Harry Potter and the Ministry of Magic
I’m going to write a few posts about Harry Potter in anticipation of seeing the latest, and final, film.
Alyssa Rosenberg has a good list of the political lessons found in the Harry Potter books and films. I can’t help but take issue with her #3, however:
3. Bureaucrats are heroes. Whether it’s Mr. Wealsey’s unheralded service in the Misuse of Muggle Artifacts Office, or the lessons of Kingsley Shacklebolt’s time as an auror that made him a strong leader of the Order of the Phoenix, and later, Minister of Magic, bureaucrats are often heroes in Rowling’s universe. When the bureaucracy’s corrupted by people like Dolores Umbridge under Voldemort’s rule, it’s a genuine tragedy.
I’m not sure about this. It strikes me that a good portion of the time Harry and Dumbledore are actively disobeying and undermining the bureaucracy which is often slow, stubborn, and mired in denial. Even item #5 on Alyssa’s list – a critique of Cornelius Fudge’s character – helps bore this out. And the arch-bureaucrat Arthur Weasley comes off as more an exception to the rule, though his fascination with all things Muggle puts him at odds with his role as an investigator with the Misuse of Muggle Artefacts Office.
Harry Potter is not a story of the evils of bureaucracies either, but it is often about breaking the rules. The Ministry of Magic is nothing if not a collection of often arbitrary rules and the petty people who seek to enforce them. In some ways the resistance to the Ministry by both the Hogwarts academic institution and the Death Eaters is oddly similar. Both Dumbledore and Voldemort hew to older rules, to more ancient traditions, and neither can be trifled to adhere to the political whims and bureaucratic red-tape of the Ministry. They do so for very, very different reasons obviously, but they do so nonetheless. Harry is cut from the same cloth.
In the end, the bureaucracy fails and it is the rule-breakers who must come to the rescue – time and time again, right up to the bitter end. If anything, the books help show us that bureaucrats should not be relied upon and that individuals and civil society must be turned to when government becomes too self-serving or corrupt to carry its own weight.
The Potter books are not anti-government, either. Rowling is a liberal and the books are filled with liberal values of tolerance and equality. But they are realistic portrayals of the many ways that power corrupts even well-meaning institutions and actors. Dumbledore’s character is perhaps the most powerful of all in these books, and he constantly turns away from power, even though that costs him his life.
Are there more political lessons in these books that are missing from Alyssa’s list? What do you think?
And will you be donning your wizard’s robes this weekend?