Book review: Thomas Sowell's "Race and Culture"
Saturday, November 22, 2008
Thomas Sowell's "Race and Culture" is a mostly compelling and occasionally irritating defense of the anti-cultural-relativist thesis: "The differences between cultures are not inconsequential - on the contrary, they are important for understanding why some groups are rich and some are poor, and some are developed while others are not." In support of his thesis, Sowell frequently cites various examples of ethnic immigrant groups who arrive in a foreign country with little money, but accumulate significant wealth in a few generations. Examples abound: the Gujaratis in East Africa, Lebanese in West Africa, Chinese in Malaysia, Germans in Brazil, and of course, the Jews in various parts of the world at various points in history. Other sociologists, and the natives in such cases themselves, often see such groups as "mere middlemen" who get rich by bleeding the rest of the society around them. (A recent tragic consequence of such attitudes being the expulsion of thousands of South Asian families from Idi Amin's Uganda.) Sowell forcefully argues for the contrary: such immigrant groups often create real value in the native economies, and furthermore, they are able to do so because their cultures are advantageous in certain respects - e.g. they encourage hard work, thrift, a willingness to forego current consumption for future gains and so on.
While Sowell clearly acknowledges the superiority of certain cultures over others (to the extent that they lead to better lives for the people following them), he is also keen to use the historical record to show that cultural superiority is often temporary, and in no way implies racial superiority. Whereas Britishers in the 18th and the 19th centuries gave birth to the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, they were considered too ill-disciplined and barbarian to be worthy as slaves during Roman times. While much of Christian Europe was foundering through the Middle Ages, Muslims in the Middle East had a much more progressive, knowledge-seeking culture.
Besides this, the book covers other interesting aspects - how race and ethnicity play out in politics; the relation between race and intelligence - a part I mostly skimmed over because I had had enough of the IQ controversies. A particularly interesting chapter on slavery shows how European cultures are not the only ones guilty of slavery, and that slavery has been a universal phenomenon throughout history. The norm in history until the 19th century has been that the races which happen to be strong at any given point enslave those that are weak and conveniently close by. (The only exception, perhaps, is India - although we Indians made up for it by outcasting a quarter of the population as untouchables.) Although societies differed (in space and time) in how they treated slaves, slavery as a practice itself was considered perfectly normal. The *real* surprising thing is how civilized opinion in Western Europe changed from pro-slavery to anti-slavery in the matter of a few decades. Whereas Britain was the biggest slave-trader in the 18th century, by the 19th century popular opinion had turned so much that they were actively using their imperial and military might to *stop* the slave trade.
The irritating thing about Sowell is that he frequently attacks the sociologists who have defended the wrong theories for reasons of political correctness. While such sociologists may deserve criticism, these attacks also quickly grow repetitive and tiring. Give me the substance and spare me the drama, is what I say.