May 22, 2013
Allen Barra on the Curious Case of Thomas Sowell
Posted on Mar 26, 2010
By Allen Barra
A more serious distortion of the historical record is Sowell’s condemnation of intellectuals before the Second World War. “Intellectuals played a major role in creating the atmosphere of both military weakness and political irresolution within democratic nations, which made a war against those nations looks winnable to the leaders of the Axis dictatorships. In addition to thus helping bring on the most devastating war in human history, intellectuals so impeded the buildup and modernizing of military forces in democratic nations in the years building up to that war ... that this ensured that American and British armed forces would often be outgunned in battle. ...”
Here, as often in “Intellectuals and Society,” Sowell states a partial truth—a great many American and British intellectuals did oppose a buildup of war material—and inflates it into a lie. Was it merely intellectuals who opposed upgrading equipment for the U.S. Army and Navy and supplying enemies of the Axis such as Britain and China with planes and ships, or was it also isolationists? Certainly, there were isolationists in both political parties, but how can anyone doubt their strength and number among Republicans and conservatives who just plain loathed FDR and deplored such programs as Lend-Lease? In whose camp does Sowell place some of the most prominent isolationists and proponents of appeasement of that period such as Robert Taft, William Borah and Gerald Nye? Was Charles Lindbergh an “intellectual”?
Does Sowell honestly believe that intellectuals, with their “steady drumbeat of pacifist anti-national defense efforts,” were solely responsible for the U.S. and Britain’s unpreparedness for war? And in a free society, isn’t it right that there should be at least some pacifists? (Would that there had been a “drumbeat of pacifist anti-national” efforts coming out of Germany in the 1930s.) Didn’t many intellectuals in fact oppose Francisco Franco long before the American right did?
Sowell seems to be under the illusion that “the pervasive pacifism of that era” and its political consequences spread largely by intellectuals so demoralized the French populace that France’s ability to carry on a war against the Nazis was threatened. But as military historian John Mosier has shown in his book “The Blitzkrieg Myth,” the German victory was largely the result of superior organization and tactics, not poor French morale. (So valiant was the French army, as Mosier points out, that in less than six weeks in May and June of 1940 more than 100,000 French military personnel were killed.)
“In short,” writes Sowell, “patriotism and national honor cannot be reduced to simple psychological quirks, to which intellectuals can consider themselves superior, without risking dire consequences, of which France in 1940 was a classic example.” It’s a thesis that Sowell applies indiscriminately to the “intelligentsia” of the eras of Vietnam and the Iraq war as well. He fails to tell us how a democracy can ever be as patriotic as a dictatorship; failure of unity is seen as a failure of morale, and patriotism is interpreted as adherence to a political creed rather than to love of country. A tonic for this view was offered many years ago by Mark Twain, who told us, “Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.” How deserving of support was Karl Rove when he insisted that the war in Iraq be seen as “a Republican war”?
In the dreary tradition of much neoconservative writing, Sowell refights the Vietnam and Iraq conflicts, offering us every explanation for what went wrong in Vietnam but failing to provide a valid explanation as to why we should have committed our strength there. Likewise the Republicans’ war in Iraq, where he maintains that the troop surge worked, while avoiding the question of why we were there in the first place.
In short, “Intellectuals and Society” is a compendium of themes that should be familiar to readers of Sowell’s previous books. Sowell-mates will immediately recognize the terms constrained and tragic vision. Vision of the anointed (i.e., do-gooding liberals) is used at least 50 times. Elite—by which Sowell means snobbish rather than Webster’s definition as “a group selected or regarded as the finest, best, most distinguished”—clocks in at at least 24. The phrase verbal virtuosity, which seems to mean arguments by liberals whom Sowell wishes to dismiss, is used a minimum of 30 times. (I don’t have precise figures on any of these because I didn’t starting counting till around Page 30.) Intelligentsia is used like a Texas truck driver uses hot sauce; I counted at least 220.
The effect of such rapid-fire repetition of buzzwords is numbing, and so too is Sowell’s reliance here, as in other books, on economist Frederick Hayek. But it’s about time that Sowell was called to account on this. He claims—rightly, I think—that Hayek’s writings, especially his 1944 classic “The Road to Serfdom,” “began an intellectual counter-revolution” and quotes him even more often than he does Paul Johnson. But a rereading of “The Road to Serfdom” proves that it is far from the blanket indictment of the left that Sowell and others have interpreted it as being. (If it was, it wouldn’t have been a favorite of that unapologetic socialist George Orwell.)
In a neglected passage, Hayek writes, “Conservatism, though a necessary element in any stable society, is not a social program; in its paternalistic, nationalistic, and power-adoring tendencies it is often closer to socialism than true liberalism; and with its traditionalistic, anti-intellectual and often mystical propensities it will never, except in short periods of disillusionment, appeal to the young and all those others who believe that some changes are desirable if this world is to become a better place. A conservative movement, by its very nature, is bound to be a defender of established privileged and to lean on the power of government for the protection of privilege.”
Sowell fails to reflect such insights because he seems to be blind to the intellectual in himself. With all due respect to Thomas Sowell (and my Aunt Louise), I think we should all defer to Albert Camus’ definition of intellectual: “Someone with a mind that watches itself.”
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