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Day July 23, 2005

Book #40: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Like many people, I’m a fan of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, and pre-ordered Book Six from Amazon. When it arrived, I settled back and prepared for the story to get deeper, darker, and more “adult.” I wasn’t disappointed. These are clearly not children’s books anymore — in fact, that category really only applies to the first several in the series.

I loved Book Six (The Half-Blood Prince), and I’m not going to discuss the plot much here, since I know a few friends who have not yet had a chance to read it. Instead, I want to echo Mika LaVaque-Manty’s thoughts on Harry Potter as a morality tale. Morality in the books comes not from supernatural forces (of any kind) — good and evil are situated quite concretely in the actions and predilections of individual wizards. Harry and his friends are responsible for their own moral growth, and are not “told” how to solve their greatest challenges. Dumbledore has never forced Harry to fight Voldemort, nor does Dumbledore (recall the end of Book 5) seem to regard the “prophecy” as a force unto itself; instead, the prophecy is given force by Voldemort’s (and to a lesser extent, Harry’s) belief in it. Dumbledore’s consistent role throughout the books has been as a guide for Harry, and a protector until he was sufficiently awake to his powers and situation that he could assume the role of an independent moral agent.

In this way, the Harry Potter series is quite different from Tolkein’s saga as a morality tale. Lord of the Rings is clearly identifiable as an epic struggle between good and evil, but in the grand tradition of epic poetry and Norse sagas, morality is situated at the level of the tale as a whole — individuals within the LoTR cycle don’t really evolve. I’m quite sure that’s overgeneralized, but at some level it’s true — Aragorn doesn’t change much if at all throughout the series; instead, Aragorn changes the events around him, and the events tell the morality tale. (One could make a case, for example, for moral evolution in Boromir, but it plays a fairly minor part in the overall story). The Harry Potter series, on the other hand, is all about individual moral development, and is for that reason a much deeper tale than the simple moniker “children’s literature” would seem to suggest.

Coming home to Apple…

It’s been a long time since I’ve owned a computer made by Apple, probably since 1996-7 when I boxed up my Centris 660AV for the last time, but yesterday I became an Apple owner again! 

I’ve had Powerbook lust for a long time now, especially for the sexy little one.   My work laptop is a Dell Inspiron 8500, which has plenty of power for development and a nice bright widescreen display, but it’s too large to work with in coach on most airlines, and it weighs a ton.  I wasn’t ready to spend a ton of money on a new Powerbook, though, so I decided recently to just set a limit (well under $1000), and keep playing the eBay game until I won an auction. 

Which happened this last week, and yesterday I brought home a 12", 1.0GHz G4 Powerbook with 768MB of RAM and a 60GB drive.  The case has a small scratch, and the "eject" key needs to be repaired (I think I’ll end up ignoring it or replacing the keyboard, depending on the cost of the latter), but otherwise it’s in pretty nice shape.  I’m in the middle of installing software this weekend (Tiger, MS Office, Firefox, NetNewsWire, Eclipse, TextWrangler/BBEdit) and then I’m in business.

One question, for Mac aficionado readers — I’m a big user of Microsoft OneNote for outlining and notetaking on Windows.  Does anybody have recommendations for a Mac equivalent?

I’m so happy to be back in the fold again.  It’s been too long. 

Book #39: Jeffrey Issac, The Poverty of Progressivism

Jeffrey Issac’s 2003 book, The Poverty of Progressivism, is a
sobering but realistic look at why a progressive majority will be
difficult to rebuild in the United States.  Issac’s work is, therefore,
almost the polar opposite of Judis and Teixeira’s The Emerging Democratic Majority.  Issac’s argument for a "chastened" progressivism
resonated strongly with me
because it echoed a great deal of the historical research I’ve been doing lately. 
The Progressive period in American politics is quite simply different than the situations we face today. 

Sure, parallels exist between the later Gilded Age and today, and certain of the social
conditions which gave rise to the Progressive era have strong parallels today, but the
similarities end there.  Perhaps the biggest difference between the period 1890-1920 and today is that we currently lack a broad-based movement among working Americans which presses the political parties for progressive reforms.  Instead, today’s broad-based movements are “conservative” and aimed at cultural, rather than economic, issues.  This difference alone is enough to support Issac’s pessimistic outlook for progressivism in the United States, but it’s not the only or most important difference.  More important is the structural difference in economies between the Progressive Era and today.  The “globalization” of the economy has greatly lessened the ability of national governments to introduce progressive reforms against private economic actors which can be made to “stick.”  This simple fact forms the background against which today’s progressives must rethink their strategy, political economy, and policy proposals.  Issac’s book is a good first step in this direction, although I’m less convinced than he is that a focus on civil society organizations is our path of least resistance. 

I didn’t intend this to be a full essay on the subject; I am working on a couple of essays for Progressive Commons related to this topic and I’ll be returning in one of them to Issac’s argument, since although I believe Judis and Teixeira are perceptive about the potential demographics of progressives, demographics alone won’t help because the underlying political economy presents powerful barriers to our traditional notions of progressive policy and reforms.