Excuse Me?

Looking over the much-blogged-about list compiled by a panel of noted conservatives of the “ten most dangerous books”, I have to say that my ability to imagine or appreciate what other people are thinking deserts me a bit.

I readily understand the intellectual and political histories that put Marx, Friedan, Hitler, and Mao on the list, though putting Friedan there kind of seems like a Sesame Street exercise: “one of these things is not like the others…”. But the underlying logic of selection seems so variable. Some books seem to have been deemed dangerous because they inspired murderous or destructive social action. I suppose that’s why Dewey is there as well, though the proportionality problem seems even worse in that case. Other books, though, seem to be there simply because they were wrong or factually flawed but widely viewed by many as credible or accurate in the context of ongoing social or cultural debates–Mead or Kinsey or Ehrlich. I’m all for being a harsh in retrospect about the credulous readings of such works by their devotees, but “harmful”? Harmful like Mein Kampf harmful?

Then there’s the weird choices: can somebody direct me to the intellectual debates or writings that would explain why Comte is on the list? High up on the list of the top ten. I think I missed a chapter in the intellectual history of American conservatism that would help explain why he’s a bugbear of such note.

As long as we’re at it, help me understand why John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty almost cracked the top ten?

And they picked the wrong Foucault if you really want take a crank’s eye view of him as “harmful” in this vein. Kind of feels like somebody said, “We need something by that French guy Foucault” and they picked the first title they came across.

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17 Responses to Excuse Me?

  1. slolernr says:

    Kinsey. Though I’m sure they don’t like Michael Kinsley either.

  2. Timothy Burke says:


  3. joeo says:

    I was puzzled by why John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty is so dangerous too. So I checked with the cranks at Amazon.

    >Of course as an agnostic he advocates that socially, individuals should be privately able to do whatever they like. Unfortunately in order for a society to be free from too many laws the people must abide by unwritten laws and that means the laws of the Abrahamic God. If a village does not want to tolerate homosexuals then they should be free not to and be able to drive them out, it’s called the social contract. As George Washington wisely put it ‘in order to be a truly free people,we must be a religious people’. J.S. Mill, not a very good thinker and an appalling one on the nature of liberty.

    It is all about the gay.

  4. Caleb says:

    I guess it’s also asking for too much nuance in a list like this to take issue with the line: “The Evil Empire of the Soviet Union put the [Communist] Manifesto into practice.” Though I don’t have strong Marxian proclivities myself, even I feel obliged to come to his defense when Stalinism and the Soviet Union are taken as straightforward actualizations of the Communist Manifesto.

    I understand the point, but I’ll quibble anyway, especially since the Manifesto so handily beats out Mein Kampf.

  5. Leo Casey says:

    Isn’t this the sort of list that you are disappointed when your favorite book doesn’t make the cutoff?

    Maybe we should all be deluging Human Events with complaints that they haven’t truly appreciate the ‘harm’ in Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks.

  6. scoopstories says:

    I consider Tim’s book about tv cartoons very dangerous.

    It made me long for the tv I didn’t get to see as a kid.

  7. Identical reactions: Comte’s book is, as they correctly note, the foundation for modern sociology, as well as being the first coherent statement of the idea, increasingly obvious, that scientific and humanistic disciplines are not cleanly separable either within or between these categories. The man was right, for crying out loud: that makes him dangerous?

    Mill and a few other folks would have made it if they hadn’t wasted so many top ten slots on communism. Mill’s appearance on the list is just frightening.

  8. I think you’re reading this list much too seriously. Don’t forget that these folks haven’t actually read any of the books on the list!

    This is how they put this list together: 1) The most harmful ideas are secularism/atheism (includes evolution), communism/socialism/welfare state, feminism, liberalism, and sexual liberation. 2) Find 10 books which are reputed to advocate those ideas.

    An improved list would include Bertrand Russell’s “Why I Am Not A Christian,” which actually had a palpable affect on the religious beliefs of thousands of people, “Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and “The Joy of Sex.” I would also throw in that insidious book by Dr. Spock which argued against corporal punishment — without which no conservative philosophy is quite complete.

  9. berlihe says:

    I’m surprised no one has mentioned so far that the _Origin of Species_ received honorable mention. I really think that not believing in evolution disqualifies you from having any ideas, period. It implies an epistemological stance too faulty to rescue.

    On a larger note (and I sent a letter to the editors of “Human Events” to this effect), it’s hard to argue with their first three choices, in that they each formed part of the idealogical basis for various murderous, totalitarian states. But the very act of compiling a list of “harmful” books strikes me as more appropriate for a totalitarian state than a democratic one. At the very least, it implies something less than love for the free exchange of ideas, and tepid tolerance thereof just isn’t enough.

  10. kieran says:

    Comte is probably on the list because the likes of Hayek and von Mises liked to wheel him out occasionally to give him a solid kick in the backside.

  11. Mao’s inclusion in the list is a pretty good clue, actually, that they’re not really paying attention. The Little Red Book was a symptom, not a cause, of China’s troubles and broader leftist issues. It’s really Mao’s Collected Works (or perhaps his early Jiangxi report, which was something of a bestseller in Chinese communist circles and formed the foundation of his actual ideas) which would be relevant, though even that has to take a second seat to Lenin’s runner-up entry.

    And I just noticed Margaret Mead…. come on, people. I’m done with this, for now. This isn’t worth it.

  12. Jonathan says:

    If you were doing this from the liberal perspective, would you, say, juxtapose Mein Kampf with William Buckley’s God and Man at Yale? That strikes me as a grotesque confusion of scale, similar to the idea of putting Margaret Mead or Ralph Nader with Lenin and Mao. I didn’t know auto safety was as dangerous an idea as, what, National Socialism?

  13. Dan says:

    The explanation is pretty self-explanatory: ‘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.’

    It is all about Comtean positivism rejection of metaphysical speculation. Go back and read the transcripts of the recent Kansas ID “hearing.” The ID crowd constantly rants against “naturalism”, which, given the way they talk about it, might be seen as a descendent of Comtean positivism, in that it methodologically rules out “god” as an explanatory force.

    Or maybe they just really, really hate analytic philosophy.

  14. myglesias says:

    You know, I suppose this just shows my own Marxian proclivities, but I think the strangest thing (among many strange things) about this list is the level of causal power they seem to be attributing to books. “No Hitler, no holocaust” strikes me as vaguely plausible, but “no Mein Kampf, no holocaust?” No way. It’s not as if Hitler wrote the book, it picked up awesome word of mouth, became a bestseller, everyone read it and was convinced, then Hitler decided to enter politics and put his ideas into action. Similarly, Mao’s Red Book — so what? As Jonathan says, “a symptom, not a cause” of the horrors of Maoism.

  15. Chris Clarke says:

    As a commenter said over at Pharyngula, the omission of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion from the list is rather damning.

  16. edison says:

    The creepy part is that someone actually considered doing a Ten Most Harmful Book list at all. Arrogance with a chill to it…

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