Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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"Ten Most Harmful Books"

Jonathan Chait uses the publication of this list to characterize the conservative movement as "a gaggle of thick-skulled fanatics." The list, he continues, "offers a fair window into the dementia of contemporary conservative thinking."

Conservatives, he says, can’t distinguish between "totalitarian manifestos" and "seminal works of social science." Max, Mao, Hitler, and Lenin presumably belong on the list, but John Dewey, John Maynard Keynes, and Betty Friedan do not.

I don’t presume to know what folks like Robert George, Brad Birzer, Arnold Beichman, and Herb London were thinking, but it seems to me that the following explanation is at least plausible. Some of the works--the "totalitarian manifestos"--were included because they animated the forces of evil in the world. Others were included because they were sufficiently plausible to mislead well-meaning people down an ultimately harmful path. Yes, we’re talking about a variety of different kinds of harm (to family, culture, character, and soul, as well as to life and limb), which may be difficult to compare to one another, so that any actual ranking may provide only an extremely unsubtle presentation of a thoughtful person’s nuanced judgment. And, of course, any collective judgment constructed from the observations of a relatively disparate group (not all conservatives think alike, despite Mr. Chait’s efforts to paint with a broad brush) is going to seem less coherent than those made by the individuals themselves. So, Mr. Chait, go ahead and take your cheap shots and engage in name-calling. It’s a lot easier than engaging with the individuals themselves.

Update: You can read Ken Masugi’s characteristically thoughtful response here. And it turns out that Chait is just channeling Matthew Yglesias, who is similarly either incapable of parsing, or unwilling to parse, the list.

Update #2: I queried Brad Birzer, the one list contributor with whom I’m acquainted (he spoke at a Veritas Forum at Oglethorpe a few years ago), and received this response:

Though I certainly can’t speak or write for any of the other participants in the HE poll, I agreed wholeheartedly with what you wrote in your blog. As I voted (my wife and I brainstormed the list the night before heading to the hospital and having our fourth child [a boy, by the way]), I first asked myself what was truly evil in the past two hundred years-that is, those ideas which resulted in radical revolutions, the overthrowing of religious institutions, and the wholesale slaughter of innocent lives. Once I’d exhausted the truly nasty ones (Hitler, Marx, Mao, etc.), I went to the misguided and misleading ones. In each of the books I selected, I tried to identify those most anti-God, anti-human person, and anti-family. Ultimately, I wanted to find out what had helped shape what John Paul the Great during his pontificate identified as "the culture of death."

Frankly, I’ve been amazed at what’s been written regarding the poll. One person asked-and I’m paraphrasing-"what’s next: banning or burning"? Interesting to see that when a conservative actually exercises his right to free speech, he suddenly becomes a threat to free speech. Are such rights now particular rather than universal?

Of course there’s the LA Times and the "gaggle of thick-skulled fanatics." It’s certainly not the first time conservatives have been accused of being anti-intellectual. But, and admittedly I don’t have my OED handy, can "gaggle" ever apply to anything but geese?

The intent of the poll, as I understood it, was to discover which books and ideas led to things such as the decline of the family and the lack of respect for the dignity of the human person at home (does one need to look any farther than our abortion clinics, our nursing homes, or our Indian Reservations?) as well as to things such the vast state-sponsored murders over the previous 100 years a little farther away from home.

After all, the past century witnessed numerous ideologues-the Lenins, the Stalins, the Hitlers, the Idi Amins, and the Pol Pots-leading hordes of the confused, the empty, the vain, and the avaricious across over half the globe. Estimates are that ideological regimes slaughtered nearly 200 millions civilians in the gulags, Holocaust camps, and Killing Fields; another 40 or so million soldiers died in warfare. We have neither fully understood why they did so nor have we come to understand what happened in 1989 when Eastern Europeans simply said "enough." Neither death nor victory have made much sense to us in America.

Indeed, we have much to learn about the intellectual and ideological currents of the past 100 years, here and abroad, and this poll was one small but important attempt to discover a bit of what’s happened and what’s happening. It certainly wasn’t ignorant, fanatic, or about "banning or burning books."

It wasn’t about geese either.

Mickey, you have an eloquent and impassioned colleague. Brad may be thick-skinned (in this business, he has to be), but he’s not thick-skulled.

Discussions - 15 Comments

Jonathan Chait just can’t handle the fact that much of the left IS totalitarian.

"Others were included because they were sufficiently plausible to mislead well-meaning people down an ultimately harmful path."

Wow, and here I thought that elitist condescension was the exclusive domain of blue-state liberals!! Oh, if only the simple, "well-meaning people" had only been taken under your (or any other Ashbrook indoctrin...err..instructor’s) righteous, truth-delivering wing, perhaps we could have been spared from so much of the harm caused by these books! Sorry, Chait’s more or less on-target, and your response is rather weak.

No, Chait is right. Never mind that Keynes’ ideas caused long-term harm to every economy that followed his misguided analysis. Don’t worry about the people thrust into poverty by his analysis. That doesn’t count as harmful because the General Theory is a seminal work of social science.


Isn’t Chait the guy who wrote an essay perhaps a year ago blatantly justifying "Bush hatred"?

Yes, Chait is the man who started his column by saying "I hate George Bush." ’Nuff said.

I have sat down to lunch with Brad at a conference, and he is an impressive intellectual and Catholic gentleman. The poll was an attempt to understand the modernist and post-modernist ideologies that spurned objective truth and morality and spawned the most murderous century in human history while supposedly being the most enlightened in terms of education and knowledge. The scariest thing is that the enlightened intellectuals at the LA Times and in academia think that humanity has progressed even further, is more enlightened, and that the mass murders have stopped - and yet they haven’t. And, they cannot account for it because they don’t understand the human person and the nature of evil. They still accept the Enlightenment paradigm that people are naturally good. If man is good, and there is no transcendent reality, man can become the arbiter of his own morality, through the use of his flawed reason, which usually descends into an ability to exercise power. That is the story of the twentieth century, and it’s roots are much deeper than some "Mein Kampf" manifesto.

Yes, Tony, you have the essence of conservativism. Burke was correct, the "crooked timber of humanity" doesn’t allow utopia or even much moral progress. To create the "good life," we need strong institutions and a morality that transcends materialism. In short, the Enlightenment Project, which sought to free Man from his fetters, threw out the baby with the bath water.

I believe that was Isaiah Berlin’s famous concept about the "crooked timber," not Burke.

Birzer said:


"Interesting to see that when a conservative actually exercises his right to free speech, he suddenly becomes a threat to free speech. Are such rights now particular rather than universal?"

I’m a leftist, and I wouldn’t call the list, in and of itself, a threat to free speech. The authors have their opinions, fine. Has anyone attempted to stifle their freedom of speech rights? Has anyone attempted to censor this list or prevent its publication or distribution?? Has anyone at the White House responded by saying that the authors of the list "need to watch what they say" or what they do??

Birzer also said:


"The intent of the poll, as I understood it, was to discover which books and ideas led to things such as the decline of the family and the lack of respect for the dignity of the human person at home (does one need to look any farther than our abortion clinics, our nursing homes, or our Indian Reservations?)"

I would say that the intent of the poll has not been fulfilled. And I’m also a bit stumped w/ his reference to Indian Reservations. How have they contributed to "the decline of the family and the lack of respect for the dignity of the human person at home"??
I haven’t even heard Bill Buckley, Pat Robertson or the Kristols railing against Indian (R)eservations!

Oops, mea culpa. But it appears we are both wrong...Immanuel Kant said this...Berlin translated him.

Eric, it’s funny that you should criticize the quote from Birzer the way you do, while omitting what he said immediately before it: "Frankly, I’ve been amazed at what’s been written regarding the poll. One person asked-and I’m paraphrasing-’what’s next: banning or burning’?" This is another of the left’s old canards, that anyone who expresses a viewpoint contrary to leftist dogma is somehow trying to stifle speech. It is a total non-sequitor and an amazing example of hypocrisy.

Ohio Voter (Is there only ONE of you?) - please read what I wrote more carefully. Despite your implication that I was trying to pull something sneaky by omitting the previous part of Birzer’s quote, I was simply pointing out that I would disagree with any (over)reaction that this "harmful books" list is putting us on a slippery slope to book banning or burning. Anyone here who has been following this thread likely already saw the rest of Birzer’s quote, including his paraphrase of the unnamed liberal. Thus, I found it unnecessary to include that.


[and non sequitur is spelled sans ’o’]

Now, as for my alleged use of "another of the left’s old canards, that anyone who expresses a viewpoint contrary to leftist dogma is somehow trying to stifle speech." - could you please explain how I was doing that? If anything, I was DISCOURAGING the somewhat hysterical assessment that book banning and/or burning were going to be the next projects urged or undertaken by the list-makers. Actually, I think there is a better case to be made that Birzer is, unsurprisingly, pre-emptively playing a bit of the victim role himself with his (and here again I give the RELEVANT quote only; please read Birzer’s entire piece again if you like!) "Interesting to see that when a conservative actually exercises his right to free speech, he suddenly becomes a threat to free speech. Are such rights now particular rather than universal?" - as in, he is accusing those who have critiqued his list as somehow excluding (or attempting to exclude) conservatives from the right of free speech. Birzer appears to be responding to an unnamed, overreacting liberal by trying to outdo or trump that person with greater victimhood. Birzer’s technique is akin to "No, no, it’s not YOUR "harmful books" that we’re trying to ban or burn, it’s THIS VERY LIST that YOU would like to prevent from being written, published, distributed, etc.!! WE are the ones with our rights threatened! WE are the victims here!"

And that is why I asked if anyone with any status or power has actually even given so much as a warning to Birzer or the folks at Human Events regarding the publication of this list. Has anyone of any significance (the unnamed respondent who was paraphrased doesn’t count) called for making free speech rights "particular" to liberals or leftists, and excluding ANY of the list contributors from their rights to free speech?? Has anyone of any significance even given the list-makers any warning that they "should watch what they say," such as Ari Fleischer did in response to a public comment that Bill Maher made post-9/11? Chait calls the list-makers some names (and please don’t pretend that NLTers don’t engage in name-calling on a semi-regular basis...it was very recently that Hayward was calling someone a "moonbat", for instance), but I didn’t notice him claiming that they don’t have the right to make the list, or that they shouldn’t have that right.

So, let me get this straight, then. Guns don’t kill people, but (reading) books can harm them??

What are you talking about?

Your original wording was clouded by your use of "authors of the list" when you apparently meant "authors on the list."

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