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Allen Barra on the Curious Case of Thomas Sowell

Posted on Mar 26, 2010
book cover

By Allen Barra

My Aunt Louise was fond of telling me that an intellectual was “someone who could hear the William Tell Overture without thinking of the Lone Ranger.” In “Intellectuals and Society,” Thomas Sowell invents a different definition, one that also differs from my Webster’s New World, which offers “Guided by the intellect rather than by feelings ... having superior reasoning powers.” For Sowell, intellectualism is not so much a clash between reason and feeling as between reason and experience: “The intellectual’s exaltation of reason often comes at the expense of experience, allowing them to have sweeping confidence about things in which they have little or no knowledge or experience.”

Not Paul Johnson, though. In “Intellectuals,” his 1988 catalogue of naughty deeds by famous thinkers, he tells his readers to “beware intellectuals.” The man referred to by Thomas Sowell as “the distinguished British historian Paul Johnson” wrote that “Intellectuals are no wiser as mentors, or worthier as exemplars, than the witch doctors or priests of old. ... A dozen people picked at random on the street are at least as likely to offer sensible views on moral and political matters as a cross-section of the intelligentsia.”

The uncharitable might accuse Johnson of hypocrisy for taking a job with the Thatcher administration. (Or, for that matter, for admonishing intellectuals for bad behavior while being spanked by his mistress, Gloria Stewart, apparently not seeing any conflict with his public role extolling family values.) But then, Johnson, like Sowell, could argue that by his own definition he isn’t an intellectual anyway, so his standard doesn’t apply to himself. 

I’m leading with Johnson because “Intellectuals” serves as a lead-in to Sowell’s “Intellectuals and Society.” A quote from Johnson on the back cover of “Intellectuals and Society” reads, “Thomas Sowell is, in my opinion, the most original and interesting philosopher at work in America.” The “original” part might have been true if Johnson hadn’t written his book first.


book cover


Intellectuals and Society


By Thomas Sowell


Basic Books, 416 pages


Buy the book

Sowell writes in his preface that his book “is about intellectuals” but “not written for intellectuals.” I’m tempted to say that this is why I understood it so well, but in truth this raises the obvious question of exactly who Sowell thinks is going to be reading him if not intellectuals—who, by his definition (and I’ll get to this in a moment) lean to the left. Sowell reminds me of the scene in the Marx Brothers’ movie “Horse Feathers” where Groucho, on the sidelines of a college football game, is haranguing a team. Zeppo says, “Dad, you’re talking to the wrong team,” to which Groucho replies, “I know, but our team won’t listen.”

Of course, Sowell is writing to be read by intellectuals; surely the scholar in residence at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University knows his readership.

Still, he insists that “Intelligence minus judgment equals intellect,” and that “At the core of the notion of an intellectual is the dealer in ideas. ... An intellectual’s work begins and ends with ideas” (emphasis Sowell’s). 

The main thrust of Sowell’s book, as my non-intellectual mind comprehended it, is that intellectuals, particularly 20th century intellectuals, have produced masses of silly, impractical ideas and that they have, by and large, not been held accountable for the destruction most of them have left in their wake. He lauds the late Green Bay Packers football coach Vince Lombardi: “No one judged Vince Lombardi’s ideas about how to play football by their plausibility a priori or by whether they were more complex or less complex than the ideas of other football coaches, or by whether they represented new or old conceptions of how the game should be played. Vince Lombardi was judged by what happened when his ideas were put to test on the football field.” As a sportswriter, I’d say Vince Lombardi’s “ideas” were based on the principle “Knock the crap out of the man in front of you!”—but let that pass. Sowell’s point is taken.

To see long excerpts from “Intellectuals and Society,” click here.

The book starts to jump the track when Sowell tries to stretch this concept of practicality into a larger argument. As he puts it, “The record of twentieth century intellectuals was especially appalling ... Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and Hitler all had their admirers, defenders and apologists among the intelligentsia in western democratic nations, despite the fact that these dictators each ended up killing people of their own country on a scale unprecedented even by despotic regimes that preceded them.” (Sowell plays a shell game with his evidence, lumping all state-run dictatorships—including Nazi Germany’s—under the heading of “left,” but as the German economist Frederick Hayek perceptively pointed out, there are both left and right forms of socialism.)

That is no doubt true, at least to a large extent; in Raymond Aron’s famous phrase, communism was indeed “the opiate of intellectuals.” All the ingredients in that stew, though, don’t mix so easily. Didn’t Hitler—and Franco, Mussolini, Pol Pot and perhaps even Mao as well—have millions of passionate followers who weren’t intellectuals by anyone’s definition? Clearly, by the word intellectual Sowell means “leftist thinker”—not once in 317 pages of text does he indict any right-wing thinker as an intellectual, even Ayn Rand, who was brazen enough to set herself up as “the new intellectual.” 

At times Sowell’s mission seems to be the gathering of nearly all leading 20th century thinkers—except Hayek, and again, more on him in a moment—onto a big barge emblazoned “Intellectuals,” write them all off as liberals or leftists, and sink it in the ocean. 

I am temperamentally in agreement with Sowell on many of the issues discussed in this and his other books—I’m a proud gun owner, and I have quoted Sowell on the subjects of banning boxing (we’re both against a ban), the sacredness of property rights, and commiseration for the police—but I am often wary of Sowell even when in agreement. 

The problem for non-intellectuals and non-ideologues like myself when reading “Intellectuals and Society” is how every issue is rammed into Sowell’s Procrustean mold. Let me pick a couple of specifics that I know a little about. I maintain, as Sowell does, that the media in general grossly distorted the basic facts of the rape accusation leveled at the Duke University lacrosse team in 2006 and were wrong in dismissing words spoken in their defense by Duke’s women’s lacrosse team.

“In the absence,” Sowell writes, “of any evidence on either side of the issue at the outset, there was no reason why unsubstantiated statements for or against the accused should have been uncritically accepted or uncritically rejected. But the statements of members of the women’s lacrosse team were not merely dismissed but denounced.” That is a judgment to which I would put my name. However, then he says, “It was a classic example of the presumption of superior knowledge on the part of intellectuals with less knowledge than those whose conclusions they dismissed and denounced. Unfortunately, it was not the only example, not even a rare example.” 

With the insertion of the word intellectuals, Sowell turns media criticism into ideological argument: It was the “intellectuals,” i.e., liberals, who dismissed comments by the Duke women’s lacrosse team that might have changed people’s perception of the men’s guilt. But can the media bias that surrounded the Duke case really be ascribed to intellectuals? The most prominent print journalist to condemn the men’s team in advance of any evidence was New York Times sportswriter Selena Roberts; on television, it was former prosecutor and cable TV host Nancy Grace (neither of whom, by the way, rescinded their views or apologized after the team was exonerated). In effect, what Sowell did was turn a simple issue of fairness into an ideological debate.

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By samosamo, April 1, 2010 at 3:56 pm Link to this comment

Well, sowell putting milton turdbutt friedman on a pedestal just
cost him an equal amount of credibility to me as if he had
expressed the same for john yoo.

While either one may be considered of being ‘intellectual’, that
content of intellectualness for ‘good’ is highly in doubt as
something more self serving for what is really criminal or leads
to a criminality, as in milton the monster’s ‘perfect’
economics(now proven NOT to work for the good of all but the
few who will make up the rules as it goes); or yoo’s vastly
inhumane treatment of others for what in my opinion is for the
sheer unfounded paranoia or trumped up suspicions of people.

And I have been under the belief that intellectual thinking can
just as easily come from acting criminally because it does take a
good bit of intelligence to not just commit a crime but get away
with it and to get away with it by framing someone else.

But I have noticed of what I have read of sowell is that he is in
the same ‘tree’ as milton the monster and john the torturer.

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By Zack, March 30, 2010 at 11:14 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Mr. Anarcissie,

Barra can claim that Sowell is thinking of leftist without much difficulty, I agree
that he does do this… Barra is right to say that Sowell largely disagrees with

But that’s a separate matter when we talk about Sowell’s definition of the term:
“an intellectual is the dealer in ideas. ... An intellectual’s work begins and ends
with ideas” irrespective of their politics.

Barra ignores Sowell’s definition: “not once in 317 pages of text does he indict
any right-wing thinker as an intellectual.” Friedman, Hayek, Malthus, and
others (from ‘the right’) meet the Sowellian definition of “intellectual.”

Barra accepts this definition and rejects it when it’s convenient to claim that
only people from ‘the ‘left’ are indicted. It’s a genius ways of making a point
without using rigorous logic.

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Anarcissie's avatar

By Anarcissie, March 30, 2010 at 10:42 am Link to this comment

Zack, March 30 at 1:30 am:
’“by the word intellectual Sowell means “leftist thinker”—not once in 317 pages of text does he indict any right-wing thinker as an intellectual”

Not true. He calls Milton Friedman an “intellectual giant” and “very atypical of the intellectuals of his time.” He applied the same language to Solzhenitsyn and others.’...

Right.  They’re “atypical”, in fact, “very atypical”, so the normal intellectual, for Sowell, is exactly as Barra says, a “leftist thinker”.

Now, why would you post something as silly as you did?  Possibly you’ve been reading too much Sowell.  A steady diet of B-level propaganda is not good for the mind.

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By Zack, March 29, 2010 at 10:30 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

“by the word intellectual Sowell means “leftist thinker”—not once in 317 pages
of text does he indict any right-wing thinker as an intellectual”

Not true. He calls Milton Friedman an “intellectual giant” and “very atypical of
the intellectuals of his time.” He applied the same language to Solzhenitsyn
and others.

“Sowell, like Archie Bunker, laments that we could use a man like Herbert
Hoover again”

Really? Read the book (p. 72) for Sowell’s criticisms of Hoover, not the least of
which are Smoot-Hawley, increased tax rates, price intervention… &c. Read the
damn thing and you’ll see what Sowell thinks. If you do, you’ll see that Sowell is
criticizing Obama for playing the blame game on Bush when he is merely
continuing Bush’s policies as FDR continued Hoover while he allowed, by
silence, the intelligentsia to go on blaming Hoover for all of his problems.
That’s the parallel, read the work.

“Last year’s economic crisis is not even discussed by Sowell, possibly because it
occurred after his manuscript was completed”

Your article was printed on the 26th, some 10 days after Sowell’s latest book,
Housing Boom and Bust 2nd Ed., came out, detailing the last couple of months
of 2009. If you expect the man to be superman, then I guess any criticism
could be lain.

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By Closeted Intellectual, March 29, 2010 at 1:30 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I second the motion that Thomas Sowell is a living, breathing joke factory. I’ve never read one of his columns without being taken aback at his evidence (sic), assertions, or conclusions.

Maybe the greatest of his intellectual crimes was during the California Electricity Manipulation and Price Hike Marathon of ‘00-‘01. His solution: “Pay your bills, you deadbeats! This is the free market, not a day care center.” (I’m paraphrasing, of course.)

The passing of Studs Terkel and Howard Zinn were dark days, but I’m gonna throw a block party when this guy gets called home to Friedman.

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Anarcissie's avatar

By Anarcissie, March 29, 2010 at 8:29 am Link to this comment

I find it difficult to understand why Sowell is taken seriously, even by people of his own ideological camp.

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By Ralph Kramden, March 29, 2010 at 12:40 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Exactly when did the Right repudiate Franco? Or Pinochet for that matter? Or Somoza? Or the Shah?
What Sowell is actually doing is trying to place Milton Friedman as the champion of liberty. Hayek was Friedman’s guru. Those who read and criticize are dangerous to someone who knows what is best for all of us. Keep in mind that Friedman’s version of economics has NEVER been enacted democratically.
Why worry about such a discredited institution as the Hoover Institute? I might as well claim I am a senior fellow at the Torquemada Institute, or the Dick Cheney Institute.

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By camnai, March 27, 2010 at 9:45 pm Link to this comment

A bit off the topic, but…I live in a big city (not in the U.S.) so I don’t own a gun; if
I lived on a farm I’d probably have two or three. I would like to ask what the
difference is between a ‘proud gun owner’, as Mr Barra proclaims himself to be,
and someone who just owns a gun. Is he a proud car or toothbrush owner, too?
Does he take pride in his marksmanship? In having the money to buy a gun?In
being more dangerous when he’s holding one than someone who isn’t? In being
lucky enough to have been born in a land won by people with more and better
guns than the people who’d had it before?

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By Night-Gaunt, March 26, 2010 at 4:44 pm Link to this comment

Thomas Sowell the anti-intellectual’s intellectual. Quite a position he has. He isn’t alone for we see them and hear them on TV and radio all of the time. A regular din of sound that could immure one to what is actually being said and the implications of if they are allowed to be implemented. Usually the mindless listeners fasten their minds onto the catch phrases and lines of thought and repeat verbatim, regular ditto references. I can recognize when they are used because I listen to enough of it to know what they are saying and wanting to do. Fore warned is fore armed and luck favors the prepared.

Neurologists have found that a certain level of emotion can enhance the intellectual function of the brain. Anger however shuts down the higher centers and lets the R-complex (reptile) take the lead which gives us violence and hatred that feeds on itself and from others. Nature is balance and regular time taken to do inventory of own’s self is a good thing. Introspection could be done more often.

Dr. Sowell is in an intellectual rut because he is an ideologue. He has his audience and it keeps him working and with money. You know the old saying? “You control ideas but ideology controls you.”

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By marcus medler, March 26, 2010 at 2:38 pm Link to this comment

I fear Sowell has become an old record. Many a
one book thinker, for job security, keep writing
the same idea over and over.  Thor Heyerdahl of
Kon Tiki fame was once asked why he persisted
in his wrong idea about pacific island settlement
(from south america). He stated that; “You must
understand, I have my audience”.

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By gerard, March 26, 2010 at 12:44 pm Link to this comment

As a wielder of words, it’s books like this that set my teeth on edge.  “Intelligence versus emotion,”
“Intellectualism versus emotionalism,” “Thinking versus feeling.”  Bad versus good.  Simple dichotomies which sound educated but are really empty abstractions that tend to mean all things to all people, change color, and dry up like raindrops in the sun.

Juxtaposed as “opposites”, they ask us to “take your choice,” either one or the other, whereas the reality is that they really cannot be separated except by the code called language, which attempts to separate things that are related and pull them out of the mush of experience in order to try to “understand” what they are, use them for often dubious purposes, and walk away from them whenever they puncture our egos.

Using words like this gives one the feeling that h/she is “in control,” or “knows the answers.”
The tendency is, when bombarded with abstractions like these, to either go to sleep, or to begin to believe them and those who wield them, instead of to consolidate one’s own experiences IN THE CONTEXT OF both mind and body—and spirit, whatever that is.

Yeah, and I suspect that even that is impossible.

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By Gordy, March 26, 2010 at 11:05 am Link to this comment

Ready for President Palin?

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By Mr. Wonderful, March 26, 2010 at 10:49 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Nice review, but you give Sowell too much credit—or, rather, you misconstrue what he does.  He’s not a “philosopher” and he’s barely an intellectual.

He’s a propagandist.  His goal is never to conduct a fair-minded (if subjective) inquiry into what is true.  It’s to promote the interests of his employers.  His book (which I have not read) sounds like just another salvo in the right’s campaign to discredit intelligence, knowledge, experts, and, of course “the elite.”

The aim is to pander to Republican anti-intellectualism (which found its fullest embodiment in George W. Bush) and inoculate the masses against the very legitimacy of facts.  Republicans need people to be ignorant.  Sowell does his bit, writing a big book about how smart people are really stupid and thus, by extension, stupid people are really smart.

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By DasBoot, March 26, 2010 at 8:19 am Link to this comment

Thank you for this wonderful review.

I would like to add another, more historic definition: Intellectuals are thinkers who consider themselves the vanguard of progress. In the early twentieth century, most thought socialism to be “the future that works.” In the 1950s and 1960s, it was liberalism. In the last three decades, we saw neo-conservatism (or neoliberalism, as it is called in Europe) picking up that torch.

Who were the people with the “great ideas” that would transform the world lately? Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Mark Stein, free market economists like Jeffrey Sachs, etc. Just think about all those thinkers who advocate war but never served in the military themselves. Don’t they fit Sowell’s definition?

On a more superficial level: Intellectuals are people who wear bow ties, and not as an ironic statement. It used to be the liberals. Now the only people with bow ties, it seems, are conservatives. Just an observation.

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By Gordy, March 26, 2010 at 7:35 am Link to this comment

Great definition from Camus at the end. 

It is truly frightening that there are people who can
write out an entire book of their political and
philosophical thoughts without ever noticing its
glaring errors, self-deceits and inconsistencies. 
One might like to entertain the notion that many
ideologue nutters would achieve a greater level of
perspective were they tasked with the full and lucid
articulation of their worldview on paper - but
apparently, no, it ain’t necessarily so.  They seem
to cling to their dogmas as though for their very
survival, as if criticism is merely a wind to brace
oneself against.

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