My favorite read of the day is this article on understanding why progressives, especially millennials in the Obama to post-Obama era, are so in love with using the Harry Potter stories as metaphors for America’s current cultural moment. The author has an interesting theory, one that I (mostly) agree with: American liberals love Harry Potter because of Hogwarts. To be specific, they love the idea that schools are reliable bastions of legitimate authority.
High school movies of the 80s were obsessed with the illegitimacy of schools’ authority; Matthew Broderick hacks into his high school’s computer in both Ferris Bueller and Wargames, to make a mockery of the so-called permanent record, and John Hughes’s movies in general are always focused on the improvisatory genius of children and adolescents and the dull brutish obsessions of school personnel…
This is a remarkable contrast with the Harry Potter films, which (partly due to the superfluity of British acting talent available to the various directors) often make Dumbledore and the various Hogwarts teachers far grander and more impressive than the teenage protagonists…
From an outside perspective, Harry Potter is a funny fantasy for liberals to cohere around. Going off to centuries-old boarding school where your mum and dad were Head Boy and Head Girl, where tolerance and broadmindedness consists of admitting that lower-class Muggles can occasionally have the same genetically-mediated gifts as the gentry, where the greatest possible action for a woman is to let herself be slain so her son can grow up to revenge himself on her killer…all sounds more reactionary than progressive. But if contemporary liberalism is the ideology of imperial academia, funneled through media and non-profits and governmental agencies but responsible ultimately only to itself, the obsession with Harry Potter makes a lot more sense.
This is an interesting take, and I think the author rightly connects the romanticism of Hogwarts to the self-perception of the educated, technocratic progressive class. Hogwarts is attractive to liberals not mainly because they desire the world it depicts, but because they sincerely believe the world it depicts is the one that they (via the university) have created. The contrast the author draws between the cruel, dimwitted authority figures of the 80s high school comedies and the near saintlike teachers at Hogwarts is perceptive. Cynicism toward established authority was once considered a liberal rejection of conservative social order. Now, reverence toward the academy–and those who work it–is non-negotiable.
But I have another theory. In John Granger’s indispensable book How Harry Cast His Spell, Granger persuasively demonstrates how Rowling’s Harry Potter novels appropriate the most important narrative traditions of Western history. The 7 books tell a unified hero story that deliberately evokes Western mythology (I’m using that word to mean both fairy tales and historical narratives, such as Scripture, that become significant literary developments in Western thought). The gospel, the Odyssey, Camelot–these and more myths are the narrative mold around which the Potter stories are formed.
As the author of the blog notes, much about the Harry Potter series seems conservative. Harry Potter is culturally conservative in ways that don’t seem to bother liberal presuppositions. Voldemort and his followers are enemies of diversity–that much is clear. But it’s also true that Hogwarts is not exactly a factory of self-determination. Everyone gets sorted into houses–notably, students can desire a particular house, but they do not determine it–and these houses impose a preexisting shape of life onto the students. This doesn’t seem to upset the modern progressive reader, perhaps because in the course of the story, the students who most stridently do their own thing end up consistently being the biggest heroes. What gets lost in the glorification of the Boy Who Lived is the fact that he lived because of the actions of another (his mother!!), and that his heroic journey is empowered not by self-authentication, but by the wisdom and traditional forms of his mentors (Dumbledore chiefly).
So why do liberals love Harry Potter? I think it may be because Harry Potter is a reminder, however dim, of what a world that ennobles human aspiration without the shadow of the sexual revolution would look like. The American Left is deeply mired in its own self-destructive contradictions. Its aspiration for a truly self-authenticated existence is eviscerated by its insistence on cutting the legs out from under community and tradition. Rowling’s tale is a of a world where this tradeoff is unnecessary. What’s true of Hogwarts is true of Harry Potter as a whole: This is a place where people and choices matter, where you really can be a hero–just not alone.