Are You From Belmont or Fishtown?

 

If this piece by Charles Murray isn’t a natural Ricochet conversation-starter, nothing is. 

Over the past 50 years, that common civic culture has unraveled. We have developed a new upper class with advanced educations, often obtained at elite schools, sharing tastes and preferences that set them apart from mainstream America. At the same time, we have developed a new lower class, characterized not by poverty but by withdrawal from America’s core cultural institutions.

To illustrate just how wide the gap has grown between the new upper class and the new lower class, let me start with the broader upper-middle and working classes from which they are drawn, using two fictional neighborhoods that I hereby label Belmont (after an archetypal upper-middle-class suburb near Boston) and Fishtown (after a neighborhood in Philadelphia that has been home to the white working class since the Revolution).

If you’re in America, do you live in Belmont or Fishtown?

What’s odd to me is realizing that I grew up in neither and have never lived in either. And some of his observations make a kind of dismaying sense of the feeling I have, when I go back to the US, that there’s no place I’d fit in. When I ask myself, “Where would I live if I moved back to America?” I always have this uneasy thought–thus far unarticulated–that I couldn’t bear the complete unreality of Belmost, but what on earth would I do in Fishtown?

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  1. Profile Photo Inactive
    @MichaelTee
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.: If this piece by Charles Murray isn’t a natural Ricochet conversation-starter, nothing is.

    We have divergent views on what we consider interesting.

    I’d rather watch a reality show than to read Charles Murray.

    • #1
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    @JeffY

    Well, I really enjoy reading Murray. That probably means my head is in Belmont while the rest of me is Fishtown.

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    @TommyDeSeno

    Tell Charles I grew up in a black neighborhood. What’s he gonna name that?

    • #3
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    @katievs

    I too, apparently live on both sides of the tracks.

    I think there is quite a high number of us out here.

    I have lots of friends, for instance, who are highly educated and fairly sophisticated in their tastes, but whose moral and religious convictions have little in common with the liberal elite. Most of them, but not all, are pretty strapped financially.

    And, come to think it of it, it seems to me that those elite themselves, in their own way, have “withdrawn from America’s core cultural institutions.” They may be getting married, but they get divorced easily too. They favor SSM; they don’t go to church…

    • #4
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    @MelFoil

    Bad welfare policy > broken families > crime and illiteracy > cultural isolation.

    • #5
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    @HaakonDahl

    We should not be surprised that none of us come from either of these Potemkin straw towns invented solely to help ease an author’s strained point. Yes, I get the contrast. I think it’s reaching too far.

    • #6
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    @Lance

    I grew in the suburbs of a southwestern SunBelt state, populated and defined by people fleeing both the Belmonts, Fishtowns and my own native Detroit. Not sure I relate.

    • #7
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    @katievs
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.: I always have this uneasy thought–thus far unarticulated–that I couldn’t bear the complete unreality of Belmost, but what on earth would I do in Fishtown? · · 32 minutes ago

    You would do just what the rest of us do. You would find some middle ground. Live somewhere not too far from a university and a big city. Join a church or synagogue, and maybe a reading circle. Start a dinner club. Train it to the occasional symphony. Live among normal people. Find like-minded friends.

    It’s not perfect, but it’s not bad either.

    What would be really great is to find work at some serious endeavor with wonderful people committed to a great cause.

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    @Guruforhire

    Define from:

    I was born into a black neighborhood, moved to a rural neighborhood (fishtowny), and now I am by description a belmontian, but live in the place oddly of both.

    I am a fishtown new money person with a fishtown temperment, but belmotian tastes.

    • #9
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    @Antiphon

    Hey now, I actually live in Fishtown (literally).

    • #10
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    @MelFoil
    Haakon Dahl: We should not be surprised that none of us come from either of these Potemkin straw towns invented solely to help ease an author’s strained point. Yes, I get the contrast. I think it’s reaching too far. · 0 minutes ago

    It’s very real, wherever there’s a critical mass of the very wealthy–West Coast, East Coast–but less true in the Midwest.

    In smaller cities it’s just harder to live separate lives, and for that reason, more time and effort goes into providing quality education for the poor. If you could transplant an ordinary public school, and staff, from rural North Dakota to New York City, they could probably charge tuition and soon have a waiting list.

    • #11
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    @outstripp

    Is America moving towards a society where light-skinned people with money and education live in gated communities surrounded by somewhat unhappy dark-skinned people?

    • #12
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    @WesternChauvinist

    Let’s not insult Mr. Murray’s intelligence. Fishtown and Belmont are models. Cultural trends. The whole of America fits into neither. But while there are a lot of lost souls choosing materialism and therefore striving for Belmont, and a whole other lot of lost souls feeling hopeless among the materialism and falling into Fishtown, there’s a vast in-between of people leading purposeful lives. I’m one of those and you would be too, Claire, if you chose to live here.

    I feel I’ve neglected my Ricochet community for not having put this up in a post, but better late than never:

    Niall Ferguson comments on Charles Murray’s Coming Apart in his essay, Rich America, Poor America.

    I’m off to the punishment room now.

    • #13
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    @LeslieWatkins

    I like Murray, too. And I don’t think it’s a trivial point, though trying to create geographic subsets is problematic. Take me and my twin sister. Her mindset is totally in Belmont. (E.g., she watches nothing but MSNBC and old BBC series and embraces the president’s pseudo-intellectual notion that the country can go green in like, twenty minutes.) I, meanwhile, am much more comfortable with the get-your-hands-dirty-when-you-work viewpoint of Fishtown, though demographically I’m not such a great fit (I didn’t grow up working-class, I’m not religious, and I’m boringly WASPy through and through). Adding to the oddity is that she makes lots more money (good for her!) and lives in the more mainstream city of Raleigh while I live right down the road in the Eastern bloc nation of Durham. In other words, a physical distinction is too ephemeral to be pinned down. … Claire, what about New York?

    Jeff Younger: Well, I really enjoy reading Murray. That probably means my head is in Belmont while the rest of me is Fishtown. · 28 minutes ago

    • #14
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    @MelFoil

    I’m familiar with San Francisco. If you want real examples, take St. Francis Wood vs. Hunters Point.

    • #15
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    @DavidFoster

    “If you could transplant an ordinary public school, and staff, from rural North Dakota to New York City, they could probably charge tuition and soon have a waiting list”

    As long as they could remain independent of the NYC education bureaucracy. If they were placed under the control of this bureaucracy, then within 3 years their culture and performance would be that of other NYC schools.

    • #16
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    @RobertBarraudTaylor
    Antiphon: Hey now, I actually live in Fishtown (literally). · 35 minutes ago

    Hey, Antiphon, as someone born in Philly, and whose mother was once a public health nurse in Fishtown, I want to know: is Fishtown still Fishtown? I know and appreciate the image that Murray is using for his thought experiment, because that’s a memory of Old Philadelphia. But hasn’t Fishtown, like everything else, changed?

    As for the point that Murray is making, it’s hard to disagree. Yes, there is an increasingly disconnected new upper and new lower class, perhaps because both of them (not just the elites) are disconnected from common cultural preferences and institutions. When (for example) baseball is really by far the most popular sport, boxing and racing the closest competitors, it’s a lot easier to have a common cultural language.

    • #17
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    @starnescl

    Frankly, I’m disappointed in the thoughtfulness of the responses. His point is meaningful and should be of great interest to all. Belmont and Fishtown are not “Potemkin straw towns”. To think this grossly misses the point.

    He reports on whites and the 30 – 49 age group not because that’s all he cares about, but because they show the least changes among demographic groups and yet they still have significantly diverged. He is clearly NOT saying America is simply Belmont and Fishtown.

    He is lamenting the breakdown of family and previously widely shared American values and the dysfunctional impact of that breakdown. And there are sniggers at his attempt to communicate this?

    Murray is doing an invaluable service by framing these arguments based on and backed with solid data. Why does that matter?

    Large swaths of our country – particularly in upper income/ability/intellectual circles – have lost all notion of cultural confidence and can’t rally to common sense. However, they are uniquely susceptible and vulnerable to data based argument.

    Murray just did all the spade work for you. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.

    • #18
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    @Claire
    Charles Starnes:

    Murray just did all the spade work for you. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. · 1 minute ago

    Completely agree. And he put his finger on something I really feel when I go back.

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    @Claire
    katievs What would be really great is to find work at some serious endeavor with wonderful people committed to a great cause. · 1 hour ago

    I do think of Ricochet that way …

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    @PoppiZ

    Just curious, Claire, why did you move away from the States? Is it likely that in this vast country there is no place that you would fit in?

    • #21
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    @MatthewGilley

    Wow. Lots of you need to get out more….

    • #22
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    @MatthewGilley

    I’ll take “Political Personalities” for four hundred, Alex….”

    Guruforhire: Define from:

    I was born into a black neighborhood, moved to a rural neighborhood (fishtowny), and now I am by description a belmontian, but live in the place oddly of both.

    I am a fishtown new money person with a fishtown temperment, but belmotian tastes. · 1 hour ago

    Who is … Mike Huckabee?!?!

    • #23
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    @Claire
    Jeffrey Zabner: Just curious, Claire, why did you move away from the States? Is it likely that in this vast country there is no place that you would fit in? · 21 minutes ago

    It was always a series of accidents–great jobs in far-away places, a father who lives in Paris, a relationship brought me here to Istanbul. And then somehow the years added up, and I found that in a way I could not longer quite put my finger on, America had changed, and I didn’t have the feeling I expected to have of “Yes, this is home, the place that makes sense” when I went back. I felt the Belmont people were living in some kind of sleepwalking fantasy; I wanted to shake them and say, “Don’t you realize, the world isn’t like this, in most of the world people worry pretty regularly about things like Syrian chemical weapons landing on our heads,” and the Fishtown people were no less living in a fantasy, they were just living in a degraded one, preoccupied with things I find coarse and violent, the men in a state of extended adolescence. (Con’t) …

    • #24
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    @Claire

    And I don’t remember that growing up. I remember living in a lovely middle-class neighborhood full of families, where as Murray suggested, we shared a culture. We watched Ali and Star Wars and we sold Girl Scout Cookies, and I don’t remember anyone being super-rich. A lot of divorces, to be sure. It was all so norrmal–you went to a summer camp that cost a few hundred bucks a week, public school, vacations on the Coast, just as Murray said, and everyone pretty much shared the same idea of what was good to eat–toasted cheese, Baskin Robbins … I dunno, maybe I’m just feeling nostalgic.

    • #25
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    @Sisyphus
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.: …

    What’s odd to me is realizing that I grew up in neither and have never lived in either. And some of his observations make a kind of dismaying sense of the feeling I have, when I go back to the US, that there’s no place I’d fit in. When I ask myself, “Where would I live if I moved back to America?” I always have this uneasy thought–thus far unarticulated–that I couldn’t bear the complete unreality of Belmost, but what on earth would I do in Fishtown?

    I live near two of the most virulent crime neighborhoods on Earth, Capitol Hill and Embassy Row. I think you might have more fun with the latter. The triple parking, the hit and runs, the Muslim hostage takers (never forget), the drunken dignitaries in endless pub/embassy crawls, and the permanent parade of men in black.

    • #26
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    @CrowsNest

    I find Murray to be among our best social analysts today. His work is consistently superb. He’s quite right in what he is observing here.

    In addition to the attitude cultivated in places like elite universities or in “Fishtown” neighborhoods, technology, high capitalism, and meritocracy are having an impact on social capital and social networks. Today it is more possible than ever, in a sense, to never have to come into contact with people who have significantly different life experiences from you for any sustained period of time. It is more possible than ever at home, at work, and at leisure to be socially isolated from anyone not of your own creed and class.

    Heck, put aside the social science for a second. Think about your kids at family parties over the holidays who spent most of their time texting friends. There is something happening at a very deep level in our time that is altering the way that social networks are created and maintained.

    That fragmentation is empirically scary because of what social science tells us it portends, and we don’t have a ready model to deal with it. Meanwhile, it appears social conservatism must address it.

    • #27
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    @MarkWilson
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.: And I don’t remember that growing up. I remember living in a lovely middle-class neighborhood full of families, where as Murray suggested, we shared a culture. We watched Ali and Star Wars and we sold Girl Scout Cookies, and I don’t remember anyone being super-rich. A lot of divorces, to be sure. It was all so norrmal–you went to a summer camp that cost a few hundred bucks a week, public school, vacations on the Coast, just as Murray said, and everyone pretty much shared the same idea of what was good to eat–toasted cheese, Baskin Robbins … I dunno, maybe I’m just feeling nostalgic. · 2 minutes ago

    Claire, take heart, that sounds like my childhood in Minnesota the 80s and 90s.

    • #28
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    @Freesmith

    Recall the titles of a couple of iconic 1960’s books – “The Making of a Counter Culture,” and “The Making of an Un-American.” —- They won, we lost.

    • #29
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    @MarkWilson
    Crow’s Nest: Today it is more possible than ever, in a sense, to never have to come into contact with people who have significantly different life experiences from you for any sustained period of time. It is more possible than ever at home, at work, and at leisure to be socially isolated from anyone not of your own creed and class.

    Not too long in the past, most people never ventured more than 50 miles from home, and knew most people within their towns by name. How would you compare that to your statement above?

    • #30

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