Wednesday, November 26, 2008


One Book That Screws Up Literary Criticism

This never made it into the Herald, but I think it's still worth posting.

Vanderbilt University is the most prestigious university in my home state of Tennessee, ranking 19th nationwide in a 2007 poll by U.S. News and World Report. That is why I find it personally painful to point out that, in addition to a collegiate football team that consistently finishes with a losing record, VU now has another source of ignominy: Benjamin Wiker.
“10 Books that Screwed up the World & 5 Others that Didn’t Help” is the latest by Wiker, who completed his doctoral degree at Vandy. On its back cover, “10 Books” is identified as “a main selection in the Conservative Book Club” and comes with a recommendation from Elizabeth Cantor, who authored “The Politically Incorrect Guide™ to English and American Literature,” which should give you some idea as to its ideological aims.
Inside, Wiker targets 15 books written since the 16th century for criticism, beginning with Machiavelli’s “The Prince” and finishing with “The Feminine Mystique” by Betty Friedan. Along the way, he rarely takes a politically incorrect approach to his selections; instead, he prefers to tell us that “The Communist Manifesto” and “Mein Kampf” are bad.
His approach is somewhat unique, though, in that he criticizes each one in ways designed to meet the Conservative Book Club’s approval.
For example, any of you who have actually read “The Prince” probably found its ruthlessness distasteful. Also, those who’ve read “The Communist Manifesto” probably can’t believe that a classless, free society could ever emerge after a violent revolution. At least, those are the reasons you thought you disliked those books, but Dr. Wiker is here to tell you why you really hated them: a) Each was written by an atheist, or at least someone who wasn’t a sincere Christian, and b) The views in these books eventually lead to adultery, abortion and possibly gay marriage.
One might accuse Wiker of choosing really easy targets (also on the list are Thomas Hobbes’ “Leviathan” and Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Beyond Good and Evil”) upon which to foist his views. However, he also goes to the trouble of digging up titles such as Margaret Sanger’s eugenics-touting “The Pivot of Civilization,” as well as “The Future of an Illusion,” one of Sigmund Freud’s lesser-known tracts, both of which would probably be quite influential if very many people were aware of their existence.
The purpose of their selection is not random, however. Wiker asserts that the unscrupulous values of “The Prince” actually created the void of “Beyond Good and Evil,” which paved the way for “Mein Kampf” and all the other evils of the 20th century.
“(Hitler) was a man of his times, a nineteenth-and twentieth-century man, who owed as much as Margaret Sanger to the Darwinian eugenic theories in circulation and shared the same reaction as Nietzsche to the Epicurean diminution of man brought about by the liberalism of Hobbes and (John Stuart) Mill,” he writes.
If you read these words the way this Tennessean does, it will appear to you that the Vanderbilt graduate is saying that not only are Hobbes and Mill responsible for Nazism and the teaching of evolution, they would be Barack Obama supporters today. Not even the use of words like “Epicurean” can mask the ridiculousness of his arguments.
Then again, Wiker’s aims are rarely, if ever aided by his word choices. His repetitive use of words such as “atheist” in the belief that they are, by themselves, helpful to his cause is not an insult to the reader’s intelligence; it’s more like a complete denial that the reader has any.
His fruitless attempts at wit are best exemplified in his passage regarding Alfred Kinsey’s “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male,” when he described how he once witnessed the brutal mating habits of chickens on the farm, which apparently taught him a valuable lesson about our sexual nature. This would be disturbing enough even without this groaner: “I have since thought of penning a revealing ‘Sexual Behavior of the Inhumane Rooster.’” (In his chapter on Rene Descartes’ “Discourse on Method” there’s a sentence involving a cow and the use of the word “udder” in place of “utter” that I simply can’t bear to repeat.)
There are sections of the book that actually could have stirred meaningful debate. Whether “The Feminine Mystique” has harmed the structure of the modern family by “demonizing housewives” is more than just a sticking point for social conservatives: a greater number of working women has, at least in part, caused America’s decline in birth rate, which is expected to cause economic troubles when members of the Baby Boom generation start retiring en masse.
However, Wiker can’t help himself: rather than discuss such pressing topics, he spends most of the chapter dwelling upon Friedan’s connections to Marxism and blames her for the legalization of abortion in the United States, though he admits that subject is never mentioned in her book.
Why did anyone think that we needed to know Benjamin Wiker’s literary views? The true agenda can be found, I believe, on the back cover. One of the two written recommendations of “10 Books” says that Wiker “has read the worst books in Western civilization so you don’t have to.”
Wiker himself suggests that we read a very few of those on the list, but limits his recommendations to those generally forgotten (like Sanger’s) or thoroughly stigmatized (like Hitler’s). You probably need not bother reading the rest yourselves, because Dr. Wiker has already told you what you should think.
This book was written for members of the religious right in an effort to keep them from forming their own opinions and questioning the policies of right-learning elected officials. Non-believers, along with people of faith who believe that their government shouldn’t legislate moral views need not partake of its wisdom.
Fans of the Conservative Book Club should be warned, however, that the use of the phrase “screwed up” is employed in this book’s title. You never know what horrors the use of such language could lead to one day.

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