Read an Excerpt
Ever Wonder Why?
and Other Controversial Essays
By Thomas Sowell
Hoover Institution PressCopyright © 2006 Thomas Sowell
All rights reserved.
Ever Wonder Why?
When you have seen scenes of poverty and squalor in many Third World countries, either in person or in pictures, have you ever wondered why we in America have been spared such a fate?
When you have learned of the bitter oppressions that so many people have suffered under, in despotic countries around the world, have you ever wondered why Americans have been spared?
Have scenes of government-sponsored carnage and lethal mob violence in countries like Rwanda or in the Balkans ever made you wonder why such horrifying scenes are not found on the streets of America?
Nothing is easier than to take for granted what we are used to, and to imagine that it is more or less natural, so that it requires no explanation. Instead, many Americans demand explanations of why things are not even better and express indignation that they are not.
Some people think the issue is whether the glass is half empty or half full. More fundamentally, the question is whether the glass started out empty or started out full.
Those who are constantly looking for the "root causes" of poverty, of crime, and of other national and international problems, act as if prosperity and law-abiding behavior were so natural that it is their absence which has to be explained. But a casual glance around the world today, or back through history, would dispel any notion that good things just happen naturally, much less inevitably.
The United States of America is the exception, not the rule. Once we realize that America is an exception, we might even have a sense of gratitude for having been born here, even if gratitude has become un-cool in many quarters. At the very least, we might develop some concern for seeing that whatever has made this country better off is not lost or discarded — or eroded away, bit by bit, until it is gone.
Those among us who are constantly rhapsodizing about "change" in vague and general terms seem to have no fear that a blank check for change can be a huge risk in a world where so many other countries that are different are also far worse off.
Chirping about "change" may produce a giddy sense of excitement or of personal exaltation but, as usual, the devil is in the details. Even despotic countries that have embraced sweeping changes have often found that these were changes for the worse.
The czars in Russia, the shah of Iran, the Batista regime in Cuba, were all despotic. But they look like sweethearts compared to the regimes that followed. For example, the czars never executed as many people in half a century as Stalin did in one day.
Even the best countries must make changes and the United States has made many economic, social, and political changes for the better. But that is wholly different from making "change" a mantra.
To be for or against "change" in general is childish. Everything depends on the specifics. To be for generic "change" is to say that what we have is so bad that any change is likely to be for the better.
Such a pose may make some people feel superior to others who find much that is worth preserving in our values, traditions and institutions. The status quo is never sacrosanct but its very existence proves that it is viable, as seductive theoretical alternatives may not turn out to be.
Most Americans take our values, traditions and institutions so much for granted that they find it hard to realize how much all these things are under constant attack in our schools, our colleges, and in much of the press, the movies and literature.
There is a culture war going on within the United States — and in fact, within Western civilization as a whole — which may ultimately have as much to do with our survival, or failure to survive, as the war on terrorism.
There are all sorts of financial, ideological, and psychic rewards for undermining American society and its values. Unless some of us realize the existence of this culture war, and the high stakes in it, we can lose what cost those Americans before us so much to win and preserve.CHAPTER 2
If you think there is a limit to how much childishness there is among Californians, you may want to reconsider — especially for Californians in academic communities.
Recently a mountain lion was discovered up in a tree in Palo Alto, a residential community adjacent to Stanford University. This was at about the time of day when a nearby school was getting ready to let out. There had already been an incident of a horse being found mauled by some animal on Stanford land, and some thought it might have been a mountain lion that did it.
Fearing that the mountain lion might find one of the local school children a tempting target, the police shot and killed the animal. Outrage against the police erupted up and down the San Francisco peninsula and as far away as Marin County, on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge, more than 30 miles away.
According to the San Francisco Chronicle, "The police agency has been flooded with outraged calls and e-mails from people inflamed by TV news videotape of the lion lolling peacefully in a tree just before an officer shot it to death with a high-powered rifle."
Yes, the mountain lion was sitting peacefully. That is what cats do before they pounce — usually very swiftly.
Second-guessers always have easy alternatives. One protester against "the murdering of such a beautiful creature" said that it "easily could have been removed from the premises and relocated" and that the "dirty blood-thirsty bastards" who killed it should be ashamed of themselves.
The protester offered no helpful hints on how you "easily" remove a mountain lion from a tree — and certainly did not volunteer to demonstrate how to do it in person the next time the police find a mountain lion up a tree in a residential neighborhood.
Animal rights advocates said the police could have given the mountain lion "a chance" by attempting to tranquilize it while it was up in the tree, and save shooting as a last resort if it turned aggressive.
A makeshift shrine has been erected on the spot where the mountain lion died. Flowers, cards and photos have been placed around it.
This is an academic community where indignation is a way of life. Those engaged in moral exhibitionism have no time for mundane realities.
The police, of course, have to deal with mundane realities all the time. Not long before this episode, the police had tried to capture three mountain lion cubs by shooting them with tranquilizers. They missed on two out of three tries with one cub.
What if the police had shot a tranquilizer gun at the adult mountain lion in the tree and missed? Would they have had a chance to get off a second shot at a swiftly moving target before he pounced on one of the hundreds of children that were soon to be leaving school near him?
Moral exhibitionists never make allowance for the police missing, whether with tranquilizers shot at mountain lions or bullets fired at a criminal. The perpetually indignant are forever wondering why it took so many shots.
It would never occur to people with academic degrees and professorships that they are both ignorant and incompetent in vast areas of human life, much less that they should keep that in mind before they vent their emotions and wax self-righteous.
Degrees show that you have knowledge in some special area. Too often they embolden people to pontificate on a wide range of other subjects where they don't know what they are talking about.
The fact that academics are overwhelmingly of the political left is perfectly consistent with their assumption that third parties — especially third parties like themselves — should be controlling the decisions of other people who have first-hand knowledge and experience.
The cops probably haven't read Chaucer and don't know what existentialism is. But they may know what danger is.
Some Palo Alto parents of small children living near where the mountain lion was killed said that the police did the right thing. There are still some pockets of sanity, even in Palo Alto.CHAPTER 3
"Us" or "Them"?
A reader recently sent me an e-mail about a woman he had met and fallen for. Apparently the attraction was mutual — until one fateful day the subject of the environment came up.
She was absolutely opposed to any drilling for oil in Alaska, on grounds of what harm she said it would do to the environment.
He argued that, since oil was going to be drilled for somewhere in the world anyway, was it not better to drill where there were environmental laws to provide at least some kinds of safeguards, rather than in countries where there were none?
That was the end of a beautiful relationship.
Environmentalist true believers don't think in terms of trade-offs and cost-benefit analysis. There are things that are sacred to them. Trying to get them to compromise on those things would be like trying to convince a Muslim to eat pork, if it was only twice a week.
Compromise and tolerance are not the hallmarks of true believers. What they believe in goes to the heart of what they are. As far as true believers are concerned, you are either one of Us or one of Them.
The man apparently thought that it was just a question of which policy would produce which results. But many issues that look on the surface like they are just about which alternative would best serve the general public are really about being one of Us or one of Them — and this woman was not about to become one of Them.
Many crusades of the political left have been misunderstood by people who do not realize that these crusades are about establishing the identity and the superiority of the crusaders.
T.S. Eliot understood this more than half a century ago when he wrote: "Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don't mean to do harm — but the harm does not interest them. Or they do not see it, or they justify it because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves."
In this case, the man thought he was asking the woman to accept a certain policy as the lesser of two evils, when in fact he was asking her to give up her sense of being one of the morally anointed.
This is not unique to our times or to environmentalists. Back during the 1930s, in the years leading up to World War II, one of the fashionable self-indulgences of the left in Britain was to argue that the British should disarm "as an example to others" in order to serve the interests of peace.
When economist Roy Harrod asked one of his friends whether she thought that disarming Britain would cause Hitler to disarm, her reply was: "Oh, Roy, have you lost all your idealism?"
In other words, it was not really about which policy would produce what results. It was about personal identification with lofty goals and kindred souls.
The ostensible goal of peace was window-dressing. Ultimately it was not a question whether arming or disarming Britain was more likely to deter Hitler. It was a question of which policy would best establish the moral superiority of the anointed and solidify their identification with one another.
"Peace" movements are not judged by the empirical test of how often they actually produce peace or how often their disarmament tempts an aggressor into war. It is not an empirical question. It is an article of faith and a badge of identity.
Yasser Arafat was awarded the Nobel Prize for peace — not for actually producing peace but for being part of what was called "the peace process" in the Middle East, based on fashionable notions that were common bonds among members of what are called "peace movements" around the world.
Meanwhile, nobody suggested awarding a Nobel Prize for peace to Ronald Reagan, just because he brought the nuclear dangers of a decades-long cold war to an end. He did it the opposite way from how members of "peace movements" thought it should be done.
Reagan beefed up the military and entered into an "arms race" that he knew would bankrupt the Soviet Union if they didn't back off, even though arms races are anathema to members of "peace movements."
The fact that events proved him right was no excuse, as far as members of "peace movements" were concerned. As far as they were concerned, he was not one of Us. He was one of Them.CHAPTER 4
One of the reasons our children do not measure up academically to children in other countries is that so much time is spent in American classrooms twisting our history for ideological purposes.
"How would you feel if you were a Native American who saw the European invaders taking away your land?" is the kind of question our children are likely to be confronted with in our schools. It is a classic example of trying to look at the past with the assumptions — and the ignorance — of the present.
One of the things we take for granted today is that it is wrong to take other people's land by force. Neither American Indians nor the European invaders believed that.
Both took other people's land by force — as did Asians, Africans, Arabs, Polynesians, and others. The Indians no doubt regretted losing so many battles. But that is wholly different from saying that they thought battles were the wrong way to settle the question of who would control the land.
Today's child cannot possibly put himself or herself in the mindset of Indians centuries ago, without infinitely more knowledge of history than our schools have ever taught.
Nor is understanding history the purpose of such questions. The purpose is to score points against Western society. In short, propaganda has replaced education as the goal of too many "educators."
Schools are not the only institutions that twist history to score ideological points. "Never Forget That They Owned Lots of Slaves" is the huge headline across the front page of the New York Times' book review section in its December 14, 2004 issue. Inside was an indictment of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
Of all the tragic facts about the history of slavery, the most astonishing to an American today is that, although slavery was a worldwide institution for thousands of years, nowhere in the world was slavery a controversial issue prior to the 18th century.
People of every race and color were enslaved — and enslaved others. White people were still being bought and sold as slaves in the Ottoman Empire, decades after American blacks were freed.
Everyone hated the idea of being a slave but few had any qualms about enslaving others. Slavery was just not an issue, not even among intellectuals, much less among political leaders, until the 18th century — and then it was an issue only in Western civilization.
Among those who turned against slavery in the 18th century were George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry and other American leaders. You could research all of 18th century Africa or Asia or the Middle East without finding any comparable rejection of slavery there.
But who is singled out for scathing criticism today? American leaders of the 18th century.
Deciding that slavery was wrong was much easier than deciding what to do with millions of people from another continent, of another race, and without any historical preparation for living as free citizens in a society like that of the United States, where they were 20 percent of the total population.
It is clear from the private correspondence of Washington, Jefferson, and many others that their moral rejection of slavery was unambiguous, but the practical question of what to do now had them baffled. That would remain so for more than half a century.
In 1862, a ship carrying slaves from Africa to Cuba, in violation of a ban on the international slave trade, was captured on the high seas by the U.S. Navy. The crew were imprisoned and the captain was hanged in the United States — despite the fact that slavery itself was still legal at the time in Africa, in Cuba, and in the United States.
What does this tell us? That enslaving people was considered an abomination but what to do with millions of people who were already enslaved was not equally clear.
That question was finally answered by a war in which one life was lost for every six people freed. Maybe that was the only answer. But don't pretend today that it was an easy answer — or that those who grappled with the dilemma in the 18th century were some special villains, when most leaders and most people around the world at that time saw nothing wrong with slavery.
Incidentally, the September 2004 issue of National Geographic had an article about the millions of people still enslaved around the world right now. But where was the moral indignation about that?CHAPTER 5
Explaining to the Grand Kids
Those of us who are optimists believe that someday sanity will return to our society. Our media, our officials — perhaps even our schools and colleges — will begin to talk sense. Those of you who are young may live to see it.
But there is a down side to sanity. Once there is a whole generation raised to think — to examine evidence and use logic — you are going to be confronted with a need to explain to your grandchildren how our generation could have done the things we did. You don't want your grand kids to think that your whole generation was crazy.
Excerpted from Ever Wonder Why? by Thomas Sowell. Copyright © 2006 Thomas Sowell. Excerpted by permission of Hoover Institution Press.
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