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Month July 2007

Harry Potter and Everyman as Hero

One last post on the now-completed Harry Potter series and then I’ll shut up; after all, Congress has just issued contempt subpoenas and it’s time for the next act in the Constitutional kabuki being played out in ultra-slow motion in Washington, D.C.

Among the more obtuse commentaries on the wrap-up of Harry Potter 7 is Will Leitch, on Slate this week, who hated the Epilogue for its ordinariness, domesticity, and its lack of apparent grandeur, calling it an “apparent waste.” Leitch asks, “Did we really go through all this just to see Harry, Ron, and Hermione take up residence on a cul-de-sac?

Well, Mr. Leitch – yes we did. And anything else would have been very disappointing, given the previous six books.

I believe Rowling brought us full circle to reinforce a central theme of the series. Aside from Voldemort, who until the final pages is superhuman, good and evil in the series are fought over by very ordinary people. Those who fight on both sides, with the exception of the sociopathic Bellatrix Lestrange, are relatively normal (apart from being magical, of course), with ordinary concerns and fears. Even the Malfoys, long a focus of evil deeds in the series, are revealed as being not that different than you or I. The Malfoys appear to welcome Voldemort’s return, but everyone (including the Dark Lord) can tell that they’d be just as happy if the past had stayed safely buried and Lucius could continue cashing in on his reputation as a former badass, instead of subjecting his wife and son to the realities of being part of the inner circle of Death Eaters once more. Ditto with his wife and son. There’s barely a scene in Book Seven where Draco doesn’t look sick at how this long-imagined power and freedom from morality really turned out.

On the side of good in the series, our combatants are — if anything — even more ordinary. Harry is revealed in Book Six as the purely accidental focus of Voldemort’s grand plans. His greatness stems not from his parentage (though of course some of his protection does), but from his need to deal with the consequences of that accident of history. Dumbledore himself has a complex past, revealed for the first time only in Book Seven, but capable of mistakes and hubris and miscalculation as any ordinary person is. Snape’s motivation in playing double-agent and protecting Harry turns out to be the oldest and simplest motivation around: love. Nor does life stop being lived: even as the final battle between good and evil approaches, Remus and Tonks have a son, Bill and Fleur are married, and our protagonists finally reach the age where romance is nearly as important as the location of the Horcruxes. Ordinariness permeates even the final showdown: Mrs. Weasley launches into battle with the purely evil Bellatrix, with the war cry of a mother defending her young: “Not my daughter, you b*tch!” The casualties, unlike the largely nameless dead of Tolkien’s classic battles, are friends, family, loved ones.

In short, Rowling shows us how we would fight (and hopefully defeat) tyranny and evil — not as professionals, not as superheroes — but just as normal people like you and I. Even the worst threat to our way of life requires nothing more than mobilizing ourselves, recognizing the threats, and organizing to meet them, or so I think Rowling would have us believe. Unlike the Lord of the Rings — from which Rowling seems to take inspiration in many ways, but in which humble Strider turns out to be King Aragorn, destined to rule all Middle-Earth, and the Ring-bearing hobbits are granted eternal life — Rowling shows us that ordinary people can act in extraordinary ways to stop extraordinary evil, and yet desire nothing more as reward than the return of normalcy. The cozy domesticity of the epilogue is thus critical to the entire series. Harry, for all his strength and eventual wisdom, gets precisely what he’s always wanted: a normal life, with the ability to send his children off to school knowing they’ll be safe, returning with Ginny to their house on Leitch’s imagined cul-de-sac.

We used to call that kind of ending “living happily ever after.”

J.K. Rowling and a Morality Tale for Modernity

Having just finished the seventh and final book in the Harry Potter series, I want to record some thoughts about the “shape” the series has taken, and how Rowling’s work fits into, and comments upon, the modern condition. I’ll try to do so without “spoilers,” since I know many folks haven’t read book 7 yet or at least haven’t finished it.

It seems clear to me that Rowling’s series will have an enduring place in both the fantasy and children’s canons, in much the same way that Tolkien does, and for many of the same reasons. Naysayers aside, Rowling has created a deeply imagined world, and although she may not have actually written a grammar for Parseltongue or endless volumes of back history notes, the world itself is rich enough to interest children and adults alike as long as the genre itself remains part of our shared cultural heritage.

Her legacy as more than fantasy, more than children’s literature, however, depends entirely upon the relevance of her themes to the concerns adults face in our society — as with so much literature. And I need to add that I discuss Rowling along these lines only because she herself appears to have invited such comparisons by writing a series rich in historical parallels; by writing a morality tale steeped in modern life.

As I finished Rowling’s final book in the series, I was reminded immediately of Richard Rorty’s commentary upon Orwell’s historical legacy:

Orwell’s best novels will be widely read only as long as we describe the politics of the twentieth century as Orwell did. How long that will be will depend on the contingencies of our political future: on what sort of people will be looking back on ours, on how events in the next century will reflect back on ours, on how people will describe the Bolshevik Revolution, the Cold War…..Someday this description of our century may come to seem blinkered or shortsighted….Our descendants will read him as we read Swift — with admiration for a man who served human liberty, but with little inclination to adopt his classification of political tendencies or his vocabulary of moral and political deliberation….In the forty years since Orwell wrote, as far as I can see, nobody has come up with a better way of setting out the political alternatives which confront us. Taking his earlier warnings against the greedy and stupid conservatives together with his warnings against the Communist oligarchs, his description of our political situation — of the dangers and options at hand — remains as useful as any we possess. (Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, pp. 169-170).

One need not have read the seventh and final book to understand the shape of Rowling’s allegory (but naturally, the force of it becomes much clearer as one sees the details of Voldemort’s return and rise to power). I do claim, though, that Rowling has done a superb job in describing a particular phenomenon: the ordinariness and mundanity of tyranny’s origins.

The Lord of the Rings may inspire us, and we may see in it the quintessential struggle between good and evil, but very little of Tolkien’s morality tale is of much use to us today. We simply do not describe modern life the way Tolkien did, and thus in Rorty’s words we read him as we read Swift. Rowling’s tale, on the other hand, was crafted precisely to describe us. The Wizarding world is palpably our own, with an overlay of magic — but even the magic is law-like and “ordinary” (i.e., wizards must work for basic necessities, and cannot simply conjure food or shelter).

Most importantly, over the course of the series, but especially from book 4 onwards, we are treated to a compressed history of 20th century absolutisms. Dark power has reigned in the past, but was conquered by an alliance of the good. Years later, people are tired of grand struggles and appear more than ready to dismiss all the signs of evil’s return. Vested interests combine with those who simply wish to protect their skins (e.g., the Malfoys), or are in denial (e.g., early Dolores Umbridge?) to wield the power of media, the state, and peer pressure to deny that anything is amiss. Those who preach vigilence against the return of evil are dismissed as fools or worse. Only a few are truly committed — either to evil or to fighting its return. And because most are simply seeking “the quiet life,” the actual battles, when fought, are the province of a tiny minority who fight on behalf of their different visions of society.

I’m not claiming that Rowling literally replays the history of the 20th century for us in the Harry Potter books. She doesn’t. But, at least to me, there are elements (especially in the final book, which I won’t spoil) which recall the Nuremburg Laws, Hitler’s rise to power, and to look for wider parallels, the search for “purity,” whether racial or national. Nor are the triumphs of the left ignored: Hermione’s long-standing crusade on behalf of house-elves (even more critical in the last book) mirrors the 20th century civil rights movements and its cultural offspring, with the message that democracy and freedom depend upon equality and inclusiveness. The latter point will sound like a bit of a stretch, until Book Seven.

Clearly it’s possible to read the Harry Potter series without hearing serious echoes of Kristallnacht. But for an adult, with basic familiarity with 20th century history, it seems difficult to read the series and ignore its essential point: our vulnerability comes from complacency and comfort, but so does our security, because only our relative abundance and our freedom of speech allows us to expand our moral universe to include those traditionally excluded: the Muggle-born, house-elves, goblins, and giants, and in our world, those of different colors, beliefs, and cultures.

Rowling has written the morality tale for modernity, and indeed likely for our “post-modern” century as well, because “evil” in our world tends to come in the same form as hers: the belief that purity — of one sort or another — is the cure for our dissatisfaction, and that diversity, hybridity, and difference are weakness. As long as we continue to describe our struggles and dangers in the same way, as long as those who seek to destroy liberal democracy (in the broadest sense of the term) do so in the name of a hypothetical, “pure” state of religion, culture, or race, we will still have much to learn from J.K. Rowling.

President for a Day…?

On second thought, I’m going to wish President Bush well with his colonoscopy tomorrow. I hope it goes smoothly, and above all, quickly. Dick Cheney really is going to be President for a good chunk of tomorrow, and it appears that at least the wingnuts are happy about that fact. Suggestions at the NRO’s blog for Dark Lord Acting President Voldemort’s Cheney’s “to do list” include:

Bomb Iran.

Commute the sentences of those border agents.

Fire Mike Chertoff.

Tell Harry Reid to … well, you know…

Pardon Scooter

Of course, I strongly doubt that Cheney will actually do anything too serious tomorrow, except in a real emergency situation. Apart from telling Harry Reid to…well, you know…few of these things wouldn’t have major consequences. And that would just hurt the GOP further in their attempt to run a serious presidential campaign (although I hear that Mr. None Of The Above is finally pulling ahead of the pack in the latest polls….).

But just the same, I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled for the Dark Mark signs of misbehavior on the part of the Veep, who isn’t known for his mild temper and sunny disposition (or his aim, according to his duck-hunting buddies).

Sticking to the Script: Executive Privilege and Contempt Citations

Today the Washington Post reported that the Administration will not allow the Justice Department to pursue contempt proceedings in the US attornies firing scandal. This is wholly unsurprising: the White House is sticking closely to what seems to be the script of a spaghetti Western: Showdown on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Congress isn’t done here, by a long shot. Credibility in the 2008 elections pretty much rides on keeping the heat on, especially since the Administration is now employing the tactics of slow tactical retreat on a number of issues that have long been recognized by many to be losing battles both morally and for public opinion (I’m thinking especially of today’s executive order banning the CIA from using torture enhanced interrogation tactics). I’d expect the next step to be Congress actually testing the Administration’s resolve to block grand jury proceedings by formally requesting such, at least in the case of Harriet Miers and Joshua Bolten.

But when the Administration steps up and does block the Justice Department from carrying out its statutory and constitutional obligations, Congress must be ready to turn the page and move on to the next scene in the showdown, which will likely be a series of lawsuits filed in the DC Federal courts. Although I have to admit, I’m more and more attracted to the idea of the Sergeant-at-Arms marching up to the White House gates every time the President pulls one of these power-grab maneuvers.

I was going to finish with a joke about the President’s colonoscopy, but that would be in bad taste. I’ll leave the possibilities to your imagination.

Of Paradise Terrestre, A Year Hence

A year ago this weekend, I moved north from Seattle to my new home on San Juan Island. The past year has been both quiet and eventful, which was pretty much the mixture I was seeking, given that the previous decade was merely eventful, with only brief moments of relaxation. I returned this morning from a week in Seattle, dealing with personal errands, seeing friends, and attending a wedding reception, and as always, stress and anxiety bleed away once past the kiosk at the Anacortes ferry dock. Once I’ve made the ferry, I have only to sit back, read or study, and very soon I’m watching green and brown island slopes slide past, mountains in distant background glimpses, occasionally an eagle or seal.

After a week or so in the city, I’m always blown away when I return home, particularly to my little corner of the islands: the expansive meeting place of San Juan Channel, President’s Channel, Rocky Bay, and the more distant Haro Strait. As I sit here, after a nice dinner out on the deck (roasted chicken and potatoes, greek salad, Bandol rose), the cooling weather brings up a salty, seaweedy breeze from the water — amazingly refreshing after a week of unreasonably hot weather in Seattle.

As every summer, but especially these last two years, I recall Durrell’s opening lines in my favorite “travel” book:

Somewhere among the notebooks of Gideon I once found a list of diseases as yet unclassified by medical science, and among these there occurred the word Islomania, which was described as a rare but by no means unknown affliction of spirit. There are people, as Gideon used to say, by way of explanation, who find islands somehow irresistible. The mere knowledge that they are on an island, a little world surrounded by the sea, fills them with an indescribable intoxication….But like all Gideon’s theories it was an ingenious one. I recall how it was debated by candlelight in the Villa Cleobolus until the moon went down on the debate, and Gideon’s contentions were muffed in his yawns; until Hoyle began to tap his spectacles upon his thumbnail of his left hand, which was his way of starting to say goodnight….Yet the word stuck; and though Hoyle refused its application to any but Aegean islands….we all of us, by tacit admission, knew ourselves to be ‘islomanes.’

Lawrence Durrell, Reflections on a Marine Venus

I barely recall the thought process that seized me in the winter of 2006, and set me on the path to this gorgeous spot: closing the doors at Network Clarity, losing my mother and aunt in the same year, the drive every day from Seattle to Redmond….and the urge to simply flee. Originally I thought about Saltspring Island, to be closer to friends up there, but I have no regrets that I stayed this side of the border. The border which I look out upon in Haro Straight, just past Spieden and Flattop Islands.

Last night I talked with a friend at a wedding reception, and it turned out we’d both rented the same villa in Bandol, in Provence. We shared some memories of sitting on the deck there, overlooking the Mediterranean and within a few minutes of the Tempier vineyards to the north. My friend is considering looking for property in Bandol, and for the briefest moment last night I thought….maybe. Those thoughts were banished by the ferry ride today, the sea air tonight, and the upcoming sunset. Wherever else I may visit, I really have found my Paradise Terrestre. I have no regrets and regard myself lucky beyond measure.

Congressional Subpoenas: Next Steps

OK, so the “showdown” between Congress and the White House isn’t exactly gunfight at the OK Corral. It’s going to play out in excruciatingly slow motion. And not even flying-through-the-air-two-guns-blazing John Woo slow motion. Real slow motion. The kind where we might forget it’s happening unless we pay attention.

Today, as expected, the White House “refused” to allow former political director Sara Taylor and former White House counsel Harriet Miers to testify under oath. As predicted, Fred Fielding and the White House obfuscated the issue, describing their efforts at “good faith” negotiation and talking up how they’d offered “private, off the record” interviews, much as they did in the earlier wrangle about testimony by Justice Department officials. And, in case we’d all forgotten, the same way they argued that Condoleeza Rice ought not to testify before the 9/11 Commission. This is a long-standing strategy to avoid testimony under oath, which everyone knows is the only way to compel the truth in cases where folks don’t necessarily want to tell the truth.

Interestingly, in this case, it seems like Sara Taylor doesn’t really mind testifying. She’s told the Senate committee that absent direction from the White House, she would testify without hesitation. So in the days ahead, it’ll be interesting to see how strongly she and her counsel weight the White House’s directive. They can’t prevent her, or Harriet Miers, from testifying, and naturally the Senate can bring to bear offers of immunity, not to mention contempt citations, to attempt to either entice or compel that testimony. Neither Conyers nor Leahy want to cite Taylor with contempt of Congress, but that may be the only way to resolve the situation, since it would immediately cause Taylor to file for declaratory relief and the issue of executive privilege would reach a Federal court fairly quickly.

Congress is far from being out of weapons in this particular controversy, and the White House has only two: the ability to “spin” this as baseless partisanship, and an apparently inexhaustible capacity to stonewall. The days ahead will see how those two assets stack up against the rule of law, Congressional authority, and the judicial system.