June 1, 2009 - May 25, 2009
Mrs. CP is very fond of the Harry Potter saga, so while I have not read
the books I have seen all the movies, most of them several times. I
confess I don't see the anti-Christian threat or the lure of evil
expressed by some fundamentalist Christians. Not having read her, I
can't judge the quality of Rowling's writing except to observe that if
she can captivate so many youngsters who might not otherwise read
books, she must be talented indeed. (A lot of the critical carping I
have heard about her prose strikes me as exactly that -- carping. And
envious.) As a storyteller, which quality is ably rendered by movies,
she clearly possesses an epic imagination that seems superior in its
details to that of J.R.R. Tolkien if not as vast in the heights and
depths of its vision. But these are quibbles. Harry Potter is obviously
a stupendous literary creation, and none of what follows is meant as
any kind of attack on J. K. Rowling the writer. The works are bound to live on for
generations, and the topical observations I'm going to make will
rapidly lose relevance. It's just that there are some interesting
topical observations to make.
We watched Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix as soon as it was issued on DVD, and I thought I detected a certain internal contradiction in what were obviously contemporary political references then. Now, having seen it a second time this weekend, I decided to do some research to see if my initial intuitions were correct. I think they are. And I also think there's something worthwhile to be learned about the relation between truth and politics by taking a closer look at Rowling's intentions and the effects of her work.
[A brief timeout is in order here for a plot summary. Those who know the story can skip this paragraph. All the other Potter movies begin with a comic set piece highlighting the banality of his non-magical existence in a hellish suburb with his step-parents when he is not at the charmed Hogwarts School. This one doesn't. It begins with a near tragedy as Harry and his detestable civilian (i.e., non-magica) step-brother are attacked without warning by demonic entities bent on their murder. After saving both their lives with a spell, Harry is immediately expelled from Hogwarts for casting a spell in the presence of a civilian. His friends get the expulsion suspended pending a formal trial by the Ministry of Magic, where a kangaroo-court conviction is narrowly averted by the fortuitous appearance of counsel and a witness who had been misled about the timing of the proceedings. Upon returning to Hogwarts, Harry learns that one of his chief accusers, deputy minister Dolores Umbridge, has somehow been installed at his school with unknown and sinister authority over the old administration. He also learns that he's been targeted for persecution. An instance of insubordination results in his physical torture by Umbridge, and the rest of the student body also suffers as Umbridge begins to issue edicts against one school tradition after another. Harry resists by creating his own secret organization of students whom he teaches to do combat against a looming evil -- the wizard Voldemort -- whose existence is everywhere officially denied. In the end, after a climactic battle with the enemy so long denied by the Ministry of Magic, the reality of the threat comes to light and Dolores Umbridge is overthown. But not before the last surviving member of Harry's real family is killed in battle against the enemy Umbridge refused to acknowledge.]
When I first saw Phoenix, I thought (less succinctly, I admit), "How odd. She seems to be trying to do one thing and achieving something altogether else. And the 'else' is so much more fascinating because it's being done in spite of the author's superficial intent." It seemed to me that Ms. Rowling was reacting quite explicitly to the aftermath of 9/11 and the ramping up of the War on Terror by the Blair government and perhaps the Bush administration. (I had seen a similar turn in the BBC television series MI-5, which had gone from being a riveting spy drama to a gassy self-hating soap opera at the juncture when the U.K. began cracking down on Islamic jihadists.) My inference was that Rowling was a fairly conventional leftist who opposed some of the severe measures being taken to thwart terror in the UK. and the U.S., but in shoe-horning these concerns into an existing story that was at some level about the historic British battle against Hitler and Nazism (symbolized by the "dark lord" Voldemort), she had accidentally accomplished the opposite of what she meant to.
First, I had to confirm my suspicions about Rowling's politics. Discounting the considerable blather on the left and the right about these, I had to find more than convenient punditerpretations. Here's what Wikipedia reports:
All that is fine. Rowling is entitled to her political views. But her
political symbolism in Phoenix
is fairly transparent. The stiff coif and attire of Dolores Umbridge, not to
mention the syllabication of her given and sur-names, are cartoonish spoofs of
Margaret Thatcher, as is her declaration that "progress for the sake of
progress is not desirable." How can one blame the Blair government on
Thatcher? Easily if one thinks the way writers do, in terms of
analogous relationships. Thatcher was seen by much of the world as the
political "wife" of Ronald Reagan, the patriarch of the concept of the
United States as " the world’s only remaining superpower." Ubiquitous U.K. characterizations of Tony Blair as the "lapdog"
of George W. Bush are, in fact, resentful recapitulations of the Reagan-Thatcher
relationship. For a European socialist, Bush is the direct descendant of
Reagan's "cowboy diplomacy," and thus it makes literary sense to impugn
Blair by depicting him as a Tory wife and fascistic accomplice of Bush in destroying western civil
Umbridge's torture of Harry is consistent with the leftist obsession to blame Abu Ghraib on the neo-fascism of the hated Bush-Blair administration of the war on terrorism. Just as obviously, the plaques of prohibitions that are nailed into the walls of Hogwarts are meant to suggest the fancied incremental losses of freedom associated with the post-9/11 era. Thematically, we are being encouraged to believe that the correct way to deal with the Voldemort threat would involve enlightened leaders like Obama and Clinton "because they are both great,” meaning, presumably, that they wouldn't have engaged in the distraction of persecuting Harry Potter rather than arming him against the real threat.
Which is where the whole thing breaks down in a loud splintering crash. All the larger elements of Rowling's story are already in place, and her trueness to her own conception requires her to be faithful to her original plot. She cannot change the fact that her villain is the Hitler-like Voldemort, who despite having been vanguished a generation ago is reacquiring power at a frightening and nearly invisible rate of speed. She cannot excise the extraordinary parallel between Hitler's Germany and Islamofascism as dire threats which the timid western European governments -- apart from Blair and Bush -- blindly fail to recognize as mortal threats to their existence. She probably doesn't even see the equivalence of Harry Potter teaching his fellow students to do battle and the United States unilaterally taking up military arms against a worldwide threat the "ministry" of the United Nations does everything possible to deny and make apologies for.
Worst of all, she doesn't seem to see the oxymoron of equating Thatcher-Reagan-Bush-Blair with the Umbridge faction of the Ministry of Magic who are determined to prevent the nation's youth from having the power to defend themselves against an enemy those in charge don't want to acknowledge. Thus, the kangaroo court that almost expels Harry in the opening scenes of Phoenix bears a far more striking resemblance to the appeasers in the U.S. Congress and Parliament -- and particularly the narrow law enforcement mentality toward the war on terror exhibited by Clinton, Obama, the U.S. Supreme Court, Red Ken, and George Galloway -- than it does to the Blair government or the Bush administration.
Here's the result. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix becomes, via the author's own political blinders, an allegory of itself; that is, an acting out of the process by which a well-meaning authority makes the wrong decisions under the delusion that it is conforming to the most high-minded of ideals. Do you get it yet? No?
I'll give you one more minute to think about it.
In the allegory within an allegory that is the Order of the Phoenix, J. K. Rowling is Dolores Umbridge. She's the one pointing an accusing, moralistic finger at precisely the people who best understand a threat she but dully perceives, and she's the one who winds up constituting a major distraction -- via the anachronistic plaques, and red herring villains, she nails to the walls of her own creation -- from a clear perception of the danger everyone needs to confront.
I'll hasten to point out that at some level, the author understands this. Or she would have done more violence than she did to her own story. At the end of Phoenix, it is Harry who is vindicated. The world of wizards and witches accepts that legalistic chicanery cannot be permitted any longer to disguise the existence of a genuine malevolent antagonist who means deadly harm to everyone. In this sense, Rowling has been complicit in the slaughter of her own political predilections, which are far slighter than her literary talents.
In this quite personal demonstration of artistic integrity, she puts me in mind of another master:
I'm looking forward to the movies that complete the cycle. I'm
confident Harry will carry his mother safely through the ordeal.
. I never thought it would happen to me. I
found something so irritating the usual impotent venting on a blog
didn't satisfy. I had to send an actual LETTER TO THE EDITOR. Like an
Here's my best imitation of a properly dignified "letter to the editor" voice. This is how adults talk, right?
Boss, a life-long curmudgeon and veteran of many correspondence
wars, lent me his expertise. He shortened this from my original quite a
bit. His biggest change was removing the lengthy section with
illustrations comparing Dionne's sense of right and wrong to an
abortion (he also refused to publish it on Instapunk, and forbade me to
show, to anyone ever, my Photoshopping of Dionne's head pasted onto one
of those photos of an
aborted fetus with a dime next to it for scale.) He
asked me to delete the word "batshit" too, but I argued it wouldn't be
true letter to the editor if they didn't have to replace at least one
word or phrase with [brackets]. He also sneered, with the intimidating
resonance of that 3-pack-a-day
chest rumble, that he'd never seen that many italics in a real Letter
to the Editor
before, but whatever. Maybe in his
day, a newspaper's typesetter,
permanently stooped from years of backbreaking physical labor, would
have to walk all the way to the basement on those rare occasions when
some drunken Broadway reviewer
needed italics, and set each 200-pound letter by hand. I tried to
explain to him (The Boss) that it's all done on computers now. He gave
me the classic old guy's disdainful sniff. Which meant he didn't
disbelieve me, exactly, but was so unimpressed by modern technological
that he felt he'd won the argument by contextual default. If he didn't
despise me so much, I'd really hate him. I left him to his grumbling
and whittling (soap, not pine, the old faker) and sent the letter with
Beyond that, I kept it as stodgy and cordial as I could stand. I even used my [ED: totally spurious F-word] Christian name, which I typically go to great pains to avoid. (I'd get it legally changed, but that costs money, which is bullcrap.)
For the curious. here's the graphic I sent with my missive:
don't know why Photoshopping hasn't caught on at real newspapers yet.
It'd be more honest, in a lot of ways. More honest than E.J.
Dionne's Brainwashing Corner, that's for damn sure.