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Is Harry Potter an apologist for neoliberalism? Leftist critics of JK Rowling's novels show how partisanship rots the brain

Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images

January 25, 2019   4 mins

If you want evidence that being partisan rots the brain, take a look at Leftist commentary criticising ‘neoliberals’ for loving Harry Potter. A classic of the genre was published recently by one RJ Quinn, which sets out such a brain-bendingly idiotic misreading of JK Rowling’s novels I could have wept. The hypothesis is that neoliberals love the Potter franchise because it presents a world in which “the magic of facts and reason and elite education were enough to vanquish the ills of society”.

Well, thanks to my seven year old daughter, I’ve just reread all one million words of the Harry Potter novels, and I can tell you that Lord Voldemort is not defeated by facts, reason or elite education. He’s defeated by love. Call this saccharine, by all means. Call it derivative. But don’t call it neoliberalism.

I count seven occasions when love – or an allied emotion like compassion, or loyalty – is instrumental in saving Harry and undermining the noseless supervillain. And zero occasions on which facts or reason are the deciding factor – and don’t contradict me by mentioning the puzzles the children solve to reach the Philosopher’s Stone, because those were put there by the teachers. When it comes to defeating evil, it’s emotion that matters.

As for celebrating the power of elite education, well, I accept that the books are mostly set at a school, and a selective one at that. But two of our three heroes are bad at their lessons and get pretty shocking grades. Harry, who saves the world, is a dreadful student. He cheats at Potions. He is hopeless at Occlumency. He flunks Divination.

And all three of them – even super-brain Hermione – literally drop out of school a year before graduation to save the world. Even the musical Grease pushes the establishment view that your life will be a disaster if you leave school early. Harry Potter says dropouts can save the world.

And of course, it is wandlore – the impenetrably complex interactions between wands, and their relationships with their masters – that finally defeats Voldemort. This is put forward as an area of magical study in which the word “guess” is as good as it gets: a magic so deep it is beyond the reach of study or education, no matter how elite.

RJ goes deeper, though. He argues that the very concept of magic is a neoliberal fantasy of meritocracy: an elite have access to a special power, which gives them the right to rule.

Now I have never met JK Rowling but I’m guessing she’s at least dimly aware of this, given that the central conflict of her stories is the question of whether magical power confers the right to rule. The bad guys think it does. The good guys say it doesn’t. And just in case you don’t get the message that elites shouldn’t oppress others, there’s endless detail about how wrong it is for wizards to subjugate other magical creatures, from giants to goblins.

The most important thing to recognise is that the politics of these books is laid on with a trowel. They’re children’s books, so it’s no surprise, but the morality lessons come thick and fast, and they’re barely more subtle than an Aesop’s fable. It ought to be impossible to read Harry Potter novels and say they portray “facts” and “elite education” as the answer to all problems.

And yet it isn’t impossible. RJ, and all those who widely shared and loudly cheered his article, prove it can be done, not just once but by thousands of people. And that’s because partisanship rots the brain.

The hard Left has decided that it hates JK Rowling because she doesn’t support Jeremy Corbyn. Not supporting Jeremy Corbyn is essentially the same thing as being a neoliberal. And, therefore, the works of JK Rowling must be neoliberal propaganda.

This skewing of the mind to be biased against an author you hate is not conscious. The neuroscientific work of Drew Westen showed that politically aligned people use their emotions, not their reason, to respond to politics. When presented with contradictory statements by their own ‘side’, the partisans explained them away, with fMRI scans showing activity only in the emotional parts of the brain. As Westen says “partisans twirl the cognitive kaleidoscope until they get the conclusions they want.”

And this matters. It matters when one side can’t even read a work of fiction by its opponent without disconnecting the basic functions of logic in their mind. No wonder everyone believes the BBC is biased against them, when the moment a political opponent is up on screen, their rational brain switches off. No wonder we can’t resolve the problem of Brexit, when both sides assume everything said by the other is malicious and wrong.

Our instincts make mistakes all the time. We shouldn’t be ashamed to use facts and reason to question the judgement of our eyes or our guts. Use your eyes and the world looks flat. Use reason and you’ll accept that it is not.

I’ve even used facts and reason here to prove that Harry Potter isn’t a celebration of facts and reason. And I’m unashamed to say that my argument is better than RJ’s because I could write a 19-page version of this article with footnotes to spare, where he’d be stumped to go beyond ‘because I said so’.

I don’t care how much you like Harry Potter. I don’t care how much you like JK Rowling. I care only that you recognise they are not the same thing. Our inability to look beyond the messenger and consider the value of the message is destroying our political system. How can you achieve anything but deadlock when you won’t even listen to your opponent’s ideas with an open mind?

Perhaps you’re one of the good guys. You try to get out of your bubble and read ideas by people with whom you disagree. Well next time, do yourself a favour. Stick a picture and a byline of your favourite writer at the top. Maybe then you’ll be able to trick your brain into giving an opponent’s idea a fair chance.

Polly Mackenzie is Director of Demos, a leading cross-party think tank. She served as Director of Policy to the Deputy Prime Minister from 2010-2015.


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