Wednesday, June 01, 2005

You can't trust those wingnuts to choose the WRONG books.

They are wingnuts, and they are not ashamed to admit it. From Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries:

HUMAN EVENTS asked a panel of 15 conservative scholars and public policy leaders to help us compile a list of the Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries. Each panelist nominated a number of titles and then voted on a ballot including all books nominated. A title received a score of 10 points for being listed No. 1 by one of our panelists, 9 points for being listed No. 2, etc. Appropriately, The Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, earned the highest aggregate score and the No. 1 listing.

It's the self-identification that gets me. They are not mere scholars not public policy leaders. They are "conservative" scholars and public policy leaders. I don't trust them at all because they fetishize their own ideology before their competency. There are many qualities to admire in a teacher - their knowledge, their teaching ability, their humanity and their empathy. But conservatism, liberalism or socialism are not qualities to admire by themselves. Their alignment could make for good conversations at the nearest university bar. Or it could make them intolerant and strident. Whatever - just leave it out of the classroom. 

To see how easily they will shed academic rigour for their convictions, let's look at the blurb for their #1 entry:  The Communist Manifesto:

The Manifesto envisions history as a class struggle between oppressed workers and oppressive owners, calling for a workers’ revolution so property, family and nation-states can be abolished and a proletarian Utopia established. The Evil Empire of the Soviet Union put the Manifesto into practice.

But that second sentence is nonsense. "Property, family and nation-states abolished?" No. The USSR didn't even practice this selective interpretation of the Manifesto. The score looks like 0.5 out of 3 to me. The Soviets did abolish private enterprise, but public property was sacrosanct, judging by the amount of barbed wire around their Gulags and missile bases. And on the western side of their nation-states as well, especially East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. As for family units, they were probably stronger under Brezhnev than they are today. Families would often leave the slow business of lining up for rations to their parents and grandparents. The elderly would be appreciated for this, and they'd generally end up better fed as well. And now the life-expectancy for men has dropped down to 56 years - 12 years less than Việt Nam.

The  other thing is that the Soviet Union isn't really remembered for lack of property, lack of families or lack of (you gotta snigger at this) nation-states. Bullets in the back of the head are more memorable images. And that's the problem: neither Marx nor Engels doesn't really advocate this in the Manifesto. He sounds more outraged about the proletariat sending their wives and children down coal mines, or into factories. "Do you charge us with wanting to stop the exploitation of children by their parents? To this crime we plead guilty." And in early 19th century Europe, this was a daily occurrence. Even on Sundays.

State terror - now that was more Lenin's thing. He both wrote books about it, practiced it, and exhorted others to do the same. But none of his prose even made the top 10. So why pick the dynamic duo of M. and E. over Lenin? Well, I guess they're more memorable that him. They're a good enemy for the "tribe" of the Right to collectively denounce - an anti-fetish, two Goldsteins to the Airstrip One of the American Right. 

Why am I going on and on about this? Put it this way - I expect better from academics, and the people behind the survey make their living as academics, researchers and scholars. I expect them to make an argument, do some research, and back it up with facts. I'd expect them to be able to look up stuff that is available on-line for free. If I can can do it from a third-world country, why can't they do it from their cosy little sinecures in the U.S.? But their problem is that they're not lazy. They're incurious.

But the most damming indictment of this survey doesn't come from me, or from either Steve Gilliard or Brad de Long - my sources for the survey. It comes from their commenters, who point out the survey does not mention The Protocols of Zion at all. Yes, Mein Kampf is at number 2, but the evil of Protocols survives today. It could be demonstrated that it is more influential, and even deserves a #1 place. After all, Mein Kampf  - an extremely boring book - was only really influential in Germany for 12 years, and even then it was more for owning than reading. While Protocols - forgery of the Russian Cheka - is now being embraced by the more loathsome Islamic fundamentalist groups. 

But at the end, the wingnuts don't mention it. It's not that they don't care about anti-Semitism - they do. It just isn't symbolic enough to decry. It's not red-enough meat for the base. And in the end, these collective conformist conservatives will always talk trite symbolism over analysis. And a wingnut remains a wingnut, even if he has a PhD.