Monday, August 3, 2009

Harry Potter: Conservative Hero

Whenever a new Harry Potter movie rolls into theaters, conservative political pundits whip out the long knives and go after the books. Strawman after strawman is torn asunder in a veritable strawbath of ill-informed and poorly-reasoned diatribes of the type that can only come from the poisoned pens of people who have never read the books. So let’s cut through some of the garbage, and reintroduce you to this unfairly maligned series.

At its core, the Harry Potter series is a truly conservative, i.e. classical liberal, work. Seriously. It imparts excellent values, values that should make conservatives giddy. But before we detail those values, let us dispatch the complaints of the unread punditocracy.

And Although I Know It’s Strictly Taboo. . .

The complaints of these “conservative” pundits generally come in three flavors of stupid: gays, witchcraft and rewarding misbehavior.

The gay complaint holds that Harry Potter promotes homosexuality because Dumbledore is gay. Oh my! But when did being gay become inconsistent with being conservative? It’s not. And if the complaint is that no book that includes a gay character can be conservative, then one wonders what is left for these pundits to read. . . assuming they can read. Hence, a few of the more clever pundits, will assure you that they aren’t opposed to gays, it’s just that Dumbledore promotes the gay lifestyle. Really? Does he take a lover? Does he attend a parade? Hand out pamphlets? Shower the crowd in condoms? Take Harry to a Turkish bathhouse? No, this issue is never mentioned in the books. In fact, Dumbledore’s sexuality was never brought up until after the books were all published.

The complaint that Harry Potter promotes witchcraft is almost too stupid to mention, except we saw this once before. . . during the the great Dungeons & Dragons crisis of 1983, when millions of young children sold their souls to the devil and disappeared in a fiery poof. Tragic. In any event, it is worth pointing out that (1) this silly complaint would apply equally to the entire fantasy genre, so put down that copy of The Lord of the Rings you Satanist, and (2) unlike The Golden Compass, which truly is anti-Christian, Harry Potter makes no attacks on any religious figures, principles, or beliefs.

The third complaint usually involves some moment where Harry “does not pay” for his “bad behavior.” But these complaints are typically made by people who have not read the books. For example, in a silly recent diatribe, one shrill conservative pundit proclaimed that Rowling “ignores ethics and encourages dishonorable behavior” when Harry “cheats” by using “a textbook that has all the answers in the margins,” and he’s not even punished for it! For shame! Thus whines said critic: “Rowling’s readers will conclude it’s OK to go on eBay and buy a teacher’s edition of a textbook.” Or critique a book they haven’t read! The horror, the horror. What this whiner misses is that the “answers” written in the text book are not “answers” to test questions, they are the work of a rather genius young wizard who invented dozens of new spells, most of which have nothing to do with the class itself. A more accurate conclusion would be “Rowling’s readers will conclude it’s OK to go on eBay and buy an independent study guide!” But that doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Moreover, in terms of not getting busted, some of these spells prove to be quite dangerous, and when Harry injures a fellow student using one of these spells, he gets showered with disdain and ostracized by his fellow students. Indeed, most of the series is about Harry making mistakes, for which he pays and from which he learns.

But enough of sweeping away straw. Let’s talk about what makes the Harry Potter books conservative books.

What Makes Harry Potter Conservative

I will save for another day what it takes to consider a particular film or book to be a conservative work. Suffice it for now to say, that we should not consider a work conservative unless it promotes themes that are philosophically conservative, and it does so consistently. In that regard, the Harry Potter series delivers time and time again.

Consider, for example, that the bad guys throughout the series read like a who’s who of things conservatives despise:
• Government. A common theme throughout the books is that the government not only cannot help you, but will actually abuse its power to harm you. The Ministry of Magic is hopelessly bureaucratic, and ultra-intrusive. It regulates every aspect of Wizards’ lives, right down to how caldrons are measured -- regulations which are usually mentioned derisively. And when Dumbledore begins to warn the world that Voldemort has returned, the MOM demonstrates the evil to which it can sink. It tries to discredit Dumbledore, just as it tries to discredit Harry. When this proves ineffective, it tries to drive Harry from the magic world through a Soviet-style show trial. It then drums up fake charges against Dumbledore (something about a Turkish bathhouse), and chases him from Hogwarts, where he is replaced with a woman who sets about imposing an educational agenda that seeks to lower all children to the lowest common denominator. The government seizes key industries, denies the truth, and locks up its opponents. Sounds like somebody read Ayn Rand.

• Elitists. The Malfoy family and their allies are the epitome of hereditary peers, if you’re English, or establishment elitists, if you’re American. They are out of touch, they despise ordinary people, and they are corrupt, inbred and non-productive -- think John Kerry.

• The Cult of Personality. The Death Eaters, Voldemort’s followers, worship him and fear him in a strange cult of personality. They do as they are told without question. “Yes we can, my master.” Nothing is more classically liberal than thinking for yourself. Nothing is more modern liberal than believing what you are told by your betters.

• Evil. Voldemort represents something rarely seen in liberal thinking, an evil man. He is evil to the core. He is not misunderstood, nor was he driven to evil. And while he claims various motivations, the series never once hints that we should sympathize with him or that his past excuses his present. If you put the second book to your ear, you can actually hear an ACLU lawyer weeping.
Consider also the multiple conservative themes that run throughout the series. For example:
• Rejection of Moral Relativism. Unlike much of modern liberal thinking, Rowling does not accept the shades of gray theory. The good guys are good and the bad guys are bad. It’s black and white. Readers are told repeatedly that you cannot do evil and remain good, even where evil seems to offer an easy solution. We are also never asked to consider root causes. And whenever good characters suggest that an evil character might only be evil because they feel pressured (like Dumbledore suggests about Malfoy or Tom Riddle), those characters always prove that people who do rotten things tend to be rotten people.

• The Value of Hard Work/Self-Reliance. Unlike heroes in most modern stories, Harry is actually nothing special. He doesn’t have super powers. He’s not smarter or wiser or stronger or faster than the other kids. What Harry does have going for him, is a group of people who care about him and who drive him to work harder. When he does, he succeeds. When he doesn’t, he fails. It’s that simple. In the Harry Potter world anyone can succeed if they work hard; hard work gets rewarded. Education gets rewarded. Having something handed to you, or waiting for someone to hand it to you, gets punished. What could be more conservative than that?

• Belief in Traditional Families. The series repeatedly stresses the importance of the traditional family. Harry’s mother and father died to protect him, and in so doing, put a charm on him, that protects him so long as he has family, even when that family is nasty to him, i.e. the family bond survives good times and bad. The happiest people in the series are the Weasley family, who impart invaluable lessons about love, responsibility and all the other things your parents taught you, even though the Weasleys are poor. By comparison, the messed up kids, from Neville Longbottom to Luna Lovegood, come from single parent homes. Even Malfoy, who does have both parents, is raised in an unbalanced family where the father dominates the mother. The implication is clear throughout the book: a strong family is the best foundation. Love your parents, love your kids, and think more about them than yourself. Indeed, the greatest moments in the book involve self-sacrifice to save family members.

• Pro Capitalism. Harry Potter is also unabashedly pro-capitalism. Time and time again, it is the private sector, not the government, that is shown to be superior. This is true from the pro-commerce Diagon Alley, to the way The Quibbler (a tabloid) rises to meet consumer demand for the truth when the main paper falls under the influence of the government, to the Weasley brothers being a walking advertisement for the joys of starting your own business. Whereas the government world is seen ad drab and oppressive, the private sector world is always vibrant and active.

I don’t know about you, but those seem like pretty conservative values to me.


ScottDS said...

THANK-YOU for this article! I must confess I've only seen the films (not the most recent one) and not read the books. I had a couple general thoughts...

--re: moral relativism - I might be totally wrong but sometimes I get the impression that we're wrong to consider root causes. Example: I lived in a dorm once. The neighbors were immature idiots who treated me like dirt and yes, I asked myself, "Why would anyone act like that? And did I do anything to cause it?" Today I realize some people are just idiots but I don't feel I was wrong for considering all the possibilities.

--re: elitists - one day you'll have to elaborate further on this subject. I come from a middle-class suburban background so I don't have much experience in this area. What makes someone an elitist and does it apply to both political parties or just one? Is it all about money?

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, you're welcome.

The movies really took a different path than the books after the first book. Beyond that, they're really very different.

The problem with moral relativism, is that it's gone beyond excusing bad manners and has reached into the criminal world. Many people no make claims like "if you were raised in an abusive home, then you can't be held accountable for robbing a 7/11 ten years later." Not only is that ethically and morally wrong, but it is a recipe for chaos and spreading hatred within society. When people feel that the law will treat others differently, they lose faith in law and the whole system collapses into self-help, i.e. vigilantism.

Let me get back to you in a few minutes on elitism.

CrispyRice said...

Very interesting take, Andrew, and I can't say I disagree.

It's been too long since I've read them to have concrete examples, but it always struck me that Harry learned a great deal about when authority was wiser than you and you had to/should listen to it (Dumbledore, the Weasely parents) and when authority was being abusive and you should question or fight it (the Ministry, the Malfoy family.)

Raising your children to ask questions and think for themselves isn't anti-conservative. It's raising kids who will become adults with a brain and who won't blandly accept whatever is handed to them.

CrispyRice said...

Oh, and Scott, FWIW, near as I can tell, elitism is all in the head and how much better you *think* you are than everyone else. I came from a middle-class background but ended up at an Ivy league university, and I found plenty of "average" people who were happy to join the "well-bred" and saw that school as their ticket. And I found plenty of the "well-bred" who were happy to be just "average" too. Elitism is a state of mind and people are always trying to sign up for it.

JG said...

Excellent article. Not to point fingers, but I have a pretty good idea of who this might be in response to. ;) I commented over at BH that the amount of institutional hatred there of all things HP was shocking, especially by someone who proudly stated he never had and never would read the books. Uh, okay....way to make an informed opinion....but I digress.

I've always felt that Order of the Phoenix was the best manifesto against government-run education there is. The problem is getting people to see how we've already arrived at the place OotP describes.

AndrewPrice said...


Elitism is a word that has its roots in populism, which is not a good thing. It was originally meant to demonize rich people, but it later evolved to mean “a political, economic or cultural elite” -- a group that sits separate and apart from average Americans: think private schools, private clubs, homes in exclusive neighborhoods, revolving door jobs between corporate boards and the highest echelons of government/journalism/banks/law firms/charitable foundations, and all based on an accident of birth, not merit.

In the past 30-40 years, this definition has changed again to mean people who have lost touch with average Americans -- with the most classic example being The New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael, when she said, “I don’t understand how Nixon got elected. No one I know voted for him.”

In the last 10 years or so, the word has come to mean “upper class” people who have nothing but disdain for average Americans. These are the people who created the term “flyover country” and see us as ignorant, superstitious hillbillies -- as compared to seeing themselves as highly enlightened. You will find a ton of these people at any big DC law firm.

AndrewPrice said...

JG, LOL! You caught me. That is who I was referring to with the third complaint. And you're right, there is a LOT of institutional hatred over at BH for Harry Potter.

I just don't get it, except that they haven't read the books and it's the "in thing" to do. And you're right, how can you offer a criticism when you haven't read the material? I don't get it. And I think it's a disservice to people.

I also absolutely agree about Order of the Phoenix -- very insightful! When I read it, I kept saying, please people, read this. . . understand this. . . internalize it. This is the problem with unchecked government!

AndrewPrice said...

CrispyRice, I think you're right about Harry. Every book is crawling with questions of when you should follow authority and when you don't. And when Harry gets it right, he is rewarded. When he gets it wrong, he gets punished.

The books are also about who you can trust and who you can't. And the message is clear, trust your friends, trust your family, trust a favored teacher, but never trust the government, never trust people looking to use you.

You're also right about elitism. It really has become a state of mind, based on disdain for the rest of us.

CrisD said...

I echo ScottDS THANK YOU! I am tired of cheap shots from people who look at the movies instead of evaluating the books. The movies are the modern version of illustrations.

The story arc of this series is very strong and wholesome. I don't like to talk about it too much because it gives away the full story and the readers' final "take away message." Additionally, it reads as one complete work yet is a cleverly disguised "reader" from the first intro level to the last young adult level.

Thanks for your insights.

PS. No liberals or witches were created in our house while growing up on Harry Potter. (All three vote R.)

CrispyRice said...

LOL @ CrisD's PS! "No conservatives were harmed in the reading of this book!" LOL!

StanH said...

My daughter was one of the kids that had to have the Harry Potter books the day they arrived, and my wife and I made sure that it happened, what a wonderful thing a modern kid anxious for a book. I never read the books, however my wife has, and she said they were thoroughly enjoyable. I have seen the movies and found them to be fine, nothing objectionable for me, relative to the times. At our arrival at the theater for the first movie, my wife and I had our daughter with four, or five little friends in tow, and there were a couple people protesting with sandwich signs saying to paraphrase, “Have anything to do with Harry Potter and you’re going to Hell.” That to me is an example of a moralistic, elitist, sanctimonious, jerks, and I told them so, they didn’t like it, …oh well. To me it’s relative to the Arthurian Fables, King Arthur, and the Knights of the Round Table, it has all of these type of characters, yet the busy bodies don’t attack Arthur. In my mind we need more Harry Potters, not less.

AndrewPrice said...

CrisD, I'm tired of it as well. I've wondered for a long time why there is such venom for these books. I think that part of it is just publicity seeking -- what better way to get publicity than to attack the biggest game in town. But I suspect another part is that since they haven't read it, they aren't really giving you their opinion, so much as they are just reacting to things they've heard (which aren't accurate).

And I love the disclaimer! Yours and CrispyRice's! LOL!

AndrewPrice said...

Stan, I agree entirely. We do need more Harry Potters. Anything that imparts decent values, that is entertaining, and that gets kids reading is good for us all.

I completely agree with your assessment of the people with the signs. Even now, you can find websites dedicated to "explaining" to you how "Satanists" love Harry Potter and how reading Harry Potter is your first step to becoming a devil worshiper. Ridiculous.

And you're right about Arthur. In fact, most of the classics contain very adult themes, even many of the classic children's books. The one article I was referencing mentioned the Wizard of Oz and Willy Wonka, which have truly bizarre drug and racist imagery/themes. Yet somehow the author (who clearer never read those either) claimed those were wholesome.

freedom21 said...

Thanks!!! I've never actually read the books...but I'm thinking it's a good idea to start!

Also, this is really good news to hear as Rowling mentioned in a recent interview that her next project would be a political fairy tales...maybe those will have the same themes!!

AndrewPrice said...

Freedom21, you're welcome. I think they're very enjoyable books, though there is one that I don't like and I did feel the ending was a bit flat. But it is very refreshing to read something without feeling like you're being preached at about the latest leftwing fad.

Mike Kriskey said...

I'm late to the party on this one...

I worked in a bookstore for ten years--through the entire Harry Potter phenomenon--and was absolutely blown away by the enthusiasm from children of all ages and both sexes for these books. And a noticeable percentage of these kids went on to read other books I'd recommend while waiting for the next installment.

I bought the first book for my nephew and meant just to skim through it to see if it was any good, and ended up reading it in one sitting and buying a second copy for him.

And Andrew's right about the content of these books--if you believe that the fantasy genre is unacceptable morally I don't know what to tell you, but if you can accept Tolkien or Lewis, Edgar Eager or E. Nesbitt, the Harry Potter books are right up there.

I had an "intense debate" over at BH with a guy named Whiskey who claimed that these books embodied a "women's morality" (apparently meaning wishy-washy and malleable), as opposed to the "masculine morality" embodied by Star Wars. I could only conclude that not only had he not read the Potter books, but that he hadn't watched the three Star Wars prequels, either.

AndrewPrice said...

Mike, I'd heard that too, that Harry Potter turned on millions of kids to reading.

I also saw your fight with "Whiskey". I thought Whiskey was wrong on all point, and that you did a great job of showing that. But I also don't think he was going to listen to reason. Sadly, there is a lot of that these days.

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