Thomas Sowell

IF ONE PICTURE could capture the tragedy of the 20th century, it would be a recent front-page photograph of a Korean mother and son, reunited after 50 years of not being able to see each other. One lived in South Korea and the other in Communist North Korea. Here was the casual cruelty of Communism, which breaks the heart and spirit of individuals and families.

The ease with which so many Americans were willing to send little Elian Gonzalez back to Cuba speaks volumes about their gross ignorance of one of the great evils of this century. But I have met too many people from Communist countries to buy the argument about the "parental rights" of Elian's father.

There are no such rights in a Communist country, and a Cuban official said publicly that Elian is "the property of the state" like other Cuban children. Accordingly, Elian was returned not to his father but to a state institution set up for him in Havana, while his father lives in Cardenas.

Those who cannot grasp the casual cruelty of the state should have been with me one night when I encountered a usually upbeat colleague who was clearly depressed and asked what was wrong. He said: "I just learned that my mother died -- five years ago" in the Soviet Union.

Those who do not understand should have been there when a woman from Communist China expressed worry because her visa for staying in the United States was running out.

"Why don't you ask for asylum?" I said.

"Do you know what will happen to my family in China if I do that?" she replied.

What is simple ignorance on the part of many Americans is determined blindness on the part of many intellectuals. A woman in Hong Kong, who had escaped from China after the horrors of Mao's "cultural revolution" were inflicted on her family -- with one member driven to suicide -- told me of Western intellectuals who simply refused to believe her when she told them things that conflicted with their naive illusions about China under Mao.

Those illusions have been so strong on the Stanford University campus that a doctoral student who went to China in the 1980s and came back with stories that blasted the local illusions was forced to leave without his degree. He was sacrificed because of complaints from the Communist authorities in China.

Although Communism is in retreat where it has not already collapsed -- except in Cuba and North Korea -- the dangerous naivete of many in the democratic countries remains. Indeed, some of those democracies, including the United States, are following in the footsteps of those who set up the state as the controller of the family. In Sweden, you cannot even spank your own child without violating the law.

One of the ugliest aspects of totalitarian societies is having children inform on their parents. We have already gone much further in that direction than most Americans realize. It is common in schools across the United States to have children required to keep diaries and fill in questionnaires about what happens in their homes.

There are also billboards giving adults an 800 number to call to report excessive exhaust fumes from the cars of neighbors. People who see nothing wrong with this should talk with refugees from Communist countries, who can tell them what it is like to live in a world where everyone has to be suspicious of everyone else as a potential informer whose revelations -- or lies -- can ruin your life.

Friendship or even the innocence of childhood can be dangerous luxuries that have to be avoided in self-defense. We are already moving in that direction. Recently a very loving father, whose son had received a black eye from a baseball that he missed catching, expressed his great relief that this accident had happened during the summer, when the boy was not in school. Otherwise, it would have been reported by school authorities and an investigation begun by people looking for child abuse.

(My own childhood baseball injuries would have kept an army of social workers busy.)

There is never a lack of plausible excuses for extensions of the power of the state over individuals and families. So long as human beings are imperfect, there will always be bad things happening that the state can claim to be preventing. But history has shown that far worse things usually follow when the crude power of the state intrudes into the life of the family.


Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute and author of The Housing Boom and Bust.

Creators Syndicate