Booknotes – July 2006

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The redneck and the black 

Thomas Sowell must be read to be believed. Merely to characterize him as a “black conservative,” as many people do, both to recommend and to dismiss, inadequately encapsulates his originality and complexity. Though I find myself repeatedly recommending his books over his syndicated newspaper columns (which tend to lack complexity and originality), I find that nothing said by me or anyone else persuades people of his value as well as actually reading his books. The great ones deal critically with affirmative action, minority, history, and cultural diffusion. For those needing an introduction to his provocative writing and knockout intellectual style, a good place to start is the six long essays collected in “Black Rednecks and White Liberals” (Encounter, 2005, 372 pages).

It seems to me that the animating question informing Sowell’s criticism is why Africans (whose ancestors came here before 1875) haven’t prospered as well in America as other immigrant groups. Noticing that black West Indians and recent African immigrants generally do as well economically as white Americans (though the former likewise descend from 19th-century slaves), Sowell concludes that African-Americans have been hurt by inferior culture often aggravated by lousy leadership. Thus he unfashionably blames black people as well as white for the predicament of most American blacks.

Why? Why? That’s the question haunting Sowell. The theme that is new for him is blaming white people – but differently. He finds that southern U.s. “redneck” culture, out of which most African-Americans came, was always inferior economically and socially, in part because southern states were settled by people from the English hinterlands, rather than more propitious sources in London and Scotland. The stereotypes attributed nowadays to blacks (e.g., laziness, shiftlessness, immorality) have long characterized redneck whites, while to Sowell even “black English” reflects provincial British. Other back-

ward practices indigenous to the American South include lynching, which, Sowell reminds us, was practiced more often against whites than blacks, simply because there were more wayward whites who could be lynched. (This last truth is so obvious that you wonder why so many have missed it.)

One of Sowell’s richest digressions documents how, contrary to academic myth, “radical” W.E.B. DuBois was during his writing life respectful of Booker T. Washington, who is still customarily regarded as accommodating white power. Having done an M.A. thesis partly on DuBois 40 years ago, I found this a persuasive revelation.

The other essays in the collection deal with Jews, Germans, the better black high schools destroyed by forced integration (such as Dunbar in D.C.), and “The Real History of Slavery.” Here Sowell repeats the obvious truths that slavery was not just an American phenomenon and that American slavery was less arduous than it might have

Laziness, shiftlessness, and other stereotypes attributed to blacks have long characterized redneck whites, while to Sowell even “black English” reflects provincial British.


been, precisely because slaves were more valuable in a country that had forbidden further importation than they were in countries that had not. The contrast is with Brazil, where slaves were cheap, and which had a better reputation on this issue when I first read about slavery 40 years ago. “Economic considerations alone,” Sowell the economist reminds us, “would prevent a slave- owner from lynching his own slave.”

Those of us who have been reading Sowell for a long time tend to regard him as a national treasure. This book is a good introduction to why we think so highly of him. – Richard Kostelanetz

Hark for Harald 

David Friedman’s contributor’s note in Liberty simply declares him “a professor of law at Santa Clara,” but that barely scratches the surface. His website links to articles he’s written on subjects as diverse as game theory, Icelandic anarchism, and medieval spices: clearly, he is a man of wide-ranging curiosity.

He draws on his many fields of study in “Harald,” his debut novel (Baen, 2006, 304 pages). The name of the title character betrays a kinship to the Icelanders, and the society Harald “leads” is similar to ancient Iceland’s: rugged, heroic, and individualistic, with one man exercising political power over another only in emergencies, and then by consent. Harald prefers a quiet life tending his own land, but he proves a capable, indeed extraordinary, general when called to war – shades of Cincinnatus, perhaps.

It wouldn’t be much of a novel if Harald were allowed to live in peace; thus there are threats to his land throughout. He must see off an upstart king and repel several sallies from an overreaching Empire, the last one led by the Emperor himself. I don’t think it will ruin the suspense to reveal that Harald comes out victorious: though the enemies increase in guile and military might, none is ever going to be a match for him.

This relative lack of tension is offset by the sheer ingenuity of the military maneuvers, as well as Friedman’s keen eye for everyday detail, as his characters, commanders and commoners alike, confront the same problems that once confronted actual medieval societies. As this is, in Friedman’s words, “historical fiction in an invented context,” he is able to present a number of quite different societies (imperial, monarchist, anarchist, nomadic), all dealing with their troubles and with each other.

Friedman has also “Harald” as “fantasy without magic.” That description must have been given to the cover artist, who produced a generic (albeit competently executed) fantasy painting, with no magical element anywhere in sight. I fear the book will miss those readers who enjoy military or medieval fiction but won’t pick up anything that looks like boilerplate fantasy.

“Harald” is not boilerplate fantasy. It’s also not for everyone. But, if you share any of David Friedman’s many interests, it may be for you.

– Andrew Ferguson

Lessons from a great dissenter 

“Resurgence of the Warfare State: The Crisis Since 9/11 (Independent Institute, 205, 268 pages), by the distinguished historian (and contributing editor of Liberty) Robert Higgs, is really two books. One is the author’s arguments against the Iraq War; the other is the history of his involvement in making those arguments. It is a compilation of his interviews, public papers, and essays, starting in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and running up to the end of 2004.

Higgs is a renowed writer and researcher, who richly merits his renown. He is fully qualified to study the evidence, and his prose style puts him at the top of the list among arguers in this field. The result is a book that pro-war Americans will find distinctly uncomfortable and anti-war Americans will find a new and powerful source of ammunition.

Higgs takes a very tough approach toward all who have planned, operated, or supported the war in Iraq. The intensity of his opposition to the war

Friedman is able to present a number of quite different societies (imperial, monarchist, anarchist, nomadic), all dealing with their troubles and with each other.


will, I fear, lessen the book’s persuasiveness with mildly pro-war readers, who constitute the majority of Americans – although it might be argued that intensity and moral purpose ought never to be separated. How does that saying go “extremism in the defense of liberty “? And war is ordinarily a foe of liberty.

Perhaps somewhat more to the point, Higgs’s arguments might profit from more extensive development than is possible in the format of the present book, with its short, punchy, sometimes single-issue chapters. His position is at its most vulnerable, I believe, when he argues that “the whole concept of wiping out terrorism is completely misguided. It simply can’t be done. Terror- ism is a simple act for any determined adult to perpetrate no matter what kind of security measures are taken…. [U.S. government attacks] will only inspire new acts of terrorism … ” (6). Does this mean that the government should do nothing about murder, because any determined adult can commit it? Or that the government should simply let terrorists do what they will, convinced that nothing can be done to stop them? No, because Higgs also says that “if the government were really serious about diminishing the amount of effective terrorist acts, it would set about creating a global corps of truly unsavory informants on the ground” (6-7). But this argument is not filled in.

Occasionally, also, Higgs seems to have been overtaken by events, as when he argues that Islamic terrorists are motivated only by opposition to our foreign policy; not by the West’s “existence as free nations” (119-20). I refer, of course, to the bloody attacks on Den- mark and other western countries for the crime of permitting freedom of the press.

But enough of my dissent troIn the great dissenter. Libertarians will be especially interested in his answer to the question “Are Pro-war Libertarians Right?” (167-70), in such down-home public-policy sleuthing as “The Pretense of Airport Security” (37-40), and in such Twainian or Menckenian essays as “Nation Trembles as Congress Reas- sembles” (63-65). Higgs is a very entertaining writer. He is also one of the libertarian movement’s best historical writers, a judgment supported by such essays as “Free Enterprise and War, a Dangerous Liaison” (73-77). Agree with him or not, there is always something to be learned by reading him.

Killing the liberal media

(You bastards!) – Brian Anderson is a widely published author, currently a senior editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, with extensive experience in both print and electronic journalism. Now he’s written “South Park Conservatives: The Revolt Against Liberal Media Bias” (Regner~ 2005, 256 pages), a popular book about the rapid shift from mainstream media (MSM) to alternative media (AM). The book is enjoyable if not altogether persuasive.

His thesis is that the MSM is overwhelmingly dominated by the Left, that its leftist bias systematically distorts the news, and that leftist dominated cultural and academic institutions often work to suppress any thought that deviates from leftist orthodoxy.
He illustrates this argument with numerous examples. Most of the book, however, nicely chronicles the rise of the AM in reaction to leftist domination.

Anderson covers the rise of political talk radio, now dominated by rightwing commentators, after the ending of the Fairness Doctrine in the late 1980s. He discusses the development of alternative cable news, driven by the phenomenal success of the Fox News Channel and C-SPAN, and of politically incorrect comedy cable shows, especially “South Park” – a program hilarious at lampooning leftist shibboleths, but raunchy enough to draw fire from some conservatives.

In addition, Anderson surveys the “blogosphere,” the collection of internet sites devoted to political punditry. There are political sites of every hue and stripe, but again the most visited ones are right of center: the Drudge Report, FrontPage Magazine, NewsMax, OpinionJournal, PowerLine, NRO, and so on. Anderson grasps the real power of the internet: the massive parallel processing power of hundreds of individuals, many educated far better than the average journalist, to examine a story from every angle.

The book concludes with a discussion of rightist publishing houses and anti-leftist sentiment and organization on college campuses. Surprisingly, Anderson only briefly mentions rightwing think tanks, which are crucial in providing information to the bloggers, talk show hosts, and so forth.

Again, this is a fun read, but at times Anderson is just whistling past the graveyard. The dominance of the Left in the MSM, the academy, and the centers of American culture is still increasing, and the amount of funding given to leftist think tanks and other organizations dwarfs that given to rightist ones. Yes, the audience for Fox News is growing, but it is still less than that for the major network news shows. And the people who read blogs are still far fewer than those who read newspapers and magazines. There may be a revolution underway, but it has only feebly begun.

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