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Intellectuals and Society
by Thomas Sowell
Basic Books, 2009
(398 pages, $29.95, hardcover)
reviewed by J. Daryl Charles
Thomas Sowell’s Intellectuals and Society is a timely and penetrating critique of the “experts” responsible for creating and maintaining the dominating stream of modern cultural ideology. These experts are worthy of intense scrutiny and a calling-to-account because their work is instrumental in creating a climate of opinion in which issues of the day are not only debated but also acted upon by those possessing political power. “Whole nations have already been put at risk and indeed led into disaster” by “a climate of opinion to which the intelligentsia have made major contributions,” writes Sowell. Classic—and at times tragic—examples of these contributions for Sowell are Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb, and John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice.
The Rose and Milton Friedman Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and one of the most trenchant social critics of our time, Sowell is one of the few who could have written the book under review here, at least without the stain of hubris. The breadth of scholarship needed for such an undertaking is immense, while its ideological component requires both an ability to discern the myriad root assumptions that fuel the cultural Zeitgeist and a sure-footed commitment to what T. S. Eliot called “the permanent things.”
Sowell observes that constraints that apply in most realms of life do not seem to apply to intellectuals. Many, if not most, of them operate under the implicit assumption that knowledge is concentrated among themselves, and that, for the betterment of society, decision-making power should be distributed only within their narrow band of knowledge-elites. Such thinking typically leads them to dismiss more practical points of view developed from firsthand knowledge. These are held in disdain and called simplistic, unsophisticated, bigoted, or stereotypical.
The cultural influence of this knowledge-elite, disseminated by a servile media, is exercised through vigorous efforts to filter reality by attacking or undermining the concept of objective truth. In service to an “optional” portrait of reality, these elites filter out information that is contrary to their perception of how the world ought to be.
Intellectuals, Sowell reminds his readers, do not simply have a series of isolated opinions on varied subjects. Rather, behind their opinions lodges an overarching conception of the world, i.e., a social vision. He notes that it is not necessary to lie outright in order to deceive. Selectively reporting the facts and adducing atypical samples, or suppressing certain facts altogether, all the while cleansing and transforming language of inconvenient meanings or connotations, can achieve the same results.
Sowell embraces a “tragic vision” of the human condition, informed by a moral realism that reckons the flaws of human beings at full value. The contrasting vision, which is by no means new, views human beings as perfectible, and assumes that its “problems” are to be “solved.” According to the tragic vision, however, civilization requires great and constant effort merely to be preserved, because barbarism is always at the gates. The two visions differ radically not only in how they understand human nature but also in what is owed individuals by society through its social arrangements (e.g., “rights,” “social justice,” and respect for personal preferences).
In addition to maintaining their hegemony as cultural gatekeepers through the dissemination of knowledge, intellectuals realize that economics and law are strategic to the implementation of their social vision. A vast project of income distribution (as opposed to wealth creation), which is necessarily implemented and sustained by governmental intervention, is advanced by the creation of a compelling vision of “classes,” “disparities,” and “inequities” that are said to plague society.
Concomitantly, because the ordering of society depends on “surrogate decision-makers,” laws must be shaped that are “fair” and “compassionate,” in accordance with “social justice.” Law, of course, must change as social conditions change, hence the pivotal role of “activist-judges” to reinterpret existing laws to conform to “reasonable” opinion. As Sowell well knows, the formal character of justice in such an arrangement is bound to suffer, as the very moral norms that support “civil” society begin to collapse.
Attitudes Towards War
In two lengthy chapters of the volume devoted to “Intellectuals and War,” Sowell painstakingly rehearses the backdrop to the wars that have occurred over the last century, beginning with the First World War and extending through the Iraq wars. World War I came as a shock to many, since the European continent had been lulled into a comfortable sense that war was a thing of the past. It forced intellectuals to find justification in their visions amidst the brutality of smashed dreams.
The devastation wrought by the war converted virtually the entire intellectual community in the Western world into a community of pacifists—a community whose views were deemed infinitely superior to those of the general public. War itself became the enemy; hence, we discover in the inter-World War period the beginnings of a presumption against war and not against evil and moral atrocity. This would have important implications for how nations responded during the 1930s to the Nazification of Europe.
Hitler, of course, was not unaware of this broad-based ideological posture, particularly as it affected Britain and France. Many in France and England simply did not want to hear anything bad about Germany; even the most influential British newspaper, the Times of London, considered Hitler a “moderate.” The chapters in which Sowell deftly chronicles the ideological bearings of the intelligentsia in the context of the series of international crises that led up to the Second World War are by themselves worth the price of the book.
Sowell rehearses the reigning attitudes of the 1920s and 1930s as they re-appeared, with a vengeance, in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, as the Cold War and Vietnam were played out. Any notion of military and cultural strength as foundational to a justly ordered peace disappeared rapidly from the 1960s onward, as intellectuals occupied themselves with the futility of the “arms race,” agitated uncritically for “peace,” and decried the West’s purported obsession with deterrence.
Sowell points out that few, if any, of the American military’s achievements in Iraq—whether in conflict, in restoring civil order, or in carrying out humanitarian activity—have been reported to the general public. Casualties are routinely reported to fit the theme of soldiers as victims, which is the knowledge-elite’s version of “supporting the troops.”
A Curious Unaccountability
The prognosis, ultimately, is not sanguine. As a group, intellectuals are “too little restricted by the values or beliefs of the population at large, or by any tests of logic or evidence.” What’s more, filtered information, sweeping claims, alarming predictions, and heated moral crusades help generate a sense of the importance of the role of intellectuals in the mind of the public, not to mention in their own thinking. Under their influence we have become “a society that rewards people with admiration for violating its own norms and for fragmenting that society into jarring segments.”
Sowell is painstakingly scrupulous in critiquing the vision of the self-anointed cultural vanguard, and is firm in his belief that intellectuals’ unaccountability stems from a deeply ensconced conviction of entitlement. This entitlement, as Sowell views it, issues from a particular understanding of individual, academic, and social “freedom.”
But in the end he offers the reader no prescription on how to oblige accountability. Perhaps he simply is unable to offer any solutions to the dire situation that he so meticulously probes. Or perhaps he is reserving this for his next book, in which case I shall be the first to buy a copy.
J. Daryl Charles is an associate professor of ethics and culture at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee. He is the author of Virtue Amidst Vice (Sheffield Academic), The Unformed Conscience of Evangelism (InterVarsity), and most recently, Between Pacifism and Jihad (InterVarsity, 2005). He is a contributing editor of Touchstone.