Thursday, December 1, 2011

Occupy Hogwarts: Harry Potter and Nonviolent Protest

If fantasy really does matter, as has been argued by many contributors to this site, then one would hope that it would have something to say about the Occupy movement, which has taken the nation by storm in the past several months. My initial thoughts about parallels between the movement and some perennial fantasy favorites proved unsuccessful, however. Works such as The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia pit good against evil in very clear-cut terms. In contrast, although members of the Occupy movement may indeed wish to draw analogies between Sauron and Bank of America, many of the issues surrounding the movement are shrouded in gray, and there are no solutions to our nation's economic and social woes as straightforward as destroying the One Ring or vanquishing the White Witch. To be fair, both the Occupiers and Frodo & Co./the Narnians can be viewed as the underdogs in their struggles to fight injustice. Nonetheless, these parties approach their respective battles in ways which couldn't be more different: our fantasy heroes come to the battlefield wielding daggers, longbows, and broadswords, whereas the Occupiers (for the most part) utilize the weapon of nonviolent civil disobedience.

A modern fantasy tale fits the present day epic of the Occupy movement considerably better: Harry Potter. Supposed villains may not be as evil as they seem (Sirius Black and Severus Snape) nor heroes as virtuous (Albus Dumbledore).  The underdog protagonists (Harry and his friends, and in later novels the Order of the Phoenix) use violence as sparingly as possible, preferring stun and disarmament spells to the killing curse used by Voldemort and his followers.

Possibly the most stunning comparison can be drawn between Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and the subgroup of the Occupy movement centered around college campuses--for example, at UC Berkeley. In both instances, students band together to protest against educational conditions that they hold to be unsatisfactory. The Hogwarts students are ultimately successful, with their oppressor Dolores Umbridge eventually removed from Hogwarts (and actually imprisoned at Azkaban at the end of the series). It remains to be seen if Occupy student protesters will be able to reach similar success.

I see three lessons to be learned from the Harry Potter series with respect to the Occupy movement:

  1. Peaceful protesters must expect and know how to deal with police brutality. The dementors of the Harry Potter series, who guard the prison Azkaban as well as search for wanted persons, are not known for their self-restraint. In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry is plagued by dementors throughout the entire novel, with one even on the verge of sucking out his soul. He is taught a Patronus charm to ward them off, a spell that is greatly emphasized in subsequent novels. Although the dementors represent the strong arm of the law, they also have their own agenda (i.e. soul-sucking). This is not unlike many police departments and police-men and -women, whose intentions may not be as pure as one would hope. Protestors need to find their own Patronus to defend themselves against unnecessarily violent members of law enforcement, such as Lt. John Pike. One good option may be Copwatch
  2. School administrators who do not give their students' safety top priority are monsters. Throughout the Harry Potter series, Hogwarts sees four headmasters and headmistresses: Albus Dumbledore, Dolores Umbridge, Minerva Mcgonagall, and Severus Snape. Of these four, all except Umbridge view their students' safety as being of utmost importance, and for this receive the reader's approbation. In contrast to this, Umbridge actively tortures her students, and for this becomes one of the most despised villains of the series, possibly even more so than Voldemort. To be sure, the behavior of UC chancellors Robert Birgeneau and Linda Katehi is nowhere near  as heinous as Umbridge's, but it is not surprising that many students and faculty members are calling for their resignations.
  3. Incorporating humor into nonviolent protest can be incredibly effective. The most memorable scene of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix for me is that in which the Weasely twins stage an impromptu protest against Umbridge relying on fireworks, a magical swamp, and a number of other magical gags. It is the absolute hilarity of this scene which ensures it will not be forgotten. Creatively integrating humor into real life protest activities can have a similar effect. The most memorable "We are the 99%" signs are those with a touch of wit. The floating tents at UC Berkeley gathered a significant amount of attention while avoiding violent confrontation. Other protesters would do well to find similarly creative forms of expression.
All that the Occupy movement additionally needs is its own Harry Potter: a youthful figure of hope you can believe in to change to world (sorry Obama, your halo has faded).


2 comments:

  1. Hi Nathan! Great post combining two of my favorite topics: political protest and fantastic fiction. Thanks especially for the link to the floating tents video - awesome idea worthy of Fred and George!

    Being the fantasy nerd that I am, I cannot resist pointing out two more pieces of fantastic fiction that display political conflicts the way they truly are: difficult, multi-faceted and ambivalent.

    1) While Hayao Miyazaki's animated movie Princess Mononoke takes the side of the "environmentalists" it also makes the point of the "economists" by showing how industrial development can aleviate poverty and empower women. In this, Princess Mononoke is far more subtle than Miyazaki's earlier work Nausicaa.

    2) Ursula K. Le Guin's novel The Dispossessed is a brilliant discussion of anarchy vs capitalism with neither side coming out as winner in the end. The Dispossessed may make an especially interesting reading for Occupiers, as it actually develops a vision for an alternative to our capitalist system - without idealizing this alternative in any way. The subtitle "an ambiguous utopia" describes it best. If you are already through with Harry Potter and are looking for a book to read over the holiday season, make it this one!

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  2. Felix, I don't know either of the pieces you mention, although I've heard of them. I'll have to take a look.

    Another fascinating tale of political conflict is of course V for Vendetta, although that lies very far from the sphere of nonviolent protest.

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