The retirement of syndicated columnist and thought leader Thomas Sowell this week brought to mind Soren Kierkegaard’s famous observation that, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
Sowell understood that success in life – family, relationships, business, politics, journalism, etc. – depends on one’s willingness to humbly accept our finite perspective while warring against the tendency to forget the past. Sowell’s skill at applying history to the future without succumbing to misty nostalgia sets him apart.
I started reading Sowell as a college student in the 1990s. I can still recall the thrill of receiving the print edition of the Conservative Chronicle in the waning days of the analog era. He had a way of reminding readers why the free enterprise system and ordered liberty was permanently great, just, and good in spite of the times and trends.
Sowell’s retirement comes in the midst of a bizarre era. Today, the self-described real media is infuriated with “fake” news, without realizing the entire discussion is a reflection of the real media’s deficiencies. That deficiency is the tendency to treat reporting as entertainment and a sport. The media’s click-bait conflict bias leads them to pursue the rush of covering combat between two opposing sides ahead of the more tedious but rewarding task of digging into what is true and what works in the real world.
But Sowell would have none of this. He writes in his farewell letter:
Being old-fashioned, I liked to know what the facts were before writing. That required not only a lot of research, it also required keeping up with what was being said in the media.
A younger person I know recently asked a variation of this question about the bizarreness of 2016: “Why are people so quick to disregard or reconsider previously held beliefs especially when undergirded by facts?”
The answer is we have forgotten something Sowell understood. The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) put it well: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” In today’s postmodern age everyone – especially politicians – is entitled to their own opinions and their own facts.
Sowell writes that in spite of material progressions in standards of living during his lifetime we’ve gone backward in other ways. He says:
In some other ways, however, there have been some serious retrogressions over the years. Politics, and especially citizens’ trust in their government, has gone way downhill.
Still, Sowell warned against viewing the past with nostalgia or sentimentality.
We cannot return to the past, even if we wanted to, but let us hope that we can learn something from the past to make for a better present and future.
Sowell, 86, says that in his retirement years he’s going to spend more time on photography. He’ll no doubt continue to capture the beautiful order of things through a different lens as he lives life forward.
John Hart is the Editor-in-Chief of Opportunity Lives. You can follow him on Twitter @johnhart333.