Book Report: Books That Changed America by Robert B. Downs (1970)

Book coverThis book should have a red cover. Its title should be Books That Advanced The Socialist Agenda for America.

How red is it?

Many of the evils of Bellamy’s day have been eliminated or mitigated in the eighty years since he wrote Looking Backward, and reforms which he advocated have been incorporated into the nation’s laws. The closest modern equivalent in organization to the state-controlled society proposed by Bellamy is Soviet Russia, where numerous obstacles have stood in the way of a fair test. [Emphasis added.]

That is, the socialist Utopia dreamed of in a nineteenth century novel is best represented by the Soviet Union, but its implementation was flawed by “obstacles.” Numerous obstacles. Not that the theory itself was flawed; no, there were numerous obstacles.

It takes one 129 pages into the book before we get confirmation that we’re way down the rabbit hole, Alice.

I mean, one could get the sense where the author’s sympathy lies in how he slaps around the word “conservatives.” Like when describing the book Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice, and the Physiology of Digestion: conservatives doubted the published observations of this unschooled army doctor presented with an improbable test subject. Not scientists or skeptics: conservatives doubt this. So it goes.

Here’s the selection of books. Note how it starts out with books in the canon we can agree are classic and then veers into leftist treatises:

  • Common Sense by Thomas Paine
  • History of the Expedition by Lewis and Clark
  • The Book of Mormon
  • Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice, and the Physiology of Digestion by William Beaumont
  • Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville
  • Annual Reports by Horace Mann
  • The Contagiousness of Puerperal Fever by Oliver Wendell Holmes (spoiler alert: Conservatives favor dead babies and mothers)
  • Resistance to Civil Government by Henry David Thoreau
  • Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
  • Looking Backward: 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy
  • The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783 by Alfred T. Mahan
  • The Significance of the Frontier in American History by Frederick Jackson Turner
  • The Shame of the Cities by Lincoln Steffens
  • The Jungle by Sinclair Lewis
  • Medical Education in the United States and Canada by Abraham Flexner
  • Twenty Years at Hull House by Jane Addams
  • The Principles of Scientific Management by Frederick Winslow Taylor (Hint: Smart people in charge decide what each worker should do and how he should do it.)
  • An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States by Charles A. Beard
  • Prejudices by Henry Louis Mencken
  • The Nature of the Judicial Process by Benjamin Cardozo (It’s supposed to make fairer laws through fiat.)
  • Middletown by Robert S. and Helen Merrel Lynd
  • The Mind of the South by W. J. Cash
  • An American Dilemma by Gunnar Myrdal
  • The Affluent Society by John Kenneth Galbraith
  • Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

Here are some choice quotes from the book. They start later in the book, as it took me a while to get incredulous enough to cite them. Note: I did not “dialog” with this text by marking up the book itself. Nor did I throw it, even though it is a paperback (because I’m mellowing, and because I read a large part of it in church).

From the chapter on Medical Education in the United States and Canada (p176):

On the basis of his first quick overview, Flexner concluded that the country needed fewer and better doctors and one way to get them was to produce fewer.

Another way: Obamacare.

From the chapter on The Nature of the Judicial Process (p234):

The position of property under the law is clarified by Cardozo. He points out that “property, like liberty, though immune under the Constitution from destruction, is not immune from regulation essential for the common good. What the regulation shall be, every generation must work out for itself.” Property has a social function to perform and legislation toward that end is an appropriate exercise of government power.

All your base are belong to the government for the social good.

From the chapter on Middletown (p246):

Middletown is “clubbed to death,” beginning with the young people in school and contiuing for the rest of their lives. Represented among 458 clubs are numerous women’s organizations, church societies, the Rotary Club and its rivals, the Chamber of Commerce, the lodges of the secret orders bearing fantastic names, the YM and YWCA, the Ku Klux Klan.

Uncontrolled, voluntary association of citizens according to their interests, beliefs, and service inclinations is dangerous. And they’re all equivalent to the KKK.

From the chapter on The Mind of the South (p255):

Romanticism and escapism also account for the South’s religious patterns, as seen by Cash. The Southerner’s “chief blood-strain was likely to be Celtic–of all Western strains the most susceptible to suggestions of the supernatural.”

Got that? Southerners must be grouped together and dismissed because of their ancestry. Because they’re racists.

From the chapter on The American Dilemma (p266):

For social reasons, the author strongly advocates voluntary birth control by Negroes in order to relieve the poverty of the Negro masses, to protect the health of working mothers, to reduce the high disease rate, especially from venereal cases, and to decrease the extremely high illegitimacy rate among Negroes. Stated broadly, “the reasons for birth control among Negroes is due only to the fact that, as a group, they are more touched by poverty, disease, and family disorganization than is common among the whites in America.”

That is, instead of implementing policies that help people, let’s just have fewer people of a certain racial group because they need help. This is compassionate to some people. I should note that these people are not the conservatives I hang around with.

It’s sad, really, that the problems described by the progressives’ books this tome refers to are not solved even as the programs have been implemented. For example, in the chapter on Horace Mann’s Annual Reports, it describes the problem. Massachussetts doesn’t have “common schools,” that is, public schools run by the state. This results in rich people sending their kids to private schools, and the rest of the people sometimes send their children to local schools in fading buildings, where harsh, unstandardized, undereducated, and underpaid teachers run classes in crumbling schools and sometimes spank the children who are often unruly and make it impossible to teach. Fast forward two hundred years, and you’ve got…. people with higher incomes sending their children to private schools, while the rest of the people sometimes send their children to local schools in crumbling buildings where masters’ degree toting teachers complain of being underpaid and have to teach to standardized tests. But they can’t spank children any more even though the children are unruly and make it impossible to teach. So the centralization of authority and the creation of a high level of bureaucracy continually pushing power (and budget) upward to ever-more stratified levels of administration doesn’t seemed to have many of the problems Mann outlined. But, undoubtedly, numerous obstacles have stood in the way of a fair test.

At any rate, I hated the book and what it tries to pass off as good and progress. On the other hand, I’m glad I read it because it gives me some insight into a bunch of unfortunately influential books that I’ll probably not read in their entirety. Also, it underlines and dismays me how long the poisonous political atmosphere has run under the surface of mainstream consciousness. This book is from 1970, and it’s a Mentor edition, which probably means it was a college textbook in the 1970s. And it highlights some progressive thought from before then, but it pronounces it as unalloyed good while almost hiding its bias. This itself is a piece of propoganda and not a collection of books balanced at all.

So I’d recommend it only if you’re sadistic or really want to see how this material has been framed and taught for generations.

Books mentioned in this review: