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Sunday, April 01, 2018

Matt Bruenig Tries to Figure out Harry Potter from op-eds

So it turns out that Noted commentator Matt Bruenig has an almost unique perspective because he can read but hasn't read any Harry Potter books. So Elisabeth Bruenig interviewed him trying to find out what he could figure out about Harry Potter based on Harry Potter references in political commentary.

It is actually very interesting.

Matt Bruenig is a total hero, because he is willing to display total ignorance on a topic where many (most) people are well informed. He is especially a hero, because the actual content of the interview will not be helpful to his causes.

Bruenig is notably a leftist (no he's not old, his twitter avatar is a photo of John Rawls). His view of Harry Potter is largely based on a Ross Douthat collumn and he, oddly, assumes that Douthat is more or less fair to JK Rowling (who is also a leftist even if Bruenig seems unconvinced).

There are two interesting misconceptions. Bruenig guesses that Voldemort is the dean of Hogwarts & can't figure out what Dumbledore is doing in the book. And Bruenig assumes that wizards don't just segregate themselves from muggles but also act as a ruling class (not just death eaters and in book 7 but all of them starting in book 1).

I think it is mildly interesting that Bruenig assumes the bad guy is in power at the beginning of the series. Listening to the podcast, I am struck by the importance of the very first chapters of the first book in which the Dursley's abuse Harry Potter. After that, it is not easy to think of muggles as an oppressed under-class.

Bruenig denounces the good guy wizards and Rowling for segregating. He sure doesn't believe in separate but equal. But the point is that no one (successfully) communicated to him that the Harry Potter books are set in the contemporary UK with parliament and prime ministers and such. He doesn't consider the possibility of separate but equal as fantasy. It might be that Douthat was being mischievous and trying to portray the leftist Rowling as an elitist & Bruenig just assumed that things were as insinuated by Douthat. It is certainly true that the premise of the books is not plausible (for example, magic would be even more widely abused -- oh and magic doesn't really exist -- that's implausible too).

I am now reading the Douthat column. I must admit that "For the six readers who have never read the Potter books but who have stuck with the column thus far nonetheless:" is a good line. By that point, however, Douthat had left no doubt that he considers Rowling a political enemy -- she will not be forgiven by a never Trump Republican for unfavorably comparing Trump to Voldemort. Rowling is quite left wing, but it would be nice if one conservative left politics out of it once, just to see what it's like. Oh and it would also be nice if one ever accepted that non-conservatives don't reject all thoughts of conservatives out of tribal hostility (and projection ?).

Douthat honorably notes that he got his idea from someone who uses the pseudonym Spotted Toad. Mr Toad doesn't make much sense. He says the appeal of Rowland is to people who are loyal to a school like Hogwarts. Uh Spotted (can I call you spotted) if Rowland appealed only to people loyal to elite educational institutions, she wouldn't be so rich. There aren't enough such people to buy a book onto the best sellers list (notably there are lots of people, including Douthat, who are ostentatiously disloyal to the elite educational institution without which they would not be prominent). On the other hand, Bruenig's belief that muggles are an underclass is based on ignoring Douthat's clear explanation "Muggles are non-magical folks, the billions of regular everyday human beings who live and work in blissful ignorance that the wizarding world exists. " which is actually also a good line -- a very brief very clear summary of a point that Bruenig missed. Douthat does insist that, in real life, Hogwarts graduates rule the world & that this is a problem. This is forcing the discussion to the home territory of an pseudo anti-elitist member of the elite of the elite. This may have confused Bruenig, but it wasn't a trick. In contrast, Douthat did assert that Hogwarts is coterminous with the wizarding world & the challenges to Hogwarts come from inside the school which explains why Bruenig thought Voldemort was at Hogwarts and had no idea that there is a Ministry of Magic in the books.

I think we do actually learn something about Bruenig from the fact that he seems to assume that power will be abused, so even the nicer wizards rule over muggles. It is certainly true that the Rowling idea of wizards hiding, even though they have the power is not plausible.

But the very alarming thing is that Bruenig proposes violent overthrow of wizards followed by something along the line of genocide -- he conceeds that Harry Potter seems to be a nice guy so it would be OK to just sterilize him. But he has the idea that there can't be peace and equality with some people so much more capable than the rest of us.

I have to admit that he might be right -- disbelief in the possibility that wizards generally hide their skills can be suspended, but disbelief sure makes a good bit of sense. But the idea that rough equality of ability must be achieved by sterilization and a sort of egalitarian eugenics does sound a good bit like a right wing parody of the left.

I suppose, the open mindedness based on not reading the books and suspending disbelief has its advantages. I do wonder what humanicy could do with the extreme inequality of ability of wizards and muggles (this is also a big theme in the generally underappreciated Marion Zimmer Bradley Darkover novels).


Anonymous said...

Jk isn't a leftist

JimV said...

Is so (assuming Jk is meant to be Rowling).

(Argument by assertion must be countered by counter-assertion, on the Internet.)

Dan Crawford said...

I like the Darkover series.