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Allen Barra on the Curious Case of Thomas Sowell
Posted on Mar 26, 2010
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.
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.
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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