The Magazine

Handing Down Misery

A dissenting view on cultural decline.

Aug 8, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 44 • By MICHAEL BARONE
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

But if there was achievement, there was also backsliding. The first black presidents of historically black colleges, Sowell says, were unqualified and deemphasized academic achievement and overemphasized social activities. Even so, blacks made steady and impressive gains in education and income in the 1940s and 1950s.

The real disaster came, in Sowell's view, in the 1960s. The high incidence of unmarried parenthood among blacks was not a legacy of slavery or segregation. The expansion of welfare encouraged single parenthood; weak law enforcement resulted in high crime that destroyed housing values in black neighborhoods; cultivation of a sense of grievance encouraged "redneck" patterns of behavior, "the counterproductive attitudes toward education found even in middle-class black communities."

Even so, Sowell points out, there are schools that produce high levels of achievement in black students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. What do they have in common? They insist on hard work. They insist that students can meet the standards of the larger society.

And here we come to a major difference between Sowell and the academic and media elites. The latter see Western society in the same terms Susan Sontag once used to describe the white race, as "the cancer of human history." They have a desperate psychological stake in proclaiming that all cultures are morally equal--and to regard Western culture as morally inferior.

Sowell is of another view: The West is best. Human slavery was tolerated, taken for granted, not seen as even something to argue about, in all cultures for centuries and millennia--until, in the 18th century, certain Britons and Americans began to question its morality. In England, the evangelical Anglican William Wilberforce led a move to ban the slave trade, and in 1807, Parliament did so. Not only that: For decades, the Royal Navy spent thousands of pounds and lost hundreds of sailors in efforts to suppress the slave trade in the Atlantic--successfully--and less successfully in Africa and the Indian Ocean.

Americans joined in. George Washington, troubled by slavery, refused to sell any of his slaves after 1775 and, in his will, freed his slaves and provided support for them after his death in 1799. In 1808, the first date allowed under the Constitution, Congress banned the importation of slaves and the U.S. Navy aided the Royal Navy in suppressing the slave trade abroad. When the United States acquired the Philippines in 1898, it suppressed slavery there, over the objections of many locals.

Only in the West, Sowell writes, did the movement to end slavery win support. The United States, as a result of its bloodiest war, abolished slavery. The end of slavery in Brazil a quarter-century later was met with general rejoicing. In contrast, the rulers of the Ottoman Empire, native princes in India, and Arab slave traders in East Africa treated demands to end slavery with contempt. Slavery was largely eradicated thanks to the superior military power of British, American, and other imperialist powers.

Sadly, slavery still continues, in Sudan, in some other African countries, in parts of Asia, in places where the West has not yet summoned up the determination to end it. Slavery is and always was a great evil, Sowell stoutly affirms. But Westerners were not its only perpetrators. And they were its only abolitionists.

That, of course, is something you will never hear from the offspring of the 1960s radicals who dominate our campuses and hold sway over most of our media. They are committed to an adversarial stance against their own society, the society that has produced the greatest freedom and prosperity human beings have enjoyed in history.

Some day their distorted view of history may be forgotten, just as some of their disastrous public policies--overgenerous welfare, toleration of crime--have been discarded. But the cultural attitudes they have fostered still permeate large segments of our society and hold back those (especially blacks from disadvantaged backgrounds) from the achievements of which they are capable. Against this, Thomas Sowell brings to bear his wide learning and fierce powers of argumentation. May he prevail.

Michael Barone is a senior writer at U.S. News and World Report.