A Review of Sowell’s Black Rednecks and White Liberals – Part VI

Part I – Black Rednecks and White Liberals
Part II – Are Jews Generic?
Part III – The Real History of Slavery
Part IV – Germans and History
Part V – Black Education: Achievements, Myths, and Tragedies
Part VI – History versus Visions

“History versus Visions”

Sowell’s final essay sheds light on his motivation for writing many of the essays in this volume: a worry that progressives ignore or reinterpret facts to fit their preexisting ideologies rather than letting their ideologies be shaped by facts. For example, Sowell writes: “‘Multiculturalism’ has not meant warts-and-all portraits of different societies around the world. For many, it has meant virtually a warts-only portrait of the West and a no-warts portrait of non-Western peoples” (p. 248). And “Nothing better illustrates the dominance of unsubstantiated dogma over empirical evidence than the pervasive belief that the advancement of economically or socially lagging groups requires a sense of group pride, identity, and self-esteem” (p. 256). And “Since the sins of human beings are virtually inexhaustible, there is seldom a lack of examples of wrongdoing to which intergroup differences can be attributed, rightly or wrongly. Where the quest for injustice is over-riding, among the things it over-rides are logic and evidence” (p. 264).

Sowell touches again on issues of discrimination and disparities and the selective Europeanization of slavery, but here he broadens his discussion to treat themes like the cosmic quest for justice and the importance of core “Western” principles like universal human value and the rule of law.

Regarding “cosmic justice,” Sowell notes that “Few things are more common or more painful than sharp contrasts between the prosperity of some racial or ethnic groups and the poverty of others in the same society” (p. 263). In the past, society accepted these differences as “either Divinely ordained or as being a consequence of innate racial characteristics” (p. 263). Having rejected these explanations, “a new notion arose –that these economist contrasts were consequences of injustices visited upon minorities by majorities” (p. 263). Sowell points out that this explanation as a universal explanation for all disparities is highly implausible since “in many countries around the world, minorities with virtually no political power or other means of discriminating against the majority population have nevertheless been far more successful –economically, educationally, or otherwise– than those who constitute the bulk of the nations people. This has long been true of the Chinese in Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, Germans in Russia and Brazil, Jews in Eastern Europe and the United States, Lebanese in West Africa, [etc…]” (p. 263).

The idea that people are born into particular cultures whose “habits, priorities, and social patterns” will grant them “greater prospects of success in life” leaves us with a “rankling sense [of] injustice” (p. 264). It doesn’t seem fair. To relieve this “galling sense of helpless frustration” Sowell believes that many people “escape by transforming the tragedy of the human condition in the specific sins of specific societies” (p. 264). On Sowell’s view, this cosmic vision of social justice gives us someone (or something) to blame, thus relieving our feelings of impotence.

Sowell also believes that an unbalanced focus on the sins of Western culture without recognizing its virtues is dangerous: “undermining the society which has the smaller evil only makes it more vulnerable to the greater evils in other societies and in international terrorist networks” (p. 271) Western civilization is responsible for “two fundamental mental products” which have had tremendously positive implications for human flourishing: “a universalistic conception of human beings and the rule of law” (p. 272). “Nothing has been more common among human beings around the world… than to disregard the troubled inflicted on other people outside the group to which they happened to belong… [But universalism] meant that all people deserved to be treated decently and fairly, whomever they might be and whatever the state of their ability or their culture” (p. 272-273). “The rule of law implies more than the principle that no one is above the law. It also implies that those with power cannot take action against individuals without some prior evidence of violations of existing laws and some prior determination through institutionally established ‘due process’ that the individual in question was in fact guilty of transgressing specific prohibitions” (p. 274).

In all of these cases, Sowell worries that deeply-held, appealing narratives threaten to crowd out objective truth as the basis for policy. For example, if we’re convinced that all disparities are caused by injustice, we’ll never be open to evidence that some disparities are the result of culture, or personal choice, or mere happenstance. If we’re convinced that Western civilization has been uniquely violent, oppressive, and tyrannical, we’ll be blind to the ways in which many of its core principles have improved the lives of billions of people. I fully agree with Sowell here.

I’d only add that conservatives are also susceptible to the siren’s call of grand narratives. If we’re going to push progressives to consider evidence that challenges their claims, we should likewise be open to evidence that challenges ours.

Overall, I thought Sowell’s essays in this volume were thought-provoking. If you’re a political progressive, they’re certainly worth reading, not in spite of fact that you’ll likely disagree with most of them, but because of it.

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