"Random Thoughts, Looking Back, And Farewell"
by 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 which 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 "risque" 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 12 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.
Farewell: 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.”
Thomas Sowell was born in North Carolina and grew up in Harlem. As with many others in his neighborhood, Thomas Sowell left home early and did not finish high school. The next few years were difficult ones, but eventually he joined the Marine Corps and became a photographer in the Korean War. After leaving the service, Thomas Sowell entered Harvard University, worked a part-time job as a photographer and studied the science that would become his passion and profession: economics.