by James R. Flynn. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. 352pp. Hardback. $28.00/£19.99. ISBN: 9780521494311. eBook format. $22.00. ISBN: 9780511426629.

Reviewed by Paul Frymer, Politics Department, Princeton University. Email: pfrymer [at] Princeton.EDU.


As the title suggests, James R. Flynn’s new book has a big argument and scope, engaging in debates about inequality, ideas, and politics. At the outset, he argues that, “what passes for public debate in America is barren because of the failure of will and a poverty of ideas among American liberals” (p.1), and he proceeds, over the course of 300 swiftly written pages, to engage with four problems in modern society – issues of race, class, military power, and morality. He argues that, in order to respond to these problems, Americans must return to the civic tradition and philosophical foundation of Thomas Jefferson. Inspired by Jefferson, Flynn promotes a more intellectually rigorous political dialogue that he believes might help us begin to counter the problems that ail modern-day America. In so doing, Flynn spends anywhere from a few paragraphs to several pages on a wide-ranging set of topics, including questions of what constitutes intellect, free-will, how we can respond to corporate irresponsibility, how we can better promote peace in the Middle East, as well as the philosophical traditions of the likes of Leo Strauss, Aristotle, and Nietzsche. The book is written with flair and confidence, the latter of which is reflected by the range of topics he handles and his tendency to use relatively few citations to support his claims. Given Flynn’s scope and ambition, the success of such a wide-ranging book rests on his ability to write engagingly, thoughtfully, and to make connections between a wealth of topics so as to make us think differently about the world we live in and face. Think Malcolm Gladwell or Steven Levitt as recent models – an attempt at big think on everyday themes from an out-of-the-box thinker that combines economic theory with ample bits of psychology and biology, a pinch of philosophy, and just a dab of ethics and religion. The result, unfortunately, is decidedly mixed, with more misses than makes.

The biggest problem is that for much of the book (especially the first half, which focuses on racial inequality) Flynn’s big think seems less out of the box than out of date. This problem might have been avoided had he listened to his own advice: early in the book, he criticizes Carey Estes Kefauver, the progressive Tennessee Senator in the mid-twentieth century, for failing to recognize his own limitations when it comes to race, remarking “how easy it is in America to be a highly principled person, and be without racial bias, and yet not see the state of black America for what it is” (p.33). There is no better evidence for this statement than reading Flynn’s own well-meaning and principled discussion about how to improve black America. To the degree that his arguments [*225] resonate (and at least some of what he says relates tangentially to comments from the likes of William Julius Wilson to Barack Obama), they are hampered with clumsy and insensitive language as well as off-the-cuff assumptions on the border between bad taste and outright gaffe.

He begins his discussion on race by stating that, “How black men and women interact sexually is the best starting point to comprehend the state of black America” (p.39). His claim, that the black community needs more fathers who stick around for the kids, is not problematic simply because it is controversial (after all, even though many would argue that issues of class, history, institutions, and discrimination are more important to the current status of racial inequality, no less a source than President Obama has made headlines for emphasizing the need for black men to be more accountable for their actions in their personal lives); it is problematic because the arguments employed to defend his claims are fraught with generalities, half-truths, and stereotypes. Flynn believes that African American women cannot find enough African American men who might make suitable husbands. This, he argues, is largely because nearly a quarter of black men in the United States are “prisoners at large,” and thus for a variety of socio-economic reasons, have trouble getting jobs and being good fathers (p.50). This also has consequence for the vast majority of African American men who are not “prisoners at large;” because, assuming these potential husbands are acting rationally, Flynn argues that these black men are likely to “exploit the fact that they are scarce commodities” and thus “feel that they can get steady sex without ever having to offer marriage in exchange” (p.51). So much for the possibility of black men becoming husbands for black women. How about inter-marriage? Unfortunately, Flynn argues, white men also do not want to have children with black women, because “a white male will not want the consequences of marrying a black wife, namely, that his children will bear the handicap of being socially classified as black” (p.64). Of course, there are some exceptions. “Asian women would find many more white spouses,” he suggests (though he does not say why); and white women – faced with the “prize of an outstanding black man” – are more likely to marry across races because “in our society, a woman’s self esteem is much more tied to the achievements of her spouse” (p.120).

To Flynn, it is self-evident that “the culture of black American males stipulates that personal offenses should be settled by interpersonal violence without recourse to the law” (p.163). As such, he asserts that there are empirical differences in how often different groups commit violence, and thus, understandable that Americans discriminate and profile on the basis of race: “black skin . . . allows rational actors to predict behavior, or at least make statistical predictions . . . (and) it makes sense to act on statistics if more accurate information relevant to an individual’s behavior would be costly” (p.112). Obviously, this short book review is not the place to challenge empirically such a big claim. But at the least, Flynn’s claim about African Americans having a cultural propensity towards violence is an argument that has been made by other scholars and pundits about a myriad of different groups inside [*226] and outside of the United States, and has even been made about the United States as a whole (Regarding the latter, see Whitman 2003). The better answer is clearly more complicated, involves a series of intervening factors and variables, and ought to be discussed with detail and attention to nuance.

When Flynn turns to affirmative action policy, his intent is to defend the policy as necessary by proving that discrimination exists. Again, as with previous chapters, whether one agrees with his goals or not, his reasoning is crude and problematic. He defends affirmative action by asserting that racism is real. Although there is plenty of evidence at his disposal that he could use to support his claim, he relies instead on the type of anecdote one might expect in an Andrew Dice Clay standup routine: “White after white, despite powerful sexual attraction, has chosen not to make their children black because they know, they know very well, that to do so would be to give their children bad luck in terms of group membership. Even the violent and drunken Irish, the hyperemotional and clannish Italians, the stolid and Pinochle-playing Poles found it easy to marry out. But does anyone want to marry blacks? They do not” (p.127). If you are not yet convinced by his arguments, he provides this scenario: “Were you and your partner to die soon after the birth of a child, would you prefer that child to be raised by black adoptive parents or white adoptive parents?” Apparently, he assumes that the “you” reading his book is a white person, as he writes two sentences later, “most people care as much for the welfare of their children as they do for themselves, and if few whites would choose the black option, there is a prima facie case that few of them believe that the black experience has become a privileged one” (p.123).

At other times in the book, Flynn’s ideas make a certain sense, but seem to engage with debates that ought to have been over decades ago. Flynn is best known for his path-breaking and controversial work on intelligence, IQ tests, and genetic links. He has spent a lot of time arguing with the likes of Charles Murray against the claim that racial differences in IQ tests reflect differences in genetics. He is firmly in the camp that IQ differences are a result of one’s environment; his finding (“the Flynn effect”) that IQ scores rise over generations has become well known and respected. In this book, he spends some of his time rehashing such debates, explaining why racial differences exist on IQ scores, pointing to the myriad of problems that genetic-based arguments have – namely the absence of much real data that are not taken absent of context.

Finally, for an author deeply concerned about remedying racial inequality, and simultaneously interested in promoting the virtues of Thomas Jefferson, there is surprisingly little mention of Jefferson’s own views on race. Flynn must know that Jefferson’s written thoughts on African Americans and Native Americans, as well as his personal relationships with African American slaves, have received an inordinate amount of attention in recent years. And yet, Flynn devotes a scant few sentences to assert that Jefferson thought of Native Americans as equals, and to defend Jefferson’s decision to keep slaves as a noble one – because Jefferson recognized that freeing slaves would lead to worse alternatives than living a [*227] life enslaved by an enlightened master. Again, whether Flynn is right or wrong is beside the point: he makes quick claims in the midst of incredibly contested and murky waters. Flynn provides neither scrutiny nor sensitivity to any of his discussion on race. This is bold and out of the box only if Flynn were writing a half-century ago; today, it reads less as shocking and provoking than as tired and bizarre.

But enough about Flynn’s view on race; one of the nice things about Flynn’s book is that if you disagree with one argument, you can usually turn the page to find a new argument on a new topic. Much of the second half of the book is on a scattering of thoughts, and most of these work better. Throughout the book, Flynn provides lots of food for thought – interesting ideas about how the United States should act as a power in the world, and how we should think about intelligence and the ways in which the world shapes the individual’s ability to act intelligently. He also provides policy ideas on a range of topics, particularly America’s role in foreign policy and ways to reign in corporate irresponsibility. On the latter, he proposes the establishment of a National Business School that commands moral behavior and transparency in the way that the American Bar Association is expected to behave. Later in the book, he writes an interesting if not path-breaking chapter on the political philosophy of Rawls, Strauss, Plato, and Nietzsche.

For the readers of this list-serve interested in law and courts, you will not find too much here directly related to such topics (except a blurb on the back cover from NYU law professor Jeremy Waldron). You will find a lot of discussion of what is wrong with America and why we need to change the discussion. Like a lot of authors, Flynn has certain sentences – such as claiming on the first page that liberals do not have ideas and alternatives – that feel a bit dated with the Obama election. Unlike a lot of these other authors, much of Flynn’s text was dated well before most Americans had ever heard of Barack Obama.


© Copyright 2009 by the author, Paul Frymer.