Why the right hates Harry, and should

It’s more than witchcraft ” J.K. Rowling’s novels dare to satirize today’s suburban culture

Don M. Burrows

It was somewhat disappointing that the release of “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” in theaters didn’t come with the requisite spate of book burnings and religious denouncement.

For years, “Potter” fans have relished these book and film releases as chances to laugh at those who believe the books are evil and inspire devilish witchcraft. (Indeed, just last week on Pat Robertson’s Web site, there was anxious discussion about the upcoming “Chronicles of Narnia” film. Is C.S. Lewis’ magic, they worried, more OK than J.K. Rowling’s brand?)

We ridicule these folks because they just don’t get that this is fantasy and not reality, and accuse them of muggle-mindedness in their disdain for imagination.

But are they onto something?

Many traditionalists don’t like Harry Potter for practical reasons, aside from theological implications. And at the risk of adding more fuel to the page-burning fire, these aspects of the “Potter” books are very real.

Of course, a famous part of the “Potter” series that discomforts some middle-class suburbanites is the caricature of themselves ” the Dursleys. With the Dursleys, Rowling all-out parodies this class, as so many Web logs note, calling her an “elitist,” the easiest countercharge against someone who dares to lampoon suburban culture.

The Dursleys live in a house surrounded by houses just like theirs. They are pillars of conformity, and like many Americans today, they find their joys in simple excess ” eating too much and spoiling their kid. Their idea of accomplishment is inviting the boss over for dinner to suck up enough for a promotion. And they despise Potter because they know he’s different.

I’m not the first person to recognize this satire: Amanda Cockrell, director of graduate studies in children’s literature at Hollins University, wrote several essays on “Potter” hostility three years ago. She concludes about the Dursleys: “(They) are parodies of thought-with-blinders on, of the idea that there is one proper way to be and that they know what it is.” About the series in general, Cockrell notes a broader pattern that might disturb conservatives: “Rowling suggests that those who are too convinced that they know evil when they see it, and know it only by its difference from themselves, unwittingly create a greater evil.”

Indeed, as anyone who has read the “Potter” books knows, figuring out who the bad guy is, and shedding assumptions in that regard, has been a recurring feature since poor Professor Quirrell.

But the “Potter” series embraces progressive ideals in other ways. The three main characters are a triplet of misfits for whom the left is often sympathetic: Harry is an orphan, Ron is a poor boy in hand-me-down clothes and Hermione is the daughter of nonmagical parents, ridiculed because of her zeal for learning. Her activism to free the house elves, though excised from the new movie, is reminiscent of a labor movement.

Even inside the wizarding world, the bad guys believe there is such a thing as “pure blood” ” the magical equivalent of racism. And the most infuriating situations involve politicians meddling in school curriculum. Nevertheless, the academy, in this case Hogwarts, is considered the wizarding world’s central institution ” not some major corporation ” and its headmaster the most powerful wizard.

All in all, there is much more here to disturb white, conformist, conservative suburbanites than merely wandplay. Of course, the real question is, Would they ever admit it?