Monday, November 12, 2007

Making Idleness Easy

Thomas Sowell attempts to make a difference by explaining that we should stop attempting to make a difference:

Making a difference makes sense only if you are convinced that you have mastered the subject at hand to the point where any difference you might make would be for the better.
There's a bit of a loophole here, thanks to the word "convinced" (cf. George W. Bush on the invasion of Iraq, or Rush Limbaugh on the role of ocean bacteria in climate change).

But there's no gainsaying Sowell's larger argument, which was given perhaps its most compelling expression by Hellhammer:
In the heat of infernal lightnings
And in the shadows of poisoned clouds
The world will die under the Sword of Destiny.
Just to drive his point home, Sowell shows us fear in a handful of rice:
Among those who make a difference by serving food to the homeless, how many have considered the history of societies which have made idleness easy for great numbers of people?
Not very many, I'm guessing. But probably more than have considered the grave and gathering threat of intravenous alcohol abuse:
How many have studied the impact of drunken idlers on other people in their own society, including children who come across their needles in the park -- if they dare to go to the parks?
Suggest that there's a link between human activity and climate change, and you're a crypto-Stalinist stooge. But the connection between soup kitchens and a dirty needle in the foot of your precious flaxen-haired moppet is plain as day. Won't somebody please think of the children (the ones who aren't homeless and hungry)?

My problem with Sowell's call for moral triage is that it doesn't go far enough. I have no proof that our hedonistic society's "if it feels good, do it" policy of "no questions asked" emergency care has ever saved the life of a larval child molester - or gang leader, or terrorist - but you can't deny that such an outcome is inevitable. I propose, therefore, that we subject ER patients to Thematic Apperception Testing before we give 'em so much as a tourniquet.

Don't bother arguing, either. I am convinced that I have mastered the subject at hand, and that any difference I might make will be for the better.

Sowell also objects to the phrase "giving back," because it encourages us to donate blood, instead of defending America's honor by relativizing the slave trade:
[S] repeatedly drummed into our heads -- in the schools and in the media -- as something unique done by white people to black people in the United States.
I've never quite understood how slavery elsewhere in the world could excuse its popularity in the Land of the Free. But that conundrum is child's play, compared to this one:
What was unique about Western civilization was that it was the first civilization to turn against slavery, and that it stamped out slavery not only in its own societies but in other societies around the world during the era of Western imperialism.
Sowell's laboring under a few misapprehensions here. He seems to be unfamiliar with the Cyrus Cylinder, for starters, and he also doesn't seem to grasp that while abolition and Western imperialism may've overlapped somewhat, this doesn't mean that the former was an effect of the latter. There's also the fact that slavery still exists. And the fact that it's silly to ask people to "get over" slavery when you yourself can't get over the fact that people sometimes use cliches to espouse charity.

To give Sowell credit, though, he does a good job of illustrating the law of unintended consequences: You start out by trying to justify starving the poor, and before you know it, you're defending slavery.

(Photo: "Children Sleeping on Mulberry Street" by Jacob Riis, 1890.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Sowell probably _is_ unfamiliar with the Cyrus Cylinder, and given its ancientness, I would let that go by. But he also seems to be unfamiliar with the several dozen modern nations that abolished slavery in the 1700s and pre-Civil-War part of the 1800s. That shows academic rigor at the level of Rudy Giuliani declaring that the U.S. has "the best health care system in the world" (except for the many ranked ahead of it).