I first entered Louisiana State Penitentiary in the early 60s, at the age of 18. I was in and out of that place for the rest of the decade. Back then, if you were young, black and had a record, police in New Orleans would come looking for you when they had a backlog of unsolved cases: it was called cleaning the books.
In 1969, I was locked up for a robbery I didn’t do and, while inside, I joined the Black Panthers. Three years later, an inmate was stabbed to death on my prison block and, because of my politics, the authorities saw a chance to pin it on me. In 2001, I was cleared of this killing but, by then, I had spent 29 years alone in a cell.
It was a dimly lit box, 9ft by 6ft, with bars at the front facing on to the bare cement walls of a long corridor. Inside was a narrow bed, a toilet, a fixed table and chair, and an air vent set into the back wall.
Some days I would pace up and down and from left to right for hours, counting to myself. I learned to know every inch of the cell. Maybe I looked crazy walking back and forth like some trapped animal, but I had no choice – I needed to feel in control of my space.
At times I felt an anguish that is hard to put into words. To live 24/7 in a box, year after year, without the possibility of parole, probation or the suspension of sentence is a terrible thing to endure.
I was kept in the closed cell restricted (CCR) wing of the penitentiary, which is also known as Angola, after the slave plantation that was on the site prior to the prison. Three times a week I was let out for an hour to go to the exercise yard, where I was kept separate from other prisoners by razor wire.
The wardens tried to discourage us from talking, but we defied them. We were beaten up and prisoners were found hanging in their cells. Whenever I was disciplined, it was for talking. I didn’t care, I refused to let them dehumanise me.
The worst punishment was the “cold box”, our name for the cell within Camp J. It was down a long hallway through three sets of secure doors, and when they pushed me inside, the isolation was total. They would keep me there for a month, in blocks of 10 days, shoving food through a slot in the door. I went for days without speaking to anyone. That kind of sensory deprivation was torture for me – to survive I knew I had to keep my mind active.
One pastime I had was smuggling out praline candies that I made on my cell floor. I traded tobacco to get the ingredients of sugar, peanuts and powdered milk. I made them using a cold drink can for a pot and burning toilet paper to melt sugar.
Another thing I did was to fold up toilet paper into squares and stick them to the floor with toothpaste to make a chessboard. I would call out moves to other inmates. When we were in nearby cells I played with Herman Wallace or Albert Woodfox. Like me, they were Black Panthers kept in solitary because they were seen as a threat. They had started a chapter of the Panthers, which had helped mobilise inmates to curb some of the abuse going on inside Angola at the time.
They are still in solitary after nearly 38 years – more than any other inmate in the American prison system. They were convicted of killing a prison guard in 1972, but there’s a lot of evidence that they’re innocent.
Since my conviction was overturned in 2001, I have travelled constantly, educating people about the widespread use of solitary confinement in America. The words of the US Constitution prohibit what is called “cruel and unusual punishment”, and yet that phrase could have been written to describe solitary confinement.
When I walked out of Angola, I didn’t realise how permanently the experience of solitary would mark me. Even now my sight is impaired. I find it very difficult to judge long distances – a result of living in such a small space. Emotionally, too, I’ve found it hard to move on. I talk about my 29 years in solitary as if it was the past, but the truth is it never leaves you. In some ways I am still there. I made a statement when I was released that although I was free of Angola, it would never be free of me. Until Herman and Albert can join me on the outside, I have to make good on that promise.
In the standfirst I will make a fairly obvious pun about the subject matter before posing an inane question I have no intention of really answering: is this an important scientific finding?
In this paragraph I will state the main claim that the research makes, making appropriate use of “scare quotes” to ensure that it’s clear that I have no opinion about this research whatsoever.
In this paragraph I will briefly (because no paragraph should be more than one line) state which existing scientific ideas this new research “challenges”.
If the research is about a potential cure, or a solution to a problem, this paragraph will describe how it will raise hopes for a group of sufferers or victims.
This paragraph elaborates on the claim, adding weasel-words like “the scientists say” to shift responsibility for establishing the likely truth or accuracy of the research findings on to absolutely anybody else but me, the journalist.
In this paragraph I will state in which journal the research will be published. I won’t provide a link because either a) the concept of adding links to web pages is alien to the editors, b) I can’t be bothered, or c) the journal inexplicably set the embargo on the press release to expire before the paper was actually published.
"Basically, this is a brief soundbite," the scientist will say, from a department and university that I will give brief credit to. "The existing science is a bit dodgy, whereas my conclusion seems bang on," she or he will continue.
I will then briefly state how many years the scientist spent leading the study, to reinforce the fact that this is a serious study and worthy of being published by the BBC the website.
This is a sub-heading that gives the impression I am about to add useful context.
Here I will state that whatever was being researched was first discovered in some year, presenting a vague timeline in a token gesture toward establishing context for the reader.
To pad out this section I will include a variety of inane facts about the subject of the research that I gathered by Googling the topic and reading the Wikipedia article that appeared as the first link.
I will preface them with “it is believed” or “scientists think” to avoid giving the impression of passing any sort of personal judgement on even the most inane facts.
This fragment will be put on its own line for no obvious reason.
In this paragraph I will reference or quote some minor celebrity, historical figure, eccentric, or a group of sufferers; because my editors are ideologically committed to the idea that all news stories need a “human interest”, and I’m not convinced that the scientists are interesting enough.
At this point I will include a picture, because our search engine optimisation experts have determined that humans are incapable of reading more than 400 words without one.
This picture has been optimised by SEO experts to appeal to our key target demographics
This subheading hints at controversy with a curt phrase and a question mark?
This paragraph will explain that while some scientists believe one thing to be true, other people believe another, different thing to be true.
In this paragraph I will provide balance with a quote from another scientist in the field. Since I picked their name at random from a Google search, and since the research probably hasn’t even been published yet for them to see it, their response to my e-mail will be bland and non-committal.
"The research is useful", they will say, "and gives us new information. However, we need more research before we can say if the conclusions are correct, so I would advise caution for now."
If the subject is politically sensitive this paragraph will contain quotes from some fringe special interest group of people who, though having no apparent understanding of the subject, help to give the impression that genuine public “controversy” exists.
This paragraph will provide more comments from the author restating their beliefs about the research by basically repeating the same stuff they said in the earlier quotes but with slightly different words. They won’t address any of the criticisms above because I only had time to send out one round of e-mails.
This paragraph contained useful information or context, but was removed by the sub-editor to keep the article within an arbitrary word limit in case the internet runs out of space.
The final paragraph will state that some part of the result is still ambiguous, and that research will continue.
IRVING KRISTOL ONCE DEFINED an intellectual as someone who “knows a little bit about everything.” And, as he was quick to add, he did not mean that disparagingly.
Thomas Sowell, who knows quite a lot about many things, is much more disdainful of intellectuals. He’s now written a whole volume trying to explain why they are so troublesome. The illustrations of his argument are quite compelling. But at the risk of sounding like a special pleader, I’d register some skepticism about his explanation of why intellectuals are that way.
But first the fun part. If you like Sowell’s columns, you will enjoy most of the material in this book. Sowell takes aim at the fatuousness so often displayed by professorial pundits and public intellectuals. He doesn’t just offer a string of contemptuous snorts at their delusions. He offers clear, patient expositions, demonstrating why the only reasonable response is… a contemptuous snort.
As Sowell was trained as an economist, the chapter on intellectuals and the economy is, naturally, among the most illuminating. So, for example, commentators have repeatedly told us in recent years that the gap between rich and poor has been widening. It is true, if you compare the income of those in the top fifth of earners with the income of those in the bottom fifth, that the spread between them increased between 1996 and 2005. But, as Sowell points out, this frequently cited figure is not counting the same people. If you look at individual taxpayers, Sowell notes, those who happened to be in the bottom fifth in 1996 saw their incomes nearly double over the decade, while those who happened to be in the top fifth in 1995 saw gains of only 10 percent on average and those in the top 5 percent actually experienced decline in their incomes. Similar distortions are perpetrated by those bewailing “stagnation” in average household incomes — without taking into account that households have been getting smaller, as rising wealth allows people to move out of large family homes.
Sometimes the distortion seems to be deliberate. Sowell gives the example of an ABC news report in the 1980s focusing on five states where “unemployment is most severe” — without mentioning that unemployment was actually declining in all the other 45 states. Sometimes there seems to be willful incomprehension. Journalists have earnestly reported that “prisons are ineffective” because two-thirds of prisoners are rearrested within three years of their release. As Sowell comments: “By this kind of reasoning, food is ineffective as a response to hunger because it is only a matter of time after eating before you get hungry again. Like many other things, incarceration only works when it is done.”
So why do intellectuals often seem so lacking in common sense? Sowell thinks it goes with the job-literally: He defines “intellectuals” as “an occupational category [Sowell’s emphasis], people whose occupations deal primarily with ideas — writers, academics and the like.” Medical researchers or engineers or even “financial wizards” may apply specialized knowledge in ways that require great intellectual skill, but that does not make them “intellectuals,” in Sowell’s view: “An intellectual’s work begins and ends with ideas [Sowell’s emphasis].” So an engineer “is ruined” if his bridges or buildings collapse and so with a financier who “goes broke… the proof of the pudding is ultimately in the eating…. but the ultimate test of a [literary] deconstructionist’s ideas is whether other deconstructionists find those ideas interesting, original, persuasive, elegant or ingenious. There is no external test.” The ideas dispensed by intellectuals aren’t subject to “external” checks or exposed to the test of “verifiability” (apart from what “like-minded individuals” find “plausible”) and so intellectuals are not really “accountable” in the same way as people in other occupations.
I’m happy to stipulate that many practitioners of literary deconstruction are fools (if I can generalize from the ones I’ve known). But I’m skeptical that the world is divided between professors of comparative literature talking only to themselves and real people, facing the test of the market.
We have a whole lot of middle managers in large corporations (as in nonprofit organizations and government agencies) who spend most of their time reading and writing memos. Is it true that these people are accountable for the opinions that guide their decisions? How many of them actually make decisions — as opposed to murmuring concerns, admonitions, considerations, and covering their own backsides in their endless stream of e-mail traffic? Corporations may face market discipline, but that doesn’t mean every manager (let alone every employee) has to focus on how to improve sales.
On the other hand, it is not quite true, even among tenured professors in the humanities, that idea-mongers can entirely ignore “external” checks. Even academics want to be respectable, which means they can’t entirely ignore the realities that others notice. There were lots of academics talking about the achievements of socialism in the 1970s (I can remember them) but very few talking that way after China and Russia repudiated these fantasies.
Sowell offers two chapters on the prattling of intellectuals about foreign policy — first in the 1930s, when they undermined the will to resist Fascist aggression, and then in the 1960s, when they undermined the will to win the war in Vietnam. He shows that many of the same arguments reappeared in the 1960s as if they were new insights. But the fact is that people who spouted antiwar rhetoric in 1935 were either much more hesitant by 1940 or much less heeded. More than two decades had to pass, after the end of the Second World War, before their arguments could regain respectability.
THE MOST DISTORTING ASPECT of Sowell’s account is that, in focusing so much on the delusions of intellectuals, he leaves us more confused about what motivates the rest of society. In a characteristic passage, Sowell protests that “intellectuals…have sought to replace the groups into which people have sorted themselves with groupings created and imposed by the intelligentsia. Ties of family, religion, and patriotism, for example, have long been rated as suspect or detrimental by the intelligentsia, and new ties that intellectuals have created, such as class — and more recently ‘gender’ — have been projected as either more real or more important.”
There’s no disputing the claim that most “intellectuals” — surely most professors in the humanities-are down on “patriotism” and “religion” and probably even “family.” But how did people get to be patriotic and religious in the first place? In Sowell’s account, they just “sorted themselves” — as if by the invisible hand of the market.
Let’s put aside all the violence and intimidation that went into building so many nations and so many faiths in the past. What is it, even today, that makes people revere this country (or some other); what makes people adhere to a particular faith or church? Don’t inspiring words often move people? And those who arrange these words — aren’t they doing something similar to what Sowell says intellectuals do? Is it really true, when it comes to embracing national or religious loyalties, that “the proof of the pudding is in the eating”?
Even when it comes to commercial products, people don’t always want to be guided by mundane considerations of reliable performance. People like glamour, prestige, associations between the product and things they otherwise admire. That’s why companies spend so much on advertising. And that’s part of the reason people are willing to pay more for brand names — to enjoy the associations generated by advertising. Even advertising plays on assumptions about what is admirable and enticing-assumptions that may change from decade to decade, as background opinions change. How many products now flaunt themselves as “green” — and how many did so 20 years ago?
If we could somehow prohibit advertising, would people not care about glamour or style or intangible associations? If we closed down universities and stopped subsidizing intellectual publications, would people really judge every proposed policy by external results? Intellectuals tend to see what they expect to see, as Sowell’s examples show — but that’s true of almost everyone. We have background notions about how the world works that help us make sense of what we experience. We might have distorted and confused notions, but we don’t just perceive isolated facts. People can improve in their understanding, developing background understandings that are more defined or more reliable. That’s part of what makes people interested in the ideas of intellectuals — the hope of improving their own understanding.
On Sowell’s account, we wouldn’t need the contributions of a Friedrich Hayek — or a Thomas Sowell — if we didn’t have so many intellectuals peddling so many wrong-headed ideas. But the wealthier the society, the more it liberates individuals to make different choices and the more it can afford to indulge even wasteful or foolish choices. I’d say that means not that we have less need of intellectuals, but more need of better ones.
Dunbar’s number is a theoretical cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. These are relationships in which an individual knows who each person is, and how each person relates to every other person. Proponents assert that numbers larger than this generally require more restrictive rules, laws, and enforced norms to maintain a stable, cohesive group. No precise value has been proposed for Dunbar’s number. It lies between 100 and 230, but a commonly used value is 150.
Dunbar’s number was first proposed by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who theorized that “this limit is a direct function of relative neocortex size, and that this in turn limits group size … the limit imposed by neocortical processing capacity is simply on the number of individuals with whom a stable inter-personal relationship can be maintained.” On the periphery, the number also includes past colleagues such as high school friends with whom a person would want to reacquaint themselves if they met again.