The Closing of the Liberal Mind

Despite the fact that in an act of petty malice and politically-motivated spite,  Leon Wieseltier has banned me (or mention of my work) from The New Republic for twenty-five years, I have always regarded the literary pages that he edits as the best “back of the book” section in the opinion magazine business. No more.

The current issue of The New Republic contains a vapid, mean-spirited, and indefensible attack on one of the most important intellectual figures of our time. Alan Wolfe’s review of Thomas Sowell’s new book, Intellectuals and Society, is not even a review. Not a single idea presented in the book is addressed in Wolfe’s text, which is simply a lengthy ad hominem attack on Sowell that displays astounding ignorance of both Sowell and his important intellectual oeuvre.

Wolfe begins with a self-revealing attack on Sowell for writing a book about intellectuals that,

“offers no discussion of literature, music and the arts.”

One wonders if Wolfe has read even the first pages of Sowell’s book, particularly p. 2 and the section called “Defining Intellectuals” where Sowell explains that,

“Here, ‘intellectuals’ refers to an occupational category, people whose occupation deals primarily with ideas — writers, academics and the like.”

In other words, it does not include musicians and artists and writers of fiction whose occupations do not deal primarily with ideas. This is just an indication of the intellectual sloppiness and vacuousness of Wolfe’s “review” which is really just an expression of inarticulate rage against an intellectual superior who has written a work skewering progressive idea-smiths like himself. Shame on Alan for writing this and on Leon for publishing it. It can be taken as another indication of the fact that we now live in a country so divided there are two Americas and two cultures which speak a different language.

  • Joy

    DH has expressed succintly what I have been saying for the past several years: Namely, "We now live in a country so divided (that) there ae now two Americas and two cultures which speak a different language." It is, in a way, a form of civil war; but, thank God, so far no guns or weapons – just exremely angry and bitter words. Is this a divide that can ever be bridged in our lifetime? Will it take another 911 to bring us together – even for a very period of time? So sad – and so true.

    • johncarens

      I will hasten to add that NOT EVEN 9/11 "brought us together". The likes of Jeremiah Wright, Howard Dean, Barack Obama, Louis Farrakhan and Howard Zinn were out trashing the United States while Ground Zero was still smoldering. The murder of 3,000 of their neighbors, co-workers and friends moved them off their political center not one iota. Nor will another catastrophe.

      BUT (And this is the happy news): We are not so divided as it might appear. When Scott Brown, a right-of-center Republican can win a Massachusetts Senate seat which the Kennedy family held for over fifty years, it tells you that not only is there a shift in the political tectonic plates in our nation — it also tells you the dept of affinity for radical leftism is about as deep as a summer mud puddle. Most Americans, despite what the mainstream cultural entertainments tell us, are not extreme-left radical Obama Stalinists. We are normal, God-loving, hard-working, traditional people. San Fransisco, Washington, Baltimore and New York do not a country make.

      Remember 1978? I do. There was talk of making the presidency a single-six year term, and that there would never again be a two-term president because we were "so divided". Both political parties were bumbling and inept, it seemed, after ABSCAM. We were ungovernable. Then, along came Ronald Reagan, who had a simple message: Government IS the Problem. Get it the hell out of the way, and we will all have a much better time of it. And, for the most part, we'll hang together. And we did, for almost 30 years.

  • jbtrevor

    I don't think Wolfe likes Sowell…
    Actually, he probably dislikes anyone who doesn't agree with geo-social political views. There is a multifaceted struggle in progress…in the intellectual world, it's between those who seek power to control others with knowledge (dazzling us with their brilliance) and determining who has knowledge sufficient to be among them i.e. Wolfe and those who seek to empower others with knowledge i.e. Sowell (&Horowitz).

  • semby

    David, who cares what an idiot like her says, I don't care what she thinks. The real people know the importance of Sowell.

  • Guest

    I have made it my mission, of intellectual pleasure, to introduce 1 person a week to the writings and intellect of Dr. Sowell. I have pursued this for the 2009 calendar year up to present.
    I have never had a "back-slider." All have been overjoyed to read and see the wit and intellect of this man.
    He is a National treasure.

    • Guest

      Every time I read something by Thomas Sowell, I feel as if my IQ has just been raised a couple of points.

    • kafirman

      Dr. Sowell (and Dr. Keyes) are black men whose character and capacity could unite America.

  • billy bob

    Anyone who has read Dr. Sowell and is honest knows he is truly one of the best intellectual writers of our time. He can take a complex subject and break it down to a level that makes it easy to understand. His works should be required reading for all high school students.

    • Stuart (Austin, TX)

      That is the best idea I have heard all day . . . actually all year! Dr. Sowell is the clearest-thinking, most articulate and upright man I can name. I wish he would give in to my urgings that HE run for president of the United States. Despite liberals obvious, and phony, self-satisfaction that they elected the first black president (who happens to be an ardent Marxist), I was ready to vote for a black man for president decades ago. His name is Thomas Sowell.

      Incidentally, I know plenty of Republicans, including me, who did vote for a black presidential candidate — Alan Keyes — in 1992, after George H.W. Bush betrayed conservatism. In other words, it has nothing to do with race, and everything to do with the soundness of one's political philosphy,

  • pr 10

    A reactionary fright bite or another cunning race baiting trap? Who knows what goes on in the liberal mind. A blob of decadence can best describe it.

    I would best describe the modern American liberal as the rich cat lady. Yes they dress well, but you get up close on them and they have food stains and just ramble drivel at you.

    Ah! The life of an intellectual! To be a lap dog just by thinking so!

    Me? Give me the executive life style. Money by any means, and oh yeah Dick Cheney; for President; of the friggin' universe.

  • USMCSniper

    I have always concluded the Alan Wolfes and the liberals of the world realized at a young age that they were not material for the starting lineup and questionable even as backups so they learn to fake it and viciously attack their betters.

    • Kathy L.

      Your post reminds me of a quote from Shakespeare, from Julius Caesar. Caesar is observing Cassius and says "Such men as he never be at heart's ease whilst they behold a greater than themselves."

      Dr. Sowell is indeed a treasure and an inspiration.

    • guest

      I agree. Pride keeps you going the wrong way in a losing proposition.

  • Raymond in DC

    I just got through Sowell's "Intellectuals and Society" this week. A fine work indeed! He shows how the self-proclaimed "intellectuals" have increased their influence while remaining unaccountable for the consequences of their ideas – really, the only thing they "produce".

    What's also remarkable is the historic sweep Sowell provides, that the same failed notions propounded in earlier generations (universal disarmament, for example) have returned in our own. One can see the very techniques he identifies with intellectual circles played out the courts, mass media, institutions of higher learning, and the political realm.

    • interact

      Can I borrow your quote for my facebook page as the quote of the month whch I post – monthly? .." the self-proclaimed "intellectuals" have increased their influence while remaining unaccountable for the consequences of their ideas – really, the only thing they "produce"..

      • Joy

        Here’s another quote from the late Robert LeFevre – one of my early mentors and a very articulate libertarian journalist from the 1960s & 70s: “Intellectuals are second-hand dealers in ideas!”

  • Phil Cowan

    Strolling among the Ponderosas of the Sierra Nevada, one suddenly comes upon the giant Sequoia General Sherman. Hark! Thomas Sowell.

  • cheeflo

    Wolfe is like any other equivocating relativist — he values bad ideas well enough to take them seriously. But what does that mean? Recognition of the damage a bad idea can do if it gets traction is something that Sowell takes seriously. But Wolfe suggests that all ideas are worthy, which is another way of saying that none are. And he thinks Sowell hates ideas?

  • david

    Wolfe reminds of the undergraduate students I met in liberal arts classes at UC Santa Cruz and UC Berkeley— full of big words, self-importance and grandiose ideas. And full of hatred, literally hatred, of conservatives, libertarians and persons who were far smarter, more competent and more accomplished than themselves. That is the relationship between the spiteful, resentful Wolfe, and the intelligent, accomplished Sowell.

  • Dale

    Dr. Sowell must have colluded with Alan Wolfe with the express goal of having Mr. Wolfe write a book review that so clearly demonstrates the absolute accuracy of the arguments found in "Intellectuals and Society". A more perfect demonstration of what Dr. Sowell describes as "an argument without an argument" could not be found. Alan Wolfe's rambling, non-sensical writing just drips with the "vision of the anointed" as Dr. Sowell would describe it. I imagine the truth of the book simply hit too close to home and Mr. Wolfe's basis for his world view just couldn't withstand an honest consideration of the points made in the book.

  • Paula N.

    Sowell ranks right up there with Hayek and von Mises, as far as I'm concerned. He is giant among pygmies. But then, I'm not an intellectual like Wolfe :))

  • Warren

    I just read the New Republic review, and it is utterly disassociated in every substantive manner from the content of the book it is reviewing. Typical of the New Republic, but it seems Mr. Wolfe had to sink lower than usual to avoid having to confront Dr. Sowell's ideas, since they are so clearly and convincingly laid out. It appears to purposefully misinterpret the point of the book, so that it can derisively dismiss it, taking down a strawman with mere sarcasm before launching into a self-reverential discourse on the joyousness of intellectuality. Mr. Wolfe's concept of writing and ideas seems to revolve around the witty turn-of-phrase and untested ideas, as long as they are fun to produce and interesting to read. He disregards the damage that ideas with no empirical basis for validity can have on society, further proving Dr. Sowell's points about the intellectual mentality.

  • Warren

    Mr. Wolfe seems to enjoy tossing around whatever ideas have an interesting ring to them, only to retract them later as reality proves them untenable, acting as if his intellectual recklessness should not diminish his reputation, but rather should enhance it. Bold, joyous experimentation is the key, adding to society's store of random imaginings but calling them "ideas." Anyone who has seen an interview with Dr. Sowell knows that the man has enough joy to spread around, beginning his response to every question with a goood-natured chrotle, but he delights in truth and in dashing unempirical reasoning and faulty conventional wisdom. Mr. Wolfe cannot find the joy in a mind like that since it does not rely on smarmy dismissiveness to win over the reader, but prefers the factual and honest exchange of ideas, without their meanings distorted by spin, so they can be held to the light of empirical reality.

  • Warren

    There can be no doubt that Sowell is an intellectual, as Mr. Wolfe points out superficially, but he is one of a rare breed, worthy of esteem for his precise recognition of reality rather than his word-play or creative imaginings. He has a tragic/constrained vision of the world that sees the knowledge of intellectuals, himself included, as a pittance compared to the wealth of knowledge diffused throughout society. He asks that you join him in examining the evidence, but does not ask that you follow him anywhere. He asks that you disassemble the conventional wisdoms profferred by intellectuals, so that you can prove to yourself what ideas are consistent with reality. Witticisms, ad hominems, and joyousness are not the point of being a tragic intellectual like Dr. Sowell.

  • Warren

    If you find empirical reality interesting, maybe you are a joyless nerd, but you will be well prepared to face the world successfully, seeing it for what it is rather than what you want it to be. If you are reading for the cleverness of imaginative but unproven assertions, interestingly phrased, backed up with non-empirical but attractive evidence, that fit a predetermined vision of the world, you will certainly be entertained at the time, but you likely learned little of real value that will be reliable in the real world. Dismissing, distorting, or ignoring empirically valid ideas that do not fit your preconceived vision of the world can be entertaining and relaxing, since you are not challenged or confronted. Still, if that is how you prefer to consume your intellectualisms, the New Republic appears to have plenty of that, as Mr. Wolfe has proven once again.

    • Dale

      Nice work.

    • Dale

      Taking Dr. Sowells points and truly examining them would represent an existential threat to Mr. Wolfe's massive investment in his uncontsrained worldview. To concede to Dr. Sowell the truth of any of the arguments he makes in his book would require a degree of self examination that the anointed are not prepared to make. To even attempt to argue the point with valid, empirical data would be so impossible a task, and most likely, such a transparently futile undertaking, that Mr. Wolfe's sense of self-preservation won't allow him to go there. The contents of the book versus Mr. Wolfe's critique of it reminds me of one of the greatest mismatches of all time: Milton Friedman versus Phil Donahue. For a few laughs, and a great example of the "conflict of visions", google it.

  • TraseroConservativo

    …and Illiberal/Regressive Sergeant Friday said: Not the facts, Ma'am.

  • Deborah Judge

    I worked with Alan Wolfe for about 3 years. Mean, arrogant, smug, and full of self pity that he was not understood. Oh, we understood this creep. alright. . A bully who worked hard to prevent his intellectual superiors from getting tenure.

    He was so awful that the Dean fired him.

    • Dale

      The English professor in "Finding Forrester" comes to mind…

  • Alex Kovnat

    My family gave me a Barnes and Noble gift certificate. Unfortunately, I found Dr. Sowell's book in Border's but not B. & N.

    Boo Hoo.

    In all seriousness, I've followed Thomas Sowell's column in the Detroit News since the 1980's. He's going to be 80 this year. I hope he continues writing, as we need his wisdom.

  • 080

    Sowell writes from a point of view that is very distasteful to our current crop of intellectuals. He believes that reality is not optional;; the Ph.D. contingent believe in a second reality which is the reality that they make up. And then they have the chutzpah to call that second reality "science". Aaaaaargh: "Social Science" no less.

  • Cabby – AZ

    Thomas Sowell is one of the best, if not the very best, of writers today.

    He is brilliant, because he not only recognizes the serious issues of today,
    but he knows how to organize his thoughts and express them in an
    extremely understandable way. That takes special skill that few have.

    Kudos to you, Dr. Sowell!

  • Kryteon

    I quit listening to Alan Wolfe and his ilk a long time ago. Totally useless and irrelivant.

    I've slept like a baby ever since.


  • Stuart (Austin, TX)

    Alan Wolfe cannot hold a candle to Thomas Sowell. I suspect Wolfe is trying to take down one of his betters, as he is known to do.

    Dr. Sowell is the clearest-thinking, most articulate and upright man I can name. I wish he would give in to my urgings that HE run for president of the United States. Despite liberals obvious, and phony, self-satisfaction that they elected the first black president (who happens to be an ardent Marxist), I was ready to vote for a black man for president decades ago. His name is Thomas Sowell.

    Incidentally, I know plenty of Republicans, including me, who did vote for a black presidential candidate — Alan Keyes — in 1992, after George H.W. Bush betrayed conservatism. In other words, it has nothing to do with race, and everything to do with the soundness of one's political philosphy,

  • John C. Davidson

    For anyone to deny that Dr. Sowell has not evaluated our society in such a way that anyone with a eigth grade education can understand it, is denying humanity.

  • Tryon

    Horowitz zeroes in on Wolfe's implied conflation of intellectual and artist, which Sowell rightly denies. It is the presumption of the modern academic, especially the Freudian/Frankfurt/Foucaultian types, to co-opt the wild domain of art for their own tenured designs because they believe, or at least espouse, that all art is fundamentally "subversive." And it is, but to their own peril. The perceptual always threatens the conceptual, the creative the established, and the doer the mere professor.

  • 911infidel

    In this society there are only three kinds of people: wolves, sheep and sheepdogs. Thomas Sowell is a sheepdog. He keeps the wolves (i.e. progressive troglodytes) in their place. They hate TS, because he is so effective.

  • Joe

    Some times I think lost in the debate is the obvious. People like Wolf can't be moved. Their minds are fixed … frozen over …. in a condition of imprisonment. They cannot be reasoned with so there really isn't any kind of exchange going on here. No one in their right mind want's to conclude that some kind of middle ground can't be reached between the two opposing philosophies in our country, but as I've indicated – a "debate" cannot take place when you're talking to an immoveable wall. Dr. Sowell understands that and as a true gentleman, has the dignity to stand above it.