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JONATHAN CHAIT

The Right's Wrong Books

June 03, 2005

I try very, very hard not to think of the conservative movement as a gaggle of thick-skulled fanatics. To help me along in this process, I seek out well-reasoned commentary from conservative intellectuals such as Tod Lindberg of the Washington Times and Ramesh Ponnuru of the National Review. But my efforts at ideological toleration inevitably get spoiled when something comes along like Human Events magazine's list of the "Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries."

Human Events is a conservative weekly that Ronald Reagan was known to favor, and which the Wall Street Journal called a "bible of the right." It compiled its list by polling a panel of conservative academics (such as Robert George of Princeton University) and Washington think-tank types (such as Fred Smith of the Competitive Enterprise Institute). As such, it offers a fair window into the dementia of contemporary conservative thinking.

One amusing thing about the list is its seeming inability to distinguish between seminal works of social science and totalitarian manifestos. Marx, Hitler and Chairman Mao sit alongside pragmatist philosopher John Dewey and sex researcher Alfred Kinsey. You'll be comforted to know that Mao, with 38 points and a No. 3 ranking, edged out Kinsey, with 37 points. "The Feminine Mystique," meanwhile, checks in at No. 7, with 30 points, just behind "Das Kapital," which totaled 31 points.

Harmful books that got honorable mentions but couldn't crack the top 10 include John Stuart Mill's "On Liberty," Sigmund Freud's "Introduction to Psychoanalysis" and Charles Darwin's "The Descent of Man." Oh yes, and Lenin's "What Is to Be Done." (If you don't see the link between arguing for individual rights, exploring scientific mysteries and constructing a brutally repressive Bolshevik terror state, then clearly you're not thinking like a conservative.)

Interestingly, "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. On the other hand, "Unsafe at Any Speed" and "Silent Spring," which led to such horrors as seat belts and the Clean Water Act, did. (Given that "Unsafe at Any Speed" launched the career of Ralph Nader, who went on to put George W. Bush in the White House, I wonder if conservatives might one day deem it one of the most helpful books of the last two centuries.)

Possibly even more amusing are the explanations for each book's inclusion. They read like 10th-grade book reports from some right-wing, bizarro world high school. John Maynard Keynes' seminal "The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money" argued that during recessions governments should cut interest rates, reduce taxes and increase spending, and during expansions do the opposite. It makes the list because, Human Events explains, "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 debt." (But didn't Keynesian policies help win World War II and then produce 25 years of phenomenal prosperity? And wasn't that debt less than a trillion dollars before Reagan took office?)

The squib on "The Feminine Mystique" begins with a fairly anodyne summary of Betty Freidan's pioneering feminist tract. Rather than explain what's so dangerous about allowing women the choice of having a career, though, Human Events proceeds to quote a review that "Friedan was from her college days, and until her mid-30s, a Stalinist Marxist." Not just a Stalinist, but a Marxist to boot!

Personally, I fail to see how Friedan's communist past -- she was 42 when she published "The Feminine Mystique" -- would discredit her insights about the repressive nature of a world in which women were discriminated against or barred outright from most professions and much of public life. Especially because the conservative movement was itself heavily salted with ex-communists. But then, my mind has already been poisoned by Dewey, Mill and other liberal relativists.

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