Cultural Cynicism, Harry Potter, Nerdgasm

Harry Potter, Anarchist

As anyone who has grabbed a stick and shouted "Lumos!" knows, the Harry Potter books are infallible guides to casting magical spells and to Dark Magic, and are thus rightly feared by the Religious Right.  But in addition to the magic which kids learn from reading the books (and the more dangerous notions that kids should be thinking for themselves, learning loyalty and bravery, and so on), there lurks yet another theme which should be considered just as dangerous, but which I’ve yet to see addressed in any of the anti-Potter literature.

I’m speaking, naturally, of the revolutionary anti-government positions advocated by Harry Potter and his gang of anarchists.

More beneath the fold (just to avoid any potential spoilers).

In the Harry Potter series, J. K. Rowling has created a world where humanity is basically split into two types, or two sub-species: Wizards, those capable of using magic and aware of the presence of magic in the world; and Muggles, humans who are incapable of using magic.  These two cultures are so different, so separated from each other, that Wizards are often just as ignorant of Muggle culture and ways as Muggles are of human culture and ways.  In the seventh novel, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, we learn that Ron Weasley, born into a Wizard family, is well aware of a series of children’s stories, including one called "The Three Brothers", but utterly ignorant of Muggle fairy stories, such as Cinderella and Snow White.  These cultural disparities are impressive; Ron Weasley’s father, Arthur, collects plugs and other artifacts of Muggle technology, and marvels over them as if they were artifacts from an alien culture, even though Muggle homes and villages exist side by side with Wizard homes and villages.  This deep division between Muggles and Wizards extends beyond stories and technology to sporting events ("What’s football?" Ron asks at one point, and no Muggle who has not read the books knows what Quidditch is) and even politics.  There could be great, world-shattering events in the Wizard world, such as the legendary duel between Dumbledore and dark arts wizard Grindenwald, with pass with barely a blip in the Muggle world; and there are even teams of Wizards who use a spell called "Obliviate" to wipe the memories of Muggles who accidentally witness Magic being used.

This division between Muggle and Wizarding cultures has even led to the evolution of a Ministry of Magic, a branch of the British government which oversees the Wizard community.  While the name "Ministry of Magic" indicates that it is at least in theory subservient to the Muggle government, in practice the Minister of Magic exercises much more authority over the Wizard community than even the Prime Minister of Muggles has over Muggles.  The actions of the Muggle government, in fact, seem to have no bearing at all over the Wizard communities.  The Ministry of Magic seems to communicate with the Prime Minister only when there is a huge calamity — such as the escape of Sirius Black, or the rise of Lord Voldemort — which could have an impact on the Muggle World.

As a Wizard, therefore, Harry Potter is incumbent not to the Muggle government, but to the Ministry of Magic.  This, of course, should give the right wing in our country immediate cause for concern, because if children start thinking of themselves as wizards and witches and start casting the spells described in such technical details in the books, then might they not start thinking themselves as independent of and unanswerable to the government?  It only makes sense.  Muggle laws can’t govern magic, so a whole new set of laws are needed.

In the books, though, there is a deeper, darker theme.  Because the Ministry of Magic has authority over the Wizarding community, we should expect to see it portrayed in a good light, a protective force for Wizards in times of desperation, just as the Muggle government protects us Muggles in times of danger.  However, the message throughout the books is clear: Don’t trust the government.  The government is, at best, made up of well-intentioned incompetents, and, at worst, actually in league with the dark forces seeking to destroy the world.  When Harry first comes of age, the Minister of Magic is one Cornelius Fudge (at least, that’s what I assume; the Minister of Magic isn’t actually introduced until Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, but no mention is made of any other Minister of Magic prior to him).  When we first meet Fudge, he seems solicitous toward Harry, happy to help, even to bend the rules so that Harry, who used magic outside of school in violation of the law, can go back to school.  By the end of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, though, it’s obvious that Fudge is basically ineffective as Minister of Magic, especially when it becomes obvious at the end that Voldemort has returned.  Fudge, desperate to keep the Wizard community at peace, refuses to acknowledge that Voldemort has returned.  The daily wizard newspaper The Daily Prophet, represented in this book by yellow journalist Rita Skeeter, has done plenty to discredit Harry, making Fudge’s job even easier.

But this gets even worse in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, where Fudge’s desperation to deny reality has led the Ministry of Magic to take the official position that not only has Voldemort not returned, but Harry is a deluded kid who is simply hysterical, and his headmaster Dumbledore is just a nut-job.  There is, in fact, a conspiracy within Fudge’s government, led by evil witch Dolores Umbridge, to discredit Harry completely and to undermine the entirety of magical education within England and bring all students in line with the Ministry’s official position.  Harry and his friends actively work to counter this conspiracy by creating their own, "Dumbledore’s Army", dedicated to undermining the Ministry’s approach to magical education.  When confronted with evidence of this conspiracy. Dumbledore not only supports the conspiracy, but even claims responsibility for it.

By the sixth book, when it has become undeniable that Voldemort has returned, Cornelius Fudge finally admits the truth, but is shortly forced to resign because of his ineffectiveness in his original response to the crisis.  He is replaced by Rufus Scrimgeour, who tries to take the opposite approach and appear extra tough on Voldemort and on the Dark Lord’s minions, to be point of imprisoning innocent people simply to make an example of them; it is this last behavior which leads Harry to decide not to side with the Minister; Harry seems to believe that his own sense of integrity is a better guide to morality than what the government wants, a position which is desperately dangerous in this post-9/11 world.

But this is not the end of the Ministry of Magic’s downfall.  Shortly after the beginning of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Scrimgeour is assassinated by agents of Voldemort, and replaced by Pius Thicknesse, who is under an Imperius curse (another spell which children can learn how to perform by reading the books) and thus under Voldemort’s control.  The infiltration is complete at this point; Voldemort and his minions have completely taken over the Wizard government, and the Ministry of Magic is completely under his control, and promising a "new dawn" for the Wizards of England.  The government is, in short, utterly discredited and Harry is free to act of his own accord without interference from any government agencies.

Thus, we see that the Harry Potter novels are not just manuals of magic, meant to infiltrate young minds with powers they shouldn’t be seeking, but also dangerous political screeds as well.  The triumph of the individual’s ego and sense of integrity over
the wisdom of a benevolent government is developed in the final two books of the series, and the government’s ineptitude and downright evil are thoroughly demonstrated throughout the entire series. 

One can only wonder why the religious right has not picked up on this most deplorable theme.

Disclaimer: I hope it’s really, really obvious that I don’t believe a word of this.  Rowling’s a phenomenal storyteller, but probably has as much interest in writing an anti-government screed as your average newt.  Anyone who thinks that there really are political themes in the Harry Potter books really needs to spend more time outside.