Thursday, June 29, 2017

Ross Douthat, Death Eater

Witch feeding rat and toad familiars, via American Folkloric Witchcraft.
Is Monsignor Ross Douthat, Apostolic Nuncio to 42nd Street, a practicing wizard?

There's just the one positive clue, a throwaway reference to "the pseudonymous blogger Spotted Toad", who seems to have done the primary research and theorizing for yesterday's column ("The Muggle Problem"). Oh, sure, Ross, that's just some blogger? Because it sounds a lot like a familiar to me.

Ross was concerned about the "lovely, lively, but ultimately childish novels" of J.K. Rowling, of which the first, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, was published just 20 years ago Tuesday, and the world in which they are set, and the political discussion to which they have given rise, especially among liberals, to which he seems to object. "Watch yourselves, libs, callow dorm-room analysis of popular literature and TV shows showing that they justify your political views is conservative business," he doesn't say.

Naturally, to commemorate the occasion, where many of us might think of celebrating the story of a single mother on the dole in Scotland who became a billionaire by the unusual means of teaching many hundreds of thousands of children to love books, the Monsignor would like us to understand that the Potter books may be "lovely and lively" but they are really not very nice under the skin, and the thing he picks on is the idea that magical folk constitute a biologically privileged elite, contemptuous of their nonmagical Muggle relatives and neighbors, in which the liberal witches and wizards who talk a kindhearted and compassionate game are really no different from the outright racist conservatives, merely more hypocritical:

All of this plays as an allegory for racism, up to a point … but only up to a point, because 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. Indeed, according to the rules of Rowling’s universe, that seems to be impossible. 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.
The first thing wrong with this picture is that there is a historical reason for the estrangement, from the late Middle Ages, when the Monsignor's co-religionists took to arresting the magical folk, torturing and jailing them, and sometimes tying them to stakes and burning them to death. The authorized history, Bathilda Bagshot's, is dismissive about this, as if overly careful not to frighten the kids—
Non-magic people (more commonly known as Muggles) were particularly afraid of magic in medieval times, but not very good at recognizing it. On the rare occasion that they did catch a real witch or wizard, burning had no effect whatsoever. The witch or wizard would perform a basic Flame Freezing Charm and then pretend to shriek with pain while enjoying a gentle, tickling sensation. Indeed, Wendelin the Weird enjoyed being burned so much that she allowed herself to be caught no less than forty-seven times in various disguises
—but it's easy enough to reconstruct the history in which the wizarding world separated itself from the Muggle world out of fear, with the most extraordinary care, trying to make itself entirely invisible, except to those whose children are born with the thing, like Hermione Granger, the heroine of the series, whose parents are Muggle dentists, or the Muggle Prime Minister, who is informed of magical activities on a need-to-know basis when things are getting out of hand (these are great scenes, by the way, and I was always sorry the movies left them out). Whenever Muggles blunder into learning something they shouldn't about the magical world, the Ministry of Magic is onto it very quickly, magically modifying their memories so that the fact just vanishes.

Though at the same time, there's interaction, at the heart of the secret, of the most intimate kind, because magical people and Muggles are constantly interbreeding, and wizards of mixed or all-Muggle parentage, known to the old-blood exclusive families as "Mudbloods", are all over the story. But in general magical people aren't an elite in the Muggle world or anything like it; they are in hiding.

And then Douthat is totally off-base in alleging that

In the Potter novels the selective school is conterminous with wizarding society as a whole (allowing for some elves and goblins to do maintenance and keep the books), and thus the threats to that world’s liberal integrity all come from within the academy’s walls, from Slytherin House and its arrogant aristocrats, who must be constantly confronted in the halls and classrooms of the beloved school itself.
In fact there is a class structure inside the magical community, though we don't get to learn much about it, the way you don't get to learn much about the working classes of 19th-century England from the novels of Austen or Thackeray. You meet a bus driver (Stan Shunpike) here, a conman there (Mundungus Fletcher), and Madam Rosmerta tending bar at the Three Broomsticks, and then all the unhappy Squibs born without magical abilities to wizarding families, and you begin to learn, if you're paying attention, that not everybody gets to go to magic school: Hogwarts educates two kinds of elites, basically, a landed aristocracy with vast quantities of money and their own (house elf) slaves, as represented by the awful Malfoy and Black and Lestrange families, and a relatively impoverished civil service, represented by the Weasleys, in the same way as Victorian Rugby and Harrow raised up the sons of dukes and earls and also the future district officers of India and Burma, managers and artists, priests and journalists, and academics, genteel but fated to work for a living.

In this way there is a point in what Douthat and his toad say, that the stories are

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, funneled through media and nonprofits and governmental agencies but responsible ultimately only to itself,” a story about a wizarding academy is the perfect fantasy story for the liberal meritocracy to tell about itself.
But it's not the point that he means to make; he's completely wrong when he supposes that the Hogwarts graduates are an elite with respect to the Muggles, or that they rule over them, in a kind of neglectful colonial manner. They're an elite only inside their own hidden and endangered community, not out in the Muggle world where they just look weird.

Actually there's something there Ross could have been working with. The Hogwarts school, the only institution for the education of witches and wizards in England, admits maybe 120 kids a year (15 boys and 15 girls for each of the four houses, judging from descriptions of the dormitories), and there have to be thousands of low-class magical folk, alongside the goblins and house elves, with more or less no social status, the wizarding poor. And they have no political voice: there's no hint of electoral democracy in the wizarding world, run by a Hong Kong–style bureaucracy where the leadership changes only in the occasional Ministry coup.

There's a Wizarding Working Class, in fact, impoverished and hopeless, and I have the distinct impression that they include a kind of woodchuck component lit by pride in their wizardly racial purity and hatred of the cosmopolitan "Mudblood". These are the people, for instance, who give birth to the wicked Lord Voldemort himself—the miserable Gaunt family, clinging to the memory of their past distinction (they're descendants of the ancient hero Salazar Slytherin), whose daughter is seduced and abandoned by the handsome Muggle Tom Riddle. Thus Voldemort, a.k.a. Tom Riddle Jr., is a "half-blood" himself, but his followers don't know that.

And while the "good" characters concern themselves with the problems of people beyond, from Arthur Weasley and his passionate interest in all things Muggle through Hagrid and his anxiety for endangered magical animals to Hermione and her brave campaign against the enslavement of the house elves, nobody cares at all about the magical WWC until Lord Voldemort comes along in his Death Eater quest for total power, using an anti-"Mudblood" crusade to attract supporters. Because although the Death Eaters we really get to know are all aristocrats, it seems clear to me that the following has to be broader than that: it certainly includes giants and werewolves, but it also includes wizards and witches of the disadvantaged class: the ones, for example, who make up Voldemort's SS organization, the Snatchers, who roam Britain in search of Muggle-borns, Blood Traitors, and Undesirables toward the end of the saga.

You see where I'm going here. Voldemort is not Donald J. Trump—he's the second most skillful wizard in the world, in spite of his dismal birth—although his principal flaw is Trump-like, his inability to care about any person other than himself. But his movement is very like Trumpism, moving the same kind of coalition of racists and opportunists drawn from among the princely, official, and hillbilly classes.

But Douthat's too busy with his "liberals are the real racists" message to see that. And then the other thing is that he really believes in the world of his own interpretation of the Potter stories, divided between the unlettered masses and the gifted elite (of which he himself, old Southern blood and Harvard finish, is an unquestioned member) that must rule them, so that the moral for him is that you mustn't let the masses get out of hand:

Because after all it was mostly Muggles, not some dark conspiracy by the Slytherin sort of conservatives, who put Donald Trump in power.
It is Muggles who keep turning to parties of the far left and farther right, Muggles who drift into radicalism and set off bombs. 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 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.
In the first place, it certainly was a conspiracy, Ross. And you're a Death Eater, though nobody told you about it. They just wouldn't let you in on it because you're too snobby and soft, like poor little Draco unable to do his assigned job and murder the headmaster. The way they're openly and frankly working-and-failing right now to collect their spoils, from the tax breaks for the Kochs to the sanctions breaks for the Putins to grabbing contracts for the Trumps, while the hillbillies are again totally forgotten, shows what kind of conspiracy it was. In the second place, tell me more about those Muggle far-left parties and Islamic terrorists, because last I heard, both tended to recruit a good deal more among the elite than otherwise. Which has been a deep problem for the left since forever.

In general, you know, I think it's also a deep problem for society—that more people at more social levels don't participate in political action. Rowling's novels don't teach that either, I'm afraid, but that doesn't bother me, because the political propriety of a book's moral isn't what I love it for. Though I do also love the moral that is there, that sometimes the most gifted one isn't the one who's brought up knowing he's going to Hogwarts but the one who's sleeping in the cupboard under the stairs.

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