I sit down to write these columns on the Sunday that precedes their publication. That gives me plenty of time to realize where I went wrong, then correct my mistakes before hitting the send button a few days before the weekend. Sometimes Sunday arrives and I have no idea what to write about. Other times it's crystal clear.
Today it's all pretty clear because last night I watched a newly released documentary on YouTube about the life and work of Thomas Sowell titled “Common Sense in a Senseless World.” You could spend a few days watching snippets of Sowell's appearances on television and podcasts, or look for his books in the library. Either way, it’s well worth your time acquainting yourself with him. He’s a remarkable intellect and scholar, one of that dying breed that used to be called “public intellectuals.” At least they're becoming extinct on television. They’re still around of course, but thoughtful content is pretty much banished from television. It's gone elsewhere.
Sowell may be referring to television when he writes, “The reason so many people misunderstand so many issues is not that these issues are complex, but that people do not want a factual or analytical explanation that leaves them emotionally unsatisfied. They want villains to hate and heroes to cheer- and they don’t want explanations that do not give them that.” That pretty well sums up journalism and the treatment of ideas that dominates on television, as well as almost everywhere else.
There is another approach to ideas and issues. It’s not afraid to question inherited wisdom. It relies on the difficult task of gathering relevant evidence and data, and then sifts through it to uncover answers that may be surprising, or challenge widely held assumptions.
Sowell's start in life was unpromising. Born to a mother who cleaned homes for a living and a father who died before his birth, his earliest years were spent in the rural Deep South during the Great Depression. His home had no electricity, and no running water. After his mother died before he turned 8, he was adopted by a great aunt who brought the family to Harlem. It was in in New York City that he first became aware of the wider world. Eventually he would join the Marines, and after discharge he attended classes at Howard University. With the help of some Howard professors he moved on to Harvard, where he graduated magna cum laude. A year after Harvard he earned a masters degree from Columbia, which prepared him for a doctorate in economics from the University of Chicago. He went on to teach at numerous top universities before becoming a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford. He’s written over a dozen books and was a syndicated columnist before retiring in 2016 at the age of 86 to devote himself to photography.
Biography out of the way, I can drop a few more killer Sowell quotes. But before moving on, how about that first one? It’s not earth shaking news that people are generally looking for confirmation of their biases rather than empirically based arguments, but the above quote makes the point so well. Less skilled thinkers and writers like myself look at it and wonder why we never thought to put it that way. Everywhere we look we see little interest in reality. Instead, cheering on assigned heroes and calling out designated villains preoccupies public discourse. But life is not a football game or a pro wrestling match. I like to think that some things in life are more consequential than games and need to be treated that way. Whatever part of your brain is engaged when you holler for your team is not especially helpful when the game is over.
Here's another: “It takes considerable knowledge just to realize the extent of your own ignorance.” And another: “If you have always believed that everyone should play by the same rules and be judged by the same standards, that would have gotten you labeled a radical 50 years ago, a liberal 30 years ago, and a racist today.” Then there’s this one: “It’s bad enough that so many people believe things without any evidence. What is worse is that some people have no conception of evidence and regard facts as just someone else’s opinion.” There’s also this: “The fact that so many politicians are such shameless liars is not only a reflection on them, it’s also a reflection on us. When the people want the impossible, only liars can satisfy.” And one more: “When you want to help people, you tell them the truth. When you want to help yourself, you tell them what they want to hear.”
I guess at this point I'm just letting Sowell write my column for me. I could do worse.