Frontpage Interview's guest today is Elizabeth Kantor, the editor of the Conservative Book Club and a writer for Human Events. She holds her Ph.D. in English from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and an M.A. in philosophy from Catholic University in Washington D.C. Dr. Kantor is the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to English and American Literature, just published by Regnery.
Front Page: Dr. Kantor, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
Kantor: Thanks so much for having me on Frontpage.
Front Page: What motivated you to write this book?
Kantor: The fact that the great works of literature in English are vanishing from college curricula, or else being distorted beyond recognition. English professors are teaching--no joke--comic books, foreign films, Marx, Freud, "deconstruction," popular music, even porn, instead of the classics. This stuff isn't in just a few oddball classes. It's course after course, in colleges from the Ivy League to your local state school.
And then, when politically correct English profs do turn their attention to the great works of English lit., they use them to forward their own political agendas--they dig through our literary classics looking for examples of the racism, colonialism, and "patriarchy," that are supposed to be the essence of Western culture.
If English literature disappears, there are serious implications for Western civilization. I know it sounds grandiose, maybe even a little paranoid, to say English professors are a threat to our civilization. But think about it: our culture isn't in our genes; it's learned. And one important way that Western culture used to be learned was from the great literature in English. Shakespeare was an essential part of what made educated Americans and citizens of the West. The disappearance of English literature ought to concern those of us who are aware that Western civilization is a source of freedom, not oppression.
Front Page: What is the main argument of your book and what does it offer readers?
Kantor: The book really does two things. On the one hand, it exposes what's gone wrong in our English departments. I quote chapter and verse from the English professors' own writings, which are unintentionally hilarious. You have to laugh so you won't cry, when you remember that these are the people to whom we've entrusted the transmission of our culture to the next generation.
I've included a critique of the kind of literary analysis going on in English departments today. And there's a chart that helps untangle the mind-numbing postmodernist jargon that English professors use--and exposes its hidden assumptions, which are a mish-mash of Marxism and some other radical agendas. I'm hoping this part of the book will be a real help to students who are stuck in English lit. classes being taught by feminists, deconstructionists, Marxists, and so forth.
But The Politically Incorrect Guide to English and American Literature is also a how-to book. I give readers what they need in order to get--on their own--the kind of education in English that they're not going to get from English professors. There are chapters introducing the great works of literature in English, plus lists for future reading that make up a meaty syllabus.
I go through basic techniques such as "close reading." And there's a final chapter on how to make the great literature in our language an integral part of your life--even if you haven't got time to sit down and study it.
Front Page: What do you think are the key objectives of politicized professors? Are they succeeding?
Kantor: Well, for too many of them, I'm afraid their objective is summed up by the chant of those Standford students who marched Jesse Jackson in the 1980s: "Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western culture's got to go!" I don't think radicalized English professors are succeeding in turning most of their students into Marxists or radical feminists. There is a percentage of students who are susceptible to the appeal of leftist politics, but I think it's definitely a minority. What I do think leftist professors are actually accomplishing, quite effectively, is cutting this generation off from the wisdom of our past.
Front Page: If the disappearance of English literature poses a threat to our civilization, and if leftist English professors hate our civilization and are distorting the meaning of the great works of English literature, it just makes perfect sense. They know exactly what they are doing and what they want to achieve. No?
Kantor: I do think there has to be a certain amount of bad faith. I mean, I remember wondering, when a guest speaker in a "literary theory" class that I took in grad school was making his pitch to us to commit ourselves to leftist politics, how exactly he justified to himself the fact that he was taking the North Carolina taxpayers' money to research and teach English literature, and then acting as if his job was to convert graduate students to Marxism.
But I think there's something, in a way, even worse than that going on now. After twenty plus years of this stuff -- Marxism, deconstruction, radical feminism, "queer theory," and a host of similarly bankrupt ideologies -- some English professors have really made themselves blind. They simply "see through" everything that interested the authors of our classics: whether it's truth, beauty, and goodness; the lineaments of human nature; sin and the possibility of salvation; courage and honesty; or the powers of the human imagination. English professors really believe that all these things that apparently concerned the human race have no real substance -- they're just a mask for what's really going on, the whole time, underneath the surface: patriarchal oppression of women if they're feminists, exploitation of the workers if they're Marxists, and so forth.
Front Page: Give us some examples of how politicized English professors teach English literature. For instance, what do they do with Shakespeare?
Kantor: Well, according to one professor I quote in the The Politically Incorrect Guide, "the domestication of women appears to be a major project" of Shakespeare's Macbeth. That's from a book by Phyllis Rackin, a professor emerita in the English department at U. Penn. who's also a former president of the Shakespeare Association of America. That quotation is a pretty typical example of the attitude you'll find among professors today.
Shakespeare, our greatest playwright and poet, is interesting to them chiefly as an example of patriarchal oppression, or of imperialism, or of whatever other supposed crime of Western civilization that a particular professor is most indignant about. There's a fascinating (and horrifying) article I also quote from in the book, by Robert Lublin, a theater professor. Lublin describes the techniques he used, when teaching A Midsummer Night's Dream, to convince his students that Shakespeare is responsible for the subordination of women and the creation of our "heteronormative" culture.
It's a terrible shame that students have to learn about Shakespeare from professors like these, because of course Macbeth and A Midsummer Night's Dream were not, in fact, written to oppress women and homosexuals. The Tempest is not a charter for colonial oppression. The Merchant of Venice is about so much more than anti-Semitism (which, in any case, Shakespeare criticizes)--or the instability of "early capitalism," as the Marxists like to call it. (The fall of the Berlin Wall has made surprisingly little impression on the Marxists in our universities; they think we're now in "late capitalism," whose revolutionary overthrow they're still expecting, any minute now.)
Front Page: Ok, what specifically do many "postmodernists" in our English Departments not want students to learn from the great literature in English - such as from Beowulf, Chaucer and Shakespeare?
Kantor: Well, a whole host of valuable lessons. The great literature in our language is full of insights, principles, and attitudes that the postmodernist professors are either blind to, or else actively hostile toward. Some are features of any healthy civilization. Take, for example, the appreciation for military heroism that you find in Old English poetry. Beowulf reminds you that courage and military discipline are necessary for the defense of any civilization.
Other things that you can learn from English literature are uniquely Western. For example, the attitude toward women that you can see emerging in the Middle Ages. Chaucer's poetry is a window on a world in which male authority was being tempered by chivalry. At first, putting women on a pedestal was a kind of literary fad--an amusement for the leisured class. But by the time Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales, that attitude of service to women, and special respect for them, was trickling down into the rest of society. (Feminist professors, of course, argue that courtesy and respect for women are just sneaky ways men have of keeping women under control. But ask yourself, if the feminists are right, how come women enjoy more freedom and dignity in the chivalrous West than anywhere else--compare Saudi Arabia, for example?)
The case of Shakespeare shows how our postmodernist professors find not just Western civilization but even basic features of human nature entirely alien. For 300-plus years, Shakespeare was valued for his universally interesting insights into human nature and the human condition. Now postmodernist English professors have an ugly term they use to describe anyone who believes there are any universally valid truths about human nature.
Any reader who thinks Shakespeare's plays can teach you universal truths about the human condition is guilty of "essentialism." As always for the postmodernists, the great literature in English, like all of Western culture, boils down to a bunch of ugly "isms" and "phobias" that we need to break free of. I wrote The Politically Incorrect Guide to English and American Literature to help readers do an end run around the postmodernist professors and learn the truth about Western culture from the great literature itself.
Front Page: Tell us about your own intellectual journey. How come you are not a leftist professor? What influenced you?
Kantor: I started out pretty far left in college -- not a Marxist, but a kind of Christian leftist, a la Jim Wallis's Sojourners magazine. I'd grown up in Memphis, Tennessee, and I was angry about racial injustice and poverty. In fact, I'm still angry about those things, but I eventually realized that leftist politics and the welfare state were making them worse, not better.
Lots of different factors contributed to my becoming a conservative. But one of the first lefty things that I balked at was the idea -- which was the trendy new thinking when I was studying English -- that because of past injustices, we needed to get more women and writers of color into the curriculum regardless of merit. We needed to throw out our standards of literary judgment, it was argued, and essentially pick books by the gender or skin color of their authors, rather than by their excellence. The argument was that our standards for identifying great literature must be somehow mysteriously racist and sexist, or else there wouldn't be so many "dead white males" in the canon. I couldn't -- and still can't -- see how abandoning all standards of beauty or truth or power in literature would make up for past injustices. Quite the contrary. Denying descendents of slaves the kind of literary education that helped a descendent of slaveholders such as William Faulkner become a great novelist is affirmative action of the most self-defeating kind.
Front Page: What are some of your favorite works of English literature and what do they mean to you?
Kantor: Jane Austen's novels are right up there. The conventional wisdom now is that Austen was a really very "subversive" author -- that her books are full of secret rage against "the patriarchy." Nothing could be further from the truth. As I argue (with lots of examples from Austen's side-splittingly funny novels) in The Politically Incorrect Guide, Austen is an astute observer of human nature who was well aware that most men would be immensely improved if they were a little more patriarchal than they are. Austen's novels may be the most fun books in the English language. And they're also a boost to your moral intelligence. They really inspire you to aim for personal integrity.
Of the poems, I think Shakespeare's sonnets are what I keep going back to over and over again, in every decade of my life. Everybody who's at all interested in love -- and who isn't? -- will find infinite food for thought in those poems. Not to mention that they're rich, gorgeous, unforgettable poetry. And of course there's simply nothing like Shakespeare's plays: he alone, as far as I know, in all world literature, figured out how to write comedies that have the weight and significance of tragedies; they're a kind of serious investigation into what happiness really is. And everybody should know the great tragedies and the history plays, too. Chaucer is great fun for anyone who likes a good story, and The Canterbury Tales are famous for presenting the whole range of possible human characters. Dickens -- another master of character -- has a reputation as a great liberal reformer. But he made some very interesting critiques of revolutionary ideology (see A Tale of Two Cities) and liberal do-gooding (in Bleak House, for example).
Of American writers, Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor are my favorites. Stylistically and philosophically they're perfect opposites. But they both offer fascinating insights about the human condition, coming out of the Southern experience with slavery and racial injustice.
And then Beowulf and Evelyn Waugh, I think, make great bookends to the whole story of Western civilization. Beowulf was written at the beginning of the modern European civilization that America is really an extension of. At that time European culture was just beginning to pick itself up and dust itself off, as it were, after the disastrous collapse of the Roman Empire. And Waugh warns us that we're headed straight for another civilizational collapse, if we don't watch out.
Front Page: Dr. Kantor, it was a pleasure to have you as a guest on Frontpage Interview.
Kantor: I've enjoyed the interview -- thank you very much.
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