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Unread May 16th, 2010, 12:29 PM
James Brody James Brody is offline
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Arrow Thomas Sowell: Intellectuals & Society

Sowell, Thomas (2009) Intellectuals and Society. New York: Basic Books, 317 pp + notes

Sowell poured new data into his earlier book, A Conflict of Visions, and gave us Intellectuals and Society. Their shared theme is that humanity consists of individualists and collectivists, or, in Sowell’s terms, those with “constrained” and “unconstrained” visions of human nature. Sowell’s own preferences are consistent with Adam Smith, Thomas Hobbes, Edmund Burke, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Friedrich Hayek, and Milton Friedman.

The constrained vision carries deep respect for the 100,000 experiments represented in every population of 100,000 and for their bottom-up creativity. Whatever your flaws, there is someone in your community with a different set and you complement and swap with each other. The unconstrained vision – shared by the leaders of the French Revolution, socialists, and most Democrats – finds us damaged but reparable by early lectures, strong rules, clear examples, and immediate consequences. We can all be the same but must be beaten into it.

I suggest that “unconstrained” applies to those otherwise known as “individualists” and “constrained” to those labeled “collectivist” or “socialist.”

Steven Pinker summarized the differences:
“If you learn that someone is in favor of a strong military, for example, it is a good bet that the person is also in favor of judicial restraint rather than judicial activism. If someone believes in the importance of religion, chances are she will be tough on crime and in favor of lower taxes. Proponents of a laissez-faire economic policy tend to value patriotism and the family, and they are more likely to be old than young, pragmatic rather than idealist, censorious than permissive, meritocratic than egalitarian, gradualist than revolutionary, and in a business rather than a university or government agency. The opposing positions cluster just as reliably: if someone is sympathetic to rehabilitating offenders, or to affirmative action, or to generous welfare programs, or to a tolerance of homosexuality, chances are good that he will also be a pacifist, an environmentalist, an activist, an egalitarian, a secularist, and a professor or student." (Pinker, 2004, 286)

Sowell’s model has an architecture, one that appears to duplicate that of our brain: The political “left” argues, blames, scolds, shouts, and insults in order to win arguments. (It can also be psychotic!) The political “right” makes charts, arranges numbers, and conducts pilot projects that live or die with their data. And a further aggravation: collectivists tend to hang together in a big wad but individualists, naturally, form smaller, independent communities.

A Shift in Explanations
1) Social scientists, movie-makers, journalists, lawyers, and political leftists usually do “intellectual things” with each other in the universities, news organizations, and churches. Intellectuals gain prominence less by work in their profession and more through reforming us, the-unwashed-ordinary.

The curriculum includes pacifism, secularism, multiculturalism, abortion, birth control, and, shudder, women’s liberation. (They also lately heat up over such scams as American imperialism, global warming, and green energy! These are not new things. In the 1840s, Charles MacKay described 20 or more mass delusions, including the great Dutch “tulipomania.”)

According to Sowell, Bertrand Russell and Noam Chomsky would have remained obscure if they had stayed within logic and linguistics. The problem is that collectivists gain influence by gaining approval from each other. Data are neither possible nor necessary for what they say. And there are no fines, fees, or court costs levied for mistakes or lies. Most of them posture beyond the confines of their formal competence. A similar fraud lurks with stock market analysts…arrest all of them for fraud!

And most important: Collectivists – whether Russian Bolsheviks, German Nazis, or Harvard faculty –ridicule and erode the ties and boundaries that define traditional communities as if to move us from our historic family nests high up in trees to hives on the ground wherein every termite copies the next termite. (Camazine et al, 2001)

2) The strength of the right human cortex is reflected in math, business, architecture, engineering, and innovation and mostly in young males. Such also tend to be individualists. And, Sowell – as Hayek did 80 years ago – argues that wisdom resides in individualist assemblies more than in collectivist chants. Individualists also face ridicule from peers and the public because the expressions of their talents make it possible to prove them wrong. And fines, lawsuits, and firings follow mistakes whether in medicine, pharmacology, highway construction, or missile design. (Our politics gives us many big talkers while we forget that Washington and Lincoln were surveyors. Should we test politicians for their skills at Sudoku?)

3) Creativity, however, fades after our 50th year and sometimes before. (One view is that our right side is a “pattern maker” and our left a “pattern executor.” There is also truth for most of us in the saying, “Make it in science before you are 30 or you won’t make it at all!) Nearly all of us become less innovative after we reach age 50. As the right frontal area withers, individuals and populations let clerics, professors, mothers, and judges make cascades of rules. (In Darwinian terms, we need to do again whatever worked yesterday…a fine guideline for quiet times but a disaster for managing floods, earthquakes, storms, droughts, invasions, and disease – or for finding something new.)

There’s Hope in “Mother, May I?”
1) The naturalists Zahavi and Zahavi argue that feathers, songs, and growls are not to frighten enemies but to inform cousins, parents, brothers, sisters, and other relatives of the superiority of a particular individual. Bright patterns, clear edges, melodic cries … all signal health and reproductive fitness, not only for our wild cousins but also for drum majors and guys with baggy pants and fast cars. Whether birds, cats, or boys…the gaudy fellows get the girls. I find little difference in these effects and posturing by politicians, academics, writers, lawyers, and journalists. Likewise for sportscasters and the people who call them.

2) Sowell depends on the lectures we get in school, movies, or the news as an explanation for what we believe. Experience and public school certainly do things to minds but in a surprising way: while trying to provide uniformity, schools inadvertently provide choices.
That is, nonshared environments – environments chosen or constructed by the individual – contribute as much as 85% to the differences that develop between us as we age. (If environment were our master teacher, we would all be eggs graded in a carton by the time we reached 60!) And nonshared environments are usually powerful after we reach our eighth birthday and choose the memories, books, tapes, and music that carry us through life. Audiences, thus, must be susceptible to whatever drum majors are found. And the student’s choice is frequently unconscious, driven by what’s fun as life were a series of votes for Lennon-McCartney or for BO…and every choice that makes us more different from each other as we travel through the decades.

3) Environmental choices may be piloted by experience…a major war, for example, embitters those who remember it. Sowell tells us that France was tough in the four-years’ battle against the Germans in WWI. Their severe losses however, were followed by endemic pacifism that eventually allowed Hitler’s defeating the French in only four months. The Germans, convinced they were cheated of victory in WWI, retained their hunger for conquest. (The French, Brits, and Americans had similar changes after their wars.)
Environmental choices, however, may also be piloted by genomic imprinting.

There are hundreds of steps between the extremes of male and female, steps influenced by prenatal conflicts between a handful of genes donated either from father or from mother. Dad’s contribution leads to more muscularity, impulsiveness, and matings but to less introspection and anxiety. Hers to a smaller fetus but a more thoughtful, inhibited one, sometimes apt to be plagued with timidity and depression, and paralyzed when give conflicting directions. Under stable conditions, males become more feminine and females become more masculine. Waylon Jennings becomes Keith Urban and Dolly Parton morphs into Gretchen Wilson.

The outcome of loss, scarcity, and environmental stability is usually called “winner-take-all”: 10% of the players handle 80% of the business. (Compare the singers in a C&W list of most popular songs: the top half dozen slots have less turnover and fewer participants than the bottom ten.) Winner-take-all describes much of American urban culture and, unfortunately, is frequently the final stage before collapse, scavenging, and recycling. (Csermely, 2006)

Bottom Lines about Intellectuals and Society
“…a society can survive a certain amount of forces of disintegration within it. But that is very different from saying that there is no limit to the amount, audacity and ferocity of those disintegrative forces which a society can survive without at least the will to resist.” 317.

I have several hundred books and really needed only one – Intellectuals and Society – but I needed it for the last ten years!

Sowell finds the split in human culture and exposes intellectuals as pompous, perpetual, public, mutual masturbators. (We usually know them as social scientists, journalists, movie-makers, and liberal Dems. Captive squirrel monkeys do similar things.) And Sowell’s best kicks and punches are in his two chapters on war and in his final J’Accuse….three pages of charges against the rulers who steal from us and want us helpless while tigers hunt in the night. Make a poster!

Our culture has a “will to resist” - perhaps the gift from a rowdy Scot, a gene that wriggled down his kilt, out some jail in the highlands, and into the women of our South and Middle America. My own bent is for diners, waitresses, motorcycles, and doing what I want to do. This oppositional, impulsive streak was a gift and curse from my hyperactive Polish mother. It was also a gift from nature and whatever God may be: every living creature makes a world consistent with its personal nature. Thus, it’s fine that I hate libs and their hives and enjoy the comradeship that I find with Tom Sowell and his allies.

Spain and Arabia meet again but in North America and do to us what we once did to ignoble savages who already battled each other, killed game, raped women from the next tribe, and smoked weeds! Our modern lib customs beckon invaders from Central America and the Mideast. Obviously, Madonna needs a burka and a strong man!

Thank you, Dr. Sowell…

Barabási, A-L (2002) Linked: The New Science of Networks. NY: Perseus.
Brody, J.F. (2008) Rebellion: Physics to Personal Will. Lincoln, Nebraska: iUniverse.
Camazine, S., Deneubourg, J-L., Franks, N., Sneyd, J., Theraulaz, G., & Bonabeau, E. (2001) Self-Organization in Biological Systems. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.
Csermely, Peter (2006) Weak Links: Stabilizers of Complex Systems from Proteins to Social Networks. NY: Springer.
Goldberg, E. (2001) The Executive Brain: Frontal Lobes and the Civilized Mind. NY: Oxford University Press.
Mackay, Charles (1841/1980) Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. NY: Three Rivers Press.
Sperry RW (1981) Some effects of disconnecting the cerebral hemispheres. Nobel Lecture.
Wigan A (1844/2006) A New View of Insanity: The Duality of Mind Proved by the Structure, Functions, and Diseases of the Brain and by the Phenomena of Mental Derangement, and Shewn to be Essential to Moral Responsibility. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing.
Zahavi, A. & Zahavi, A. (1997) The Handicap Principle: A Missing Piece of Darwin’s Puzzle NY: Oxford.

Last edited by James Brody; May 17th, 2010 at 01:16 PM.
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