Politics & Policy

The Sins-and-Grievances Approach

It paints the poor into a corner, where they can nurse their resentments instead of advancing their skills and their prospects.

One of the most ominous developments of our time has been the multicultural dogma that all cultures are equal. It is one of the many unsubstantiated assertions that have become fashionable among self-congratulatory elites, with hard evidence being neither asked for nor offered.

But, however much such assertions minister to the egos of the intelligentsia and the careers of politicians and race hustlers, the multicultural dogma is a huge barrier to the advancement of groups who are lagging economically, educationally, and otherwise.

Once you have said that the various economic, educational, and other “gaps” and “disparities” of lagging groups are not due to either genes or cultures, what is left but the sins of other people?

Sins are never hard to find among any group of human beings. But whether that actually helps those who are lagging or just leads them into the blind alley of resentment is another question.

None of this is peculiar to the United States or to our times. In centuries past, it was common for Germans or other Western Europeans to be a majority of the population in various Eastern European cities, while the Slavic majority predominated in the surrounding countrysides.

Even in times and places where the Germans and other Western Europeans were not a numerical majority in Eastern European cities, or in Baltic cities like Riga, they were clearly an economic and cultural elite in business, industry, and the professions.

They simply had the skills and education that most of the indigenous peoples of Eastern Europe and the Baltic did not have.

At that point, the German language, like other Western European languages, had a vastly larger store of written knowledge than the languages of Eastern Europe, which had developed written versions centuries later.

One obvious way for individuals born into the local indigenous culture to advance themselves was to acquire the language and culture of the Germans, and use the skills and knowledge available in that language to advance themselves. This is what many did.

What this said was that cultures were not equal, at least not at that point in history, which is contrary to the multicultural dogmas of our time.

Nor was this path to individual and group advancement peculiar to Eastern Europe. In 18th-century Scotland, the great philosopher David Hume urged his fellow Scots to learn the English language in order to advance themselves, individually and collectively.

The net result was that Scotland went from being one of the most backward countries on the fringes of European civilization to being one of the most advanced countries in the world. A wholly disproportionate share of the leading British intellectuals from the mid-18th century to the mid-19th century were of Scottish ancestry, and the Scots ultimately surpassed the English in medicine and engineering.

Unfortunately, most intellectuals in most lagging groups did not urge taking the path that David Hume urged upon the Scots. More commonly, the intelligentsia have promoted the path of resentment of those on whom history bestowed a more productive culture.

A rising, indigenous educated class in 19th-century Bohemia and Latvia, for example, resented having to become culturally German in order to advance. Moreover, they resented Germans and worked to get their compatriots to resent Germans as well, even though the cultural disparities at the heart of economic and other disparities were not created by the Germans but by the Romans, centuries earlier, when they invaded Western Europe and put the stamp of their culture on that region.

But explanations of group differences based on historic or geographic happenstances do not provide emotional fulfillment. Some preferred theories of genetic differences, and others preferred seeing the poverty of some as being a result of the sins of those who were more prosperous.

Multiculturalism enshrines the sins-and-grievances approach — and paints the poor into a corner, where they can nurse their resentments instead of advancing their skills and their prospects. The beneficiaries are politicians and race hustlers.

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. © 2010 Creators Syndicate, Inc.

Thomas SowellThomas Sowell is an American economist, social theorist, political philosopher, and author, whose books include Basic Economics. He is currently senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

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