, laying out guidelines for self-improvement with the explicit intent to influence the next generation of leaders. Moving from observer to advocate is unique among your peers — care to comment?
Murray: I’ve increasingly given up on policy solutions. I see too many ways in which government in general and the federal government in particular are sclerotic, paralyzed by the maze of special interests that keep the idiotic things that government does alive. So in “Coming Apart,” the final chapter was exclusively about ways in which I think the culture must change before meaningful political reform becomes possible. I hadn’t thought about the parallel with the advice I give in “Curmudgeon’s Guide,” but it is indeed focused on the individual. But don’t think that I had “an explicit intent to influence the next generation of leaders.” As I wrote “Curmudgeon’s Guide,” I had a strong feeling that I was talking to individual young people who are very much like I was fifty years ago, hoping I could help them avoid some of the dumb things I did.
Given how early in our lives many of our character traits crystallize, do you believe that those ambitious young adults who have heretofore missed the lessons in your book can pick it up, internalize your advice and apply it going forward?
Murray: Sure. I’m not asking introverts to become extroverts or for humorless people to learn how to tell jokes. I’m saying things like “has it ever occurred to you that if you walk into a job interview with a visible tattoo, a lot of people like me will start looking for reasons not to hire you—and that people like me influence a lot of hiring decisions?” It doesn’t take a whole lot of internalization to apply that lesson.
One of the contrarian aspects of your book is that you actually argue for judgmentalism, with which you draw a clear distinction from intolerance. Explain.
Murray: Making judgments is part of being human. The only way you can go through daily life without making judgments is if you deliberately refuse to think about what’s before your eyes. Being judgmental is not only OK; we have a moral obligation to make the best judgments we can. Having done that, however, the next step is not to try to make laws enforcing our judgments about right and wrong. It is appropriate to be tolerant of behaviors of which we may disapprove, but which should be left as individual choices that people may make in a free society.
By the same token, however, being tolerant does not require me to approve of what you do. An example: I think the use of all drugs should be decriminalized. But if that were to happen, I would not be obligated to refrain from criticizing people who spend their lives in a drugged stupor, and I would campaign vigorously against laws that provide government support to people who have incapacitated themselves with drugs. To me, the distinction between tolerating behaviors and approving of them is the key to a society that is both civil and free. In a free and civil society, the culture necessarily has a strong code that encourages “obedience to the unenforceable,” to quote a wise English jurist.
America seems to suffer from a serious deficit in virtue — at least among its political class — and presumably among a large enough proportion of the populace to elect such a class. You say “the cardinal virtues are indispensable to being good.” Speak a bit about virtue and America’s plight.
Murray: Once again, I was not thinking about the nation when I wrote about the importance of the cardinal virtues. Rather, I’m trying to get my readers, entering adulthood, to realize that courage, justice, temperance, and practical wisdom (to use the modern label for what used to be called “prudence”) are not just philosophical concepts. They are indispensable qualities to living a fulfilling life—because without these four pivotal virtues, human beings are rudderless.
Why should folks watch “Groundhog Day” repeatedly?
Murray: Watch it the first time because it’s a great entertainment—very smart and very funny. But you’ll have a sense even the first time that you’ve just watched something more important than a romantic comedy. It’s a brilliant moral fable for our time, showing how an egotistical jerk evolves, over thousands of repetitions of the same day—groundhog day—into a fully realized human being. And the movie is subtly complex. I guarantee you’ll still be discovering new things in it the fourth or fifth time you watch it.
Of all of the grammatical tips you put forth, which do you believe is most important?
Murray: If you use the word “like” as a, like, verbal tic when you’re, like, talking to people, STOP IT. For the first few months, don’t even use “like” in its correct sense. Eradicate it from your vocabulary altogether.
If readers take away one lesson from this book, what should it be?
Murray: You are obligated to think deeply about what the pursuit of happiness really means, and thereafter live your life accordingly.
Make your case for why libertarians who are skeptical of religion should study religion. Should religious folks study the arguments of atheists and agnostics as well?
Murray: Religion is too serious to be left to the devout. If you have never been religious, it’s not good enough to say “Religion’s not for me.” You’ve got to be sure that you know what you’re rejecting. In the case of Christianity, deciding that you don’t believe the Sunday school stories you heard as a child doesn’t cut it. You’ve got to grapple with the real thing. As for religious folks, they can’t get through college without constant exposure to atheists and agnostics. The zeitgeist of disbelief penetrates every nook and cranny of most college course catalogs.
Glenn Beck said in a recent interview that “Culture is the lead. That’s the dog. The news is the tail.” My sense is that at its core your book is about changing the culture. Is that a fair interpretation?
Murray: It’s first and foremost about changing individual readers—which, if the book were to be successful beyond my imagining, might change the culture too. I can always dream, anyway.