Saturday, March 27, 2010

Quibbles With First Principles' "Fifty Worst Books" List

First Principles looks back at the XXthThe Fifty Worst Books. Interesting that the only two on the list I've read were Eldridge Cleaver's Soul on Ice and The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley.

The former is clearly the more problematic, even if Mr. Cleaver's suggestion that "rape was an insurrectionary act" was repudiated in the same book. Years later, after exile in Algeria and North Korea, Mr. Cleaver became a conservative Republican and was associated with Charles Colson's ministry. Bill Kauffman, in Look Homeward America: In Search of Reactionary Radicals, writes of his 1985 interview with the man: "Cleaver's Berkeley apartment, by the way, was easy to find: 'twas the only one flying an American flag."

FP dismisses Malcolm X with this quip: "'By any means necessary'? No, violence was not, and is not, the answer." X was talking about self defense, and, as a true conservative, he always preached self-reliance and community, rather than government.

At the same time, FP says that The Pentagon Papers "did nothing but undermine the new president’s—Nixon’s—statesmanlike efforts to salvage the mess in Vietnam bequeathed to him by JFK and LBJ." Daniel Ellsberg leak "demonstrated unconstitutional behavior by a succession of presidents, the violation of their oath and the violation of the oath of every one of their subordinates." One would hope that FP would recognize the value of a free press exposing the "unconstitutional behavior by a succession of presidents" rather than worship state power.

Another quibble: FP says Profiles in Courage "[s]hould have been called, Profiles in Ghost-Writing." Does the authorship of a book that praises Robert Taft make it one of the worst books of the century?

Quibbles aside, First Principles' list is pretty good. One need not have read most of the books to know the horrible damage they have wrought. Still, the errors on the list highlight the limited of vision of the journal and Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) conservatism.

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Anonymous mcmlxix said...

I haven't read The International Style, so I can't comment on the book, but I can on the style.

I would say that modern architecture is problematic only if it is an attempt to strip cultural localism (internationalism) from architecture and therefore act as cultural engineering not if it is an attempt to create a purity of form without superfluous ornamentation and honesty through minimalism.

Also where modernism in architecture went wrong is the matter so few could do it well. It's not a matter alone of steel, glass, and straight lines. Much nuance and attention to detail is required simply because there is so little of it. There's no chance to cover up of bad form with pseudo-historical cuteness.

Mies was the master, and Johnson wasn't all that bad either. The IDS Tower is one of my favorite high-rises. Mid-century modern vernacular is one of my favorite housing styles. Less IS more. Uncluttered homes, lives, egos, etc. is religious. Yet another reason to move to LA. Oops, if I could afford such a house there, the less is more dictum would become a bit ironic.

Of note, I have a friend who says that glass houses and large uncurtained windows are a Protestant impulse to (insincerely) demonstrate they have noting to hide. Although he's a French atheist, I presume he meant sin. Catholics, who have recourse to confession, have no such need for such declarations. It's an interesting hypothesis, but whether it's true I won't begin to speculate.

10:28 AM  
Blogger The Western Confucian said...

Interesting. Nothing could be more contrarian than a Catholic defense of modern architecture.

About your French friend, it is interesting that the Southern Europeans hide so much in housing. While a student in Chile, I noticed how everyone's house was hidden behind walls.

1:28 AM  
Anonymous Alphonsus said...

The Malcolm X autobiography is also #50 on their best book list. You can find that list here:

3:41 AM  
Blogger love the girls said...

I was rather surprised "The International Style" made the list. Is there a better book at attempting to understand the nature of the international style?

In keeping with the type of books chosen for the list, the book they should have chosen is "Architecture for Worship" by E.A.Sovik.

The western confucian writes :"Nothing could be more contrarian than a Catholic defense of modern architecture."

Does it need defending?

Modern architecture can likewise be used according to the nature of the art. Off hand, I can't think of a simple aspect of the art which cannot be solved using modern architecture.

6:40 AM  
Anonymous Kevin J Jones said...

In recent years ISI feels like it has let pop conservatism have more prominence than its intellectual edge.

Its deeply flawed polls about students getting dumber over college seem designed for publicity, rather than enlightenment. Perhaps it's driven by the need to expand membership and raise funds.

10:28 AM  
Blogger The Western Confucian said...

Alphonsus, thanks. Now I remember that from when they first published their list. I blogged that fact/

love the girls, maybe I'm too harsh on the modern.

Mr. Jones, good observation.

11:25 AM  

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