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.