13.12.02


RACE AND THE REPUBLICANS

Between the two of them, George W. Bush and Trent Lott seem bent on giving us the worst of all possible worlds, when it comes to racial issues.

So what else is new? This is, after all, the Stupid Party.

On the one hand, thanks to Bush, we will have racial preferences, as far as the eye can see. On the other hand, thanks to Lott, we will have the foul and lingering taint of segregationism clinging to the president’s party. In fact, we will have the former in payment for the latter. Michelle Malkin gets this exactly right.

Lost in the shuffle will be the last chance for a truly principled Republican position on race: justice blind (as justice must be) to color. What a betrayal! Here I cannot improve on David Frum’s summary:

"The political right has been battling against racial preferences, set-asides, and quotas for close to three decades now. Over the course of that fight, conservatives have articulated a clear and consistent message of equal justice regardless of race. That message has become a central defining principle of the conservative movement, and the people who have championed that message – Ward Connerly, Clarence Thomas, Stephen and Abigail Thernstrom, Tom Sowell, Shelby Steele, Bradford Reynolds, the Institute for Justice, William Bennett, John McWhorter, and so many others – have become conservative heroes and sometimes conservative martyrs."

Neither the president nor the majority leader seems to appreciate any of this. What hope is there?

11.12.02


INTERPRETING ISLAM

Since 9-11, commentators in the West have been ferreting around in Islamic history and doctrine in search of copy for their newspaper columns, political speeches, sermons, and so forth. Those who have done so with a mind to convict—i.e., to portray Islam and its founder as inherently violent and irrational—have found plenty to confirm their darkest suspicions. Among other things, Mohammed’s relentless persecution of the Jews makes for reading that is as unpleasant as it is engrossing. Such revelations have led to some harsh words, culminating, most notoriously, in Jerry Falwell’s injudicious (but not indefensible) characterization of Mohammed as a “terrorist”

The administration has been quick to repudiate such notions. George W. Bush never misses an opportunity to insist that “Islam means peace,” and that the beliefs of Osama Bin Laden and his ilk are perversions of the true doctrine of the prophet. But few take these presidential professions of faith very seriously—partly because they seem to be based more on optimism than on scholarship, but even more because there are such obvious political motives behind them. Why alienate either Muslim-Americans or, more importantly, potential allies in the “war on terror” (or on Saddam Hussein) by making an unnecessary issue out of a few unsavory passages in some medieval documents?

Lately, though, a more sophisticated objection to amateur Western criticism of Islam has emerged. What business have we—so the objection runs—to set ourselves up as critics of this deeply foreign tradition? We who are ignorant both of the original language of the Koran, Sunna, Hadith, etc., and of the interpretive tradition that has grown up around them for more than a thousand years? We should simply cut it out and leave the interpretation of Islam to Muslim scholars.

I think that this is a mistake. It is not a stupid mistake, but it is a mistake nonetheless. To see why, simply apply the same idea to Christianity. Should the interpretation of Christian scripture be forbidden to anyone who has not mastered Aramaic? Or who is not a graduate of a theological seminary? Have Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims no right to read and comment on the gospels or the Pauline epistles? These questions answer themselves. And they answer themselves: NO.

Five hundred years ago, this might have been a live issue. The Church might well have preferred that the interpretation of scripture be left in the capable hands of priests with a smattering of Latin (not the original language, but at least a dead one!). But surely today we can recognize this as a recipe for intellectual and spiritual tyranny.

Keep in mind that books like the Bible and the Koran are texts of a very special sort. They are not, primarily, occasions for scholarly exegesis. The Gospel According to Matthew is not Finnegan’s Wake. These are texts that recommend themselves to, and demand the attention of, ordinary people. They purport to tell us all how to live our lives. But a text that makes demands on even the simplest peasant had better be reasonably accessible even to the simplest peasant. If it can only be understood by scholars, then it has already failed of its purpose—especially since the scholars will ALWAYS disagree.

Admittedly, the community of the faithful working within an ancient interpretive tradition has an advantage when it comes to figuring out the odd detail. They have familiarity with relevant context on their side. But they may suffer from a crucial disadvantage when it comes to the big picture, for they labor under a potentially crippling regulative assumption: that the faith they seek to interpret must be the truth. This gives them an incentive to distort, whenever the apparent meaning of the text is too inconvenient. And there is no distortion, however perverse, that a sufficiently elastic interpretive strategy cannot countenance. Thus, for example, does jihad become a purely internal struggle for selflessness, or something equally innocuous. Welcome to the wonderful world of religious apologetics.

Unbelievers labor under no such guiding premise. They are free to register the obvious and let the chips fall where they may. This is not to say that every interpretation of Islamic history and doctrine offered up by a Western amateur must be right. But it is to say that the proper response to their mistakes is to explain, in detail, where they have gone wrong. It simply will not do to claim that they have no right to an opinion. Islam has intruded itself forcibly into all our lives. We didn’t ask it to. That gives us the right to ask some tough questions and to seek our own answers.

10.12.02


HARRY POTTER, PETER PARKER

Just sat through the new Harry Potter film—more’s the pity. How is it possible for corporate “art” to go so badly wrong? Didn’t they screen this ahead of time for the appropriate focus groups? Even some of the dimmer bulbs in my eighth-grade science classes are pronouncing this effort “stupid.” And right they are. Let us count the ways…

On second thought, let’s not count the ways. It’s already way past my bedtime. So let’s settle for a single example. About five hours into the movie, this Tom Riddle guy has Harry at his mercy in the very heart of the eponymous “chamber of secrets.” And what does he proceed to do? He tells all!

Holy tired cliché, Batman!

Suddenly, you’re transported back to the days of comic-book yore, where the villain can’t help explaining his super-genius before dunking the hero in a giant vat of acid, or launching him on a one-way trip to the asteroid belt—or whatever.

Now I don’t want to be too harsh. This is a perfectly respectable—even time honored—device. But there’s just one problem: the explanation has to make sense—and fast! Otherwise, the audience is left completely unsatisfied. And that, I’m afraid, is the case here. Mr. Riddle’s explanation is completely indigestible, in the allotted time—at least for those of us who haven’t already read the book. The result is that, just when one should be luxuriating in a sense of completion and fulfillment, one is instead left scratching one’s head and asking: huh???

And besides—the phoenix looks awful.

And another thing…(I know, I said “a single example.” But I lied.) I had hoped that this second installment would fix one of the main things that bothered me about the first movie, but it didn’t. In fact, it actually made things worse. When, if ever, will Harry start succeeding primarily through his own efforts and choices, and not simply out of luck? When will he stop discovering hidden abilities that he never earned, or even knew he had?

This time around, he suddenly finds that he can talk to snakes in their own language. Last time it was his inborn mastery of broomstick riding and golden snitch chasing—to say nothing of the great, overarching lucky stroke of them all: the wizardly heritage that rescues him from the humble hell of his home life in the first place. Harry always seems to be escaping difficult situations out of more or less Pure Dumb Luck.

Back when I was a kid, this would not have worried me. After all: it’s the classic adolescent fantasy at the heart of many a comic book. What kid doesn’t long to be someone special, contrary to all appearances? And what kid understands that such distinction has to be fought for? The fantasy of effortlessly attained transcendence of one’s essential ordinariness captures the childish imagination like nothing else. Shameless catering to this dream made Spiderman the comic book di tutti comic books for more than a generation. Harry Potter is turning out to be just as shameless—and just as successful. He is the Peter Parker of our time.

Except that Peter Parker was better—in at least a couple of ways. For one thing, he wasn’t just anybody. He was a math-science nerd! He was a smart kid who liked to use his brain. Harry Potter, by contrast, to judge by the movies, is distinguished by nothing other than an unusually annoying foster family.

Much more importantly, Peter Parker discovers early on an element of moral seriousness that seems to elude Harry Potter. He faces, quite explicitly, the problem of how to use his newfound power: for personal gain, or for the betterment of all?

First, Peter makes the wrong choice. He let’s a bad guy get away—for what would it profit him to stop the guy? The very same bad guy proceeds to murder his beloved uncle and guardian. Peter learns his lesson and resolves to fight all evil, no matter who, what, when, where, or why.

The whole situation is absurdly contrived—as if this were a comic book, or something! Yet it is the foundation of Spiderman’s mystique. He’s not just some lucky guy.

I hope Harry Potter won’t go on seeming like that’s all he is. Maybe he doesn’t seem that way in the books. But so far, in the movies, he does.

8.12.02


TTT

With The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers about to come out, Tolkien hype and counter-hype are in full swing. A cover story in Time breathlessly informs us that the film version of the battle of Helm’s Deep is the greatest thing since—well, since the last AOL/Time-Warner blockbuster (New Line is one of theirs). On the other hand, in a follow-up story on the current fashion for fantasy, the same magazine expresses some misgivings, both aesthetic and ethical. In particular, they note that, from a p.c. point of view, the story is “toxic.” And they are not alone in this discovery. In fact, the point is kind of hard to ignore. Few and uninteresting women, bad guys whose degree of wickedness seems to be directly proportional to the darkness of their skin, all good coming from the North and the West of proto-Europe while all evil emanates from the East and the South, etc. Isn’t Tolkien just a thinly veiled apologist for the British imperialism, colonialism, and racism of his day? And doesn’t present-day enthusiasm for his work represent nothing more than unhealthy nostalgia for the same?

The question makes me uncomfortable. I’m not worried about the female thing. In Jane Austen, the interesting characters are girls. In Tolkien they’re boys. So what? Jane Austen was a girl, and Tolkien was a boy. Both write about what they know about. And if there’s anything history tells us, it’s that boys don’t know nuthin’ ‘bout girls. But the East and South/dark complexion thing does worry me a bit. And the movie makes things worse, by giving the orcs what look like dreadlocks. So let the record show…I am uncomfortable!

And yet, and yet…

In the end, I cannot see The Lord of the Rings as an exercise in imperialist, capitalist apologetics.

For what is it that distinguishes Tolkien’s villains, first and foremost, above all else? It is not the color of their skins, but, rather, their attitude towards industrialization. Orcs love it, Hobbits (at least, good Hobbits) hate it. Orcs, whether in the book or the movie, seem to have a natural predilection for the “dark, satanic mills.“ Hobbits, on the other hand, prefer shrubbery.

How to fit this into the imperialist allegory? I just can’t do it. Is there any sense in which Araby and Black Africa threaten to impose ugly modernity upon an unwilling, bucolic West?

Let’s face it—something has gone wrong with this picture.

If anyone should find Tolkien worrisome reading, it is Libertarians—especially those with a weakness for Ayn Rand. Yet, in my experience, these are precisely the people who love the book best!!!

Which suggests to me that Tolkien was on to something. Something deep. Something that transcends mere politics. More later.