A conservative site, Human Events, has recently come up with a list of the 10 most harmful books of all time. I realize that it isn't good to pass on conservative memes, but I figure that we on the left need to encourage any dialog that gets the conservatives to actually refer to a book instead of a radio host or Fox News anchor. So let's look at this list of the "Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries" put together by conservative "scholars."
1. The Communist Manifesto
Fair enough. People on the right don't like communists. The situation in Europe (and Britain in particular) which Marx was criticizing is evidently much preferable: child labor, a complete lack of protections for the average person, and an economy set up to benefit a small class of extremely wealthy individuals. (Does this sound familiar?) We make choices in our lives and if your choice is to sympathize with the wealthy instead of the poor then so be it.
2. Mein Kampf
As Human Events says, "The book was originally ignored. But not after Hitler rose to power." There's probably a good reason why it was ignored before it was rammed down people's throats. I tried to go through Mein Kampf once and was amazed at how foggy-headed it was. If anything, the Nazi movement seems to have succeeded in spite of the book instead of because of it. It reads pretty much like Fox News sounds--endless ranting without even a hint of logical structure behind it. If you're already a rabid racist, you "get it." If not, it's hard to make it to page zwei.
3. Quotations from Chairman Mao
Once again, I can't imagine that this book was really influential in terms of ideas. Intellectually, it's a very dull book that presents Chinese Marxism in a tiring fashion--a stodgy Germanic form of Chinese Confucianism. Oddly enough, Human Events bemoans the book's strident attack on Western Imperialism. The most damming quote they come up with is, "It is the task of the people of the whole world to put an end to the aggression and oppression perpetrated by imperialism, and chiefly by U.S. imperialism." So what's the problem with that? These conservative "scholars" putting together the list need to put down the remote and read a history book or two. China had spent the last century crawling with foreigners that were pillaging the country and trying to get the entire Chinese populace addicted to opium. Of course the Chinese weren't too happy working as coolies and prostitutes for Western fatcats. And when a dedicated group of peasants managed to liberate the country from the Western imperialists and their local accomplices, most Chinese were setting off fireworks. I hardly see this anti-imperialist note as the book's major shortcoming.
4. The Kinsey Report
5. Democracy and Education by John Dewey
6. Das Kapital
I wonder how many conservatives have read Das Kapital. My guess is very few. I tried to wade through those waters and must confess that I didn't make it very far. For that matter, I wonder how many Marxists have read this supposedly seminal work. My guess is that we'd find few fingerprints on the pages of this classic sitting around in libraries across the world. But I'm being facetious--it's ideas have been influential. And unfortunately, many on the far left have followed Marx with an almost religious devotion reminiscent of fundamental Christians quoting passages from Leviticus. Marx was brilliant for his time, but his theories needed to evolve through time.
7. The Feminine Mystique
8. The Course of Positive Philosophy by Comte
This is about the only book I'd agree on. Positivism was a death-knell for Western philosophy since it limited it to the clarification of theoretical formulations. The mistake (exemplified by Russel in his early years) was to think that philosophy was nothing more than empirical science's ugly step-sister. Western philosophy still hasn't recovered from the blow. Of course the conservative "scholars" on Human Events attack the book for other reasons--its failure to make philosophy the whore of religion.
9. Beyond Good and Evil
I am no great fan of Nietzsche (although I'm sure many conservatives are). But once again, the conservative "scholars" manage to criticize the one positive quality in the work--the existential insight that people must ultimately be responsible for what they do, that knowledge--no matter how extensive--never frees us from choice.
10. General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money by Keynes
The authors here criticize Keynes idea that "When the business cycle threatens a contraction of industry, and thus of jobs . . . the government should run up deficits, borrowing and spending money to spur economic activity." These scholars need to talk to Bush (having failed to talk to Reagan). In a nutshell, this quote sums up the entire economic platform of the American conservatives.
The Human Events website includes some honorable mentions.
I would agree that Beyond Freedom and Dignity by B.F. Skinner is a book with some dangerous ideas which have had some harmful effects in a number of areas. Even so, the book is recommended as a thought-provoking account of a "great" idea (behaviorism). I'd also agree that Madness and Civilization by Michel Foucault presents a dangerous idea, especially for the left, in that it introduces notions of relativism into intellectual discourse. (Foucault is ultimately to blame for the crappy lyrics of the otherwise awesome band Phish. The post-Foucault young find it impossible to take anything seriously; hence the current generation hasn't been able to produce a Dylan.)
The Origin of the Species by Charles Darwin is of course a very telling pick. The cromagnon scholars would evidently like to see us reading the Vulgate for scientific knowledge and inspiration. Evidently, a great many people also felt threatened by The Second Sex. I read this ages ago but I have a hard time remembering any passages threatening to castrate all males or storm thecitadelss of power, but who knows. Perhaps I missed something.