HATE BEG TO DIFFER WITH….Just for the hell of it, here’s a reply to the Human Events list of the “Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries”: a semi-consensus Top Ten collection of 19th and 20th century books that Political Animal readers believe have been harmful to the cause of human progress. I’ve created two rules by fiat:
The time period is 1800-1975. The starting date is so we’re playing by the same rules as the Human Events folks, and the ending date is because I think it’s impossible to judge the cultural importance of a book in less than 30 years or so.
No books by Nazis or communists. These are already well represented on the Human Events list, and I just figured it would be more fun to try to come up with ten completely different books.
Yes, these rules are somewhat arbitrary. Life is like that sometimes.
Anyway, here’s the draft list along with a brief comment about each selection. It’s in chronological order by date of publication. Warning: because I’m an uneducated boor, I’ve personally read only one of the books on this list. I’m mostly just cribbing from previous comment threads, emails, and various Googled descriptions of the books in question. Feel free to complain or nominate other worthy titles in comments.
Social Statics, 1851, by Herbert Spencer
Spencer taught that the functions of the state should be limited to internal police and foreign protection ? no public education, no limitation of hours on labor, no welfare legislation. Spencer later coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” and argued that it applied not just to Darwinian selection of biological organisms, but to cultures and societies as well. This gave rise to a trend in social theory called “Social Darwinism,” which became popular in the United States as a justification for the extreme laissez faire policies of the Gilded Age and the robber baron era. See also A Message to Garcia, a pamphlet that sold over 40 million copies during the opening decades of the 20th century.
Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races, 1853, by Joseph Arthur Comte de Gobineau
An early and influential book that promoted “scientific racism,” arguing that the rise and fall of civilizations was in direct proportion to the purity of “Caucasian blood” they contained. It was a precursor to both the eugenics movement and Nazi theories of Aryan superiority, and is popular to this day with white supremacists and other neanderthal types.
The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, 1905, by the Russian secret police
Protocols was a forgery that purported to demonstrate that a secret cabal of Jews was plotting to take over the world. Henry Ford famously used it to attack Jews and Communists, and Adolf Hitler later used the Protocols to help justify his attempt to exterminate Jews during World War II. It remains popular in the Arab world to this day.
The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan, 1905, by Thomas Dixon and Arthur I. Keller
Although Clansman itself was not widely read, it formed the basis of Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffith’s famous 1915 film that’s credited with rekindling interest in the Ku Klux Klan after it had largely died out in the late 19th century. The film depicts a post-Civil War history in which a heroic Ku Klux Klan saved the South from “arrogant, lustful, villainous” negroes who had taken over state legislatures and instigated a reign of terror against white women. Woodrow Wilson commented upon seeing the film that “it is all so terribly true.”
The Road to Serfdom, 1944, by Friedrich Hayek
Conservative/libertarian bible in which Hayek makes the case that government interventions in the market, no matter how well intentioned, inevitably lead to further and further interventions and, finally, to totalitarianism. Serfdom is widely used by libertarians and conservatives as a damning argument against social welfare programs of all sorts.
Witness, 1952, by Whittaker Chambers
Perhaps the best known of a genre of post-World War II memoirs that set the tone for the paranoid, McCarthyite anti-communism of the 50s and 60s. Helped justify the worst excesses of HUAC and the Hollywood witch hunts.
Atlas Shrugged, 1957, by Ayn Rand
Absurd ? and interminable ? tale of a near future in which men of ability finally grow tired of the relentless tide of regulation imposed by collectivist/socialist do gooders. In response, they withdraw from the world and set up a libertarian community hidden in the Rocky Mountains. When society finally collapses without them, they come out of hiding and impose a new libertarian paradise on the world.
It is perhaps true that Atlas Shrugged appeals mostly to impressionable teenagers who quickly grow out of it. However, it’s equally true that rather a lot of these teenagers keep their impressions with them as they grow up, even if they subsequently become embarrassed to admit where their predilections originated. Fed chairman Alan Greenspan is perhaps the best known Rand acolyte living today.
Capitalism and Freedom, 1962, by Milton Friedman
Influential exposition of the doctrine of unfettered capitalism, which gained strength during the Reagan adminstration and has now become (in a repeat of history) the guiding philosophy of the modern Republican party. Two generations of conservatives have taken to heart Friedman’s lesson that no interference with free market capitalism should be tolerated in a free society.
Milestones, 1964, by Sayyid Qutb
After ten years of incarceration and torture in Egyptian prisons, Qutb published his best known work, Milestones, a call for a renewed Islamic militancy that has “inspired some of the most extreme expressions of Islamic revivalism,” including the radical terrorist group Islamic Jihad. In The Age of Sacred Terror, Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon write that “Qutb, for better or for worse, is the Islamic world’s answer to Solzhenitsyn, Sartre, and Havel, and he easily ranks with all of them in influence. It was Sayyid Qutb who fused together the core elements of modern Islamism.”
The Late Great Planet Earth, 1970, By Hal Lindsey
Massive bestseller of the 70s and beyond that jumpstarted the modern resurgence of pre-millennial dispensationalism among evangelical Christians. As it happens, the world has not ended as Lindsey predicted, but this has seemingly done nothing to dim his popularity. LGPE is the literary forebear of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’s Left Behind series, a story of the apocalypse that has reportedly sold more than 50 million copies since the first volume was released in 1995 and has spawned a virtual empire of related doomsday spinoffs.