The Changing Politics of Reading Harry Potter in the Post-Trump U.S.

Delivered October 16, 2020 at the Harry Potter Conference of Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia, PA.

The way we read Harry Potter in the U.S. changed with the 2016 election.  For almost 20 years, many of us were able to fall in love with this series as comfort reading.  Monstrous tyrants who rounded up ethnic groups and tortured their own followers could be read as allegorical figures.  In 2016, when the protective magic in our system of checks and balances was attacked on so many fronts that we couldn’t keep track, Americans turned to dystopian fiction to help combat the lag created by our inconvenient disbelief:  this can’t be happening here.  People could use Harry Potter as a common cultural text to warn each other:  we’re at that point in the story where we need to form Dumbledore’s Army.  In 2016, some people said, dismissively, that you couldn’t compare Trump to Voldemort — at least, “not yet” — revealing that they had an internal meter for which people Trump could threaten, and how many of them, before they would object.  Others of us, like Hermione, had reason to recognize what we were seeing, and wondered nervously if our half-privileged and full-privileged friends would stand by us or leave us in the forest.

Checking the news was like Ron Weasley’s question about the Daily Prophet:  “Anyone we know?”  When Trump proposed a database to register U.S. Muslims, the Muggle-born Registration Commission didn’t seem far-fetched anymore.  After his talk of raids by ICE, our own version of Snatchers, hate crimes rose against people of color.  Suddenly, it hit differently to remember that Parvati and Padma were among the first students whose parents pulled them out of Hogwarts.  It was more frightening to remember that 12-year-old Draco once said, “Bet you five Galleons the next one dies.  Pity it wasn’t Granger —“ when we knew that actual children were being taunted with their parents’ deportation by their classmates and teachers.

After Trump’s team spurned transition help in 2017, the New York Times reported, “Aides confer in the dark because they cannot figure out how to operate the light switches in the cabinet room.  Visitors conclude their meetings and then wander around, testing doorknobs until finding one that leads to an exit.” 

I pictured the Head’s office sealing itself against Umbridge.  When we had to learn about Trump’s meetings with Russian officials from Russian news outlets, we knew:  “The Ministry has fallen.”

Trump’s eerie absence of empathy recalls Voldemort.  The article about Trump calling soldiers killed in action “suckers” and “losers” reported, “Several observers told me that Trump is deeply anxious about dying or being disfigured, and this worry manifests itself as disgust for those who have suffered.”   We see the same disgust in Voldemort when he says, “There is nothing worse than death.” 

Trump’s fear of appearing weak recalls what Voldemort taught Quirrell:  “There is no good or evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it.”  When Trump was asked to commit to a peaceful transfer of power, he answered, “Get rid of the ballots and you’ll have a very peaceful — there won’t be a transfer, frankly.  There’ll be a continuation.”  He sounded like Voldemort jamming the Sorting Hat onto Neville’s head:  “There will be no more Houses… Slytherin […] will suffice for everyone.”

Even the mainstream knows that Betsy DeVos is Umbridge.

For the role of Wormtail, though, everyone gets a turn.  Bill Barr looks like Peter Pettigrew, according to Lin-Manuel Miranda. 

Trump treated Jeff Sessions like Wormtail, belittling him in public.  He brought Sean Spicer to the Vatican, then deliberately shut him out of meeting the Pope, which was “all he wanted.” 

Spicer lied daily for Trump; Trump still despised him.  No matter how well you serve Trump, he might make you cut off your limbs or choke yourself to death.

The clearest Death Eater character in Trump world, though, is his consultant, Roger Stone.  He doesn’t even need a turban.

Before 2016, I thought of dementors only as the personification of depression.  But when Jeffrey Epstein died in prison, I remembered Fudge bringing a dementor with him to question Barty Crouch, Jr. and the dementor losing control.  Fudge didn’t see the problem — “By all accounts, he was no loss!”  Dumbledore said, “But he cannot now give testimony.”  That was on my mind when Epstein’s partner Ghislaine Maxwell and Trump’s former fixer Michael Cohen were put in prison.  I’ve thought of it again when police, or unidentified militia, have turned peaceful protests dangerous.  Dumbledore warned Fudge that dementors would not remain loyal to the Ministry:  “Voldemort can offer them much more scope for their powers and their pleasures than you can!” In light of some of the phone camera footage we’ve seen this summer, I’m more conscious of Dumbledore’s stance that dementors have no business at a school.

Philadelphia police tear-gas protesters who are trapped and cannot escape.

The moment that Harry Potter stopped being allegory, and U.S. reality achieved parity with its fictional horrors, was in 2018, when this administration began separating migrant children and infants from their parents at the border.  Family separation is what the entire Potter series is about. 

Voldemort both caused it and felt it:  “He did not like it crying, he had never been able to stomach the small ones whining in the orphanage — ‘Avada Kedavra!’  And then he broke.”  I will not play the recording from June 2018 of migrant children at a detention center, crying for their parents.  Rowling started her foundation Lumos in 2004 after she had to force herself to look at a news photo of a child in a cage.  Voldemort profited from the dark energy generated by the splitting of souls.  This administration profits from the splitting of families.

There came moments when our real-life horrors surpassed anything in Harry Potter and it was no longer adequate as an allegory for our times.  One came with the 3000 fatalities from Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, when in an act of racist genocide, this administration withheld routine emergency aid to our own citizens.  Another has come with Trump lying about the Covid-19 pandemic, like Fudge denying the return of Voldemort.  Fudge’s deputy, Umbridge, forbids students to learn defensive spells, claiming, “There is nothing waiting out there, Mr. Potter.” 

In April, the Department of Health and Human Services drafted a plan to send five reusable masks to every address in the country, but the White House opposed it because “households receiving masks might create concern or panic.”  The difference is that Fudge changed his mind when he saw the evidence.  Trump already had the evidence about Covid-19.  He lied that the virus would just “disappear like magic” in full knowledge.  Trump’s disregard for hundreds of thousands of his own people’s lives is far beyond the scope of Voldemort’s evil.  With the subsequent ruin of the U.S. economy, our downtowns have become Diagon Alley in Deathly Hallows, with shops boarded up and destitute people pleading, “Where are my children?  What has he done with them?”

In May, after the murder of George Floyd, protesters risked injury and even death to fight racist police brutality, like Neville and Seamus resisting the Carrows.  In the midst of this global reckoning on race, in June, Rowling drew focus with a lengthy manifesto against “the new trans rights movement,” compounding damage from December 2019, when she tweeted support of an anti-trans activist.  Longtime fan groups such as Mugglenet, the Leaky Cauldron, and the Harry Potter Alliance broke ties with Rowling. 

Rowling’s groundless statements against trans identity have changed how U.S. fandom relates to Harry Potter.  Many fans have attempted, over the years, to proclaim a Barthesian “death of the author,” an intellectual stance that requires constant upkeep when the disobligingly undead author keeps trending on Twitter.  Is it realistic, or fair, to keep asserting that the author’s statements have no bearing on the meaning of the text?  As one trans friend said to me, pretty much everyone in the trans community is aware of Rowling’s bigotry and now must warily assess every Potter fan they meet to see if that person is okay with it.  Can we re-read, without discomfort, the passage where Lupin coaches third-years to avenge themselves on Snape by imagining him in women’s clothes and then mocking him?  Did the reader deserve to be told that transmisogyny is an appropriate response to abusive teaching?  “Death of the author” would attribute this inspiration entirely to Lupin, the character.  But the author’s statements intrude on my reading and change it. 

Many queer and trans Potter fans reported feeling stricken to learn that Rowling supported a kind of harassment that denied their very selves, when her series, with the emphasis on every person finding magic in themselves despite being different, had been central to their coming-out journeys.  To find now that Rowling conflates legal recognition of trans people’s genders with “throw[ing] open the doors of bathrooms” to cis men who will assault women reminds me of the “odd, sick, empty feeling” in Harry’s stomach when Percy Weasley told Ron to “sever ties” with Harry:  “He had known Percy for four years, had stayed in his house during the summers… yet now, Percy thought him unbalanced and possibly violent.”

The bewildered hurt reported by many fans reminded me of the dead unicorn in the forest.  Rowling wrote that it is “a monstrous thing” to hurt “something pure and defenseless,” in this case, very young readers who thought they were included in her stories of love and acceptance.  What have trans kids done to deserve Rowling grouping them with violent criminals?  

McGonagall cries out to the Ministry workers attacking Hagrid, “Leave him alone!  […]  On what grounds are you attacking him?  He has done nothing, nothing to warrant such —“

Lily says to James of teen Snape, “Leave him ALONE!  […]  What’s he done to you?”

And James tells her, “It’s more the fact that he exists, if you know what I mean…”

And then, when Lily defends Snape, he calls her “the unforgivable word:  ‘Mudblood.’”  It’s Rowling who equates hateful words with crimes like torture, enslavement, and murder.  By attacking the realities of trans existence, she has committed an Unforgivable.  Her fiction taught us that when someone casts an Unforgivable against you, their guilt is not your burden.  You are not required to forgive them, although you certainly may.  But your forgiveness is your own business and does not absolve them.  They have damaged or even split their souls, and the only remedy is remorse, their own full recognition of the harm they have caused.

The soul of Rowling’s story is love, acceptance, protection.  For me, the author’s anti-trans words have the effect of damaging this story’s soul.  Lily tells Snape, “I’ve made excuses for you for years.”  Over 20 years, Potter fandom has dealt collectively with signs of anti-trans prejudice in her books, as well as marginalization of queerness, fatphobia, and issues of race.  The bitterness of fans who saw this coming reminds me of Dumbledore saying, “Did I know, in my heart of hearts, what Gellert Grindelwald was?  I think I did, but I closed my eyes.”

Some fans have walked away from Harry Potter.  As Lily told Snape, “I can’t pretend anymore.  You’ve chosen your way, I’ve chosen mine.”  But what about the many fans whose histories are too entwined with Harry Potter to leave the stories behind, even if they disavow the creator?  Fan artist Fox Estacado worked with me to create this graphic, free for the personal use of any Potter fan.

A month after Fox released that graphic, I read Troubled Blood, my first new Rowling material since her manifesto.  It felt a bit like having dinner with a relative or old friend whose politics have grown hopelessly toxic.  I remembered why I loved her so deeply, but also how badly she has broken my trust.  I found myself scanning for clues:  how is her anti-trans bigotry going to play out in her fiction?  Where is the author I loved?

In Troubled Blood, after acrimonious divorce proceedings, Robin has one last thing to say to her ex:

“I’ll never forget… how you were, when I really needed you.  Whatever else… I’ll never forget that part.”

It may feel a bit like a divorce, what much of Harry Potter fandom has been going through, this self-protective response to Rowling’s bigotry.  That doesn’t mean readers have to forget what she once was to them, when they needed her.

And then, last month, her stories spoke to me again, when Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, published his book, Disloyal.  There are parts of Harry Potter lore that the collective fandom is still working through, topics of vigorous engagement that have not been put to rest, and of course, as the author of a book on Snape, I think comprehending Snape’s arc is a major one.  Disloyal showed me that I’m not finished thinking about Harry Potter yet.

Some of us thought the Prince’s Tale chapter of Deathly Hallows, in which Harry views Snape’s memories, could have been its own book.  Some of us wished Snape could have told Voldemort he’d been fooled.  Disloyal is the real-life version.  What if, when Voldemort decided to kill his own right-hand man, Snape had survived?

Cohen used to harm people on Trump’s behalf, unbothered by his conscience until Trump betrayed him, the same way that Snape supported Voldemort until someone he loved was the target.  Once Cohen finally recognized his wrongdoing, he considered suicide, then chose a second chance to take responsibility for the damage he’s done, naming his new podcast Mea Culpa, dedicating his insider knowledge to blocking Trump’s ambition to be dictator for life.  His testimony to Congress sounded like Snape’s story.  Rowling said of Snape:  “He craved membership of something big and powerful, something impressive.”  Cohen testified, “Being around Mr. Trump was intoxicating.  When you were in his presence, you felt like you were involved in something greater than yourself — that you were somehow changing the world.”

Like Snape, who chose to serve a murderer who dismembered and buried parts of his own soul, Cohen is permanently marked by his association with Trump but therefore also credible:  “I know where the skeletons are buried because I was the one who buried them.”

Cohen writes with awe of the late Representative Elijah Cummings, who “understood that the least of us deserve the opportunity to seek penance, redemption and a second chance in life,” “the lone politician I encountered in all my travails who took an interest in me as a human being. […] He even took steps to ensure my security in prison.”  Like Dumbledore with Snape, Cummings thought Cohen’s life worth protecting.

Cohen’s first guest on his podcast was Rosie O’Donnell, whom he had once helped Trump harass, who wrote to him and visited him in prison, an act that he said made his soul hurt, the way Hermione says remorse after splitting one’s soul into Horcruxes is supposed to be excruciating.  Cohen said, “Her kindness broke me into a million pieces, shattering what was left of my ego and pride.  And when I put the pieces back together, I rediscovered the man that I used to be…the man who could look at his wife and children in the eye and not be ashamed.”

That quote resonates with Snape’s final words, “Look…at…me.” I disagree with those who read this as an uncomfortable wish about unrequited love for Lily.  I think Snape spent the second half of his life trying to atone enough to be able to look Lily’s son, and Lily, in the eye and not be ashamed.

Cohen wrote, “As you read my story, you will no doubt ask yourself if you like me, or if you would act as I did, and the answer will frequently be no to both of those questions.  But permit me to make a point:  If you only read stories written by people you like, you will never be able to understand Donald Trump or the current state of the American soul.”

There are some Harry Potter fans who argue that Snape’s original choices were so abhorrent, they disqualify Snape’s atonement from consideration.  It is true that Snape only turned against Voldemort because his own loved one was targeted, and would not have cared about baby Harry if he’d been born to anyone else.  It is also true that Cohen only turned against Trump because once Cohen’s office was raided by the FBI, Trump stopped returning Cohen’s calls, stopped paying for his lawyers, and expected Cohen to keep lying for Trump and go to prison.  But it is also true that this is what makes their knowledge crucial to fights between evil and wholeness.  Only someone who has cast Dark Magic and then felt remorse, like Snape or like Dumbledore, knows how to reverse it.  Even those of us who have split our souls have the right to try to do good, though the pain of it might kill us.

The words in the Harry Potter books don’t change, but we do.  The Potter stories are the shared text of a pre-Trump, pre-Brexit generation.  The stories hit differently now.  However we engage with Rowling in the future, the Harry Potter books have encoded within them our collective past.  It’s been difficult, the past few years, to keep track of the upheaval.  But when we reread these books, we remember how we reacted to them in the past, compared to how we react now, and that is how fiction helps us keep the measure of how we’ve changed.

From the video to “Hanukkah, O Hanukkah,” Ezra Miller and Dan Fogler’s contribution to the Lumos fundraiser album, A Magical Time of Year.
anImage_0.tiff

Grindelwald’s rhetoric: Trying for metaphor in the age of Brexit and Trump (FBCoG #7)

Seventh blog post about Fantastic Beasts:  The Crimes of Grindelwald.


Yes, the Fantastic Beasts film series is about World War II.  It is significant that Queenie and Tina Goldstein are Jewish, and that will become more apparent in later films.  The final showdown between Dumbledore and Grindelwald takes place in 1945.  The series locations will continent-hop, with the next installment purportedly set to film in Rio de Janeiro.

It may be that you don’t trust J.K. Rowling and David Yates to write an international story about characters who are Jewish or people of color, with a gay wizard as a central figure.  Considering that there are three known Jewish characters in Potterverse, all named Goldstein; two acknowledged queer characters; and representation of people of color that is often tokenist and sometimes truly hurtful (there is no redeeming the flippant racism of the Ilvermorny backstory on Pottermore)… I would advise viewers to go into these films remembering the demographics of the people who created them.  I would urge anyone who is looking for accurate representation in art to seek out exciting work from artists who create from perspectives that encompass queerness, people of color, Jewish experience, and many other identities that aren’t centered in this series by Rowling and Yates.

Mindful of that context, then, let’s look at some aspects of Crimes of Grindelwald.

Some viewers have wondered if the World War II imagery that Grindelwald uses in his rally means that Grindelwald, and the movie, are saying:  If the characters in this series oppose Grindelwald, they will bring on World War II and the Holocaust.

I don’t think that’s the intended message.  It looks to me like we’re being shown Grindelwald’s rhetorical strategies for whipping up crowds to manipulate them for his own purposes, and one of his tactics is to accuse an enemy of exactly the kind of criminal intention he has himself.

When he and his followers kill a French Muggle family to steal their home for headquarters, Rowling adds another fascist reference to Grindelwald’s character by having him say of the house, “This will be suitable after a thorough cleanse” (emphasis mine).

His follower, Rosier, says with satisfaction, “When we’ve won, they’ll flee cities in the millions.  They’ve had their time.”

Grindelwald shushes her, giving an impromptu lesson in propaganda:  “We don’t say such things out loud. We want only freedom. Freedom to be ourselves.”

Rosier continues, anyway:  “To annihilate non-wizards.”  She’s slow to catch on to this lesson in doublespeak, giving Rowling a chance to underscore what this group has as its goal.

Grindelwald spells out some refinements for her benefit, as well as the benefit of the audience:  “Not all of them. Not all. We’re not merciless. The beast of burden will always be necessary.”

(Excuse me for a moment while I run around in my mind, screaming, “Gross.”  Shudder.  Shudder.  Shudder.  Shudder.  Shudder.)

Grindelwald is shown repeatedly to be a manipulator who tells people whatever they want to hear in order to influence their behavior.  He’s peerless at this skill.  Seraphina Picquery reveals that they removed his tongue as punishment, although it turns out that they didn’t manage this in time to prevent him from talking his body double into receiving the amputation instead; the punishment proves ineffectual as well as barbaric.  His lies do not have internal logic; they do not need to.  He bypasses his listeners’ logic and speaks only to their fears.  He plays on Queenie’s desperation to marry Jacob by claiming that he wants wizards to be free to love, knowing she won’t pause to reflect that his pureblood platform does not support wizard-Muggle marriages.

This parallels, in a direct and blatant fashion, LGBTQ voters who somehow claimed, in 2016, that Trump would prove supportive of LGBTQ rights.  I don’t know what made people think such an argument could be supported and I’m not about to go looking.  Since 2016, between repeated and baseless attacks on trans people’s basic human rights, erasure of LGBTQ people in census categories, appointment of homophobic justices and policymakers, double prejudice against asylum seekers fleeing gaybashing, and on and on, we’ve built up a terrifying mountain of evidence to the contrary.  Absolutely none of it was a surprise.  All of it was telegraphed… and yet, this argument was made at all.

We have known since Deathly Hallows that Grindelwald’s aim was to build an army to subjugate Muggles, who vastly outnumber magical folks.  Dumbledore told Harry, even then, that Grindelwald wanted the Resurrection Stone to create an army of Inferi.  The Dumbledore of Crimes of Grindelwald knows exactly what kinds of tricks Grindelwald will employ.  He tries to warn Travers, “Your policies of suppression and violence are pushing supporters into his arms.”  When Travers doesn’t listen, Dumbledore warns Theseus, “If Grindelwald calls a rally, don’t try and break it up. Don’t let Travers send you in there.”  Theseus tries to act on this warning, but Travers overrules him.

When Grindelwald inhales from his skull-hookah at his rally, in what seems likely to be a reference to Nazis’ heavy use of drugs, he exhales what he claims to be “my vision of the future that awaits if we do not rise up and take our rightful place in the world.”  This is when the movie shows imagery of World War II.  Based on what we have seen of Grindelwald’s aims and strategies, though, he’s lying.  Contrary to his claim, these images are not anything he’s trying to avert.  He’s simply showing his own fantasies of what he is trying to cause.  All he has to do is play on his listeners’ fears and heighten their emotion, then turn their hostility toward a common enemy.

After inciting his followers, he claims, “That is what we are fighting! That is the enemy—their arrogance, their power lust, their barbarity. How long will it take before they turn their weapons on us?”

He then goads his followers until one of them inevitably loses control and draws her wand on an Auror who responds with violence, playing into Grindelwald’s hands.

The parallels between this scene and mob rallies such as the Make America Great Again crowds could not be plainer.  As many observers have noted, Trump and his people accuse foes, incorrectly, of crimes that they themselves commit; it is one of their primary tactics, and it galvanizes their base whether the accusations are disproved or not.  In this instance, the overwhelming whiteness of the Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts casts is functional rather than indicative of institutionalized racism:  white people make up almost all of Grindelwald’s crowd, as is true of such rallies in current events.

It turns out to pose a bit of a problem, though, that when this series was first planned, we had not yet entered the Trump and Brexit eras.  The first Fantastic Beasts film premiered the weekend following the 2016 U.S. presidential election; ticketholders attending J.K. Rowling’s promotional event at Carnegie Hall walked past thousands of protesters at Trump Tower.  At that time, the first draft of Crimes of Grindelwald had already been written.  These first two Fantastic Beasts films were plotted out during an era when Godwin’s Law was still in effect, before Godwin himself suspended it.

In other words, when Rowling was writing those scripts, Nazis were still being mentioned rhetorically, as metaphors.

When she originally created Grindelwald, and the formative Dumbledore-Grindelwald clash of 1945, they were meant as metaphors for World War II.

We are in the post-Godwin’s Law era now.  I’m not sure how a writer can strike the right note, or anything approaching it.  Is the barely-coded Nazi Grindelwald too on the nose, or too subtle?  I think Rowling was probably following the usual rules of good storytelling by showing us his persuasiveness without spelling out that we should not believe a single word out of this liar’s mouth, but in the current climate, I would suggest to artists that subtlety is not the best strategy.  I wish the film had given one or two more blatant moments spelling out that Grindelwald doesn’t believe a word he is saying and is only playing on his followers’ emotions in order to exploit them.

This would have helped with Queenie’s storyline.  It feels alarming in the extreme that she has gone to Grindelwald’s side, considering that Rowling has written precisely three Potterverse characters identified as Jewish and she has not earned her audience’s trust that she can portray them well.

It seems that Grindelwald has won over Queenie by a combination of drugging her, lying to her, and simply persuading her as he persuades others, appealing to her fears.  A hallmark of his tactics is that he depends upon his followers to make an active, seemingly unforced choice to join him, as we see in this conversation about Credence.

KRALL

Well, we know where the boy is, don’t we? Why don’t we grab him and leave!

GRINDELWALD

(to KRALL)

He must come to me freely—and he will.

GRINDELWALD returns his gaze to the vision of CREDENCE suspended in the center of the drawing room.

GRINDELWALD

The path has been laid, and he is following it. The trail that will lead him to me, and the strange and glorious truth of who he is.

What Credence wants most is the truth of who he is.  What Queenie wants most is the freedom to love a Muggle.  (Whether that Muggle reciprocates is an open question after the events of this movie, of course.)  Grindelwald appeals to their desires to obscure their ability to see his true motives.  If he can get people to join with him of their own volition, because of desires that overpower their good judgment, he turns their inner conflict and lack of self-trust to his own advantage, against them.  They might later come to their senses, but they will blame themselves, knowing it was their own weakness that encouraged them to ignore warning signs about Grindelwald.  He gets people to be complicit in their own downfalls, resulting in the kind of profound shame that is written on every line of Dumbledore’s guilty face when he is forced to admit, “I cannot move against Grindelwald.”

Queenie does fall for Grindelwald’s persuasiveness.  We also see Rosier drugging her with tea from an insistent teapot, not introducing this natural Legilimens to Grindelwald until after she’s drunk the tea, not letting Queenie leave without meeting Grindelwald.  When Queenie first sees Grindelwald, she leaps to her feet and draws her wand, snarling at him to stay back:  “I know what you are.”  What, not who.  We don’t know what she means by that “what,” but in a film series that is focused upon the humanization and dehumanization of monsters, any such word choice will prove to be significant.  Grindelwald approaches her and starts his persuasive talk, lying to her that they will not harm her because she’s an “innocent.”  Once he has stepped toward her and even touched her wand, his manipulative powers have overwhelmed the resistance of this naive and desperate witch.

(One wonders why Grindelwald needed to recruit Queenie.  We see him using her in the last scene to tell him what Credence is thinking.  Is there something about Credence that makes it difficult for Grindelwald to read his mind, creating a need for him to rely upon another Legilimens?  After all, he couldn’t see who the Obscurial was in the first movie, although he could see the immense power of the Obscurus.  Does it have to do with the blood bond?  But I digress.)

I can understand the worry that Rowling may be using World War II and Holocaust history in a throwaway manner as an easy plot device for this series.  Based on the scripts and films, I do not think she is doing that.  I think that is her story, and there is no other:  the mechanics of fascism, the dehumanization that results in genocide and unwanted humans and monstrous rage, and the counter-strategy of recognizing the dignity and worth of all beings, including monsters and beasts.

Whether she can earn the trust of viewers in writing the characters of these stories… we shall see.

The writer and director are only two of the people creating these characters.  The actors, and what we know of them outside of their characters, embody them in a way that writing cannot.  The Asian face of Nagini, conspicuously non-white at the rally and whispering to Credence that this crowd will kill their kind for sport, says something without words.  The mixed-race face of Leta Lestrange, ostracized by her white classmates, shows us something.  I know I feel trust in the performance of Claudia Kim, showing what it feels like to be an Asian woman in a white-dominated environment.  I feel trust in Ezra Miller as a queer Jewish actor and Zoe Kravitz as a Jewish woman of color.  I felt trust in Samantha Morton as a survivor of the kind of institutional upbringing that Marylou Barebone enforced.

In an interview with Esther Zuckerman of Thrillist, Ezra Miller gave some perspective on how he understood his character’s reaction to Grindelwald’s lure:

This is like an ISIS recruit or a military recruit, [who] I see as very similar characters in the world. Essentially they both were people who were left [with] a deficit of identity. You know? A deficit of real connective tissue of culture, of family, of education. And so they, in their thirst for purpose and identity, were easily manipulated by people who wish to use them as pawns for their ultimate agenda or objective.

Credence is like this military recruit now, or like this ISIS recruit, anyone who’s ever been recruited to fight in a battle that is not their own. Credence becomes that figure, and what’s been manipulated, it’s his own trauma. And this is what they do. This is how people are systematically turned into murderers, into monsters, into the people who then become an enemy to someone else. They use trauma, they manipulate belief. They will utilize someone’s religious beliefs as a means to create an enemy, sometimes even for their own cause, just to perpetuate war. These are observable historical tactics.

Know that this is how, historically, hegemons get people to be their pawns. So that’s happened in a big way. The film ends with a would-be general putting a gun in a private’s hand, saying, “Here’s who you are now, you’re a soldier of this denomination and this country’s allegiance. And here’s why you’re angry and here’s who is your enemy.” He gives him a gun, a name, and an enemy in one.

I could use some stories about how to combat this kind of manipulation and its consequences.  I’m on board for the next three films.  I’m pretty sure I’ll need them.


Previous blog posts about Crimes of Grindelwald:

Larry Nassar is sentenced to Nurmengard

A major theme of Potterverse is that there are worse things than death.  Primary among them:  remorse.  Even if you’ve split your soul through crime, you can reintegrate it through remorse, but remorse is “excruciatingly painful.”   You’ve got to really feel what you’ve done, and the pain of it can kill you.

Larry Nassar, who abused at least 150 girls and women as the team doctor for USA Gymnastics, is learning this firsthand.  During his trial, in a letter that was six pages long single-spaced, he complained that it was detrimental to his mental health to keep listening to his victims as they confronted him in court.  He had passed out twice before his sentencing for related child pornography charges.  Judge Rosemarie Aquilina cut short a session so he could meet with mental health providers, but they did not recommend any accommodations for him; he was apparently of sound mind and therefore qualified to hear what his victims had to say to him.

At the end of Goblet of Fire, Harry’s wand connected with Voldemort’s, creating an understanding between them that generated a shimmering dome of golden threads.  With all his strength of mind, Harry forced a bead of magical light toward Voldemort and into Voldemort’s wand, whereupon ghost-like representations of Voldemort’s murder victims appeared from his wandtip, surrounded him, spoke to him, and obscured Voldemort’s view long enough for Harry to make his escape.  Harry was the only person who ever connected with Voldemort enough to make him really feel what he had done to so many victims.

With similar strength of mind, Judge Aquilina immobilized Nassar so he had to listen to his victims’ testimony, and despite his groveling pleas, she would not sever the connection.

When Dumbledore conquered Grindelwald, he did not kill Grindelwald but locked him up in Nurmengard, the prison that Grindelwald himself built to house his victims.  Grindelwald lived more than 50 more years in that prison, in sound mind, experiencing remorse, feeling the harm he had caused.  When Voldemort came to attack him about the Elder Wand, the elderly Grindelwald laughed at him, “Kill me then, Voldemort, I welcome death!  But my death will not bring you what you seek….  There is so much you do not understand….”

Larry Nassar didn’t have to hear anything other than accounts of what he had already done to other people.  This prison is only as uncomfortable for him as he has made it through his own actions.

No wonder so many characters in the Harry Potter books, from Harry to Dumbledore to Hermione to Snape, go to extremes to prevent others from committing murder and other unforgivable crimes.  Living with those crimes can feel worse than death; it’s worth the effort to avoid such a fate.  In Sorcerer’s Stone, Firenze tells Harry that those who kill unicorns to drink their blood have “slain something pure and defenseless” and “will have but a half-life, a cursed life,” thereafter.

Larry Nassar is only 54 and his sentence for sex abuse is 40 to 175 years.  He might have quite a long time to think about what he’s done.