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In Praise of Thomas Sowell

How the high school dropout became one of the most original thinkers of the past fifty year
Thomas Sowell

“Thomas Sowell ranks among the towering intellects of our time.” Coleman Hughes explains why in City Journal:

As Kevin Williamson observed, Sowell is “that rarest of things among serious academics: plainspoken.” From 1991 until 2016, his nationally syndicated column set the bar for clear writing, though the topics he covered were often complex. ‘Too many academics write as if plain English is beneath their dignity,’ Sowell once said, ‘and some seem to regard logic as an unconstitutional infringement of their freedom of speech.’ If academics birth needlessly complex prose, editors too often midwife it. An editor, Sowell once quipped, would probably have changed Shakespeare’s ‘To be or not to be, that is the question’ to something awful, like ‘The issue is one of existence versus non-existence.’

Consider Sowell’s clear, brief explanation of the economic idea of ‘scarcity.’ ‘What does “scarce” mean?”’ he asks in his layman’s textbook, Basic Economics. ‘It means that what everybody wants adds up to more than there is.’ Not only is pointless complexity absent from Sowell’s prose; so is the first-person perspective. The words ‘I’ or ‘me’ scarcely show up in his 30-odd books, but for his memoir, A Personal Odyssey.

To his critics, Sowell’s writing style is severe. But to his fan base—which includes figures as different as Steven Pinker and Kanye West—it’s a refreshing break from the self-absorbed drivel that frequently passes for cultural commentary nowadays. Pinker, a Harvard psychologist and leading public intellectual, named Sowell the most underrated writer in history. West, for his part, tweeted out a handful of Sowell quotes to millions of followers in 2018.

Sowell’s first piece of writing was published in 1950—a letter to the now-defunct Washington Star, urging the desegregation of the city’s public schools. The only hint during this period that he would someday be an economist was a budding interest in Karl Marx. For Sowell, Marx’s ideas ‘seemed to explain so much,’ including his own ‘grim experience.’ At the time, Sowell was a 20-year-old high school dropout, working as a clerk by day and taking classes by night—a situation that actually marked an improvement over his being unemployed and, for a time, homeless in his late teens.

In other news: At JSTOR Daily, Ed Simon argues that disliking kitsch is a Protestant form of anti-Catholicism. Alas, if only that were true. Protestants—at least American ones—are among the great kitsch lovers of the world.  Still: “Christopher Chowrimootoo writes in Middlebrow Modernism: Britten’s Operas and the Great Divide that the denigration of kitsch was born out of Protestant ‘opposition to ritualism and aestheticism, practices heavily associated with the Roman liturgy.’ Shaker design was born from their religious principles, what Daniel T. Jenkins described as a Protestant aesthetic of ‘simplicity, sobriety, and measure.’ Protestantism, with its commitment to scripture alone, and its iconoclastic rejection of ritual, liturgy, and relics, often encouraged a certain artistic minimalism (though not always). Catholicism, on the other hand, with its commitments to a sacramental understanding of existence, one that is more apt to see divinity as permeating profane reality, has more room for materiality, physicality, and sensuality in representational art.”

Researchers support controversial restoration of the Ghent Altarpiece in new study: “Researchers at the University of Antwerp and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., have released a study supporting the restoration last year of the Ghent Altarpiece (1432) by Northern Renaissance painter Jan van Eyck. Critics of the restoration had called attention to work done on a central panel of the work depicting the ‘Adoration of the Mystic Lamb.’ Last year’s restoration effort left the lamb depicted in the work with new, human-like facial features, including what seemed to be new pairs of eyes and lips. The updated lamb shocked some in the art world at the time of its unveiling, but a new paper published in the peer-reviewed journal Science Advances asserts that the restoration of its appearance is consistent with its original 15th-century depiction.”

Janet Maslin reviews Ron Rash’s In the Valley: “Nearly half of Ron Rash’s mesmerizing new story collection is devoted to the eponymous In the Valley, a sequel to his 2008 novel Serena. If you’ve read that book, you surely remain haunted by its mythic powers.”

What was it like to be one of Stalin’s bodyguards? Matthew Janney reviews Alex Halberstadt’s Young Heroes of the Soviet Union: A Memoir and a Reckoning: “To be close to Stalin was to risk a death sentence; many of Vassily’s colleagues simply vanished from view. He is generally evasive, but at times offers enthralling insights into Stalin’s inner circle, describing how he once forcibly restrained Marshal Zhukov, the Soviet Union’s top military commander, from entering a meeting of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet. Halberstadt grew up thinking his grandfather was the ‘moral equal of a Gestapo officer’; but this soon softens into thinking of his culpability as ‘an immense, unknowable continent filled with indecipherable ambiguities’. ‘I was frightened every single day,’ Vassily whispers to his grandson, in a brief flicker of vulnerability, further blurring the borders of responsibility.”

There’s a long waiting list to rent these simple houses in Tuscany. “This summer, Mick Jagger inquired about a house and was told that there was no space.” Elena Clavarino reports.

Matthew Walther reviews Bud Zero. It “should be outlawed”: “In addition to no alcohol, the water-based substance is advertised as having zero sugar and only 50 calories. According to a CNN report, the target audience for Bud Zero is ‘health-conscious drinkers that [sic] crave the taste of beer and don’t want to deal with a hangover’ and ‘beer fans who are looking to be responsible in social settings.’ ‘You don’t always want to walk away being hungover or with a buzz,’ adds Dwyane Wade, the new product’s celebrity endorser. ‘I loved the idea of being part of the conversation without having to drink alcohol.’ This leaves me with several questions. The first one is whether these people actually exist. Is there a single living American who really relishes the moist rice-y taste of our premier macrobrew but just isn’t down with the whole ‘If you have maybe 15 of these you could get drunk’ thing? One would think that this is the whole point. Ditto the nonsense about ‘being part of the conversation.’ Where are these conversations taking place, and with whom?”

Photo: Emmering

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