Social justice for wizards
Alyssa Rosenberg has an interesting post up about how some people refuse to accept that “Harry Potter” has political themes. There are probably two camps of people who believe this, though it’s obviously false (which I’ll get into): a) people who just think politics is a nasty sporting event and has no real world implication and b) people who strongly disagree with JK Rowling’s point of view and so pretend that she actually agrees with them so they can continue enjoying the books. Alyssa deals with both groups in her post. I’ll point out that I blogged just the other day about a variation on the second group, situations where people like certain characters in fiction so much they impose their own worldview on them, even when there’s textual evidence against them. I was also dealing with this to a degree in my (what I thought was light-hearted, but man, the angry responses I got) piece on how Harry Potter is more of a jock character than a geek character. Unfortunately, I got responses from people that liked my post that also missed the point. They wrote me to say that because Harry wasn’t a geek, they disapproved and wouldn’t read it. In general, I find a tendency to treat fiction this way, like it’s supposed to be a comforting fantasy of a world full of people that are more like you kicking ass, upsetting. I prefer fiction to be challenging, and that challenge to include characters that are enticing as characters even if they wouldn’t be my best friend in real life.
Okay, that out of the way, I do want to talk about the political themes in “Harry Potter”, though I want to be very clear that because X is a theme in the story in no way means all the good characters agree or even understand with the ideas that the story brings forward. It’s fiction, not a treatise. Waht makes the political themes poignant is that the characters struggle with political ideals in the same way ordinary people do, without full historical knowledge or really thinking things through or applying political philosophy to current events. The characters may not even grasp that political ideas are political, with the exception of the hyper-aware Hermione. They just react to them with a bundle of desires, compulsions, fears, and moral bravery, and the politics of their world are very personalized and attached to real, complex people. It’s quite a bit like real life, where the big picture is hard to see.
After seeing the last movie Saturday, I was impressed by how much the political themes of it really resonated even more with me than when I read the books. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it’s because this is post-Obama’s election, which has brought forward a surge of nationalistic fervor from people who are insistent on both American exceptionalism and have a very specific idea of what makes America exceptional, and it no more involves electing black Democratic Presidents that the Death Eaters in “Harry Potter” are interested in electing Muggle-borns to head the Ministry of Magic. The focus is on the personal vendetta-holding and power-mongering of Voldemort, but that Voldemort is an asshole doesn’t really explain why he’s able to get so much support from the wizarding world. To that, we have to look at the internal politics of their world. The Death Eaters—and the latest movie does a really good job of conveying this austerely—are fundamentally traditionalists who have no desire to bring the wizarding world into the modern era. This was obvious enough in the past, but now that we have the Tea Party to compare them to, it almost reads as anvilicious, except that the story predates current events. The good guys are far more modern, but even within that, they’re hardly saints but are often completely complicit in the injustices of their world that allow the views of the traditionalists to have so much sway. At the end of it all, you are left with the hope that the good guys realize it’s not enough to be generally tolerant of the Muggle-born but still living in a society built on unjust labor practices and casual racism towards Muggles.
Read the rest of this post at Pandagon.