JK Rowling’s Problem With America

I read Harry Potter.

Liked it.

Didn’t love it.

Which puts me in perhaps one of the smallest minorities on the planet, between folks who’ve been struck by lightning multiple times and folks named “Craig Craigerson”.

Now I, like many, was enthralled at first. Tore through ’em at a lightning pace. But as the series wore on, I found myself drifting away from it. Certain issues I’d have been more willing to forgive as a kid just didn’t hold up. Problems like-

  • Why is the reportedly most powerful wizard in the world a high school principal?
  • Why are these kids not also being taught history, literature, and chemistry?
  • Is Voldemort such a nerdy loser that his plan for domination gets undone by his insistence on conquering his old school?

Also, why not just shoot the guy?

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I mean seriously- he clearly views Muggles [non magic-users] in such low regard that he’d never see it coming. Granted, this is the issue I have with Doctor Who, Sherlock, and most British shows, but I do think that there’s few problems a well-aimed .44 can’t solve.

Yes, that’s a distinctly American attitude, and part of my problem with Rowling’s latest venture.

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Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is an upcoming movie series from
Warner Bros., based off of the 2001 book of the same name. Moving away from our old stomping grounds at Hogwarts, Rowling intends to introduce the long-anticipated wider world of wizardy.

And it hasn’t been going so good.

The good folks over at Native Appropriations have already shared their own concerns about Rowling’s potential glorification of Native Americans. As Evan pointed out earlier this year, Rowling fell into the common (but nevertheless patronizing and wrong) error of treating the continent of Africa as one homogeneous state. Her subsequent attempt to offer clarification seemed even more slapdash and hurried than her original statement. Rowling’s decision to located Asia’s school of wizardy in Japan seems a little oblivious to the fact that the country isn’t exactly looked upon with fondness by its Chinese and Korean neighbors.

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I wonder why…

And then there’s America in general.

Rowling insists that the American slang for “Muggle” is “No-Maj.”- which is perhaps the most adorable thing I’ve ever heard. It’s the perfect example of what an English person would think American vernacular would be.

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It’s the Tom Haverford approach to literature.

It would be funny if it wasn’t scary.

Or maybe that’s a bad word for it.

I’m not going to put this on par with the orientalism and cultural appropriation the US does on a daily basis, but I’m also of the opinion that two wrongs don’t make a right.

And I don’t want to be melodramatic here either- a few poorly chosen words on the part of Rowling hardly signifies the blowing of the 7th trumpet. But we do have one of the biggest cultural forces in film and literature about to touch on the attitudes and values of some 320 million people. There are ramifications to that which I’m not confident Rowling takes into account.

Forgive me if that concerns me a bit.

I know Americans have earned an image abroad as loud, brash, vulgar, violent simpletons. No seriously- I spent my whole life overseas, that image is one I’m all too familiar with. And yes, with Trump dominating the news and America’s ugly wars dragging ever on, it’d be tough to argue against that.

Yet I feel compelled to.

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The sins of my countrymen aside, I don’t like being plastered with this image any more than Arabs like being pictured with turbans or Latinos with sombreros.

And truth be told, this feels a little more irritating coming from an English person more than anything else. Having myself visited Britain on numerous occasions, I can say with no small degree of convictions that when it comes to vulgarity, our European cousins have us beat hollow.

Seriously, have you seen the British parliament? Or British tabloids?

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The Daily Mirror: Page after page of near child-pornography and some sanctimonious article questioning why sickos keep kidnapping toddlers.

I’m not saying we don’t have our problems- we do. And yours truly spends most every week blogging his grievances and rants about those very problems. But for all of our faults we are a culture, and a rich one at that.

The Civil War- over a hundred and fifty years old- still has a massive impact on our politics and values. The role that religion plays in politics (and politics in religion) sets us a world apart from both theocracies and wholly secular states. Our passion for justice and liberty- even when it’s misguided- is a distinctly American element. Ours is a rich (if bloody) tapestry of races and creeds, all seeking a new and better life on these shores.

Are these things that J.K. Rowling understands?

I’ve yet to see any evidence.

If anything, my research just seems to keep unearthing more and more troubling features. Consider, for example, the status of the American wizarding community’s leadership:

“The wizarding population of the United States of America is governed by the Magical Congress of the United States of America; by 2014, the President of the Magical Congress of the United States of America was Samuel G. Quahog.

The seat of the American magical government is Woolworth Building in New York.”

HarryPotterWikia, “United States of America”

That right there is ****ing dumb.

For good or ill, Americans are simply not Americans without our devotion to the sweet land o’ liberty. I took issue with Britain’s Ministry of Magic being a separate entity from Queen-and-Country, but for us to believe that American wizards wouldn’t be involved in the great three-ring-circus that is our beloved democracy is just absurd.

And while we’re on that- let’s talk about “Rappaport’s Law.”

According to Pottermore (the official website of all things Harry Potter), “Rappaport’s law” was introduced by the wizarding community in the US as an ill-advised attempt at national security following a persecution of wizards:

“Rappaport’s Law enforced strict segregation between the No-Maj and wizarding communities. Wizards were no longer allowed to befriend or marry No-Majs. Penalties for fraternising with No-Majs were harsh. Communication with No-Majs was limited to that necessary to perform daily activities.”

Again, that’s not exactly comforting.

The immediate parallel one’s mind flies to is that of the ugly Jim Crow segregation laws of the pre-Civil Rights US. Legislation against interracial marriages, against the depictions of integration, societal pressure to keep folks separated on the basis of ethnicity, and so on.

If such a comparison is meant to be drawn (and it certainly looks like it is), then the implications are pretty dang messed up. Segregation was implemented in the US purely out of a form of racist oppression- nothing more. Rowling’s magic/muggle version, however, seems to imply that such measures were taken out of a need for security. Of course that’s nothing near a perfect comparison, and I very well could be reading into things, but it nevertheless seems just plain sloppy. Like a defining feature of American history was taken and reworked, forgetting that without the context the whole issue at hand becomes- at the very least- insensitive. I’m sure Rowling wouldn’t do that intentionally, but this slapdash approach to other cultures is starting to look pretty par-for-the-course.

“Sometime at the end of the 19th century, a legislation was introduced which would require all American wizards and witches to have a permit allowing them to carry a wand, a measure that was intended to keep tabs on all magical activity and identify the perpetrators by their wands.”

HarryPotterWikia, “Magical Congress of the United States of America”

You can have my wand when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.

Seriously, you have met us, right?

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Even our professional demon-hunters have guns, for ****’s sake.

We are a gun culture- there’s no other way of putting it. The firearm is practically sacred to the American public- it’s the symbol of liberty and independence. Almost a third of this country are proud (and for the most part, responsible) gun-ownersand support for gun rights is incredibly popular. You cannot tell me that the reference above isn’t a less-than-subtle comment about gun control and you cannot tell me that you’d believe such a thing would be tolerated in the great US of A. My own views aside, I don’t mind Rowling offering her own perspective on firearms- I do mind her trying to paint her view as being the beliefs of American wizards (the folks American readers have eagerly awaited).

That is appropriation. The reduction of a culture.

And yes, these are all just background elements for the upcoming films and yes, I very well could be reaching here. But considering J.K. Rowling’s recent track record on the world beyond the British Isles, I’m not exactly optimistic.

No, I’m not asking for some in-depth breakdown of American society and politics- that’d be absurd. What I am asking for is to not be painted in broad strokes- to be reduced to a few stereotypes (positive or negative). I’m just holding out hope for a bit of understanding when it comes to what makes North Americans tick (that’s the US, Canada, and Mexico). This new venture is going to try to show the world of magic beyond the perspective of a little school in the British countryside- I’m asking that such a perspective be at least earnest.

I mean, even Key & Peele‘s riff on “American Hogwarts” was sincerely American…


…Or CollegeHumor’s take on the same thing…

Seriously- just the fact that every Americanized Hogwarts takes place in an impoverished inner-city public school should alone say something about the American experience.

Again, none of this is exactly earth-shatteringly important.

Lives are not at stake here. The kingdoms and fortunes of man shall not be won or lost in the upcoming film series. This is, in all regards, not the worst thing to happen in literature, and as both Evan and Native Appropriations has demonstrated, not even the worst thing to happen in the expanded HP universe.

Still, I want to put it out there.

I think we deserve better. If not as a culture, then at least as the subjects of one of the most popular and impactful pieces of literature since Tom Sawyer or Narnia.

That’s not so much to ask, right?

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