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March 29th, 2017

Insight

Political Translations

Thomas Sowell

By Thomas Sowell

Published Nov. 25, 2015

It is amazing how many different ways the same thing can be said, creating totally different impressions. For example, when President Barack Obama says that defeating ISIS is going to take a long time, how is that different from saying that he is going to do very little, very slowly? It is saying the same thing in different words.

Defenders of the administration's policies may cite how many aerial sorties have been flown by American planes against ISIS. There have been thousands of these sorties, which sounds very impressive. But what is less impressive — and more indicative — is that, in most of those sorties, the planes have not fired a single shot or dropped a single bomb.

Why? Because the rules of engagement are so restrictive that in most circumstances there is little that the pilot is allowed to do, unless circumstances are just right, which they seldom are in any war.

Moreover, the thousands of sorties being flown are still a small fraction of the number of sorties flown in the same amount of time during the Iraq war, when American leaders were serious about getting the war won.

Politics produces lots of words that can mean very different things, if you stop and think about them. But politicians depend on the fact that many people don't bother to stop and think about them.

We often hear that various problems within the black community are "a legacy of slavery." That phrase is in widespread use among people who believe in the kinds of welfare state programs that began to dominate government policies in the 1960s.

Blaming social problems today on "a legacy of slavery" is another way of saying, "Don't blame our welfare state policies for things that got worse after those policies took over. Blame what happened in earlier centuries."

Nobody would accept that kind of cop-out, if it were expressed that way. But that is why it is expressed differently, as a "legacy of slavery."

If we were being serious, instead of being political, we could look at the facts. Were the kinds of problems we are concerned about in black communities today as bad during the first century after slavery or in the first generation after the vastly expanded welfare state?

What about children being raised with no father in the home? As of 1960, nearly a century after slavery ended, 22 percent of black children were being raised in single-parent families. Thirty years later, 67 percent of all black children were being raised in single-parent families.

What about violence? As of 1960, homicide rates among non-white males had gone down by 22 percent during the preceding decade. But, during the decade of the 1960s, that trend suddenly reversed, and the homicide rate shot up by 76 percent. The welfare state vision was often part of a larger, non-judgmental social vision that was lenient on criminals and hard on the police.

Few people today know that marriage rates and rates of labor force participation were once higher among blacks than among whites — all of this during the first century after slavery. In later years, a reversal occurred, largely in the wake of the welfare state expansions that began in the 1960s.

Another fashionable phrase that evades any need for evidence is "disparate impact" — a legal phrase accepted in the Supreme Court of the United States, despite being downright silly when you stop and think about it.

Whenever there is some standard for being hired, promoted or admitted to a college, some groups may meet that standard more so than others. One way of expressing that is to say that more of the people from group X meet the standard than do people from group Y. But politically correct people express the same thing by saying that the standard has a "disparate impact" on group Y. Once it is expressed this way, it is the standard that is suspect — and whoever set that standard has to prove a negative, namely that he is not guilty of discrimination against group Y. Often nobody can prove anything, so the accused loses — or else settles out of court.

Stupid? No. It takes very clever people to make something like that sound plausible. But it also requires people who don't bother to stop and think, who enable them to get away with it.

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Thomas Sowell, a National Humanities Medal winner, is an American economist, social theorist, political philosopher and author. He is currently Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

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