Mona Charen

This may be the most unlikely tale of a high school dropout you will ever read -- and the most satisfying. Thomas Sowell (he went back to school after testing the market's receptivity to a skill-free youth of 16) is one of those rare people who is so organized that he kept copies of all of his letters even before the days of e-mail and computers. We are the richer for it. In his new book, "A Man of Letters," Sowell has mined his files to offer us keen insights into our nation's recent history and into the soul of an extraordinary man.

Like most young intellectuals of his generation, Sowell began his adult life as a leftist. But he was prematurely wise. By 1962 he was already showing impatience with the twaddle peddled by left-wing admirers of Third World despots. Responding to an article about Cuba and Ghana, Sowell wrote, "Perhaps there can legitimately be double standards of morality . . . but there can never be double standards of truth . If, for example, we are justified in saying that tyranny in Ghana is serving a noble purpose, we are still not justified in saying that it is not tyranny."

Regarding Castro, Sowell wrote, "I think there ought to be a damn sight closer scrutiny of the sweeping assumption that a noble purpose is being served just because someone is reciting our favorite catchwords while he goes around butchering people. . . . You mention, for example, the brutalities of the Batista regime and Castro's killing of ex-Batista men. . . . In fact, the shooting of ex-Castro men is a far more significant development as an indication of what this regime is and where it is going."

Dr. Sowell spent many early years in and out of academia (Cornell, Brandeis, UCLA), eager to improve the lot of black students in particular. But as he witnessed the civil rights movement morph into a grievance and spoils system, he resisted. To a promising young woman student, Sowell wrote: "I certainly don't think there is anything naive about wanting to improve a world that is full of crying problems. My interest in Howard University is certainly not unconnected with the fact that it is a Negro school . . . . Yet . . . . It is so easy to play fairy godmother and so heart-breakingly difficult to get people to make the painful adjustments in themselves which are necessary for any permanent improvement. Let us face it -- most people are pretty damned satisfied with themselves the way they are, though they would like to see lots of improvements in the world around them."

Mona Charen

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist, political analyst and author of Do-Gooders: How Liberals Hurt Those They Claim to Help .
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