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Monday 25 February 2019

Politics and the Harry Potter generation

  • The Harry Potter saga is astoundingly popular and references to it are ubiquitous, cited by a large number of people in a surprisingly broad range of contexts – particularly politics
  • The books have been attacked for being associated with particular political positions or philosophies – but a lot of that criticism does not hold up
  • A great deal of the vitriol they attract stems from the fact they were written for children, and are either rooted in snobbery or are based on a misreading of what the books actually say

By Anna Leszkiewicz

On a warm, sunny Valentine’s Day in 2018, 14 students and three adults were murdered at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, during one of the worst school shootings in American history. The surviving students experienced life-altering and, for most of us, unimaginable trauma. How could we understand?

Attempting to communicate the months of grief, gradual comprehension, political action and media prominence that followed the terror of that day, survivor and activist Emma Gonzalez reached for a familiar text. She wrote: “All of us know what it feels like to be Harry Potter now.”

It is testament to the ubiquity and force of Harry Potter as a cultural source that Gonzalez felt compelled, after the most disturbing incident of her life, to compare her experiences to those of a fictional, bespectacled boy wizard. Her comparison came without irony, or any desire to speak with levity about what happened to her.

For most readers of JK Rowling’s books, the gravity of Gonzalez’s reference will be clear – this is not about magic, or fantasy, or cartoonish depictions of good versus evil, but death, trauma and outliving loved ones. Harry Potter was known in the books as “the boy who lived”; he survived an assault that killed his parents. Likewise, Gonzalez became famous for her mere survival – a walking reminder to the world of the murders she was forced to witness too young. She suddenly found herself the face of a political movement seeking to end violent injustice where government would not.

It’s not just Gonzalez who turns to the myths of a magical world to make sense of her impossible ordeal. The activism of Parkland survivors and other young gun control campaigners has been littered with references to the fantasy series. One survivor, David Hogg, called Florida Governor Rick Scott “Voldemort”. Cassidy Stay, whose parents and four siblings were killed in a Texas shooting in 2014, quoted Professor Dumbledore at their memorial.

At the March For Our Lives rallies last year, children were spotted in Harry Potter scarves, holding Harry Potter-referencing signs. These range from elaborate analogies (“When I said I wanted the real world to be more like Harry Potter I just meant the magic stuff, not the entire plot of book five where the government refuses to do anything about a deadly threat so the teenagers have to rise up and fight back”) to slogans (“If Hogwarts students can defeat Death Eaters, our students can defeat the NRA”) to simply “Expelliarmus” (the spell that disarms an opponent) or “Dumbledore’s Army” (the name of the gang of students who fought against Voldemort). Charlotte Alter, a Time reporter covering the aftermath of the shooting, described the series as the “playbook” for the Parkland activists: “The Ones Who Lived fighting an ‘evil’ force that has infiltrated the government and brainwashed adults using only the powers they’ve learned in school: illumination, protection, disarmament.”


March for Our Lives Rally in Washington, DC

Of course, political Harry Potter references are not only made by teenagers discussing school shootings; at times it can feel as though social media is flooded with grown adults frequently relying on Potter memes, jokes, and lengthy analogies in political debate. The i newspaper ran an opinion column in December 2018 declaring Theresa May “more Gryffindor than Ravenclaw”, and asking “whether a Slytherin will replace her”.

Just this month, George Monbiot compared critics of the climate school strikes to Vernon Dursley, Harry’s tyrannical, ignorant, small-minded uncle. “Banning kidnapped children from hugging isn’t even Nazi shit, it’s Dolores Umbridge shit,” the American security researcher Dan Kaminsky tweeted in June, while the Queer Eye personality Jonathan Van Ness posted, on February 16: “Ivanka is Bad Blonde Bellatrix and Jared is plain clothes Voldemort, will keep assigning death eater names to this administration. It feels really right.”

Celebrities aside, there’s a constant trickle of posts across social media making such analogies – some more controversial than others. One particularly extreme example was a viral response to the election of Donald Trump calling on Gryffindors, Ravenclaws, Slytherins and Hufflepuffs to resist the presidency, as though the Harry Potter houses extended beyond the fictional school and were real, definable personality types with a relevance outside of the books. Fame or no fame, all these posts were met with the same three words from eye-rolling critics. Read another book. Or: Read another book, I’m begging you. Or: READ ANOTHER BOOK. Literally any other f****** book. The phrase, conjured to combat meme-ified references, has become an obligatory meme itself.

It’s hard to deny that there is something excruciatingly twee about the urgent use of the word “Hufflepuff” in political discussion. But “read another book” is an indisputably snide response. It insists that Harry Potter references are as childish as they are pervasive, and that anyone making them is ignorant and stupid. Unlike you, I have read many many books, most of them very political, as my brain is intimidatingly large.

Rebecca Smeyne/Getty Images

A Harry Potter themed sign during the 2018 Women’s March in New York City

For some it’s a snobbish rhetorical flourish, others see it more literally. “If you’re going to use books to resist Trump, pick better ones than Harry Potter” declared the Washington Post, before offering genuine alternative recommendations, all deeply pompous.

“If you’re tempted to argue that Trump’s victory resembles the rise of Voldemort insofar as it was enabled by those in power burying their heads in the sand and refusing to recognise what was happening, consider citing Albert Camus’s The Plague,” the author suggests. Of course! Who among us does not reach for 20th-century French absurdism when cracking jokes with our friends?

“If you’re tempted to argue that Trump is Voldemort,” he adds, “perhaps take a step back and consider that there are other, better options. For instance, you could compare him to President Johnny Gentle from David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.” Sir, I would rather die.

“A higher class of literature might better prepare you for dealing with reality,” he explains of his three choices (the third being Evelyn Waugh. NB – a higher class of literature is always written by canonical, dead, white men).

The Spectator took it one step further, arguing that the Harry Potter series is the reason why “young people are often so childish in their politics”, causing a “naive” belief in binaries of good and evil among the millennial generation, “even though we are meant to have grown up”. Harry Potter has rotted our brains and left in their place dead flies and bits of fluff.

Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images

Harry Potter fans rush to read the opening lines of the new and final novel by author J.K. Rowling,

A recent piece in Jacobin generously conceded that Potter fans “are not necessarily stupid”, but are desperate to “retreat into a twee cosseted fantasy world” and replace “the democratic elements of their societies” with cosy hierarchies. The Potter books are, after all, clearly “a neoliberal authoritarian fantasy” – enjoying the stories and referencing them in political conversation exposes a deep desire to replace egalitarian society with one dominated by a “rarefied elite” of “experts, technocrats, and wonks”. If there’s anything worse than geeky fantasy references in mainstream political debate, it’s the people that they inspire to attempt to prove themselves morally and intellectually superior.

It’s certainly true that the politics of the Harry Potter world are imperfect, inconsistent and often dystopian (and exhaustively drawn; few fantasy stories have even the most minor government posts fleshed out in such detail). The wizarding world is, seemingly, not a democracy. The leader of the government, the Minister for Magic, is “appointed”, not elected. The government controls the legal system, and has a disturbing level of power over individual wizards, who voluntarily participate in a surveillance state, and a worryingly large proportion of witches and wizards seem to work for the ministry. This may be related to the fact that there isn’t much of a functioning economy. The entire structure of society is propped up by the slave labour of house-elves, with many other non-human people treated terribly. It is widely agreed that non-magical people should have their minds, lives and governments tampered with for the good of the wizarding population; this is fine, because, they are only Muggles, and a bit dim. There is only one newspaper, frequently subject to government interference. And at the end of seven books chronicling the battle of good versus evil, these structures remain almost entirely intact. Politically, only the Minister for Magic changes, from a bad, weak leader to a good, principled one.

Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images

That the plot leaves many of these problems unresolved is not a moral endorsement of the wizarding world’s structure; if anything, leaving these issues unsolved pushes back against a frequent criticism of the books – that they imagine a simplistic world where complex evils can be vanquished with the wave of a wand. Good and evil are not simple binary forces in Harry Potter, despite what lazy critics of the series will tell you – many characters are kind but weak, or principled but misguided. The moral ambivalence of characters from Snape to Sirius to Dumbledore still causes fierce debates among readers. And the warren-like puzzle of how the wizarding world works, ethically and otherwise, is part of the appeal for readers, and has been the subject of many (far less humourless) articles written by fans themselves.

Perhaps the issue lies, then, not in world-building but in the poor metaphors that seek to compare the wizarding world to our own. If, as Rowling has suggested, Harry Potter is supposedly an analogy for Nazi Germany, it can’t withstand much scrutiny. If Muggles here represent the Jews, then why are they so often depicted as crueller, more stupid, less talented and less special than their magical counterparts?

Rowling has said her conception of the werewolf Remus Lupin was inspired by people with HIV and Aids. If one follows the comparison to a logical conclusion, it quickly feels unwise – most of the series’ werewolves are violent, predatory and hell-bent on converting children to their dark cause.

But while such critiques are valid, it would be facetious to expect a children’s series to perfectly map on to complex political situations, and it can’t in good faith be argued that off-hand references to Jeremy Corbyn as Dumbledore are attempting high-concept allegory. Context is everything, and we know exactly what is being implied when someone refers to Trump as Voldemort; the word has simply entered our language as a synonym for a figure of power-hungry evil.

When Emma Gonzalez says she knows what it feels like to be Harry Potter, it would take staggering levels of wilful ignorance to rework her words about being a child who survived a murder attempt into the endorsement of a particular flavour of hyper-liberal market economics.

If the source of scorn towards the politicisation of Harry Potter doesn’t come from a contempt for the politics of the stories themselves, maybe it comes from the politics of their author. The New Labour views of centre-left figurehead Rowling have seen her irritate the right and lose favour on the left, with many of her millennial readers feeling she fails to live up to the values she writes into her books. If Rowling’s politics are an embarrassment to left-wing discourse, so too are her books, especially as she repeatedly references them herself on Twitter during her own political monologues. You can see how a backlash begins.

Sunset Boulevard/Corbis/Getty Images

Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford on the set of Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope

Harry Potter is by no means the first or the only pop culture reference point in politics: Star Wars infiltrated the politics of the 1980s and 1990s to the extent that it had policies named after it; the sitting president of the United States has mock Game of Thrones posters lying on the table during cabinet meetings. Cultural worlds as diverse as the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the bleak landscape of The Handmaid’s Tale are regularly invoked in discussions of Trump’s America and Brexit Britain; and yet Harry Potter references are met with distinct and exceptional derision. Perhaps its status as a work originally aimed at children sees the series mocked so regularly, but Star Wars and Marvel comics were both designed for kids, too.

The one thing that most obviously separates Harry Potter from these other works is its unrivalled popularity. When something reaches a point of oversaturation in the public consciousness it becomes trite and tired, and patience wears thin. The Harry Potter books themselves know all too well that Harry’s celebrity is a curse far more often than it is a blessing. For many, Harry Potter has ascended into conventional parlance with such speed that is has equally quickly become corny, predictable and cringe-inducing. As Gilderoy Lockhart would tell you: fame is a fickle friend.

What are the real lessons of Harry Potter?

Laid out end to end, rather than developed over seven books, the rough morals of Harry Potter are not enormously complex. They may even err on the side of triteness.

For example, love is more powerful than most people fully comprehend, a force that can withstand malice and bigotry and injustice. Throughout the books, love is conceived of as essentially a very old, very powerful and very mysterious form of magic: Harry survives that early attack as a baby because his mother’s love was so great, she was prepared to die to save him; Harry eventually stops Voldemort in part because he is willing to die to save his friends.

All hatred is driven by fear, and fear therefore must be overcome, even fear of death itself. Terrified of his own mortality, Voldemort is desperate to make himself immortal, disfiguring his body and his soul in order to achieve that goal, arrogant enough to believe he could be the first person to ever cheat death, slowly destroying himself as a result.

The Potter stories tell us that talent is worth nothing next to compassion and courage, that it is our choices, not our abilities, that define us. Harry is not an especially talented wizard, but his empathy, bravery and self-sacrifice enables him to defeat a wizard with much more talent and much less emotional intelligence.

The saga suggests that everyone has the possibility to redeem themselves. Baddies big and small (from Harry’s rival at school, Draco Malfoy, to his mean cousin Dudley Dursley, to Professor Snape) all become better people before the stories end.

And while it shows us that many evil-seeming people are only weak, it also suggests that many more good-seeming people are actually self-interested hypocrites (from the fraudulent celebrity to bumbling and blind politician Cornelius Fudge). People can be motivated by self-preservation and corrupted by power.

These lessons may seem a little platitudinous. But, to be fair, most works of literature would seem trite when boiled down to just their themes.

The author is deputy culture editor at the New Statesman


Further reading

  • JK Rowling created an army of liberals – now they are turning against her. Amelia Tait speaks to the Harry Potter fans who find JK Rowling’s personal politics and ethics disappointing, to the point where they feel they can no longer support her, even as they continue to adore her stories.
  • Harry Potter and the explosion of Hogwarts’ merchandise. Perhaps nothing can so succinctly sum up the unprecedented popularity of Harry Potter than the mere existence of a Harry Potter toast cutter (£5), Hedwig lip balms (£6) and Quidditch slippers (£15).
  • Which Harry Potter character is Theresa May? If you’ve ever wanted to know if Theresa May is more Pius Thicknesse or Hand of Glory then look no further than this investigation: yet another round of making tenuous comparisons between British politics and Harry Potter.
  • The Harry Potter generation: why The Boy Who Lived lives on. People often use the term “the Harry Potter generation” – but when the popularity of the books among readers young and old shows no signs of slowing, what does that actually mean?
  • When it was announced that Hermione Granger would be played by a black actress in the Harry Potter and the Cursed Child play, there was an instant backlash. Stephen Bush explained why he always felt it was obvious that Hermione was black.
  • JK Rowling always insisted the seventh Harry Potter book would be the end of his story. But a play, more books and a new five-film franchise were soon announced. Why can’t she let go?
  • This essay in The New York Review of Books explores the “analytical” criticisms of Harry Potter that had overtaken reactionary moral ones by the time the seventh book was published.
  • Megan Nolan sums up many left-wing responses to JK Rowling by describing her criticisms of Jeremy Corbyn’s politics as a failure of her much-lauded imagination.
  • For the curious, here are the latest accounts for Pottermore, JK Rowling’s company.