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.