‘Harry Potter’ And Its Frightening Political Parallels: How We’re Living Through ‘The Order Of The Phoenix’
When the muggle world seems to be tracing the same ominous path of its magical counterpart, you know it’s time to pull the breaks before it’s too late
Around the time when this year’s first leaves started to fall, I decided to take out my DVD of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the fifth installment in J. K. Rowling’s ubiquitous fantasy saga. Upon my return from the summer holidays, the beginning of autumn was marked by a televised marathon of the Harry Potter films, which whet my muggle appetite for the wizarding world. After all, as with other mid-late ’90s babies, Harry Potter accompanied my childhood through its formative stages. From the wide-eyed wonderment of my five-year-old self, looking at the magic and innocent sparkle of the Philosopher’s Stone, to watching the gory final battle unfold when the Deathly Hallows — Part 2 hit the silver screen upon entering my mid-teens, the Harry Potter film series proved to be something of an underlying backbone to my earliest years. And so, overtaken by nostalgia, I blew the dust off of that ten-year-old cover and played the DVD.
Essentially, the story arc of Harry Potter shows how the “boy who lived” fights the gradual return to power of Lord Voldemort, who had previously attempted to overrule the wizarding world and implement an autocratic regime enforcing “pure blood”, excluding all “muggle-borns” (those of non-magical lineage). As all those well-acquainted with the series know (spoiler alert), this leads to a war which results in Harry’s defeat of Lord Voldemort.
The parallels with Nazi Germany and the Third Reich are evident. By the last installment, when Voldemort and his followers (the “Death Eaters”) have managed to seize the Ministry of Magic, all muggle-borns are forced to register under the “Muggle-Born Registration Commission”, while pamphlets titled “Mudbloods and the Dangers They Pose to a Peaceful Pure-Blood Society” are being distributed, in a manner eerily reminiscent of the Nuremberg racial purity laws and 1930s antisemitic propaganda. Unsurprisingly, Rowling herself has acknowledged the similarities between Lord Voldemort and 20th-century dictators such as Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin.
By the Order of the Phoenix, things have just started to heat up. Lord Voldemort has finally managed to make a return in the previous chapter, the Goblet of Fire, killing Cedric Diggory in the process. The Minister of Magic, Cornelius Fudge, in fear of losing his position, implements a propaganda of denial, vociferously quashing any rumours of the dark wizard’s return, and implementing the sugar-coated iron fist of Professor Dolores Umbridge to impose such silence in Hogwarts. Harry is branded a “liar” and Dumbledore a “threat” to the Ministry, all the while Voldemort is strengthening his forces. The situation hasn’t escalated to a full-on conflict — but things are just starting to heat up.
Re-watching Harry Potter, however entertaining it may be, always leaves you with a tinge of anxiety because you know that as things progress, they’re gradually getting worse. The Order of the Phoenix epitomises this angst, as the audience are well-aware of Lord Voldemort’s return and the looming danger he poses to society, yet are faced with a government that is keeping its citizens quiet under the pretense that “nothing is wrong”. Within the context of the 1930s, a decade which closely mirrors the fifth Harry Potter installment in its social tensions and uneasy politics, Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement tactics spring to mind.
Nonetheless, of all the times I’d re-seen the Order of the Phoenix since its release, this one gave me the strongest tinge of apprehension. For some reason, it struck too close to home. The parallels, once relegated to history textbooks, suddenly seemed too real and foreboding. It took a few minutes until the thought struck me — we’re all currently living through the Order of the Phoenix.
The last few years have seen a rapid rise of right-wing nationalism, whipped up in the looming shadow of the Great Recession and a backdrop of global conflict. Not a few historians have noted how the mid-to-late 2010s have seen a repeat of many of the 1930s’ worrying trends — scapegoating of minorities for the hardships of austerity, a rise in an ugly, angry brand of populism, an ever-growing adoption of fascist-like rhetoric by mainstream parties, and the gradual rightward shift of the political spectrum. If the parallels between the rise of fascism in the 1930s and Voldemort’s looming return in the Order of the Phoenix are evident, then it serves to say that our current times can’t escape from the comparisons with the book — and the similarities, unfortunately, do not stop at this.
Here in Britain, we have a Conservative government which, in a desperate (yet successful) attempt to steal voters from UKIP, has hitched an increasingly right-wing wagon which makes David Cameron (as much as I dislike him) seem like a Bob Dylan-doting hippie in comparison. In last year’s manifesto, the Tories even promised to charge companies employing migrants extra costs, while taking a clear hard-Brexit stance and controversially proposing to introduce the much-maligned “Dementia Tax”. Much like the Ministry of Magic by the fifth book, it seems that maintaining political power matters more than acknowledging the danger that is looming at large — perhaps even accommodating it, if needs be.
Yet most of all, hard-right views are not only becoming normalised within the mainstream, but we’re also finding ourselves with a ruling elite who’s convincing us that this is not the case. In Germany, the rise of Neo-Nazism has been explained away by many as merely an issue of popular dissatisfaction with the state, as opposed to xenophobia or racism. In Italy, the faceless premiership of Giuseppe Conte has seen the stellar rise of Matteo Salvini, an anti-immigration populist whose recent proposals include adding curfews to “ethnic” shops. What’s more, we can all remember how Trump, after the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville last August, stated that there were “very fine people, on both sides”, and was reportedly reticent to call out white supremacism as the key problem.
When Dumbledore confronts Fudge at Harry Potter’s hearing, the Minister makes his position clear: “he is not back!”. Likewise, we’re being told by the British government that everything is alright, that a “Festival of Britain” will be held to celebrate the country’s promising future upon leaving the European Union. That we’re “build[ing] a better Britain”, in Theresa May’s own words. It’s not just about the populist politicians who are stirring up reactionary movements, but about the many who appease them.
Theresa May has made attempts to soften her image, from being seen dancing in Kenya on a now-viral video, to later engaging in some self-deprecatory humour at this year’s Conservative Party Conference. She even claimed to “shed a tear” after last year’s disastrous election, trying to bring an emotional depth to the stern façade.
But the facts remain. EU citizens in the UK have not had their promises to fulfilled, particularly concerning in light of the Windrush scandal where several Caribbean Britons were wrongfully deported; the government’s “hostile environment” is still alive; and a Brexit deal with potentially disastrous economic consequences is being pursued. Meanwhile, in order to make up for the inevitable economic damage which Brexit will bring, Theresa May has been cosying up to Trump’s America in the hope of securing a transatlantic trade deal. Such an accord could have potentially serious repercussions on our environment, NHS, and food industry (bringing the infamous “chlorinated chicken” to our dinner plates), and yet all of this is of little interest to a government which is so desperate to pursue a self-destructive divorce from Europe.
“There is nothing out there,” Dolores Umbridge quips in her first class as Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher. “You have been told that a certain dark wizard is at large once again. This is a lie.” Move from the magical realm to the muggle world, and the messages we’re hearing are not dissimilar. “I would say people should take reassurance and comfort,” Theresa May stated on Channel 5, “we are working for a good deal.” These words came following the news of stockpiling plans in the case of a hard Brexit “fallout” of sorts. Now that a Brexit deal has been announced and debated, in spite of wide disapproval from Brits on all sides of the political spectrum, we’re told from the “head and heart” of the Prime Minister herself that it is in the “best interests of [the] entire United Kingdom”.
If there’s a silver lining to our current situation is that we’ve seen the emergence of a global counter-movement to protest the effects of right-wing nationalism — from “The Resistance” in the US, to the “People’s Vote” here at home, the latter of which demands a final say on our Brexit deal. “Dumbledore’s Army”, Harry’s own grassroots club intended to teach fellow Hogwarts students how to defend themselves against the Death Eaters, strikes something of an unintended parallel. Yet, just as the Order of the Phoenix is a book on political appeasements and forced silences, so too we see this reflected in the establishment’s reaction to popular movements. On 20 October, c.700,000 people marched in central London to protest Brexit’s calamitous consequences and to demand a final vote, making it Britain’s second-largest demonstration since the start of the millennium. The Prime Minister’s response? Nothing. No acknowledgement from Theresa May, no words expressed on the matter. Silence.
If there’s any book which teaches us about the power, and insidious danger, of silence, it’s the Order of the Phoenix. As the muggle world continues to appear ever-more alarmingly similar to its magical counterpart, perhaps it’s time we take a good look at ourselves and question the direction in which our society is heading. Just like in the fifth Harry Potter installment, we’re seeing the first sparks before the fire; but unlike Harry Potter, we’re not destined to see the world go up in flames. While J. K. Rowling needed her protagonist to fight and defeat his arch-nemesis (part of a prophecy, no less), we still have the power to swerve our society away from self-destruction. It seems that, in this moment in time, a fantasy story can teach us more about the real world than we can ourselves.