Should Jeremy Corbyn somehow manage to win the United Kingdom’s General Election on 8th June, J. K. Rowling will be forced to take a principled stand against his rule. Which will presumably mean that she’ll go and sulk in a tent for several months. After all, she’s been vocal, even vociferous, in her opposition to his leadership of the Labour Party since before it started.
Well… it might not be a tent. She’s a billionaire, remember. This is something that people seem to forget, at least in effect. But I imagine sulking would form a large part of it, even if it took place in very comfortable surroundings. And snarking on Twitter. That would be a big part of it too. She’s done a lot of that about Corbyn already. She has tweeted and retweeted truckloads of declarations of his unelectability, his incompetence, etc. She piled on in the fake ‘Labour anti-semitism’ row, in which a handful of incidents – ranging from the piffling to the wantonly misconstrued to the fabricated – were talked up by the media into the chimera of a Labour Party stuffed with raging Jew-haters, with Corbyn as either Anti-Semite-in-Chief (Ken Livingstone presumably being his deputy) or as a passive permitter of all the internal Labour Party kristallnachts. (This is all the more reprehensible, by the way, because there is evidence that anti-semitism is on the rise out in the real world. But, surprisingly enough, it’s mostly not coming from Left-wing people who have issues with Israel.)
This isn’t to say that Corbyn is perfect. I’m not here going to elaborate a full position on Corbyn. If I did, I’d have many complaints to make. But let’s just state something: when Labour loses on 8th June, the largest single factor will be Corbyn’s unpopularity, which is largely a media artifact. I mean, you don’t have to especially admire Jeremy Corbyn to realise that when this manifestly sincere man is widely considered less competent, likeable, and trustworthy than Theresa fucking May – a woman he routinely trounces during PMQs; a woman so blatantly machiavellian that she does the Skeletor laugh, on camera, in the House of Commons – something funny is going on somewhere.
Of course, one expects the Right-wing press in Britain (which is almost all of it) to vilify the Labour leader, and especially to vilify Corbyn, a man with a long-history of principled socialist activism and campaigning. The British Right-wing press thought Ed Miliband was a Marxist. To them, Corbyn must look like an absolute lunatic. Seriously, this is what they think. Anyone who departs so far (which, by the way, is nowhere near far enough for me) from the Westminster consensus (i.e. the dogma of neoliberalism) must simply look, to them, like a twisted nutcase. But the fact is, he looks like a twisted nutcase to most of the ostensibly Left-leaning British press, i.e. the Guardian, the Independent, and some magazines… well, just the New Statesman, if we’re honest. (The Indy’s claim to be on this list is really just down to the fact that they have one or two left-leaning columnists.) Consequently, he looks like a twisted nutcase to many of their readers.
The real damage to Corbyn, at least from the direction of the media, and at least if we just shelve the issue of the BBC, has been done by this supposedly Left-leaning press. And this is the quarter with which J. K. Rowling has chosen to loudly align herself. Just the other day she retweeted a Sarah Ditum article from the News Statesman website, trashing Corbyn once again.
Now, I’m not one to criticise somebody for snarking on Twitter. God, no. That’s a person’s God-given right. I’ve even been known to indulge in it myself occasionally. But of course, when J. K. Rowling snarks on Twitter, people pay attention. Lots of people. I’m not even criticizing that, particularly. If I had that kind of platform, I’d use it. Damn skippy, I would. And she’s entitled to her opinion, and to promote it as loudly as she likes… and, naturally, since she’s a woman on the internet, she’s been nastily attacked for having opinions and defending them, which is wrong, and people shouldn’t send abusive tweets when she annoys them, etc etc etc. (I trust, by now, you all know how sincerely I mean all that, despite my casual way of saying it.)
But the reasons for Rowling’s influence… or maybe I mean ‘influentialness’… are interesting. There are a lot of people who pay attention to her not just because she wrote some books they love, but also because she says a lot of things they like. She’s outspokenly liberal, and even mildly leftyish, on social issues. She makes a big deal of paying her taxes… which is a baseline minimum requirement really, but which our world makes seem like something special. Like it or not, a lot of people like being able to cite her as being ‘on side’. They like the idea that someone they admire, someone who created characters they treasure, is with them, on the side of progress, etc. This is an understandable impulse. Most of us a prone to it from time to time, in one form or another. I’ve certainly enjoyed the knowledge that an artist I like agrees with me about stuff.
But Rowling, owing to the ridiculous and disproportionate success of her Harry Potter books, punches way above her weight in terms of influence and culturally-perceived moral authority. Really… the books aren’t that good. Not even the first three, which are genuinely good examples of the kind of thing they’re content to be: kids’ books. But it’s more than just their success. It’s also the fact that they are self-consciously and self-proclaimedly moral tracts about ‘tolerance’. Especially as they go along, the books acquire a thematic obsession with notions of tolerance and intolerance, freedom and persecution, and specifically of these things in relation to social attitudes to inborn identities. The whole ‘mudbloods’ thing escalates from being a sub-theme in the second book to being the main signifier of the evil of Voldemort. He is evil because he is a racial purist. When the import of the ‘mudbloods’ thing was ‘Draco Malfoy bullies Hermione because he thinks he’s better than her because of something about herself she can’t change – that’s horrible’ everything was fine. That’s a nice moral for a kids’ book. (Though I question how much impact it has. Bullies don’t perceive themselves as bullies. There will have been kids who were bullies at school who read that and rooted firmly for Hermione.) But when it becomes the basis for texts which imagine themselves to be complex meditations on prejudice… well, things get sticky.
But it’s this muddled project – and it really is very badly muddled – of using the Potter stories for the purposes of pontificating about tolerance that leads at least part of Rowling’s audience to prize her words and thoughts on issues of social justice. But this is a very, very bad idea. I say this not just because of her resolute opposition to an actual socialist leading the Labour Party, or just because she’s a billionaire Hollywood mogul (and thus in a different social class to most humans, with manifestly different and opposed interests to the rest of us), but even just by what’s in her books.
Apart from stuff I talked about last time (i.e. the ambivalent attitude to literacy: snobbery towards the illiterate combined with suspicion towards any concept of literacy as engagement in ideas, particularly oppositional or marginal ideas) there are other huge issues, some of which I’ve mentioned before in other pieces.
The books are filled with sentient ‘magical creatures’ who reflect ‘other’ races. The Elves, the Giants, the Centaurs, the Goblins… and I do mean other races, because the standard human being in Harry Potter is white. I’ll get into the specific problems with these representations another time. Suffice to say… it ain’t pretty. In fact it all gets as racist as all fuck. For now I want to take a little digression…
I confess to having been irritated by the whole ‘Black Hermione’ thing. Not by the decision to cast a Black actress as Hermione in the Cursed Child play. I don’t care about that, except insofar as I’m just generally glad when I see culture getting less smotheringly white. Nor am I referring to the longstanding habit of some to depict Hermione as Black or Asian in their fan-art. I think that’s usually quite nice. No, I mean the attendant phenomenon of people insisting that Book!Hermione is Black, or that it is possible to interpret Book!Hermione as Black. Because… well, sorry and everything… but she isn’t, and it isn’t. Book!Hermione is white. Because everyone in Harry Potter is white until Rowling tells us otherwise, either specifically (i.e. “Angelina Johnson was a Black girl”) or tacitly… by, say, calling a character “Padma Patil”. The Hermione-is/could-be-Black brigade often hinge their ‘arguments’ on a line in one of the books (Prisoner of Azkaban, I think…) in which Hermione is described as “very brown”. The trouble there is the context. You know, that stuff that enables us to understand what is happening and/or being said to us? Firstly, if Hermione is “very brown” because she just is, why are we being told about it? Why bring it up, apropos of nothing? And why now, suddenly, in Book 3? Secondly, she’s just come back from a foreign summer holiday. That’s the immediate context. Rather than opening the possibility of Hermione being a Black or Asian person, I’d say the line is definitive proof of her whiteness. I’m all for letting the reader construct their own reading… but when you start trying to ‘prove’ your reading using textual evidence that actually refutes your case… I mean, nobody would stand for it if I used isolated and context-free lines from Henry IV to prove that Falstaff is actually an extremely brave soldier.
The use of textual evidence is interesting in that it suggests a certain mindset on the part of fans. It simply isn’t enough for them – or at least for a certain type of them – to interpret the books the way they like. They want their interpretations to be ‘true’ or ‘correct’. And the reason they turn to Rowling – either in the text of the books, or in person – for settlement of the issues is because they think she gets to say who’s right and who’s wrong. Ironically, they have fallen back onto the idea of the authority of the author in an attempt to validate their own act of creative reading. And this is something they have learned from Rowling and her books. Because they books are written as collections of immutable facts about a place that Rowling alone fully knows and controls. This is partly why so many Potter fans go into ecstasies about Rowling’s use of continuity, and her ostensible mastery of the principle of Chekhov’s pistol. What she actually does, generally, is rifle through the bric-a-brac of previous books, find something she can re-use, and then act like its appearance in the earlier book was carefully-planned foreshadowing. This is important to her, and to her fans, because it reinforces the idea that Rowling has absolute knowledge of all the ‘facts’ about the Wizarding World, which is a coherent place with a past and a future, all of which is contained within the mind of the Omniscient Author. (I’d be tempted to suggest that this impulse comes from a subconscious awareness of the very historylessness of the Wizarding World that I talked about last time. It’s a defensive overreaction.). The experience of reading the books, if one buys into this perspective, is the experience of being told things, having things explained to you, by an authority figure who has total mastery over all the facts. The adventure becomes the gathering of all the facts, the accumulation of ‘knowledge’, the consumption of information. This is further reinforced by the fact that Harry spends a huge amount of his time being told things, and having things explained to him, by authority figures… whether is is eavesdropping on them from under his Invisibility Cloak, or listening to yet-another long-winded infodump from Dumbledore.
Rowling wouldn’t want to flout her own vocal social liberalism by appearing to step on the idea of a Black Hermione. Indeed, Rowling has embraced Black Hermione, or at least the possibility of Black Hermione, or at least the validity of interpreting Hermione as Black… which is interesting, and which must’ve hurt her. Not because she’s racist. I believe she’s genuinely a conscious anti-racist. It’s rather because she considers the Potter books to be dispatches from a universe of ‘facts’ about the Wizarding World that she keeps stored inside her head. This can be seen in the way she has imparted information about the pasts and futures of the characters, and nuggets of data about ‘what really happened’, since the publications of the books. The most notorious of these is, of course, her ‘revelation’ that Dumbledore was gay. (Again, we won’t go into that here, but trust me… it’s coming.)
(I should acknowledge that much of what I’m saying has been anticipated by others, especially by Dan Hemmens at Ferretbrain.)
Rowling has – in my opinion quite shamelessly – exploited the Black Hermione thing to try, once again, to make her Potter stories seem redolent of far more liberalism than she actually evinces in them. Whiteness is absolutely the default assumption in the books. Now, I don’t actually have much of a problem with this. It’d be unfair to single Rowling out for special opprobrium. But I don’t like that many, including Rowling, seem to want to deny it. And it becomes an issue when millions of people think of these particular stories as a primal cultural narrative, a moral-political touchstone… and specifically a touchstone of tolerance and anti-racism. (I will have more – and angrier – things to say about this at a later date.)
But again, the even more fundamental issue here is one of authority. Or… if I may once again indulge my habit of coining awkward new words… Authorthority. Authorthority is when people think of stories as dispatches from a world The Author knows exclusively and fully; of reading as the act of slowly being fed a list of facts about an unreal place by The Author, who is the ultimate arbiter of what is ‘true’ in that place. This is a bad way to train people to think, especially if you’re then feeding them your pronouncements about racism and politics and tolerance, etc. And this is as good a description of how millions of people – including, disturbingly, Rowling herself – seem to experience the Potter stories. Which is less than ideal when the ‘facts’ about tolerance and intolerance and politics that are being fed to the readers are, to be honest, pure liberal bourgeois ideology. (This sort of thing is hardly unfamiliar to any genre fan, least of all Doctor Who fans… and yet we have the luck to have no over-arching Author figure, just a succession of ‘stewards’ towards whom we tend to feel little reverence… precisely because we tend to think that they have temporary charge of something that is, in some way, ours. This isn’t always entirely healthy, to put it mildly, but it’s a different type of unhealthy to Authorthority as it appears in Rowling and Potter.)
Now, clearly, if there’s one figure in the Potter books who has any authority to decide what is or is not true, it’s Albus Dumbledore. But this power is not in opposition to Rowlings, to The Author’s Authorthority. It is Rowling’s Authorthority. Dumbledore’s manipulations, omissions, and explanations are Rowling’s – to us, the readers, who spend almost all of all the books seeing everything from the perspective of Harry, who is the main subject of Dumbledore’s manipulations, omissions, and explanations. Clearly, then, Rowling thinks – albeit unconsciously, I’m sure – of Dumbledore as being her spokesman, her mouthpiece… as her method of controlling the flow of ‘facts’ about the world she’s created… and more, as the authority figure who settles things one way or the other. He is her Authorthority, personified. Consequently, he is also her way of informing the reader about what’s right or wrong in morality and politics. In fact, he does this constantly.
All the more reason for Rowling to be perturbed by the fact that people often say Corbyn reminds them of Dumbledore. (God, I’m being really mansplainey today. But at the end of the day, I think the fact that she’s a billionaire capitalist is far more pertinent than the fact she’s a woman.)
Of course, Corbyn is not actually remotely like Book!Dumbledore, or even particularly like Film!Dumbledore. Nevertheless, he reminds many people of the Dumbledore that lives in their heads.
Book!Dumbledore (and Film!Dumbledore, who is a softened version, but still basically the same character) isn’t a wise, clever, compassionate, fair-minded battler for truth and justice. Going by the text, he’s a capricious, foolish, selfish, reckless, cynical, manipulative, calculating old autocrat who enjoys unearned privilege and, the odd gesture aside, never does anything about injustices he knows to be wrong. He allows children under his care to be abused in various ways – from the psychological abuse of ‘sorting’, to punishments which put them in direct physical danger.
As with several things, this sort of stuff isn’t a problem when we’re reading whimsical kids’ books. It becomes a problem when the books bloat – in several senses – and Rowling starts thinking she’s writing serious and dark political Fantasy set in the same silly world of the early books. It forces us to start asking questions about that world that were simply inappropriate if we’re just reading jokey kids material.
Dumbledore unabashedly plays favourites, allowing Harry to get away with outrageous infractions because he adores him, presumably because he believes Harry to be inherently superior to all the other kids. He says as much, even at one point claiming that Harry’s blood is worth more than his. (Again, I’ll pass over this here, but we’ll be coming back to this another time.) Meanwhile, he has relentlessly lied to Harry, kept things from him, and cynically raised him to be slaughtered at the appropriate time, manipulating and grooming Harry to the point where he is psychologically primed to sacrifice himself.
(Rowling is, of course, manifestly unaware of the fact that she actually wrote Dumbledore as a total bastard, much as she is unaware that she wrote Harry as a selfish little shit. As it happens, I agree with her on one thing: I really don’t think there’s much similarity between Dumbledore and Corbyn. Dumbledore and Theresa May, however…)
But for my purposes today, the most salient issue is that Dumbledore is wedded to the status quo, despite his occasional and two-faced criticisms of it. He never challenges the inherently undemocratic nature of Wizarding society. He has never actually done anything substantive about the abuses he fitfully acknowledges Wizards have committed against oppressed groups in their society. He happily stands by while his society wipes people’s minds – indeed, he does this himself at one point, to one of his own pupils, to protect himself from impeachment. Because him no longer being Headmaster of Hogwarts would change things, you see… and above all else, that must be stopped. That really is the quintessential moral imperative of Dumbledore, and of Harry, and of the books: things mustn’t change. (I know, I know, Hermione and SPEW… but that’s yet another of those cans of worms I’m going to open some other time.) That’s why Voldemort is evil: he wants to change things. That’s why Dumbledore is good: he wants to preserve things just as they are, injustices included. After all, we can remember to denounce the injustices occasionally, and maybe Hermione will get into the Ministry of Magic, and that’ll sort everything out. I’m told Rowling has dispatched yet more fact parcels about events after the books in which she says Harry and Hermione become great reformers. I’ll just remark that a) nothing like that is in the books, and in the books anyone who wants to change anything is always either evil or stupid, and b) they’re presumably still doing it from within the status quo… so the first thing to do, if you want to change anything, seems to be to accept the profoundly undemocratic Ministry as an inevitable fact of life. Hmm.
The Corbyn/Dumbledore comparison violates – at least potentially – Rowling’s Authorthority, her power of veto. As I say, what always seems to matter to Rowling is whether or not people are getting their ‘facts’ right about the Wizarding World. To her, there is one correct interpretation of the Potter stories, and she is the arbiter of it. For her readers, the reading consists of the act of slowly and passively waiting for J. K. Rowling to reveal this interpretation to you. And she does this by getting you to slowly and passively wait for her to reveal fact after fact after fact about the Wizarding World. Furthermore, if the facts she reveals clash with her official and licensed interpretation of events and characters, then she either studiously avoids noticing this, or – if pushed – is always ready with a retcon. What is important, at every stage, is that the readers are ‘on message’. She will occasionally ‘allow’ a creative reading where it appeals – Black Hermione for instance – but even that is telling. Fans take the idea to her and she sanctions it. This process is important to both.
This same approach is extended to the real world, hence her habit of using metaphors and analogies drawn from her own books to illustrate points about current politics. This isn’t just a habit she’s recursively picked up from her readers, through being in near-constant contact with them via social media. It’s even more recursive than that, because they themselves picked up the impulse to do it from the books.
And this is because, as the books progress, Rowling becomes ever more obsessed with the idea that they are dark and serious treatises on racism and prejudice and authoritarian government, etc, and impassioned pleas for tolerance and equality, etc. As I say, we’ll examine such claims for the books a bit more carefully another time. Suffice to say, this idea doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. But that itself works, because the kind of political consciousness displayed in the books is quintessentially centrist and mainstream liberal… which means, in practice, that it is superficially progressive but actually based on a total unquestioning acceptance of the economic, gender, and racial hierarchies of the status quo, of Western capitalism and imperialism.
I’d even go so far as to suggest that her Authorthoritarian mind-set is a function of what seems to be a fundamental impulse to defer to power, to say that ‘what is’ – certainly in terms of the basic structure of society – is right, by definition.
Rowling has, to anticipate later posts, literally reified the status quo, described it as magical, and depicted it as a glorious fantasyworld that is unquestionably better than this one… and yet is almost indistinguishable from this one. (Remember what I said last time about the effable mirror, the cameo reflection.) She has literally turned an idealised ideological reflection of the world we currently live in into a heavenly version of itself, specifically designed for mass consumption as magical wish-fulfillment. A lot of the wish-fulfillment comes from the idea that we can expect that heavenly version to provide any socially liberal progress we desire. Paradoxically, we are always reminded that Rowling’s world is dark and scary… and yet the only ostensibly dark and scary things in it are either the people it has crushed and subjugated, or those who want to change it in some way. Once again, as I described way back in the Merlin essay, the thing to do if you want progress is not to try to change the world, that makes you bad or stupid, but rather to wait for a fundamentally good status quo to eventually provide.
And there you have it. really. Corbyn – for all his many real faults – is someone who wants to change the world in some way. He’s not a revolutionary… but, as I say, the point is that he looks like one to people like Rowling. He wants to do more than be the personification of a benevolent status quo, the way Tony Blair was (a million or so dead brown people aside). This is the heart of the problem that people Blair (who has been going around telling people to vote against his own party, but who routinely still gets fawned over by the supposedly left-leaning media), and the Guardian and the Indy and the NS, and the Labour Right and most of the Labour PLP, have with Corbyn. And it’s the heart of the problem Rowling has with him.
Let me remind you once again: the woman who is regarded as being ‘on the Left’ and ‘progressive’ etc, and as a powerful moral voice, and even by some as an arbiter of moral truth, is a billionaire Hollywood mogul capitalist. Does that make her an inherently terrible person? No, that’s not what I’m saying. But it does mean that she has a totally different perspective on the world to almost all of the rest of the human species, a perspective based on totally opposed and conflicting interests.
Rowling has spoken out to defend the welfare state… and this is an instructive thing to look at. In so doing, she has often used her own story. But her story is a fluke series of events in which a single mother on benefits won the publishing contract lottery, published some above-average kids books, and then some below-average fantasy books notionally in the same series, sold the rights to Warner Bros., and happened to become a billionaire as a result. She is not typical. She is not a meaningful illustration of why we need social benefits and the welfare state. It’s almost as if she thinks the point of welfare is to help people to eventually become massively financially successful, rather than to help them… y’know… survive and retain some degree of dignity. The end-result of providing people with the welfare state and benefits seems to be, ideally, that they will go on to become productive members of capitalist society, either as billionaire entrepreneurs or, at least, as happy wage earners and taxpayers. It is, as is often the case, unfair to single Rowling out. These are hardly unusual assumptions on the liberal-left reformist side of things. However, as is also often the case, she’s an instructive illustration simply because she’s so vast and dense a cultural event. And the illustration reveals her fundamental reliance on the ideology of the capitalist status quo. Here, for instance, it is the myth of meritocracy. Ironic, given that in her books she recycles a version of the Calvinist ‘Doctrine of the Elect’. But then, as Weber pointed out, there are points of convergence between Calvinist doctrine and the ideology of capitalism (though he got the sequence wrong if you ask me). In the Doctrine of the Elect, some people are just saved – and that’s just the way it is. In the doggerel version, this becomes a way of saying that some people are rich because they’re just… well… better.
I suspect Rowling’s fundamental problem with Corbyn is that she perceives him as weak, as a failure. And there is literally nothing she hates more than weakness and failure. Seriously, read those fucking books. They detest weakness and weak people. There is nothing in those books but contempt for anyone who is weak, who fails. This is why Gryffindor is clearly the only really good house to be sorted into: it’s the house of the strong. Slytherin prizes success at any cost, so you’d think that, by my take on her, she’d like them too… but remember: they lose all the time. The definition of the contemptible.
Rowling’s primary howl against Corbyn has always been the main mantra of the supposedly-left anti-Corbyn media: that he’s “unelectable”. This has, as I say, become a classic self-fulfilling prophecy. Of course, Corbynism was always a gamble on a long game. I knew that when I signed up to it, just as I knew there’d be sell-outs and compromises along the way. Corbyn is a genuine socialist but he’s a reformist, working within the parliamentary system and not actively trying to overthrow capitalism – so he and I have fundamental disagreements. But imagine what could’ve been achieved by now if even just the supposedly left-media had swung behind him. Not by slavishly praising him no matter what he did, but simply by giving the poor fucker a chance, by not systematically misrepresenting and undermining him. Imagine if the Right in the Labour Party hadn’t launched a farcical coup against him which fatally undermined his public image. Imagine if people like Rowling hadn’t, from the start, anathematised and belittled him, declared him simultaneously a clown and an authoritarian. But then, we couldn’t expect anything but what we got… precisely because people, including Rowling, act according to the perceptions of the world, which are shaped by their place in the world, by their class positions and allegiances. (That is, of course, precisely the sort of observation almost entirely missing from the Potter books. Yes, rich and posh people are snobbish in those books, and the middle classes act very middle class… but it’s because of inborn, innate qualities. Ironically, given the books’ ostensible opposition to prejudice based on bloodline, in the books people’s personalities are in their blood. But again, I’m going to come back to this.)
The irony is that Corbyn is almost certainly going to lose on 8th June, not because he’s weak – fucking hell, you only have to look at the sheer stubborn grit he showed when he refused to resign, something Rowling criticised him for! – but precisely because he is hated by people, like Rowling, who perceive him as weak. And they make sure to perceive him that way because they are filled with even more fear and loathing by the idea that he – and the latent socialist idea he represents – might actually be, or might one day become, strong.
But hey, what do I know? I’m just an angry troll, apparently.
Oh, we’re at the end. (The irony is that my Potter posts are getting longer and longer and longer.) So it’s time for me to kill of a beloved regular character, because I want my readers to understand that I have a profound understanding of the reality of death. Daniel, you’re up. I was going to kill off Jane (I picked her at random) but I’m not sure female main characters really matter enough to kill.
P.S. I wrote a bit about the whole ‘mugwump’ thing but I cut it for reasons of space (ha!) and also because it didn’t quite fit anywhere. My Patreon backers will get exclusive access to it. (Hint hint.)