Stunning Mic Drop of the Week

What was peculiar about the West was not that it participated in the worldwide evil of slavery, but that it later abolished that evil, not only in Western societies but also in other societies subject to Western control or influence. This was possible only because the anti-slavery movement coincided with an era in which Western power and hegemony were at their zenith, so that it was essentially European imperialism which ended slavery. This idea might seem shocking, not because it does not fit the facts, but because it does not fit the prevailing vision of our time.

Thomas Sowell, in the essay “The Real History of Slavery,” in the book Black Rednecks and White Liberals, pp. 134 – 135

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

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.

Quote: Love in a Massacre

This quote requires some context. A few weeks ago, our home school curriculum had us studying East Africa, so I watched Hotel Rwanda with my kids. (Surprisingly, it is only PG-13, even though it is about a horrific ethnic massacre.)

The hero of the move is Paul Rusesabagina. He is a Hutu (aggressor group), but like many, many Hutus, he is married to a Tutsi (scapegoated group) and has Tutsi friends and neighbors. He is the manager of a Belgian-run hotel, so he moves in the circles of the powerful. One major theme of the movie is that Paul has all these connections among government employees, local businessmen, and even outside the country. He is counting on these connections to help him save his family, but he finds that he’s not always successful when calling in favors.

It is in this context that the following conversation takes place. Paul and his wife, Tasiana, are holed up in the hotel along with hundreds of their Tutsi neighbors, and at this point in the movie they are basically under siege. The two of them have a “romantic” date on the roof of the hotel, drinking some of the wine that Paul still has on hand, to the sound of gunfire in the background. Then Paul has a confession to make.

Paul: I have a confession. Before we got married, I bribed the Minister of Health to have you transferred to [a nursing job in] Kigali.

Tasiana: What for?

Paul: To be close. So I could marry you.

Tasiana: What was the bribe? How much am I worth to you?

Paul: It was substantial.

Tasiana: What was the bribe?

Paul: A car.

Tasiana: What kind of car?

Paul: Why do you need to know that?

Tasiana: I want to know. What kind of car?

Paul: It was a Volkswagon.

Tasiana (laughing): I hope it was a new one.

Hotel Rwanda

This was the biggest laugh-out-loud moment in the movie for me. What could be more romantic than bribing someone with a Volkswagon so you can be with the girl you love, in a context where bribery is a way of life?

Seconds later, Paul is telling Tasiana that if the hotel is breached and he is killed, she should throw herself and their children off the roof to avoid being killed by machete.

This movie is about love in more ways than one.

Happy Valentine’s Day!