Even the best things come to an end. After enjoying a quarter of a century of writing this column for Creators Syndicate, I have decided to stop. Age 86 is well past the usual retirement age, so the question is not why I am quitting, but why I kept at it so long.
It was very fulfilling to be able to share my thoughts on the events unfolding around us, and to receive feedback from readers across the country — even if it was impossible to answer them all.
Being old-fashioned, I liked to know what the facts were before writing. That required not only a lot of research, it also required keeping up with what was being said in the media.
During a stay in Yosemite National Park last May, taking photos with a couple of my buddies, there were four consecutive days without seeing a newspaper or a television news program — and it felt wonderful. With the political news being so awful this year, it felt especially wonderful.
This made me decide to spend less time following politics and more time on my photography, adding more pictures to my website (www.tsowell.com).
Looking back over the years, as old-timers are apt to do, I see huge changes, both for the better and for the worse.
In material things, there has been almost unbelievable progress. Most Americans did not have refrigerators back in 1930, when I was born. Television was little more than an experiment, and such things as air-conditioning or air travel were only for the very rich.
My own family did not have electricity or hot running water, in my early childhood, which was not unusual for blacks in the South in those days.
It is hard to convey to today’s generation the fear that the paralyzing disease of polio inspired, until vaccines put an abrupt end to its long reign of terror in the 1950s.
Most people living in officially defined poverty in the 21st century have things like cable television, microwave ovens and air-conditioning. Most Americans did not have such things, as late as the 1980s. People whom the intelligentsia continue to call the “have-nots” today have things that the “haves” did not have, just a generation ago.
In some other ways, however, there have been some serious retrogressions over the years. Politics, and especially citizens’ trust in their government, has gone way downhill.
Back in 1962, President John F. Kennedy, a man narrowly elected just two years earlier, came on television to tell the nation that he was taking us to the brink of nuclear war with the Soviet Union, because the Soviets had secretly built bases for nuclear missiles in Cuba, just 90 miles from America.
Most of us did not question what he did. He was President of the United States, and he knew things that the rest of us couldn’t know — and that was good enough for us. Fortunately, the Soviets backed down. But could any President today do anything like that and have the American people behind him?
Years of lying Presidents — Democrat Lyndon Johnson and Republican Richard Nixon, especially — destroyed not only their own credibility, but the credibility which the office itself once conferred. The loss of that credibility was a loss to the country, not just to the people holding that office in later years.
With all the advances of blacks over the years, nothing so brought home to me the social degeneration in black ghettoes like a visit to a Harlem high school some years ago.
When I looked out the window at the park across the street, I mentioned that, as a child, I used to walk my dog in that park. Looks of horror came over the students’ faces, at the thought of a kid going into the hell hole which that park had become in their time.
When I have mentioned sleeping out on a fire escape in Harlem during hot summer nights, before most people could afford air-conditioning, young people have looked at me like I was a man from Mars. But blacks and whites alike had been sleeping out on fire escapes in New York since the 19th century. They did not have to contend with gunshots flying around during the night.
We cannot return to the past, even if we wanted to, but let us hope that we can learn something from the past to make for a better present and future.
Goodbye and good luck to all.
From Thomas Sowell:
Any honest man, looking back on a very long life, must admit — even if only to himself — being a relic of a bygone era. Having lived long enough to have seen both “the greatest generation” that fought World War II and the gratingest generation that we see all around us today makes being a relic of the past more of a boast than an admission.
Not everything in the past was admirable. Poet W. H. Auden called the 1930s “a low dishonest decade.” So were the 1960s, which launched many of the trends we are experiencing so painfully today. Some of the fashionable notions of the 1930s reappeared in the 1960s, often using the very same discredited words and producing the same disastrous consequences.
The old are not really smarter than the young, in terms of sheer brainpower. It is just that we have already made the kinds of mistakes that the young are about to make, and we have already suffered the consequences that the young are going to suffer if they disregard the record of the past.
If you want to understand the fatal dangers facing America today, read The Gathering Storm by Winston Churchill. The book is not about America, the Middle East, or nuclear missiles. But it shows Europe’s attitudes and delusions — aimed at peace in the years before the Second World War — which instead ended up bringing on that most terrible war in all of human history.
Black adults, during the years when I was growing up in Harlem, had far less education than black adults today — but far more common sense. In an age of artificial intelligence, too many of our schools and colleges are producing artificial stupidity, among both blacks and whites.
The first time I traveled across the Atlantic Ocean, as the plane flew into the skies over London I was struck by the thought that, in these skies, a thousand British fighter pilots fought off Hitler’s air force and saved both Britain and Western civilization. But how many students today will have any idea of such things, with history being neglected in favor of politically correct rhetoric?
You cannot live a long life without having been forced to change your mind many times about people and things — including, in some cases, your whole view of the world. Those who glorify the young today do them a great disservice, when this sends inexperienced young people out into the world cocksure about things on which they have barely scratched the surface.
In my first overseas trip, I was struck by blatantly obvious differences in behavior among different groups, such as the Malays and the Chinese in Malaysia — and wondered why scholars who were far more well-traveled than I was seemed not to have noticed such things, and to have resorted to all sorts of esoteric theories to explain why some groups earned higher incomes than others.
There are words that were once common but that are seldom heard any more. The phrase “none of your business” is one of these. Today, everything seems to be the government’s business or the media’s business. And the word “risqué” would be almost impossible to explain to young people, in a world where gross vulgarity is widespread and widely accepted.
Back when I taught at UCLA, I was constantly amazed at how little so many students knew. Finally, I could no longer restrain myself from asking a student the question that had long puzzled me: “What were you doing for the last twelve years before you got here?”
Reading about the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, and the widespread retrogressions of Western civilization that followed, was an experience that was sobering, if not crushing. Ancient history in general lets us know how long human beings have been the way they are, and dampens giddy zeal for the latest panaceas, despite how politically correct those panaceas may be.
When I was growing up, we were taught the stories of people whose inventions and scientific discoveries had expanded the lives of millions of other people. Today, students are being taught to admire those who complain, denounce, and demand.
The first column I ever wrote, 39 years ago, was titled “The Profits of Doom.” This was long before Al Gore made millions of dollars promoting global-warming hysteria. Back in 1970, the prevailing hysteria was the threat of a new ice age — promoted by some of the same environmentalists who are promoting global-warming hysteria today.
From Thomas Sowell:
What Are We Celebrating?
There was a time when the Fourth of July meant something more than a three-day weekend. Speeches, writings and commemorative ceremonies reminded us of the origins and greatness of America. No matter where in the world our ancestors came from, we today are almost invariably better off because they came to America.
Independence Day signified much more than one country announcing its independence from another on July 4, 1776. It represented a new form of government — freer and more accountable to its own people than the monarchies common around the world for centuries.
What happened in America did not stay in America. The example of freedom inspired other peoples in other lands. As a famous poem put it, it was America’s “embattled farmers,” fighting for their own freedom and independence, who “fired the shot heard round the world.”
There was no question then that the United States was “exceptional,” however much the smug elites of today — including our President — try to dismiss the idea. Because self-government on such a large scale was a unique experiment, the founders of the American republic were very much aware that it had its dangers. Thomas Jefferson warned that “eternal vigilance” was the price of liberty. Even generations later, Abraham Lincoln expressed his fervent hope that “government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth.” The survival of freedom was not something he took for granted.
Today, too many Americans take freedom for granted, as just another entitlement, something that does not require them to take any personal responsibility.
It is painful to watch people on the streets — or on college campuses — being interviewed by TV reporters who ask them elementary questions about the people and institutions that run the country, and see how uninformed they are. And how unconcerned about their own gross ignorance.
People like that are the natural prey of political demagogues, of which there has never been a shortage. We see the consequences in ever expanding arbitrary powers of government. Just last week, a U.S. Attorney threatened prosecution of anyone who made “inflammatory” statements about Muslim boys accused of raping a 5-year-old girl.
Surely that Justice Department official knew that the courts were not likely to violate people’s right to free speech. But the real threat was to drag people through expensive and time-consuming legal processes that could disrupt their lives completely.
Such high-handed use of government powers has become increasingly common during the Obama administration. But an apathetic and uninformed public voted him a second term.
That is not the “eternal vigilance” required to preserve freedom. It is the widespread apathy and gullibility which accepts the coming of tyranny on the instalment plan.
Earlier generations of Americans fought and died to preserve freedom. Today’s generation cannot spare time from their selfies and twitters to think about such things. Neither the past nor the future seems to weigh on their minds.
A generation that owes so much to the past acts as if they owe nothing to anybody. Their idea of freedom is exemption from laws or obligations.
What many conceive of as freedom today is much more like anarchy: Who are the police to tell them what they cannot do?
But anarchy does not mean freedom. It means that people “become the slaves of ruffians.” What was said in 19th century Britain remains painfully true in too many crime-ridden neighborhoods in 21st century America.
The orgy of anti-police rhetoric in the wake of riots in Ferguson, Missouri and in Baltimore has already been followed by a sudden surge in violence, including murders, as police pull back or get pulled back. Innocent people have paid with their lives for such self-indulgences by demagogues and the media.
Freedom is not free. It requires, at a minimum, maturity and a sense of the realities of life. No society of human beings has ever been perfect. But we need only think of whatever person we love most and ask: Is that person perfect?
Is a country that is not perfect nevertheless deserving of our respect, our gratitude or our love? The Fourth of July is a good day to ponder that question.
More from Thomas Sowell:
Former governor Sarah Palin is an intelligent person, contrary to how liberals have tried to portray her. So it seemed to me that, if anybody could explain why they were promoting the candidacy of Donald Trump, it would be Governor Palin.
But I listened in vain for any evidence or logic that would provide a reason to vote for Donald Trump for the office of President of the United States. There were lots of ringing assertions, just as in Trump’s own speeches, but no convincing facts or demonstrable reasons.
After all these months, no coherent plans have emerged from the rhetoric of “The Donald”– just sweeping boasts about all the things he says he will achieve. But boasts about the unknown future are hardly reassuring.
However puzzling the fervent support for Donald Trump may be today, given how little basis there is for it, such blind faith is not unique in history. Other dire or desperate times have produced other charismatic leaders to whom desperate people have turned, with hopes of deliverance.
Trump is certainly different from establishment Republicans, but it that enough?
Things were appalling in 1917 Russia, when people turned to Lenin to try to get them out of a disastrous war abroad and a bitter economic situation at home.
The fact that Lenin was quite different from the czar who had led the country into catastrophe might have seemed promising to some people. He was also different from the ineffective Kerensky government that failed in its brief months in office. But the totalitarian government that Lenin established proved to be even worse than its predecessors.
The idea that someone quite different from those who led a nation into disaster can be expected to produce an improvement is a non sequitur that has seduced many people in many places and times.
Germany’s Weimar Republic was nobody’s idea of an ideal government but Hitler’s reign that followed was far worse in every way. Many Americans denounced the rule of the Shah of Iran, but he was never a worldwide sponsor of terrorism, like those who replaced him.
A pattern that would appear in many other places and times was one in which people’s hopes became focused on someone new, charismatic and with ringing rhetoric– but utterly untested for the job of governing a nation.
That is where we are today.
The Republican field of candidates has had a number of people with experience governing at the state level, so that they have a track record that we could scrutinize. But the media obsession with Trump has left little time for weighing the pros and cons of those governors.
Some of them have already had to withdraw before we learned whether their qualifications were good, bad or indifferent. This may be a misfortune for their political careers but it can turn out to be a disaster for the country, if it leaves the field open only to people whom we must judge solely on the basis of their rhetoric.
There are still some governors left in the running, but they are not among the candidates who have the highest support in the polls, where most have received the support of fewer than 10 percent of the voters polled.
Former governor Jeb Bush looked like the front runner at the outset, especially with his impressive amount of money in his campaign chest. But it is not nearly as easy to buy an election as some commentators seemed to think, so perhaps we can take some solace from the discrediting of that notion.
We might also take some solace from the support received by Dr. Ben Carson, despite the media-fed notion that conservatives are racists. Even after his brief time leading the candidates in the polls has passed, Dr. Carson remains the candidate with the highest favorability rating among Republican voters who were polled.
But there are few other things to feel positive about as the primaries approach. Common sense by the voters may be the best we can hope for. And that can save the day, after all. In fact, they may be all that can save the day.
From Thomas Sowell:
Those of us who like to believe that human beings are rational can sometimes have a hard time trying to explain what is going on in politics. It is still a puzzle to me how millions of patriotic Americans could have voted in 2008 for a man who for 20 years — TWENTY YEARS — was a follower of a preacher who poured out his hatred for America in the most gross gutter terms.
Today’s big puzzle is how so many otherwise rational people have become enamored of Donald Trump, projecting onto him virtues and principles that he clearly does not have, and ignoring gross defects that are all too blatant.
There was a time when someone who publicly mocked a handicapped man would have told us all we needed to know about his character, and his political fling would have been over. But that was before we became a society where common decency is optional.
Yet there are even a few people with strong conservative principles who have lined up with this man, whose history has demonstrated no principles at all, other than an ability to make self-serving deals, and who has shown what Thorstein Veblen once called “a versatility of convictions.”
With the Iowa caucuses coming up, it is easy to understand why Iowa governor Terry Branstad is slamming Trump’s chief rival, Senator Ted Cruz, who has opposed massive government subsidies to ethanol, which have dumped tons of taxpayer money on Iowa for growing corn. Iowa’s Senator Charles Grassley has come right out and said that is why he opposes Senator Cruz.
Former Senator Bob Dole, an establishment Republican if ever there was one, has joined the attacks on Ted Cruz, on grounds that Senator Cruz is disliked by other politicians.
When Senator Dole was active, he was liked by both Democrats and Republicans. He joined the long list of likable Republican candidates for president that the Republican establishment chose– and that the voters roundly rejected.
With both establishment Republicans and anti-establishment Republicans now taking sides with Donald Trump, it is hard to see what principle– if any– is behind his support.
Some may see Trump’s success in business as a sign that he can manage the economy. But the great economist David Ricardo, two centuries ago, pointed out that business success did not mean that someone understands economic issues facing a nation.
Trump boasts that he can make deals, among his many other boasts. But is a deal-maker what this country needs at this crucial time? Is not one of the biggest criticisms of today’s Congressional Republicans that they have made all too many deals with Democrats, betraying the principles on which they ran for office?
Bipartisan deals — so beloved by media pundits — have produced some of the great disasters in American history.
Contrary to the widespread view that the Great Depression of the 1930s was caused by the stock market crash of 1929, unemployment never reached double digits in any of the 12 months that followed the stock market crash in October, 1929.
Unemployment was 6.3 percent in June 1930 when a Democratic Congress and a Republican president made a bipartisan deal that produced the Smoot-Hawley tariffs. Within 6 months, unemployment hit double digits — and stayed in double digits throughout the entire decade of the 1930s.
You want deals? There was never a more politically successful deal than that which Neville Chamberlain made in Munich in 1938. He was hailed as a hero, not only by his own party but even by opposition parties, when he returned with a deal that Chamberlain said meant “peace for our time.” But, just one year later, the biggest, bloodiest and most ghastly war in history began.
If deal-making is your standard, didn’t Barack Obama just make a deal with Iran — one that may have bigger and worse consequences than Chamberlain’s deal?
What kind of deals would Donald Trump make? He has already praised the Supreme Court’s decision in “Kelo v. City of New London” which said that the government can seize private property to turn it over to another private party.
That kind of decision is good for an operator like Donald Trump. Doubtless other decisions that he would make as president would also be good for Donald Trump, even if for nobody else.
From Thomas Sowell:
After months of watching all sorts of political polls, we are finally just a few weeks away from actually beginning to see some voting in primary elections. Polls let people vent their emotions. But elections are held to actually accomplish something.
The big question is whether the voters themselves will see elections as very different from polls.
If Republican voters have consistently delivered a message through all the fluctuating polls over the past months, that message is those voters’ anger at the Republican establishment, which has grossly betrayed the promises that got a Republican Congress elected.
Whether the issue has been securing the borders, Obamacare, runaway government spending or innumerable other concerns, Republican candidates have promised to fight the Obama administration’s policies– and then caved when crunch time came for Congress to vote.
The spectacular rise, and persistence, of Republican voter support for Donald Trump in the polls ought to be a wake-up call for the Republican establishment. But smug know-it-alls can be hard to wake up.
Even valid criticisms of Trump can miss the larger point that Republican voters’ turning to such a man is a sign of desperation and a telling indictment of what the Republican establishment has been doing for years– which they show pathetically few signs of changing.
Seldom have the Republicans seemed to have a better chance of winning a presidential election. The Democrats’ front-runner is a former member of an unpopular administration whose record of foreign policy failures as Secretary of State is blatant, whose personal charm is minimal and whose personal integrity is under criminal investigation by the FBI.
Meanwhile, the Republicans have fielded a stronger set of presidential aspirants than they have had in years. Yet it is by no means out of the question that the Republicans will manage to blow this year’s opportunity and lose at the polls this November.
In other times, this might just be the Republicans’ political problem. But these are not other times. After seven disastrous years of Barack Obama, at home and overseas, the United States of America may be approaching a point of no return, especially in a new age of a nuclear Iran with long-range missiles.
The next President of the United States will have monumental problems to untangle. The big question is not which party’s candidate wins the election but whether either party will choose a candidate that is up to the job.
That ultimate question is in the hands of Republicans who will soon begin voting in the primaries.
Their anger may be justified, but anger is not a sufficient reason for choosing a candidate in a desperate time for the future of this nation. And there is such a thing as a point of no return.
Voters need to consider what elections are for. Elections are not held to allow voters to vent their emotions. They are held to choose who shall hold in their hands the fate of hundreds of millions of Americans today and of generations yet unborn.
Too many nations, in desperate times, especially after the established authorities have discredited themselves and forfeited the trust of the people, have turned to some new and charismatic leader, who ended up turning a dire situation into an utter catastrophe.
The history of the 20th century provides all too many examples, whether on a small scale that led to the massacre in Jonestown in 1978 or the earlier succession of totalitarian movements that took power in Russia in 1917, Italy in 1922 and Germany a decade later.
Eric Hoffer’s shrewd insight into the success of charismatic leaders was that the “quality of ideas seems to play a minor role,” What matters, he pointed out, “is the arrogant gesture, the complete disregard of the opinion of others, the singlehanded defiance of the world.”
Is that the emotional release that Republican voters will be seeking when they begin voting in the primaries? If so, Donald Trump will be their man. But if the sobering realities of life and the need for mature and wise leadership in dangerous times is uppermost in their minds, they will have to look elsewhere.
From Thomas Sowell:
Those who have been marveling at Donald Trump’s political showmanship were given a reminder of who is the top showman of them all, when President Barack Obama went on television to make a pitch for his unilateral actions to restrict gun sales and make a more general case for tighter gun control laws.
It was beautifully choreographed, like a great ballet, and performed with consummate skill and understated eloquence. First of all, the scene was set with a room full of people who had lost loved ones to gun violence. A father whose son had been gunned down made a long introduction before the president showed up, walked down the aisle and up on to the stage to growing applause.
As political theater, it put Donald Trump’s rantings in the shade.
As for the substance of what Obama said, there was very little substance, and much of it false, but one of the signs of great artistry was that the presentation overshadowed the substance.
None of the things proposed by the president is likely to reduce gun violence. Like other restrictions on people’s ability to defend themselves, or to deter attacks by showing that they are armed, these new restrictions can cost more lives on net balance. The most we can hope for is that the effects of the new Obama-created rules will be nil, rather than harmful.
Like most other gun control advocates, President Obama invoked scenes of mass shootings, as if what he is proposing would have prevented those tragedies. But, almost invariably, mass shootings occur in gun-free settings. Yet gun control zealots seem determined to create more gun-free settings.
How often have supposedly mentally unbalanced shooters opened fire at a meeting of the National Rifle Association? They are apparently not that mentally unbalanced. They pick places where people are not likely to shoot back.
A mass shooting at a movie theater a few years ago took place at a theater farther away from where the shooter lived than other theaters in the area that were showing the very same movie. The difference was that this theater had advertised that it was a gun-free zone.
Who is more mentally unbalanced, those who are doing the shooting or those who refuse to examine the facts about what kinds of places attract such shooters? Schools and religious institutions are sitting ducks, and the shootings there have gone on until someone else with a gun showed up on the scene. That is what puts an end to the carnage, not gun control laws.
People who are prepared to defy the laws against murder are not very likely to be stopped by laws against guns. Only law-abiding citizens are likely to be stopped by gun control laws, and to become sitting ducks.
As for facts and statistics, the only ones likely to be mentioned by gun control zealots, including the media, are those on how many people were killed by guns. How many lives were saved by guns will never make it through the ideological filters of the media, the political establishment or our educational institutions.
Yet factual data on how many threats or attacks were deterred in a given year by displaying a firearm have long been available. Seldom is it necessary to actually pull the trigger to get some thug or criminal to back off and go elsewhere, often in some haste.
Are the only lives that matter those that are lost, usually because there is no gun immediately available to protect them, but not the lives saved because they did have a gun at hand to protect them?
Gun control zealots seem especially opposed to people being allowed to carry their guns concealed. But concealed weapons protect not only those who carry them, but also to some extent those who do not, because criminals have no way of knowing in advance who does and does not have a gun.
Muggings and rapes become much more dangerous activities for criminals where many law-abiding people are allowed to carry concealed guns. It can take a lot of the fun out of being a thug.
President Obama said that we are the only “advanced” nation with so much gun violence. But there are a number of countries with higher murder rates than ours and stronger gun control laws. But that leaves the definition of “advanced” to Obama — and makes for clever political theater.