My Lunch With Charles

April 25, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

Charles Murray is the first author Nicholas Lemann discusses in his New Yorker piece (here) on inequality.  Murray’s recent book Coming Apart documents the moral decline of the white working class, and while Lemann doesn’t dispute Murray’s data, he is puzzled by Murray’s choice of villains – the liberal elite. They may live exemplary lives – work, family, religion –
But, unlike the elite of Victorian England, they don’t “preach what they practice.”  Somehow, this manifests itself in the breakdown of social more at the opposite end of society.

The elites, in Murray’s view, devote their free time to their own obsessions and diversions – exotic foods, chic wines, hybrid cars, and the like – when they should be driving their pickups to Applebee’s to talk about Nascar and the latest episode of “American Idol” with people who barely finished high school.  And somewhere along the way, maybe as everyone is lighting up a cigarette, they’ll slip in a few words about the benefits of a virtuous life.*

I’m sure that Murray, sitting at a table with people who voiced prejudiced, ethnic stereotypes would be quick to remind them that prejudice was not only nasty but economically unwise, since it excludes the capable and virtuous, and that trust, even of those outside our little tribe, is an important source of America’s success.

Several weeks ago, Edward Luce reported in the Financial Times on his lunch with Murray.  Here are some excerpts:  (The full article is here. )
Our venue is Al Tiramisu, a well-hidden Italian restaurant close to Dupont Circle . . . .

He is buoyed when the waiter says the black-truffle pasta is still on the menu, and we both order it as a starter. I have already said he must have a glass of wine. “Now, does the FT extend to a bottle?” Murray asks as he leafs through the wine list.

Our black truffle has arrived. Murray’s martini glass is empty. The waiter pours him a taster from the bottle of Gavi di Gavi, an Italian white wine. “Mmmm, it’s like a good Montrachet,” . . . I ask him what kind of wine a Gavi di Gavi is. Murray discloses that it is a “varietal”. I nod as though I know what that means. It certainly tastes nice. “Varietal means expensive,” he adds.
So much for Applebee’s and a Bud Light.

He discloses that he sometimes plays poker at a casino in Charles Town, West Virginia, and that he will, in fact, head over there after our lunch has finished. “The ways in which it reinvigorates your confidence in America is really interesting,” Murray says.

“I remember sitting at a table a couple of months ago. And at a poker table there’s lots of camaraderie. And so here I am at a typical table at Charles Town. Big guys with lots of tattoos, sleeveless T-shirts, one of them an accountant, the other looks like he comes from a gang. There was an Iranian-American and Afghan-American. Incredible polyglot mix of people – all speak perfect idiomatic English – and the conversation turned to the fact that my daughter was going to marry an Italian. ‘Well, do you trust him?’ they said. ‘You know, you can’t trust those Italians.’”

Murray guffaws at the recollection. “The thing is, it was such an American conversation.”

For what it’s worth, Luce includes the tab:
  • Black truffle pasta x2 $90.00
  • Sardines $15.00
  • Barramundi $28.00
  • Gin martini $14.00
  • La Scolca Gavi di Gavi $105.00
  • Cappuccino $4.50
  • Double espresso $7.00
  • Total (including tax) $289.50
* These emblems are taken largely from Murray’s “How Thick Is Your Bubble” quiz in Chapter 4 of Coming Apart.  You can find all 25 items here.


Anonymous said...

Well, he's consistent if nothing else. When someone else foots the bill, he really does go all out!

Jay Livingston said...

Hi Josh. He's consistent too in that he's a persuasive speaker -- made me want to go out and drink a glass of Gavi di Gavi. Now if I just had that recipe for black-truffle pasta . . .

Andrew Gelman said...

Cooking your own food . . . that's soooo upper-class. Real Americans do like Bill Clinton and eat at McDonald's and drink some non-PBR brand of beer.

Anonymous said...

But Jay, you missed the best part of all of this - the follow up letters to the editor in the FT which point out that CM doesn't understand the term "varietal!" Pa-bam!