Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Ode to My--and Others'--Youth (also, Ralph Nader)

I told myself I wouldn't take such long breaks from blogging this year, and I meant it too. But here I am, three weeks away from the blog, and the usual number of half-finished posts piling up, perhaps never to see the sight of day. My main excuse, this time around at least, is the same as Tim Burke's--this April I've really been swamped, and a lot of it has been with stuff I've never seriously had to deal with before: advising, committee responsibilities, program evaluations, faculty searches, curriculum reforms, and all the rest of the business of being a full-time, tenure-track academic that eluded me while I had that "temporary" label attached to my title. I'm not complaining (well, not about most of it--though figuring out how to translate course outcomes for my education majors into all these matrixes and rubrics which the state certification boards have decided must be used is a real pain). Building up a major, shaping requirements, evaluating students: I like it all. But it does take up a lot of time. I know, I know, wah wah wah.

Aside from all this, I have managed to keep up an ongoing conversation over this past month with some other writers over matters discussed in this post of mine on William Jennings Bryan and populism, much of which has been informed by the reading I've done for my History of Kansas class, which in turn was shaped by a lot of fine recommendations I received last semester from you all. I have a couple of posts to finish regarding that conversation and issues which came up in that class, which wraps up next Tuesday; I'll try to get them up over the next couple of days. But for today, another end of the semester note, one that takes me back to my undergraduate years at Brigham Young University.

Some of you are no doubt aware that Vice President Dick Cheney will be speaking at my alma mater's graduation commencement ceremony tomorrow--not because I assume a great number of you care what happens at BYU, but because the fact that the invitation has actually given rise to protests at one of America's most politically conservative campuses, located in the heart of arguably America's most conservative county, has attracted all sorts of media coverage. To which I can only say: man, I'm jealous. See, I was a twentysomething BYU protester once: not a terribly responsible or ethical one, I can't deny (working for the university's official daily newspaper and simultaneously writing for and rabble-rousing along with its underground student-run weekly was hardly my finest moment, and my unceremonious firing from the former was pretty justified), nor an entirely unconflicted one (politics and religion are not easily separated at the ground level, especially at a church school like BYU, and so sometimes I got caught up by events and commitments that I couldn't in good conscience support), but one that got out and carried signs and collected signatures and was even arrested for civil disobedience in those fun years of 1991-1994 or thereabouts nonetheless. I've left that kind of political activism behind, for the most part, as most people do as they take on the responsibilities and complexities of adulthood and the professional world; nowadays, giving a speech at a local community organizing group is more my speed (in fact, I just gave one yesterday). I don't regret giving it up, but neither--except, admittedly, for a few really boneheaded moves on my part, such as the one mentioned above--do I regret my involvement in those causes, as much in vain as many of them were, and as much as some of my views have changed since then. (Some more reflections on my protest days here.) Direct, expressive, face-to-face political action--when it is done responsibly and respectfully, and not given over to self-righteousness and contempt--is a healthy thing, good for democratic society and good for the soul. Reading about the success that the BYU Democrats have had, and especially reading about the alternative commencement they and other malcontents have managed to organize, makes me feel happier--and older!--in regards to my undergraduate years than I have in quite a while.

Ah, yes...about that commencement. Ralph Nader, huh? Well, no, he wouldn't have been my first choice either. (Jimmy Carter, perhaps--but I doubt he's on the lecture circuit these days.) I have to admit that I think it's rather amazing (but in a good way!) that a plea for donations to Daily Kos would have been so successful, considering all the hate for Nader out there. No, I'm not going to attempt to refight the Nader wars; I said my bit and made my peace about supporting him for president in 1996 and 2000 long ago, and I've nothing to add now. Well, except for one thing.

I don't know, and doubt I'll ever know, Nader personally. Most of what is written and said about him and his interests and activities has always acknowledged streaks of arrogance and authoritarianism in his personality; for all I know, those streaks now complete dominate him, and perhaps those who say he's now just little more than an ambulance-chaser to boot are correct as well. I think he has been, more than once in his life, an important rallying point for those who seek to articulate a populist political response to the corporate and technocratic elites who dominate the democratic process and the marketplace; the fact that his response is not enough to make me wish to directly hand him executive power--especially given is lack of attention to building anything constructive in his wake--doesn't rob him of his ability to effectively harness the expressive desires of folks like myself who otherwise can't, as he put it, crash the party of what sometimes seems like an aristocracy that rules our country. Is harnessing such desires unwise when confronted by the real-world consequences--Cheney being one!--of pursuing such idealism (an idealism mixed with messianic complex, as the case may be)? In all likelihood, it often is. But I wouldn't want to live in a society without it, all the same.

And as for his speech and the alternative commencement tomorrow, well, I doubt anyone--probably including Nader himself--will think substantively about what it means for a bunch of protesters in the heart of Mormon Country to turn to the former Green Party candidate. If anyone thinks about it at all, they'll probably have their speculations short cut by observing that, in all likelihood, there weren't many others with that kind of name recognition available on that short of notice. But speculation should happen all the same--because the truth is, Nader's moral and social authoritarianism, if you want to call it that, is not a drag on his progressive commitments; on the contrary, they inform one another, and that sort of mutual informing, in which social solidarity combines with moral edicts and cultural presumptions, is the sort of thing which I think all Christian progressives, and Mormon ones in particular, really ought to be familiar with. To quote--with a few amendations and qualifications--an old post of mine defending the idea that leftism and an attendance to forms of cultural or even moral authority can go together:

What many progressives call "wingnuttery" is, I think at least in part, a concern for authority--including, most crucially, the authority of certain principles as embedded in cultural presumptions. You can't, in the minds of these and other leftists [like Nader], achieve progress solely through the legal establishment of a plurality of neutral spaces wherein one may (hopefully) achieve egalitarian improvement through the freedom of choice (though the prudential argument for the preservation of at least a little neutral space is strong). Such a focus is insufficient, as it never addresses who actually holds power over and in the midst of those spaces....What you need is an engagement with the whole culture, a popular demand for its conformity with justice as dictated by (you guessed it) absolutes, not merely the availability of free choice....This is part of the reason why Nader has never seen much importance in mobilizing people against traditional views on behalf of abortion rights or "gonadal politics." Is that "authoritarian"? Well, yes--insofar as one may speak of "working-class authoritarianism" as Christopher Lasch and others have. Or one could just call it "communitarian," in the sense of insisting that self-government rests primarily upon our attendance to communal values--which for many millions of working-class people [as Harry Brighouse and Bill Martin observed in the passages I quoted in this post] means a "culture of life"--and not simply the private space we afford citizens in the choosing of such.

The great majority of those who will attend the alternative commencement tomorrow will not be looking for working-class solidarity; they'll be going out of curiosity, out of a desire to be recognized as one of those who were less than satisfied with or indeed perhaps deeply opposed the university's decision to invite a man with Cheney's public record to speak at their graduation, maybe even out of desire to hear something important about what they did in response to Cheney's visit, and why more such direct action is the part of the way to create a healthier political culture, a culture in which the abuses of a vice president are not so easily kept from democratic exposure and accountability. I'm sure that at least they'll get the latter; whatever Nader's many faults, he clearly still knows how to sell youthful activists on a life of protest. Good of him, I say, and for them. And if maybe, just maybe, Nader or someone else says or does something to help all these twentysomething protesters like I once was see that their (and my) religious beliefs can be progressive, without unnecessarily compromising their acceptance of the culture and faith which made them....well, then they will have a truly great commencement. Certainly a much better one than Dick alone could have provided.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Harry Beyond?

Okay, so it's three and a half months or so until Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is released, everyone's counting down to the big day, pre-ordering their copies, grasping at every last bit of information...and now they've released the cover art for all the different editions of the book. They're out there for you to examine and argue about at great length (try here), and I can't pretend I haven't been. This old post of mine continues to get massive amounts of attention, so I figured a little update couldn't hurt.

(Incidentally, I have to wonder--has there every been a publishing phenomenon like Harry Potter before? Has the rise of the internet changed all the rules of how to build buzz...and what you can build buzz about? Are the Potter books sui generis, or will we--in a year or a decade or two--be treated to another ongoing story, published serially through several books, which blogs and the internet will enable similarly excited and ongoing discussions? I'm not talking about fanfic here; I'm talking about something that borders on a mass event, involving millions of people, all following the same rumors and watching the same dates. Sometimes the only thing it seems comparable to is the Star Wars phenomenon of my childhood, as the countdown to and arguments about The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi filled every playground and high school locker room. But those were movies...these are books. Maybe we have to all the way back to Dickens, and the enormous impact he had on the Victorian reading public, desperate to find out what happens to Little Nell.)

Unfortunately, I can't claim much that I feel comfortable in "updating" regarding those old predictions. Some of them I might want to refine now, as I've thought about things some more, but basically I stand by them, if only out of orneriness. I've said my piece about Snape and Harry and everyone else, so let the chips fall where they may. And as for covers and all the speculation surrounding them, two I can't come up with any kind of substantive take on at all with. The U.K. adult edition is a no-brainer: clearly that's the Slytherin locket, the real one, the one which R.A.B. stole, and which I believe Mundungus Fletcher unwittingly(?) lifted from Grimmauld Place, and sold/returned to Aberforth Dumbledore. As for the U.K. children's edition, I'm at a completely loss. Is that Dobby on Harry’s back? Why are Ron and Hermione wearing such fine robes (have they just come from Bill and Fleur's wedding)? I don’t even have a good sense of the direction of the action on the cover—are they falling, or moving forward, disappearing, appearing, or what? so that leaves the U.S edition...and even here, there's little I'm willing to wager.

Okay, what do we have here? Some people are immediately connecting the curtains with the drapes fluttering in the arch in the "Death Chamber" in the Department of Mysteries described in Order of the Phoenix. I don't think so; go back and look at the American cover for Sorcerer's Stone, and you'll find curtains there as well. There haven't been curtains on any other cover, thought. So this is the artist telling us that in Book One the story begins, and in Book Seven it ends.

But what is happening in that scene? Neither Harry nor Voldemort are wielding wands. Moreover, they don't even appear to be facing each other; both are either reaching out to/appealing to someone or something outside the picture, or else trying to ward that same person or thing away (this might explain Voldemort's hand positions, but not Harry's, suggesting that they are both having very different reactions to some development or actor off scene). Presumably, this is showing us the final showdown between Harry and Voldemort, or part of it. that showdown not the duel/battle we all thought it would be? Perhaps not. There is something about this cover--the strange light in the sky, the ghostly figures around the edges of the amphitheater they are standing in, the broken wood or ruins at their feet--that makes me think that those who jumped to thinking it involves that arch, through which Sirius passed to his death, through which Harry and Luna alone could hear voices, are not wrong. I have predicted that the final battle is going to happen at Hogwarts, and I would really like to believe that what we’re seeing on the cover is the Quidditch field…but I doubt it. The size and shape are all wrong. No, I think we may very well be looking at what lays beyond that veiled arch, or else we are seeing what that same room in the Department of Mysteries appears to be to those who have gone through the veil. Harry, in short, has gone beyond this world, and perhaps stands--along with Voldemort--in a world somewhere between this one and the next one, a world of ghosts...of Sirius...of his mother and father, and maybe everyone else who have somehow not entirely disappeared from this story yet, whether through the power of Harry's own longing or through Voldemort's soul-splitting wand. And speaking of wands, their absence in the cover art makes sense under this explanation: wands would clearly be useless in a spirit world (or, dare I suggest, on "deathly hallowed ground").

Maybe I'm thinking about this stuff because I've recently run across, through the blogs Eating Words and Sword of Griffindor--the former a fine collection of thoughts, opinions, and reflections, and the latter a great resource for the Harry Potter-obsessed--a pretty darn comprehensive look at everything J.K. Rowling has gone on the record saying about her Christian faith (about which, the most succinct summary might be her own comment about attending church: "Well, I go more than to weddings and christenings"), and in that piece it is pointed out that on a several occasions Rowling has been reluctant to speculate too much about religion and the Harry Potter universe...not, she says, because she's worried about certain overzealous Catholics and evangelicals that want to ban her books (about which I've said my piece here), but because doing so would give things away. Here's a couple of crucial quotes from Rowling:

"Every time I’ve been asked if I believe in God, I’ve said yes, because I do, but no one ever really has gone any more deeply into it than that, and I have to say that does suit me, because if I talk too freely about that I think the intelligent reader, whether 10 or 60, will be able to guess what’s coming in the books."


"Magic in the sense in which it happens in my books, no, I don’t believe. I don’t believe in that....This [talking about religion] is so frustrating. Again, there is so much I would like to say, and come back when I've written book seven. But then maybe you won't need to even say it because you’ll have found it out anyway. You’ll have read it."

All this sets me to thinking...what if Rowling doesn’t want the final confrontation between Harry and Voldemort to tell us much of anything about magic, but rather wants to tell us something about death, ghosts, our souls, and the afterlife? Most of my predictions presumed that Rowling's ultimate aim through the Harry Potter books--besides relating a great story--was to bring us to the point where we could see, through Harry's eyes, something about the relationship between persons in the real world. (You have constant subthemes throughout the books regarding racism, exclusion, separation, trust, and love.) But what if Rowling is actually stalking larger, more metaphysical, game? Or at least, what if she's designed a story that has to take us beyond this world in order to get to her point about those within it? (Shades of Tolkien, where the whole epic force of his story is characterized by its existence in a context haunted by an older, deeper, more "deathly" story.) Those figures on the cover--could they be the spirits of those slain by Voldemort? Are they watching the final battle as witnesses? As a court of appeal? Are they waiting desperately to see what happens next, or do they already know? Is there perhaps some reason why they haven’t been able to continue on to the next world, why a prior incantatem makes them potentially capable of being brought back? Might Harry himself also be part of the reason they’ve stayed on? This moves in the direction of thinking Harry himself or his scar is a Horcrux, a conclusions I still reject...and yet...

Oh well--I'll find out in fifteen weeks or so. For all I know, Voldemort has gone legit, and he and Harry are having a parliamentary debate in front of the Wizengamot. Rowling has pulled fast ones on us before; this one, her last, may be a doozy.