Dear “New York Times”: The Politics of “Harry Potter” Are Not Childish
I recently came across an op-ed piece in the New York Times titled “The Muggle Problem” that claims that the Harry Potter novels have produced a generation of politically naive, “youthful liberal” activists. This is an unwarranted generalization of the Potter fandom, which is not a politically homogeneous group of people. I disagree with Ross Douthat’s opinion that J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels are “ultimately childish” and “do not teach” mature lessons. Throughout the series, Rowling explores themes such as child abuse, slavery, racism, freedom of the press, the ethics of journalism, and political corruption. I dissect the article in more detail below.
Douthat’s reference to a Spectator article that suggests that morality within the wizarding world is binary (“tolerant progressives and wicked reactionaries”) presents a false dichotomy. Good and evil within Rowling’s universe are not black and white. For instance, the revelation that Quirrell (and not Snape) was the villain in Sorcerer’s Stone teaches readers not to judge characters hastily. Quirrell states that “there is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it” (SS 17), and this idea is revisited in Goblet of Fire when Sirius tells the trio that “the world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters” (GoF 14). Two characters who embody this idea are Wormtail and Snape. While the decisions that Wormtail made throughout his life were not good, he was not necessarily an evil person. Similarly, while Snape, after defecting to Dumbledore’s side, acted on the good side of the Second Wizarding War, he was a deeply flawed individual.
I agree with the article’s criticism toward categorizing politicians into Hogwarts Houses. In Deathly Hallows, when Dumbledore tells Snape, “I sometimes think we Sort too soon” (DH 33), Rowling is again imploring readers not to make hasty character judgments. I disagree with the Sorting of politicians such as Jeremy Corbyn into Gryffindor and Theresa May into Slytherin as the article describes because this paints a black and white picture of the Hogwarts Houses. This is clearly not the case if we consider characters such as Zacharias Smith and Cormac McLaggen. Neither of them is likable, and neither of them is a Slytherin.
The author’s main gripe with using the Harry Potter novels as political allegories is what he calls the “Muggle problem.” The problem, as he views it, is the reluctance of wizards to integrate Muggles into their society. However, it is wizards who are segregated from mainstream society and driven into hiding due to the historical persecution they received at the hands of Muggles. Douthat also believes that “You’re either born with magic or aren’t, and if you aren’t there’s really not any obvious place for you in Hogwarts or any other wizarding establishment.” This belief is dispelled by Argus Filch’s position as Hogwarts caretaker. The article also makes the claim that Muggles in the Potterverse have neither agency nor power, which is false. Muggle society exists independently of, and governs itself without interference from, the wizarding world unless there is a common threat to both worlds.
Douthat describes the wizarding world as a meritocratic society and compares Hogwarts to an Ivy League school, where admission is a reflection of being gifted or talented. There is, however, very little that is elitist about Hogwarts, which admits almost anyone that is able to perform magic regardless of their background and also has a fund set aside for underprivileged students. Indeed, one of the most memorable lines from the series is when Dumbledore, in Chamber of Secrets, says, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”
Furthermore, the article claims that Rowling’s work does not teach people to “lead wisely in a society where most people did not go to Hogwarts.” However, the complicity of Cornelius Fudge in adamantly ignoring Voldemort’s return due to “the love of the office” (GoF 36) he holds is a worthwhile lesson for any aspiring leader. As Dumbledore states in the film adaptation of Goblet of Fire, leaders face decisions between “what is right and what is easy.”
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