A piece of paper with those words printed in bold letters across the top appeared “magically” in the drawer of my fax machine. It was a good example of the magic of communication technology, and the illusory feelings of unlimited power that went with it. Not only was I being given the impression that I had the power to ban books, I was being told in no uncertain terms that my vote, and the votes of people like me, “will be presented to US Secretary of Education Ron Paige, American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association.” I can just imagine the look of fear that came over their faces when they were confronted with the results of this poll. It was similar to the look of fear that was supposed to come over my face when I realized that the other side in this important issue might rack up more votes than my side. Of course which side was my side in this important issue wasn’t completely clear to me at the moment. Keeping hard core pornography out of public libraries or out of cyberspace struck me as a higher priority. Now that “we” had failed to do that, we were now being called to ban Harry Potter. Or were we? Or, to ask one more question, just who is “we”?
Reading further I learned that the fax number I was supposed to respond to was a 900 number, which meant that I had to pay to register my vote. In fact, “calls to these numbers cost $2.95 per minute,” but that shouldn’t be a concern because a sum like that, assuming that I was only going to be billed for one minute, was “a small price for a greater democracy.” The poll, it turns out, was not commissioned by any advocacy group—not by People for the American Way or someone at the opposite end of the political spectrum—but rather by 21st Century Faxes Ltd of New York, New York. In other words, a group which was interested not in resolving an issue one way or an another but simply in generating fax traffic and, therefore, money by giving the illusion that average people had some say in an artificially created debate.
There are a number of good reasons why 21st Century Faxes, Ltd. should feel that it could make money off this issue. The first is that Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is a project of AOL-Time-Warner, one of the masters of the universe in the global information age. One company can now create a media phenomenon by having one division—in this instance, Warner Brothers—produce a movie, which will be reviewed by another division—in this instance, Time magazine—and discussed in chatrooms run by still another—AOL. In addition, the book which begot the movie can also beget product lines—a Nimbus 2000 broomstick, for example— which can be marketed at places like Toys R-Us, and local TV stations and newspapers can do articles about people lining up at the stores to buy those products. At a certain point, the phenomenon takes on a life of its own. The fact that so many people are being bombarded with publicity becomes newsworthy in and of itself, which in turn generates more publicity. At this point, the faxblasters decided to get involved. With serious money like this put behind this product, why shouldn’t they?
Another reason that the faxblasters can make money off this issue is that Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is a deeply incoherent work. In other words, a work like this is a natural for creating an artificial debate because it provides support for both sides of the issue. The issue for cultural conservatives is the promotion of the occult. The Harry Potter books, according to Michael O’Brien, contribute to the “paganization of children’s culture.” Characters like Harry Potter “are engaged in activities which in real life corrupt us, weaken the will, darken the mind and pull the practitioner down into spiritual bondage.” However, none of those effects are apparent on Harry or his friends. Hence, impressionable children might be tempted to dabble in the occult without realizing what they were getting involved in. For O’Brien the Potter books symbolize the culture’s ability to cast spells over us. “With the advent of television,” the culture can “enchant” us, which is to say, take control of our lives without us noticing it. “Flooded with powerful stimuli that bypassed the mind’s normal faculties for filtering and interpretation, both the rational and the imaginative aspects of our minds became increasingly passive.” As a result, we are close to the point predicted by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World: “no longer conscious of our bondage” because “we are soothed by endless entertainments.”
On the other hand, equally conservative commentators like Chuck Colson, Michael Medved and James Dobson all praised the book as supporting Christian values. “Harry Potter,” according to Dr. Dobson, “is a standard tale of good v. evil, and good always wins in the end. Harry, the hero, often triumphs because of his upright character and pure motives. Unconditional love and courage are held as ideals of great importance. By following Harry and his best friend, Ron, the reader gets a glimpse of true loyalty and friendship, as well as self-sacrifice.”
There is ample textual evidence to support Dr. Dobson’s conclusion. After struggling valiantly to keep the sorcerer’s stone out of the evil Voldemort’s grasp, Harry is knocked unconscious, only to wake up, three days later in the school infirmary with Dr. Dumbledore, the headmaster of the Hogwarts School of Magic and Wizardry, sitting next to him. Dr. Dumbledore then goes on to explain what happened in terms sure to impress someone like Dr. Dobson:
“Your mother died to save you. If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love. He didn’t realize that love as powerful as your Mother’s for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign . .. to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever. It is in your very skin. Quirrell, full of hatred, greed, and ambition , sharing his soul with Voldemort, could not touch you for this reason. it was agony to touch a person marked by something so good” (p. 299).
Who can argue against a book that promotes love, especially the salutary effects of a mother’s love for her child? In addition to that, Harry’s friend Ron sacrifices himself so that Harry can reach the room where the stone is being held. The message of the book is that to achieve some noble end, “You’ve got to make some sacrifices.”
On the other hand, there are passages in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone that are not so reassuring to those who share Dr. Dobson’s view of the world. After learning that he has been admitted to the Hogwarts school of Magic and Wizardry, Harry goes off to buy school supplies with Hagrid, his mentor and assistant. That means buying books on casting spells, which leads Harry to pore over the books so that he can “find out how to curse Dudley,” his adopted brother. And how does Hagrid, the wise mentor, feel about placing curses on people who live under the same roof? His answer is something that Dr. Dobson would probably not find reassuring:
“I’m not saying that’s not a good idea, but yer not ter use magic in the Muggle world except in very special circumstances,” said Hagrid. “An’ anyway, ye couldn't work any of them curses yet; ye’ll need a lot more study beore ye get ter that level.”
So, it turns out that both sides are right when it comes to their judgment of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Both sides can find support for their argument in the text because the text is deeply incoherent. It is, in many ways, like the mirror of erised (desire spelled backwards) that Harry must confront in order to find the stone. The text is a mirror of the reader’s desire. It is contradictory because Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is not so much a work of art as a fantasy, a narcissistic fantasy that in many ways reformulates the contradictions inherent in a culture of narcissism and presents them in a way that is appealing as long as you don’t try to unravel the contradictions by trying to understand them. The book, in other words, is the ideal vehicle for consumerism, which is the ideal way of mobilizing cultural narcissism from the point of view of social control.
J. K. Rowling has said that the idea for the Harry Potter books came to her while suffering through an interminable train ride to Manchester. She was an unwed mother at the time. The Harry Potter books are suffused with precisely that sense of fantasy and reverie. A young lady raised in the shadow of the sexual revolution of the ‘60s now burdened with the responsibility of raising a child alone in Tony Blair’s Brave New Britain senses that things haven’t quite turned out the way she had been trained to expect, and so instead of trying to get to the bottom of why things are the way they are, the author finds solace in a fantasy that is at once symptomatic of and appealing to the culture of narcissism which engendered it.
In terms of psychological development, narcissism is a personality disorder which is oftentimes known as “borderline,” which is to say not a full-blown mental disorder like schizophrenia or psychosis. Narcissism develops when the child fails to develop a realistic understanding of the relationship between his desires and reality. The likelihood of developing narcissism as a personality disorder increases when the father, who is the bearer of the reality principle in family life, is absent. The mother, reacting to that absence, tends to give into the narcissistic wishes of the child, creating in him illusions of the grandiose self and its limitless control over nature.
By now it should be obvious that post-’60s sexual liberationist culture is a culture which promotes just this sort of illusion. As a result, a developmental disorder which is present because of the natural vicissitudes associated with psychic development got promoted into a cultural norm, something which Christopher Lasch termed, the “culture of narcissism”:
In its pathological form, narcissism originates as a defense against feelings of helpless dependency in early life, which it tries to counter with “blind optimism” and grandiose illusions of personal self-sufficiency. Since modern society prolongs the experience of dependence into adult life, it encourages milder forms of narcissism in people who might otherwise come to terms with the inescapable limits on their personal freedom and power—limits inherent in the human condition—by developing competence as workers and parents. But at the same time that our society makes it more and more difficult to find satisfaction in love and work, it surrounds the individual with manufactured fantasies of total gratification. The new paternalism preaches not self-denial but self-fulfillment. It sides with narcissistic impulses and discourages their modification by the pleasure of becoming self-reliant even in a limited domain, which under favorable conditions accompanies maturity (Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations [New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1979], p. 231).
The result is a culture of narcissism, one which promotes the illusion of unlimited power while at the same time using those illusions to promote ever more sophisticated forms of social and political control. Rather than try to wean the narcissist away from his debilitating fantasies and give him some connection with reality through work and love in the family and the local community, the culture of narcissism promotes the very fantasies that cripple him. Through advertising, the consumer is given the sense that he can become his fantasies by consuming objects that have been endorsed by people he admires. The culture of fulfillment through consumption, in other words, is a powerful ally in the narcissist’s war on reality, forging increasingly more sophisticated and intrusive forms of control by pandering to the narcissist’s grandiose vision of his own unlimited power.
The culture of narcissism is populated by people who manifest what Philip Cushman has called “the empty self,” something that Cushman has noticed as the personality type that is discussed in “current psychological discourse about narcissism and borderline states.” The creation of the “empty self” as the paradigm of the ideal citizen in America and other consumerist states in the West began in the early 20th century as part of the “historical shift” away “from the Victorian sexually restricted self,” a personality based on saving and restraint of impulse, particularly restraint of sexual impulse: “Americans have slowly changed from a Victorian people who had a deeply felt need to save money and restrict their sexual and aggressive impulses” into the opposite, namely , “a people who have a deeply felt need to spend money and indulge their impulses.” The new normative self which came into being after World War II is “empty,” because it “experiences a significant absence of community, tradition and shared meaning. . . . It is empty in part because of the loss of family, community and tradition.” As a result, the new self tries to compensate for its emptiness by consumption. Because it perceives itself as “empty,” the “post-World War II self thus yearns to acquire and consume as an unconscious way of compensating for what has been lost.”
Cushman summarizes much of what has already been discussed in these pages and in Libido Dominandi: Sexual Liberation and Political Control without going into the actual, historical details. Thus, “advertising and psychotherapy” are “the professions most responsible for filling and healing the empty self,” which has been created largely by the destruction of community and family. Once the intermediary social structures which give man his sense of content (as opposed to his sense of emptiness) have been destroyed, the state can control its population “not by restricting the impulses of its citizens as in Victorian times, but by creating and manipulating their wish to be soothed, organized and made cohesive by momentarily filling them up” (Philip Cushman, “Why the Self is Empty: Toward a Historically Situated Psychology,” American Psychologist, May 1990, p. 599). What follows is in general the history of the United States in the period following World War II. The empty self “seeks the experience of being continually filled up by consuming goods, calories, experience, politicians, romantic partners and empathetic therapists in an attempt to combat the growing alienation and fragmentation of its era” which came about largely through the destruction of neighborhoods and the subsequent attempt to destroy the family as well.
Since narcissism is a personality disorder that is predicated on a failure to adopt realistic norms about the relationship between desire and reality, the people who controlled the culture through advertising and psychoanalysis began to promote the narcissist as the ideal citizen of the new culture of overt self-indulgence and covert social control. The goal of the social engineering that destroyed communities and promoted sexual indulgence after World War II was the “empty” narcissistic self. That self was full of the illusion of omnipotence that characterized narcissism as a personality disorder, but it was also full of the insecurity that went with that delusion. As a result, the self which has been rendered empty by the systematic destruction of community and family—the only elements that can give it a sense of belonging, “content,” and, therefore, reality—must seek its sense of “content” or reality elsewhere, namely, “by purchasing and ‘ingesting’ the product, which will magically transfer the life-style of the model to the consumer.” The self has been crippled by being tied to narcissist fantasies, which alternate between grandiose conceptions of the self, and feelings of impotence and emptiness when those fantasies, as is always the case, are not fulfilled. Once the self has been confirmed in this pathology, the culture which promoted the pathology arrives on the scene with the cure. Consumption is the magic that makes this transformation possible: “the customer’s problems will simply disappear when the magical transfer takes place.”
One of the most blatant forms of magic through ingestion is, of course, homosexuality, and through its connection with narcissism we can get some inkling of the purpose behind the major cultural offensive in favor of homosexuality. The homosexual is the consumer culture’s version of the ideal citizen because he takes all of the strains of narcissism to their logical antiessentialist conclusion. The homosexual qua homosexual can form no family and, as a result, no real community; in a culture which promotes sexual liberation as a form of control by breaking down family and community, homosexuality is the most exaggerated form of sexual individualism. The homosexual “lifestyle,” which is based on unnatural sexual acts, is proof that there is no nature and, therefore, no reality. By promoting homosexuality as a viable alternative lifestyle, the consumer culture is saying that fantasy can triumph over reality, which is the essence of the narcissistic personality disorder.
Like narcissism, homosexuality is a function of father deprivation. The less father, the less reality. The less father, the less family. The less family, the less reality. The less community, the less reality. The reverse of all of those equations is also true. By fostering narcissism and promoting narcissistic personalities—homosexuals, rock stars, etc.—to positions of celebrity and prominence, the consumer culture weakens family and community and strengthens its hold over the weakened individuals who must struggle through life without support from community or family. The only thing they can hold onto without fear of reprisal is their narcissistic fantasies of themselves as grandiose and “special.”
All of the narcissistic pathologies find their culmination in the homosexual, whose lifestyle is a triumph over nature and therefore over reality as well. Since there is no reality, then there is no check on the narcissistic fantasies. But since those fantasies are ultimately illusory and, therefore, debilitating, giving the person who gives into them an increasingly “empty” self, they also function as the prime instrument of control. In other words, the culture of narcissism promotes the illusion of omnipotence that is the prime characteristic of the grandiose self knowing full well that it is an illusion because it knows just as well that people can be controlled by manipulating that illusion. Media phenomena like the Harry Potter movie are an example of that manipulation. However, the main instrument of control is using consumption as the device which fills the “empty” self, which has been drained of content by the destruction of family, tradition, community and religion. The narcissist consumer is condemned to “buy life-style in a vain attempt to transform” lives which are unsatisfying because they are based on illusion and as a result “unfixable.” As a result, “the late 20th century has . . . become an advertising executive’s dream come true: Life-style has become a product that sells itself, and the individual has become a consumer who desperately seeks to buy.”
The subsequent “desperation to fill up the empty self” brings us to the other metaphor for the homosexual as the best example of the narcissist consumer, namely, the vampire, who, like the homosexual, has been reduced to a primitive, magical form of social intercourse where he must suck parasite-like on the people he admires in order to continue in existence. Social life in the culture of narcissism is essentially magical ingestion, increasingly desperate attempts to fill up a permanently empty self. As in the homosexual and the vampire, the grandiose self experiences alternating states of omnipotence (eternal life) followed by periods of despair based on fears of emptiness, which in turn lead to the same desire for compulsive ingestion which will create this vicious circle once again. Like the homosexual, the narcissist is the culture’s ideal citizen. In fact, the homosexual is being promoted in that role precisely because he represents an extreme form of narcissism.
The narcissist, of course, perceives none of this, precisely because he has been raised to be “empty.” Narcissism is a defensive reaction based on a failure to internalize the reality principle. That choice becomes exacerbated by a culture which promotes narcissism as its ideal of behavior. Because he has been taught to choose illusion over reality, the narcissist sees any social structure which might threaten his illusions—from the family to the local community— as inherently inauthentic. The only reality is the grandiose self and its unrealistic desires, a fact which is invariably misunderstood by less narcissistic types. As a result, the narcissist world is made up of bifurcations, good parents and bad parents, etc. It is also essentially Gnostic, having the sense that the true self is enmired in bad matter, in this instance bad social circumstances which do not let the true self express itself fully and properly. “A characteristic symptom of narcissism,” according to Cushman, is, above all, “a sense of personal fraudulence describe as a ‘false self’ that masks the frightened ‘true self’” (p. 605).
This is precisely the situation at the beginning of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Harry is living with the Dursleys, a thoroughly unattractive group of people who are quite emphatically not his real parents, his real parents being dead. This bifurcation of the family into good parent and bad parent, corresponds to the narcissist’s inability to conceive of the mother as an independent person who both gratifies and thwarts infantile desires. Rather than coming to the understanding that the loving mother sometimes thwarts infantile desire as way of leading the infant to a better understanding of reality as independent of its wishes, the narcissist bifurcates the mother into a fantasy of the good mother who gratifies his wishes and the bad mother who does not, since the gratification of desire is the summum bonum, indeed, the only good for the narcissist.
Rowling conveys this attitude by dividing the world neatly in half. There are people like Harry, his real parents, Hagrid, Dr. Dumbledore, and the Hogwarts school, all of which are good because they believe in magic. On the other hand, we have the Dursleys, Harry’s actual parents, who live in the unromantic suburbs. These people are known as Muggles and their main characteristic is that they don’t believe in “magic,” i.e., the narcissistic dominion of desire over reality. The Dursleys are “proud to say they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” Mr. Dursley “didn’t approve of imagination.” The Dursleys, in other words, are what the Germans would call Spiessbuerger, stupid bourgeois suburban types who are fat, unimaginative, selfish, consumerist wage slaves. The Dursleys, n other words, are the ideal citizen in the globalist economy. In other words, perfect examples of the narcissistic empty self, which is, of course, why Rowling has to demonize them as different. Harry, as narcissist, is no different than the Dursleys. Since the thought is intolerable, the solution is once again fantasy, the fantasy that Harry is somehow different, when he is exactly the same because his self is just as empty and narcissistic as the Muggle consumers he (or Rowling, or the reader) finds so repugnant.
Rather than face up to the unpleasant facts of life associated with the consumerist culture of narcissism, the reader is invited into the fantasy world created by Rowling, the unwed mother faced with the unpleasant facts of life in Britain’s post-sexual revolutionary era. In other words, instead of being given an opportunity to understand the world as it is, the reader is offered one more fantasy to make the intolerable palatable for a time. The fact that this fantasy has been endorsed by AOL-Time-Warner doesn’t negate its fundamental unreality, rather it reinforces it because consumer culture has always promoted narcissistic fantasy, through advertising and psychoanalysis, as the best antidote to unpleasant reality: “Narcissism,” according to Lasch,
appears realistically to represent the best way of coping with the tensions and anxieties of modern life, and the prevailing social conditions, therefore, tend to bring out narcissistic traits that are present, in varying degrees, in everyone. These conditions have also transformed the family, which in turn shapes the underlying structure of personality. A society that fears it has no future is not likely to give much attention to the needs of the next generation, and the ever-present sense of historical discontinuity—the blight of our society—falls with particularly devastating effect on the family. The modern parent’s attempt to make children feel loved and wanted does not conceal an underlying coolness—the remoteness of those who have little to pass on to the next generation and who in any case have given priority to their own right to self-fulfillment. (p. 50).
Rather than face up to the fact that the family’s ability to thwart the development of the narcissistic personality has been deeply undermined by the consumerist culture’s endorsement of appetite as a form of control, Rowling retreats into fantasy. In typically narcissistic fashion, she portrays Harry Potter as having two families: the good family comprised of the real parents who are unfortunately (or fortunately) dead and, therefore, unable to threaten Harry’s fantasies, and the bad family, the Dursleys, who are bad because they do not believe in “magic,” which, as I have indicated, means the unlimited hegemony of desire over reality.
Magic is, in many ways, the state religion of any culture based on narcissism. As the description of consumerism as ingestion has shown, magic is the central belief of a culture that is based on appetite and fantasy. If I buy those shoes, I will be attractive and sovereign over the vagaries of everyday existence, just like Michael Jordan. Those shoes will help me abrogate natural laws, like the law of gravity. The fantasy is so deeply engrained in the culture that it never needs to be stated explicitly. All we need to remind ourselves of its essentially narcissistic message is a billboard icon of Michael Jordan, basketball in hand, soaring through the clouds with the Nike swoosh in the lower left hand corner reminding us about how we can make this fantasy real. The fact that billboards like this generally get displayed in places like the south side of Chicago, where people have been known to kill for these expensive shoes, only points up the function that advertising performs as a form of social control. Instead of changing the circumstances of their lives by making some contact with reality, like, say, improving the local community, the empty self is encouraged retreat further into his narcissistic fantasies. The young man who feels that he is as sovereign over the laws of nature as Michael Jordan is in reality the couch potato watching the slam dunk contest on television. Fantasy becomes a form of debilitation and control. The more time the narcissist spends in front of his television set, the less capable he is for any kind of physical activity, much less the heroic exploits of Michael Jordan.
As a result, each of the culture’s institutions will be changed into something magical in order to accommodate the fantasies that drive it. Up until early 2001, the stock market was magic. The name for this particular kind of magic was the “new economy,” which meant that computer technology had abrogated the normal laws of economics. Now what went up would not come down; it would continue to go up. Magic, in this instance, meant that the bubble that was the economy under the Clinton administration would never burst. Drugs are also magic. Cocaine is chemical magic. It is a deeply narcissistic drug which confers the illusion of omnipotence and the reality of addiction, degradation, and control. In this it is similar to legal drugs like Prozac, which gives the impression that everything is okay and Ritalin, which provides nothing but control. Ritalin, which is dispensed by nurses in schools which pride themselves on being “drug-free zones,” is the best indication of how education has evolved from a subtle form of control into a brutal, chemical-driven form of control, of the sort that Harry Potter regards with undisguised dread. The democratization of education, as in Tony Blair’s Britain, has meant the proliferation of cruder and more brutal forms of social control, Ritalin being the best example of the simultaneous triumph and collapse of democratic public education.
Education, even without drugs, is no exception to the rule that every institution in the culture of narcissism will be turned into a form of magic. In fact, in many ways it is the best example of the culture of narcissism’s reliance on magic and fantasy as a way of giving the empty selves that make up the culture the illusion of omnipotence while at the same time habituating them to lives of anxious bondage. Magic, unsurprisingly, is central to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. So is education. In fact, the book is really about the conflation of magic and education which is symbolized best by the Hogwarts School of Magic and Wizardry. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is a deeply narcissistic fantasy about a child without a father, but it is also a fantasy about education. In fact, the book is more about education than magic, or, to put it succinctly, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is a fantasy about education as magic, written by someone who does not understand what either education or magic really involves.
C.S. Lewis, unlike Rowling, understood both. Harry Potter is a fantasy about education written by someone who looks upon it as something important but essentially inscrutable. Education is what you need to get ahead, and, therefore, to those, like Rowling, who admire its effects but don’t understand its inner workings, education will always seem to be a form of magic. Lewis wrote about both magic and the English educational system as of the mid-’40s in his book The Abolition of Man, one of the best books of the 20th century. Unlike Rowling, Lewis understood the English educational system very well. Unlike Rowling, he did not disguise his dislike for what he saw as escapist fantasy. Lewis takes issue with a textbook he calls The Green Book because its disjunction between facts (which are scientific and objective) and values (which are personal and subjective) will create a nation of “men without chests,” in other words, people without “heart” or character whose brains rest directly on their genitals. Lewis finds it an “outrage” to call such men “Intellectuals” because this sort of man is “not distinguished from other men by an unusual skill in finding truth nor any virginal ardour to pursue her.” They are known as Intellectuals not because of “excess of thought” but rather because of “defect of fertile and generous emotion.” Their heads, in other words, “are no bigger than the ordinary: it is the atrophy of the chest beneath that makes them seem so.”
As education in England became more “scientific” it also became more “magical” because magic, although it had much in common with applied science, was the opposite of wisdom:
For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique, and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious--such as digging up and mutilating the dead. If we compare the chief trumpeter of the new era (Bacon) with Marlowe’s Faustus, the similarity is striking.
Lewis feared “science” of the magical sort. He especially feared its effect on education. His caveats went unheeded. British education became more and more “magical,” which is to say, more and more driven by the will’s desire to dominate reality rather than the opposite, “how to conform the soul to reality,” and as a result it ceased to be education in any real sense.
At the beginning of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the plot revolves around education, which in typically narcissistic fashion is bifurcated into good and bad schools, just as the family is bifurcated into good and bad parents. Harry has just graduated from what the Americans would call grade school and because of his status as living under the Muggle thumb at the Dursleys is fated to go to public school, again in the American sense of that term. Dudley, the favored child, is planning to attend a private boarding school in the fall. “Harry, on the other hand, was going to Stonewall High, the local public school. Dudley thought this was very funny”( p. 32).
Since Stonewall Jackson is not a hero to most Britons, the name takes on symbolic significance. Public education in a narcissistic culture is, by necessity, a stonewall against which students bang their heads for a number of years. It has become this because all any school in a culture of narcissism can do is reflect, mirror-like, the student’s own desires, as ratified by the regime that promotes those desires in order to control the people who entertain them. This means, as Lasch noted, promoting sex and not aggression, but what it does not mean is giving students some contact with reality because that would threaten the collective narcissist fantasy that the students can become whatever they want to be simply by putting in time at school.
The threat of being immured in Stonewall High School for four years sets up the main action in the book, namely, the arrival of the owl bearing the message that Harry Potter has been admitted to the Hogwarts School of Magic and Wizardry. Mr. Dursley, being a Muggle, of course immediately throws the invitation into the fire, but the owls keep coming, and soon the Dursleys must flee to an island off the coast of England after the house is inundated with letters summoning Harry to Hogwarts. We have here one more fantasy based on the idea that education is a form of magic, namely, that the system seeks out and promotes gifted pupils. Harry’s giftedness is so overpowering, even though the Muggles can’t see it, that he is fated to go to Hogwarts. The idea that Harry might somehow not go to Hogwarts is so preposterous it prompts an outburst of righteous indignation from Hagrid:
“Stop Lily an’ James Potter’s son goin ter Hogwarts? Yer mad. His name’s been down ever since he was born. He’s off ter the finest school of witchcraft and wizardry in the world. Seven years there and he won’t know himself. He’ll be with youngsters of his own sort, fer a change, an he’ll be under the greatest headmaster Hogwarts ever had . . .” (p. 58).
Since Harry has done nothing to achieve this fame, he must have inherited it, and here Rowling’s fantasy comes full circle. Harry Potter is noble by birth, and as such he and his magic are a direct repudiation of the democratic educational policies promoted by virtually every government in England since the time C. S. Lewis wrote The Abolition of Man. Education is magic when it provides a ticket out of the penury of lower class existence or the dreariness of middle class existence, but it can’t be magic if it does this for everyone. As a result, Rowling longs for the days when education in England was a function of elite schools which could raise talented young people into the upper classes, magically, by simply having them attend those schools. Of course this system could only work if the schools were not “democratic,” and Rowling can’t bring herself to admit this any more than Tony Blair can, so she retreats into narcissistic fantasy, longing for what she dare not state explicitly.
The fantasy of salvation through admission to an elite school remains long after the reality has vanished. The Harry Potters of both Britain and the United States still sit by the mail slot waiting for the arrival of the SAT scores that will certify that they are “special,” and which will qualify them for admission to magical schools like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, the Hogwarts academies of our day. The SAT score is not a measure of effort or content; it certifies things like potential and genius. In this regard it is similar to the invitation from Hogwarts which certifies that Harry is “special.” Nobody knows he’s special until he gets the Hogwartian equivalent of 1600 on his college boards. He is like Anakin Skywalker in the latest Star Wars episode. His mitochlorian levels, which is derived from analysis of his blood, are “off the charts.” What we have in both instances is a narcissistic longing for the “scientific” racism which pervaded the Anglo-American upper classes and their schools during the latter part of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century. Hogwarts Academy is the ruling class school, set aside for members of the ruling class no matter how mediocre their abilities, as well as for talented members of the lower classes who are willing to do serve the interests of that class.
In this regard, Harry Potter is someone like John J. McCloy, a man who was born on the wrong side of the tracks in Philadelphia, a man whose ambitious mother got him into the ruling class by getting him first into ruling class schools. John J. McCloy accomplished this feat by attending the Peddie School in New Jersey, Amherst College, and finally Harvard Law School, but more important than what schools he attended was when he attended them. McCloy, who came to be known as “the Chairman” because of his ubiquity in establishment circles in the United States in the mid-20th century, attended Harvard Law school when it was a WASP institution run for the benefit of the WASP ruling class, which is to say, around World War I. By the time, Harry Potter got admitted to Hogwarts, the magic was gone from education of this sort, largely because the WASP ruling class had ceased to exist. Hence, the transformation of places like Harvard and Cambridge and Oxford into completely magical institutions which only exist in fantasies of the past. Hogwarts Academy of Magic and Wizardry bespeaks Rowlings’ attempt to preserve the fantasy of what those places were, and her fantasy simultaneously mourns the fact that they aren’t that way anymore. By saying that education is magic, Rowling is saying that it is no longer magic as well. Education used to be magic. Rowlings’ fantasy is that her child could benefit from the magic that no longer exists because the ethnic group that ran the schools no longer exists anymore either. Instead, we have “democratic” education and the dreariness of Stonewall Public High School.
To continue this paradoxical line of thinking, education could only be magical by being real. Once it opted for the magic of narcissist fantasy it stopped being real, and once it stopped being real, it stopped being magic, i.e., capable of taking lower class boys and catapulting them into the ruling class. This is another way of saying that class education was more than just Darwinist mumbo-jumbo. As a matter of fact, higher class education was the exact opposite of the Darwinist pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo that eventually colonized and ultimately destroyed it. Upper class education in both England and the United States was, in fact, Christian. The Hogwarts Academy of Wizardry and Magic is a Tony Blair-era fantasy based on the old English public school. Dr. Dumbledore insofar as he is a wizard is based on both Merlin and Gandalf from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, but insofar as he is head of an English public school, he is based on Dr. Thomas Arnold. Hogwarts is, likewise, based on Rowlings’ Blair-era fantasies of what it must have been like to attend Rugby when Dr. Arnold was its headmaster and Britannia ruled the waves and the sun never set on the British Empire. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is Tom Brown’s School Days rewritten as narcissist fantasy from Rowlings’ vantage point at the nadir of cultural degeneracy following on the heels of the destruction of British morals which took place during the ‘60s. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone expresses a longing for education as it used to be because education as it used to be is now impossible in a completely narcissistic culture. So we get fantasy instead.
One of the classes Harry takes at Hogwarts is spells. The spells are all in Latin. This corresponds to the uneducated Blair-regime, yobbo view of the classics. C. S. Lewis, who taught at Cambridge, would have viewed things differently, but for Rowling Latin is an incomprehensible tongue whose mastery is necessary for admission to the ruling class. It is hocus pocus. It is magic words, of the sort that get advertised on the Rush Limbaugh show—55 power words that you need to know to open the doors of success. Latin is, in other words, magic. People from lower class families can send their kids to Rugby to learn Latin or—its narcissistic equivalent in the Blair era—to Hogwarts to learn spells. Whatever. From Rowlings’ point of view they are one and the same thing. Once you learn Latin at ruling class schools your pockets magically fill up with money (or at least they used to). Ergo, as we prep school grads might say, Latin is magic.
In the culture of narcissism, everything is magic, because nothing has value unless it “realizes” narcissistic fantasy. So, if cocaine is magic and the Stockmarket is magic and Rush Limbaugh’s Word power is magic, why shouldn’t education be magic too? Magic is always at war with stable essences. Lead is gold, when you know magic, and so the slogan of narcissistic education is, as the billboard advertising the local campus of Indiana University puts it, “Be whatever you want to be.” Law is also magic, at least constitutional law in the United States. The Supreme Court believes that “at the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe and the mystery of human life.” Law is magic because it is also based on narcissist fantasies of complete hegemony over being, which is also how Justice Kennedy put in his by now famous mystery clause of Planned Parenthood v. Casey. Harry’s friend Hermione “is particularly interested in Transformation,” which is to say, “you know, turning something into something else.” Transformation is, of course, “supposed to be very difficult.” But that’s why we send our children to places like Hogwarts where they begin by believing that they can change “matches into needles and that sort of thing” and end up believing that maleness and femaleness are cultural constructs that they have transcended through gnosis.
The best expression of the decline English education under people like Dr. Arnold at Rugby and the simultaneous rise of education as magic that Hogwarts symbolizes is the game of Quidditch. Quidditch, which is like soccer played on broomsticks, is narcissistic sports. Narcissistic sports is a contradiction in terms, but then again so is narcissistic education. Sports, by definition, pit desire against reality, and out of that conflict character is formed in the souls of the young people who participate in sports. Reality in this instance means the laws of the physical universe—gravity, inertia, etc.—as they affect the human body’s ability to move through space. By repeated effort and perseverance, which are moral traits, the young person who plays sports acquires skill, which allows him to overcome the laws of nature in ways which seem magical to those who lack the skills but are not. Anyone who has watched an upperclassman sail over the highjump bar knows what I mean. Anyone who has watched an upperclassman push off from the dock on a 18 inch-wide racing shell without tipping over and later learned to do the same thing himself knows that what seems to be magic is really a skill that can be mastered through perseverance and patience. The lesson that the young man learns is that I can be out in reality and I can learn how to deal with reality. I can run ten miles. I can row there and back without tipping over. I am not a god who makes things so by wishing they were so, but if I learn certain skills, reality can accommodate my desires. I can row across the lake without tipping over.
That is one of the lessons of sport. The other is learned in competition with other people. The same character building lessons that were learned in confrontation with nature get applied to the sportsman’s relations with other people. This means that winning, which is based on acquired skills, is a good thing, but not the only good thing. In fact, the social collaboration which allows the game to take place in the first place is more important than winning and should always be treated that way. That means that sports should teach one how to be gracious in defeat, which means accepting the fact that, no matter how great our level of skill, our desires do not have hegemony over reality. Being gracious in defeat means accepting that fact, which in many ways completes the moral education that sport can bring about by giving the participant a sense of his own limitations by understanding the fact that the sport itself is dependent on social customs which determine his behavior and not vice versa. What this education in reality through sports means is the death of narcissist fantasy. Conversely, the importation of narcissist fantasy into athletic activity means the death of sports, which is precisely what gets portrayed in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
Quidditch is the school sport at Hogwarts. As such it is one more narcissistic fantasy mourning the loss of a culture that the author finds impossible to understand. Quidditch, especially as it is portrayed through special effects in the movie, is a sports fantasy of the sort couch potatoes can engage in while watching Michael Jordan in the slam-dunk contest from the vantage point of their rec room sofa, thinking all the while, “I am like that because I wear Nike shoes.”
Thomas Arnold’s priorities in education at Rugby were clear: “first, religious and moral principle; secondly, gentlemanly conduct; thirdly, intellectual ability.” In many ways, these are precisely the correct priorities for the education of young people, who need to develop skills in controlling the passions more than they need to understand the foundations of either practical or pure reason. This is not to say that foundations and a coherent understanding of them aren’t important, but that it is not the job of the educator, who gets his system of beliefs from elsewhere, every bit as much as the students get their program from the headmaster. Squire Brown, Tom’s father, would be satisfied with Arnold’s emphasis on morality as the basis of education: “If he’ll only turn out a brave, helpful, truth-telling Englishman and a Christian, that’s all I want.”
Thomas Arnold was not a big sports fan, but Thomas Hughes, the man who wrote Tom Brown’s School Days was, and in many ways Hughes determined the course of education and sports more than the man he wrote about. Arnold stressed religious and moral principles first, gentlemanly conduct second, and intellectual achievement last, and Hughes agreed with those priorities in general but while maintaining the primacy of morals, Hughes de-emphasized religion and put greater emphasis on sports. As a result, modern sports were born in England in the late 19th century in English boarding schools, and the idea of sportsmanlike conduct and the ideal of the “scholar and the gentleman” who did not do certain things because “it wasn’t cricket” spread throughout the English-speaking world:
By the 1880s, “muscular Christianity” was the religion of the public schools of England. Character was to be developed by team games and hardship. Games demanded loyalty, self-discipline , and for those with ability, a sense of command and accomplishment. Cold baths, cold dormitories, runs in the rain and plain food all helped to build character. A housemaster, on hearing that one of his boys had taken two hot baths in a week, reprimanded him sternly: “That is the kind of thing that brought down the Roman Empire” (E. Digby Baltzell, Sporting Gentlemen: Men’s Tennis form the Age of Honor to the Cult of the Superstar [New York: The Free Press, 1995] p. 18).
It found especially fertile ground among the Anglophile WASP upper class in America, which began founding schools based on what Arnold had created at Rugby. Perhaps the best example of that sort of school in America was Groton, founded by Endicott Peabody, who developed “muscular Christianity” in the sons of American’s new national WASP ruling class for over 50 years, from the time he founded Groton in 1884 until his retirement in 1940. Peabody adopted the British public school code, with its emphasis on sports as character builder, from his days at Cheltenham, where he excelled at cricket and rowing. Peabody was convinced in Baltzell’s words, “that a vigorous democracy needed the leadership of a manly and moral aristocracy.” As a result, he educated the sons of the ruling class at Groton to be like the students under Arnold at Rugby, “Christians, gentlemen and scholars in that order.” Sports contributed to the integration of all of those traits into one virile character, because sports, Peabody told his students in 1930, especially “as conducted in England,”
provide both health and moral education. The highest achievement of any game can be claimed for the national game of cricket which is used as a measure of moral quality. Of some fine action, they will say, “That’s cricket!”, while final condemnation is found in the criticism, “That’s not cricket” (Baltzell, p. 30).
By 1930, Peabody was aware that a spirit was afoot which was corrupting sports, especially in America, where “our first approach to a game is apt to be the quest for someone to beat.” Shortly after Peabody warned his students that athletics were “in many cases” becoming “just plain business, where “they came under the instruction of professionals whose positions depend in many cases in “delivering the goods”— that is, achieving victory,” William T. Tilden, 2nd, the country’s premier tennis player, and epitome of the English ideal of the man who felt that playing by the rules was more important that winning, turned professional. Tilden’s life mirrored in many ways both the decline of sports into money-grubbing professionalism and the concomitant decline of WASP morality into sexual degeneracy. After turning pro, Tilden found it increasingly difficult to control his homosexual impulses. After turning pro he moved from places like the Germantown Cricket Club (he grew up across the street) to Hollywood, where in 1946 he was arrested for fondling a 14-year old boy who was driving his flashy Packard down Sunset Boulevard.
Tilden’s demise as sports hero was a very small straw in what would become a very strong wind, as sports began to dominate American life in the years following World War II. The institution which Endicott Peabody looked upon as a means of moral training would come to be dominated by NBA multi-millionaires whose main off the court activity was fathering illegitimate children, figures like Wilt Chamberlain, who bragged in an autobiography which appeared a few years before he died that he had slept with 20,000 different women, and professional football players who hired contract killers to murder inconvenient girlfriends. Peabody thought that the cricket was a “moral mentor” but he was especially fond of American football because “it was rough and hard and required courage, endurance and discipline.”
Just how the moral training that Peabody promoted at Groton, and Walter Camp, following his and Arnold’s example, promoted at Yale could culminate in a figure like Rae Carruth is a question worthy of further study. Peabody “abhorred the all-too-prevalent American ethic of winning at any cost,” and as a result, “he looked with disdain at bigness and mediocrity in favor of the small and excellent.” Six years before Peabody retired as headmaster at Groton, Samuel Eliot Morrison could talk about Arnold’s, and by extension, Peabody’s achievement, which was nothing less than a revolutionary change in education based on the intimate connection between sports and morals: “The notion of a gentleman’s education,” Morrison wrote,
has made the English and American college what it is today: the despair of educational reformers and logical pedagogues, the astonishment of Continental scholars, a place which is neither a house of learning nor a house of play, but a little of both; and withal a microcosm of the world in which we live. To this . . . tradition , we owe that common figure of the English speaking world, “a gentleman and a scholar” (Baltzell, p. 18).
Perhaps the American who epitomized Morrison’s values best was Theodore Roosevelt, a contemporary of Endicott Peabody and a man who did more than anyone to promote the WASP ideal of “muscular Christianity” as the American ideal. Roosevelt’s presidency coincided with the highpoint of American culture. Like Roosevelt, who was the father of five children, an intellectual, and a devoted sportsman if not athlete, American culture from the time of the Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1892 up until the First World War, was expansive, prosperous (although plagued by economic exploitation), virile, and confident about the future, in many ways because of the personality traits which English sports culture had impressed on the WASP ruling class in the United States through schools like Groton. Crucial to both the vitality of the country and the vitality of the ruling class was the notion, derived, from sports of the “amateur,” a word derived from the Latin “amare,” which means to love. An amateur is someone who does something because of love and not because of money. Some things, like sex, should only be done for love and should never be done for money. Love and money provide, then, two poles or paradigms for human endeavor. The question is where do the rest of life’s activities fit it. Because it corresponds so closely to the notion of the gentleman farmer which was the founding father’s notion of the paradigmatic citizen in the American republic, the amateur is a particularly American concept. The amateur athlete was, in many ways, a late-19th century instance of Cincinnatus, the “amateur” Roman general who returned to his farm after winning the war. Cincinnatus was America’s model for the ideal politician in the early days of the American republic.
The connection between amateur sports and participatory democracy was obvious to someone like Theodore Roosevelt. By playing sports, Americans could learn that some things are worth doing simply for their own sake. Politics, according to traditional American wisdom, is one of those things that is done better by amateurs than professionals. Just as sports, in the traditional sense of the term, begets not only character but altruism as well when done by amateurs, so the American republic could promote the same sort of thing when government officials were “amateurs” who returned to their farms when their term of office expired. Both amateur sports and the American constitution were based on precisely this concept of morals and altruism abiding in character, which is to say habits acquired by long practice of virtue. Theodore Roosevelt, who “believed in sport as a means of cultivating a vigor of body which in turn led to a vigor of mind and character,” detested the idea of the “professional” athlete and the “commercialization of sport” which followed naturally therefrom: “When money comes in at the gate,” Roosevelt would say, “the game goes out the window.”
That, of course, is a short description of the decline of sports which occurred during the 20th century. Money, in other words, ruined sports because it focused on winning rather than in the lines of “Clifton Chapel,” of one of Peabody’s favorite poems, bringing the athlete “To set the cause above renown/ To love the game beyond the prize.” Once sports became professional they created a huge pool of spectators that increased exponentially with the rise of television, which in turn infused more money into the game, and, therefore, more corruption. The corruption of the professional athlete is the most obvious evil which followed. Less obvious was the corruption of the spectator, especially the TV spectator, who turned all professional sports into Quidditch, namely an essentially narcissistic fantasy that was observed rather than performed. Spectators of professional sports are a prime example of “the empty self” which was promoted by the culture of narcissism during the years following World War II. The “empty” spectator has no natural moral resources in terms of character and skill of the sort that sports in the classical understanding of the term are supposed to supply. As a result, the spectator is fixated on winning. Because he uses the sports figure as a fantasy reservoir to supply what he lacks in terms of his own inner resources, he is threatened with non-existence if his team loses. He becomes, in other words, “a loser” and that threat of loss of being is so threatening to his fragile “empty” self and the delusions of omnipotence the culture of narcissism creates in him that he flies into a rage and seeks to find an object for the rage which flows from the assault on his grandiose and unrealistic sense of self that a losing record creates in him. The usual scapegoat instances like this is the coach, particularly the college coach, who regularly gets fired when he fails to “deliver the goods,” as Endicott Peabody once predicted.
The emphasis on winning at any cost is not only based in narcissist fantasy, it creates a completely irrational state of affairs, according to which each coach must have a winning record. This corresponds to the principles of narcissistic education, according to which each student must be above average. Professional spectator sports turned sports into the opposite of what it was supposed to be. Instead of producing moral character through physical effort among the people who play the sport, sports now produces spiritual bondage by promoting narcissistic fantasies of omnipotence among a nation of spectators.
At this point a question is in order. If sports were so good at building character, why did sports lead the culture in the decline of just about every area of life during the course of the 20th century? If sports is so good at building morals, how come its run by such a motley group of moral degenerates? Digby Baltzell, ever aware of the nuances of class in American culture, claimed that tennis went to hell as soon as Irish Catholics rose to prominence in the game. It’s hard to tell whether he feels there was a causal relationship here or not. Baltzell feels that Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe were narcissistic monsters who ruined the game of tennis, he also adds that “Connors and McEnroe were the first Irish Catholics to win our National Championship” (p. 357) and lets the reader draw his own conclusions. Lasch comes up with a better explanation when he says that the culture of narcissism promotes certain forms of behavior. Both Connors and McEnroe could have been kicked out of the matches they disrupted long before they ruined the game, but the people who decided to change tennis into a narcissistic spectator sport as opposed to a gentleman’s participatory sport, decided to coddle both of them because they admired their plucky, i.e., narcissistic behavior. Sports, in other words, could help the culture implement its values by providing a means of conveying those values in a concrete way to each new generation of young people, but sports could not prevent the degeneration of those values. Something else had to do that. The same could be said for education. Education followed the culture; the culture did not follow education. Education had to get direction from something higher than itself, every bit as much as sports did, and that’s where the problems began.
Colgate University is a good case in point. It was founded by a group of Northern Baptists (although the split in the denomination wouldn’t occur until 1845) who felt that Baptist clergy should be educated, not a view shared by the majority of Baptists. Things started out well enough, but when, after learning Latin and Greek, the Baptist professors went to Germany and encountered the higher criticism, it had a devastating effect on their faith as Baptist ministers. Faced with the challenge of the Enlightenment and modernity, Baptist theology proved inadequate and a gradual loss of the faith set in among the clergy, and that same secularization began to pervade the university too. One of the professors was expelled for heresy, but soon it became apparent that the Baptists lacked the intellectual firepower to engage in spirited, life-and-death debates over doctrine. The more enlightened professors gravitated to more secular institutions, places like the University of Chicago, also founded by Baptists for Baptists, or nearby Rochester, home of Walter Rauschenbusch and the social gospel.
Philip Johnson has something similar to say about the decline of the Rockefeller family. John D. Rockefeller, according to Johnson,
...was a lifelong devout Baptist who enjoyed attending church and teaching Sunday school. He never paid any attention to theology, however, and seems to have had no interest in Christian doctrine as opposed to Christian behavior. His was a works religion in which the path to salvation lay in abstemious habits, the creation of wealth, and philanthropy. Later this creed merged almost effortlessly with the social gospel, as the fortune produced by personal discipline was put to the service of progressive social policies determined by experts.
Once those experts concluded that “belief in the Christian God was no longer possible,” however, they began to act on their new-found faith. The result was social engineering. This choice was inevitable because as Augustine said, there are only two options in life: the city of God, which is based on love of God to the extinction of self and the city of man, which is based on love of self to the extinction of God. Once the ruling class turned away from Christianity, which is based on love and service to mankind, there was only one other place to turn, namely, to “libido dominandi,” domination of your fellow man for your own good, as the ultimate goal in life. Johnson maintains that the WASP elite was not “in rebellion against Christian morality.” Rather, “their rebellion was against the concept of a God who was not restrained by the laws of science.” As Augustine’s paradigm of the two cities makes clear, Johnson is talking about a distinction without a difference. Religion and morals are intimately connected, even if they are at the same time distinct. America felt that it could prescind from theological questions and insure the foundations of the republic by concentrating on moral consensus. It looks as if that system failed, but the situation requires a closer look, just as the failure of sports and education requires a closer look. Did the American system of ordered liberty based on moral constraint fail? It’s like asking if sports failed or if education failed or if the culture which was supposed to support those institutions failed because the people who were the cultural leaders failed to implement their own principles. The question is analogous to what Chesterton used to say about the alleged “failure” of Christianity. Was the American system of ordered liberty tried and found wanting? Or was it found difficult and not tried?
Once the Rockefellers ceased being Christians in any meaningful sense of the word, the fact that their money would be used in the service of “libido dominandi” or, to give its modern term, social engineering, was in many ways inevitable. With the advent of the 1920s, both advertising and psychology with the help of John B. Watson and Rockefeller money began to promote the new American paradigm of the “empty” narcissistic self. Lasch, in Marxian fashion, traces the transformation of American character to “changing modes of production.”
The pathological patterns associated with pathological narcissism , which in less exaggerated form manifest themselves in so many patterns of American culture—in the fascination with fame and celebrity, the fear of competition, the inability to suspend disbelief, the shallowness and transitory quality of personal relations, the horror of death—originate in the peculiar structure of the American family, which in turn originates in changing modes of production. (p. 177).
Cushman shares the same vision of economic determinism that Lasch does, claiming that “cultural conceptualizations and configurations of self are formed by the economies and politics of their respective eras” (p. 599).Theodore Roosevelt, who stood astride the cultural crossroads when America’s fate hung in the balance, had a different explanation. He felt that Americans were committing what he called “race suicide.” Race, in this instance, does not refer to skin color. In the common parlance of the times, race meant ethnos, which is to say, as Allan Carlson has pointed out, “the sense of a group with a common history, a common culture, and a yearning for a common destiny” (Allan Carlson, “Theodore Roosevelt’s New Politics of the American Family,” The Family in America, October 2001, Vol 15, no. 10). Race suicide in this regard meant, in Roosevelt’s terms,
“the gradual extinction of a people through a tendency to restrict voluntarily the rate of population growth.” When Roosevelt talked about “race suicide” what he really was talking about was “the demographic consequences of birth control.” In his 1917 book, The Foes of Our Own Household, Roosevelt wrote that when a people voluntarily failed to reproduce, “The New England of the future will belong , and ought to belong to the descendants of the immigrants of . . . today because the descendants of the Puritans have lacked the courage to live.”
Roosevelt was reacting to the rising tide of propaganda in favor of birth control that reached a crescendo in the years around World War I, when Margaret Sanger was agitating for the repeal of the Comstock laws. In 1912, Mary Roberts Coolidge argued that improvements in contraception would soon make motherhood “something more than blind obedience to nature and to mankind” (Lasch, p. 162). Lasch quotes Coolidge in his book but fails to see the deeply narcissistic quality of the birth control movement. The break with the future which Lasch mentions as the cause of cultural narcissism was brought about more by the contraceptive than any change in the means of production. The WASP ruling class, at around the time Roosevelt wrote his book warning about “the foes of our own household,” decided in Lasch’s own words to give “priority to their own right to self-fulfillment” by not having children. In doing this they brought about the break with the future which he sees as characteristic of the culture of narcissism. The grandiose self was now on the verge of “liberation” from “obedience to nature,” and the contraceptive was what made that liberation possible.
Taking control of nature in this way meant, as Roosevelt saw, being cut off from the future, which in terms of the nation meant weakness in the short term and extinction in the long term. Roosevelt looked on procreation as a duty, and a specifically American duty. It was the highest form of patriotism. It was un-American, from Roosevelt’s point of view to have a small family, something he expressed in no uncertain terms to a group of liberal Protestant theologians in 1911: “If you do not believe in your own stock enough to wish to see the stock kept up, then you are not good Americans, you are not patriots, and . . . I for one shall not mourn your extinction; and in such event I shall welcome the advent of a new race that will take your place because you will have shown that you are not fit to cumber the ground.”
“Narcissism,” according to Lasch, “emerges as the typical form of character structure in a society that has lost interest in the future” (p. 211). The WASP ruling class in America lost interest in the future the moment they became interested in birth control, as Roosevelt perceptively pointed out. Once they made that decision, the decline of every institution from sports to education into what would ultimately become and entire culture of narcissism, as epitomized by the Harry Potter books, was only a matter of time. Lasch and Cushman see narcissism as bound up with an attitude toward the future but somehow cannot bring themselves to be as frank about the connection between narcissism and birth control as Roosevelt was. Cushman, in fact, decries the creation of a culture based on the empty self while at the same time defending “the struggle over reproductive rights” without seeing that the latter, with its essentially narcissistic repudiation of the future created the culture of the empty self in the first place. The consequences of this attitude toward procreation are clear for Roosevelt. Since “no race can hold a territory save on condition of developing and populating it,” immigrants and not native stock would determine the future of the country, a fate which Roosevelt may not have liked but one which he embraced with manly frankness anyway. “I, for one,” Roosevelt wrote in his review of the book Racial Decay, “would heartily throw in my fate with the men of alien stock who were true to the old American principles rather than with the men of the old American stock who were traitors to the old American principles.”
His words are even more relevant now than they were when he first wrote them, and they are so because America, far from repudiating “race suicide,” has made it the government’s business to promote it throughout the world. Rather than buck trends they failed to understand, educational institutions like Colgate recapitulated the theological experiences of the 19th century in the social engineering experiences of the 20th. The university, like sports, became a function of narcissistic culture, rather than a critique of it. Unable to understand what was going on, they were unable to oppose it. So Colgate went from being a secularized Baptist school to being a government school. When World War II broke out, its president went to Washington to persuade the Roosevelt administration to allow it to educate pilots. After the war the GI bill initiated what would become a flood of government money, which flowed into the campus and allowed and orgy of building to distract itself from the growing identity crisis. Colgate and formerly religious institutions like it across the country had been maneuvered into become academies which were involved in the business of creating a new kind of individual, the narcissistic empty self, a person and an ideal fundamentally at odds with education. When the ‘60s arrived the contradiction couldn’t be ignored. The university had to defend its existence against the revolutionaries who were at war with the last vestiges of bourgeois Muggle culture in an age where virtue meant unfettered desire and vice could be summed up in one word: repression.
The Baptist shepherds could not provide adequate intellectual protection for their flock, but the flock prevailed and in many ways prospered in spite of that lack. The failure of Baptist theology, however, should not hide what Colgate did bring into existence, namely, an institution that was loved by generation after generation of young people from New York and environs. The achievement of Colgate was, in other words, not theological but ethnic or social. Rev. James T. Burtchaell in his book on the secularization of higher education points out that the Baptist genius was to provide “nonsectarian” pan-Protestant culture, of the sort that would become typically American.
“What the Baptist founders meant by their disavowal of “sectarian” education was to exclude any fixation on theological accidentals that would concentrate on the differences that separated Baptists from other evangelicals, so as to make their schools inhospitable to the Methodists, Presbyterians, Disciples, Moravians, Congregationalists, and others who were essential to their survival.”
The Baptists fostered, in other words, what the sociologists call “the triple melting pot,” which means assimilation after three generations according to religion, i.e., Protestant, Catholic, Jew. Baptist institutions like Colgate fostered a pan-Protestant identity that was not theological but ethnic. Colgate provided an example of American culture based on the most enduring of all conservative principles, namely, Blut und Boden. Blut, in this instance, meant all of the families which sent generation after generation to Colgate for an education. It meant, most of all, the Colgate family which provided heroic financial support for generations. Boden, in this instance, meant the beautiful campus, which worked its effect on generation after generation of students. Even a document as late as the university website is forced to concede the Boden principle, when it claims: “we cherish this place where the college is located.” Taken together the continuity of time created by the families who sent their children there and the continuity of place created the core of the university’s ethnic identity to this day, namely, its alumni.
The university unfortunately was based on a principle which, because of the intellectual deficiencies of the Baptist tradition, no one could articulate much less defend. As a result the very existence of the community was constantly at risk from colonization by outside forces. The identity crisis began when the Baptist seminary departed in 1929, but no one seems to have noticed because of the ethnic continuity which I have already described. The inability to defend the university’s true identity was disguised for a while by the onset of World War II and the GI bill which swelled enrollment after the war as veterans returned and had their tuition paid by the government. But it could not survive the cultural revolution of the 1960s, when all unconscious institutional arrangements were called into question and asked to defend themselves.
In the late ‘60s, a number of students and faculty staged a sit-in at the administration building protesting the fact that Colgate fraternities discriminated against Negroes. No one seems to have noticed the fact that fraternities discriminate by their nature against anyone who is not a member of the fraternity. If they did not exclude people, they would not be fraternities. If it is their job to exclude people, even when the student body is homogeneous, then it is a fortiori their job to exclude people who come from a different ethnic background. No one, it seems, was able to articulate this insight at this particular time. Certainly not President Barnet, who fled to an endowed chair a year later.
Twenty-eight years after the original protest, students are still engaging in sit-ins at Colgate. In a recent column, Linda Chavez explains how, if not why, it never stopped being the ‘60s at Colgate. In late November 2001, 70 students occupied the school’s admission office for more than seven hours to protest what they called “racially insensitive” statements made by Associate Professor Barry Shain in an e-mail he sent to a student. If Professor Shain had to provide a legal defense, he could claim entrapment since the same student who turned him into the campus thought police had solicited his opinions in the first place when she asked him to be guest on a Colgate student-run television program to address the topic “Racial Sensitivity at Colgate: Are students at Colgate too sensitive about race?” Professor Shain opined insensitively that minority and female students on campus were being “invited to offer opinions about their feelings rather than advance reasoned opinions derived from careful examination of the written materials encountered in class.” Chavez claims that the attacks on Shain “are part of a campaign to dramatically transform the university itself” orchestrated by “a small but active group of faculty members . . . would like to get rid of NCAA Division 1 sports at the school, as well as campus fraternities and sororities , and turn the college into an androgynous place where students mirror their left-wing, feminist, multiculturalist professors.”
The explanation sounds perfectly plausible and is perfectly consistent with the takeover of campuses and universities across the country. The same people who waged war on the last vestiges of the bourgeois culture of restraint at the universities now encourage narcissistic fantasies in the current crop of students as a way of controlling them. It’s deja vu all over again. The same tactics that the culture used on the baby boomers, the baby boomers use on gen x. Liberation from oppression, especially sexual repression, is the best form of control.
The only problem is that narcissism knows no limits. The fantasy tends by its very nature to grandiose expansion. The more it expands, the more it comes in contact with reality, and the more reality thwarts its increasingly unrealistic desires, the more narcissism turns into violence. The culture of narcissism promotes idea that all desires can be filled. When desires are not fulfilled, first anger, then rage, is the result. Road rage is a good example. Commuting by car is to transportation what Quidditch is to soccer. It is a fundamentally irrational activity based on narcissistic fantasy which gives the person who drives the illusion of omnipotence while simultaneously subjecting him to a form of social control. The more he drives the more frustrated he becomes because his wishes are not being fulfilled. The more frustration of narcissist fantasy, the more rage. Since narcissist fantasy by its very nature tends to frustration, a culture which promotes narcissism as the norm will be a culture full of rage and acts of unpredictable random violence.
Seneca noticed the same thing in his treatise on anger, De Ira. William E. Wycislo shows convincingly the natural affinity between narcissism and tyranny:
the nature of tyrannies, whether of the first or the twentieth century, is such that it necessarily established a political milieu in which the narcissist can assume a respected public role, enforce public policy, and receive reinforcement for the very traits Freud and his disciples would consider symptoms of pathology. In Stalin’s Russia, Hitler’s Germany or Neronian Rome, narcissism escapes detection because it is an essential component of a political order that requires an allegiance as identical as an image in an undistorted mirror... Just as the totalitarian government of the twentieth century rewards the outward manifestations of pathology as unmistakable signs of political virtue, the autocratic imperial order of the first century displays a public atmosphere in which the narcissist with his peculiar behavior can achieve political prominence. (The Classical Bulletin 76. 1 , p. 72).
Seneca describes Caligula’s irrational fits of rage at great length in De Ira. At one point Caligula challenged the god Jupiter to mortal combat because thunder had interrupted a pantomime performance he was attending. Caligula “held the god responsible for interfering with his entertainment.” The more power a narcissist acquires, the less likely it is that he will be able to deal with his narcissistic fantasies. Power, in effect, confirms him in his belief that his fantasies are the ultimate reality.
The parallels to modern life are easy enough to draw, not just to a figure like President Clinton, whose nickname was—nomen est omen—Caligula, but to all of the petty tyrants the culture of narcissism empowers. That means of course, judges of the sort who mandate busing and school desegregation and are willing to tyrannize whole communities until their fantasies of racial equality are carried out, but it also includes professors of the politically correct sort, who live out their own grandiose narcissistic fantasies by getting students to act on them. These professors promote grandiose narcissistic fantasies in their students for the same reason that the culture promotes them in everyone else, namely, as a form of control. Deprived of the ability to reason, which is the real reason for education, the students become ensnared in the enterprise of education as magic. When these fantasies fail to be fulfilled, and all fantasies by their nature fail to be fulfilled, the disappointment immediately turns into the type of rage Seneca noticed not only in Caligula but in all of the petty judges and bureaucrats who ran the empire according to the same narcissistic principles.
Vacuum in leadership means in this instance failure to play the role of the father as the agent of introducing the reality principle. The longer that introduction to reality gets postponed, the greater the rage. This rage as been building for over 30 years at places like Colgate. It goes by the name of political correctness. This failure of leadership meant an inability to provide an intellectual defense of the community in the turmoil of the ‘60s, and that failure led to certain inevitable consequences. The institution was colonized by a series of groups—feminists, nihilists, post-modernists, sexual revolutionaries—who had no allegiance to the institution, who saw it merely as a stepping stone in a career that either continued or stalled. Their allegiance lay with the professions—the MLA, for example—or the government and foundation grant awarding agencies, and all of the other representatives of favored ideology which swept, carpetbag in hand, into institutions weakened by a combination of secularization and the federal control which invariable went with federal money. Hence, the identity crisis. The pan-Protestant engine of enculturation which the Baptists had created in spite of themselves was turned into a form of political control. Instead of educating students, the institution indoctrinated them into all of the ideologies that had taken over the professions. Colgate was, in other words, colonized without knowing it, revising itself into insignificance with each tranche of federal money. The building boom of the ‘50s disguised the identity crisis, but only for a while.
The options exercised by what were originally northern Baptist institutions were limited and for the most part unsuccessful. Temple University, my alma mater, became simply a state university dominated by the various ethnic groups that have passed through the city of Philadelphia at one time or another. Hillsdale College, another Northern Baptist institution, took the opposite route, rejecting state money and becoming the nation’s premier “conservative” college until George Roche’s daughter-in-law killed herself and Roche had to resign in disgrace because of the love affair that led to her death. “Conservative,” in this instance, meant a loose application of the thought of Ayn Rand. Coupled with the rise of Reaganism in the early ‘80s, it provided an identity for a time.
If Colgate is interested in restoring its identity, it should take a cue from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. It should get out of magic; it should get back into education, specifically the type of English education based on character formation that is its unacknowledged heritage. Americans have a limited number of options when it comes to cultural restoration. They do not have a shared ethnic identity; they do not have a state religion; they do not have a culture as deep or a history as long as the European ethnic cultures have, nor do they have the state religions that nurtured those cultures. What they have is what John Adams said they had, a constitution that can only function when the people who live under that system conform their lives to the moral order. What Miss Rowling and the people who buy her books really want is a return to order and tradition of the sort that made Dr. Arnold’s educational experiment at Rugby not only possible but normative for a number of generations across the English-speaking world at that time, which was a world upon which the sun never set, so it was capable of generalization across cultural lines. That means that a place that can reincarnate the spirit of Dr. Arnold could enculturate the Hispanics and the Hmongs by teaching them the classics and sports and gentlemanly behavior purged of the bigotry and Darwinist mumbo jumbo that destroyed the WASP ruling class by getting them involved with eugenics and the contraceptive. That means a return to Rugby, which means a return to moral education, because morals, as John Adams knew, is ultimately all that Americans have to hold them together.
If you want the vision thing, I’m talking about a return to traditional American values of the sort that Elmira, New York exemplified around 1910, before Max Eastman left for Greenwich Village and before his involvement with sexual liberation and Communism and all of the other destructive isms of the 20th century. I’m talking about the time in American history before the WASP ruling class decided to commit, in Theodore Roosevelt’s terms, “race suicide.” The purpose of education, one of them at least, is to provide the young with the ability to defend themselves against bad ideas, and bad ideas are what this predatory culture promotes in abundance. That means going back to the roots of the American experience, to a thinker like John Adams, who said that “we have no constitution that can function in the absence of a moral people.”
Colgate as the typical university typically adrift is significant for other reasons as well. It is in addition to being a university also, at least potentially, a small community. Small communities like the family and the neighborhood, and not narcissist fantasies of omnipotence provide, according to Lasch, “the best defenses against the terrors of existence” because they nourish “the homely comforts of love, work and family life, which connect us to a world that is independent of our wishes yet responsive to our needs.” The best defense against “escapist solutions to the psychological problems of dependence, separation and individuation” is “the moral realism that makes it possible for human beings to come to terms with existential constraints of their freedom and power.”
Moral realism, in other words, is the only thing which can wean the current politically correct university away from its self-destructive and self-defeating fantasies. What we are talking about is an antidote to the belief, in Lasch’s words, “that society has no future,” a belief which “incorporates a narcissistic inability to identify with posterity or to feel oneself part of an historical stream.” Rowling expressed that hope in spite of herself in the Harry Potter books. It’s now time for someone to return that fantasy back to reality. †