Friday, July 29, 2011

Are the Harry Potter books a metaphor for racism or other persecution?

In Harry Potter, people are differentiated based on their ability to do magic, and whether or not they are descended from people who are able to do so. "Muggles" are people who can't do magic. Wizards and witches can. Pure-bloods are witches and wizards descended from magical family on both sides. I am unsure how far they are supposed to be able to trace their lineage back. (One generation? Two? The more the merrier?) Half-bloods have magical family on one side but not the other. Muggle-borns, sometimes referred to by the fictional derogatory term "Mudbloods", are witches and wizards descended from Muggles on both sides. "Squibs" are muggles with magical parentage.

On the side of Dumbledore, most of the Weasely family, and Harry Potter himself, we see people who believe that parentage has nothing to do with how skilled a witch or wizard is, and that Muggle are people who, generally speaking, are worth of respect, but simply lack the ability to do magic. Muggles should be free to go about their ordinary lives without interference from or even knowledge of witches and wizards. Harry Potter dislikes his own aunt, uncle, and cousin, who are Muggles, but that is because of how they treat him, not for their inability to do magic. Although he takes advantage of his status as a wizard to frighten his cousin Dudley, who has been abusive toward him for many years, that dislike doesn't stop him from defending Dudley when a magical dementor attacks them.

On the side of Voldemort, the Death Eaters, and others, we see people who think that the skill of being able to do magic makes witches and wizards "better" than Muggles, not merely in the sense of having a skill, but on a basic, moral sense. To Voldemort, being a wizard gives him the right to kill Muggles like one might squash a bug. Furthermore, Voldemort and others similar to him think lineage makes some wizards better than others. Purebloods deserve the most respect, halfbloods are tolerated, and muggle-borns are seen as little better than Muggles.

There appear to be parallels between the hatred of muggles and muggle-borns displayed by Voldemort and others, and real-life racism. Ironically, Voldemort is a half blood himself. He is proud of his mothers side, on witch he can trace his lineage all the way back to Slytherin, an ancient wizard who also hated muggle-borns. On the other hand, Voldemort his so ashamed of his father's side, the Muggle side, that he changes his name. Looking at history, it is well-known that Hitler had Jewish ancestry. Is Voldemort's hypocrisy metaphoric of Hitler's?

Much as racist groups in history have used symbols, Voldemort and his death eaters use something called the Dark Mark. They put it over someone's home after they've killed someone. This gives the Dark Mark the power to terrify all by itself, just as people are still frightened and outraged by symbols that were used by the Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), and other racist groups. They call people "Mudbloods" while terrorizing them, which similarly gives that word the power to frighten and anger, much as racial slurs used against black people when they were enslaved legally in the U.S. and racial slurs used against American Indians while they were being persecuted and slaughtered continues to frighten and anger people even today.

By making every reader a member of the persecuted group (because, after all, the reader is classified as Muggle), J.K. Rowling shows everyone equally what its like to be persecuted for a fact of your birth. By using only fictional distinctions and fictional symbols of hatred, she avoids causing offense that often comes from discussion of real symbols of hatred. And like Animal Farm can be read as a children's book about animals rather than a statement about communism, so it is entirely possible to read Harry Potter as a children's book about magic.

Although Rowling avoids discussion of actual racism, she does introduce us to racially diverse characters.

It is also possible to read Harry Potter as a metaphor for persecution against disabled people. Like blind people lack the ability to see, deaf people lack the ability to hear, and mute lack people the ability to speak, Muggles in the Harry Potter universe lack the ability to do magic. Since all readers are Muggles, this affords all readers the opportunity to see the ridiculousness of eugenics. A blind man's life isn't any less worth living because he cannot see than yours is because you cannot do magic.

However, the series lacks many disabled characters, and most of those who are disabled have disabilities of the magical variety. Thanks to magic, Moody's eye is replaces with a magical substitute that works even better than the original. Harry Potter's bones are regrown over night. Even temporary things like the common cold are quickly cured.

However, Firenze, a centaur, requires groundfloor accommodations due to being four-legged. I guess all the witches and wizards at Hogwarts couldn't figure out how to make the magical equivalent of an elevator. Lupin is a werewolf, through no fault of his own. There is no cure, but although he takes measures to manage his condition, and although he's the best Defense against the Dark Arts teacher we see in the series, he is still persecuted for it. This is metaphoric of the irrational fear people often have of people with real incurable illnesses and disabilities.

What other metaphors for persecution do you see in the Harry Potter series?

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A Walk in a Workhouse, by Charles Dickens, and the difficulty of finding jobs while disabled

"In another room, a kind of purgatory or place of transition, six or eight noisy madwomen were gathered together, under the superintendence of one sane attendant. Among them was a girl of two or three and twenty, very prettily dressed, of most respectable appearance and good manners, who had been brought in from the house where she had lived as domestic servant (having, I suppose, no friends), on account of being subject to epileptic fits, and requiring to be removed under the influence of a very bad one. She was by no means of the same stuff, or the same breeding, or the same experience, or in the same state of mind, as those by whom she was surrounded; and she pathetically complained that the daily association and the nightly noise made her worse, and was driving her mad - which was perfectly evident. The case was noted for inquiry and redress, but she said she had already been there for some weeks.
"If this girl had stolen her mistress's watch, I do not hesitate to say she would have been infinitely better off. We have come to this absurd, this dangerous, this monstrous pass, that the dishonest felon is, in respect of cleanliness, order, diet, and accommodation, better provided for, and taken care of, than the honest pauper." -- Charles Dickens
 The work is now in public domain, in the United States at least,

Disability rights have definitely come a long way since Dickens time. In the United States, we have an ADA, which makes it requires employers to not discriminate against disabled applicants and employees who are able to perform the "primary functions" of the job "with or without reasonable accommodation", and to provide said "reasonable accommodation". Some other countries have similar laws. Of course, that doesn't actually prevent employers from not simply making up some excuse, or giving no reason. The epileptic girl would likely have been fired even today; it's just not likely she would have been given an honest answer why.

We also have, in the United States, SSI and SSDI for disabled people who can't work. Some other countries have similar programs. However, the laws specify that the disabled person must be incapable of substantial gainful employment (meaning employment earning more than about $1000 per month). (Well, actually, it's a whole lot more complicated than that, but anyway....)

Unfortunately, it's often not that the person is incapable of working, so much as the employers who are incapable of wanting to hire a disabled person when they could hire a non-disabled one and not have to deal with making reasonable accommodations. The problem gets even worse during a recession, when there are that many more non-disabled applicants to choose from.

At the same time, the government tightens spending and makes it even harder for disabled people to get approved for SSI or SSDI. The theory, I suppose, is a sterotype of disabled people being lazy, and especially during a recession, they need to be encouraged to go out and get jobs.

While there are undoubtedly people who take advantage of social services. there are a whole lot more who really want to get jobs, but either actually can't do any sort of remotely normal job, or else can't find an employer willing to hire them. Also, people don't get that much on SSI or SSDI. Disabled people often have disability related needs, such as wheelchairs and other medical equipment, accessible building modifications, medical expenses, and so on. Oh, and then there's things like audio and braille versions of books for blind people, which, although not usually necessities, illustrate how even leisure can be more expensive for a disabled person than a non-disabled person. So, cost of living for a disabled person is higher, sometimes a lot higher, than that of a non-disabled person. In other words, SSI and SSDI often don't cover the necessities, or, at the very least, require necessity to be tightly defined, such as having to ask oneself: which is more important -- food, rent, or medical equipment?

If the poor in the Victorian era were discriminated against, the poor and disabled were doubly so. We should learn from their mistakes. In a time of recession, it's even more important to ensure a social safety net for poor and/or disabled people, so that epileptics like the one in Charles Dickens' short story aren't punished for their medical condition.

Use of racial slur in the Dresden Files

In the Dresden Files, one character, Ebenezar McCoy, uses a highly offensive racial slur to refer to an American Indian. (Specifically, the i-word.) From this, we can reasonably deduce that the character, McCoy, is either grossly undereducated on American history, or else a racist. Given that the character, McCoy, is a few hundred years old, and probably alive during the time period when European invaders were slaughtering and enslaving American Indians routinely, the latter seems far more likely.

Oddly, the character insulted, Listens to Wind, of an unknown tribe, doesn't seem to do much about it. Although he seems pleased when the main character, Harry Dresden, uses his proper name, or at least the English translation of it, rather than the racial slur, he really doesn't do much about standing up to McCoy.

It is unclear so far why he doesn't. Did McCoy save an American Indian village? If so, he might qualify for what I call the Huckleberry Finn defense. Huckleberry Finn, a fictional character created by Mark Twain, was racist and is, as would be expected, a racist himself, a least in the beginning of the book. However, as he journeys upriver with an escaped slave, his heart ultimately wins out over his upbringing, and he aids his friend and his friend's family in escaping slavery. Since actions speak louder than words, many readers feel it is appropriate to forgive Huckleberry for using the highly offensive n-word. Not everyone agrees.

"It's not just a word," said Clark, the guardian for her granddaughter. Both are African American.
"It carries with it the blood of our ancestors. They were called this word while they were lynched; they were called this word while they were hung from the big magnolia tree.
"That word, in the history of America, has always been a degrading word toward African Americans. When they were brought to America, they were never thought of as human beings in the first place, and this word was something to call a thing that wasn't human.
"So that's what they bring into the classroom to talk about. I just think it's utterly unconscionable that a school would think it's acceptable."

The only other possibility I can think of is that the character, Listens to Wind, is too traumatized about the genocide of his people to bother fighting about it. The events in the book "Turn Coat" would seem to support this.

For example, in the words of the injured character, in the book Turn Coat,
"Once, I watched the tribe I was expected to guide and protect be destroyed, Harry Dresden. I did so because my principles held that it was wrong for the Council or its members to involve itself in manipulating the politics of mortals. I watched and restrained myself, until it was too late for me to make a difference. When I did that, I chose who would live and who would die. My people died for my principles." He shook his head. "I will not make that mistake again."
With that much trauma and regret in his memory, it's conceivable that Listens to Wind simply doesn't have the energy to expend fighting about racial slurs.

In any case, Jim Butcher brought up a serious topic by introducing a racist character. Although things have presumably improved, compared to where they were a couple hundred years ago, racism continues even today. I hope to see the story of Listens to Wind play out in future books, and I hope to see McCoy get his comeuppance.

For the readers who are unfamiliar with the history, of the i-word and why it is offensive, the Europeans came to the Americas as conquerors. They killed and enslaved the American Indians. While they did it, they called them the word in question, and a few other names. When people do such horrible things, it creates a cultural memory that far outlives the lives of the people who lived in those times. Insults and symbols used in that time gain a terrible power to hurt people by reminding them of those things.

The horrors perpetrated against Californian tribes, such as the Chumash and the Kumeyaay, were particularly appalling.

For help figuring out what you should call American Indians, this article may be helpful.

In my experience, tribal name is the best, but, if you aren't sure which tribe the person belongs to, most seem to prefer "Indian". To avoid confusion with Indians from Asia, you could say "American Indian". A couple seem to prefer "Native American", and most at least don't seem offended by it, but I did recently meet one who thought "Native American" was offensive, and although I'm not entirely sure why, it's probably safest to avoid it. The i-word and the r-word are off the table for historical reasons. Also the s-word.

It's also technically possible that McCoy is ignorant of the history of the word, but, given his age, that seems highly unlikely. That's a doubt better reserved for children, young people, and people who have only recently learned English.

A look online reveals I am not the only blogger to have noticed the use of the i-word. However,  I'm a bit confused about how defamation law works exactly. (Is it true you can be sued just for linking to possibly defamatory content? And for that matter, where is the line between fair comment on a matter of public interest and defamation?) However, in open response to the other bloggers, it seems unreasonable to me to declare an author racist for having a racist character or characters. How can we ever hope to explain to people the horrors that have historically, and even today, been committed against other people because of their race without books that contain racist characters?

As for the geographical inaccuracy explained by the other bloggers, it seem more likely to me that Jim Butcher was unfamiliar with Chicago. Although, I have known people to make mistakes about identifying dangerous neighborhoods even when they did live in the city. I think familiarity has a lot to do with it. And there are real dangers in being in a place where you don't know how to fit in. If there is only one mugger in the neighborhood, and you walk through it dressed differently than everyone else, looking around like you're nervous or afraid, it is probable that the single mugger will target you. Thus, people often overestimate the danger of neighborhoods they are not familiar with, which can turn out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. The solution is to look confident, but aware, and dress appropriately. (And if it's dark, carry a fork or a pepper spray or something.) In doing so, I have been reasonably safe in many places where my less confident friends would not have been. That said, there are things that can make a neighborhood really dangerous, like a meth lab. (This looks like a balanced, informative blog post about the argument which occurred: )

Oh, and apparently this was also discussed on twitter. I suppose if I'd seen that, I might not have been so surprised to find people defending racial slurs on Jim Butcher's fan website. Although, Jim did offer to continue the argument on his website, so that is a bit confusing. But Jim Butcher wasn't involved in the argument I had on his website, so I guess that explains it.

I'm reasonably confident I can link to twitter legally.!/longshotauthor

(Note: Please do not make any reply that might be illegal in Germany in response to this post, at least not on my blog. I'm not familiar with the specifics of German law, but I understand that racism is illegal there. Given that I might want to visit or move there some day, and have no desire to anger German authorities, I will delete any response that I am afraid crosses the line. Besides, that stuff is offensive anyway. However, racist comments appear to be tolerated on Jim Butcher's fan forum, so if you wish to defend racial slurs, you might voice your opinion there. Readers are opposed to racial slurs, or genuinely curious about why they are offensive, are welcome to post here, but warned that they may be censored should they choose to voice their opinion on Jim Butcher's fan forum. Great job, people. First time I've ever been banned from anywhere on the internet for being anti-racist, while others were allowed to defend racist slurs. That'll be one I can brag about to sane, non-racist people on the internet for years to come! Back to the rules on my blog.... Comments which could be construed as possibly defamatory against Jim Butcher, on the basis that I don't want to be sued. Please remember that although Mark Twain portrayed racist characters, his message was an anti-racist one.)

Oliver Twist, the Victorian Era, and modern poverty

Oliver Twist is an excellent statement on attitudes toward the poor in Victorian England. Charles Dickens shows us how many people of that era were so classist that they treated the poor like criminals. Poor people could only get assistance from poor houses, which had much in common with modern sweatshops. Families were separated. The poor were grossly underfed, to the point of slow starvation, worked hard, and beaten. Even children did not escape this treatment, and were often given away to abusive masters who used them for sweeping chimneys and other menial labor. When Oliver Twist escapes from an abusive master who beats him, he falls in with thieves and prostitutes. Much of the remainder of the book shows his difficulty in escaping that situation.

Historians believe actual conditions during the Victorian era were even worse than Dickens described. Dickens grew up near a workhouse, and would have known this, so it is probable that he toned it down to make the book more socially acceptable.

Although things have changed since then, and conditions for the poor have much improved in most first world nations, attitudes toward the poor are particularly relevant as the recession in the United States and elsewhere continues to deprive people of jobs.

In Oliver Twist, a common misconception people have is that poor people are poor because they are lazy. In one instance, when Oliver Twist is already tired, hungry, and has injured feet, people refuse to help him because he can't run up a hill fast enough. Although he is unable to do so in his condition, they nonetheless conclude that he is lazy.

Many people today believe the same about the poor; that we should cut social programs like food stamps, LIHEAP, and financial assistance to the disabled, because they discourage people from finding jobs. How a person is supposed to find a job on a chronically empty stomach, or with the sort of disability that makes employers scramble to find a fictitious excuse to avoid hiring you, I'm not sure. With people losing jobs left and right, it seems even more ridiculous. I once met a former movie professor who was homeless. The college he taught at nearly went out of business and greatly downsized, you see. He didn't look homeless. That's another misconception people have about the homeless today. In fact, many homeless people go to great lengths to avoid looking homeless. At drop-in centers, typically only open for a limited number of hours on weekdays, it may be possible to shower and wash clothing for free. Failing that, many homeless people who are employed, regularly or irregularly (but not earning enough to afford a home), or have some other small income (e.g. social security, unemployment insurance, busking) will pay to shower at the gym and wash clothing at a public laundromat. Failing other options, many homeless people will take towel baths, which, while less than ideal, can be enough to avoid looking like a stereotypical beggar.

Many poor people are just down on their luck, as illustrated wonderfully in Oliver Twist. Furthermore, stereotypes about poor people being criminals may be self-fulfilling prophecies of a sort. While Oliver Twist receives a little charity after running away, it is not enough to live on. Criminals are the first people to help him in any long-lasting way. Of course, he did not initially know they were criminals. Unfortunately, by the time he figures it out, they have a vested interest in keeping hold of him.

Not all the poor people in Oliver Twist who can't afford food turn to crime. Many of them simply starve to death.

If we cut foodstamps, and programs that provide more immediate assistance (e.g. food banks and soup kitchens), won't the people who are laid off and can't find a new job, or disabled and unable to find an accommodating employer, be forced to make the same decision: Crime or starvation? You might ask, what about begging? In Santa Fe, I once saw two cops pull a gun on a guy for doing just that. He wasn't even being aggressive about begging. He was just flying a sign.

Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist is an excellent reminder of why we shouldn't count people lazy criminals just because they are poor, and the benefits of a social safety net in reducing crime and preventing poverty from being a death sentence. Although times have changed, poor people today may still find comfort and understanding in the book.

Oliver Twist is in the public domain (at least in the United States; if you live elsewhere, please confirm before reading a free copy) and available free online:

Statement of intent

This is intended to be a book review blog, with special attention paid to the deeper meaning behind books. It is my belief that fiction is often written with the conscious or subconscious intention of calling attention to societal problems in a way that's easier to talk about than discussing those societal problems directly. Writing fiction, rather than news, bypasses all sorts of problems like defamation lawsuits, having to get the details right, public discomfort with discussing the problem, etc.

Excellent examples include Oliver Twist, which makes a statement on poverty in the Victorian era, and Animal Farm, which makes a statement about communism.

However, interpretations are, of course, the reader's. It is impossible to know whether any particular deeper meaning was intended by the author, unless the author states it directly. Nevertheless, deeper meanings found by the reader but not intended by the author can still be valuable.

On this blog are the deeper meanings I, and anyone else who chooses to comment here, have found in books. They should not be construed as actual knowledge of the author's intentions.

This is a book review blog, so other topics related to reading and writing books may also be discussed, even in the absense of a deeper meaning.

Furthermore, this blog is intended to be free of censorship imposed by hardcore fans. In fact, it was a negative experience on a fan website which inspired me to start this blog. Many of the moderators on Jim Butcher's fan forum apparently feel it is unacceptable to point out that one of the characters is obviously racist, and to censor explanations of this to people who are at best  ignorant and at worst maliciously racist, while at the same time continuing to allow defense of racist slurs. This is in no way a reflection on Jim Butcher himself, who was not involved in the discussion. On my blog, you are free to point out racist, sexist, and other negative characteristics of fictional characters. (However, due to defamation laws, please do not post assumptions that an author portraying a racist fictional character is himself racist, even if you think that. Besides, it's sort of ridiculous. Mark Twain portrayed racist characters, but the message of Huckleberry Finn was clearly an anti-racist one.)

(Note: Censorship may still occur if I am concerned that the content might be illegal, or legally questionable enough for someone to try to sue over, in the United States or any country I might want to visit someday. That is not to say you can't criticize laws and suggest they should be changed, but you should not knowingly break them on this blog while they stand. Unrelated stuff, like commercial advertisements, and exceptionally offensive things may also be censored. That goes double for anything racist, which is both highly offensive and possibly illegal in Germany and France. This is not a guarantee that all illegal comments will be removed; please send a takedown request if you see anything you believe violates your legal rights.)

Acronyms are strongly discouraged, because they often stand for multiple things and cause way too much confusion. If you do wish to use an acronym, it is helpful if you spell it out at least once, followed by the acronym in parentheses, so that people will no what you are talking about. Text messaging style spelling is also confusing and discouraged, unless you are actually posting from a mobile phone.