Saturday, November 04, 2006

Orin Judd would cream his jeans

There's a fascinating and horrifying article in the November Harper's by Wells Tower called "The Kids Are All Right," about the latest of the annual National Conservative Student Conferences, which took place in August. It's not available online as of right now, but I would highly recommend buying the magazine to read it. At a literature person, I was especially appalled by a passage about a panel entitled "Great Books to Read in College." The first speaker recommends the usual polemics by right-wing types--fine, whatever. Enjoy your little circle-jerk. See what I care (there's also a guy who thinks, no shit, that we should exclusively be reading books about Ronald Reagan--fun times). But then they start pissing all over actual literature, and my hackles are raised.

The speaker here is Elizabeth Kantor, managing editor of the Conservative Book Club. That name rang a bell, and I realized that I had previously seen on amazon, and been duly irritated by, a Regnery book she had written called The Politically Incorrect Guide to English and American Literature, which, per the cover, makes various provocative (read: insufferable) claims: "Most great literature was, in fact written by dead white males;" "The greatest English literature is explicitly Christian and celebrates military courage;" "Most great writers have been conservatives if not reactionaries;" and--of course!--"Jane Austen was a fan, not a critic, of 'the patriarchy.'" I'd love to see that last one substantiated. But not enough to make me want to buy the book. Anyway, let's see what Kantor has to say at this here conference:

Elizabeth Kantor, when she gets up to speak, is also bent on promoting books that, on the face of it, are not conservative at all. She likes the classics: Shakespeare, Milton, T.S. Eliot. While arguing the superiority of Western civilization, you're at at a disadvantage, she says, if your readerly horizons end at Dinesh D'Souza and Ann Coulter.

Difficult to argue with that. Do go on...

What's so pleasurable about reading the greats is not only that they're rich with human truths but

Can't you just tell the other shoe's about to drop?

also that they can be mined for conservative values, or dismantled into rhetorical brickbats that make for good hurling in culture war skirmishes

And THAT, my friends, is why people like Elizabeth Kantor have no fucking business saying anything at all about literature: because, all protestations to the contrary, they only care about it insofar as they can use it as a weapon to attack their ideological enemies. This may not be a completely fair judgment, since it's a paraphrase, but "dismantled into rhetorical brickbats" seems to me to be the perfect summation of this attitude. Literary value? Yeah, yeah, that's fine--but look! We can take it apart and make it into a tool to beat people with! Rock on!

Beowulf, for example, instructs us that " a noble pursuit.

The mind reels. While you certainly won't find me arguing against the idea that conservatives today are akin to blood-feud-obsessed Medieval Scandinavian warrior tribes, can Kantor really be unaware of how crazy the idea that we should be modeling ourselves after Old English poetry sounds to a normal person?

Dickens's Hard Times, in Kantor's reading, is a valuable critique of the "dehumanizing effects of the modern science-based education."

RIGHT. Because Dickens is opposed to Gradgrind's obsession with FACTS, that means that, instead, he would favor teaching children outright lies.

Incidentally, would it be unkind of me to note that, her doctorate notwithstanding, all her favorite books appear to be things she read in high school?

First in the Q&A line, Molly Fitzhugh, of the McDonogh School, in Maryland, voices suspicions that her teachers have been trying to pawn off as classics books that actually are not, such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

Kantor field's this one: "Well, I haven't read One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and I wouldn't recommend that you read it either."

This very nearly beggars belief, but there it is, in black and white: don't read dangerous, unapproved books--you might accidentally be exposed to a dreaded new idea! Horrors! I don't suppose it's ever occurred to Kantor that, if her approved authors had been as idea-averse as she is, they wouldn't have been the writers that they were. SERIOUSLY. Jesus FUCK.

Then a student from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs claims to have had "interesting experiences" reading "non-Western books," specifically Indian literature. "Do you have any recommendations for books that are good but may not originate in Western civilization?"

Kantor gives a slight, apologetic grimace. The answer is no. "There's an awful lot of people reading things just because it's not ours, and who hate what's ours, and I think we should cut that out."

That's right, kids: if you read Rushdie or Murakami it's because you HATE AMERICA. This theory had never occurred to me before, but now I've seen the light. I mean, no other explanation makes sense.

It's actually to her detriment, because I'm sure that, if she were willing to give it a go, she would find that Mishima, e.g., would make an excellent brickbat. Then again, if she tried that, I would have no choice but to track her down and beat her into unconsciousness with a copy of The Riverside Shakespeare (hey, don't blame me--using books as cudgels was her idea). So maybe it's for the best.

A cursory google search reveals that, degree notwithstanding, she doesn't seem to teach anywhere--and for that, I think we can all be deeply grateful. At least she's not inflicting this cretinous bullshit on anyone who doesn't want it inflicted on them. I fondly hope that, at the very least, the kid who asked the question was moved by her answer to question some of his/her beliefs.

Applause erupts for the first time in the "Great Books" talk.

That's right: cultural myopia is the big applause line. These are the kinds of people who prefer to interact with foreign cultures by bombing the shit out of them rather than trying to understand them. And given this pigheaded opposition to understanding, it's no wonder they're such shit at cleaning up after the bombing's over.

The last student in line tilts her head at a coy angle and asks the panelists, perhaps in jest, whether they can "recommend some non-conservative books that are actually worthwhile."

After a long, mirthful pause, the room breaks out in laughter.

God, it's like the end of a fucking Saturday morning cartoon, isn't it? Where the characters have all learned a Valuable Lesson, about peer pressure or what have you, after which the tension is broken by a transcendentally lame joke, everyone bellows with laughter, credits roll.

When the chuckling subsides, Marjory Ross [Regnery's president] inofrms the student, "Books that aren't conservative don't have anywhere near the staying power that the conservative classics have. They tend to fade away."

That's it. I got nothing. 'Night, all. Turn the lights off when you go.


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