Having read last Friday’s article on the infamous Harry Potter-centric FYI offered by Professor Robert Steele, I must admit to being quite tickled both by the course’s existence and by its themes. Speaking as an avowed, ludicrously obsessive fan of the series on my least eccentric days, I am glad that this subject is being taught at Wesleyan, and hope that it will inspire another generation of Wesleyan students to take up the social problems inherent in the novel.
However, I find myself puzzled by an omission in Dr. Steele’s description of those themes which the novel aims to tackle – there is the conspicuous absence of political questions. Despite Dr. Steele’s desire to discuss “broader, bigger social questions,” I notice that his general attitude toward the Potter series is that of a literary critic. As such, for the sake of promoting discussion among Wesleyan’s student body, and possibly, though not intentionally, as a means of sticking my own contributions into Dr. Steele’s class through hearsay, I’d like to suggest a few lessons which Wesleyan students in particular could take from the books.
One of the major blind spots in J. K. Rowling’s prose, which makes for good reading but poor political messaging, is her absolutely miserable treatment of those elements of Hogwarts life of which she (and by extension, her characters) disapprove. The most obvious example is a subject upon which entire online treatises have been written – namely, the derogatory reputation which she creates (and perpetuates) around Slytherin House. Now, speaking as someone who was described, in one of the ACB’s more creative moments, as the “Republican Voldemort,” I do have to point to this particular sociological phenomena as one of the most unintentionally contentious elements of the books. Slytherins, both young and adult, get the short end of the stick when being described by Rowling, who quite clearly disapproves of the values which surround the house – namely, ruthless ambition and a rigidly hierarchical view of the world. Even the “one good Slytherin”, Horace Slughorn, is treated as a self-serving toady who never speaks truth to power.
This attitude becomes truly problematic, however, when it intersects with the one genuine political insurgency in Rowling’s work – namely, the much-maligned “Death Eaters.” While this group is undoubtedly distasteful, it is more notable insofar as we have next to no explanation for its roots. Indeed, Rowling seems incapable of explaining the group’s existence beyond portraying all of its members as reactionary, bigoted, childish people who enjoy causing pain to disadvantaged races/wizards simply for the sadistic fun of it.
This sort of attitude works well for political strawmen, but it cheapens Rowling’s work and, given that our generation has been so influenced by the books, it also impoverishes our understanding of reactionary social movements. Given that Rowling told Entertainment Weekly that she was “left wing”, this is not surprising, as left-wing visions of the world almost always involve a sort of moral conviction which, when left unchecked, can lead to a consuming tunnel-vision. However, this sort of tunnel-vision will not serve anyone well, and especially not the students in Dr. Steele’s class, if they want to tackle the broader social questions of the books. So let me, as a member of the American conservative movement, suggest a few potential reasons for the Death Eaters’ existence. This is not purely speculative – I think such an exercise in polemical fanfiction will hold up a mirror to Wesleyan in a number of ways.
While extreme movements like the Death Eaters do tend to attract sadistic, violent people, they would not survive very long if their only political mission was sadism and violence. Even the group the film makers seem to want to model the “DEs” after, the Ku Klux Klan, did not arise simply out of a desire to inflict pain but rather as a result of feeling powerless in the face of malevolent reconstructionists. The thing about extreme reactionary movements is that they have to react (or rather, overreact) against something which reasonable people could see as a legitimate grievance.
Moreover, people like the character who the rest of the campus apparently believes is my magical counterpart do not attract large bands of followers by simply pushing a message of hurting people for fun. People like Tom Marvolo Riddle exploit resentments – resentments which tend to be over at least somewhat legitimate grievances. And those grievances tend to accrue overwhelmingly when people who are pushing a good cause try to make it happen too fast – think, for instance, of the “Stop ERA” movements and the sentiments that sent Richard Nixon back to office in 1972, both of which were caused by the excesses of supposedly well-meaning, Leftist activists.
What does this have to do with Wesleyan? Well, the answer is that unlike Rowling – who assumes anyone who wants to uphold traditional orders and classes, or who thinks house elves have determined their own social standing, or who is suspicious of a race that used to burn them at the stake is automatically a psychopathic, fascist stereotype – Wesleyan students should be wary of marginalizing political opinions that don’t jive with their own, especially in the pursuit of abstract, utopian ideals like “social justice” or “world peace.” Both the wizarding world and the real world are more complicated than that, and it does everyone a disservice to assume otherwise.
Now, I realize I have spent a long time pointing out that Wesleyan is overly liberal, so before I close I will acknowledge the incredible progress which this campus has made towards accepting the fact that Republicans are on this campus to stay, and that conservative perspectives are worth hearing. I simply issue this piece as a warning to those frosh – some of whom may be in Dr. Steele’s class – who will become Wesleyan’s future political and opinion leaders: it is never as simple as Rowling wants it to be. Progress is not necessarily a straight line, and throwing people who disagree with you under the bus may lead to political flat tires. If people start putting their faith in a Voldemort-style figure, then take it as a warning that you are communicating your vision poorly.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to make sure my Horcruxes are still safely hidden.