Sunday, July 18, 2004

Harry Potter, Capitalist Tool

The New York Times published this translation of an article in the French newspaper Le Monde, which tries desperately to paint a very, well, interesting image of the significance of the Harry Potter books. Its author Mr. Yocaris makes some interesting points, but one has to wonder which glasses the guy was reading the book with. For example:
The apprentice sorcerers are also consumers who dream of acquiring all sorts of high-tech magical objects, like high performance wands or the latest brand-name flying brooms, manufactured by multinational corporations. Hogwarts, then, is not only a school, but also a market: subject to an incessant advertising onslaught, the students are never as happy as when they can spend their money in the boutiques near the school. There is all sorts of bartering between students, and the author heavily emphasizes the possibility of social success for young people who enrich themselves thanks to trade in magical products.
Evidently Mr. Yocaris failed to notice during his extensive reading of the Potter series:
  • that each student gets only one wand, not a series of newer and better wands (and wands are selected for individual fit, not for "high-tech" features). (I will grant him the consumerism over the brooms, though, but because of the small size of the wizarding community, the firms that manufacture them bear little resemblance to the "multinational corporations" of our world.)
  • that students are quite a bit happier with personal growth and achievement than they are on trips to Hogsmead
  • that the few mentions of advertisement in the books hardly amount to an "incessant onslaught" (for the definition of "incessant onslaught", visit any free clip-art website that employs pop-up ads)
  • that Fred and George Weasley, who open their own magical joke shop, are not only not the main characters, but are the only characters that achieve social success by trading in magical products
For example, Bill Weasley, who works for the goblin bank Gringotts, is presented as the opposite of his brother, Percy the bureaucrat. The first is young, dynamic and creative, and wears clothes that "would not have looked out of place at a rock concert"; the second is unintelligent, obtuse, limited and devoted to state regulation, his career's masterpiece being a report on the standards for the thicknesses of cauldrons.
Yocaris must have missed the parts where Percy was Head Boy and got a whole bunch of O.W.L.'s and N.E.W.T.'s (representing high academic achievement). In fact the major irony in the character of Percy is that being so smart, he is so easily duped into denying reality by the promise of success in working for the (decidedly socialist) Ministry of Magic bureaucracy. If Yocaris wants to hold Percy up as the underdog bureaucrat who is (capitalist portrayals aside) actually quite acute and devoted to something meaningful in life, he ought to read Percy's character a little more carefully first.
The apprentice sorcerers are thus alone in their struggle to survive in a hostile milieu, and the weakest, like Harry's schoolmate Cedric Diggory, are inexorably eliminated.
I can't imagine why Yocaris cites Diggory as "the weakest" in the struggle for the Triwizard cup in Goblet of Fire. His selective vision seems to be ignoring the French girl Fleur Delacour, who failed miserably in two out of three tasks. Diggory, by contrast, was winning after the first task, and tied for first place with Harry Potter after the second task. Moreover, Diggory and Potter fight through the third and final task together, ultimately intending to tie for first place. This wonderful cooperative moment is thwarted, however, by the actions of people (notably portrayed as evil) who are more interested in dominating people and don't really seem to care about cooperation, empathy, or other non-capitalist virtues.
The fictional universe of Harry Potter offers a caricature of the excesses of the Anglo-Saxon social model: under a veneer of regimentation and traditional rituals, Hogwarts is a pitiless jungle where competition, violence and the cult of winning run riot.
I'm with him, right up to the colon. Clearly Hogwarts is supposed to run parallel to the schools that epitomize the "Anglo-Saxon social model", and clearly there are caricatures in the book of the excesses of bureaucracy among other things; but Mr. Yocaris evidently thinks he lives in an advertising-free part of France where people give things away instead of selling them, where bureaucratic hierarchies are by nature non-competitive, and where people pet unicorns underneath happy rainbows for a living. I'm really curious to know where there is a place that isn't "a pitiless jungle", so that I can compare it to either the real world or the Potterverse.

The Potterverse is, as Mr. Yocaris asserts, definitely a capitalist universe. However, if it were anything else, it would be as stupefyingly boring as the politically correct novel that some of my friends had to read their freshman year in college, that was deliberately designed to be entirely non-competitive and include the correct balance of characters according to race, gender, ability, and sexual orientation. Nothing of interest ever happened to the wheelchair-bound lesbian Latina main character, or to any of her similarly diverse friends.

If you're going to take on Harry Potter as a champion for your political viewpoint (something that J. K. Rowling herself discourages), you'd do well to get your basic facts straight. It's not that hard to do, especially when there are websites like this one that you can turn to.