July 12, 2004

The Politics of Harry Potter

If you've ever suspected that French intellectuals don't have enough to do with their time, but you desperately needed a final piece of evidence, then you should check out this article from The Independent:

In the très sérieux columns of Le Monde, a debate is raging, which slices to the heart of the political and philosophical concerns of the early 21st century. Is Harry Potter a capitalist neo-liberal? Or is he an anti-globalist lefty, concerned by the fate of the humble and the oppressed?

The opinion pages of the centre-left French daily - more often occupied with human cloning or Third World debt - have, over the past three weeks, been examining, in high Marxist-structuralist manner, the political subtext of the works of J K Rowling.

The Great Debate was launched on 4 June by Ilias Yocaris, maître de conférences of French literature at the Institut Universitaire de Formation de Maîtres in Nice.

M. Yocaris, among those responsible for training the next generation of French teachers, complained in Le Monde that the "fantasy universe of Harry Potter is ... a capitalist universe". The five Harry Potter books - enormously successful in French translation - are stuffed with "neo-liberal stereotypes" which caricature approvingly the "excesses of the Anglo-Saxon social model", M. Yocaris said.

Thus all representatives of the state (the Ministry of Magic) are lampooned as ridiculous, or incompetent or sinister. Harry goes to a "private" school, whose "micro-society" is a "pitiless jungle" which glorifies "individualism, excessive competition and a cult of violence."

I wonder how many people actually find this kind of stuff compelling...

Debates like this have been going on for years: back in 2000, I can remember reading a conservative screed about how Percy Weasley's plan to standardize cauldron sizes across Europe was a sign of Rowling's anti-EU views. Reading this article (and several others on the same subject), I wish that I could read French, since the whole debate sounds really amusing. (In a rejoinder to Yocaris, for example, Isabelle Smadja has argued that Rowling's books are a "ferocious critique of consumer society and the world of free enterprise"; she apparently likens Hermione's campaign for the rights of house elves with the worldwide anti-globalization movement.)

If you're genuinely curious about J.K. Rowling's politics, then here's a fact that might intrigue you: Rowling named her daughter after Jessica Mitford. (Then again, even the most confirmed leftist could accidentally write a neo-liberal children's book...) I don't really think it's worth spending much time, energy, or thought debating the politics of the Potter universe, however.

After all, there are plenty of more interesting Potter-related subjects to discuss. Michael Berube, for instance, has likened the campaign to fire Remus Lupin to an anti-gay crusade; his argument is more subtle than it sounds, though it was still rather tongue-in-cheek. (A.O. Scott made a similar but more sophisticated point in Slate several years ago.) There are times when Rowling's book seems like a denunciation of the old British right, which was made up of now-forgotten people who thought Hitler was on the right track, which I find oddly intriguing as a history grad student. Rowling's world-view can sometimes be a little simplistic, however, especially when she blurs the line between juvenile brattiness and grown-up malevolence. (Draco Malfoy gets away with making morally inexcusable comments in the presence of Hogwarts instructors; no one--as far as we know--cares when Severus Snape requires his students to look up ways to kill one of his fellow teachers; Lucius Malfoy is an evil man who sometimes sounds too much like a petulant middle-schooler.) One of these days, I might just have to write a blog entry on the moral universe of Harry Potter, but for now you'll just have to wait.

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