The Narrow Vision Of Thomas Sowell

A lot of worthwhile messages get trashed because we just can't stand the messenger.

I was thinking about this because I saw a note saying Thomas Sowell will be in town this week, speaking at a Discovery Institute luncheon.

Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University who writes books and newspaper columns on subjects ranging from education to economics to race. He's a conservative whose work will help you if you're looking for a brick to throw at blacks, liberals or poor people.

He earns his living as a scholar, but thinks academics are worthless. He is black, but has little good to say about black people.

Sowell is a smart, often innovative thinker, so over the years I've read several of his books and many of his articles. It is my sense that he is, however, getting meaner, so it has gotten harder for me to read his work and find value that outweighs the meanness.

Targeting groups

He has a new book called "The Vision of the Anointed," which I haven't worked up an appetite for yet. The last Sowell book I read, "Race and Culture," came out last September. Some of the ideas in it make the book worth reading if you can avoid throwing it across the room when he digresses to take a gratuitous swipe at some group he doesn't like. (It's not so much ranting that I mind - I do it myself sometimes - but usually his target is a group I like, and he's so mean about it.)

The book says it is culture, not race, that determines whether a people will succeed or not.

We are all the same under the skin, he would say; we have similar potential. A group of people taken from Europe and dropped into the center of sub-Saharan Africa would have developed the same culture the people there developed, because it was the best for the time and the place, he says.

When he deals with intelligence, he offers data that show Jewish and non-Jewish immigrants from eastern and southern Europe scored at about the level of American blacks on intelligence tests, but subsequent generations scored at or above the national norms, which shows that whatever it is that IQ tests measure, it can be improved.

He acknowledges that things change over time. China was the most advanced nation in the world for centuries, but nothing lasts forever.

The dominant culture in the world today was built on the achievements of many civilizations, and it belongs to all of us, he says. Someday it will also give way to a better culture.

In the meantime, some people are going to be successful and some aren't, based on how well they do what this culture requires. Jews, Northern Europeans, Indians, Chinese and Japanese have cultures that value hard work, academic achievement, and sacrifice for advancement, so people from those groups will be successful, no matter where they find themselves and no matter how they are treated.

Blacks, Native Americans, Malays and Hispanics are not successful because they do not value the same traits. Racism, he says, plays no role in their lack of advancement. Members of those groups who adopt the culture of the successful groups will be successful; others will not.

He says people in successful groups understandably feel superior to other people, and people who are not successful will equally understandably feel resentful of people who are.

There's not much to be done about that, certainly not affirmative action. He says, for example, that a Korean grocer in a black community should not be forced to hire blacks. If blacks could handle the job they would have started their own stores, his logic goes; why saddle a successful merchant with employees who are liabilities?

Not doing "real work"

Sowell narrowly defines success as making it in business or the physical sciences, because he says those are the endeavors by which mankind advances. People become social workers, professors, writers, artists or musicians because they are not willing to do real work.

As for people who have been dealt with poorly, he says life isn't fair, shut up and stop whining.

His main argument against slavery is that it was an inefficient use of human resources.

If humans were devoid of all emotion, if we were soulless, Sowell's view of the world would be unassailable. Work hard, study hard, create wealth and technology, do not worry about human suffering, it is inevitable. Art represents wasted time. Joy, love and idealism are beside the point.

Science and business are good. Hard work and a positive attitude are good. But there is more to humanity than charts and numbers and gadgets. Because Sowell never seems to recognize this, the good in his message is drowned by the bad.

The path of his own life and the rewards it has yielded seem to have made him insensitive to anyone who is not just like him.

Jerry Large's column appears Sundays in the Scene section of The Seattle Times. You can reach him c/o The Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111. Phone: 464-3346. Fax: 464-2261.