July 25, 2007

The Politics Of Harry Potter

I don't have time to come up with clever comments to this, but here is an interesting article on the politics of the wizardly epic, and here's a followup piece. Hopefully all you Potterians out there will start a vigorous discussion in the comments and then I might jump in with some thoughts.


Drew said...





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The author suggests that the Harry Potter satisfies a conservative social streak by presenting a world where people are sorted into fairly rigid social classes. I think there is some truth to that. But I think a deeper strain of conservative proto-ideology can be seen in the moral simplicity of the story. For example, villainous characters are almost always evil, ugly, and mean. It is rare for a character to possess one of those qualities without possessing the other two.

The series also seems to have a rather fuzzy take on loyalty. While the series clearly attacks race-based loyalty (heroic characters are those who see beyond their own narrow, racial interests), it seems to suggest that the determinant of moral character is which side you fight on, Dumbledore's or Voldemort's. Consider Snape. In the epilogue, we discover that Harry named all of his children after heroic characters. But one of his sons is named Albus Severus Potter. Despite this being a horrible name, it suggests that Harry considers Snape to be redeemed because he was fighting on Dumbledore's side after all.

This is a grave error, as Snape was never, ever seen to repudiate Voldemort's methods or ideology. He just didn't want Voldemort to kill Lily. The same with the Malfoys, from Lucius, to Narcissa, to Draco. We're supposed to feel better about them because they betrayed Voldemort and helped Harry in the end. But they still hate Mudbloods and Muggles, and they still think that the world should be brought under the brutal and pitiless control of a fascistic society of wizard elites. That's just not okay.

This kind of simplistic moralism is definitely part of the ideological underpinnings of the modern conservative movement.

MosBen said...

What I found most convincing in the article was pointing out that witches must choose to be either mothers or have successful careers while wizards don't have to consider such questions. Even though Hermione seems to be an exception, there's no indication that the standard quo is in any way unfair or that there's any kind of movement towards change.

While I'm thinking of politics and Potter, I think there's *tons* of potential for both good stories and interesting politics in a series which focused on a conflict between the Muggle world and the Magical world. I'm crossing my fingers that Ms. Rowling frequents the Ra and, if so, decides to give me some kind of consultant fee for the use of my idea.

Noumena said...

More spoilers, though it seems we've all read it already.

Another framework for analysis is to look at the three-way relation between Muggles, benevolent wizards/witches, and malevolent wizards/witches. Even the most benevolent wizards and witches don't care much about the well-being of Muggles. They don't respect Muggles; they just don't want Muggles to die, and if they have to inflict serious harms on them to prevent their deaths, it's not a big deal. Hermione, for example, is probably the most ethically upstanding character in the book, and she enthusiastically fucks with the minds of her parents. Now, Rowling doesn't HAVE to treat this as a form of rape, the way Whedon did in season 6 of Buffy, but it would have been nice if Harry or Ron or someone had recognized that this was kind of fucked up a little.

Dumbledore wasn't really any better. He never actually repudiated the benevolent dictatorship of wizards by virtue of natural superiority over (witches and) Muggles (and other Untermenschen). He just didn't want to seize control by killing people, and avoided power because he was afraid of being tempted to kill people.

All together, Rowling puts Muggles in the same category as non-human intelligent beings, completely denying them agency and autonomy. They're probably even worse off than House Elves or Goblins, as House Elves at least passive aggressively resist bad treatment, and Goblins are allowed to know about the world of magical humans; Muggles are just helplessly manipulated or killed, and laws preventing them from knowing about the existence of magic are strictly enforced. Magical humans may not rule explicitly over Muggles, but Muggles certainly don't enjoy true political autonomy.

Drew said...

Good points, Noumena, but I think you're putting too much value into knowing about wizards. If wizards were allowed to integrate into Muggle society, within the framework of a typical Western mixed economy socio-politico structure, they would become economic and political elites, almost overnight. As a practical matter, I think there's a strong argument to be made that the only way to protect Muggles' political and social autonomy is to keep them in the dark about wizards. I think having entirely separate socio-political spheres, protected by the odd Memory Charm, is a much better situation for Muggles.

MosBen said...

I don't know Drew, I think you're right that most wizards and witches would rise to the top echelons of society though I'm not sure a poor wizard would really be that much better off than a reasonably well educated Muggle in modern Western democracies. Still, it's the fact that the magic world holds back the knowledge that is the problem. If the magic world was integrated with the Muggle world magic could be regulated. The polity could decide what its proper uses were, the degree to which it must be used for common goods versus personal gain, and what the social mores regarding things like memory spells would be. Keeping Muggles in the dark about the existence of magic means the magic world holds power over Muggles. It denies them the opportunity to confront the world as it really exists and to make their own decisions about how to deal with it. Wizards and witches treat the Muggle world like children. Worse, it seems they don't want to solve mundane Muggle problems with magic because they can't be bothered.