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Thomas Sowell
Thomas Sowell
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Intellectuals and Society


There has probably never been an era in history when intellectuals have played a larger role in society. When intellectuals who generate ideas are surrounded by a wide range of others who disseminate those ideas— whether as journalists, teachers, staffers to legislators or clerks to judges— the influence of intellectuals on the way a society evolves can be huge. Trying for years to understand the nature of that influence eventually led me to write the book "Intellectuals and Society," which has just been published.

Intellectuals generate ideas and ideas matter, whether those ideas are right or wrong, and they matter far beyond the small segment of society who are intellectuals. Ideas affect the fate of whole nations and civilizations. Nowhere is that more true than in our own times, when some people make suicidal attacks to kill strangers who have done nothing to them, as on 9/11, because the attackers are consumed with a set of ideas— a vision— and driven by the emotions generated by those ideas and that vision.

Whether in war or peace, and whether in economics or religion, something as intangible as ideas can dominate the most concrete things in our lives. What Karl Marx called "the blaze of ideas" has set whole nations on fire and consumed whole generations.

Those whose careers are built on the creation and dissemination of ideas— the intellectuals— have played a role in many societies out of all proportion to their numbers. Whether that role has, on net balance, made those around them better off or worse off is one of the key questions of our times.

The quick answer is that intellectuals have done both. But certainly, for the 20th century, it is hard to escape the conclusion that intellectuals have on net balance made the world a worse and more dangerous place. Scarcely a mass-murdering dictator of the 20th century was without his supporters, admirers or apologists among the leading intellectuals— not only within his own country, but in foreign democracies, where intellectuals were free to say whatever they wanted to.

Given the enormous progress made during the 20th century, it may seem hard to believe that intellectuals did so little good as to have that good outweighed by particular wrong-headed notions.

But most of those who promoted the scientific, economic and social advances of the 20th century were not really intellectuals in the sense in which that term is most often used.

The Wright brothers, who fulfilled the centuries-old dream of human beings flying, were by no means intellectuals. Nor were those who conquered the scourge of polio and other diseases, or who created the electronic marvels that we now take for granted.

All these people produced a tangible product or service and they were judged by whether those products and services worked. But intellectuals are people whose end products are intangible ideas, and they are usually judged by whether those ideas sound good to other intellectuals or resonate with the public.

Whether their ideas turn out to work— whether they make life better or worse for others— is another question entirely.

The ideas that Karl Marx created in the 19th century dominated the course of events over wide portions of the world in the 20th century. Whole generations suffered, and millions were killed, as a result of those ideas. This was not Marx's intention, nor the intentions of many supporters of Marxian ideas in countries around the world. But it is what happened.

Some of the most distinguished intellectuals in the Western world in the 1930s gave ringing praise to the Soviet Union, while millions of people there were literally starved to death and vast numbers of others were being shipped off to slave labor camps.

Many of those same distinguished intellectuals of the 1930s were urging their own countries to disarm while Hitler was rapidly arming Germany for wars of conquest that would have, among other things, put many of those intellectuals in concentration camps— slated for extermination— if he had succeeded.

The 1930s were by no means unique. In too many other eras— including our own today— intellectuals of unquestionable brilliance have advocated similarly childish and dangerous notions. How and why such patterns have existed among intellectuals is a challenging question, whose answer can determine the fate of millions of other people.

To find out more about Thomas Sowell and read features by other Creators Syndicate columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305. His Web site is



1 Comments | Post Comment
Good Article, Mr. Thomas Sowell. It brings Taxpayers to asking "does anyone get a common sensed education in todays' schools/colleges, as it's obvious what they're not being taught what is 2 + 2!" America has been brought to it's knees by the stupidity of governmental and educational boards that 'sit and stare' around the room, when asked a question, thinking someone is going to answer - WHY - they honestly don't have the answers! All these thousands of boards were created for the politicians 'PUTTING PEOPLE BACK TO WORK' THEORY and it's 'BACKFIRED!' Doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure this out!
National News reports: "Hawaii can't afford to hold elections", 'Many Governors facing economy troubles', and list goes on! Don't these 'incompetent, corrupt, greedy blood-sucking ticks' realize they're the very ones that's caused bankruptcy for America? Common sense tells Taxpayers you can't spend more than you earn, but apparently, politicians never learned this! Which brings Taxpayers to the following:

1] You cannot bring about Prosperity

By discouraging Thrift!

You cannot strength the Weak

By weakening the Srong!

You cannot help the Wage Earner

By pulling down the Wage Payer!

You cannot further the Brotherhood of Man

By encouraging Class Hatred!

You cannot help the Poor

By destroying the Rich!

You cannot keep out of Trouble

By spending more than you Earn!

You cannot build Character and Courage

By taking away Man's initiative and Independence!

You cannot help men Permanently

By doing for them what they could and should do


Since politicians are the ones that's created all this disaster, and Taxpayers haven't heard "We, the Politicians are going to cut our salaries and forfeit our retirements" in order to pay off the trillions we've borrowed without Taxpayers consent! This is one (1) way to put economy back on track, the other way is to sell them a one-way ticket to GITMO, taking all their assets to pay off debt, sending along local, state, federal prisoners, and people that don't contribute anything to America!

Taxpayers, of all races and politicial status, have been knocked to the ground with the ‘Tax &

Spend' bureaucrats. Taxpayers know 'you're the problem' and not the ‘solution' as

you're not promoting a good, safe, healthy, and clean environment. JUST BIGGER GOVERNMENT AND BUREAUCRACY AMERICA CAN'T AFFORD! TIME TO TAKE AMERICA BACK, TAXPAYERS!

« Shirley deLong wrote on Sunday, Jan 10 at 02:25 PM »
Mr. Sawyer, good article.

Dear Ms. Shirley Maxwell, It's a shame that 'people would steal from the hand that's trying to feed them, isn't it?' I'm so sorry that life in America has come to this! AND to think, the people I'm writing about were ashamed to tell anyone about their misfortunes. I thank God everyday for my common sense and in helping me to keep my eyes and heart open for children and animals!


Being in business, that's not good at present, writing articles about what's

caused the downfall of America, the greed that exists, watching the economy

lagging further behind, jobs disappearing due to incompetent, corrupt and

greedy politicians and, this doesn't seem to bother politicians and their

lifestyles and apparently, doesn't seem to bother folks that brag about what

they have and can buy, but they can't afford to help anyone in need! I don't

mind telling the world this really bothers me!

Buying food and Christmas for a family wasn't new for me, by it still made

me feel good for being human. After being thanked, many times, for the

things, most people take for granted, like heating fuel, clean clothes,

deodorants, toothpaste, brushes, and body washes, it'll break your heart!

I've spent the last couple months helping this family, with two small

children, that's been evicted and house was padlocked. I noticed the family

and the children with no coats, hats, or gloves out in the cold with their

dogs and it literally broke my heart. I didn't know their situation was this

desperate when I became involved with trying to help.

Folks, bragging to me and the world about your high-dollar home and cars is

far from impressive. These people forget where they came from and the help

they received from someone in getting there!

Incidentally, we all can't be perfect, but guess what, as my Granny used to

say "it's easy to work hard and get to top, but it's hard to come back

down!" You can forget who you passed over getting to the top, but you may be

one of them coming back down!

January 15, 2010, thanks to my church and friends, I'll have them in a nice,

warm home. Being very outspoken and blunt, I've had a few choice words with

the landlord, and explaining I was going to help them and asked it he could

do the same. As you can see, the only thing landlord did was tell them he

wanted them out week of January 11, 2010. This is a bad situation in summer

months, just think how cold it is now in the dead of winter. This landlord

knows I'm a person of my word. I'll never tell you something you can't 'take

to the bank!' I've always lived by my word, honesty, integrity, and high

principles. Too bad other people don't have these traits! It would be a much

better world, wouldn't it?

Have you ever seen a Brink's Truck following a Hearst?

Comment: #1
Posted by: Shirley deLong
Sun Jan 10, 2010 12:25 PM
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