Uncategorized

Thomas Sowell’s Post-Intellectual Novel

[By Jerry Ward]

Often
only a small portion of a work attaches itself to the mind as equipment for
living.  “What happens to a dream
deferred?” (Langston Hughes,”Harlem”), “But what I killed for, I am! (Richard Wright, Native Son), or the words I never quote precisely
“You know…as well as I we have not been in this howling wilderness for four
hundred years for the right to be stupid.” (Toni Cade Bambara, The Salt Eaters)  — words are weapons for war.  After reading Thomas Sowell’s Intellectuals and Society (New York: Basic
Books, 2009), I want to add to the ammunition pile —-“The great problem
—and the great social danger — with purely internal criteria is that they
can easily become sealed off from feedback from the external world of reality
and remain circular in their methods of validation” (7).  In those disciplines Sowell chose to
criticize, especially those of the humanities, what he calls the “empirical
validity” of an idea is rarely discussed. 
As we move by way of digital humanities ever deeper into the territory
of interdisciplinarity, we need “empirical validity” to protect ourselves from
the natives.  It might also be wise to
take along some glocks and AK47s that are not metaphors and to let the habit of
taking things at Facebook value taste the bitter flavors of death.

For
several decades it has been fashionable, if not obligatory, to demonize Thomas
Sowell, an economist and scholar in residence at the Hoover Institute, Stanford
University, as the enemy.  There is a significant
difference between being the enemy and being in the employ of the enemy.  At the end of the day, Sowell can get tripartisan
support for the lucidity of his prose from conservative, liberal and
independent intellectuals who share the rare quality of uncommon sense. The
lucidity of his writing can be measured when we arrive at consensus about what
the standards of lucidity are.  On the
other hand, the character of his content is matter for endless debate.  Like a prime-time deconstructionist or a first-rate
novelist, Sowell would bid us to believe the tendentious is not
tendentious.  Sowell can make capital of
this kind of playfulness, because many contemporary readers find discriminating
between nonfiction and fiction too be difficult.
For
Sowell, to be an intellectual is to belong to that occupational category which
has as its end the production of ideas, and he is enormously concerned with how
those ideas affect history and society. 
Sowell’s choice of definition is not an issue. The issue or problem is one
of knowing whether the narrator is reliable or unreliable.  Sowell tends to be an unreliable narrator,
because many of his claims about how liberal misconceptions are translated into
social policy are governed by the astigmatic logic of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson’s
novel  Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). The concealing of vital
information through the revelation of a contrasting set of data is a primal
feature of this logic.  Sowell is so
wonderful in his use of astigmatic logic that I classify and read Intellectuals and Society as an “undiscovered,”
post-intellectual novel rather than as a serious work in intellectual history.
Such reading is rewarding.  I can see
Sowell as a fine maker of fictions without attacking his person or his verifiable
status as an intellectual.  Robust novels
tend to be unverifiable, so it is politic to protect Sowell from the guilt of
association with legitimate novelists.
Truth
be told, Sowell enlightens us very much about debilitating habits of mind among
intellectuals by illustrating so perfectly the workings of his mind as that of
an intellectual.  As our folklore has it,
it takes one to know one, or you can’t know there without going there.  The all too frequent failure of so-called
liberal intellectuals to engage the discourses of the so-called conservative
intellectuals they are wont to dismiss or demonize leaves the liberals at risk
in their love affair with post-whateverness. 
They miss, for example, the importance of Sowell’s not mentioning at all
the political philosopher Leo Strauss (1899-1973).  Strauss was a stone intellectual.  His ideas are open to the charge of lacking
verifiability, but they have been of special importance in the production of
neoconservative policies, policies that are often predicated on deception.
Liberal policies are not immune to deception, but liberals tend to be less
skilled than conservatives in using the rhetorical mechanisms of deception.
Deception is deception is deception even when it comes to us dressed in the
fabulous costumes of Truth the Trickster. And conservative and liberal
intellectuals are past ghetto in deceiving the world about what is universal.
Just
as Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter
contains an abundance of truth about the nature of evil, Sowell’s Intellectuals and Society renders a
generous amount of truth about the fictive antics of intellectuals, public and
non-public, internationally famous or internationally unknown.
 As a novelist, Sowell unmasks himself.  The face we find behind the mask of the novel
challenges us to take off our own and to be real, whatever being real at any
given time might mean. For me, being real is an investment in old-fashioned
scholarship, including dedicated use of archives, that is not taken in the “the
latest new thing” and an investment in cautious use rather than rejection of
emerging technologies and methodologies.  For others, being real may be an investment in
blinding themselves to the probability that by the end of the twenty-first
century, the humanities and liberal arts education as we know them will either
be dead or the sole property of the truly wealthy and truly elite.  Yes, we can delay the progress of
intellectual tragedy.  No, we can’t erase
it anymore than we can erase terrorism.  The
objective, of course, is to work toward external criteria that can serve our
disciplines effectively. We should be more aggressive in discovering what is it
that we do that the majority of the world’s population can agree is essential,
valuable, and desirable for sustaining human life. What is it that we study
about literature, about writing, about writing and culture which can be called
prerogatives essential for human existence?
 We ought to subject such novels as Intellectual and Society that pretend to
be something other than novels to literary scrutiny.  In both the liberal and conservative camps of
the humanities, it might be a good thing for academic intellectuals to accept a
few lessons from the abstract “masses” they so famously dismiss with contempt.