Monday, March 19, 2007

Harmful books

What are the most dangerous books of the last two centuries? Here's one answer as compiled by conservatives, hence the lack of a single title by Ann Coulter.

The list, and my commentary:

1. Communist Manifesto. Okay, fair enough. Debate over the ideals and logic behind it aside, attempts to implement this little gem led to the deaths of tens of millions of people worldwide. Communism remains a nice ideal (to some) but a demonstrably horrible form of government.

2. Mein Kampf. This one's a little murkier. Yes, Adolf was a pretty bad guy, and as such perhaps his book deserves the same treatment as the Communist Manifesto, and for the same reason. Except that his book played almost no role in his rise to power. It didn't start selling until he actually took power and it became mandatory reading. Hitler bad? No question. But this ranking seems to give his rambling and incoherent book way too much credit.

3. Quotations from Chairman Mao. Another entry chosen for the same reasons as the first two. While a reasonable choice in itself, it again points up the misplaced credit given to "Mein Kampf." Because this book, like the Communist Manifesto, again led directly to myriad deaths and persecutions thanks to its influence during the Cultural Revolution.

4. The Kinsey Report. And now we start to stray into really bizarro conservative territory. After three ideologies that killed hundreds of millions, the next most harmful book is .... a study of American sexual practices. The stated reason? "The reports were designed to give a scientific gloss to the normalization of promiscuity and deviancy." Yes, I can see where that's nearly as harmful as killing or exiling millions of people.... Was Kinsey guilty of ethical and scientific lapses? Yes. Fourth most harmful book in modern history? C'mon.

5. Democracy and Education. An influential book that advocated schools spend less time teaching "character development" and memorizing facts, and more time teaching kids to think. While waves of educational fads have indeed weakened education, this was not such a fad. It makes the argument that a healthy democracy requires an educated and thinking populace more than a pliant population capable of regurgitating facts but less able to think for themselves. This is hardly radical; one commonly cited advantage of American students is their ability to think creatively, unlike their counterparts in Japan and India, for example, where students outscore us on standardized tests but often find themselves ill-prepared for more than technical jobs because while they have all the tools, they never really learned how to apply them in new ways. This may be why the most devastating thing the listmakers can think of to say about it is that it "helped nurture the Clinton generation."

6. Das Kapital. Marx/Engel's other book is apparently less dangerous than either sexuality or public education, perhaps because it's more of a critique of capitalism than an actual proposed alternative like the "Communist Manifesto." One can argue that this founding document of modern socialism contributed to the philosophical underpinnings of communism, and its calls for the abolition of private property (the full Marxist/Communist form of socialism) are offensive both morally and economically. But on the other hand socialist activists have produced much actual good, such as the five-day workweek, paid vacation and workplace safety laws. One can argue that modern capitalism is both stronger and more democratic thanks to Marx's critique, however unrealistic his alternative.

7. The Feminine Mystique. Another conservative pet peeve, feminism, nails down the #7 spot. While Betty Friedan was quite militant by today's standards -- as almost all pioneers are -- the only way one can say this book was harmful is if one also argues that it was okay to force women into subservient, gender-defined social roles. Friedan, whatever her faults or excesses, laid the groundwork for today's society, in which women are (horrors!!) allowed to choose their own life and career path. How terrible.

8. The Course of Positive Philosophy. This book is harmful because it outlines a nontheistic belief system. No, seriously. That's why it's so dangerous, because it describes a philosophy that doesn't require belief in God. If anyone was still taking this list seriously, hopefully you've stopped now.

9. Beyond Good and Evil. The infamous classic by Freidrich Nietsche argues that belief in God is a weakness, but mostly it's taken to task for its amoral, "might makes right" philosophy. I'd argue that this book is far more deserving of the #2 spot instead of "Mein Kampf", because it had more direct influence on Nazi ideology (indeed, it informed "Mein Kampf").

10. General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. The classic economic text by John Maynard Keynes, which advocated government regulation of the economy. It was indeed hugely influential. But it is harmful only if you dislike the economic course the world has taken since the Great Depression, because Keynesian economics are the rules by which the world operates today. The most notable sign of his influence is the existence of the Federal Reserve's Open Market Committee, which raises and lowers interest rates to even out business cycles -- something it has done with remarkable success for nearly 80 years. The overheated booms and destructive panics of the 19th Century are largely things of the past. Was he 100% right on everything? Of course not. But on balance his theories seem to have done more good than harm.

The Honorable Mention list is even sillier, containing books such as "On Liberty" by John Stuart Mill, "Origin of Species" by Charles Darwin, "Unsafe at Any Speed" by Ralph Nader, "Silent Spring" by Rachel Carlson and "Introduction to Psychoanalysis" by Freud. I guess these are harmful if you think personal liberty, evolution, consumer safety, concern for the environment and the study and treatment of mental dysfunction are bad things. Although in the latter two cases there are legitimate criticisms of the authors for being excessive in their concern and incorrect in certain assertions, I think it would be difficult to argue that either Carson or Freud did more harm than good.

To be fair, it can be difficult to put together a good list of "harmful" books. Part of this is our national commitment to free speech; it's hard to argue that we should not be exposed to the ideas in "Beyond Good and Evil" or even "Mein Kampf," if only so they can be debated (and largely refuted) in the open light of day. So I have no other titles to offer in replacement of those above, simply because I'm not given to making such lists.

Perhaps that's the lesson to be imparted here. Ideas are not harmful; applications are. We should hold Hitler, not Nietsche, responsible for the National Socialist movement. We should hold the Soviet authorities, not Marx, responsible for the compound disaster that was the Soviet Union. Just like we don't hold Adam Smith responsible for the excesses of pure capitalism, or hold Ayn Rand responsible for the more lunatic Libertarian fringe, or hold Jesus responsible for the actions of the religious right. A book may give dullards a faux-intellectual hook on which to hang their actions; but their actions cannot be blamed on the book, any more than the killing can be blamed on the gun.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

A tired attempt by conservatives to sound intellectual.
Main Kampf in the list, is a smokescreen. They would love to put liberals in the same position as hitler put jews in.
Communist Manifesto...... Frankly I dont buy the idea that communism is great philosophy that just doesnt work on the ground. Count me one of the Arthur Schlesinger types.
I wonder why they dont put Milton Friedman's work in there, his work has proved to be big government's best friend

3/19/2007 2:24 PM  
Anonymous Doug Williams said...

I consider myself a conservative, and enjoyed your commentary. This list seems to come from the Sean Hannity / Laura Ingraham school of knee-jerk conservatism. I can see the kind of thought that informed the list, but it was so obviously lacking context or connection with serious counterpoint it's a self-parody.

Re: Silent Spring, I believe the argument about its harm is that it promoted now thoroughly debunked science leading to an international ban on DDT which directly lead to millions of needless deaths in the third world. Banning DDT not only didn't save endangered birds, as was Rachel Carson's concern, it also caused malaria carrying mosquito populations and the malaria deaths attributable to them to explode. While it would be silly to call this an intentional result, it's not wrong to call it harmful.

Also, when I read comments like GK's above that conservatives "would love to put liberals in the same position as hitler put jews in," I sympathize with you moderates trying to sail rationally between the silliness of these list makers, and hysterical paranoia on the other side. Good luck with that.

3/20/2007 9:53 AM  
Blogger Douglas said...

What do you think of The Population Bomb by Paul Ehrlich? It's a book that was a big deal at the time, but has been widely discredited now. One could argue that Das Kapital has been discredited.

Milestones by Sayyid Qutb should be on the list, as it is the book that Al-Qaeda terrorists read as a foundational text.

3/20/2007 10:11 AM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

GK: I think it's a stretch to think this list reflects the views of all conservatives, although I will agree that the folks who put the list together undoubtedly enjoyed lumping liberal texts in with Communism and Hitler.

Doug: Silent Spring was about more than DDT; it launched the modern environmental movement. I agree that DDT has been overly demonized (I disagree on the "thoroughly debunked", but agree that DDT is safe when applied properly), and that has led to many preventable deaths in the developing world. But is that enough to label the book among the world's most harmful, especially given the other benefits of environmental awareness? I don't think so.

Douglas: Population Bomb? Hyped, yes, but I do think overpopulation is a real concern. The book was simplistic in that it projected current trends outward to reach its conclusion, and focused on food shortages. I would have focused on the environmental degradation that accompanies large populations, both because of the population itself and the amount of agricultural land needed to sustain it.

And one reason population is not as major a problem today as feared is because birthrates have dropped dramatically, so the rapid growth he envisioned never came to pass.

His bit about millions starving to death was arguably correct -- remember the African famines? -- although it had nothing to do with overpopulation or a global inability to produce enough food, and everything to do with localized drought and war.

In the end, though, I think that while Ehrlich was something of a Chicken Little, nobody paid him a lot of heed in terms of actual practices. So little harm was done.

3/20/2007 11:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Re The Population Bomb, it actually was effective #11 on the list, only one point behind General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money!

Whilst I wholeheartedly agree that in the context of Europe, East Asia, North America or New Zealand, The Population Bomb really is absurd, Bomb is in no way absurd in my native Australia with its extreme ecological fragility, exceedingly old soils and erratic runoff. These combine to mean Australia can probably sustainably support about 0.1 percent the population density of other developed nations, even though economics has it the other way round because the soil-forming processes destroy valuable minerals whose supply Australia can monopolise.

8/09/2007 1:46 AM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

Yep, it's clear that different environments can support differing amounts of people -- a desert supports fewer than a tropical rainforest, for instance. Ehrlich's mistake was underestimating the carrying capacity of the world as a whole, and projecting trends that were far more extreme than actual practice.

8/09/2007 8:30 AM  

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