Friday, April 14, 2006

Harry Potter - a Hairy Subject in the Bible Belt

Harry Potter

Here in the Bible belt, we have a problem. We actually have a number of problems, but this is one that is particularly irksome. Perhaps its just that I’m an outsider looking in, a recent transplant that doesn’t understand the oppressive mentality of enforced moralistic jargon that tells people to believe one way or stand on hot coals for eternity – which can be quite effective when dealing with easily-led people. I am truly irked by the current crusade against Harry Potter that seems the focal point of life down here whenever a new book or movie about that bespectacled young man appears.

I’m truly surprised by some, who, in fact, rave about the greatness of the Lord of the Rings (the movies, of course – I doubt any of these folks actually read the books) while denigrating a series of children’s books that have a good deal in common, character-wise. The ties are easy to see: look at the four main characters in The Lord of the Rings and the four main characters in the Harry Potter series.

First, we have Gandalf, a wizard, age undetermined, who has great powers and will appear to save the day at the last moment. Compare Gandalf to Albus Dumbledore, a wizard, age undetermined, who has great powers as well and appears on a regular basis to rescue Potter. Next, look to Frodo Baggins. Frodo is an orphan, who inherited a decent fortune from a kind relative: a fortune including a ring that must be used to destroy evil. Harry Potter, Frodo’s counterpart, is an orphan who inherited a decent fortune from his kind parents: as well as a scar from his past that indicates the evil he must destroy. Compare Samwise Gamgee, Frodo’s bumbling but noble buddy, to Ron Weasly – Harry’s bumbling but noble buddy. The primary villains of Sauron and Voldemort both share so many aspects that they need not be listed.

Some of the trouble lies in the fact that many opponents of Harry Potter haven’t read a book on their own that hasn’t been recommended by “preacher” in their entire lives. “Preacher says that Harry Potter is the devil’s tool.” Preacher also tells these people that while Harry Potter, a series of books about a kid trying to survive school with a homicidal ghost following his footsteps, is wrong; the Left Behind books, which describe in detail a wrathful holocaust of five billion people who aren’t Protestant Christians and encourage bigotry against all non-Christians, are just fine.

I don’t have a problem with people who read the books and decide that they are unacceptable for their own children: you have the right, as a parent, to serve as a filter between your children and all forms of media. However, and this is a vast qualification, I do request that before you refuse your children access to something that may encourage them to actually read, you actually read that work, watch that movie, or hear the music yourself before prohibiting it. Who knows? You may discover in those books the same timeless facets of adolescent grief that make them so popular.

It’s striking, really. Fairytales are just fine. The mystical stories of the apocalypse found in Revelation, which scare the hell out of small children, are fine as well. Christian mythology is full of stories that are much more violent, much more frightening, and almost as unbelievable as Harry Potter. Before I’m attacked for my use of the word “mythology,” let me explain (although I’m sure that some people read that word and immediately headed off to their local book-burning revival).

The word “mythology” is accurately used to describe theological beliefs of all sorts that are not believed in by a society. We think it’s just fine to discredit Greek Mythology, even though millions of ancient Greeks believed in it very deeply - deeply enough that their Roman conquerors adopted the views for themselves. We characterize Native American theology as mythology. We call Buddhist and Hindu theology mythology.

What we really mean, but aren’t willing to say, is that we are so egocentric that we will deny all other valid forms of belief because they disagree with our narrow viewpoint. Perhaps the several billion Buddhists or Hindi in the world call our religion “mythology.” Picture this: some dude wanders around with twelve other guys, preaching peace and raising the dead. After he is executed for telling people that they should be kind to one another, he decides not to be dead anymore and gets up, walks around with big holes in his hands, says goodbye to his homies, and then disappears back up into Heaven. This same dude, by the way, who preached love, peace, and all that jazz, will suddenly suffer a schizophrenic personality change when he reappears at the end of the world to kill everyone who disagreed with his peaceful, loving message.

Sounds pretty unbelievable, right? Yet to many millions of people, it is the foundation for their lives. This message of peace, love, and not fucking the neighbor’s wife, it’s actually a pretty good way to live your life. The message of salvation and hope for eternal life is pretty nice too. That doesn’t make it any more a fact than anything that might be read on the cover of The Weekly World News.

Harry Potter is not the devil. He is not the Antichrist. Harry Potter is just the subject of a series of books that describe something that many kids wish for: magical powers to help cope with reality; which sucks just as much for him as it does for them (except for that maniac who wants to kill him). Being adolescent has never been easy, and there’s nothing wrong with a daydream (which is what Freud called all creative writing). Kids know the difference between their play and reality; which is probably one reason they do play. Allowing someone an hour or two of escape into the daydreams of another won’t ruin their lives; and so far as I know, most teachers would give anything for kids to read as much as the voracious fans of Harry Potter do.

currently playing on miPod - Symphony no 25. - 1st movement - W. A. Mozart

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Morality without Religion?

In response to one of my recent posts, an intelligent reader gave me a fairly challenging assignment. Paraphrased, it went something like this: "How can we have morality without religion? From whence would such moral or ethical codes derive?" It gave me a headache - so, well done - but I have a response. Please note - this is a theoretical response only, one designed to state a possible answer, and I'm sure that there are more than this available; however, I'm not interested in changing the overarching subject area named above, so this will be the only one I present.

Among the strongest instincts in the world is self preservation. The theory of evolution survives because of this principle: flora and fauna will do whatever is necessary to survive. In human beings, the need for self-preservation extends into a rational state - an "if/then" statement - that could be stated thus: "IF I am to preserve those things most important to me, including my life and the lives of those for whom I care most deeply, THEN I must expect that others will wish likewise for themselves."

This communal sense of self-preservation is among the oldest elements in human civilization: the need for a state is predicated upon such. Among prehistoric peoples, tribes would coalesce around the strongest members, those who could not only preserve themselves best, but also train others to do so. The feudal system of governing is based - in part - upon this principle: in exchange for protection from a feudal lord, to whom one paid taxes, one expected a certain level of legal protection for those things held most dear to the self. Of course, this did not preclude corruption - it was merely a basis upon which the system was supported. On a macro-scale, the feudal lord was bannerman to a higher lord. When the realm was threatened, the highest lord of the land would call his bannermen, who would, in turn, call upon "their people," and the collective force - read: ARMY - would protect the land and holdings, thereby the way of life... extrapolate downward.

In a rational, republican system, such as ours, "the people" pay taxes to the Federal government, who, in turn, allocates nationally-held resources for the preservation and protection of those to whom its existence is owed (again, the people).

Where does morality fit in? We'll use a couple of "if/then" statements, with a moral, and further, a legal statement:
  • IF I want to remain alive, THEN I must expect that others want the same; therefore, IF staying alive is "good," THEN it must be "bad" to take a life. We'll make a law against murder, but IF someone tries to take my life ("bad") then it is legal to do whatever is necessary to protect myself ("good"). So - murder=illegal, unless in self-defense.
  • IF I want to keep my stuff, THEN I should expect others will want to do the same; therefore, IF keeping my stuff is "good," THEN taking it must be "bad". We'll make a law against taking other people's stuff.
From these two basic premises, we can extrapolate much of "morality." Actually, we can extrapolate from just the second one, if we count the first as "stealing" someone's life. The freedom of religion, say, is protection from the theft, by others, of one's right to worship one's own mythological cloud-being in one's own manner. Drug laws could be said to protect non-users from the horrifying and desperate resorts (theft and murder) to which users will go to procure the drug. Communal accountability and self-preservation - the athiest's rational moral system.
currently on miPod - "Pennsylvania 65000" - Glen Miller