Freeman

BOOK REVIEW

Modern Times

A Masterful Combination of Fact and Anecdote

MAY 01, 1996 by MATTHEW CAROLAN

Mr. Carolan is Executive Editor of National Review.

“By the 1980s, state action had been responsible for the violent or unnatural deaths of over 100 million people, more perhaps than it had hitherto succeeded in destroying during the whole of human history up to 1900.”

This one statement has remained with me, and has influenced me more than any other statement I have ever read. It is from Paul Johnson’s Modern Times, a history of the twentieth century—a book which I received as a Christmas gift some years ago. It helped me then, as a young college student, to understand with chilling clarity the world into which I was born.

With a masterful combination of fact and anecdote, Johnson chronicles the century of “social engineering,” which turned both ideas and persons into mere clay for the political class. He shows us the awful hubris of men like Stalin, and Hitler, and Mao, among others, and explains their kind of thought, which is unfortunately still with us. Johnson offers no bright vision of the future, but does us a service nevertheless by reminding us of the errors, and evils of the past.

ASSOCIATED ISSUE

May 1996

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Unfortunately, educating people about phenomena that are counterintuitive, not-so-easy to remember, and suggest our individual lack of human control (for starters) can seem like an uphill battle in the war of ideas. So we sally forth into a kind of wilderness, an economic fairyland. We are myth busters in a world where people crave myths more than reality. Why do they so readily embrace untruth? Primarily because the immediate costs of doing so are so low and the psychic benefits are so high.
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