The Quest for Cosmic Justice. Thomas Sowell.
Chastising the Self-Anointed…. June 27, 2000
Thomas Sowell may be one of the most despised black men in America–despised by extremist liberals, black and white, because Sowell has devoted his abilities to exposing their destructive ideologies of social redemption as counter productive to the best interests of all Americans. Widely known for his provocative, nationally syndicated newspaper articles and other books, he focuses, inThe Quest for Cosmic Justice, on the misguided thinking behind the modern impulse to reform the very nature of the human condition from individual responsibility, competition, and performance to the tragic consequences of affirmative action and politicized egalitarian equality. Sowell locates the source of much of the problem in the academy, law schools, and government where “new elites” are quietly repealing the American Revolution. The “morally self-anointed,” as he calls excessively liberal reformers and radicals, “have for centuries argued as if no honest disagreement were possible, as if those who opposed them were not merely in error but in sin…. Given this exalted vision of their role by the anointed visionaries, those who disagree with them must be correspondingly degraded or demonized.” Marx, Lenin, Hitler, and Mao all followed this procedure, as have utopians of similar or less horrible results…. That comparable dynamics rule the day, especially in the humanities in many American universities, will not surprise those who have any real experience of those departments. Sowell evokes the American political system and tradition in the hope of preventing its further erosion.
One of the many perceptive and striking points Sowell makes in the book involves “The High Cost of Envy.” Pointing out its dangers broadly to poor people, he writes,
“The very terms of the discussion encourage them to attribute their less fortunate position to social barriers, if not political plots, and so to neglect the kinds of efforts and skills which are capable of lifting them to higher economic and social levels.”
The acquisition of such “skills, education, discipline, foresight,” needed to improve their lot, becomes less likely, as the “ideology of envy” blames others for exploitation and racism, undermining their own will to act, while rendering “more successful members suspect as traitors.” Sowell observes this same “bogus explanation” can keep entire societies in poverty, making me think of my recent experience as an accredited participant at the United Nations Millennium Forum, May 22-26, 2000, where I witnessed Kofi Annan’s wise proposal for a Global Compact with business swept aside and essentially replaced with the “sophisticated modern versions of the envy vision spread by the Third World intelligentsia, often seconded by the intelligentsia in more fortunate countries.”
Summing up in a passage that has very wide application, Sowell states,
“cosmic justice attempts to create equal results or equal prospects, with little or no regard for whether the individuals or groups involved are in equal circumstances or have equal capabilities or equal personal drives. To do this, it cannot operate under general rules, the essence of law, but must create categories of people entitled to various outcomes, regardless of their own inputs . . . assuming with little or no evidence that only malign intentions or systemic bias could explain unequal results. ’Affirmative action’ is perhaps the classic example of this approach but it is only one example.”
While his insight into the subtleties of modern ideologies is remarkable, as is his own high and demanding sense of justice, alas, I seriously found myself wondering at times if Sowell’s Quest for Cosmic Justice is not a voice in the wilderness, as always, one come much too late. But I take heart in knowing such people as he, Shelby Steele, and Ward Connerly have the courage to speak out on race and other matters and in the end hope that events will unfold for the good in ways I can not imagine and that now seem so often unlikely. In this context, I recommend reading Robert Conquest’s Reflections on a Ravaged Century, a parallel meditation on the dilemmas of modernity.