It is only reasonable that many readers here at Riverside Green occasionally mistake something that Bark wrote for something I’ve written, or vice versa. We have the same last name, we have written for the same outlets, we agree on a reasonable number of subjects. (Areas where we disagree include: the music of Nickel Creek, the ability of a woman to wear a size 12 dress and still be attractive, whether or not soccer is a real sport.) All I can say it this: If you’re confused now, wait until my son writes his first new-vehicle review, which should happen in the next few months depending on certain delivery schedules and various eminently unreliable manufacturers.
In this case, however, I feel compelled to make it explicit and plain that I (Jack) am writing this, because while Bark might agree with me that modern Western society has restructured itself around several explicitly infantile and irrational ideas, I doubt that he would be willing to place the blame for this situation on the consumption of “young adult” media by people who should be consuming “regular adult” media. Bark is a big fan of the Harry Potter books. He watches the “Guardian Of The Galaxy” movies. I believe that he would defend those stories and that media.
As for me, however, I come to bury Potter, not to praise him. And in this, I have a rather unlikely ally from the mainstream press.
For several years now, I’ve been thinking about how the central concept of what I call “progressive anti-tourism” has spread through stories and media, and how the prevalence of this concept has caused adults of my generation and the generations that have followed to make some remarkably stupid decisions in the furtherance of their infantile cargo-cult ideology. But before I start talking about Avatar, Save The Last Dance, and several other stories, let me hand over the microphone to Ross Douthat. On the NYT website this week, he wrote that
[T]he thrill of becoming a magical initiate in the Potterverse [is] remarkably similar to the thrill of being chosen by the modern meritocracy, plucked from the ordinary ranks of life and ushered into gothic halls and exclusive classrooms, where you will be sorted — though not by a magic hat, admittedly — according to your talents and your just deserts.
I am stealing this magic-and-meritocracy parallel from the pseudonymous blogger Spotted Toad, who wrote a fine post discussing how much the Potter novels and movies trade upon the powerful loyalty that their readers feel, or feel that they should feel, toward their teachers and their schools. But not just any school — not some suburban John Hughes-style high school or generic Podunk U. No, it’s loyalty to a selective school, with an antique pedigree but a modern claim to excellence, an exclusive admissions process but a pleasingly multicultural student body. A school where everybody knows that they belong, because they can do the necessary magic and ordinary Muggles can’t.
Thus the Potterverse, as Toad writes, is about “the legitimacy of authority that comes from schools” — Ivy League schools, elite schools, U.S. News & World Report top 100 schools. And because “contemporary liberalism is the ideology of imperial academia, funneled through media and nonprofits and governmental agencies but responsible ultimately only to itself,” a story about a wizarding academy is the perfect fantasy story for the liberal meritocracy to tell about itself.
The minute I read that last paragraph, the proverbial scales fell from my eyes. Of course the Ivy Leaguers would love a fantasy like that — and it’s no coincidence that the Harry Potter books were written in class-conscious Britain by a welfare queen whose dimly-perceived ideas, received third-hand from tabloids, regarding upper-class life would only really make sense to most readers if they were framed by dragons and special magic. Our putative superiors (full disclosure: your author attended a “top 100” university, but it has done precisely nothing for me in the twenty-three years since I graduated) in the Ivy League absolutely yearn for a regression to an ordered class society where the proles in their lifted Ram trucks and Tap-Out apparel have to cross the street or be horsewhipped for insolence. They have no appetite for democracy. Why should they? As Douthat notes in his article, democracy is just another way of giving the “Muggles” a voice in public affairs. What could be worse than letting the “Muggles” from West Virginia or the Inland Empire have a say in their own fates? You might as well let the Muggles judge the flying-broomstick “Quidditch” games, for Christ’s sake.
This is a fairy-tale elitist impulse that traipses neatly across political or ideological lines, by the way. The distaste with which conservative “wizards” speak of public-assistance recipients or Mexican immigrants finds a perfect mirror in Democratic disdain for rural whites, conservative Christians, or self-made businessmen. Mitt Romney was playing to his base when he decried the “forty-seven percent” of freeloaders in America; Mrs. Clinton was playing to hers when she railed against the “basket of deplorables”. Sometimes the Venn diagram of the unpersons overlaps, as it did with the young people who supported Bernie Sanders. The conservative media lampooned them as people who were obsessed with the forgiveness of poorly-chosen student loans; the captive mainstream called them “Bernie Bros”, the word “bro” understood by The Right People to be the 21st-century way of calling someone a subhuman knuckle-dragging rapist.
It’s not harmless, all of this magical fantasy crap. It explains why young people become absolutely deranged on the subject of Donald Trump. They were told that Trump is the Harry Potter villain “Voldemort” — by the media, by their friends, by J.K. Rowling herself. The Huffington Post did them all one better and published a poopytalk manifesto by a student in which he argues that Trump is more evil than Voldemort — because Voldemort attacked white people and Trump attacks brown people. That’s right: to people who are thoroughly schooled in the Harry Potter ethic, it’s more permissible to murder children than it is to build a border wall. Think about that one for a minute.
As other more astute political commentators have pointed out, the problem with labeling your political opponent as Literally Hitler, or letting a lapdog media do it on your behalf, is that you encourage people to step outside the political system and take matters into their own violent, unpredictable hands. After all, if the “end” is to kill Hitler, then the “means” are obviously justified no matter what they might be. Thus all of the “punch a Nazi” idiocy that was going around social media earlier this year. Who could possibly be against punching a Nazi? And what does it matter that the definition of “Nazi” somehow got changed from “member of the National Socialist party, supporter of the Holocaust” to “someone who wants some kind of restriction, however mild, on immigration from Mexico, and/or a restriction on container shipments from China”?
And that’s the problem with “young adult” literature in a nutshell: it’s written for people who are too young to understand that the world does not neatly split into “good” and “evil”. That’s why everybody in “Star Wars” wears a uniform that proclaims their allegiance to the Jedi or the Sith. The old Westerns that put white hats on the good guys and black hats on the bad guys operated the same way. Young adult literature can be thrilling because it plays on our basic desire to be fighting for untainted Good against unvarnished Evil. It is fitting for children to read this sort of stuff because children need to be taught some basic lessons about right and wrong — but it is ridiculous and harmful for adults, who should know better, to consume media that reinforces that childlike viewpoint.
The opposite, of course, is also true. I was a precocious reader as a pre-teen and I read a lot of adult-oriented books about World War II, including Speer’s diary, The Rising Sun by the Japanese sympathizer John Toland, and Shirer’s
Most children don’t get exposed to detailed descriptions of rape and torture before they are tall enough to ride a roller coaster. That’s probably a good thing. But it’s probably not a good thing when we have millions of twenty-something voters in this country whose ideas of good and evil are derived from a children’s book. It leads to degraded political discourse, and it leads to an election choice between Mr. Trump, whose supporters saw him as Leonidas leading the last charge at Thermopylae, and Mrs. Clinton, whose supporters considered her to be a sort of female Dumbledore.
It’s obvious that we can view Harry Potter novels as the infantile gateway to the current Millennial perspective on politics. Is there a similar way to understand the Millennial perspective on race? Absolutely. If, like me, you are a student of story and myth, you know that most adventure-movie plots resolve in some way to the “Hero’s Journey” as described by Joseph Campbell. However, in the past thirty years or so, there is a very specific sub-genre of that plot that is appearing more and more often. It works like this:
- The hero is a member of the privileged group, but he is damaged or deficient in some way.
- Something happens to put him in contact with a minority group.
- He becomes obsessed with the rituals, abilities, and struggles of this minority group.
- Often, he becomes romantically involved with a member of the minority group.
- He returns to battle against the majority group, or to compete within the majority group.
- Because he combines his “powers” from the majority group with the “culture” of the minority group, he is triumphant.
- He is acclaimed as someone who has transcended both groups to acquire superiority of a sort over both.
I mentioned Avatar at the beginning of this article so you’ll have no doubt already assigned all the appropriate scenes and people from that movie to the above list. But it describes dozens of pop-culture works. Titanic, oddly enough, is virtually the same movie as Avatar; Rose is changed from a ditzy society girl to a female aviator by banging some steerage-class trash in a closed sedan.
In most cases, however, the movies play with analogy and/or fictional equivalents. It’s not until we look at Save The Last Dance that we get the pure, unfiltered stuff. This film, which was promoted heavily by MTV in an era where that meant something for audience and box-office receipts, was portrayed as a “modern Romeo&Juliet.” That’s a lie, of course. The entire message of Romeo And Juliet was that straying away from your family’s advice and protection could lead to your death. The entire message of Save The Last Dance is something far more disturbing: white people are inherently superior.
Are you confused? Then you aren’t paying enough attention. In the movie, Julia Stiles manages to transcend both “white culture” and “black culture” by coming from the latter and absorbing the latter. She starts the movie as a middling-grade ballerina who, after absorbing black culture and sleeping with a black guy, ascends to the secular heaven of Julliard. Note that Derek, the black boyfriend, doesn’t get to go to Julliard. He’s just the pinch of pepper that Julia Stiles needs to be a great dancer. We are meant to understand that Julia has great things waiting for her in the future. Derek won’t be a part of that. Never mind that he is a better dancer than she is; because he’s not white, he can’t effectively synthesize both cultures and rise to the next level. Is that fucking insane-crazy or what?
By the same token, in Avatar the “natives” can’t effectively shake off the yoke of oppression until the “human” comes down and shows them how. In the end, he is reborn as a creature who understands both native and human culture. He is effectively superior to both. The end message is: natives might be superior to regular humans, but a “woke” human is superior to both. Same for Titanic. Jack obligingly falls into the cold ocean and Rose becomes totally awesome because although she’s from a superior class of people she has acquired just enough dirty prole culture to make her perfect. Once Rose becomes “woke” she is better than both her upper-class relatives and the steerage-class Irish who taught her how to shake out her hair and dance.
Note, also, that the “woke” white/human/upper-class figure remains the only acceptable gateway between worlds. Save The Last Dance doesn’t end with the abolition of racism at the school; it ends with Julia Stiles in the uniquely privileged position of superior arbitrator. Same with Avatar. Same with Titanic. The message is pretty clear, even for children: the white person who makes “first contact” with the minorities will absorb their power and control the interactions with them.
Of course, Save The Last Dance was aimed at white girls. White boys, by contrast, got The Matrix, which is no less explicit in its themes, although it omits the interracial sex because in modern American media the only permitted interracial pairings are black male with white female and white male with Asian female. So Neo gets a white girl rather than a soul sister, but in all other respects it’s yet another white-guy-meets-black-people-and-saves-the-world film. Neo is literally “the One”, bridging the gap between the almost entirely white Matrix and the black real world of Zion. The war against the machines can only be won by him, which is why Morpheus has to patiently train and coach him into being “the One”. The sequels make the racial issue even more obvious; the Zion culture is full of dashikis, beads, and hot, sweaty dancing, while the white Matrix culture is so European it has a pretend Merovingian king. The only “black” computer program is the one that is in charge of overseeing human emotion and freedom. But the black people — and the black program — can’t really accomplish anything without the white guy who accepts their teaching and goes on to be better than they are.
The filmmaker Spike Lee has spoken out in harsh terms about the idea of Magical Negro characters, among whose numbers Morpheus is usually counted. The “Magical Negro” is a character who only exists to enrich a white central character with just a pinch of black wisdom, experience, or know-how. He never has any agency of his own; he’s just there to help the white hero become “woke”. Sometimes the Magical Negro is actually an antagonist, as is the case with Denzel Washington’s absolutely spellbinding character in Training Day. You walk out of that movie remembering how cool Denzel was and it blinds you to the central point: that Ethan Hawke’s character ends up becoming just as street-smart while also being more humane and ethical than Denzel was.
It’s a hugely racist and offensive narrative, which makes you wonder why it’s so popular among “progressive” filmmakers. Perhaps the reason is that they feel personally invested in the trope and therefore are unable to stand outside it and take a genuine look at what it truly means. Most white media types consider themselves “woke”; they are eager to lecture fellow whites about oppression and privilege without considering the ways in which their own work reinforces it. And this is where the “anti-tourist” impulse comes in. White people who feel that they have been “accepted” into a minority culture often feel compelled to adopt a protective “gatekeeper” stance to that culture. In a lot of ways, “woke” media people are like the first kid in your high school who “discovers” rap or punk or whatever musical subculture is hip at the moment. He feels that he is a genuine member of the community and that others are “tourists”. This gives him perceived authority to lecture those “tourists” and to bar them from participating in the culture.
Here’s an example. A white teacher lectured a mostly white high school about “all whites being racist.” One of the students, who is half-Hispanic but who “identifies as” white, to use the modern parlance, complained to the school. So a bunch of white people gathered to demonstrate against the half-Hispanic student. This led a respected faculty member at the University of Oklahoma to set everybody straight:
Paul Ketchum, a professor of liberal studies at the University of Oklahoma, said that Coursey committed a “rookie error” in teaching on race, noted the Christian Science Monitor. “You go for the big term when a less loaded term would be better to make it a teachable moment.”
Would you like to see a picture of Paul Ketchum? Of course you would.
Here’s his bio: “Dr. Ketchum received his Ph.D. in Sociology from Texas A&M University. His research focuses on racial attitudes and the impact of race on the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Before pursuing his doctorate, Dr. Ketchum taught middle school and high school in inner-city Los Angeles and worked with at-risk juveniles in Texas.”
I guarantee you that if you could open up “Doctor” Ketchum’s mind and read it you would see that he thinks of himself as a “white emissary” to minorities who is empowered to speak on their behalf because he’s worked with “at-risk juveniles” in Compton. So you have a white guy lecturing a white guy on race so that second white guy can do a better job lecturing other white people on race, who will then presumably grow up to lecture still other people about race. It’s race-lecturing white turtles all the way down, sonny — and the only person who sees any problem in this comfy industry of mining racial grievances for white middle-class profit is the half-Hispanic girl. Clearly she should shut up and be grateful that the Great White Fathers are here to set her straight on what racism really means.
If you have even a slightly nuanced attitude towards race in America, you have to just put your head in your hands regarding antics like this. But that’s the problem: virtually nobody has a nuanced attitude towards race in America, because we are all consuming garbage media that teaches us fundamentally racist concepts. These concepts clothe white superiority in stories that appear to “uplift” minorities — right up till the end, where we find out that the white person was the center of the plot all along. People consume this media and then they want to be Neo, or they want to be Julia Stiles, or they want to be Rose in Titanic.
The stories we tell ourselves, and tell each other, truly matter in the end. They serve as framing devices through which we view the world — and we never truly escape them. It’s worthwhile thinking long and hard about the media and stories you choose to consume. They can have consequences that you don’t expect and will not understand until it’s too late. The irony here is that accurate, socially relevant criticism of “texts” was once considered to be an important duty of any reputable university. There was a time where you went to a “top 100 university” so you could learn how to see through crap like this. So you could obtain the skills necessary to take these stories apart and see them for what they are.
No longer. Today’s best universities are simply indoctrination machines. Instead of teaching their students how to understand stories, they feed self-serving, undemocratic, deeply-disturbing stories to their students. They teach them a fantasy… that they are part of a “selective school, with an antique pedigree but a modern claim to excellence, an exclusive admissions process but a pleasingly multicultural student body. A school where everybody knows that they belong, because they can do the necessary magic and ordinary Muggles can’t.” As fairytales go, it’s not a good one. But it’s the only story they want to teach. And if the students get sick of hearing it, they can always retire to their co-ed, sex-positive, kink-friendly dorms so they can drown in the modern opiates: “Netflix and chill”, video games, and, of course, young-adult fiction.