Sowell on “Mascot politics”

(See, below the Sowell article, Ken Hechtman’s correction of me and my reply.)

In this worthwhile article (copied in its entirety below), Thomas Sowell makes a true point about white liberals’ relationship to blacks. However, I think he is being one-sided and too hard on the liberals when he suggests that they seek black “mascots” solely for purposes of self-aggrandizement. He misses the fact that in liberal society, a white is not seen as fully qualified, fully legitimate, unless he has a minority symbolically attached to him at the hip. Sowell also misses the point that blacks insist on this type of arrangement themselves (meaning symbolical and actual representation of themselves in all areas of society) and get very restive when it is lacking.

Sowell thus falls into the typical conservative mistake of reducing liberalism to some form or other of crass self-interest. Just as President Bush accuses Islamic extremists of cynically manipulating Islam for selfish, non-Islamic purposes, and thus fails to understand that Islamic extremists sincerely believe in Islam, Sowell accuses liberals of cynically manipulating liberalism for selfish, non-liberal purposes, and fails to understand that liberals sincerely believe in liberalism. Conservatives close their eyes to the reality of liberalism as a genuine belief system, indeed as the ruling belief system of our time, because if they acknowledged it as such, they would have to confront it and refute it as such. Such an ideological confrontatiion would take far more effort than merely mocking and despising liberals as silly, cynical, or self-seeking.

But the deeper reason conservatives fail to acknowledge liberalism as a real and sincerely held belief system is that it would require them to challenge the fundamental premises of liberalism. This they are loathe to do, since they share those premises.

Here is Sowell’s article:

Mascot Politics: An ugly reality
By Thomas Sowell

Years ago, when Jack Greenberg left the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to become a professor at Columbia University, he announced that he was going to make it a point to hire a black secretary at Columbia.

This would of course make whomever he hired be seen as a token black, rather than as someone selected on the basis of competence.

This reminded me of the first time I went to Milton Friedman’s office when I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago back in 1960, and I noticed that he had a black secretary. This was four years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and there was no such thing as affirmative action.

It so happened that Milton Friedman had another black secretary decades later, at the Hoover Institution—and she was respected as one of the best secretaries around.

When I mentioned to someone at the Hoover Institution that I was having a hard time finding a secretary who could handle a tough job in my absence, I was told that I needed someone like Milton Friedman’s secretary—and that there were not many like her.

At no time in all these years did I hear Milton Friedman say, either publicly or privately, that he had a black secretary.

William F. Buckley’s wife once mentioned in passing, at dinner in her home, that she had been involved for years in working with a school in Harlem. But I never heard her or Bill Buckley ever say that publicly.

Nor do conservatives who were in the civil-rights marches in the south, back when that was dangerous, make that a big deal.

For people on the Left, however, blacks are trophies or mascots, and must therefore be put on display. Nowhere is that more true than in politics.

The problem with being a mascot is that you are a symbol of someone else’s significance or virtue. The actual well-being of a mascot is not the point.

Liberals all across the country have not hesitated to destroy black neighborhoods in the name of “urban renewal,” often replacing working-class neighborhoods with upscale homes and pricey businesses—neither of which the former residents can afford.

In academia, lower admissions standards for black students is about having them as a visible presence, even if mismatching them with the particular college or university produces high dropout rates.

The black students who don’t make it are replaced by others, and when many of them don’t make it, there are still more others.

The point is to have black faces on campus, as mascots symbolizing what great people there are running the college or university.

Many, if not most, of the black students who do not make it at big-name, high-pressure institutions are perfectly qualified to succeed at the normal range of colleges and universities.

Most white students would also punch out if admitted to schools for which they don’t have the same qualifications as the other students. But nobody needs white mascots.

Various empirical studies have indicated that blacks succeed best at institutions where there is little or no difference between their qualifications and the qualifications of the other students around them.

This is not rocket science, but it is amazing how much effort and cleverness have gone into denying the obvious.

A study by Professor Richard Sander of the UCLA law school suggests that there may be fewer black lawyers as a result of “affirmative action” admissions to law schools that are a mismatch for the individuals admitted.

Leaping to the defense of black criminals is another common practice among liberals who need black mascots. Most of the crimes committed by black criminals are committed against other blacks. But, again, the actual well-being of mascots is not the point.

Politicians who use blacks as mascots do not hesitate to throw blacks to the wolves for the benefit of the teachers’ unions, the green zealots whose restrictions make housing unaffordable, or people who keep low-price stores like Wal-Mart out of their cities.

Using human beings as mascots is not idealism. It is self-aggrandizement that is ugly in both its concept and its consequences.

- end of initial entry -

Ken Hechtman writes:

Thomas Sowell has a more complete discussion of “mascots” and “scapegoats” in Vision of the Anointed. The whole chapter is reprinted here.

He doesn’t say the purpose mascots serve is one of cynical and deceptive aggrandizement. He says their purpose is “enabling others to ‘make a statement.’” The statement may well be true or at least sincerely believed at the time. The point is that it’s a self-referential statement: “I’m one of the good guys because as you can see, I care about one of the victim-groups that the good guys are known to care about.”

LA replies:

You’re drawing my attention to the fact that I somewhat overstated the “cynical” aspect of Sowell’s interpretation of the phenomenon, and you have stated it better. However, the key point remains: that Sowell is saying that the liberals’ “mascot” behavior is primarily or solely about enhancing THEMSELVES.

Now I’m not denying that much of liberalism is about the self. How could I, since the self is central to my idea of liberalism? But I think we have to be careful not to reduce liberalism to the self, to self-referential expressions, to a desire for higher social status, and so on. Think of the argument put forth by Nathan Glazer (the former neocon who about ten years ago reverted to all out left-liberalism) for racial diversity in elite universities and other areas of society: Glazer said it would be morally wrong, morally unacceptable in today’s America, to have an elite university with almost no blacks.

Such a concern is not primarily about “self-referentiality,” or about claiming superior status, or about wanting to avoid lower status, as Steve Sailer (and Katherine Betts of Australia) have written. It is about conforming to the good as liberals see the good. Of course they want to be seen as good people, and they want the status that comes from that. But in order to have an idea of what is a good and high-status person, they need an idea of the good itself. They value being a high-status person, because a high-status person is one who conforms himself to and publicly expresses the good.

Anna writes:

I disagree with your take on Sowell’s article.

You say he is “too hard on the liberals when he suggests that they seek black “mascots” solely for purposes of self-aggrandizement.” I read in his article, “The problem with being a mascot is that you are a symbol of someone else’s significance or virtue.” Significance or virtue, this is the feel-good that liberals need, especially the ones with bumper stickers, not necessarily self-aggrandizement.

There are liberals with significant power who, as you say, “sincerely believe in liberalism.” These folks may look for self-aggrandizement. Then there are the down-the-street, bumper-sticker, liberals who just want to feel good and true-blue.

In any case, for all these folks, reality is irrelevant. Thomas Sowell speaks to the reality of cause and effect.

Anna continues:

As an addendum to your comments, conservatives find it difficult to oppose “being nice.” Islam? It’s a religion, let’s be nice. Minorities have a tough time, let’s be nice. Different cultures? We just don’t understand them, let’s be nice.

If half the population of Poland emigrated to Egypt, would assimilation mean government representation and churches abounding? What country in the world would eagerly accept a foreign influx? Answer. EU. Answer. U.S. The others do not.

It seems to me unbelievable, but true, that the direction of all Western leaders, U.S. included, is toward a World Government. Why else would patriotism seem unseemly, at least in the West? In such a world, Western patriotism is considered a negative, where the only allegiance should be to One World.

Mr. Auster, there is to be no Winston Churchill, no Abraham Lincoln. They spoke to their own people. Interglobal communication and interglobal movement of people has brought about a different outlook of leadership in the West. They don’t speak to their own people. They clearly look to be a part of interglobal leadership.

What can we do here in the U.S.? I don’t know the answer.

LA replies:

We must fight it. Remember, we haven’t lost to it. We haven’t lost to it, because we’ve never fought it. Conservatives have never presented a systematic opposition (in many cases, they’ve presented NO opposition) to the globalist ideology. It has not been challenged in its basic principles and direction. Yes, conservatives oppose this and that aspect of it when it hits them in the face, but they haven’t opposed it as such. And that is what is needed and what can turn the situation around.

Opposing it means, among other things, seeing it as an inevitable development of the right-liberalism that conservatives themselves believe in. If you consistently believe in the primacy of individual rights and individual freedom above all, then distinct nations, which separate individuals and treat some people as foreigners and some as members, i.e., unequally, must ultimately be rejected. The only just and equal order is a world government in which all six or 10 or 20 billion individuals on earth are part of the same community and have the same rights.

That’s the logic and ultimate end of liberalism AND of conservatism—so long as conservatives accept the basic premises of liberalism. So imagine a new conservatism which asserts, as primary, the right of the nation, the right of the civilization, the right of distinct peoples, to exist and preserve their existence, and which thus identifies the move toward globalism as evil because it represents the destruction of everything—politically, civilizationally, religiously, culturally, and racially—that we are.

And no one should misunderstand me and say that I’m talking about some fascist or racist collectivism. I’m talking about the ordinary, traditional right of nations and peoples to govern themselves and preserve their own existence—something that liberals used to believe in, before Adolf made the world go mad.

Dimitri K. writes:

I would like to offer one more explanation of the war on racism, which is in line with Sowell’s arguments, but takes it further. Not sure if you agree with me. My impression is that blacks have one more symbolic meaning for liberals. They symbolize the repressed sexual desires. I came to this decision by analyzing modern Russian folklore: black girl always means something hot and exotic. Oppression by Big White Man may mean in this context the limitation on exual expression in Christian culture. Thus, racist is one who oppress the free sexual behavior, which for liberals is probably the highest value in life.

LA replies:

Sure, that’s definitely a part of it. American Renaissance had an eye opening article a few years ago about the sexual promiscuity that was rampant in the Civil Rights movement, and that the newspapers of the time knew about but covered up. As we can see from the universal experience of Western countries over the last 50 years, these three things tend to go together: elimination of all ethnic distinctions in custom and law; sexual liberation; and homosexual liberation.

Ken Hechtman writes:

Agreed. Using mascots and scapegoats is hardly all there is to liberalism. Using mascots the way Sowell describes is a shortcut for people who can’t or won’t think the questions through on their own. They don’t know why the liberal good is what it is or how to find it in a new and different situation. But they know what team they’re on. They know when to cheer and when to boo. They know when to be forgiving and understanding and when to be suspicious and judgmental.

But that’s as far as it goes.

The way I tell the difference is the people who have thought on their own sound like they’re answering the question “What do you want?” The ones who haven’t sound like they’re answering the question “Who are you?” Think of it this way: After this year’s primary campaign, I expect a typical liberal—not a professional political writer, but just someone who answers to the term—to know that the disadvantaged and discriminated-against residents of inner-city slums should be treated as mascots and the disadvantaged and discriminated-against residents of Appalachian trailer-parks should be treated as scapegoats. I don’t expect him to be able to give a rigorous articulation from first principles of why that should be.

Ken Hechtman continues:

Loosely on the subject of mascots, I just heard my friend Andrea Schmidt (she of the “Kurdistan is a Head-Wreck” article that you posted four years ago at VFR) is now working on a full length book. Drawing on her own experiences in Third World war zones, plus those of other people from the Montreal anarchist scene, she’s “exploring the messiness and complexity of international solidarity work.”

What that means in plain English is that back in the good old days of the Cold War, we (on the left) knew who the mascots and scapegoats were. We got that information for free. Now we don’t and it’s much harder to figure it out for ourselves and once we have figured it out it changes that much faster.

Without having read it I won’t say it’s a “Second Thoughts” book but from what I’ve heard, it’s at least “First-and-a-half Thoughts.”

Something else: Four years later, they still haven’t forgiven me for sending you that article and I still haven’t apologized for sending it.

LA replies:

Another way of putting this is that the liberal script, by which everyone is assigned his place as either an oppressor or a victim, is getting increasingly confused so that liberals don’t know where to put people any more. That’s very good, since the liberal script is the basic operating manual.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at May 28, 2008 09:11 PM | Send

Email entry

Email this entry to:

Your email address:

Message (optional):