Harry Potter and the Path to Activism

By  · Published on November 15th, 2016

Or… Fantastic Analogies and How To Parse Them.

Dumbledore’s Army by Viria13

In light of the recent catastrophe that has befallen the United States of America, wherein a fraudulent, criminal enabler of white supremacists managed to win an election in which he received fewer votes than his opponent and can now wreak pretty much whatever hellishness he so desires, many people seeking comfort turned to Harry Potter. Trump, then, became Voldemort, and the proposed resistance to his assumed authoritarianism Dumbledore’s Army. These analogies are imprecise at best, but my purpose in bringing this up isn’t to shame anyone looking for a pop cultural balm to ease their anxiety. The popularity of the Potter books and films makes them a natural shared reference point. What’s important, in using them for this purpose, is that they serve as the beginning of an inquiry, not an endpoint.

This holds true for any pop cultural entity, but for the sake of specificity and because Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them comes out this Friday I want to focus on Harry Potter. In doing so, it’s crucial to remember that at its very essence the Potter books – and especially the movies – are not a political manifesto. As popular entertainments aimed at children they’re concerned with right and wrong to an extent, but on a level more moral than explicitly political. Even if one adopts the stance that everything is political, the relevant elements of the Potter narrative already exist as analogies. Tracing these elements back to their real-world origins is, then, the first step before applying the analogical elements forward to subsequent real-world situations.

The concept of reverse engineering is a useful one to consider when addressing the Harry Potter series, as a number of blithe asides and jokey constructs in the earlier, lighter books ended up causing fairly major dilemmas later. Some could be explained fairly easily, like the contradiction of Hagrid’s assertion that “there’s not a single witch or wizard went bad that wasn’t in Slytherin” in the first book two books later with the revelation of Gryffindor Sirius Black’s imprisonment for mass murder. Hagrid, one could argue quite easily, momentarily forgot (and if corrected, mutter something in a West Country accent about forgetting willfully). Others were baked into the very fabric of the books’ world, like the quaternion morality of House sorting, drawn from the house system of real-world British boarding schools, whereby eleven-year-old children were permanently and inexorably determined to be ostentatiously brave (Gryffindor), witty and erudite (Ravenclaw), cunning and/or evil (Slytherin), or miscellaneous (Hufflepuff). Once the light juvenilia of the early entries evolved into the elaborate, morally weightier conclusion, there arose the problem of, when it was time for the forces of good to unite against Voldemort and evil, the unity being the other three Houses against Slytherin, and there being no explicable reason why the school hadn’t simply shuttered or radically reformed what was essentially a primordial swamp for Dark magic. (This, too, has an admittedly easy rebuttal: “It’s a fucking kid’s book, stop tripping.”)

Caveats and nitpicks aside, there is plenty in the Potter books and films to take as inspiration. In Order of the Phoenix, the formation and praxis of “Dumbledore’s Army” is an excellent rough primer for (very) young people in how to organize and resist. (Also, it’s the one section of the book where Harry doesn’t act like an insufferable asshole, which helps.) Those with privilege help those with less. They maintain clarity of purpose. They both theorize and act. It’s a perfectly fine starting point on the path to activism, but that’s what it is: a starting point. Those moved to action by this aspect of OotP should proceed to an inquiry into real-world activism. The inquiry isn’t the difficult part, it’s the action.

The utility of popular culture, when shit gets serious, is in its popularity. It’s a shared language with a broad reach, making it a useful means of first contact. That’s where its utility ends, and the conversation about where to proceed continues. There’s nothing inherently wrong with LARPing, as a recreational activity, but engaging in resistance in the real world with real consequences while pretending that it’s a subplot from the wonkiest book in a YA series is just that. It’s not the way to win. But. It is a start.

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Columnist, Film School Rejects. Host, Minor Bowes podcast. Ce n’est pas grave, y’all