June 13, 2005

Listing grievances

By: Kelly Jane Torrance

Lists–of anything–never fail to cause controversy. Whenever someone or some group declares something–a movie, a song, a person–to be the best or worst of its kind, a flurry of rebuttals is bound to follow. We can probably all agree that Citizen Kane is a great movie, but call it the greatest of all time, and you’ll have a fight on your hands. Everyone feels strongly about his personal favorites, and no one likes to feel his opinion doesn’t matter.

Add to that contentious subject matter, and it’s no surprise that Human Events‘ list of the “Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries” has upset pundits on both sides of the political divide.

The conservative weekly asked 15 professors and public policy leaders, including Princeton’s Robert George and the Eagle Forum’s Phyllis Schlafly, to choose the books. The panel was fairly diverse, but their choices by no means form a conservative consensus.

I’m rather puzzled, for example, by the inclusion of the Number 2 book on the list, Mein Kampf. Of course, Adolf Hitler himself was rather harmful. But his book detailing his plans for Germany and the world, written in prison, was virtually ignored upon publication and for many years afterward. It wasn’t until after Hitler gained power that people actually bought it. Mein Kampf itself wasn’t at all an influential, and thus harmful, book.

But perhaps the group felt the need to list Hitler alongside some of the other major tyrants of the century. Quotations from Chairman Mao, a.k.a. The Little Red Book, is Number 3 (and, it could be argued, suffers from the same timing problem as Mein Kampf). Lenin’s What Is to Be Done? is in the list of 20 books that received an “honorable mention.”

Hitler was responsible for the deaths of millions. But no ideology killed more people in the last century than Communism, and Human Events‘ judges recognized this by giving the top slot to Marx and Engels’ The Communist Manifesto. Marx’ Das Kapital is also on the list, at Number 6.

So I won’t quibble with the top spot, but, like anyone, would have made different choices for the other books on the list. The idea with all these lists is to spark debate, to draw attention–to market oneself, in other words. Stirring up controversy gets you publicity. So I might have put on the list less obvious and safe choices. Strike Mein Kampf, for example, and substitute Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care.

Kind old Dr. Spock? Sure. The baby boomers’ bible on raising children led to a generation of permissive parenting. Dr. Spock popularized the idea that punishment doesn’t help children change–despite all evidence to the contrary. A sample of his anti-discipline advice: “If your child is hurting another or looks as if he were planning murder, pull him away in a matter-of-fact manner and get him interested in something else.”

Still, there was plenty of food for thought on Human Events‘ list. Many liberals didn’t see it that way, however. Instead of taking the list as a spark to debate, they immediately cried “censorship.” On MSNBC’s “Connected Coast to Coast,” guest host Craig Crawford, a Congressional Quarterly columnist, said such a list might be the first step toward banning these books. Many other pundits repeated the charge.

It’s ludicrous, of course. Many of the professors that chose the books teach them to their students. Acknowledging a book’s influence is nothing at all the same as saying all copies of it should be burnt. If they wanted them erased from memory, after all, why would they publicize them in this way? (And, one might add, offer links to their purchase page on Amazon.com, as Human Events, did.)

Jonathan Chait, a senior editor at The New Republic, voiced his objections to the list in the Los Angeles Times. Or at least what I take to be his objections. The column seems to be more an ad hominem attack than anything else. Chait tries “very, very hard not to think of the conservative movement as a gaggle of thick-skulled fanatics.” But this list, which “offers a fair window into the dementia of contemporary conservative thinking” has made that impossible.

He does have some valid points. For example, he expressed the surprise of many that “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a czarist forgery that incited countless massacres and inspires anti-Semites around the world to this day, failed to rate a mention.” Especially when Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring made it onto the honorable mention list.

Actually, I would have put Silent Spring even higher. I bet Fred Smith, president of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a D.C. think tank that does particularly good work on environmental policy, voted for it. The book led directly to the ban on DDT that has allowed millions of people to die from malaria. Sri Lanka, for example, banned the pesticide in 1964. The number of malaria cases had gone from 2.8 million to 17. But by 1968, it had risen back to over a million. No study has ever shown that DDT exposure causes cancer, as Carson claimed.

But perhaps one of the most absurd arguments against the list came from Toronto’s eye Weekly. It can be summed up thus: Books don’t kill people; people do. None of these books “actually inspired or resulted in grievous harm of some kind,” the paper claims. “[T]he harmful nature of many books on Human Events‘ shit list . . . can’t really be quantified in the loss of human life or destruction of property.”

Never mind that the Communism inspired by Marx and Engels was responsible for the deaths of more people in the last century than any other ideology. And while you may not agree with their analysis, Human Events does make a case for the Kinsey Report‘s affect on sexual mores. But eye Weekly doesn’t seem to understand that ideas have consequences. Unless some psycho who claims to be directly inspired by a book goes out and kills someone–like Mark David Chapman–they don’t believe a book has actually resulted in any harm.

And that’s the most important lesson of Human Events‘ list. Whatever the wisdom of its choices, the list has reminded us of the great power, for good and for ill, of ideas.

Kelly Jane Torrance is arts and culture editor of Brainwash. Her Web site is kellyjanetorrance.com.