Friday, May 4, 2007

Friday Reflection: Harry Potter and the State

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In my book, The Tao of Hogwarts, I ask why it might be that a group of simple children's stories about magicians has inspired such malevolent hatred in our Muggle world. You don't see fundamentalist Christians burning copies of The Wizard of Oz or The Sword in the Stone, or boycotting Eragon. But the Harry Potter stories are among the most banned and reviled books to appear in the recent history of literature. Why?

The partial answer, which I mention in my book, is that the Potter tales reflect the truth of fundamentalism so clearly as to make the devotees of hatred want to smash the mirror.

Another facet of the answer appears in Ms. Rowling's treatment of the government. From the second book forward, she is increasingly acidic in her characterization of the state and its minions. The Potter tales are really startlingly sophisticated stories, full of piercing insight on the lazy arrogance and pandemic corruption within government.

Early on in the Potteriad, Rowling's satire focuses on the fat, wheedling incompetence of Cornelius Fudge, the Minister of Magic. He's a John Bolton type: a classic kiss-up, kick-down type of official, who couldn't lead the way out of a wet paper bag, let alone an attack from the consolidated forces of fundamentalist evil.

Further on, in the fifth book, a new functionary of the state is introduced, Dolores Umbridge. She, like Fudge, is corpulent, petty, and always unhinged by any effort to look past appearances. What Umbridge adds to the portrait of government is its threatening, violent face. She injects the corruption of state-driven conformity into the school, and then applies the Kafka-esque needle torture to Harry's very skin.

Book six opens with a political scene featuring two oblique portraits of Tony Blair and George Bush. The characters representing the state are by this point so obsessed with the superficial that they are completely blinded to the glacier of death passing by their windows. The new Minister of Magic is a character named Rufus Scrimgeour, who has a Karl Rove streak in him. He proposes that if we can only improve our advertising message, add a few spotlights to the stage of state, then all will be well, and evil routed, or at least suppressed.

It is this attitude that Harry encounters in a chapter titled "A Very Frosty Christmas," from which our banner quote is drawn. Here is the full passage, from Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, presented in context:

They looked at each other, long and hard. Finally Scrimgeour said, with no pretense at warmth, "I see. You prefer--like your hero, Dumbledore--to disassociate yourself from the Ministry?"

"I don't want to be used," said Harry.

"Some would say it's your duty to be used by the Ministry!"

"Yeah, and others might say it's your duty to check that people really are Death Eaters before you chuck them in prison," said Harry, his temper rising now. "You're doing what Barty Crouch did. You never get it right, you people, do you? Either we've got Fudge, pretending everything's lovely while people get murdered right under his nose, or we've got you, chucking the wrong people into jail and trying to pretend you've got 'the Chosen One' working for you!"

"So you're not 'the Chosen One'?" said Scrimgeour.

"I thought you said it didn't matter either way?" said Harry, with a bitter laugh. "Not to you anyway."

"I shouldn't have said that," said Scrimgeour quickly. "It was tactless--"

"No, it was honest," said Harry. "One of the only honest things you've said to me. You don't care whether I live or die, but you do care that I help you convince everyone you're winning the war against Voldemort. I haven't forgotten, Minister...."

He raised his right fist. There, shining white on the back of his cold hand, were the scars which Dolores Umbridge had forced him to carve into his own flesh: I must not tell lies.

"I don't remember you rushing to my defense when I was trying to tell everyone Voldemort was back. The Ministry wasn't so keen to be pals last year."

Extraordinary, isn't it? A pack of kids' stories, overflowing with an urbane and penetrating insight on the tyranny and duplicity of the modern state. In the magical world of Harry Potter, there is a Gitmo (Azkaban), where both the guilty and the innocent are sent, often without charge and with no hope of a fair trial. There is torture (Umbridge), ambition (Fudge), bureaucracy (the Ministry and its offices), the selling of the people's blood and treasure to corporate interests (Lucius Malfoy's bribes to Fudge), and always the unctuous, vain manipulations of the media and truth (Scrimgeour's attempts to purchase Harry's support, and Fudge's own FOX News media plant, Rita Skeeter).

If you happen to think that the Potter tales are a bunch of lame baby stories that benefited from a combination of dumb luck and devious marketing to become a multi-billion dollar phenomenon, I will make no effort to disillusion you (though Professor Moody might). The Potter novels are loved and lavished with popularity for the same reasons that they are banned and burned: they touch a nerve of truth and common experience that helps us to see and feel our own darkness. How the individual's reaction flows from that varies according to whether you are ready to expel your own Voldemort-consciousness--the corrupt knot of belief that was programmed into you before you could discern it as such--or whether you perceive Rowling's insight to be a personal attack upon your in-group's cherished blocks of granite, the belief system of the "Chosen One" of a church or a state. For, as I mention in my book, and as the last six years of the Bush tyranny have revealed, Church and State cannot be truly separated: they are fed by the same delusion.

Rowling's fiction thus recapitulates, with story, character, and metaphor, the lesson of Diderot that we quoted last week: men will never be truly free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.

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