Saturday, February 17, 2018
Opinion

Column: The Muggle problem

This week we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the first Harry Potter novel in Britain, and the beginning of a cultural juggernaut that defined a generation's experience with books.

As Western politics has become more extreme and a generation raised on Hogwarts more politically engaged, the Potter novels have been embraced ever more fervently as political allegories and moral manuals for our times.

As I write this the Telegraph of London has just informed its readers that a poll reveals that Jeremy Corbyn belongs in Gryffindor while Theresa May should be in Slytherin — respectively the bravest and most sinister of houses on the Hogwarts campus. Meanwhile, the social media celebrations of 20 years of Potter have temporarily crowded out the endless liberal memes comparing Donald Trump and his court to Voldemort and his Death Eater lackeys. But if you take the Potterverse seriously as an allegory for ours, the most noteworthy divide isn't between the good multicultural wizards and the bad racist ones. It's between all the wizards, good and bad, and everybody else — the Muggles.

Muggles are non-magical folks, the billions of regular everyday human beings who live and work in blissful ignorance that the wizarding world exists. The only exception comes when one of them marries a wizard or has the genetic luck to give birth to a magic-capable child, in which case they get to watch their offspring ascend to one of the wizarding academies while they experience its raptures and revelations secondhand.

The proper treatment of Muggles is the great controversy within the wizarding world, where the good guys want them protected, left alone and sometimes studied, while the bad guys want to see them subjugated or enslaved. What's notable is that nobody actually wants to see the mass of Muggles (as opposed to their occasional wizardish offspring) integrated into the wizarding society. You're either born with magic or you aren't, and if you aren't there's really not any obvious place for you in Hogwarts or any other wizarding establishment.

So even from the perspective of the enlightened, progressive wizarding faction, then, Muggles are basically just a vast surplus population that occasionally produces the new blood that wizarding needs to avoid becoming just a society of snobbish old-money inbred Draco Malfoys. And if that were to change, if any old Muggle could suddenly be trained in magic, the whole thrill of Harry Potter's acceptance at Hogwarts would lose its narrative frisson, its admission-to-the-inner-circle thrill.

Which makes the thrill of becoming a magical initiate in the Potterverse remarkably similar to the thrill of being chosen by the modern meritocracy, plucked from the ordinary ranks of life and ushered into gothic halls and exclusive classrooms, where you will be sorted — though not by a magic hat, admittedly — according to your talents and your just deserts.

I am stealing this magic-and-meritocracy parallel from the pseudonymous blogger Spotted Toad, who wrote a fine post discussing how much the Potter novels and movies trade upon the powerful loyalty that their readers feel, or feel that they should feel, toward their teachers and their schools. But not just any school — not some generic Podunk U. No, it's loyalty to a selective school, with an antique pedigree but a modern claim to excellence, an exclusive admissions process but a pleasingly multicultural student body. A school where everybody knows that they belong, because they can do the necessary magic and ordinary Muggles can't.

Thus the Potterverse, as Toad writes, is about "the legitimacy of authority that comes from schools" — Ivy League schools, elite schools, U.S. News & World Report top 100 schools. And because "contemporary liberalism is the ideology of imperial academia," a story about a wizarding academy is the perfect fantasy story for the liberal meritocracy to tell about itself.

But all of our world's Muggles still remain, with an agency and a power that they don't have in the Potterverse. It was mostly Muggles, not some dark conspiracy by the Slytherin sort of conservatives, who put Donald Trump in power.

Mass migration, rising nationalism, Islamic terrorism, rural despair — many disruptive forces in our era flow from global Muggledom's refusal to just be a tame and subsidized surplus population, culled for its best and brightest, living only for the hope that occasionally a gifted son or daughter might be lifted up.

In the Potterverse, the meritocracy of magic allows the chosen to withdraw, to disappear behind a curtain into their academic world, leaving Muggledom to its own devices.

In our universe, though, the meritocracy of talent expects the chosen to actually go out and try to rule. On the evidence we have, they are not particularly good at it. And how to lead wisely in a society where most people did not go to Hogwarts is a lesson that J. K. Rowling's lovely, lively, but ultimately childish novels do not teach.

© 2017 New York Times

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