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Book Review

Allen Barra on the Curious Case of Thomas Sowell

Allen Barra
Contributor
Allen Barra writes about sports for The Wall Street Journal and regularly contributes to TheAtlantic.com and Salon.com. Barra has authored many books including “Mickey and Willie: Mantle and Mays, The…
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.“Many intellectuals today … find it a weighty consideration that they do not understand how corporate executives can be worth such high salaries as they receive — as if there is any inherent reason why third parties should be expected to understand, or why their understanding or acquiescence should be necessary …” and “Many among the intelligentsia have denounced ‘greed’ among corporate executives whose incomes are a fraction of the incomes of professional athletes or entertainers who are seldom, if ever, accused of greed.” It isn’t just intellectuals who don’t understand executive compensation, and I think Sowell is well aware that the issue is not so much salaries as bonuses— particularly in regard to executives whose companies lose huge amounts of money.

Finally, if Sowell really thinks that professional athletes and entertainers aren’t widely condemned for the money they make, then he and I don’t appear on the same radio talk shows. (I’m usually on the air with Vinnie from Queens, who doesn’t understand why Alex Rodriguez should be paid his fair share of the money Vinnie helps put in his pocket.) Surely Sowell must understand that there is a world of difference between an executive given a golden parachute and an athlete or entertainer who is paid according to his or her free market value.

These are small potatoes, I admit, compared with Sowell’s sweeping reworkings of 20th century American history. For instance, “The fictitious Herbert Hoover” who was “a cold, heartless man who let millions of Americans suffer needlessly during the Great Depression of the 1930s because of his supposedly doctrinaire belief that the government should leave the economy alone.” The real Herbert Hoover was “quite aware — and proud — of the fact that he was the first President of the United States to make getting the country out of a depression a federal responsibility.” The fictitious image of Hoover was created by the “intelligentsia of the times … and the intelligentsia of later times perpetuated that image.”

book cover

Intellectuals and Society

By Thomas Sowell

Basic Books, 416 pages

Buy the book

I’m sure there are many members of the intelligentsia who didn’t — and don’t — like Herbert Hoover, but the picture Sowell paints is patently false. A great many historians — including William E. Leuchtenburg, whose 1963 book “Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal” was a required text when I went to college — have been quite sympathetic to Hoover and his plight. As Leuchtenburg put it, “National Democratic party leaders criticized Hoover not because he had done too little but because he had done too much. The main criticism they leveled at Hoover was that he was a profligate spender.”

Apparently Sowell’s book deadline didn’t allow him to include Kevin Baker’s cover story in the July 2009 Harper’s, in which he argued convincingly that Barack Obama is not so much the new FDR as the new Hoover. Sowell, like Archie Bunker, laments that we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again; he doesn’t seem to understand that in Barack Obama we have one.

FDR comes off even worse than Hoover, especially in comparison with the only president that Sowell approves of, RR. “The irony in this [the intelligentsia’s worship of Roosevelt] was that FDR presided over an economy with seven consecutive years of double-digit unemployment while Reagan’s policy of letting the market recover on its own, far from leading to another Great Depression, led instead to one of the country’s longest periods of sustained economic growth, low unemployment, and low inflation, lasting twenty years.”

So much is glossed over here so swiftly that one hardly knows where to reply. There is no discussion of alternative views; the possibility of alternatives isn’t even acknowledged. In his new book, “The End of Wall Street,” Roger Lowenstein makes the case that a major mistake of our financial system “was to see that the relative financial stability of the postwar era was largely the result of the regulation put in place during the New Deal and after.” As a free market ideologue, Sowell doesn’t begin to consider that the deregulation encouraged by President Ronald Reagan could have precipitated the market crash of 2009. Though the stock market crash of 1929 “has been conceived of as the ‘problem’ and government intervention as the ‘solution,’ in reality the unemployment rate following the economic problem was less than half of the unemployment rate following the political solution,” Sowell tells us.

Isn’t it possible that the political solution took so long to work because the economic problem was so vast? And if the New Deal failed to get us out of the Depression, the popular neoconservative answer that it wasn’t the New Deal but World War II that ended the economic catastrophe not only fails to answer the question but simply poses a new one. Was America’s World War II bill, after all, paid for by private contributions? The way Sowell and other conservatives posit it, the answer to how we got out of the Depression would seem to be: Massive government spending didn’t work, but more massive government spending — in the form of thousands and thousands of planes, tanks, trucks, and ships — did.

Last year’s economic crisis is not even discussed by Sowell, possibly because it occurred after his manuscript was completed. If so, the decision not to hold publication until he could at least state his case for the cause of the near disaster makes “Intellectuals and Society” not only seem dated but jarringly incomplete, especially, as Sowell writes near the end, “These places to which intellectuals tend to gravitate tend to be places where sheer intellect counts for much and where wisdom is by no means necessary, since there are few consequences to face or prices to be paid for promoting ideas that turn out be disastrous for society at large”(emphasis Sowell’s).

Precisely, but where are the wisdom and intellect in the irresponsible financial behavior that has brought us to our current desperate state? Because he does not fit Thomas Sowell’s idea of an intellectual, is Alan Greenspan off the hook for advocating ideas that turned out to be disastrous?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?

book cover

Intellectuals and Society

By Thomas Sowell

Basic Books, 416 pages

Buy the book

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.”

Allen Barra writes for American Heritage and The Wall Street Journal.

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