Over at Heterodox Academy there’s a post, Heterodox Academy’s Guide to the Most (and Least) Politically Diverse Colleges, First Edition, geared toward those looking for “unsafe spaces.” This isn’t on the list, but there’s another option: just be around me! Recently a friend found out I was a conservative, and he expressed total wonderment at the exotic specimen sitting before him, as he admitted he had never had a conservative friend (he, a Harvard graduate). I don’t mean to be what I am, but as an conservative brown person I diversify my white liberal milieu by dint of living and breathing in their presence!
One thing that I wondered in relation to that post: why not just read books which don’t align with your opinions? I know this is an exotic thought for many, but it does wonders for perspective, and it’s far cheaper than going to a university. One strategy is to read old books. It is highly likely that you will not align in totality with Aristotle on issues such as slavery, for example. If that is too heavy going, then perhaps the Epic of Gilgamesh or the The Iliad. To lighten the mood even more, The Golden Ass.
But the ancients are no more. Perhaps we want some more contemporary thinkers who are still alive, or represent more living traditions, oppositional to our own viewpoints? Years ago I read Tariq Ramadan’s Western Muslims and the Future of Islam. Unlike Reza Aslan Ramadan has scholarly heft, and is religiously orthodox in the eyes of the majority of the world’s Muslims (I enjoyed No God but God despite its occasional sloppiness, but Aslan is really not an alien perspective, he’s a person rather like me who happens to be broadly religious in some vague manner and so more sympathetic to Islam than I). It shows when someone like me, an atheist, an irtidad, attempts to read his verbal circumlocutions around concepts such as tawhid. Ramadan’s thought is extremely alien to me. It reminds me somewhat of attempting to read passages of Heidegger in translation. Such an exercise is useful, at least in understanding the incoherency of the believers.
Another book which has stuck with me is Michael Parenti’s Blackshirts and Reds: Rational Fascism and the Overthrow of Communism. I read it a long time ago, but I recall it is the sort of book that Southern romantics wrote about the lost cause, except in this case the lost cause was actually international Communism and Marxist-Leninism. Though Parenti doesn’t defend Stalin in the totality, he actually does defend him in some specifics! Obviously I’m not a Communist, and never have been. Though I did have a good friend in college who was a self-described Communist and Fidel groupie, she was a sociology major so I didn’t give it much thought. Here though is a man who lives in our time, an ex-friend of Bernie Sanders, defending the lost cause of Communism and bemoaning the fall of the Soviet Union as a grand experiment that was no more.
Next let’s move to Creationist books I’ve read which have challenged my views. Though I find both Parenti and Ramadan’s views abhorrent and objectionable, I give the nod to them as scholars. But Darwin’s Black Box was a dumb book by a smart man (that is, Behe is a competent biochemist, but as an evolutionary biologist he’s a professional imbecile). Darwin on Trial I recall being slick and sophisticated, but it was just what a lawyer would write. It did not challenge me, it disgusted me, as it was sophistry. In contrast, Larry Witham’s By Design: Science and the Search for God is a sympathetic portrait of some researchers associated with the Intelligent Design movement, more or less. Like Islam, Creationism and Neo-Creationism (Intelligent Design), are stupid and false ideas. Creationism has the demerit of being promoted for most of its history by evangelical Protestants, so it has never developed intellectual richness which would impress outsiders (unlike Islam, which has a 1,500 year history). But, some of the people promoting Intelligent Design are quite clever, and their motives are illuminating.
John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice is not bed-time reading, but it is important to understanding modern political philosophy (Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia was a response). Philosophy doesn’t have a direct impact on modern society, but it does shape the frameworks of intellectuals, who eventually become political actors and influences. E.g., Matt Yglesias, a philosophy grad from Harvard, is pretty obviously influenced by Rawls, though this was more evident when he was an undergraduate. Rawls’ hyper-logical system building isn’t something that I’m too congenial with at this point in my life (rationalist models of society made more sense when I was a virgin). I am a conservative, I obviously disagree in a lot of details with Rawls. But the tendencies which he evinces are common among intellectual liberals, libertarians, and even free market zealots in the conservative camp.
We live in a Whiggish age, so John Horgan’s The End of Science is an audacious book. I’m a scientist who loves science, so obviously I’m not convinced, to say the least. But Horgan gives it a good college shot, and sometimes the effort can result in illumination. Scientists are filled with hubris. A “cure for cancer” has been around the corner for decades, and robotics is going to go mainstream any day now. Some caution is warranted.
When I first read Garrett Hardin’s The Ostrich Factor: Our Population Myopia I was actually rather concerned with overpopulation. Today, for various reasons, I am not nearly as alarmed. But Hardin’s work is essential toward understanding how many people, especially biologists, think about these issues. Carrying capacity and the logistic curve of growth and saturation with “checks” are concepts drilled into the heads of most biologists, especially those with an ecological focus. Hardin, with his “tragedy of the commons”, was exceptional at being able to communicate this internal logic in a way that the public could understand. As such, his work channels many of the concerns in the environmental movement, in particular those which are more Deep Ecology tinged.
Randall Robinson wrote The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks during a period of time when there was a fair amount of talk about reparations for slavery. Though I agree most that American blacks have suffered injustice, and to some extent continue to do so, I do not hold to Left liberal positions on racial relations or the means of reconciliation. At the time I read The Debt I was a rather strident libertarian, so I was skeptical of Robinson’s case, and remained so after having finished it. Though some sections, as when he depicts Cuba as a racial paradise for blacks, were totally implausible, Robinson did not toss off a wild eyed screed. Impractical and unlikely as reparations were, The Debt was a serious effort offered in good faith.
It seems this list is heavily skewed toward politics. But that’s one area where I have strong affirmative and negative positions, and am less open because these are grounded in a priori norms. It is strange to think of having a “diversity of views” on physics, for example. In the mid-1990s I read a fair amount of feminist material. Most of it did not stay with me. For example, I think I read Mary Daly’s The Church and the Second Sex, but I have no recollection what it was about in the specifics. In contrast Andrea Dworkin’s Woman Hating haunts me (in contrast, Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman inspires me as to the possibilities of my daughter’s life). Woman Hating is an unhinged radical feminist take on sexual relations. Even many feminists have accused her work to be a distorted reflection of the misogyny under which she suffered. Dworkin’s views are not representative of mainstream feminism, but they definitely reflect the fringe rather well, if in an unpleasant tone. The ubiquitous idea of “violence” through speech rather than deed took root early in this group of thinkers.
That is all for now. Readers can chime in with books which were influential for them, despite disagreeing with their viewpoints or perspective.