Let’s Learn World Building with Thomas Sowell

This is a brief review of the book Black Rednecks and White Liberals, by Thomas Sowell. Full disclosure: I am writing the review before I’m finished with the book. But given that it’s a series of historical essays rather than a novel, I doubt there’s going to be a twist at the end.

Contrary to what you might expect, not the entire book is about Black Rednecks and White Liberals. The book consists of five essays:

  • Black Rednecks and White Liberals
  • Are Jews Generic?
  • The Real History of Slavery
  • Germans and History
  • Black Education: Achievements, Myths and Tragedies
  • History versus Visions

As you can see from the titles, Sowell pokes directly at the eyes of all the sacred cows he can find. Like every Sowell book I’ve read so far, the essays in this book destroy popular misconceptions with facts and logic. But by “facts and logic” I don’t just mean bon mots and statistics from the last ten years. These essays offer detailed history lessons that cover social phenomena from around the world. As someone with an interest in anthropology, I am finding them fascinating. Sowell has drawn from the literature (he has 63 pages of endnotes), but he had also done some research in person. At one point, he mentions in passing something someone said to him “When I was traveling to research the economic conditions of different ethnic groups around the world.”

I’m not going to get in to the political and economic implications of these essays. Instead, I’m going to come at this like a fiction author.

I really recommend that anyone who wants to do worldbuilding for a fictional society read some or all of the essays in this book.

For example, the essay “Are Jews Generic?”. Kind of a weird title, but it turns out that what the piece is about, is economic middlemen. Sowell starts out talking about how, in WWII P.O.W. camps, a black market would immediately spring up around goods that people had saved from their Red Cross packages, such as cigarettes, jam, etc. Some people consumed these right away; others didn’t. Some people were nonsmokers. They needed to be able to barter things. And, just as quickly, up sprang economic middlemen. They knew who had what, and they could help the parties communicate and broker trades. And, they took their cut, which led the other prisoners to look on them as parasites who weren’t producing anything of value, even though they were clearly providing a service that was needed.

It turns out that there have been people, and groups, that fill this economic role in many places in the world throughout history. The Milesians in the ancient Levant, the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, the Lebanese in Sierra Leone, the Igbo in Nigeria, the Chinese in Southeast Asia, Koreans in inner-city America … and the Jews in Eastern Europe.

Middleman groups have a lot in common. They tend to be more enterprising than the population around them; they start small, in businesses that don’t require a lot of initial capital, and work their way up; they make great sacrifices to get their children educated; they tend to be clannish, as they must be in order to maintain the distinctive cultural characteristics that make them so well suited for the middleman role. They also tend to be hated: accused of corruption (often true, especially in countries where one must be corrupt to survive in business) and of extortion and hogging resources (often not true, as usually they started out very poor and rose to middle class). Interestingly, middlemen tend to be most hated in economic situations where their role is most vital. Sometimes they are driven out or genocided, which then causes the local economy to suffer because that vital middleman role is not being filled, or is being filled poorly.

Hence, the title “Are Jews Generic?” asks the question whether Jews are hated because they are Jews, or because they are, in a way, the ultimate example of an economic middleman ethnic group, whose intelligence, diligence, and drive tend to arouse the envy of others.

If all this isn’t useful for worldbuilding, I don’t know what is.

Readers will also benefit from this historical perspective. If a fantasy writer includes an economic middleman character who is clannish, a sharp bargainer, and very frugal, for example, it does not follow that the writer is employing a transparent stereotype of a Jew and that the book or movie is therefore anti-Semitic. There have been characters like this all over the world and all throughout history. It is good for readers and viewers to be aware of this.

As always, Thomas Sowell comes highly recommended.

Shaking My Head

… and laughing at human nature.

The close ties within middleman minorities have led some to imagine a wider web of loyalties than has actually existed. Such phrases as “Jews all stick together” confuse intense loyalties within particular subsets of Jews –or other middleman minorities– with a solidarity encompassing the whole population of the group. However, when Eastern European Jews began arriving in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the predominantly German Jewish community viewed their arrival with alarm. The Jewish press, which was largely controlled by German Jews at the time, characterized the new immigrants as “slovenly in dress, loud in manners, and vulgar in discourse,” speaking “a piggish jargon” –that is, Yiddish.

German Jews were willing to employ Eastern European Jews but living near them was something else … Hungarian Jews had their own enclaves, separate from the enclaves of Russian or Polish Jews. There was a “low intermarriage rate” among these various subgroups of Eastern European Jews and a “mutual incomprehension and intolerance that kept Jews apart.”

Among the Lebanese who settled in Australia, “their regional loyalties seldom extended beyond that of the village” in Lebanon from which they had come. A history of bitter and lethal intergroup violence in Lebanon and Syria, taking thousands of lives at a time, was part of the legacy that Lebanese took to other countries in which they settled. Even in a small country like Sierra Leone, the many internal disputes among various Lebanese factions, which spilled over into courts and involved political authorities, proved too baffling for either Europeans or Africans to understand –much less settle– during the colonial era. Indeed, one of the main tasks of the diplomatic representatives from Lebanon in Sierra Leone after independence was to arbitrate these internal disputes among various Lebanese factions there.

Thomas Sowell, “Are Jews Generic?”, in the book Black Rednecks and White Liberals, pp. 90 – 92

My Boring Analysis of Encanto

I call this boring because I am one of those boring people who has to analyze every dam’ movie she watches. I mean it: I have to. My mind has not processed a movie until I’ve articulated to someone exactly what I think was going on in it. I don’t know why I am this way. I think it’s biological. I’m sorry if it drives you crazy. If it drives you crazy, don’t read this post.

But first, my new favorite YouTuber

Not too long ago, I discovered podcaster A.D. Robles. His videos are really enjoyable because they’re short and he has a masculine, streetwise, no-nonsense way of calling out what he calls “Big Eva” (short for evangelicalism) for compromise, heresy, firing on their own troops, etc.

A.D. is no-nonsense, that is, except when he puts on shades and tries to be “Smooth A.D.” He can never sustain it, though.

I happened to listen to A.D.’s reaction to Encanto before I saw the movie myself. It was fun to hear him notice how the movie handled Latin culture, as he is Puerto-Rican-American. Anyway, his video was primarily about how some Big Eva pastors or writers had, predictably, said that Bruno is a type of Christ. Consider: Bruno tells truths that people don’t want to hear, and he is ostracized for it. A.D.’s assessment of this theological point was summed up by the video’s title: “This Is So Stupid.” You cannot just call someone a Christ figure, he points out, just because they have one or two things in common with Christ. He’s not wrong. I’ve heard that people tried to draw parallels to Christ from Edward in Twilight, and if that’s not blasphemous I don’t know what is.

Anyway, go find A.D. on YouTube if you want to be entertained for a few minutes by his take on Encanto. But I finally watched it, and here is mine.

Family Relationships: A-

With A.D., I think Encanto was a pretty good movie. Where it really shone, of course, was the portrayal of the relationships in a family that is loving but also kind of dysfunctional (and aren’t they all?). It showed, for example, how people can get locked in to perceived roles in the family that aren’t 100% accurate. (Abuela blaming Mirabel for everything that goes wrong, and Mirabel even accepting this perception of herself for a while.) It showed how one sibling or cousin can think that the other has it all, but have no idea what they are secretly dealing with (as Mirabel finds out for both Isabel and Luisa). The symbolism of the house itself literally shaking and falling apart captured the emotional feel really well. I especially appreciated the scene at what was supposed to be Isabel’s engagement dinner. The tension, the anticipation that some family members were feeling, the desire of everyone to keep Abuela happy, and meanwhile a terrible secret was spreading like wildfire from one family member to another, and literally causing the floor to crack … if you have lived in a family, I guarantee you have sat through at least one dinner like that. I think this is what makes “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” such a perfect song. Just the phrase “we don’t talk about,” captures exactly what it’s like to be in a family.

Gospel Parallels: C

I am not quite as contemptuous as A.D. over the attempt to make a Christ figure out of Bruno. But actually, I think Bruno has more in common with John the Baptist. He speaks truths that people don’t like, yes, but he doesn’t see everything or have all the answers. He is in exile, just as John the Baptist lived out in the wilderness, and he even looks a little bit like him. But, most importantly, his role in the story is to point to the Chosen One, the one who is going to change everything.

And that one … is Mirabel. C’mon, guys, this is a Disney movie! If it has a Christ figure, odds are that person is going to be the teenaged female main character.

So, in this movie, Mirabel is Jesus. She is “despised and rejected.” Just as Jesus did, she seems ordinary … in fact, she is more ordinary than her family members. She takes the blame for the fact that the house is falling apart, when in fact it is falling apart because of the family’s collective sins and refusal to face the truth. She pursues the truth at all costs. She “ruins everything,” but ends up fixing it. In fact, you could even draw a parallel between the way Mirabel becomes the catalyst for the magical house being destroyed, only to be restored in a better form, and the way Jesus came to destroy the old Temple system and build a new and better “temple,” which was first His body, and then His church. “Destroy this temple, and I will build it again in three days. But the temple he had spoken of was His body.”

O.K., so Mirabel is a Christ figure. Why, then, the C minus? Because Mirabel is the Christ figure. In a Disney movie, the princess (or young female lead) is supposed to be the one the viewer identifies with. Therefore, in this movie, the message is “You are your own savior.” This is really brought out in the “moment of epiphany” scene, where Mirabel looks into the medallion inherited from her grandfather.

“What do you see?” they ask her.

And she answers, in a tone of wonder, “I see … me.

Voila! The answer is … herself! This is supposed to be a profound moment. Instead, it’s profoundly disappointing.

Mirabel, you see, is not divine. She does not see all, know all, or have the power to fix all. She spends the movie, in fact, looking for answers, for a solution. In so doing, she becomes the catalyst for the solution, and I would have been fine with that, but not with her being the solution herself.

If I had spent weeks looking for wisdom, for answers, for help, and all that my mystical search led me to was a mirror, I would be … well. Not filled with wonder. I’d be dismayed. Frightened, because I know that I’m not up to the task. I would realize that the mystical person who had “revealed” to me that I was the answer had led me astray. “Is that it?” I’d be angry.

Now, when you are young and don’t know yourself quite as well, you might not have this clear a reaction. You might feel flattered, but also have quiet, nagging doubts. Don’t listen to the flattery, please, and do listen to the quiet nagging doubts. Let them grow into a healthy realistic fear so that you can go on seeking Someone who is actually up to handling the situation, because believe me, you can’t. There really is a Savior, but don’t let Disney tell you that you’re it.

Ahem.

Pardon me, I didn’t mean to get so carried away. I guess it’s like I told you … it’s biological.

Mind Blown Again by Thomas Sowell

The following paragraph sums up several pages of data:

In short, major social transformations within the black community were having an impact in their economic condition. It would hardly be surprising if it also has an impact on how whites viewed blacks, as had happened [in a previous wave] in the nineteenth century. The civil rights legislation of the 1960s may well have been an effect of the rise of blacks, rather than the sole or predominant cause of that rise, as it has been represented as being, by those leaders — black and white — with incentives to magnify their own role in racial progress.

Thomas Sowell, Black Rednecks and White Liberals, p. 51

If you want to see the reactions of those with incentives to magnify their own role, go find this book on Goodreads and check out the 1-star reviews.

My Trilogy Wraps Up on May 30th!

The Great Snake is coming out on May 30!

You can preorder it here.

Or, if you are a dedicated book blogger who wants to read and review it, e-mail me your mailing address through the contact button and I will send you an Advance Review Copy.

Here are the back cover and spine, just for fun:

The Long Guest started out in the sunny Fertile Crescent and carried the tribe across Asia to the Pacific coast.

The Strange Land took them across Beringia (the Land Bridge) and ended with the tribe poised to traverse the rapidly melting corridor between glaciers that led into North America.

The Great Snake takes them into warmer climes again, as they pass through the corridor of ice and eventually explore subtropical regions along the Mississippi River.

Of course, that’s just the geography of the trilogy. It doesn’t tell you anything about what happens among the people.

You can read The Great Snake as a stand-alone if you wish, because it is written for people who may or may not have read the previous two books.