Books: Clearly a Conservative Enclave
By Jane Miller on November 17, 2011
I teach in a great books program at my university and, ironically, this brands me as a conservative reactionary. Presumably this is because I like books. I think books contain ideas. I think these ideas can be of perennial interest to human beings. Clearly, I'm a fascist pig. This even though books have previously always been considered to be something radical, dangerous even. While there may currently not be any "officially" banned books in North America, school districts and governments control the curriculum and governments control the budgets of all libraries. So needless to say you don't have to officially ban a book to make it clear that you think some books are inappropriate or subversive. All over the world, books are believed to be capable of radically disrupting cultural, religious and civil norms, and, as a result, it is illegal to read some of them. For instance Dan Brown's daft Da Vinci Code is currently banned in Lebanon. And the dictionary is "banned" from many schools in the US as it contains definitions for terms that may be related to, gasp, sex.
Maybe it's not that I teach books that others find offensive. Maybe it's because I claim to teach great books. In thinking that one could discern a difference between--say a book I write and a book written by someone who knew something--I am clearly an elitist. Never mind that in recent years we've taught "books" as diverse as Harry Potter, The Bible, The Wire, and, the songs of Bob Dylan.
But maybe it's not just that I think some books are better than others. Maybe it's because, even though, I teach modern, even contemporary stuff, I mostly teach books written by old, dead, white men. Either I have some perverse fetish or I'm a neo-con. But those books by the old, dead, white men? They are radical by their nature. We read them because they transformed and continue to transform the world we live in. Locke's Second Treatise of Government seems to have been influential in spearheading both the French and American revolutions.
But that's what they did. What have they done for us lately? (sing it like you're Janet.) Well, let's take Socrates, for example. First of all, he was a pretty randy guy. As long as it/he/she was beautiful, Socrates was your guy. He was an any-port-in-the-storm kind of guy. The plumbing of the port was irrelevant. So sexually, he was very liberal. And although Socrates wanted to know what was true, he couldn't have been called an elitist in his pursuit of it. He wanders around Athens in bare feet talking to anyone who couldn't get away from him. Poets, sophists, shield makers, generals, slave boys, rich boys, the stupid and the less stupid. Philosophically, he was an any-port-in-the-storm-kind of guy too. A democrat like no other democrat. All individuals no matter their background or education were of importance to Socrates. Every soul could bring something to the table of truth. Moreover, Socrates was the little guy willing to die to for the sake of what he believed to be the best life. No law, no government, no jury could stop him from doing what he understood to be right. Socrates shows us civil disobedience to the extreme. An occuppier or two could stand to read the Apology.
I'm criticized for living in an ivory tower of old books. But, and ironically, it is only within these ivory walls that the things I teach can be thought of as conservative and of no contemporary value. Banning books is a conservative and fascist activity. So why is it the academic "liberals" who want to ban great books?