Monday, December 14, 2009

Blinkered History

Book Cover

Sowell, Thomas, Conquest and Cultures: An International History.1

I’m writing this review of the above book in response to reviews of this book I have read on,2 not because I was really impressed by this book but because of some of the comments written earlier.

This book fills the need to have a "conservatively correct" history of the world. Certainly the complaints about "political correctness" and Sowell allegedly demonstrating that minorities are totally responsible for their various plights is something a great many people want to hear so they won't feel any responsibility, and that is the real reason for the appeal of Sowell’s books. They help those who have “made it” avoid feeling of responsibility for those who have not “made it”.

Sowell in this book uses a great many facts and much statistical information. Unfortunately Sowell has far too much faith in the dubious and weak figures for the past (say before 1800 A.D.) and is too complacent about both their accuracy and his interpretations of the data.

Also Sowell judges cultures according to ethical criteria and argues that success somehow proves moral superiority. Sowell also more than just implies that failure to develop along the "proper" lines indicates some sort of serious moral failing and is therefore deserved.

For all of Sowell’s discussion concerning the environmental and geographical constraints on the development of different cultures his view is basically moralistic. Sowell is basically repeating with considerably less skill and scholarship and a repellent moralistic bias the work of Jared Diamond.3

In the end his view is an apologia for the triumph of western culture and states by arguing that they "deserved" their success.

The result is we get a lot of detail about non-western atrocities and less about western atrocities. For example Aztec Human sacrifice is described with shall I say a less than critical look at the problems with Spanish descriptions of it. While at the same time downplaying Spanish atrocities in the Conquest of the Americas.

What we have here, dressed up in modern garb, is an old fashioned late nineteenth century world history in which the west is the summit of human achievement and that western dominance is praiseworthy and "deserved".4

What Sowell seems to have a hard time grasping is that some times people have “cheated” in the market place of success by using terror violence and coercion to rob, oppress and otherwise take unfair advantage of others and have reaped massive rewards while doing so. It appears that Sowell seems to think that “better” (I.e., more intensive) exploitation of an environment justifies or at least excuses stealing it from those not using it “correctly”; say Hunter-gatherers. If those victims of mans progress suffer and die as a result well it is their choice not to adapt.5

Sowell doesn't seem to get it that the failure to develop civilization and accumulate "cultural capital" is not an ethical failure but a rational response to a situation. Why should people develop civilization is a question Sowell can't seem to understand. It is typical of his mind set that Sowell commodifies culture as “capital”. Just how does he know that Europeans c. 1500 C.E., had more “cultural capital” than Australian Aborigines? Of course he des not what he means is that Europeans of that time period had more technological goods of various kinds, which by calling them “cultural capital” Sowell can dress up in moralistic terms. Of course there is no reason to believe that Europeans in c. 1500 C.E., had more “culture” than Australian Aborigines; it was simply different. Also Sowell seems to be saying that “cultural capital” can be accumulated. No doubt once “cultural capital” is accumulated it can be spent in conquest, slavery and genocide.6

This results in a "Stalinist" view of history in which economic development justifies or excuses all manner of acts. Thus the conquest of the New World lead to development so it was "justified" because the natives were "stagnant", one of Sowell's many ethical excuses and one that in this case is not true. But then Sowell as long been a purveyor of the idea that so long as atrocities are done by the operation of the "market" rather than the state that that is at least more "correct".7

So the huge corpus of facts in Sowell's book make it a useful read but just remember that his interpretation is in the service of an ideology and a rather blinkered one at that.

1. Basic Books, New York, 1999.

2 At Amazon Here.

3. See Diamond, Jared, Guns, Germs, and Steel, W.W. Norton and Company, New York, 1998.

4. For an analysis that amply describes Sowell’s pretty obvious biases that go back to the 19th century see Blaut, J.M., Eight Eurocentric Historians, The Guilford Press, New York, 2000, pp. 1-12. Note Blaut does not discuss Sowell explicitly but the biases he describes fit Sowell perfectly. For an overview of the 19th century European biases about progress and “backward” peoples that Sowell recapitulates to very large extent see Kiernan, V.G., The Lords of Human Kind, Penguin Books, London, 1972.

5. Foe an account of some of the losers, (including the Aztecs), see Cocker, Mark, Rivers of Blood, Rivers of Gold, Jonathan Cape, London, 1998.

6. For a look explaining that the Australian Aborigines where not either mentally or morally deficient in not developing civilization, agriculture see Blaut, pp. 160-161.

7. For a look at the “Fellow Travellers” who celebrated the “progressive” (economic “progress”) successes of Stalinism see Caute, David, The Fellow Travellers, 2nd Edition, Yale University Press, 1988.

Pierre Cloutier

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