I don’t know if every era has its version of witch hunts and book burnings. However, the current cancel culture which originates in fundamentalist-like sureties eerily resembles moments from the past, from midnight book bonfires to quests for women with black-brimmed hats.
The main difference between say, Puritan witch hunts of a few centuries back or the ban on certain books by religious authorities, is that modern closed-mindedness originates in secular sureties and its methods are virtual as opposed to physical.
No person or book today gets burnt when they fall out of favour or hold views opposite some self-proclaimed norm. Instead, academics get fired or silenced, speeches and debates get cancelled, books are delisted and popular social media platforms from Facebook to YouTube are made off-limits to today’s heretics.
What to do about this? Try recalling that the core value in the Western tradition is not that some issue is assumed settled forever.
A free and potentially flourishing society needs free expression at its core (minus the usual caveat about a call to violence). That matters more than any idea, issue, or policy currently being debated. It allows one to point out the emperor is naked when everyone else claims the prince is well-dressed, i.e., the dissident who is still in touch with reality and who can challenge the silly majority when such occasions arise.
Just as critically, besides the freedom to point out the obvious when others are in anti-reality denial, protect freedom of expression, association, religion, media, and other such rights and you allow for diverse viewpoints to arise – just in case you/me/others have not yet arrived at a state of perfection.
But too often in our era, that sensible approach has been weakened recently. That’s due to the rise of a culture too sensitive, enamoured with its own supposed elevated virtues, and perfectionist even when looking back, i.e., expecting historical figures to be without blemish.
All that is opposite truth-seeking. This is especially apparent on university campuses but is obvious nearly everywhere, from social media to the corporate boardroom.
As a remedy to this unthinking behaviour that further discourages critical thinking, and given academically-inclined young minds are back at high schools and universities (in-person or virtual), here are five books that students are unlikely to read there but should if they care to breathe fresh intellectual air.
These five books are less about any specific issue but instead challenge readers on how to think critically. Some are a few decades old and some more recent. All are worth giving to the favourite student in your life or buying for yourself.
How smart people can be dangerous: Intellectuals, Paul Johnson, 1988
For many people, intellectuals have long replaced priests and other religious authorities as spiritual and cultural guides to how we should run our lives and governments. We’re (still) often stuck with imperfect human beings who in some cases deign to guide others not in broad strokes but in minute bureaucratic details and too often outside their areas of expertise.
Or as Paul Johnson writes, “The secular intellectual might be deist, sceptic or atheist,” writes Johnson, “But he is just as ready as any pontiff or presbyter to tell mankind how to conduct its affairs.”
This is a problem: Whereas a smart person attached to reality is guided by what works—think of a structural engineer designing a building, accounting for wind, water, soil and gravity—intellectuals detached from reality are dangerous and can lead to societal trainwrecks.
For example, the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau was disinterested in the danger of concentrated power and possessed a naïve belief in the goodness of people. That led to his notion that the state could fashion all human beings as if we were nothing more than putty. Karl Marx pronounced on economics, the working class, and the Industrial Revolution though he’d never visited a factory floor.
The results? Rousseau’s influence helped spur the blood-soaked French Revolution of 1789. Marxist theory led to nearly 100 million dead due to communism in the 20th century.
The macro danger is one core point of Johnson’s 1988 book. Another is the sheer personal hypocrisy by those intellectuals who deign to guide the rest of us: Rousseau wrote flowery tomes about childhood, but abandoned his own to orphanages.
Smart folk are of use in areas where they have expertise, and where they stay connected to reality.
For example, the 20th century economist Milton Friedman was a top-notch thinker and was also connected to reality. He observed how human beings act, why supply and demand and price signals matter, and thus why command-and-control economies would never produce desirable outcomes and be repressive in the meantime. (In the 21st century, we still have lingering examples in Cuba, Venezuela, and North Korea.)
In contrast, socialist economists in the 20th century were disconnected from reality, preferring “should” arguments as opposed to empirical discoveries.
The key point from Johnson’s book is that while there have been milder examples of destructive anti-reality intellectuals whose ideas translated into policy did not end in murder, and he catalogues those as well, the misguided consequences of anti-reality thinking by Very Smart People are a danger in any age. God save us from philosophizing absent any connection to common-sense reality.
Why forced confessions and conversions are odious: 1984, George Orwell, 1948
I don’t know if teachers still assign 1984, but they should. Newspeak, Doublethink, Big Brother, and the Thought Police are all concepts the left-leaning Orwell introduced into the popular imagination after his own disillusionment with tyrannical communist states.
The lesson from Orwell is not just about the danger of institutionalized bureaucracies without checks on their power to run roughshod over individuals. It is how the relentless pressure to conform will ultimately lead even principled individuals to succumb to groupthink and deny the reality of their own eyes and conscience. They thus hollow out their humanity.
It is why at the end of the book—spoiler alert—the main character, Winston Smith, “realizes” the error of his independent, dissident ways and ultimately comes to love Big Brother.
Relevancy to today? Every time I see yet another public figure confessing the error of their past statements or even apologizing for present views, I shudder at such self-induced abasement a la Winston Smith.
We are all occasionally wrong and most of us amend our views over time—or decide we were right all along on “issue X.” In the latter case, the critic be damned, and welcome to what’s supposed to be a free society.
The proper response to the critics who self-righteously demand public apologies should be to tell them to examine their own brain and heart for mistakes and ill-advised beliefs and get back to us when they develop more humility.
And assign them 1984 as corrective reading.
How dead 18th century males can help us think: Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future, Neil Postman, 2000
Recommending a book that praises the 18th century and the Enlightenment with its plethora of (now) dead white European males takes some chutzpah – but Neil Postman, the late cultural critic and New York professor, became famous in the 1980s for a number of trenchant observations in a series of books: How television was hollowing out literacy; how it was also destroying childhood; and how the combination of both undermined an informed public.
In Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century, Postman did more than curse darkness. He instead lit a candle. He pointed to the Western and Enlightenment tradition of critical thought and reason in the 18th century as in part responsible for how we banished some ignorance and some evil. He explains how that set the stage for a freer, flourishing 20th century, and by extension our century today, until too many began to reject the Enlightenment’s assumptions.
As the book flap from the hardcover edition summarized it, Postman “turns our attention to Goethe, Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Kant, Edward Gibbon, Adam Smith, Thomas Paine Jefferson, and Franklin, and their then-radical thinking about inductive science, religious and political freedom, popular education, rational commerce, the nation-state, progress and happiness.”
Relevance to today? In contrast to 2021 “arguments” that the 18th century was racist, sexist, full of slavery and much else, the critical question is how all that ended. As Postman wrote, “it was in the eighteenth century that the arguments were generated that made these inhumanities both visible and, in the end, insupportable”—and as Postman adds, “Yes, Jefferson had slaves. But he knew that he shouldn’t have slaves.”
Thus, the 18th century and centuries since had plenty of people that were often a lot more “woke” than many grant or grasp. Postman’s bridge to informed history is another must-read for the minds of today too often propagandized but not offered an actual critical education. Postman can help serve as another necessary corrective.
Social justice versus actual justice: The Quest for Cosmic Justice, Thomas Sowell, 1999
This perfectionist utopian end has also been addressed by economist Thomas Sowell in triplicate: A Conflict of Visions, The Vision of the Anointed, and The Quest for Cosmic Justice.
I’d recommend all three, but if you choose one for a student who uses the past to condemn the present, it should be The Quest for Cosmic Justice, a short, sharp 214-page dissection of the utter destructiveness and illiberalism of making the present pay for past wrongs—the quest to balance out “justice” between the ages.
Sowell spent his formative years in the American South and then Harlem. He was never a stranger to harsh realities including racism and prejudice or to the positive changes in America life since his childhood.
The Quest for Cosmic Justice was published 22 years ago but it could have been released yesterday without moving a comma. Sowell questions the tendency to drag the past out to condemn the present—in the American context, as one example, slavery has been blamed for the breakdown of the black family.
Except as Sowell points out, the black family began to disintegrate in the 1960s, about one century after slavery ended. To grasp why families began to split apart in the very decade where progress was finally made on civil rights, one has to look elsewhere: changing cultural norms, the welfare state, and much else.
Sowell, ever the economist, notes trade-offs are always in play. Attempts to “fix” the real or supposed effect of past wrongs in history means you end up creating new victims today.
As an example, it is why he opposes race and gender quotas, called affirmative action: Because such policies award education spots, jobs, pay raises, and even careers based on the notion one is suffering now because of past wrongs to one’s group. So, the innocent today must be sacrificed for the actions of others, long dead, assuming even that actions of 100 or 300 years ago affect outcomes today.
This mono-causal approach—past wrongs explain much today—again ignore multiple other factors: poor or top-performing schools on achievement or the effect of culture. Sowell points out that Scots who came from the lowlands were always more successful than Scots who came from the highlands and the difference can be explained by cultural attitudes.
This “quest for cosmic justice” between generations and eras and often labelled “social justice” is in fact anti-real justice. Sowell gives the clear example of a California murder case where the murderer’s supposedly unhappy childhood was allowed to be taken into account in the trial and sentencing. But the “victim was a twelve-year-old girl, who had not even been born when the murderer was supposedly going through his unhappy childhood. It is only from a cosmic perspective that his childhood had any bearing on the crime,” and somehow should be accounted for in guilt, innocence, or sentencing, observes Sowell.
Trying to “make up” for past wrongs by demanding justice between generations (or equal outcome todays for all) in fact creates new injustices today. It’s a critical awareness everyone from 17 to 70 should grasp.
How to wreck universities in multiple steps: Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender and Identity and Why This Harms Everybody, 2020, Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay
Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay lean left or at least, liberal. That’s useful to know as they wrote Cynical Theories not out of conservative frustration with liberals but out of liberal frustration with self-flattering progressives.
The very term “progressive” is hubristic. It implies disagreement with some progressive nostrum must be illiberal or reactionary, as opposed to another possibility: That a progressive might be wrong a little or a lot on some matters or even about human nature.
That aside, the authors do a nice job of explaining what academic buzzwords—postmodernism, postcolonial theory, critical race theory, intersectionality, and much else actually are and also why they have been so destructive to excellence in academia and then in society. “The book is written for the layperson who has no background in this type of scholarship but sees the influence of it on society and wants to understand how it works,” write Pluckrose and Lindsay.
Both emphasize the have no desire to undermine their preferred liberal projects. What they do want is, a they describe it, to “defend rigorous, evidence-based scholarship” and other aspects of the university “as a centre of knowledge production against anti-empirical, anti-rational, and illiberal currents on the left that threaten to give power to anti-intellectual, anti-equality, and illiberal currents on the right.”
Pluckrose and Lindsay actually overstate such currents on the right and in fact Cynical Theories is proof of just how far the left and progressives have stayed from actual liberalism. It has been conservative, libertarian, and classical thinkers, post-1960s, who have defended free expression and free inquiry on campus and who consistently point out academia’s rot.
A useful example of the latter is the late Allan Bloom’s 1987 book, The Closing of the American Mind, which I recommended in a previous review of useful books to. Bloom, a philosopher and professor of social thought at the University of Chicago until his death, was one of the first to warn of the intellectual contamination and rot setting at universities in the English-speaking world.
That was 34 years ago, so Pluckrose and Lindsay are relative latecomers. Nonetheless, consider Bloom and then Pluckrose and Lindsay as both bracketing the age of anti-reason and illiberalism into which too many universities have fallen.
Mark Milke wears many hats and one is that of an author. His most recent book is The Victim Cult: How the culture of blame hurts everyone and wrecks civilizations.
- Superpowers break whatever rules they want, and third-tier powers like Canada have to keep their allies close. That’s how the world has worked since the days of Ancient Greece, says Mark Milke.
- This isn't the first time Mark has shared some excellent book recommendations.
- Or even the second.