Social justice for wizards

By Amanda Marcotte
Monday, July 18, 2011 20:05 EDT
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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. 

That's what I really think raises these books above more pedantic literature.  Rowling doesn't let anything be easy in the wizarding world.  In the first couple of books, you are really right there with Harry thinking that wizards are just a superior group of people to Muggles, though there are hints that their self-imposed segregation that they claim exists to protect Muggles instead serves to keep them from learning and modernizing in ways that would make them a kinder, more evolved people.  Over time, you learn more about how disturbing and often medieval their culture is, and how they don't think twice about barbaric acts.  More disturbingly, you discover that even the more liberal people of their society have massive blind spots, especially with regards to the enslavement of elves, the abuse of goblins, and their own inabilities to really take advantage of all the benefits of modernization.  The way that wizards are actually behind Muggles in certain ways—they don't have TV!—is something that's easy to write off at first, but as the books go on, you realize that the wizarding world is actually very dysfunctional and their sense of superiority to Muggles has basically closed them off to major avenues of innovation that would improve their world. 

And just to complicate it further, our hero Harry is just as guilty as anyone else.  His initial responses to Hermione's complaints about the injustices of their world is to find her either annoying or unpatriotic, even when his conscience tells him that she has a point.  He's too immature to realize that you can both love a culture and be critical of it, and in fact it's often because someone loves a culture that they criticize it.  They believe that this culture has the potential to grow and change and become something better.  (Indeed, Hermione grows up to be a bureaucratic activist who fights to make the wizarding world a better place.)  It's a lesson that obviously misses a lot of adults in America, from conservatives who conflate loving America with refusing to see, much less correct, injustice.  But sadly, I've definitely seen leftists who let their criticisms of America cause them to be reflectively anti-American.  It's rare, of course—we're definitely more Hermione-mature on average than conservatives—but I definitely saw, for instance, a couple of people on Twitter say that they were going to root against the U.S. team in the World Cup just because it's the U.S.  They're ridiculously naive, of course, starting with the notion that other countries ther reflexively support against us are such great places.  I'm far more Team Hermione: we should love our country, and because we love it, we should fight for it to be better. 

This aspect of the books really came out well in the latest movie.  The scene where you see the tortured, miserable dragon in Gringotts was deeply moving, and a scene in the movie that pretty much every person I've talked about the movie with has mentioned.  The ugly fact of the matter is both the bad guy and the good guys in the wizarding world looked the other way as the goblins tortured this dragon for the financial benefit of wizards.  It's Hermione's talent at imagining a better world that saves them; she sees the dragon as a creature who longs to be free, and this gives her the inspiration to find a way out of the bank.  It was a neat little encapsulation of some of the larger themes of the book.  In "Harry Potter", it's not enough to be against the bad guys.  The characters cannot excel until they stop being blind to all the ways they also benefit from injustice, and instead make the brave choice to be better than that. 

Which is, incidentally, why I think a lot of feminists see feminist themes where I didn't really see any.  The justice theme underpins the entire series, and the fact that it's not grappled with on gender in much depth is a disappointment.  I have my own theories as to why that is, but that would require another post entirely. 

I will say I have one small criticism of Alyssa's post.  She relies heavily on Rowling's real life activism and views when it comes to extrapolating the themes in "Harry Potter".  I'm uncomfortable doing that.  Often writers use political ideas they don't agree with as themes because they work with the story.  Joss Whedon is an atheist and a liberal, but "Buffy" and "Firefly" have religious and libertarian ideologies as themes, because within the work, those ideas are more evocative.  I still like both works a lot, and again, I maintain that ideological tests of art are just a bad idea. 

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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