Culture

Your political Harry Potter references are Riddikulus

A cursory knowledge of pop culture will never be useful as a political tool.
Culture

Your political Harry Potter references are Riddikulus

A cursory knowledge of pop culture will never be useful as a political tool.

Harry Potter, upon its release in 1997, was initially credited with ushering in a new era of literacy for America’s youth. The sight of teenagers waiting in line to buy 700-page novels gave public libraries hope that they might claw back the nation’s adolescents from the clutches of Nintendo 64. But these libraries, yet unaware of what streaming pornography would do to their public computers, fell victim to the same late-’90s optimism that fueled the dot-com bubble. At its peak, Harry Potter did briefly increase the likelihood of seeing middle schoolers reading over summer vacation — at least until the movies came out — but the purported turn toward reading for pleasure as a national trend never materialized. In 2007, when the final Potter installment was published, The New York Times pointed out that the statistics on tween reading habits remained virtually unchanged between 1998 and 2006. Depressingly enough, one of the 13-year-olds the Times interviewed said that she “probably won’t read as much once Harry Potter is over.” Harry Potter, however, is not over. Its appeal has endured, embarrassingly, among a scary proportion of self-consciously bookish liberals who use the series as a reference point for absolutely everything.

The Harry Potter series is minimally political, at least in the sense liberals want it to be. The rise of Lord Voldemort is analogous to something racist, probably, like Nazi Germany. The most sympathetic characters are disadvantaged in some way, be it through poverty or an insufficiently pure pedigree. Beyond that, there’s little that makes it a suitable guidebook for progressive politics. The entire thing takes place in a posh upper-class boarding school from 100 years ago, one where the only criterion for admission is a single hereditary trait: magic ability. Though the series takes place in the 1990s, the school’s meals are cooked by a staff of elf-slaves who are only superficially different from their owners. The wizard community is primarily devoted to maintaining complete separation from the non-magical proles, the muggles, ostensibly because they fear a resurgence of witch burnings. This is the system presided over by the good guys before anything goes wrong. When the wizarding world’s own hissing Nazis appear, their goal, beyond looking scary, is to slightly increase the brutality of an existing system of strict apartheid.

So how did Harry Potter become a vehicle for liberal thought? J.K. Rowling is partially to blame. She has become somewhat of a firebrand in the past year or so, finding her political voice as a stalwart defender of the U.K. Labour Party’s moderate wing and tepid liberalism in general. Before 2014, her online presence had been limited to brief announcements and occasional clarifications on characters’ sexual orientations, but she began increasing her social media usage shortly before the failed referendum on Scottish independence that year. (She strongly opposed it and donated £1 million to the Stronger Together campaign.) In 2015, she came out against the cultural boycott of Israel, an issue no one really needed her opinion on, marking a shift toward having opinions just for the sake of having opinions. In 2016, she urged the U.K. to vote Remain in the Brexit referendum. After Jeremy Corbyn’s ascent to opposition leader of the Labour Party, she tweeted a scathing dismissal of the leftward move (“One day in the far distant future we’ll look back and we WONT LAUGH, LABOUR, BECAUSE THIS ISN’T BLOODY FUNNY”), making sure to note that Corbyn is not like her character Dumbledore. Of course, once Donald Trump was poised to win his primary campaign, she made a habit of quote-retweeting him with warmed-over insults and references to her own work. “Voldemort was nowhere near as bad,” she wrote in December 2015, a quip that earned her, at the time of this writing, 257,000 retweets.

Sympathizing with Harry Potter in his own context is easy, but superimposing our own world onto the Potter mythos raises numerous issues. If Rowling announces that Jeremy Corbyn is not Dumbledore, is that bad? Is it good? He seems rather pleasant in the books, but he also runs a private school that owns slaves and accidentally hires a minimally-disguised Wizard Hitler to teach the children every few semesters. If Rowling’s position is that Corbyn’s lack of moderation will drive undecided voters to the Tories, thus accidentally moving the U.K. farther right, that sort of does make him like Dumbledore. This is both a success and a failure of Rowling’s. It is to her credit as a writer that the Potter characters are not easily adaptable to a black-and-white system of morality — but Rowling, the commentator, attempts to do this anyway. The result is a stream of excruciating Potter-themed “clapbacks” that elucidate nothing and encourage the masses to engage in similar behavior.

Rowling is obviously not the sole bearer of blame for the complete dearth of imagination in her fans. Part of it might be that our understanding of nerdiness has been broadened to mean “consumption of literally anything other than sports.” The popular image of nerds, however, continues to imply esoteric interests and, of course, awkwardness. Where these concepts meet, they collide and create a horrid spectacle: self-identified nerds who show off their knowledge of top-10 bestselling books and movies as though they were part of a secret club.

The BuzzFeedification of the internet over the past five or so years has also certainly played a role in this phenomenon. The ascent of the listicle encouraged journalists to churn out keyword-heavy but conceptually thin pop-culture mashups — most notably, the now-ubiquitous reimagined Disney princesses — and the result, selected for by sub-ideal conditions, is essentially a 16-year-old in a 30-year-old’s body. The skillset needed to score a staff position within the dregs of new media is as follows: a thorough knowledge of three or four pop culture franchises often binge-watched by aimless college freshmen, a familiarity with the latest slang purloined from black teens, and, most importantly, a complete lack of self-regard. After BuzzFeed and Upworthy rebranded themselves as having serious news components, the clickbait mentality was carried over and subsequently escaped into the wider world of journalism like a fecally transmitted disease.

So here we are. Donald Trump’s fascist rhetoric is becoming normalized through pure repetition. Every possible pop culture comparison has been tweeted and aggregated, John Oliver has eviscerated him again and again, Saturday Night Live has forced its best and brightest to parody him every week, and yet he remains as powerful as ever. Just as Hillary Clinton’s forays into Snapchat failed to reverse a pattern of low youth voter turnout, a cursory knowledge of pop culture will never be useful as a political tool. To make young people genuinely enthusiastic about politics, and to make sure their efforts are not in vain, we must talk about politics with a vocabulary that does not contain the word “muggle.”

Alex Nichols is the social media editor at Current Affairs.

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