Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Meet Thomas Sowell: A Moron

One of the smartest things I've ever done began as a lark last year and still sends me spam mail weekly. I'd just finished reading a hilarious, mammoth message-board thread, "Must Love Horses," one man's months-long haunting of a Northeastern Craigslist personals board, during which he sent letters of reciprocating obliviousness to arrogantly "arty" lonelyhearts. Countless people were drawn ineluctably toward the fictional person he presented, recognizing the one most irresistible quality about him: that he looked like what they wanted to see in themselves.

I closed the window on the final page and said to myself, "I bet this would work even better on objectivists."

Within about five minutes, I was fleshing out my profile on The Atlasphere, evidently the internet's premiere objectivist dating site, with the mission of "Connecting Admirers of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged."

My efforts didn't pan out so well. I loaded my profile with economically and socially attractive traits, claimed I graduated from George Mason, attached a sexy photo, then sat back and waited for the objectifish to take the bait. Nothing happened. I'd gravely miscalculated. No good objectivist is going to make an effort to get you to like them: it's your job to get them to like you.

I had hoped naively for unsolicited interest from group members ideologically predisposed to believe themselves the inevitable inheritors of the world's dominion. Impudent facts like what kind of jobs/credentials they had and whether they had the slightest tincture of appeal were inconsequential when dealing with the self-appointed Elect. They would not deign to come to me. Their superiority needed to be taken as a given, even if, look, the proof of it will eventually be along any day now. It took me only a few dozen profile clicks to begin to suspect that everyone on there has probably been single and on the site for years, sullenly orbiting each other in ellipses of studied indifference, determined not to allow their motion through life deviate via the pull of any neighboring body.

After abandoning my epistolary idea, I discovered the secondary, but much richer, pleasures of The Atlasphere: the endless reprinted columns from aggrieved libertarian and objectivist thinkers there to explain why it was someone else's fault that the site's members had seen destiny derailed and global ascendancy denied for so long — but, presumably, still only temporarily.

Now, most of the columnists are obviously reprinted, with permission, from somewhere else. (Or not. Who knows? Maybe the site's owners are spoiling for a legal fight and a Roark moment.) One, Google confirms the foreign provenance for most of the columns, but there's the fact that the site's membership and ad quality suggests it's only pulling down daily money in double figures — after the decimal point. There are occasional original pieces. I don't really know this for sure, but I'm just going off their quality and my publishing sense that nobody would have given actual money printed by a country for them.

As said, the point of these columns isn't to illuminate or challenge. Most of these people don't look very good in natural light, but mostly they need the womb-like security of constant re-affirmation, cardboard-cutout demons and A-Is-A tautology. The sheer preponderance of columns from Walter Williams, Larry Elder and Thomas Sowell explain themselves. The most uncomfortable charge against objectivism and libertarianism has always been that its refusal to make common cause with anything amounts at best to a paternalistic war on the underclass and is thus racially callous if not malevolent. What a boon then to have three black men offering succor, saying, "It's not you. It's them. The bad sorts of blacks."

Williams, of course is instantly recognizable, the Malkin-esque useful idiot dropped onto editorial pages around the country whenever newspapers realize that it's unseemly to have a white columnist call black people stupid and lazy. If he ever somehow lost his journalism gig, he could make a living with direct-mail subscriptions of his columns just by selling them to the sorts of senior citizens determined to clip his articles out and mail them to their children or grandchildren to explain why it's okay that they vote against anything for coloreds because look at what this colored fellow says right here. Elder might be less well known, but his book, Stupid Black Men: How to Play the Race Card — And Lose, and his video, Title IX and Women in Sports: What's Wrong with This Picture, tell you everything you need to know.

Sowell seems to have less name recognition. Why this is the case is frankly baffling, because he's captivatingly shallow and such a master craftsman of callow malice and disregard. Such consistent contempt for the suffering of others isn't something arrived at accidentally. This man writes off the deaths of thousands in the same way most of us reflexively head to the bathroom after coffee, and presumably his work emanates from the same biological imperatives.

It's not as if his virulence is especially hard to find: he's only too happy to appear on Limbaugh's show and equate Obama's addressing students with the Hitler Youth and claim that public schools are indoctrination programs for political correctness. Even his appearance alone is breathtaking. He looks like Urkel suffered a particularly traumatic 50th birthday party and simultaneously came out of the closet and developed a taste for human blood.

But, since many of you surely don't know him, I thought we could do something introductory here, poring over Sowell's latest offering, "A 'Duty to Die'?" while honoring the late and much-missed website Fire Joe Morgan by aping its bold quote + reply format. Take us away, Uncle Tom....

One of the many fashionable notions that have caught on among some of the intelligentsia is that old people have "a duty to die," rather than become a burden to others.
Thomas Sowell is here to tell you some hard truths, and he's not afraid to be as vague as possible. Today he's here to tell you about one idea of many, with no indication of its importance to the unnamed people who discuss it and even less to the importance of those who advocate it, whom he also cannot name. It's an idea, and it belongs to groups of ideas held by people. In effect this idea could be about Justin Bieber, so this idea could be popular or unpopular. Sowell doesn't indicate which is the case. Doing so would obviate the need for weasel words.

The idea itself is fashionable; of at least that much he can be certain. A glance at a picture of him, not to mention the politics he espouses, neatly dispenses with the validity of anything he might say about fashionability. But at least he adds that the "one" of "many" ideas that are "fashionable" is at least fashionable to the "intelligentsia." I suppose he means to use this word sarcastically, but any reading of his antagonistic editorial indicates that he proudly does not consider himself part of this group, and neither should you.

This is more than just an idea discussed around a seminar table.
This is happening. It's not just an airy idea, which is why Sowell supports it with references and citations to all these concrete examples in reality. Look at all of them.

Already the government-run medical system in Britain is restricting what medications or treatments it will authorize for the elderly.
Of course, these medication restrictions might be restricted to superfluous or cosmetic drugs, the Viagras of the world. The restricted treatments might be radical programs that cost tens of thousands of dollars and may only prolong life by months, in the face of certain and terminal conditions. Sowell doesn't explain what medications or what treatments, because he needs you to believe the policy has, at its root, the mandate to terminate elderly people indiscriminately.

Substantiating this claim is both unnecessary and argumentatively treacherous. Explaining the medications and treatments would require mentioning their cost, which might unpleasantly remind American readers of medications and treatments they can't afford anyway, even after years of spilling tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars into private insurance that doesn't cover those medications or treatments. The point here is to keep the conclusion in sight. Any facts between the lede and the final point just open horrifying pitfalls, because they rely on gravity, which is the first deadly indicator of a point with any weight.

Moreover, it seems almost certain that similar attempts to contain runaway costs will lead to similar policies when American medical care is taken over by the government.
This is certainly possible when American medical care is taken over by the government. Of course, it's certainly possible that all the redheaded women of Russia, Britain, Ireland and the United States will be confined to rape rooms when Earth becomes The Anal Fuckfest Planet of the Galactic Sex Imperium, but this is also another circumstance only tenuously linked to reality. Unfortunately, for now, government-mandated healthcare reform involves individuals buying into plans offered by their employers, which are contracted through private health insurance companies, or buying directly from private health insurance companies. It's an extremely pro-business response to the healthcare problem — something that a libertarian pro-business person like Sowell should at least somewhat like — but really it's just a terrible pitfall for Sowell's argument, because it involves something that objectively happened.

Here Sowell tells you of the terrifying result of things he imagines are certain to happen as soon as something else he's imagined happens. Discussing what already has happened would only spoil things, factily intruding on a great story. Moreover, he requires you to make two imaginary leaps. The first is that "American medical care [will be] taken over by the government," presumably along the totally nationalized British model he scarily invokes above. Not only does this contravene everything we've seen from over a year of American healthcare debate, it isn't even the end point of his fantasy. The second is that:

Make no mistake about it, letting old people die is a lot cheaper than spending the kind of money required to keep them alive and well. If a government-run medical system is going to save any serious amount of money, it is almost certain to do so by sacrificing the elderly.
In Sowell's American Health Service, the only means of cutting costs is cutting throats — and then apparently only grandma's. At no point in his vision does the phantasmagorical American system cut costs through the same means that the British system does:
using economies of scale to secure lower costs of medical supplies and lower (but eminently livable) salaries of medical personnel;
using preventive and pro-active treatments to avoid the high costs of reactive last-minute care — like, say, giving someone blood-sugar medication for free instead of waiting until they have full-blown diabetes and need $30,000 to hack off a necrotic foot, then need countless thousands of dollars for prostheses and physical therapy.
But, really, why would he factor any of this shit into his considerations? He's only a fellow in economics at the Republican think tank they want you to mistake for a part of Stanford University.

There was a time — fortunately, now long past — when some desperately poor societies had to abandon old people to their fate, because there was just not enough margin for everyone to survive. Sometimes the elderly themselves would simply go off from their family and community to face their fate alone.
Here Sowell begins creating a marvelous equivalency between groups of people with no safety net and lacking enough food to keep someone alive, and modern societies where some people might not find sustained and prolonging end-of-life medical care due to his certainty that there will be a lack of taxpayer funds for them. The equivalency should disgust on its face, just by suggesting that entire desperately poor societies without means to feed everybody are economically identical to the current United States. But it should disgust on a deeper level, because he's trying to draw a moral equivalent between a lack of actual tangible sustenance with a lack of tax dollars from, presumably, the same intransigent tax base his writing caters to.

He's registering moral horror both at the idea that some people wandered off into the wilderness to die for a lack of foodstuffs and also at an equivalent moral horror that some people will die because of a lack of taxpayer funds. Of course this secondary lack only exists because people like Sowell consider it of morally greater worth that they not be inconvenienced by the sort of marginally higher taxation that would prevent death and provide more treatment. His whole false equivalency is stupid to begin with, but it only begins to resemble a verbal emetic when you realize it's like watching Captain Renault from Casablanca walk into a ward of elderly and dying patients, collect his thousands in roulette winnings and say, "I'm shocked—SHOCKED! To find preventable mortality in this establishment," then yell at his driver until they peel out in a 1937 Lincoln-Zephyr, whitewalls spinning out little black funnel clouds of choking fuck-off smoke.

But is that where we are today?
Short answer, Thomas Sowell: no. Long answer: no. More helpful answer: no, but you don't realize this, because you are fucking retarded.

Talk about "a duty to die" made me think back to my early childhood in the South, during the Great Depression of the 1930s. One day, I was told that an older lady — a relative of ours — was going to come and stay with us for a while, and I was told how to be polite and considerate towards her.
She had been told that she would qualify for the recently passed Social Security Act of 1935, which would provide her with a stipend that would help to prevent her from dying of starvation and rescue millions of Americans from similar levels of mortal poverty. We were asked not to mention it to her, because she hated socialism, as it conflicted with her free-market commitment to die in accordance with her valuation as "worthless" to an economy of competition and labor. Many an evening passed when she was up at the ol' Wailin' Shack, just cryin' to the heavens, "Oh, Lawsy, Lawsy, Lawsy, when I'm gone die and You gone take me Home on account-uh mah inability to monuhtaize mah skill?" We all wondered why she didn't just take the Social Security check, but that was before we found out that socialism was communism, which was also atheism, and she wouldn't get into Free Market Heaven. We had a lot of learning to do.

Whoops. This wasn't the obvious and natural place Sowell was going with this at all. Because he is a total idiot.

She was called "Aunt Nance Ann," but I don't know what her official name was or what her actual biological relationship to us was. Aunt Nance Ann had no home of her own. But she moved around from relative to relative, not spending enough time in any one home to be a real burden.
I'm not sure if Sowell originally wrote this piece with the intent of having it published exclusively online, but if he did, he really missed the boat by not hyperlinking the entire graf to sounds of typical Democratic social administration — like someone sharpening knives or a headsman swinging an axe down into a melon, whose cleaved half falls with a pulpy thud into a bucket.

At that time, we didn't have things like electricity or central heating or hot running water. But we had a roof over our heads and food on the table — and Aunt Nance Ann was welcome to both.
This was a dark time for Thomas Sowell. Often literally. But it's made him what he is today, which is why he strenuously advocates the kind of economic solutions that can help to make these conditions an inspiration for a new generation of Americans, by experiencing them literally.

Poor as we were, I never heard anybody say, or even intimate, that Aunt Nance Ann had "a duty to die."
Thomas Sowell's ability to write editorials about things that people don't actually say shows a commitment to the timelessness of the totally nonexistent. Although at this point one assumes his youthful impetuosity led him to acknowledge that things that didn't exist actually didn't exist. This was to change later, after getting a regular column and realizing that facts are the sorts of things that make writing a column take more than 30 minutes, and it's easier just to make shit up.

I only began to hear that kind of talk decades later, from highly educated people in an affluent age, when even most families living below the official poverty level owned a car or truck and had air-conditioning.
People named: none. But it's "people," in that weasel way of it's not being "a guy at a party" or "something I overheard from one person." It's people, a great sweep of nothing from a word that can amount to anything from two to millions. Thomas Sowell is a fellow at the Hoover Institute Near Stanford for Further Implication for Others' Inference.

It is today, in an age when homes have flat-panelled TVs, and most families eat in restaurants regularly or have pizzas and other meals delivered to their homes, that the elites — rather than the masses — have begun talking about "a duty to die."
Thomas Sowell doesn't appear terribly concerned with the people who have none of the above, but real people are just as easily disposed of, by imagination, as villains are created by it. One could point out the irony, here, that his imagination is capacious enough to accommodate whole legions of villainy and published works of the same but simultaneously too narrow to encompass the sorts of poor people in such squalor that they don't have any of the things named, people for whom socialized medicine might make the difference between life and death. Those people are the same sort of ugly weight that drags down an editorial's tightrope between pithy lede and a conclusion of moral desertification.

Also, Sowell expands on the earlier "people" who talk about a mythic "duty to die" with "elites" who do so. Elites are the sorts who wind up talked about on TV and in magazines and newspapers, but he doesn't quote from any of those. Maybe because really rich elite people aren't usually liberals, and that his demonizing catch-word will break on the backs of real elite economics. Maybe the research required to provide a single link or citation would get in the way of progress on his latest book about how the bad sorts of blacks don't wear bowties and the even worse sorts do, but they listen to Farrakhan. Either way, somehow a guy with enough postgraduate degrees to decorate an entire bathroom without hanging up a mirror is nearing the end of a column about a progressive conspiracy to murder grandparents without enumerating a single fact.

Back in the days of Aunt Nance Ann, nobody in our family had ever gone to college. Indeed, none had gone beyond elementary school. Apparently you need a lot of expensive education, sometimes including courses on ethics, before you can start talking about "a duty to die."
Here we get the down-home learnin' lesson, about how even folk who weren't educated all bright and shiny still managed to know basic things like right and wrong. Another basic thing they probably knew was, "It's wrong to make shit up," but that lesson must have been occluded during Sowell's decades-long sojourn in the halls of academia. The fact that a person with his family's complete absence of higher education could produce a column with a degree of factuality and research identical to this one has also been lost on him.

Many years later, while going through a divorce, I told a friend that I was considering contesting child custody. She immediately urged me not to do it. Why? Because raising a child would interfere with my career.
It's tempting to suggest that the woman in question believed Sowell's extended solitary moments with a child would impress upon him the value of simple and profound childlike things, like sharing, empathy and patience — things so anathema to his own ideology that they might shatter it. But she probably just worried about how miserable the kid would be. Why he mentions this is anyone's guess, because it has nothing to do with anything he's been talking about, which has nothing to do with anything tangible or meaningful anyway.

Much of what is taught in our schools and colleges today seeks to break down traditional values, and replace them with more fancy and fashionable notions, of which "a duty to die" is just one.
For those scoring at home, we've gone from "one" of "the many" and "fashionable" notions that have "caught on" among "some" of "the intelligentsia" to "much of what is taught in our schools and colleges" that seeks to "break down traditional values" and replaces them with (now) fancy and (still) fashionable notions, and "a duty to die" is still one of the completely fucking imaginary ones.

This above graf is just a tour de force of empty recapitulation of weasel words, qualifications, implication and weightless speculation on a theme of presumed ills. All those ills are contingent on a fabricated conservative canard that liberals must promote intellectual and curricular programs designed to kill gentle old folk — some of whom are gentle old black folk, like whichever ones Sowell's mentioning to further his point about their sweet vulnerability. Maybe they're "relatives." Or maybe that Oracle lady from The Matrix. Either way, they'll be cut down — maybe like the nice black guy from The Shining. I keep mentioning people like this, because I want to be consistent and not mention anyone who isn't fictional. I want to sound like Sowell.

These efforts at changing values used to be called "values clarification," though the name has had to be changed repeatedly over the years, as more and more parents caught on to what was going on and objected. The values that supposedly needed "clarification" had been clear enough to last for generations and nobody asked the schools and colleges for this "clarification."
I'll admit that I've never heard of the term "values clarification" outside of pop-science self-help books about reorienting a person's focus. It's possible that this is a forgotten buzz-term of liberal sociology, but the fact that it has almost zero traction indicates it's another term in Sowell's wheelhouse: something dismissive, imaginary, totally outdated and inconsequential to anything in the last quarter century.

That said, it's difficult to see the worth in his impugning it, just going off the description he proffers, which accounts for the only instructive point of his own column. Evidently "values clarification" involves changing values. It involves changing the values of kids, against the values of their parents. It's also hard to think of a more significant, more profound and more valuable effectuation of just such a change as when members of the National Guard marched a black student into a college, against parents' objections. It's hard to think of aggressive values clarifications better or more improving than when the Federal Government mandated that black people go to school with white people, eat with white people, ride with white people, and be treated with the same respect, dignity and power as white people.

That overthrew and trampled on traditions in the name of clarifying new values, but one assumes Sowell doesn't mean this. He already benefited from this. It must be all the other stuff that happened afterward that's bad. Stuff that takes money away from the audience he specifically writes for — an audience for whom he represents a voice that assuages their nascent or raging feelings of resentment that they might be fiscally inconvenienced on behalf of a racial underclass.

Sowell's profited plenty, as a direct beneficiary of and as a spokesperson for the sort of prosperity that most desires a retrenchment of social leveling impulses. It's too indecorous for him to just announce that he's one of the ones who's made it, then pull up the ladder after him. He has to offer paternalistic and socially improving fictions to justify the same. His being him is the normative state for all poor people or minorities. If you're not in the same place that he is, you must have fucked up. And if you advocate anything that tries to drawn down his position or move yours upward, you will murder thousands. Hence, the death of all grandmothers. Healthcare reform murders the older generation for questionable benefits of the current ones. (Thomas Sowell is in the older generation. You might be a rapper or something. Where the fuck is your bowtie?)

The prevention of the death or suffering of other people is bad, because it will provoke the inconsequential-to-marginal suffering of people who do not suffer but really like buying stuff. Sowell's only gambits rely on:
1. Assuming a fictional socialist takeover of the United States' healthcare system, then another fictional financial crisis in which they cannot cut costs by the very mechanism — nationalization — that actually cuts costs.
2. Assuming and then promoting the idea that all liberals want to gas your grandparents and then burn them in a chimney.
3. Morally equating someone dying because of a lack of food resources with someone dying because of a lack of tax revenue, while also assuming that the taxation of the wealthy is morally worse than not taxing them and letting people die.
Thomas Sowell lives in a world where values clarification presents only diabolical consequences for the body politic, unless it presents a bodily means of suppressing vomit in disgust and inequality at predation. Thomas Sowell has no gag reflex. It's the only reason he can write what he does.

Nor are we better people because of it.
I have to concede at least this much. It's a struggle to think of people Thomas Sowell is better than.