TCS Daily

A New Index Librorum Prohibitorum

By Robert McHenry - July 18, 2005 12:00 AM

A couple of months ago the conservative journal Human Events conducted a poll of conservative scholars and "public policy leaders," asking them to name the ten most harmful books of the 19th and 20th centuries. The final list, along with twenty runners-up, was published to wide comment.

No explanation of the meaning of "harmful" is given in the article. Nor is it actually argued that a book can cause harm. That it can is assumed, though there is no explanation of how an instance of actual harm in the world, however defined, might be traced back causally to some particular book.

We don't know precisely what instructions were given the pollees, in particular whether they were told to ignore works of fiction, but it's interesting that there are none on the list. Maybe, as I've suggested elsewhere, literature doesn't really have the power that bibliolaters like to claim. Or maybe the panel just isn't into novel-reading. I'm willing to grant that the distinguished panelists have never besmirched themselves with the likes of The Story of O, but surely they've read Lady Chatterley's Lover. That would have been high on my list.

It may be that worrying over such matters grants too much importance to this exercise. It is, after all, a not uncommon and usually innocent editorial trick: Concoct some sort of questionnaire, identify some compliant respondents, tally the results, and use up as many column inches as you dare with the results. It's easy, and it costs less than commissioning an article from some grasping writer. (Right, Nick?)

Perhaps that is why some of the results seem silly. Among the also-rans there is Charles Reich's 1970 best seller The Greening of America. Yes, it was greeted in certain circles as validation of the peace-and-love-and-ecology spirit, and yes, it sold quite a few copies, though not as many that year as Better Homes and Gardens Fondue and Tabletop Cooking or two different volumes of verse by Rod McKuen (both of which would have been listed, presumably, if Plato had been on the panel, unless Plato, quite forgivably, had failed to recognize Rod's work product as poetry). But did anyone still take Greening seriously as much as, oh, a decade later?

The more one looks at the list, the more it comes to seem that the panelists, or a good many of them, seized the opportunity to vote for books that they just didn't like, or for books written by people they didn't like, or for books and writers they associate with social or intellectual phenomena that they execrate, rather than for books to which some identifiable harm could plausibly be attributed. Among the lesser objects of this metonymic thinking are The Feminine Mystique (number seven), The Promise of American Life (number seventeen), and works by a string of French theorists -- Comte, Sorel, de Beauvoir, and Foucault. But the most striking, perhaps, is the number two book, Mein Kampf. Each of the terrible ten is accompanied by a helpful little paragraph explaining just why it merits our censure. The paragraph for Mein Kampf concedes that it was largely ignored until after Hitler came to political power; how then did it cause harm? Perhaps the thinking is that if Hitler had not spent his time in prison writing the book he might have spent more time in the exercise yard, where he could well have been shanked by a fellow inmate who didn't like his moustache or his Austrian accent.

These handy potted précis are sometimes prodigies of compression in which chains of causation are suggested by just a few deft strokes. For example, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (number ten) is explained thus:

        Keynes was a member of the British elite -- educated at Eton and Cambridge -- 
        who as a liberal Cambridge economics professor wrote General Theory of 
        Employment, Interest and Money
in the midst of the Great Depression. 
        The book is a recipe for ever-expanding government. When the business 
        cycle threatens a contraction of industry, and thus of jobs, he argued, the 
        government should run up deficits, borrowing and spending money to spur 
        economic activity. FDR adopted the idea as U.S. policy, and the U.S. 
        government now has a $2.6-trillion annual budget and an $8-trillion dollar 
        [sic] deficit.

Damn that Keynes, and the rest of those Bloomsbury perverts, too, while we're at it! And isn't the inductive leap of that final sentence a marvel?

The number nine book, Beyond Good and Evil, is given a fairish sort of summary, and then the paragraph ends with "The Nazis loved Nietzsche." QED, one supposes. It was actually his sister they loved, but metonymy works in mysterious ways. The thoughts of John Dewey, included for Democracy and Education (number five), are accused of having "helped nurture the Clinton generation." You see what I mean, I think: scores are being settled here. Among Comte's crimes is having coined the term "sociology," though I suspect he wrote sociologie and someone else anglicized it.

Not surprisingly, Karl Marx turns up twice in the top ten, taking first place (with Friedrich Engels, "the original limousine leftist") for The Communist Manifesto and sixth for Das Kapital.

There is one, and only one, other author who appears as often as twice on the full list of dishonorees, and that is Charles Darwin, whose Origin of Species and Descent of Man come in at eighteen and thirty. This sails beyond silly and deep into stupid.

Let's think for a moment about some salient points. Marx sat down in the British Library, thought very hard, and explained for us the iron laws of History and the nature of human society. Darwin undertook a perilous five-year journey around the world, making meticulous notes of his observations of geological and biological phenomena; then he spent over twenty years adding to and analyzing his data and developing a theory to account for them.

The one method is that of untethered ratiocination powered by immense ego; as small-h history would show, Marx got it mostly wrong. The other is that of science, and history -- so far -- endorses Darwin's great insight as one of the most illuminating and fruitful theories ever proposed. The one engendered a corps of apologists whose chief task has been to preserve the ideology against all experience - quite horrific experience - to the contrary. The other inspired further observations and hypothesizing by successors that have led to an ever-richer understanding of the nature of life in all its variety. If this is blameworthy, we had better unearth Galileo's bones and burn them after all.

This lumping of Darwin with Marx and, more often than not, Freud (Introduction to Psychoanalysis, number seventeen) as the chief authors of modernism and all its beastly spawn is distressingly common among people who should know better. Some years ago, Reason magazine's Ronald Bailey wrote a most interesting article about some conservatives' evolving opposition to Darwinism. He quoted Robert Bork endorsing the claims of the intelligent design movement for providing a tool without which religion has only "unsupported faith" on its side. One can't but wonder what sort of faith requires support. Irving Kristol is also quoted, deploring "the bonds of Darwinian materialism which at the moment restrict our imagination." That science, which has enabled us to know of unimaginable things from dinosaurs to DNA and from quarks to quasars, could be charged with constricting human imagination just beggars the, er, imagination.

Bailey suggested that this peculiar strain of anti-intellectualism is actually a cynical political ploy, a patronizing bid for alliance with the rising forces of the religious right. If it is so, I hope one of these smooth operators will write a book on it, so that it can be nominated for the next dumb list. For if there is anything harmful here, or anything to be deplored, it is the offhand ease with which uncomfortable ideas, some of them possibly true, are dissed and dismissed by supposedly intelligent and responsible adults.

Robert McHenry is Former Editor in Chief, the Encyclopædia Britannica, and author of How to Know (, 2004).


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