Thomas Sowell’s Intellectuals And Society

Intellectuals And SocietyIn 2006, a stripper named Crystal Magnum accused several players on the Duke University lacrosse team of raping her. The accused were white, male and affluent, the accuser poor, black and female, and that, apparently, was enough for 88 members of the Duke faculty, who endorsed an advertisement denouncing campus-wide sexism and racism, effectively passing judgment on the students in the court of public opinion. The campus reaction was furious and immediate, with groups of smiling men and women chanting invective as they picketed outside the homes of the accused. Several carried signs calling for their castration. The facts of the case were starkly at odds with the zeal with which it was prosecuted. As one Duke professor put it, “There was a collision between political correctness and due process, and political correctness won.” The players were eventually exonerated but none of the signatories of that document faced any legal or professional consequences. Most of them continue to teach at Duke (Incidentally, Wikipedia has a helpful breakdown of which departments produced these signatories – 80% African-American studies, 72% Women’s Studies, 60% Cultural Anthropology, 41% Literature; I don’t think I’d be remiss in suggesting there’s some relationship between these numbers and the degree to which moral and intellect rot have spread in academia).

I begin with this example because, despite its scant coverage in Thomas Sowell’s Intellectuals And Society, it’s a perfect illustration of the phenomenon he describes. “Intellectuals,” by Sowell’s definition, are those whose labor results in an idea or theory rather than a good or service. Writers, journalists and academics are “intellectuals” by this definition; chemists, doctors and engineers, however intellectual or cerebral they may be, are not. This book is an examination of the methods and motivations of intellectuals over the course of the last century, as well as a damning catalogue of their misdeeds. Why, for example, did so many intellectuals loudly and publicly advocate for disarmament even months before the outbreak of the Second World War? Why did Hitler and especially Stalin find so much support among the intellectual classes?

His argument, broadly speaking, is that a class of people whose sole criterion for success in their field is the approval of their peers exercise an undue influence on society at large by creating an intellectual climate in which what matters is not evidence or reasoned debate but a clamoring for moral superiority. A problem in society is identified (or, as the case may be, fabricated) and a solution put forward to fix it. Proponents of that solution will paint their detractors as operating from different values rather than a difference of opinion. So, for example, advocates for rearmament after World War I were painted as bloodthirsty warmongers rather than pragmatists afraid of Hitler. Sowell charges that intellectuals rely on “verbal virtuosity” to shield their views from legitimate criticism, and he includes a litany of cringeworthy examples, including, amusingly, a review of his book written by Alan Locke (I read a later, expanded edition) entitled “The Joyless Mind,” which, even as it trashes Intellectuals And Society, manages to embody exactly the kind of “arguments without arguments” style Sowell criticizes.

The short list of topics covered include the Great Depression, both World Wars, the Cold War, legal theory and judicial activism, and race. Ever wary of my own limited background knowledge in many of these areas, particularly as pertains economics, I will only say that he writes clearly and persuasively, punctuating his arguments with footnoted references and citations. No doubt part of what makes him so effective, and contributes to his loyal following, is the no-nonsense approach he takes in building his arguments.

I continue to believe that Thomas Sowell is one of the most important living political commentators, someone that should be read by people of all backgrounds. I did most of the reading, as I usually do, lying prone on my bed in the late hours of the night or early hours of the morning, and whole sections forced me up to pace my room, awestruck by their acuity. I have encountered so much of the meaningless rhetoric that he denounces, existed within the intellectual climate he describes, stymied by the pretensions of a handful of faux sophisticates and self-appointed moral arbiters, and this book manages both to diagnose the problem and offer a way forward. For that I am grateful.