An Early Introduction To Liberal Bias
In mid-summer, I received the three books for Stanford’s Summer Reading Program for incoming freshmen. Individually, I found the stories well-written and engaging: Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains is a tribute to a selfless doctor who treats Third World patients. Julie Orringer’s How To Breathe Underwater is a collection of teenage adventure stories. And Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner is a story of a man who lives through the tumultuous events of 20th century Afghanistan.
I enjoyed the books tremendously, finishing them within 4 weeks of their arrival. But after reading the books, I had a strange realization.
I felt that the Summer Reading Program books were politically biased.
No, I don’t think that the authors—Kidder, Orringer, and Hosseini—actually wrote the books as part of a ridiculously grand liberal conspiracy to advance a left-wing agenda. Individually, Kidder was probably trying to help document his friend’s quest, Orringer was probably trying to articulate the teenage female experience, and Hosseini might have been writing to bring back old memories. But it seems that the overall political impression that one gets from reading all three books over the short space of a few summer weeks is hardly a balanced one.
To give an example, consider the economics of Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains. The book is about Paul Farmer, a Harvard-educated doctor with a vision to provide medical care for poor people in countries like Haiti—a noble quest, I should add. Unfortunately, an odd socialist bias seems to appear at regular intervals throughout the book. In one memorable chapter, for example, Kidder writes: “What he (Farmer) endorsed, he said, was the guilt some rich people felt toward the poor, because it could cause them to part with some of their money. And they ought to feel guilty.”
Kidder then writes: “By American standards Cuban doctors lacked equipment, and even by Cuban standards they were poorly paid, but they were generally well-trained, and Cuba had more of them per capita than any other country in the world--more than twice as many as the United States. Everyone, it appeared, had access to their services, and to procedures like open heart surgery.”
To top it off, Kidder then quotes a WHO study, praising Cuba for having “the world’s most equitably distributed medicine.”
In essence, Kidder’s book has a liberal economic slant. But economics is only one dimension of liberalism. Liberalism also has a social-moral dimension, one that Julie Orringer’s How To Breathe Underwater seems to articulate in great detail, if only because many of its stories contain implicit rejections of traditional institutions, in particular, religion.
Julie Orringer’s short story collection, How To Breathe Underwater, often seems like a collection of liberal parables: the drug addict who baby-sits her niece, the bigoted white Catholic family that ostracizes a boy of mixed parentage, the Orthodox Jewish girl who behaves piously during the day, but devours a sex manual at night.
From a strictly literary perspective, Orringer’s depictions are eloquent and moving. But playing on the Elmer Gantry theme, her depictions of religion are mercilessly ironic. Take, for example, the following passage from the story “Stars Of Motown Shining Bright”: “She and Jack had even fooled around once at the youth group convention. While everyone else was busy at the Saturday-night dance, Melissa and Jack had snuck away to the high-vaulted sanctuary and made out for half an hour on the floor between two rows of pews. “
A fitting location. Certainly more appropriate than a bedroom or a car.
A few pages later, Orringer depicts Melissa talking about the boy she lost her virginity with: “She (Lucy) and Melissa had found themselves sitting next to each other in the synagogue social hall during a long panel discussion about Tikkun Olam, which meant Healing The World. Adam, a senior and the vice president of Midwest Region, had been one of the panelists… [making] a point about how important it was to spend time helping out at your local soup kitchen or collecting clothes for Russian immigrants…”
Of course, that passage would not be complete without the ultimate depiction of Adam’s devotion to religious behavior: “[Adam] shoved a hand under her skirt and told her he wanted her right then. He pulled her up against the wall, in a tiny space between the box door and a velvet curtain, and he lifted her skirt and did it, not even using a condom.”
Therefore, Orringer’s book articulates a liberal slant on social-moral issues, just as Kidder’s book is on economics. That leaves Khaled Hosseini’s book, The Kite Runner, which offers us a liberal, multicultural take on immigrants, religion, and race.
Hosseini’s novel is about an Afghan man, Amir, who migrates with his father to the U.S. when his native Afghanistan is invaded by the Soviets. But The Kite Runner is no American Tail. Amir and his father embrace very little of the American way of life: They live in a small enclave populated by Afghans and socialize almost exclusively with other Afghans.
To top it off, Amir gets married the Afghan way: he gets his father to speak to the girl’s father to arrange the marriage. Later on, when Amir discovers that his wife is infertile, his father-in-law, also an Afghan immigrant, refuses to let them adopt a child: “Now, if you were American, it wouldn’t matter. People here marry for love, family name and ancestry never even come into the equation. They adopt that way too, as long as the baby is healthy, everyone is happy. But we are Afghans, bachem.”
Later in the book, Amir returns to Taliban-occupied Afghanistan, where he searches for his long-lost nephew. Upon rescuing the boy, Amir brings him back to the U.S., and gives the boy a sound piece of advice about how to adapt to American culture: “You can take Afghans out of Paghman, but you can’t take Paghman out of Afghans.”
Not that there is anything wrong about having fond memories of one’s old country. But having lived in the U.S. for nearly two decades, isn’t it high time to develop a love for the country that took you in as a refugee? Or is America only to be regarded as a hotel, never a home?
Therefore, it seems that the political slant of the Summer Reading Program’s books fits the Holy Trinity of modern liberalism: Hosseini’s book is liberal on immigration issues, Orringer’s book is liberal on social issues, and Kidder’s book is liberal on economic issues. For all their differences, these three books complement each other like Peter, Paul, and Mary.
On the issues presented by these books, most conservatives (and serious liberals) tend to hold moderate stances. We believe in helping poor countries, but recognize that the unconditional giving of free medical aid and food encourages dependency, props up Third World dictators, and hurts those whom we are trying to help. We believe that overt, Puritanical religiosity can lead to hypocrisy, but we also hold that an excessively libertine lifestyle often leads to regrettable consequences. We believe that immigrants’ cultural heritage is important and should be cherished, but we also believe that immigrants should also do their part to assimilate and develop a love of this country.
None of this is meant to criticize the scholarly value of the books. On the contrary, the Summer Reading Program books were eloquently written, and their eminent authors could certainly teach us a thing or two about how to write best-selling and prize-winning novels. But at the same time, even as we appreciate the technical brilliance of the writing, it also makes sense to recognize the political assumptions that govern these narratives, and the subsequent need for political diversity—both liberal and not-so-liberal—in our curriculum.