There has been some interesting debate about Human Events’ Ten Most Harmful Books List (mentioned earlier this month by Phil). Apparently it threatened Jonathan Chait’s “efforts at ideological toleration” among other things.
I am not here to defend the list per se, as any list of this nature is rather subjective and unserious to a degree. But what I do find interesting is that so many people can’t seem to get past the fact that books can be dangerous; that they can even have unintended negative consequences. Many of the books listed are in this category (see here for more).
This is an issue that Jonah Goldberg takes up in NRO’s The Corner. Responding to a reader’s email Jonah has this to say:
This reader wants me to buy into the notion that books — i.e. ideas — can never be dangerous. Alas, I think that’s bunk. Of course books can be dangerous. Everything important, everything with the power to change mens’ minds can be dangerous. How you can believe a book — or a movie or a play — can make the world a better place but that it can never make the world a worse place is beyond me. Any medium which can uplift can confuse. Does the reader really think the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is only dangerous when thrown?
The notion that “art” can only be enlightening is a carbunkle of a clichÃ©. The relevant question is, Therefore what? Since most people think censorship is the greatest evil known to man (a belief I’ve disputed many, many times), I certainly think criticizing ideas is not only fine, but sometimes necessary. Pragmatically, I admit this can backfire (calling a book “dangerous” increases its appeal). But I don’t see why, as a matter of principle, we can’t say some books made this world better and some books made this world worse.
This is an important issue. People fly into a tizzy any time someone so much as hints that a book shouldn’t be read or made available to everyone. Censorship! Everyone cries, as if that settles the point. But this is actually a much more difficult issue and not one in which all conservatives agree by the way (William F. Buckley and Russell Kirk – two giants of American conservatism – disagreed about the issue).
So let me throw this out to the peanut gallery (if there is one). Can books be dangerous? Should certain books and ideas be discouraged or kept from those unprepared to handle them? Or should the battle of ideas be left alone; with assuring a level playing field our only goal?