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BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION : A Migration Puzzle That Makes Six Cultures Fit a Bit Too Neatly : MIGRATIONS AND CULTURES: A World View by Thomas Sowell; Basic Books $30, 516 pages

April 11, 1996|ANTHONY DAY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In this grim tome, Thomas Sowell rakes through history for shards he can glue together to make a pot whose shape he has already determined. If the pieces don't fit, he will chip away at them until they do.

This is his theory: "Cultures" largely determine human behavior. "Though cultures transcend race, particular cultures are obviously often associated with particular racial and ethnic groups," he writes.

These cultures persist for generations, for centuries, even as the groups they denominate move about the globe. He writes about six migrant groups of which he particularly approves, Germans, Japanese, Italians, Chinese, Jews and Indians from the subcontinent.

As these groups have migrated, they have taken with them into their new homes what Sowell calls their "cultural capital." The six share certain virtues, notably hard work, thrift and belief in education, and they ultimately achieve economic success. And, most importantly to Sowell, they do not engage in "ethnic politics" in their new homes or, indeed, in much politics at all.

The nations into which they have moved have done nothing to promote their interests; rather, they have often raised high barriers, which the immigrants nevertheless surmount in the end.

Sowell does not argue that a "race" or "culture" can never change its characteristics, only that changes come slowly. Certainly, no government action can accelerate change or bring about improvement.

He seems to be in the grip of a kind of historical Calvinism that saves some people and damns the rest, and leaves meager room for alteration.

In the last chapter of the book, Sowell makes no bones about what he believes is its relevance to contemporary American life. Both "multiculturalism" and "affirmative action," he writes, "add to the cost of absorbing immigrants, not least by increasing the resentment of them by the native population.

"Government-provided benefits have made immigrants more costly to absorb, quite apart from the question [of] whether they cause more immigrants to come, or reduce the selectivity of the immigrant population by including many without the initiative or ambition of those who immigrated when there was little or no help from the government.

"Anti-immigrant feelings and movements have grown in the welfare states of Western Europe and the United States.

"Unfortunately, among ideological zealots who have promoted immigrants as a symbolic cause, this resentment by the masses may only confirm their own sense of moral superiority, rather than serving as a warning that the combination of lax immigration laws, welfare state benefits and schemes to keep foreigners foreign are leading to potentially explosive conflicts." Who are these "ideological zealots" with a "sense of moral superiority"? What is the "symbolic cause" they are said to be promoting? Sowell gives not a hint, leaving us vaguely uneasy that something sinister is somewhere afoot.

Sowell's stories are inherently interesting. Why do some cultures do better than others? How do some characteristics persist through the ages? But by forcing these tales into a predetermined form he squeezes the life out of them.

Take, for example, his treatment of the German migrations around the world. He much admires Germans. They have a capacity for "hard, thorough, unrelenting work." They have an "apathy about politics." They have strong traditions of both militarism and pacifism. They believe in education.

But German anti-Semitism, which was so deeply embedded in the culture, evidently presents a problem for Sowell. So he simply wishes it away. Group prejudice and discrimination were less pronounced among Germans than among other Europeans, he writes. Only "a small fraction" of Germans, led astray by Hitler, perpetrated the Holocaust.

As evidence for his astounding claim that the German people did not share the Nazis' views of Jews, he asserts that before the war the nation's residents did not mount "pogroms" against Jews.

No reputable historian shares his opinion. The consensus is that, as Stanford historian Gordon A. Craig writes in the current New York Review of Books, when Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933 he "could count on widespread sympathy and support" for his anti-Jewish program. In his book, Sowell barely mentions two prominent groups of migrants to this country, African Americans and Mexican Americans. I think he means to imply that the "cultures" of both probably doom them to failure.

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