Why Do These Stupid Books Sell?

[From the blog M-L-M Mayhem!]

I am always fascinated and frustrated by the North American mainstream public’s willingness to buy and accept as authoritative “historical” books of dubious scholarship that popularize ruling class ideology.  The reason these books are not treated with the suspicion they deserve, obviously, is because they are designed to reinforce what people are already taught to believe.  These books masquerade as academic, as well-researched and expert, and yet they rarely fit the standards of academic feasibility and honesty.  And yet they still become part of popular discourse, defended by laypersons who repeat, ad nauseaum, these books’ claims and pour scorn on the qualified critics who raise questions.

Alan Dershowitz’s The Case for Israel, for example, not only argued the ahistorical and racist-colonial position that Palestine was an empty desert, a terra nullius, before the European Zionists arrived to “make it bloom again” (and that the Palestinians are really all lying Arabs who snuck into the Zionist paradise from neighbouring states), but he plagiarized his argument from Joan Peters’ From Time Immemorial––a book already apprehended as a work of historical hucksterism decades earlier.  Despite the attempt of proper historians, The Case for Israel is still a best-seller and Harvard University Press is more than happy to re-issue further editions.

Dershowitz has built a career out of defending reactionaries and posing as a liberal-minded intellectual.  Long before The Case for Israel he was defending the porn-barons against feminism, raising the standard of “free speech” for misogynist corporations in order to deny this same freedom to the Dworkins and MacKinnons.  (There is a famous case of a public debate between Andrea Dworkin and Alan Dershowitz where Dershowitz refused to release the taped records after debating so that no one who was not in the audience could listen to what happened––so much for his beloved “free speech.”)  And then there is the fact that, despite his professed love for civil liberties, Dershowitz supports Campus Watch, a right-wing group that black-lists leftist professors.  It is in this context that The Case for Israel was written: a context where Dershowitz agitates for professors to be fired for political reasons while he produces work that, for professional reasons, would normally be grounds for academic dismissal.

Perhaps my biggest pet peeve, though, is Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s Mao:The Unknown Story.  Paradigmatic of the current slough of anti-Mao literature that, like the current fad of anti-communist films I critiqued in a previous post, is nothing more than the most banal and ultimately unsupportable replication of cold war propaganda.  But people love the book, as ludicrous as it is, and bookstores are still packing their shelves with this garbage.  Kaz Ross, her essay Mao the all too familiar story, has argued that this book was popular because it fit into a pernicious “yellow peril” racism common in North America and Europe.  Thus, Chang and Halliday’s Mao can be an inhuman Dr. Fu Manchu stereotype, imbecilic and unhygeinic, a mass murderer incapable of anything but evil.

Plugging into pre-existing sentiments and “common sense” beliefs, Chang and Halliday’s book does not have to be properly cited: no one cares to check the references (which are badly cited, breaking academic convention in order to spread confusion regarding the sources), everyone believes the story full of contradictions, and no one questions why they base the majority of their tale on anecdotal evidence from unnamed individuals in the countryside they happened to meet––or even that they devote entire passages devoted to Mao’s private thoughts and presenting their mind reading experiments as evidence.

One of thousands of the book’s dishonesties, pointed out by a few authors, should give any reader that bothers to look up the most accessible sources pause: Chang and Halliday claim that Mao, in a 1958 speech, said “one half of the Chinese people would have to die”––this is cited as evidence of Mao’s desire to murder most of China.  The truth, however, is that they wrenched their quote out of context from a speech in which Mao is self-criticizing both himself and the party’s failures during the Great Leap Forward: “[If we carry on] in this way, I think, one half of the Chinese people would have to die… If 50 million people die, if you are not dismissed, at least I should be dismissed.  Our heads would also be a problem.”  To misquote so obviously and intentionally should definitely demonstrate the dishonesty of Chang and Halliday––but the book still sells and people defend it!

Moreover, properly critical China scholars actually wrote a response to Chang and Halliday, Was Mao Reallly a Monster?, that went through all of their sources and demonstrated both the book’s lack of historical substance and its dishonesty.  This book, however, is not a best-seller.  Nor does this criticism really matter when the people who read Mao:The Unknown Story, already convinced of its thesis ahead of time, are unwilling to even look at the counter-evidence.  Similarly, Rebecca Karl’s recent book, Mao Zedong and China in the Twentieth Century: A Concise History (and I must thank long time commenter RRH for reminding/convincing me to pick this up), though better researched and an easier read, will not be a best-seller.  Karl is not really pro-Mao, and maybe this is a good thing for a concise history in an anti-communist context.  Nor do I find all of her arguments sound––her discussion the Great Leap Forward, for example, doesn’t even deal with some of the more recent debates in the scholarship.  The point is simply that her book is a more recent and better researched book on Mao than Chang and Halliday’s hatchet job but, unlike Chang and Halliday, Karl will never receive popular acclaim.

Beyond these pseudo-historical books, there are those books that push petit-bourgeois individualism as “facts of life”––the John Grays and Rhonda Byrnes who pretend they know something about the history of philosophy and claim to have distilled this philosophy into profound revelations.  Never mind the fact that they have no philosophical or historical background (John Gray received a fake doctorate from a mail-away school in transcendental meditation, Rhonda Byrne is a wealthy television producer), what they espouse is simply the self-absorbed and unremarkable garbage ideology of capitalism transformed into new age weirdness.   These books, I think, are useful for keeping disgruntled and jobless workers focused on the capitalist dream of hard-work-means-self-advancement.  They are especially useful now when the recession is worse at the centre of capitalism than it was in the Great Depression: people at the centres of capitalism have extreme difficulty realizing how much worse it is, as one of my friends pointed out just last week, because of a culture industry and the ideology it breeds.

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