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Cross-posted to Wellreadchild.com.

The current issue of Lapham’s Quarterly examines the theme of Nature, and includes this excerpt from Pope’s Essay on Man:

VIII. See, through this air, this ocean, and this earth,
All matter quick, and bursting into birth.
Above, how high, progressive life may go!
Around, how wide! how deep extend below?
Vast chain of being! which from God began,
Natures ethereal, human, angel, man,
Beast, bird, fish, insect, what no eye can see,
No glass can reach; from Infinite to thee,
From thee to nothing. On superior powers
Were we to press, inferior might on ours:
Or in the full creation leave a void,
Where, one step broken, the great scale’s destroyed:
From Nature’s chain whatever link you strike,
Tenth or ten thousandth, breaks the chain alike.
And, if each system in gradation roll
Alike essential to the amazing whole,
The least confusion but in one, not all
That system only, but the whole must fall.
Let earth unbalanced from her orbit fly,
Planets and suns run lawless through the sky;
Let ruling angels from their spheres be hurled,
Being on being wrecked, and world on world;
Heaven’s whole foundations to their centre nod,
And nature tremble to the throne of God.
All this dread order break—for whom? for thee?
Vile worm!—Oh, madness! pride! impiety!

Pope’s theme here is the Great Chain of Being:

Its major premise was that every existing thing in the
universe had its “place” in a divinely planned hierarchical order, which was
pictured as a chain vertically extended. (“Hierarchical” refers to an order
based on a series of higher and lower, strictly ranked gradations.) An object’s
“place” depended on the relative proportion of “spirit” and “matter” it
contained–the less “spirit” and the more “matter,” the lower down it
stood.

. . . .

A major example [of this theme] was the title character of Christopher
Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus. Simultaneously displaying the grand spirit of
human aspiration and the more questionable hunger for superhuman powers, Faustus seems in the play to be both exalted and punished. Marlowe’s drama, in fact, has often been seen as the embodiment of Renaissance ambiguity in this regard, suggesting both its fear of and its fascination with pushing beyond human limitations.

I thought it might be interesting to write a post-enlightenment Great Chain of Being poem with a modern twist on all the familiar themes. In fact, it might begin with an embrace of the scientific hubris about which Renaissance artists were ambivalent (whether it leads to a similar ambivalence about technology is an open question). Here’s a beginning — I’ll be working on this over the next few weeks.

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Here’s a legitimate criticism of the left: its identity politics can be a condescension to those it means to champion. Riddled with anti-racist and anti-sexist taboos on language, its politics doth protest too much. It’s quite a spectacle to watch a liberal white friend walk on eggshells around a black person because they’re afraid of saying something offensive. Human beings bring some expression of aggression to every real relationship (e.g., by teasing friends) — and so these stilted interracial friendships never get off the ground. The delicate, child-like victims must not be touched socially, because the line between good and bad touching can never be as crisp as the taboos demand.

None of this justifies the sense of many whites (on the right and left) that they are the poor wronged victims of affirmative action and the Politically Correct. They’re right to think that the relevant taboos are unfair, and they’re right to think that the woes of African Americans ought to be attributed less to their “racism” than to problems within some black communities. (That these problems are a legacy of slavery and segregation is not a measure of the collective guilt of every successive generation of whites). But beyond the restrictions on what views can be expressed in polite company, political correctness and affirmative action have little force outside of academia. You can hardly complain about what you’re not allowed to say around your progressive friends when you’re unlikely to have them anyway. And if you think that affirmative action is stinting your career (and preventing you from the riches that are your socially Darwinist capitalist birthright), then ….

The consequence of these taboos is the division among whites between those who have pseudo-relationships with blacks founded on guilt, and those who indulge a pathetic and juvenile racism behind closed doors — not primarily because they dislike black people, but because they overreact with what they think is a counter-cultural stand against the inauthenticity of political correctness. (I’m not denying here that there are such things as genuine interracial friendships on the one hand and hard-core racism on the other, I just don’t think that these are the norm).

So in an election year with a black presidential candidate, it shouldn’t be surprising to see the underlying racism of this dynamic spill over from all sides. And yet it is. I’m not one to cry racism, or even one to feel ashamed of my own fleeting racist sentiments — it’s the price of guilt-free whiteness. But I have to say that even I am fairly stunned by this year’s political climate — a virtual free-fire zone of thinly veiled racism. I’m not going run through the litany of right-wing Fox News-style offenses — we all know what they are. And as I argued a year ago., nor do I think that such sentiments are so widespread (or, where they do exist, so determinative of people’s behavior) that they will scuttle Obama’s presidential bid.

But in Ralph Nader and Geraldine Ferraro we have two very pernicious examples of what happens when one ressentiment-afflicted group has a close encounter with another. Without any cognitive dissonance, Ferraro can talk of Obama as an affirmative-action case at the same time that she cries sexism. With her she brings an entire coterie of deranged and frankly stupid political obsessives who make absolutely no secret of their left-wing brand of racism — their antipathy towards blacks (or “AAs,” as they like to call them) as their contenders for the mantle of ultimate victim-hood. Notice that this kind of resentment dovetails very neatly with that of conservative whites who feel burdened by political correctness and affirmative action — you will find the comments on these fringe left blogs indistinguishable from those of the right. That’s what’s so telling about the paranoid claim that Obama “played the race card” when he so carefully avoided it, or the strangely contradictory complaint that he didn’t make his race an overt part of his campaign as Hillary made sex a part of hers. But it’s especially telling when it comes to the accusation of sexism. Here we have the invocation of one left-wing taboo against another. Sexism is pitted against racism, with the righteous victim-hood of the former set against the chaffing, politically correct restrictions of the latter. You could sum up virtually all of the ranting of Clinton dead-enders with one sentence: “how dare you make me feel like a racist for calling you a sexist!”

Enter Nader. Never mind the easily refuted idea that Obama isn’t talking about issues important to African Americans (read some speeches). Nader has expectations of his black friends that go beyond the content of their character. They better not be trying to “talk white” in order to appeal to “white guilt”:

“There’s only one thing different about Barack Obama when it comes to being a Democratic presidential candidate. He’s half African-American,” Nader said. “Whether that will make any difference, I don’t know. I haven’t heard him have a strong crackdown on economic exploitation in the ghettos. Payday loans, predatory lending, asbestos, lead. What’s keeping him from doing that? Is it because he wants to talk white? He doesn’t want to appear like Jesse Jackson? We’ll see all that play out in the next few months and if he gets elected afterwards.”

The core idea here is similar to Ferraro’s: Obama is where he is because he is black. But rather than acknowledge his benefactors — and the affirmative action largess bequeathed to him — he has snubbed them. He equally offends Ferraroan Feminism and Naderian Progressivism by failing to be The Black Man — the good Democratic Party Black Man who “talks black” and concentrates solely on the interests of his group and cries racism at every turn and blows up at some point and has no chance of becoming a real force in the Democratic Party establishment. What’s worse, Obama succeeded by precisely by not being appropriately black. The claim that Obama “played the race card,” for instance, actually amounts to a complaint that he did nothing of the kind, at least openly: he did it behind everyone’s back, the conspiracy theory goes, sneakily; he didn’t play fair, he was a black-in-white’s clothing. Rev. Wright and several other ploys were meant to uncloak him, tease the real black man out of him for all to see, so that every could see that he was just another Jesse Jackson, just another angry black man with a right to his anger but not to the presidency. Meanwhile, Hillary was the Good Democratic Party Woman. Hillary talked woman and never failed to remind us that being a woman was a compelling reason to vote for her and that women’s issues would be one of her special concerns. She made the appropriate complaints about sexism. How dare that “inadequate black man” try to seem above it all! How dare he transcend the proper, left-wing role that has been defined for him!

This is what happens when some on the left consign African Americans to conceptual ghettos in order to become their benevolent keepers and defenders: as long as they don’t try to break out.

As a novelist, Ian McEwan is talented to the point of self-caricature: he writes nothing that hasn’t been dislocated on the rack of his talent. As the leader of today’s “look-at-me-I’m-a-writer!” lolly-pop guild, he would never dream of sentence to which had failed to attach several reflective addenda. Even then the verbal ordeal might be worth it — in fact deeply satisfying — if it weren’t a cover for philosophically misinformed and incoherent attempts at having a deep idea. All this lacy prose and what we get at the end is a forced juxtaposition of poetry, terror, and reductionist neuroscience. The reader is left to supply the profound connections, because it’s a task not even the author is up to — there aren’t any. This is what happens when you read too much Christopher Hitchens, Stephen Pinker, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel C. Dennet, but not any actual philosophy: A sophomoric crypto-celebration of scientism over religious fanaticism — of one superstition over another.

The political manifestation of all of this: McEwan’s brave hatred of “Islamism”:

‘And I myself despise Islamism, because it wants to create a society that I detest, based on religious belief, on a text, on lack of freedom for women, intolerance towards homosexuality and so on – we know it well.

He went on: ‘When you ask a novelist or a poet about his vision regarding an aspect of the world, you don’t get the response of a politician or a sociologist, but even if you don’t like what he says you have to accept it, you can’t react with defamation.

‘Martin is not a racist, and neither am I.’

On the face of it, “Islamism” seems like a worthy object of hatred — if we ignore the easy slide into “Islam” or “Muslims” and the fact that most readers simply won’t make the distinction. When you identify it with a lack of freedom, you have one of today’s moral tautologies and all the indignation raised by any challenges to it — it’s just like “I despise bad things!” How dare you call me a racist because I said “bad is bad.”

All of the moral simplicity of what I’ll call the “McEwan Delusion” falls away when you start to do a little thinking. Let’s start with McEwan’s definition of “Islamism”: it takes some very generic societal ailments and treats one manifestation of them as a particularly threatening. Here’s the list of qualities that McEwan takes to be definitive of Islamism: “wants to create a society that I detest, based on religious belief, on a text, on lack of freedom for women, intolerance towards homosexuality.” If we were presented merely with this list of qualities, we might understand it to mean “religious fundamentalism,” but we would never be able to arrive at “Islamism” per se. Of course, if we eliminated “religious belief, on a text,” we would just understand it to mean “illiberal societies; that is, “most societies, historically.”

So we have a species of a broader ideology that has been so widespread historically as to make any particular attribution misleadingly definitive. Illiberal societies are the norm, not the exception. So what is it about “Islamism” that singles it out for special attention?

The answer to this question, McEwan and his comrades will answer, is obvious: 9/11!

There are two premises at work in the special reservoir of emotion that McEwan and others reserve for Islamism: the first is that the fundamental cause of Islamic terrorism is actually Islamism — a certain kind of fundamentalist, politicized Islam. The second is that Islamic terrorism is a powerful and dangerous force in the modern world, and the preeminent national security concern of liberal Western societies. Both will seem like obvious truths to many Westerners. But both are false.

Let’s take the second premise first. Are terrorism and Islamism existential threats to liberal societies? Is it that kind of national security problem?

No. In fact, terrorism is amateur and small-scale war-making, often made by incompetents, rarely accomplished on Western soil, and largely ineffective unless abetted by the overreaction of affected governments. Even highly successful and large scale attacks like 9/11 cannot happen on a scale that poses a significant danger to the United States — as in the danger represented by Japan in World War II or the USSR during the cold war. And frankly, even a single nuke going off in an American city is a national security problem on a much smaller scale than such wars and stand-offs: it is dwarfed, for instance, by the devastation suffered by Germany and Japan in WWII or by Europe in general. No Islamic threat will ever come close to matching the wars that Europeans inflicted on themselves only recently. The USSR was a serious national security problem to the United States and Europe; accidental nuclear conflagration still is. But terrorism, in the scheme of things, is simply a minor threat. Yes, it is a threat: but how should that influence where it is we direct our emotions, and what we “despise”? And does it justify, as “despise” seems to imply, sending troops to make war on Islamist societies?

Far from being powerful, terrorism is powerlessness par excellence. And this brings us back to addressing the first premise: is Islamism really the primary cause of Islamic terrorism? As a violent ideology, it seems obviously so. But here I think we reach the foundation of the McEwan Delusion, which is ironically leftist in its origins: it is a form of relativism that treats ideologies as if they arise in a vacuum — as if they are unmoved movers of the world, explanations that themselves have no explanation; we are forbidden, for instance, from seeing feminine behavior as even partially “natural” or a matter of “human nature” — rather it is entirely “encultured,” and nothing explains enculturation beyond human whim (or, to take the neo-Marxist variation, economic interest).

But we ought to treat such ideology as a manifestation of something psychologically deeper than whim or economics. Nietzsche’s concept of ideology is relevant here. Is “Islamism” really the most relevant cause of terrorism or is it ressentiment — including revenge fantasy brought on specifically by powerlessness? Nietzsche is of course no fan of religion, but he is even less a fan of those who are blind to the more fundamental principle of which it is a manifestation, and so blind to their unwitting complicity with it, even in their reaction against these manifestations. This principle is a source of a wide variety of phenomena, including not just religion but … wait for it … scientism and atheism. Like religion, scientism and atheism are essentially nihilistic and ascetic, and meant to exert power-as-ideology as compensation for lack of physical might. On this view, religion celebrates weakness and martyrdom in exchange for the fantasy of eternal hell for one’s enemies; adherents of scientism and atheism pretend to have answers to un-answerable questions as a means to a sort of ultimate revenge-of-the-nerds over the ignorant masses: the obliteration of their folk-beliefs. They are on opposite sides of the surface battle — but in fact they are allies in the deeper war. (Incidentally, the fact that Islamism’s impatience for the next world, and a concept of martyrdom involves taking enemies with you, does not change the analysis — Christian ressentiment had a similarly paradoxical spill-over into more worldly power struggles).

The Freudian extension of the Nietzschean position is that we should treat these ideologies as what they really are: rationalizations. Islamists are not motivated by a “form of Islam,” they are motivated by a deeper political ressentiment which must be given voice in one cultural manifestation or another. What’s required here is some social form that provides a transcendental ground for the promise of vindication of powerlessness — that is powerful enough to counteract the insecurity inevitably created by the fact that the concept of political inferiority always resolves into the concept of psychological inferiority. Really there is no need for Islam here — practically any ideology will do, including its opposite: atheism provided plenty of fuel for the USSR and China, as it does now for some of those (such as McEwan’s comrade Christopher Hitchens) who would reform illiberal (but especially “Islamist”) societies at the point of a gun — who have supported a war that has essentially destroyed an entire country and killed hundreds of thousands of its people and displaced many more. You see? Any religion will do, including anti-religion.

Shall we compare which of these religions is more dangerous — the McEwan Delusion or the God Delusion? Shall we ask which is a greater threat to the world in terms of the numbers of the dead? She we calculate the “Islamist” carnage as a fraction of the enlightened carnage of we liberators of Muslim women from an oppressive “text”?

I’ll refrain — because it returns us to the more salient question of whether “Islamism” is really the grave threat to which we should be directing our hatred; whether we should really be courageously declaring that we “despise Islamism” — the “ism” a careful avoidance of the question of whether we mean Islam, a little suffix that we can use to inoculate ourselves against accusations of racism (more accurately, jingoism and stupidity), a little preparation for the whining and indignant protestations to follow such accusations.

Why not direct our attention instead toward national security per se? Why not say, “I despise the warmongers who killed hundreds of thousands of innocents and stir up a hornet’s nest of hatred toward the West”? Why not say, “I despise the war criminals who run the government of the United States, the creators of detention camps and torture policies who commit felony after felony while they ignore real national security — port security, loose nukes ….” Why not say, “I despise those who weaken us by wasting resources on unnecessary wars,” “I despise the incompetence that made 9/11 possible,” or simply “I despise lax security”? Are these more fundamental problems more worthy of our attention — or rather should we take one surface-manifestation of broken societies — societies the West helped break — to be our primary problem, our enemy, our scary-powerful Other?

I have never seen the “halo” that others have claimed for Obama (usually his opponents, at the many moments they claim it has just been removed). But since my posts to this blog have been relentlessly pro-Obama, here’s my chance to prove that I’m not simply a true believer.

While public financing is a non-issue, this is the kind of real capitulation that will create disappointment among many Obama supporters. It’s not the first time Obama has disappointed — his support of Lieberman and pandering to AIPAC are the most notable example.

On the one hand, I have no desire to see a candidate commit political suicide, and I am entirely comfortable with a candidate making rhetorical (AIPAC) compromises when I have reason to believe his behavior will be principled. But supporting the passage of a constitution-subverting law is another matter. The promise to oppose telecom amnesty is heartening, unless it is merely political theater, as it may be; but the the promise to use his new powers wisely is a lapse into Bush “trust me” territory. And as such it represents a misstatement (by someone who has taught constitutional law) of the point of the constitution and the separation of powers — “trust me” does not work when it comes to human beings. The role of the constitution is to take as much power as possible away from any one human being and bestow it as much as possible on an abstraction — on “law.” Part of the power of this abstraction is the intermediating game it creates: the players, the rules, their interpreters and executors, and the makers of corollary rules; and finally, the extreme difficulty in reflexively amending the core principles. The players and interpreters are fallible, but an abstraction has a stubborn life of its own.

Of course, the abstraction can be dismantled. It’s not the extreme corruption of one power-hungry individual or another that makes that possible, because such individuals are legion in politics, but a general political climate that appeases them — often the result of a humiliation felt at the national level (Versailles, 9/11). There is a more powerful, competing abstraction here, and that is nationalism. And it is designed to lend its power on its most vocal advocates — to those who create the fear that feeds it. Where the Constitution represents restraint, what the moment seems to require is unfettered action — men of deeds, not words. That’s why we’re told that terrorism is not a “law enforcement issue”: law is weakness. It is the fatherland that counts, and its strong father-like protectors.

There is a complication here, which is that the choice of an executive is largely characterological: the more decent and trustworthy they are, the better. And I have argued since before Obama was an electoral phenomenon that Obama gives off good psychological cues in this regard. And this is how voters make decisions, despite all the telling protestations about “issues.” Clinton supporters fought not for issues but for the character with whom they identified — as indicated by the fringe not to vote for Obama. (Talk of “experience,” incidentally, is the perfect rationalization here — since it means to milk personal identification for policy implications). And often issues are just a stand-in for the valuation of a certain type of character: my friends who think of the Democratic party as “tax-and-spend” cannot be moved by evidence that Obama’s undoing of a regressive payroll tax will help them and that McCain’s corporate tax breaks will not help them. What they care about is the general principle of the matter–the idea of self-reliance, the value of capitalism as the playground of the self-reliant, and so on. Actual taxes do not matter to them: what matters to them is being on the side of the people who value strength — mercantile and military.

The problem with making decisions based on character is that no-one is really trustworthy. Human beings are fallible (as Obama notes in his better moments). The integrity of the constitution and the general political climate that determines its fate is a much bigger national security issue than terrorism. Terrorists can destroy lives and physical infrastructure, but the loss of core institutions and principles would be politically fatal.

I am not making, by the way, the cynical argument that all politicians are the same, that elections are always a choice of evils, and that we can expect the same level of selling out and corruption from everyone. But it’s important that stand on principle and criticize even our candidate of choice when it is called for (not to mention email and call his campaign to register grievances).

My Crossfit friend Stuart writes the following piece, with which I must respectfully disagree.

With regards to Obama’s “Messianic Image” and the claim that his supporters have “drunk the Koolaid” (or rather “taken shots” of it, far more suitable to the demographic): this is a generic piece of political rhetoric that can be used, and has been used, to describe the supporters of any politician whatsoever. It’s a very convenient charge to make against a popular politician, but it’s unfairly broad generalization to apply to supporters in general — i.e., millions of people.

More than sixteen million people voted for Obama in the primaries. Some I know were ambivalent; some were enthusiastic. Some are more cynical about politicians and their motives, including Obama, and some are more hopeful about the integrity of Obama in particular. But if you think any of them care about whether Obama accepts public financing, I think you are extraordinarily naive. And as for McCain’s complaints, no American politician has gained an advantaged whining pathetically about the fact that his opponent has millions of eager supporters from whom he can raise lots and lots of money. The idea that Republicans complaining about this is especially rich: they generally out-raise the Democrats (and the RNC still has much more money than the DNC).

More importantly, Stuart fails to mention the following:

  • Rejecting public financing is not the same as accepting special interest money; I’m
    sure Stuart knows that Obama does not accept special interest PAC or lobbyist contributions, and that when he became the nominee he convinced the DNC not to accept them either.
  • There is hardly anything shameful about raising lots of money because you’re getting millions of contributions of $25 from grassroots supporters over the web; that’s a Democratization of campaign finance of which the Obama campaign is rightly proud.
  • I’m sure that Stuart knows that public financing is a joke that has long been circumvented by outside groups who post campaign ads on “issues”; remember the swfitboating of Kerry? The money that financed that fell outside campaign finance laws. There is lots and lots of this money. That’s why campaign finance reform is still a big issue — and whether or not one accepts PAC and lobbyist contributions and makes use of these groups is a far bigger issue than whether lots of Americans are sending you $25 checks.

So I think Stuart’s piece is designed to appeal mainly to those who area already McCain supporters and perhaps those who think Obama is a Marxist, not the independents he mentions in the last paragraph. There’s a reason why Obama is polling far ahead of McCain with independents and in swing states. It’s not just “hard-core supporters” who won’t be moved by the partisan rhetoric in Stuart’s post. Again, if you think independent voters are troubled by Obama’s fundraising rather than simply impressed by it, and if you think they don’t know that Stuart would be singing a much different tune if McCain had lots of enthusiastic supporters sending him $25 checks, then I think you have badly misread the political climate. Partisan affiliation is one thing — but let’s not let that cloud our strategic predictions. The idea that the “hopes and dreams” of supporters will coming crashing down because of this decision, when many Obama supporters and contributers like me are proud of our participation in his grassroots fundraising machine, is simply absurd. We Obama supporters are not going to turn our cheeks while independent groups circumvent campaign finance laws to smear Obama as a Muslim, Marxist, and all the rest. Prepare for a fight — and please get over the idea that bemoaning the other guy’s strength is any more effective a political strategy than putting McCain in front of a green backdrop creepily reciting “that’s not change we can believe in.”

Stuart, I hope I have not offended. We’ll have to discuss this over Tequila shots Saturday. I’ll bring the Tequila and my Obama T-shirt.

(And speaking of no public financing, you can donate on my fundraising page here: http://my.barackobama.com/page/outreach/view/main/wesalwan)

Media Fairness and Hillary

Greg Sargent asks whether the media was unfair to Hillary, and goes on to list examples of an

extraordinary amount of frivolous, crude, unfair, misleading, outright dishonest, and transparently mendacious media coverage that without question had a major impact on this campaign. This should not have been tolerated by any liberals or Democrats, Obama supporters included.

Sargent admits at the end of this article that such a list could never tell us whether the media was unfair to Clinton “as a whole” or whether they were more unfair to her or Obama. And most of his examples come from pundits, who are there to express their (often frivolous) opinions, not to be fair to anyone.

So why call this article “Was the Media Unfair to Hillary?” Candidates have always been treated dishonestly, salaciously, and unfairly — that includes tabloid-esque coverage of the first presidental elections in U.S. history. That we ought to change the tone of our public discourse is unquestionable.

But Clinton has made the claim that she received extraordinary treatment from the media, and specifically that she was a victim of sexism — a claim that Sargent doesn’t address even though it’s the question du jour and seems initially to be the subject of this post.

Why this editorial lacuna? I think the primary point of Sargent’s post is to say that Obama supporters “tolerated” this unfairness and, by implication, sexism. Sargent cannot argue that Obama received less salacious coverage, because given Rev. Wright and Ayers and the rest, it’s a laughable task. But he wants to imply that Obama supporters were somehow involved in a nasty and defamatory campaign.

“Obama supporters” is just a rhetorical work-around, a stand in for Obama himself, since 16 or so million people are hardly unified in their reaction to Clinton coverage. And how would they go about demonstrating their lack of tolerance? For very active supporters, it would mean doing precisely the sorts of things they were doing on behalf of Obama — writing op-eds and blog posts and comments and letters to the editor, calling news organizations, and so on — on behalf of Clinton. That’s too grand an expectation — to be an activist on behalf of your opponent — during a hard-fought campaign.

As for Obama himself, he routinely stated, when asked about Clinton’s response to one smear or another, that he took her at her word. He never once personally brought up these controversies — from Bosinia to JFK — during a debate. Of course, we know that Clinton didn’t hesitate in this regard: Farrakhan, Ayers, “change you can xerox,” and the rest. So here we have a real standard of evidence: which candidate was willing to make public use of salacious media coverage in their own public statements?

We all know the answer to that question. And if you have a single piece of evidence to the contrary, please post it here.

Down with Harry Potter

Since I’ve pissed off several friends already by forwarding this critique of Harry Potter, it’s time to troll it up on the blog. I hereby admit that I feel nothing but revulsion for Harry Potter and everything he stands for. I wanted to articulate why one day, and then I came across A.S. Byatt’s fantastic review.

Some highlights:

Derivative narrative clichés work with children because they are comfortingly recognizable and immediately available to the child’s own power of fantasizing.

****

Ms. Rowling’s magic world has no place for the numinous. It is written for people whose imaginative lives are confined to TV cartoons, and the exaggerated (more exciting, not threatening) mirror-worlds of soaps, reality TV and celebrity gossip. Its values, and everything in it, are, as Gatsby said of his own world when the light had gone out of his dream, “only personal.” Nobody is trying to save or destroy anything beyond Harry Potter and his friends and family.

****

In this regard, it is magic for our time. Ms. Rowling, I think, speaks to an adult generation that hasn’t known, and doesn’t care about, mystery. They are inhabitants of urban jungles, not of the real wild. They don’t have the skills to tell ersatz magic from the real thing, for as children they daily invested the ersatz with what imagination they had.

That children like it I understand. That adults can’t see through its complete lack of imagination and craft I find depressing.

I realize that these sorts of critiques these days automatically make you a snob. You’re only allowed to say “I like it” or “I don’t like it.” While the idea that food might taste good yet be bad for the body is widely accepted. The idea that culture can be good or bad for you is not, because it evokes the uncomfortable and seemingly elitist concept of bad taste. The same people who work out and eat salads obsessively would never dream of making artistic distinctions that transcend the expression of their personal taste; and they would never dream of modifying their leisure habits.

In case none of this offends you, the same thing goes for “The Kite Runner.”

Fire away.