Literacy arraigned

Thomas Sowell comments:

A recently reprinted memoir by Frederick Douglass has footnotes explaining what words like “arraigned,” “curried” and “exculpate” meant, and explaining who Job was. In other words, this man who was born a slave and never went to school educated himself to the point where his words now have to be explained to today’s expensively under-educated generation.

Thirty years ago, I worked as a flunkie for a woman who’d been hired to do an American history curriculum for California Youth Authority (juvenile prison) schools. Or maybe it was an ethnic history curriculum. Her committee of bosses never could make up their minds. I read a searing account of the Middle Passage, written by an escaped slave who’d survived the journey from Africa and later escaped and educated himself. My boss told me to rewrite it in simple words and sentences that CYA students could read. “They took us on the boat. They chained us. It was hot and crowded. Many people died.” And so on. I suggested that students would get more from the passage if they struggled to read it in the original, but my boss told me none of the teen-agers, who’d received a free education from the age of five on, could hope to read language written by the self-educated former slave.

About Joanne


  1. D Anghelone says:

    CYA students


  2. theAmericanist says:

    I have a question: How come there doesn’t seem to be any good science on the most effective methods of challenging kids?

    I mean — this is the cliche of all cliches in pop culture, from Boys Town and Knute Rockne: All American to Miracle: bad kid meets great coach/teacher/mentor, goes through ordeal, turns his life around.

    So how come we don’t have data that backs up specific methods to do this effectively when we need to? It’s a serious inquiry — how hard could it be to document things like the immersion method (which they use at language schools like Middlebury and Monterey), or motivational techniques?

    Sowell thinks juvey kids oughta be confronted with the reality of an escaped slave like Douglass, who started with disadvantages none of them ever had, learning how to actually read and write. (Let’s skip over that they might have a legit complaint that Douglass quite literally assimilated into what a neutral observer might slander as his oppressor’s culture, cuz that’s just perverse.)

    Do we have data that shows this works? How? Or that it doesn’t work?

    Why not?

  3. There’s data out there — however no one is looking for it. They’re looking for data on how to best teach kids to read (a fine goal). Motivating kids to want to read is an entirely different challenge. If you dive into the world of career counseling within the public school system, you can find research linking good career planning with better academic achievement. BTW career planning in this case means more than planning for college or a vocational track — but visualizing (in a similar fashion to how athletes visual gold-winning performances) what their future might hold based upon their interests and economics. Then having the students create a meantingful plan to getting there.

  4. Americanist – All of those stories have something in common. One troubled kid gets put into a place where he has roll models and a dedicated superior instructor who gives him personal attention to help him turn it around. Anecdotally that’s fine and probably happens fairly often in the real world but it’s just not a workable education model.

  5. theAmericanist says:

    Why not?

    Or more precisely — why don’t we know what is most effective for teaching the kinds of classes of troubled kids that we need to teach?

    I mean — I don’t suppose this IS such an odd comparison: think baseball. There is literally nothing that can happen in a baseball game, no combination of hitter and pitcher and balls and strikes and outs and baserunners and the score, that hasn’t happened hundreds, if not thousands of times before. (Most of ’em, tens of thousands.) At most levels, it’s all documented, too. So there is a vast statistical, scientifically accessible database of what works.

    It’s just as idiosyncratic as any classroom of individuals. Same mess of motivations and complex situations and specific tasks. But there is so much data, that it’s predictable within the parameters. If a manager doesn’t know what works, it’s cuz he isn’t paying attention.

    So why don’t we have that for teaching troubled kids?

  6. Rita C. says:

    You want people sitting in classrooms recording this information?

    Jim is right — individual attention, good role models, a caring instructor, etc. — ime these are the types of things that can turn a kid around. If I can make a connection with a kid, sometimes I can turn him or her around. If I can’t, I hope that some other teacher, counselor or other adult in the building is able to do it. You’ve got to love them and you’ve got to believe in them, and you have to do it even when they’re pushing all your buttons and screwing up. And it’s not until the end of the year or maybe years from then whether you’ll know if all that paid off. And you’ve got to know how to not be bitter when you do all that for a kid who completely rejects you. And all that on *top* of high academic standards and piles of papers to grade.

  7. Tom West says:

    I think that it goes to show the difference lies not in the system, but in the individual. Those driven to succeed often manage to overcome almost insurmountable obstacles. Those who are not, given every possible advantage, will not achieve regardless.

    Gross simplification, but an indication why this is an unfair comparison. You cannot legitimately use this example to blame the educational system.

  8. theAmericanist says:

    If you can’t measure something, you can’t improve it.

  9. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Sometimes, good cooking is just a matter of throwing out everything that is rotten, then serving what’s left as best as you can.
    [Did a lot of that during the depression]

  10. Jim Thomason says:

    “kid gets put into a place where he has roll models and a dedicated superior instructor who gives him personal attention to help him turn it around. Anecdotally that’s fine and probably happens fairly often in the real world but it’s just not a workable education model.”

    Sure it’s workable. It’s called home schooling.

  11. George Larson says:

    Maybe the question should be re-phrased to: Why is one teachers’s behavior and attitude an inspiration to some students yet causes fierce resistance in other students? I do not have an answer.

  12. To clarify, Sowell is talking about a book aimed at a normal range of students. I was working on a curriculum for teen-age felons.

  13. I don’t think the intangible factors that go into motivating students can be scientifically measured. There’s no Dedication-O-Meter that you can attach to a teacher, no Interest-O-Meter that you can attach to a student. But just because these qualities can’t be scientifically measured and compared, Americanist, doesn’t mean that they don’t exist or don’t matter or should not be encouraged or cannot be improved.

    It’s for reasons like this that I advocate local control over hiring. Only someone who has been in the same room with a person for a while has even a chance at correctly gauging their devotion or evaluating their interactions with students.

  14. None of those words are commonly used words anymore. The text is over 100 years old. It is not surprising that many people don’t know them. Not too many people “curry” their horses anymore.

    How about talking about some of the good educational things going on?

  15. Some of the research into the treatment of autism shines some light on this question. Emotional competence and motivation derive from early childhood experiences–emotional experiences relating to learning and socialisation and the mastery of them.

    Successful treatment of autism–an extreme form of alienation–often depends on providing the emotional experiences/competency that most children achieve naturally at an early age. In the autistic child the mechanism for emotional reward for learning and socialising is impaired. The emotional training must be made explicit, and strictly individualised.

    Children of crackhead mothers and mothers who are drunks usually raise themselves in front of the TV, with no food in the refrigerator, and no adults to interact with. When they are old enough, they take to the streets and fall into the gender specific delinquency patterns that we are all familiar with.

    Never do they learn the emotional competence associated with learning and socialisation, that are so vital to personal development. By the time they get to a middle school or high school counselor, it is almost inevitably far too late.

  16. theAmericanist says:

    I spent last year at special ed program with autistic kids. When I’m feeling rambunctious, I think we ought to turn the whole of public K-12 education into vouchers and special ed.

    It’s be expensive as hell, but it just might work to the purpose — which is surely better than being expensive as hell and NOT working.

  17. Lynne said “None of those words are commonly used words anymore. The text is over 100 years old. It is not surprising that many people don’t know them. Not too many people “curry” their horses anymore.”

    I have to differ with Lynne here. I asked around my office, and everyone I asked was familiar with and knew those words. One fellow commented that he heard ‘arraigned’ and ‘exculpate’ routinely in his interactions with and readings of legal activities and proceedings. Another laughed and said, ‘Just watch “Law and Order” and you’ll hear them every episode!’

    The problem, we all agreed, is that there is a pervasive attitude of inverse snobbishnes prevalent in our society, and people are ridiculed for being intelligent and educated.

    By the way, these colleagues were all educated people with college degrees, from AA’s to BS’s & MS’s and even a couple of PhD’s. We’re in our 40’s, 50′ and in one case 60’s.

    I also asked a friend’s daughter and some of her friends, who are in 11th grade. The only word they recognized was ‘Job’, and two thought it was ‘job’ (as in ‘work’) until I told them it was pronounced with a long o – then they recognized it from church/bible study. But they obviously hadn’t actually read it themselves but probably only heard it, since they didn’t recognize how the name was spelled vs pronounced.

    Joanne – sounds like that boss who had you rewrite the former slave’s account into ‘easy’ words was one of those ‘concerned’ liberals guilty of the crime of lowered expectations…

  18. Just this while I collect my thoughts on the subject. Heck, it all works, just with different kids, at different times and in the hands of different teachers.

    Tell you a story. I learned to read by observing my older brother. He would lay on the floor and put his book in front of him and read out loud, his finger tracing the words as he read. I lay facing him and watching and listening. I memorized what all the words looked like, only upside down. When I got to the first grade I was given a book which I promptly turned upside down and started reading aloud. This caused all manner of problems which are not of the moment here.

    The point is, anything will work. Why they pay us the big bucks as teachers is to figure out as best we can which, where, how, and who, and in what mix. It drives us nuts sometimes.

    Anything will work. Tragically, sometimes nothing will work. You have to be able to hold both those thoughts in your head at the same time.

  19. carol sm says:

    Hafta kinda agree w/ atlas. Sometimes one thing works, sometimes another, sometimes nothing. As varied as humans are how could something that works with one necessarily, or every time, work for all?

  20. theAmericanist says:

    That’s the point: ‘one’ thing doesn’t work for everybody. But you can’t name a human activity in which human variety doesn’t apply — yet in other fields, it is remarkably common for folks to work out what works and what doesn’t.

    Why not in education?

  21. Rita C. says:

    Why not in computers? It’s just 1’s and 0’s, yet have you ever used a piece of software without bugs?

  22. theAmericanist says:

    (grin) So student failure isn’t a bug, it’s a feature?

  23. stolypin says:

    It would be helpful first to know whether this Douglass reprint was published for use in schools or for an adult readership before I pass judgment. If for use in schools – what age group was it designed for? 5th & 6th graders? middle school? high school?
    It might also be helpful to know, if it is a reprint for school use, whether the books distribution is limited to ‘minority school’ districts. My kids are in a mixed school setting and they read about Douglas and others. Those texts, biographies, memoirs etc. are read by all children in the county – white, black etc. If there is some dumbing down going on it might not be limited to lowered expectations of one group as much as all children of a certain age despite Sowell’s protestations to the contrary.

    In the absence of such information any comments I make would be purely speculative and based on nothing but speculation arising out of my own preconceived notions.

    Anyone know the answers to these questions? Thanks for any assistance.

  24. All the Honors English eleventh-graders here have to read The Scarlet Letter, which has some fairly archaic language. Last fall my erstwhile coworker, a single black mom, had a kid who had to read it. She read it with him. Both mother and son found they needed to have a dictionary handy. They liked it, they just needed a little help and apparently thought it was worth the trouble. I don’t think it hurts people to have to stretch a little bit. How else are you going to learn anything? And I don’t think it’s right to assume that people of a particular lifestyle or social class, race, or what have you, won’t be able to read and understand something that wasn’t written yesterday or won’t be interested.

  25. Reading something in “archaic language” is just as challenging as reading something in a foreign language. The student has to learn the skills to use context clues and main idea to get what is going on. It doesn’t matter if the language is used today – if a student ever comes across an unfamiliar word, they need to have the skills to sound it out and come up with a good idea of what it means. Reading stuff like this builds those skills.

    I’m sick of watered-down curriculum to make it easier for “the poor little kids” – I don’t care if they’ve been incarcerated or not – give it to them in original form in small enough bits and challenge them – kids will rise to the level of expectation. That’s how Jaime Escalante taught Calculus to a bunch of poor Hispanic kids from LA.

  26. theAmericanist says:

    This is what I mean about data — the cliche is that if you challenge kids, have high expectations, good discipline, a businesslike environment, clear goals, parental support, ya da ya da… then what? Does it work, mostly, or not? If it does, why don’t we do “it” all the time?

    Not saying that it always works with every kid — but ‘the system’, whatever it is, doesn’t seem very reliable, and I still wanna know why: is it cuz we know what works, and don’t use it? Or is it cuz we don’t know what works?

    I happen to live just an hour or two from most of the decisive Civil War battlefields — Antietam, Gettysburg, Fredericksburg, the Wilderness. I know of African-American kids who didn’t think much of history in general, and who’d been taught to minimize the achievement of the Civil War — that ending slavery didn’t really solve anything, because whites in the North were ‘just as racist’ as in the South, etc. It’s hard to teach on such a slippery slope.

    Until they saw the Cornfield at Antietam. Just this little square of ground, not much bigger than a football field, with a woods below it on one side and another above it on the other. It’s easy for kids to realize that they could have stood in those woods, and shot people in that field — or walked into that field themselvs. There is a row of monuments on the street that runs past it now, with the names of units and the numbers of the dead. And suddenly it dawned on them what (hey, it’s all pop culture) what Morgan Freeman’s character meant in “Glory”, when he told off the Denzel Washington character: “Dying for you, fool!”

    The young men in particular got real quiet, the jokes were lame and didn’t last, as they just looked around. You could see ’em realize that thousands of men had died in THAT field, right there — and they felt it. It didn’t seem so meaningless or far away anymore.

    I’ve seen something similar – a lot, actually, just not always with kids — at the Vietnam Memorial in DC. (I generally have somebody look up just one name, a guy killed in 1968 named Willie Wogan: RIP.) Go there on Father’s Day, and if you don’t cry, you’ve got a heart with gears in it.

    But that’s history. I dunno if there are similar methods for math or other subjects.

    What are they?

  27. Rita C. says:

    It works with some kids, sure. It does not work with all kids, and we are in search of the holy grail of the method that reaches every single kid.

  28. theAmericanist says:

    Are we?

    I’d settle for a set of methods that make up a system that works: the ones that work with most kids, which select out the kids that those methods don’t reach. Then the methods that work most effectively with THOSE kids, selecting out the kids who need still another approach, and so on.

    Cuz that’s what data would do, right? So — how come we don’t have it?

  29. Rita C. says:

    I think that would be an interesting approach, and I think large districts with magnets, charters, etc. do this on a small scale. The problem is the “dump” or general education schools — they get the unmotivated leftovers, leading to a difficult learning environment and burned out teachers.

    In small districts, it can probably be done on a small scale with teachers. My daughter’s elementary school has several options within the school (250 students total). She could be multi-age, looped, or traditional (we chose traditional for various reasons).

    I tend to get some hand-picked kids every year in my classes in the high school. Last year they overloaded me with difficult children — a risk with this approach — but I have promises of a better roster next year. I don’t think it was deliberate, btw. I managed to pull quite a bit off with this group in terms of behavior and learning outcomes, but I’m still exhausted two weeks after the last day.

    So, yes, I think this is a workable approach. It has its drawbacks, though, like any other.

  30. joe shropshire says:

    Not to pile on Lynn, but: if you can only read what was written in the last 100 years, then in truth you can’t read.

  31. stolypin says:

    1. Does anyone think there is a difference between leaving a text in the original while defining some of the words the editors rightly or wrongly felt were arcane contained therein thus preserving the author’s voice and meaning (the Douglass reprint) and deleting those words entirely and replacing them with ‘dumbed-down’ words (CYA)?
    2. Does anyone know if the Douglass reprint was intended for school kids and if so – what age group? If for school children are we presuming they have the same vocabularly as adults standing around the water cooler discussing Law & Order or Kojak?
    3. Are we to assume that every kid in school has a dictionary at home or access to internet dictionaries and hence a student text (if it was a student text) that defines some words is the product solely of left wing condescenscion running along racial fault lines?
    4. Would we make this same assumption if the text was Last of the Mohicans and not Douglass’ memoirs?
    5. Does anyone assume that homes without books generally and dictionaries specifically are found only in lower income or non-white communitites? I have been in some very expensive houses that are bereft of books but have a surplus of plasma TVs and video systems.
    6. The words “irenicon” and “amanuensis” are contained in a book I just finished. It was a bestseller. The words were perhaps common in Jacobean England and were probably more frequently used 100 years ago. Does the fact that I did not know those words mean I cannot read? (probably best if no one actually answers that question) These words are, I think, more difficult than exculpate or arraign – particularly for those of us old enough to have studied Latin in our youths – but I do wonder whether Sowell’s argument is about defining words in texts generally or just words he/we consider too easy?

  32. joe shropshire says:

    Stolypin: no, nobody’s saying that you can’t read. I’m sure that when you encountered irenicon and amanuensis you did just as I did when I read your post : you got out a dictionary or fired up and looked ’em up. That’s part of the skill of reading, and it’s something to be encouraged and taught. But arraigned and curried and exculpate are certainly still in common use, as your two examples are not, and are in fact fairly common, workaday words. I think that’s Sowell’s point, and why he chose them as examples.

  33. theAmericanist says:

    LOL — um, let’s not forget that Sowell is a snob and tool, now.

    Consider: he complains in this piece that fairly complex words (e.g., “exculpate”) were considered too hard for these kids, which is his primary point: gee, look at this great hero of the abolitionist era, but all these expensively educated modern kids can’t read his achievement. Pure snob.

    Along with the rest of Sowell’s work, this is typical of what makes him a tool: contrast, say, the treatment of Stephen Douglas in any standard history text. (James Loewen did a great bit on this in “Lies My Teacher Told Me”.) All history textbooks mention the Lincoln-Douglas debates; they all say what a ‘great orator’ Douglas was; several spend sentences describing how ‘fiery’ he was; one devotes an entire paragraph to his clothes.

    But NOT ONE actually quotes this ‘great orator’ saying, in words far simpler than “exculpate”, that he was a proud white supremacist who considered slavery to be the natural order of things, that it was morally right. This is a mite more important than “exculpate”, don’t ya think?

    I’ve been reading Sowell’s column for 20+ years, and you will search in vain for evidence that he is not a snob and a tool. It is marginally legit to complain that kids above a certain level now ought to be able to know a word like “exculpate” (Latin root, not uncommon in a legal context), or at least to be able to look it up.

    But the underlying messages in Sowell’s column are that 1) the good old days were better, when the exceptional did great things with little help, and 2) coddling these modern kids is a failure. These are themes in his syndicated column — in fact, they’re a primary reason it IS syndicated.

    A snob and a tool.

    JJ’s point is better, that we oughta let kids read original work directly. Have ’em read Frederick Douglass — and Stephen Douglas, too.

  34. What has the treatment of Stephen Douglas in standard history textbooks got to do with Sowell being a tool? Did he write all the history textbooks? Would you call him a tool if he were white?

    Stolypin: I already knew “amanuensis”.
    : )
    I know “aperture” because I looked it up the first time I read Jane Eyre – I remember doing it.

  35. theAmericanist says:

    He’s a tool cuz of his rather large body of work in opinion columns, this is just f’r instance. All by itself, it is at least as fair to note that it denotes a snobbery (‘gee, why don’t these kids with their expensive educations know a word like “exculpate”) as to regard it as a telling critique of the failures of modern education: they don’t know the word, so you can argue if it is worth knowing in this context. I’m easy either way.

    But the broader point, which JJ raised more than Sowell (cuz he’s a tool, and she’s not), is that we rarely have kids read primary documents in textboks. She remembered dumbing down a text, and wondered if the kids wouldn’t have been more impressed if they’d read it in the original. That wasn’t quite Sowell’s point — and it is curious that he chose THIS example and THIS argument to make his point.

    So I thought it worth reminding folks that there are LOTS of examples of this sorta dumbing down, the pre-gurgitation of our history/literature, and most of ’em serve a consistent ideological purpose. Sowell is like a lot of ideologues, in that there is a consistency to the things he bitches about — and those he does not.

    If you can find a single example of Thomas Sowell ever attacking the whitewashing of our history that doesn’t support the idea that things were better in the olden days when we had more self-reliance and less of this or that, the way he kvetched that kids should know what “exculpate” means, I will happily withdraw the charge that he’s a tool.

    Unless and until: it sticks.

    (smile) Can’t get more fair than that.

  36. Actually, it can get more fair than that.

    “He’s a tool cuz of his rather large body of work in opinion columns, this is just f’r instance.”

    Everybody who writes a lot of opinion columns is a tool? A tool of whom?

    Is it so impossible that Sowell could be expressing his own opinions that he has independently generated by contemplating things that he observed? I can’t help but wonder if you think he’s a tool because he doesn’t write the things a black person is supposed to write. Maybe you think he couldn’t possibly come up with this stuff himself; white folks must be feeding it to him. Please tell me I’m wrong.

  37. theAmericanist says:

    In a word, no. Your accusation is ignorant even more than insulting, and not worth dignifying. It reveals more how you think than how I think.

    But there is a simple answer, stripped of the racism you illustrate: he’s a ‘tool’, because in consistently arguing an ideology, he consistently ignores inconvenient facts if they don’t further that ideology.

    Because ya want to consider it from the perspective of race (why?), the instance he cited, and the one I noted as a counter example after some discussion, is pretty revealing.

    I agree with JJ — it’s not a bad idea ever, and often it’s a very good idea, to have kids read primary sources in the original, rather than have ’em dumbed down all the time. But there are at least two different ways to dumb down (or censor out) original text.

    One is the f’r instance cited by Sowell, in which kids actually GOT the text, just with footnotes explaining what arraigned, curried and exculpate meant. Sowell’s snobbery lies in the (harrumph) idea that kids reading such words need to have ’em explained to them.

    LOL — what IS that, if not snobbery? He objects to footnotes?

    JJ’s example is better. She described having to paraphrase a slave chronicle, because (she was told) the kids wouldn’t understand it.

    The examples, JJ’s and Sowell’s, show an important distinction: Sowell is kvetching that kids nowadays aren’t literate enough to know what ‘exculpate’ means. JJ notes that kids benefit from challenges.

    So if you add my example (just cuz, um, it’s true?) , it extends JJ’s theme: kids DO benefit from challenges. It would be good if kids were to read not only Frederick Douglass, but Stephen Douglas, in the original. (For one thing, you might have fewer neo-Confederates hallucinating that the Civil War was about states rights instead of white supremacy.)

    But my example would CHANGE, not extend, Sowell’s theme. Instead of merely providing evidence that modern students are not properly educated compared with those of the past, the fact that kids today don’t read Stephen Douglas — and, in fact, are provided with an utterly whitewashed version of his racism (and let’s not forget, he BEAT Lincoln) — is evidence of a different kind of miseducation than the one Sowell writes about.

    Which is what makes him a tool. He doesn’t work with facts that do not support his ideology. So far as he is concerned, those facts do not exist.

    A snob and a tool.

  38. I still don’t get it. You dragged Stephen Douglas in from the outer darkness to make your obscure point. No one else was talking about him.

    Let me try one more time. A tool cannot originate anything itself. It can have no purpose. It can do nothing but be used by a real person to satisfy his or her puspose. You have not given any reason for any reasonable person to believe that Thomas Sowell did not originate his own opinions. Stephen Douglas, blah blah blah, is not a reason. If your reason is that nobody could really have the opinions that Sowell expresses, then you are very limited in your imagination, because lots of people do. I’m very hard-pressed to come up with another one, other than that Sowell doesn’t toe the party line that he was destined by his skin color to toe, and it’s a charge that’s been leveled against him many times.

  39. theAmericanist says:

    Laura: two things.

    First, you keep bringing up race. Why? (It makes you look bad, ya know — like a one-trick pony who has forgotten it.)

    Second, methinks you need to get out more. As slang, “tool”, as in “Sowell is a tool” denotes something different, even as metaphor, than the same word in a sentence like “a hammer is a tool.”

    It derives from a sexual slur and in that sense is simply a more genteel and even literary way of calling somebody a prick.

    It connotes a person who is primarily interested in themself, e.g., “Ricky Henderson was a notorious tool”, because when Henderson played baseball he was infamous for caring only about his individual achievements and not for the many teams he played on. (One could not say “for”.)

    Just so with Sowell — observing that he is a snob (I note nobody even bothers to claim THAT is unfair) and a tool is fair and accurate.

    (sweet smile) And you’re proving it, ya know.

  40. If getting out more means I have to learn vulgar meanings for everyday terms, I think I’ll stay in, thanks. Putting your own eccentric definitions on words (I say that because I read a lot and I’ve never seen “tool” used that way) hampers communication. I don’t know why you think Sowell is so unusual for discounting facts that don’t support his worldview. People do that all the time. Even you.

  41. theAmericanist says:

    Yeah? Name one.


  42. I don’t have to name one to know that. Nobody is a purely objective and disinterested sifter of facts, and anybody who thinks he is, is tremendously lacking in self-insight.

    I refer you to Steve LaBonne’s post about the behavior gap, where he has this to say to you: “Americanist, I gave you your answer, but you don’t want to deal with it….Why ask a question when you clearly don’t want to hear the answer?” Are you really convinced that you have no bias and are a pure seeker of truth? Please.

  43. stolypin says:


    For what its worth, I think the term ‘tool’ as used here is closer to your perceived meaning than to the other, more vulgar, definition provided to you. (It can be used that way – just doesn’t work in this context). In a socio-political context it is mostly used, in my experience, in reference to someone who wittingly or unwittingly assisted another group’s socio-political agenda. Mr. X is a tool for U.S. imperialist interests or Ms. Y is a tool of the bouergoisie [sic]. Kind of like Lenin or Stalin referring to H.G. Wells and other lerbal/scoialist sympathizers as “useful idiots”. They served a useful, if unwitting, purpose in advancing Soviet interests.

    In the context of Sowell (not as used here but as used by African-American groups calling him a tool when they disagree with his views) I understand it to mean that he is accused of being a witting or unwitting tool (like a hammar as you note and not a body part) of the white majority. It is closer to calling him an Uncle Tom than a pr*ck when used in this context.

    I also agree with you that calling someone a tool can be extremely condescending. One can disagree with his assessment of the Douglas reprint (as I do) without being so condesceding as to refer to him as a tool or anything else. Alas, it is far easier to attack the messenger than the message.

    By the way Laura . . . nice seeing you on this board . . . different tone than we were used to on the other one. Ivan

  44. theAmericanist says:

    Oddly enough, the person who uses the term gets to say what he meant.

  45. Americanist, you sound like the caterpillar in Through the Looking Glass. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

    Stolypin, it is a different bunch here. Glad to see you too.

  46. theAmericanist says:

    I thought it was the Red Queen, who said something like when SHE used a word, it meant what she told it to mean.

    Ya just gotta show ’em who’s boss, ya know.