Chris Uggen's Blog: are books harmful?

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

are books harmful?

eszter points to a list of the 10 most harmful books of the 19th and 20th centuries, as identified by a panel of 15 conservative scholars and public policy leaders.

unsurprisingly, the panel identified works by marx, mao, kinsey, freud, skinner, darwin, friedan, and nietzsche, but they also found foucault, the webbs, de beauvoir, fanon, and gramsci worthy of mention. auguste comte's the course of positive philosophy ranked eighth:

Comte, the product of a royalist Catholic family that survived the French Revolution, turned his back on his political and cultural heritage, announcing as a teenager, “I have naturally ceased to believe in God.” Later, in the six volumes of The Course of Positive Philosophy, he coined the term “sociology.” He did so while theorizing that the human mind had developed beyond “theology” (a belief that there is a God who governs the universe), through “metaphysics” (in this case defined as the French revolutionaries’ reliance on abstract assertions of “rights” without a God), to “positivism,” in which man alone, through scientific observation, could determine the way things ought to be.

i'm a little surprised that conservatives would find positivism more harmful than, say, keynesian economics (which ranked tenth). have phyllis schlafly and some of the other panelists really had much exposure to comte, or is he a stand-in for atheism? or sociology? other head-scratchers on the list included john dewey's democracy and education at #5 and john stuart mill's on liberty, which merited an honorable mention. i'm pushing this too far, i know, but i can't help thinking that indentifying such a broad set of ideas as harmful hints ever so slightly at cultural revolution-style anti-intellectualism.

such lists might also provide a little insight into the underrepresentation of conservatives in academia. the conception of "harmful" on this list seems so general -- and so at odds with the big new ideas prized by academics -- that it surely narrows the field of inquiry. i'd imagine that the same group might place adam smith, alexander hamilton, james q. wilson, george kelling, and charles murray on the "most important" books list, but even a close reading of these authors would give some of the panelists pause.

this panel put together a fascinating list and their efforts will stir some great conversations. nevertheless, the products of such efforts remind me that there are those who find that books -- or ideas, or disciplines such as sociology -- are harmful in themselves.


At 10:46 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

They stand in the company of great conservatives before them in their distaste of all progressive positivist ideals. They are the Aristophanes of our age, loathe to have the big new ideas and utopic visions of "The Ecclesiazusae", "Birds" or "Clouds" thrust upon them.

At 10:49 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The fear these ideals because they understand themselves in a way that liberals do not...

Nitimur in vetitum semper cupimusque negata

At 10:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

...or as Voltaire once quipped..."Ice-cream is exquisite - what a pity it isn't illegal."

At 10:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

...or as Eve once thought... "That apple sure looks tasty"

At 11:04 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was disappointed not to see Herbert Marcuse's "Eros and Civilization" on the list, but then again, if Marx AND Freud were already banned, Marcuse and the 60's would never have happened.

There is an untried solution. Don't let people under forty near a philosophy book. Plato wasn't kidding.

At 11:13 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My latest book is destined for release in Iran next month...

"Gene splicing and DNA targetting... or how to rid the world of crusading infidels by simply targetting three genetic markers already identified in the Human Genome Project public access database"

The royalties from that one are going to be killer!

At 11:24 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Different anonymous here:

I'm more concerned by the over-representation of conservatives outside of academia than the opposite.

Things are getting very dangerous in that country of yours. Very bad times ahead unless someone can stand up to stuff like this. I get physically ill when I think that there are people out there who take Ann Coulter and her ilk seriously as thinkers. Dark times indeed.

On the bright side, at least Lieberman took a hit from the East Coast Left (although if it takes a billionaire to beat a guy with that little charisma, I don't know if that even counts as a victory or not).

At 1:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Previous anonymous here. Diffy looks in the mirror, and discovers he doesn't like what he see's? It's only a reflection... don't be scared.

Too rich!

At 1:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the link. You've really made my day. Being very, very generous, I can see how Marx, Hitler, and Mao get a nod by a crude body-count and delightfully "faith-based" understanding the world, but where in the world do the two volumes of Darwin come in (under honorable mention)? Scratch my head, and scratch my head some more and I still can't see why they would chart under "MOST harmful books of LAST TWO CENTURIES." Are "professors" Birzer, DeRosa, George, Gottfried, et al. really so ignorant of modern biology?

Other curiosities emerge: The "conservative scholars and public policy leaders" don't like positivism (Comte), but they don't cotton to critics of positivism either (Nietzsche, Foucault). So…scratch nearly entire corpus of scientific and intellectual development in the past century…check. So...that leaves…um…what?...Augustine and the Church Fathers? Are Luther and Wesley OK?

I also loved the whole “class warfare” thing: Engels - “the original limousine leftist;” Keynes – “a member of the British elite.” (Of course, the Cambridge faculty in the 20s and 30s was otherwise PACKED with good, honest Tories, complete with workmen’s caps and cockney accents…but the lib’rul media doesn’t tell you about them!) Whew, these people are seriously screwed up. We can only hope that the adults will soon be in charge again.

At 1:47 PM, Blogger Woz said...

Or should I say "non-anonymous"

Anyway, as always Chris, you've pointed out the fascinating cultural machine that is the American conservative movement.

Some things I found especially interesting:

1) Marx is the only person to make the list twice. Good for him. Most interesting is in their "review" of Das Kapital, they claim that America is now "a free, affluent society based on capitalism and representative government that people the world over envy and seek to emulate."

Now, maybe I go too far in criticising America, but no one can actually believe this. It's interesting to now know that the reason the rest of the world hates us is because they envy us so much. No wonder Iraq is going so swimmingly.

2) Unsafe at Any Speed is on the list. So they can't really be critising Nader's politics, because he's written many books explicitly on politics. Apparently they have a problem with him proving that the Frod motor company was produce faulty automobiles. But as Colbert always says, facts have a clear liberal bias anyway.

3) The Keynes, yet most people agree his is the person who is most responsible for saving the capitalism they so love.

4) The criticize Hitler, because it's obviously not acceptable in public circles to praise him. But remember, leading capitalists and conservatives the world over loved Hitler. Notable examples being Henry Ford, the IBM corporation, and let's not forget Prescott "I'm W's grandfather" Bush funded them. He was also Time magazine's man of the year in the 30s for the way he enacted tough new laws, controlled those pesky and hated labor unions, and restored German capitalism. I wonder how all of those reforms worked out.
Oh, and it seems they agree with him on who shouldn't be allowed into country clubs.

But I must agree with anonymous #7 that it is not the under-representation of conservatives in academia that is the problem, but it is the vast over-representation in every other walk of life and the fact that this is never discussed at all by anyone.

At 2:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Previous Anonymous here again.

I like Nietzsche (he brought me here today) but I'd never let anyone under forty read him. I've never really tasted Foucault, so I've no opinion on him. I'm head over heels for Isaiah Berlin. He's perfect for the under-twenty set. Four-Essays on Liberty. Great stuff! I'd teach Marx along with Augustine and the resentment school when the kids are in their thirties (having a kid or two first should keep 'em out of trouble).

Oh, and you can teach 'em all the Plato and Aristotle you can find at 20 as well. Throw in some Adam Smith. A little Thomas Malthus too (it would force them to wake up and smell the coffee). Rousseau probably wouldn't hurt too much either.

The post-modern critics and skeptics... well... save 'em for their 30's. You gotta have something to deconstruct or criticize first, or you start believing that criticism and philosophizing with a hammer IS a philosophy. Maybe start w/ a little Kant and the Critiques, then move on to Schopenhauer, Engels, Marx... maybe even some Machiavelli

...and of course, you could teach all the baloney to students in the twenties as well. Those twentieth century English modernists. That way when they turn 30, they'll actually have something worth deconstructing.

Just one conservative's opinion...

At 2:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous #9 again:

I guess Wesley is out after all. From his Compendium of Natural Philosophy:

"To explain these phenomena of the heavenly bodies, various systems have been invented. The Ptolemaic supposes the earth to be fixed, in the centre of the universe, round which all the heavenly bodies move, each affixed to a solid sphere which moves with it: first the moon, then Mercury, thirdly, Venus, next the sun, filthy, Mars, then Jupiter, seventhly, Saturn. In the eighth place is the firmament or sphere of fixed stars: then the crystaline heaven, and last of all the primum mobile, which is supposed to move from east to west in twenty-four hours, whirling all the other spheres with it. But this system being in some respects obviously false, in others utterly improbable, and likewise: insufficient to account for many phenomena, is now universally exploded.

In the room of this, the Copernican system is now generally received, which supposes the sun to be fixed in the centre, without. any other motion, than that round his own axis. Next him is Mercury, then Venus, thirdly the Earth, (round which the moon revolves,) above the earth, Mars, then Jupiter and Saturn, with their attendant moons.

This system is extremely simple and natural, and easily accounts for most phenomena. As to the objection, that it is contrary to the testimony of our senses, it is easily answered. They who are in a ship seem to see the shore and the land moving along, although it is really the ship that moves. Yet let it move ever so swiftly, it displaces nothing, provided it moves smoothly So neither does the motion of the earth displace any thing on its surface, because it is equable and regular."

Heresy!!! Another one fit for the flames!!!

At 2:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I guess you could call me a conservative Darwinian... believing that education should be an evolutionary affair... and not simply thrownn at the kids all at once and left to them to sort out.

It's kinda like teaching phonics before jumping in to whole language...

At 2:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very funny! Conservatives are flat-earthers. I love being over-estimated.

At 2:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Keynes and the Cambridge boys saved capitalism woz? Or simply elevated it to a height that will make the Great Depression ressemble a minor correction on the GDP Chart of the future?

Some people never learned the difference between productive and non-productive capital and wealth.

The service economy. What a delightful concept.

At 2:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

And integration of international markets? Somebody break out Fritz Lang's Metropolis. I gotta watch that one again.

We'd have been better off in advancing economic theory had we resurrected Xenophon's Oeconomics.

At 2:58 PM, Anonymous chris said...

i'm still baffled about the operationalization of harmfulness. body count is a fine criterion, but it presumes readership and implementation (or praxis, i suppose). in short, i think the panel gave some of these high-flown titles waaaaaay too much credit. i'd wager that dr. atkins' new diet revolution, peyton place, and beyond the valley of the dolls may have done greater harm to the panel's causes than some of the lesser-read titles they identify.

At 3:31 PM, Blogger Mike W. said...

I'm going to exhibit some semblance of will power in lambasting the criticisms - but I want to know what texts self-described liberals would like to see stricken from the annals of history?

Offa my head, I could argue for seeing Ann Coulter's books removed - while I rarely advocate the prohibition of the development of knowledge of any type, she's a blockhead who doesn't deserve any attention (strictly in my opinion). She clamors for attention by making bold statements and claims that are better contextualized on professional wrestling programs than on 24-hour news networks (which seem to converge on each other), and most importantly: contrary to what your professors tell you, there *are* stupid questions, just as there *are* stupid answers; it is our obligation to pay them as little mind as possible.

I have some theorists' works who I'd like to see disappear, not because of their lack of brilliance, but because of the sheer tediousness of reading them!

At 3:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

chris said...

"i'm still baffled about the operationalization of harmfulness."

Well, well, we've got ourselves a gen-u-ine Minnesota barn-burner going this afternoon. I'm puzzling over this as well. As best I can figure, anything that might cause people to get out of line is "harmful." Don't question your betters, whether they be Marx's bourgeoisie, the feminist's patriarchy, Mao or Fanon’s imperialism, or Nader's "big corporations." A remarkably old-school, classically conservative line coming from a site that boasts of contributors like Coulter, Malkin, Buchanan, and Gingrich - figures whom Burke would scarcely recognize as being in the fold.

Mike Wehrman said...

“I'm going to exhibit some semblance of will power in lambasting the criticisms - but I want to know what texts self-described liberals would like to see stricken from the annals of history?”


At 9:07 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The problem with liberals (and people in general) is that they fall in love with Marx and he becomes the sine qua non for the rest of their lives.

And once they leave college, they never read another book. They're trapped with half the story.

Marx is simply evangelical religion for atheists.

At 9:05 PM, Blogger Mike W. said...

That's a peculiar comment, since I've never really read a solid refutation of Marx from anyone who's read his criticisms of capitalism.

Sure, he has a lot of holes in his theory, and some sweeping generalizations (the biggest being his disregard for the impact of race and gender, claiming class rules over all ultimately) that leave a sour taste.

Nevertheless, most of the critiques I hear are rarely of Marx, but more of Marx-ism, and those people tend to join the statist ideology with the theorist, failing to realize that the post-revolution visions of Marx were so poorly stated as to be of little to no value, and indicative of next to nothing.

At 7:53 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That's hillarious... since there are no solid refutations of the existance of G_d either.

Like I said before. Marx is a religious leader.

At 7:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You should read Kants critiques. Even Karl Popper had a clue as to the limits of pure reason. It's just a shame that Popper didn't read Kant either, and learn the limits of science and practical judgement... and the paradox of advocating an "open" society.

At 8:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What books have liberals banned? The entire cannon of Western Civilization has been tossed from the universities... and 3/4 of the people who call themselves progressives have banned the Bible from the public sphere and if they could, would start burning Christian at the stake as heretics tomorrow.


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