What does The Communist Manifesto have in common with The Feminine Mystique? Both are among the top ten most harmful books of the 19th and 20th centuries, as determined by a panel of conservative thinkers assembled by Human Events Magazine. Herb London, president of the Hudson Institute, was among the judges. He joins Bob to discuss the danger of books.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. Here's one for you - what does The Communist Manifesto have in common with The Feminine Mystique? Both appear on a top ten list of the Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries, published last week by Human Events magazine. The venerable conservative weekly asked a panel of prominent conservatives to nominate books and then vote on them. One of the judges was Herb London, president of the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC. He joins me now to parse the results. Herb, welcome to the show.
HERB LONDON: Pleasure to be with you.
BOB GARFIELD: So, the top three most harmful books were determined to be, in this order, The Communist Manifesto, Mein Kampf, and Quotations from Chairman Mao. First of all, were those pretty much consensus picks?
HERB LONDON: Well, I can't answer that question. I can only tell you that they were three of my picks. Now you've mentioned others as well, but they were not necessarily my picks. The Feminist Mystique, while I think may have undermined the relationship between men and women in some way, was not a book that I'd describe as among the most damaging to civilization.
BOB GARFIELD: And that was the criterion - damaging to civilization.
HERB LONDON: Well, in a sense, yes - books that had a kind of pernicious effect on society.
BOB GARFIELD: Isn't it true, though, that, you know, books don't hurt people; that people hurt people?
HERB LONDON: Oh, I don't believe that for a minute. Books can sometimes be very, very dangerous, and that's not to say that I believe in censorship at all. In fact, I assign books of precisely this variety to my students, but it's important for them to understand why there is very often a mass psychosis in society and how books play a role in making that happen. Keep in mind that it was not merely the events at Versailles that led to the rise of Naziism. It was also books like Mein Kampf.
BOB GARFIELD: I want to go down to Number 4 on the list - that's Alfred Kinsey's Sexual Behavior in the Human Male.
HERB LONDON: I didn't select that one either, so I mean part of the difficulty that I have here is that you're asking me to comment about books that I did not select. But it's okay. I'll be happy to talk about that if you like.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, it - apparently there was some sort of consensus on the jury. Do you know why it was deemed to be so harmful?
HERB LONDON: Well, probably because conventional notions of sexuality were changed and the relationship between men and women changed in the process. Normative behavior became very different as a result of the Kinsey Report and what was alleged to be the great changes that were occurring in American sexuality.
BOB GARFIELD: And next thing you know, you got, like Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania is talking about, you got man on dog sex.
HERB LONDON: Well, I won't even comment on that. I'm not going to dignify that comment, but [LAUGHTER] I, all I'm saying to you is that if you're looking at normative behavior, clearly it changed as a result of the Kinsey Report.
BOB GARFIELD: There were the top ten or the bottom ten; I don't know how you would measure this. But there was also a sort of dishonorable mention list, and I want to go to that for a moment. On the second tier were Ralph Nader's famous book Unsafe at Any Speed, and Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. Now, those books were widely credited with opening the world's eyes to corporate mischief. What part of those books harmed society?
HERB LONDON: Well, I'll tell you, because there I think there is an excellent case to be made against Rachel Carson. Rachel Carson's book led to the net result that DDT could not be employed. There is very little evidence that DDT is harmful. In fact, it could be swallowed without having an adverse effect. And if you want to look at the rise of malaria in Africa and the millions of young children that die each year because of mosquito bites from a, a humanitarian standpoint, it seems to me that one of the things you'd want to do is introduce DDT into that continent. Now I don't understand why people, including many people in this country, believe that DDT should be banned, largely based on the mystical science, and I say mystical, and I underscore that word, science of Rachel Carson.
BOB GARFIELD: What would Human Events magazine and the jury that you were impaneled with do with these books? Would, would it suppress them now? Would it have suppressed them at the time?
HERB LONDON: Well, it may very well be that when you consider in retrospect the damage that some of these books have caused in civilization and the millions of lives that were lost in the process - maybe that would have been an appropriate tradeoff. Now, I think they are very appropriate historical documents that tell you something about the given view of a people during a certain period.
BOB GARFIELD: Why did you get involved in this?
HERB LONDON: Well, I thought it was kind of interesting. I mean I often think about books that may have had a pernicious effect on civilization - books that led to massive slaughter. I thought of it as an academic exercise. I can't speak for the other judges. In fact, I don't even know who some of these judges are, so I have no idea whether this was a matter taken seriously, whether these were people who could be regarded as serious people. I mean if you're trying to say, in effect, that this was a silly exercise, well of course you're entitled to do that, but I can't be in the position of doing that, because I was not entirely responsible for the entire exercise. All I could take responsibility for were the ten books I selected.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay. Well, Herb, thanks so much.
HERB LONDON: You're very welcome.
BOB GARFIELD: Herb London is president of the Hudson Institute and one of the jurors in Human Events magazine's list of the most harmful books of the last two centuries.