My Real Murkin driveway the day after I win the lottery. (Photo courtesy Ford Motor Company.)
You’ve taken the quiz, right?
You haven’t. Don’t worry. You can take it now. I’ll wait.
Done? You don’t have to report your score. Your score isn’t the point of the quiz anyway. The point of the quiz is to drum up publicity for Charles Murray’s book, Coming Apart. It doesn’t measure anything. What it’s pretending to measure isn’t your relative Real Murkin-ness but how much contact you have or have had with Real Murka.
Notice the wording of the question under Jimmie Johnson’s picture. It doesn’t ask if you follow NASCAR. It asks if you happen to recognize a particular a sports celebrity. You are allowed to congratulate yourself on your lack of elitism by virtue of having remembered seeing the guy on Letterman or in a magazine or online, not on your having actually spent a hot afternoon breathing in the smells of burning rubber and motor oil and rubbing bare, sunburned shoulders with the drunken motorheads in the crowd around you.
Or, if you fall for the trap, you are encouraged to congratulate yourself on not recognizing him.
So the quiz isn’t about you or me. It’s about appealing to our offending our vanities. Which means it’s not really worth thinking about. Except that it is. What’s worth thinking about is the assumptions about what the Real Murka is, where it is, and who the Real Murkins who live there are and want and like and do.
If you accept the assumptions behind the quiz, then Real Murkins are Southern and Midwestern, probably live in the suburbs, not young, mostly male, almost certainly white, just as certainly Christian, middle to lower middle class, and if not not blue collar workers themselves, no more than a generation removed from the assembly line.
Notice anything about this demographic?
It’s a pretty close match to the Republican base.
Now, it’s easy to see why conservatives like Charles Murray want the definition of Real Murkinness to be Republican voter and it’s dismaying and infuriating to watch as one Republican politician after another mounts the stump to tell Republican crowds that they are the only Real Murkins and the not real Murkins are in the process of stealing Murka away from them.
But it’s also dismaying and infuriating to realize that most of the National Press Corps accepts this as their idea of Real Murka and proceeds to report on politics as if the rest of us Americans either don’t exist or somehow don’t count even when our candidates win.
This is why I think it’s worthwhile to look at the questions here and take them apart.
But I’m actually going to leave that issue for someone else. I’m interested in how reductive the questions and how elitist they are.
The reductions are deliberate because the quiz wasn’t designed to define Real Murka as a place unto itself. It was designed to prove that Charles Murray’s liberal colleagues at Harvard don’t live there. The elitism is there because Murray forgot that having colleagues at Harvard means that he works there too.
The main thing is that in the process of advancing a political agenda, Murray has managed to define Real Murka as a place where most Americans don’t live.
So, what I’m planning to do is spend a few posts looking at the questions, a few at a time, identifying the wrongheaded or half-baked assumptions behind them and then suggesting ways they could have been written to make them more inclusive.
My hope is that in the process I will draw a sketch of what I think life is like in these United States for a lot of Americans.
There isn’t a real America but there is something like a mainstream America, a place where most people share a common experience, where they work and play and think and hope and dream in very similar ways. There are things we do that bind us together. And some of those things are actually identifiable within the questions on the quiz, you just have to push aside the political agenda.
I’m not going to tackle the questions in order. Today I’m starting with questions 4 and 10. Just cuz.
4. Can you name this NASCAR champion?
Ok, I’d have thought that the quintessential American sporting experience was high school football and that a better question for measuring your involvement with mainstream American culture would have been Since you graduated, have you regularly stood and cheered under the lights on a Friday night? I’m guessing that the reason that isn’t the question is that it can be answered with a resounding Yes by the families of these guys.
I don’t know when and why NASCAR fandom became a defining characteristic of Real Murkinhood. Probably when some Republican operative noticed that there are more fans per capita in red states than in blue and in the red parts of blue states. Still. It’s the one pure spectator sport in that it’s the only one of the major moneymakers that the vast majority of fans have never participated in at any level. Oh sure, we’ve all driven a car fast, but the only off-track driving experience that comes close involves cop cars on your tail and jugs of moonshine in the trunk. Otherwise, nobody organizes a stockcar race at the company picnic.
On the other hand, sitting on your ass and drinking beer while watching younger, stronger, more talented people do the actual work may be a quintessential American past time.
10. Have you or your spouse ever bought a pickup truck?
No, but not because I’ve had any say in the matter.
But the day after we hit the lottery, I’m driving a brand spanking new F-150 off the lot!
I don’t care if we don’t need a pickup.
But that’s the real question or what ought to have been the real question: Have you ever bought a pickup truck because you needed to own a pickup truck?
And I mean need it need it not need it to tow the trailer carrying your hobby. I mean need it as you need it to haul or carry things as part of doing your job. This is one of the few questions on the quiz that answering yes to increases the probability you work on a farm. But a yes answer can also mean you have extra money to spend on a toy and the gas to keep it running so you can play around with it. It may mean you live somewhere where four-wheel drive comes in handy and you think SUVs are a waste of pavement. It may mean that now and then you need to haul stuff that won’t fit in the trunk of your Lexus or Chevy Volt.
Owning a pick-up can be as culturally non-signifying as owning a hammer or putting in a backyard pool. It’s simply an announcement that you have work to do or expect to have work to do that you need a pick-up for or that you have a backyard, which in itself is simply an announcement that you live in a suburb. On the other hand, it may be a declaration of personality, like having season tickets to your local professional or college sports team---you’re showing the world that you’re willing to spend a certain amount of your income on indulging a hobby. It could be as economically and status identifying as yearly skiing vacations in Aspen. The revealing question is what’s in the back of your pick-up? A gun rack? A tool chest? A bale of hay? A dog crate? A surf board? Scientific equipment and jars and tanks full of specimens? If you’re towing something what is it? A boat? A camper? A horse trailer? Snowmobiles? Somebody else’s broken down car? In other words, is yours a working pick-up and what kind of work does it do?