PHILOSOPHY FEBRUARY 9, 2010
by Thomas Sowell
Basic Books, 398 pp., $29.95
Let’s get my judgment of Thomas Sowell’s new book out of the way first. There is not a single interesting idea in its more than three-hundred pages. Purporting to deal with the role that intellectuals play in society, it offers no discussion of literature, music, and the arts. While containing copious references to Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, its index lacks references to Lionel Trilling, Hannah Arendt, Saul Bellow, Daniel Bell, Jürgen Habermas, Raymond Aron, Mary McCarthy, Michael Walzer, Amartya Sen, and countless others known to have put an interesting idea or two into circulation. It recycles ancient clichés about the academic world and never questions its author’s conviction that those who share his right-wing views are always right. Jonah Goldberg calls it “an instant classic.” Case closed.
The more interesting question is how Sowell managed the task of actually writing the thing. Even jeremiads should have their joys; there is something so wonderful about being a writer and a critic that delivering even bad news can be a source of unbearable pleasure. But Sowell takes no joy in anything he has to say: his tone is as dour and depressing as his conclusions. I understand that the man is a conservative, but can’t he crack a smile? Sowell is such a plodder that even sarcasm, conservatism’s reliable and sometimes amusing old ally, is beyond his reach.
This business of dreary writing escapes me. True, writing can be a torment. But then there is the payoff: the unexpected insight, the sly pun, the implication left dangling for the reader to run with. Did Sowell’s research assistants, one of whom has worked for him for two decades, ever hear him shout with joy? Did he ever run into a colleague’s office bursting with enthusiasm about a brilliant sentence that made a whole chapter hang together? I cannot believe it. There is no grandeur in Sowell’s words, no sign of human creativity, no dream or fantasy of immortality. Sowell writes as if called to grim duty. There are people out there who hate intellectuals. His vocation is to tell them why without ever disturbing their complacency. The example of his book certainly will give them no reason to feel otherwise.
Sowell, a syndicated newspaper columnist and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, writes a book a year. His first one appeared in 1971, and he has written forty-six in all. I confess to not having read them all. But I have read enough of them to know that Sowell is not one for changing his mind. Although he claims to have been a Marxist in his youth, his published writings never vary: the same themes—the market works, affirmative action does not work, Marxism is wrong, and, yes, intellectuals are never to be trusted—dominate from start to finish. The right has its share of converts—those, such as the also prolific David Horowitz, who began on one extreme only to shift to the other, and along their bumpy way display at least some genuine vitality—but Sowell is not one of those. The flatness of his sentences is matched by the flatness of his trajectory. Whatever darkness exists in the world does not reside in his soul. He undertakes no bildung and experiences no crises. He learns nothing that does not confirm what he already knew. If he were a character in a novel, it would end on page one.
I am not in the conversion business, but I have changed my mind more than a few times in the forty or so years that I have been putting my views before the public. Reality can do that to you. You might think, for example, as I once did, that affirmative action is highly suspect because it gives more weight to group membership than individual achievement. But if you teach at a university and see your classes enriched by the diversity that affirmative action brings to them, and if you then hear remarkable stories of the individual achievements made possible through the magic of the college admissions process, you may begin to change your mind. I do not fear a future Tim Russert combing my early books to find words in blatant contradiction to my present ones: good luck in even finding the young out-of-print me. Sure, some of the stuff I once wrote embarrasses me now, even down to my choice of titles. But better that than sentences never exposed to the air of experience.
Writing, in short, is a form of risk-taking. You say what you believe and hope that you are proven right. Oddly for such a passionate defender of the market, Sowell never takes a risk. “Not only have intellectuals been insulated from material consequences,” this secure inhabitant of the right-wing think tank world writes, “they have often enjoyed immunity from even a loss of reputation after having been demonstrably wrong.” This is meant to apply to others, but the description works well also as autobiography. If Sowell were an investment fund, he would be hedged against failure. You can make a bet about what you are likely to find on any page he has ever written and be sure of being right.
Perhaps Sowell’s joylessness stems from the fact that his main idea is the hatred of ideas. It is one thing to be an intellectual and love ideas: why else spend so much time reading and thinking about them? When I come across a bad idea, I disagree with it and, as I am doing here, I try to expose its silliness. But I value bad ideas well enough to take them seriously. I write about Thomas Sowell because I recognize in him a fellow intellectual.
But it is by no means clear that Sowell recognizes himself as one. He does from time to time note the existence of “conservative and neo-conservative intellectuals” who offer “an alternative vision” to the dominant ideology and whose influence “no longer negligible” in the media. But then Sowell goes on to write as if the only talking heads on television belong to Bertrand Russell and Noam Chomsky. Safely back to his thesis that intellectuals are always loathsome meddlers who hate capitalism, rationalize evil, and get everything wrong, he is free to quote Eric Hoffer, Paul Johnson, and all like-thinking writers who trod this ground before him.
No wonder, then, that Sowell is so depressing. I, too, would find the world a dreadful place if the activity in which I spend my time rendered me as arrogant as it made me impractical. I actually do not know many self-hating Jews, but there seems to be a plethora of self-hating intellectuals, most of them located in think tanks and all of them convinced that the other intellectuals are not only demonstrably wrong but also in charge of things. It is only in Sowell that I discover someone who believes that people like me are really influential.
Sowell is in desperate need of some cheer. Look Tom, I want to tell him, you write books just like the people who write the ones you attack. We think our ideas are correct, and so do you. Sure, we may get things wrong from time to time but hey, the free market did have something to do with the Great Depression even if you tell me otherwise. There is a reason we do this knowledge-and-thought stuff, you know. We understand that history is not pre-determined, that ideas matter, that experience holds surprises, and that anyone who dabbles in the life of the mind is privileged beyond belief. It is a great club and one should be proud to be a member. So come join me; there is room for us both. Once you get used to the idea that ideas are good things, and sometimes unexpected things, I am sure you will love it. You might even find yourself writing a book worth reading.
Alan Wolfe is writing a book about political evil.