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
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.
… 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
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.
Judicially expanded “rights” to appeal state court decisions to the federal courts led to an increase in such appeals for habeas corpus from fewer than 100 in 1940 to more than 12,000 by 1970. … This is not to say that there are literally no innocent men ever convicted in a country with a quarter of a billion people. It is simply to raise the question whether extended federal second-guessing of state apellate courts will turn up many or any … and at what cost, not only in terms of money, but in terms of innocent people sacrificed as victims of violent criminals walking the streets longer and longer, while legal processes grind on slowly in a seemingly interminable way.
In short, while saving some individuals from a false conviction is important, the question is whether it is more important than sparing other, equally innocent individuals from violence and death at the hands of criminals. Is saving one innocent defendant per decade worth sacrificing ten innocent murder victims? A hundred? A thousand?
Once we recognize that there are no solutions but only trade-offs, we can no longer pursue “cosmic justice,” but must make our choices among alternatives actually available. These alternatives do not include guaranteeing that no harm can possibly befall any innocent individual. The only way to make sure that no innocent individual is ever falsely convicted, is to do away with the criminal justice system and accept the horrors of anarchy.Thomas Sowell, The Vision of the Anointed
I realize this might seem a little esoteric, but I’m posting it for two reasons. 1) I love Thomas Sowell, and 2) This theme of having to choose between existing options, none of which are perfect and all of which may be awful, is a major theme of both my second and (freshly drafted) third novels.
Most notable achievements involve multiple factors… What this suggests is that an individual, a people, or a nation may have some, many, or most of the prerequisites for a given achievement without having any real success in producing that achievement. And yet that individual, that people or that nation may suddenly burst upon the scene with spectacular success when whatever the missing factor or factors are finally get added to the mix.
Poor and backward nations that suddenly moved to the forefront of human achievements include Scotland…
Scotland was for centuries one of the poorest, most economically and educationally lagging nations on the outer fringes of European civilization. There was said to be no fourteenth-century Scottish baron who could write his name. And yet, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a disproportionate number of the leading intellectual figures in Britain were of Scottish ancestry — including James Watt in engineering, Adam Smith in economics, Dave Hume in philosophy, Joseph Black in chemistry, Sir Walter Scott in literature and John Stuart Mill in economics and philosophy.
Among the changes that had occurred among the Scots was their Protestant churches’ crusade promoting the idea that everyone should learn to read, so as to be able to read the Bible personally, rather than have priests tell them what it says and means. Another change was a more secular, but still fervent, crusade to learn the English language, which replaced their native Gaelic among the Scottish lowlanders, and thereby opened up far more fields of written knowledge to the Scots.Thomas Sowell, Discrimination and Disparities, pp. 9 – 10
And now for two of the best clans …
(Someone sent me this link because the article’s reference to migrations reminded them of my book The Long Guest. I’m flattered.)
If you think about this question for two seconds, the obvious answer is “no.” If people dispersed from wherever they arose (or were created), then we are all “immigrants” in the sense that our ancestors have moved from place to place. A lot.
Two thoughts about this.
- I have never thought of the term “immigrant” as derogatory. The title of this article seems to imply that it is usually used derogatorily, and that the article is going to subvert that. And I have heard others speak as though “immigrant” is a slur. For the record, I have never thought of it as a slur and that is not how I use the word. In fourth grade, a school I attended did a whole unit on “immigrants.” It was a historical unit about the 19th- and 20th-century waves of immigration to America, first from Ireland and Italy, and then from Eastern Europe. I did a report about my Dutch ancestors emigrating to the United States. They are the ones I first think of when I hear the word “immigrant.” It’s a term of pride, encouraging us to think about our distinctive national origins, our families’ stories of assimilation, and how great it is that we can live in the United States and be Americans, while still retaining some of the distinctive traditions from our ancestors of two, three, or four generations back. I am also happy to think that the United States has often been a place for refugees to flee to. The prime example of this is people fleeing Europe during the 30s and 40s, but there are many more recent examples. Of course we cannot take in an infinite number of people, instantly and without limitations, just as no family, no matter how hospitable, can simultaneously host an unlimited number of house guests. But this does not mean I am “anti-immigration.” It is, in general, a positive thing. To new immigrants, my response would be along the lines of “welcome” and “I know assimilation is hard, but eventually I hope you like it here as much as I do.”
- As the article points out, the history of humanity is a history of exploration and people movements. This means that it has also been a history of people assimilating, intermarrying, displacing, and engaging in conquest of other peoples. (I put that on a scale from least to most disruptive.) Obviously, the details of how this worked out in each case depended upon a lot of things, like the numbers involved, the natural resources possessed by one side or the other, cultural matches and clashes, technology, and other kinds of power. (See Thomas Sowell’s excellent Discrimination and Disparities for more on this.) But the point is, everybody’s ancestors were driven out of somewhere, and everybody’s ancestors at some point conquered or colonized somebody. Therefore, it makes no sense to go to people whose ancestors were recently (say, within the last few centuries) colonizers, and to tell them that they are living on stolen land. Nearly everyone is living on stolen land. Also, where are the former conquerors going to go when they vacate this land? Back to the place their ancestors came from? I think it’s a tad crowded now and they wouldn’t be welcome there either. Also, what about the many, many (probably the majority) of people in whose veins flows the blood of both conqueror and conquered, native and newcomer? It just doesn’t make sense.
Thank you. This has been a public service announcement.
Today I will be doing the Finally Fall Book Tag, which I got from Riddhi. A tag is a series of prompts that the blogger responds to, usually by naming one or more books. At the end, we are supposed to “tag” other bloggers, but we all know that I don’t do that because it just gets too complicated, what with not wanting to leave anyone out, not wanting to hand anyone a task they hate, etc., etc. It’s sort of like planning a wedding that way.
In fall, the air is crisp and clear: Name a book with a vivid setting.
The Lord of the Rings.
OK, look, TLOTR could actually be the perfect answer for every one of these prompts, am I right? So I’ll just name it for each of them, and then one other one that is my backup answer.
Beyond Middle Earth, I suggest you check out the setting in Ursula Le Guin’s Hainish cycle. It’s on a planet that, because of its orbit, experiences seasons that last for lengths of time that we on Earth would call years. The people who live there have eyes with no whites to them. After intermarrying with immigrants from Earth, they develop a skin tone that is navy blue in the upper classes and “dusty” blue in the lower classes. It’s fascinating, brutal, and beautifully written.
Nature is beautiful… but also dying: Name a book that is beautifully written, but also deals with a heavy topic like loss or grief.
The Lord of the Rings. They kill off Gandalf.
Also, this book. The Holocaust, survivor’s guilt, lost children, neurological disease. Are those topics heavy enough? See my full review of it here.
Fall is back to school season: Share a non-fiction book that taught you something new.
The Lord of the Rings will teach you terms like weregild (“person-money” – money paid in compensation for someone’s death).
Everybody please go read this and as many other Thomas Sowell books as you can get your hands on.
In order to keep warm, it’s good to spend some time with the people we love: Name a fictional family/household/friend-group that you’d like to be part of.
I would like to live with Tom Bombadil and the River Daughter.
Failing that, I would be honored to live and work with Mma Potokwane, the forceful woman who runs the orphanage in The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series.
The colourful leaves are piling up on the ground: Show us a pile of fall coloured spines!
I didn’t intend it, but every book in this pile except for The Family Mark Twain is indie published.
And Neanderthal Woman is homemade.
Also … the golden-leaved mallorn trees of Lothlorien.
Fall is the perfect time for some storytelling by the fireside: Share a book wherein someone is telling a story.
One of the best things about Lord of the Rings is the way you keep getting hints of yet more ancient places, people, and stories.
And for my backup answer, we have Ursula Le Guin again. In her Earthsea trilogy, there is a very creepy story told about a stone that if you so much as touch it, steals your soul. In her book Left Hand of Darkness, the main story is interspersed with short myths to help us get a feel for the culture of the planet the story is set on, where glaciers cover about half the landmass and people are sexless for most of each month.
The nights are getting darker: Share a dark, creepy read.
The Balrog, and Shelob, and the Ring and the effect it has upon people, are all pretty doggone creepy.
Also, The Dark is Rising and the whole series that follows it deals with pre-Roman paganism still alive in Britain.
The days are getting colder: Name a short, heartwarming read that could warm up somebody’s cold and rainy day.
The Hobbit. Annndddd …
Allie Brosch’s new book Solutions and Other Problems.
It’s not heartwarming in the sense that it presents the universe as a rational or hopeful place, BUT it did make me laugh so hard it brought tears to my eyes. It’s not short in the sense that it’s a big, thick hardcover, BUT that’s only because it is packed with her funny (and actually very artistic) drawings. It’s a fast read.
Fall returns every year: Name an old favourite that you’d like to return to soon.
THE LORD OF THE RINGS.
Also, this book, The Everlasting Man, by the ebullient GKC. I recently ordered my own copy so that I could mine it for future quotes on the blog, and I quickly discovered that GKC was the original source of all my suspicions about ancient people having been just like us, but smarter.
Fall is the perfect time for cozy reading nights: Share your favourite cozy reading “accessories”!
Bears and coffee.
Those who seem to be promising an end to existing group disparities, as a result of whatever policies they advocate, may be promising what cannot be delivered, regardless of those policies. Moreover, the clash between numerical goals, fervently pursued, and the repeatedly frustrated attempts to reach those goals is not without social consequences.
Among the dire consequences for society as a whole are widespread resentments, bitterness, disorder and violence on the part of those who have been told incessantly that they are “entitled” to a demographically defined “fair share” of what is produced, and that this “fair share” is being denied to them by others who are guilty of maliciously keeping them and their loved ones down.
Such consequences of a toxic social vision tend to be especially dire for the less fortunate, who suffer most when social order breaks down and violence is unleashed amid heady crusades.
The actual consequences of a social vision cannot be assessed on the basis of its good intentions or even its plausibility. The real test is what has actually happened when that vision has been applied, and what the implications are of those social consequences.Thomas Sowell, Discrimination and Disparities, pp. 165-166