Intellectuals, Beware Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell goes for the jugular of intellectuals and misses.

In 1974, body artist Chris Burden ascended a triangular platform at the Ronald Feldman art gallery in New York and did not come down for twenty-two days. Without food and without conversation, he was a man alone, solitary in mind and physicality. One almost expected that on the final day Burden would descend from the stratified air as if he was like Moses come down from the mountain, but if he had any insights, he kept them to himself.

Roger Ebert offered a description of the exhibit: “It is like God, in a way, in its detachment. It is also infuriating. There was no way to see is Burden really was up there. He could have slipped away the first night and checked into a hotel, and the piece would have been precisely the same from the point of view of the gallery visitors.”

The metaphor might extend to the intellectuals in society, some of whom we know, like an Immanuel Kant or Bertrand Russell, and some of whom are foreign to our intellectual maps, but their insights nevertheless come down to us as second or third hand progenies and influence our world in profound ways. Their thoughts are tattooed in our minds and affect how we interpret reality, but we do not often see them. Even though we inhabit the same worlds, it is in different orders and hierarchies.

I don’t know whether Thomas Sowell considers himself a self-styled intellectual of sorts, but if he does, then it means that Judas gets to write the book on the profession. The title, Intellectuals and Society, betrays none of its contents, but what lurks inside feels like such a staggering excoriation of harsh heterodoxy that an optimistic word cannot be found within its pages. If Sowell could imprecate them with his words, then this book would be their demise. He is like the death knell of that which is alive and transcendent in their works.

But though he is austere, Sowell’s tone is not mean or malignant, since he has embarked on a scholarly, level-headed endeavor, cloudless and matter-of-fact in language and spirit, using polemics to advance his case against intellectuals for elitist thinking in the areas of law, economics, war, and social order. His accusations include intellectual dishonesty and reality-building, for which the test of their knowledge is in the eloquence of what they say and the invective or firm way in which they say it. If Sowell is to be believed, then the intellectual motto might as well be, “Never let a fact get in the way of a good argument.”

One may wonder why the impressions that Sowell leaves cannot be circumscribed to the whole of humanity. After all, intellectuals would not be the first nor the last to engage in dishonest thinking. Sowell says that “the masses are much less likely than the elites to think that they should be overruling people whose stake and whose relevant knowledge for the issue at hand are far greater than their own.”

But is there no truth in the fact that 30-40% of Americans who still believe in a literal seven day creation overrule and flout the near unanimity and consent (according to a Gallup poll) given to the theory of evolution in the biology community? Aren’t most economic beliefs conceived in the fires of ideology without a single atomic speck of knowledge? Certainty is an attitude, it seems, and not a way of thinking. It could be argued that intellectuals more than the public should know better, but Sowell defines intellectuals as an occupation, not necessarily as those who claim fidelity to intellectual honesty.

And I think it can be said here that both John Steinbeck and Ayn Rand, polar opposites in ideology, got elements of economics wrong, but because Sowell is far from equitable to the entire ideological spectrum, I think that he often goes awry. His attempts to repudiate intellectuals on the economic beliefs of growing inequality and the necessity of stringent regulations are unmerited, I feel, because he is engaging claims, not arguments. According to Sowell, intellectuals are wrong for even advancing these claims, and yet he does not address the economists like Joseph Stiglitz who believe them. How am I then to have any faith in his arguments if he is not engaging in counterarguments against the best of the opposition?

Sowell may be trying to correct what he considers mistakes in thinking, a blatant disregard for facts, but all too often he conflates his own views with the potency of his criticisms, so that his arguments are often built on philosophical grounds; though lucid and sometimes interesting, there is little in the way of exploration and discovery. This is the world according to Thomas Sowell, and you either exist in it or you don’t. When he is right, it often feels like he is being partial to a particular ideology. Are we to think that intellectuals are always fatuous in everything, the bearers of “a vision of a deeply flawed society?” His interpretations can be defended, but one does not have to agree with his conclusions.

Sometimes it seems as if Sowell is blaming intellectuals for everything. Original sin? The intellectuals. Exxon Valdez oil spill? An intellectual drove the tanker. If a Bond villain ever threatens the Earth with Krieger Waves, then intellectuals would be blamed. I don’t know what those are, but John Dewey probably has something to do with them.

In one instance, Sowell blames the intellectuals of the time for Hitler appeasement. He refers to a 1939 French poll in which 76% of the public wanted to use force to defend Danzag, Poland, as proof that the public had caught on to Hitler. Yet between the wars, the French were largely against military engagement – historian Daniel Hucker labels it as a case of war anxiety, not pacifism. Sowell explains why: France suffered catastrophic losses in World War I. 1.4 million of its own citizens died, and by the time of the 1930s, the number of women between the ages of twenty and forty exceeded those of men by a million.

Yet it is the intellectuals whom he blames. Why not offer a more comprehensive distinction between public and intellectual anti-war sentiment and the motility of ideas between the two groups? Can appeasement be blamed on a system shock that permeated all layers of French thought? Unfortunately, he never bothers to ask the question, which is exactly the kind of thing that he blames intellectuals for, and ultimately does little to demystify the situation. I do not necessarily disagree with him here, but I think that he fails to show the work that led to his conclusions. He mentions that the phrase “Why die for Danzig?” was a “hallmark of sophistication” but does not offer proof of its pervasiveness throughout intellectual circles. I was left wanting more.

In the following pages, Sowell does try to draw a more obvious conclusion that the characterization of the Vietnam War by intellectuals and media members as unwinnable after the Tet Offensive shook the confidence of the public and led to America’s eventual withdrawal. Yet according to Public Affairs: The Military and the Media, 1968-1973 by William Hammond, opinion about the war oscillated very little immediately after the Tet Offensive. It is Walter Cronkite’s famous words that are often remembered, but government and military officials were saying something very similar, and it was that equivocation amongst leadership that did as much to sway public opinion.

The Tet Offensive had been crippling to the North Vietnamese. However, they also inflicted massive casualties on the South, and their incursions deep into Saigon shook America’s allies to the core. 1968 also held the greatest number of American casualties in the war thus far. Troop morale was sinking fast, and the rate of deserters spiked. The entire year finally exposed the rotting strategies and internal fighting that had been going on for years. There are those who argue that we could have won, but historian and diplomat George Herring, who wrote America’s Longest War, argues that America wasn’t willing to pay the price that victory would have cost.

Media failure during the war was also a real phenomenon. But Big Story by Peter Braestrup, which Sowell himself quotes from, advocates the position that this failure was due to the lack of preparation and war-time ability, galvanized by misunderstandings and entrenched opinions. It was not ideology.

Sowell briefly touches upon the Iraq War, and he is right that many in the media were resistant to the idea that the surge worked. However, he misrepresents the case. In the nascent stages of the surge, around May, June, and July of 2007, there was a sharp rise in troop fatalities, civilian casualties, and Sectarian violence, which were at their highest levels all year. His quotes from politicians and media members were from July, August, and September of that year, when the efficacy of the surge was still in doubt.

Sowell refers twice to Paul Krugman, who at the time stated that there was not “a shred of verifiable evidence” to suggest that the surge was working. However, consider the facts that Krugman marshaled to his side. When he wrote the column in early September, the month by month fatality rate amongst American troops actually increased from 2006. The Pentagon also had not released numbers on the state of civilian casualties, which according to some sources had actually increased. Sowell mentions this increase of violence but does not mention the timeline. Of course, by the end of the year it had become apparent that violence was indeed falling precipitously, but for those who were rightly skeptical of the war and expressed some dissent that a surge could work, it was a reasonable opinion for the time.

And since the thesis of his book is essentially, “Intellectuals are resistant to reality,” it undermines his argument when those whom he is confronting are reasonable in their opinions. Of course, I offer no solace to those intellectuals who supported Communism or Nazi appeasement. But if he wants to say that people, even intellectuals, have rotten philosophies, he’ll get no disagreement from me. If he wants to say that the intellectual establishment is rotten, then I am not convinced.

Of course, it would be impossible for me to address every single argument in his book, but let me to say that it feels like he is attacking a punching bag of his own construct. Since he is constructing what he is attacking, I have no reason to trust that he will be fair in even the most mundane of conclusions. His take on bias in the media, which is often true, is never met with bias flowing in the opposite direction. If one had no other knowledge except that which can be imbibed from this book, then one might think that it is only the “intellectual” view which is tendentious. My skepticism arises precisely because he is so one-sided and intransigent. And that is unfortunate because I could at least understand his perspective on issues such as judicial activism and the immunity of intellectuals from consequences. In some arguments, like the “tragic view” of life, I eminently agree with him.

Sowell often quotes Paul Johnson, the polarizing author, which should guide expectations going in. He also quotes a lot of intellectuals, but he seems to have no true target except the intellectual movement conflated into a single mass, each member contributing to a rowdy din with little distinction or clarification of features, an idiot chorus shouting down from the heavens. It is difficult to untangle individuals from the mass so that I can understand the complex issues and opinions that undergird each topic. He could remove the names from every single quote without altering the configuration of the book. Yes, it is movements which attempt to assert themselves in the worst of ways, but movements are also fluid. Most of the book does not impart a better understanding of intellectuals, only the things that Sowell disagrees with. The entire endeavor is exhausting and takes a toll on the psyche. He might as well have called his book Intellectuals and the People Who Hate Them.