Harry Potter and the Politburo of Magic

England: It is the birthplace of modern representative democracy. Many of the ideas that the United States was founded upon had come to the 13 Colonies from Britain. At a time when most of Europe was ruled by absolute monarchs, England had a government with a limited executive, political representation, and guaranteed rights. England was built on a political system based on rights and representation. Therefore, it is quite disturbing that the British Isles are also home to one of the most dysfunctional oligarchies in Europe. I am naturally talking about the Ministry of Magic.

ImageBecause this emblem doesn’t look vaguely sinister at all

Throughout books 5, 6, and 7 of the Harry Potter series, Harry & Co. find themselves increasingly at odds with the generally incompetent and vaguely sinister Ministry of Magic. By Deathly Hallows, Team Voldemort has so thoroughly infiltrated the wizard government to the point where has begun to “disappear” people it doesn’t like. Except this isn’t some third world country we’re talking about. It’s the United fracking Kingdom! How does this bloody happen? The Answer: Lack of Political Accountability.

Somehow England, the location of the mother of parliaments, has given us possibly the worst form of government known to man: a corrupt oligarchic bureaucracy, dominated by party insiders and career bureaucrats that answer not to an electorate, but other party insiders and career bureaucrats. In short, British wizards have a system of government that would seem more fitting in the USSR than in the UK. Good job.

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Coming soon: Harry Potter and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat

First and foremost, the Ministry of Magic is not a democracy, but an oligarchy. The levers of power do not lie with the average wizards and witches of Britain, but within a highly concentrated group of political insiders (the Nomenklatura). This group of influential wizards and witches are those high ranking officials within the Ministry that set the agenda. They have earned these positions not through elections, but through their ability to game the system.

Let us begin with the obvious question: Who is the Ministry accountable to? In any Parliamentary system, like the one that governs most of Great Britain, the executive is accountable to the legislature, who is in turn elected by the citizenry. This ensures that the executive tasked with enforcing and enacting the laws is held accountable by the representatives of the people. This has been one of the foundational principles of the British constitution going back to the 1700s.

Yet this is not the case for the Ministry of Magic. At no point is their any mention of a wizard parliament that selects the Ministry. So it would seem that the Ministry is accountable to…itself? Where is the source of its legitimacy? The Ministry has its own internal hierarchies and mechanisms, but they seem to remain largely unaffected by any input from the average wizard or witch. At least the Soviet Union held elections. Granted you could only vote for the candidate nominated by the Communist Party, but even doing that resulted in more civic participation than was required by the average British wizard or witch. All politics in the Ministry are internal.

A clear example of this is the position of the Minister of Magic. Like his muggle counterpart, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, he must maintain the support of the government to stay in office. It’s clear from the example of Cornelius Fudge that the Minister of Magic can be ousted from office by a vote of no confidence. But the question then becomes: Who is doing the ousting? In the British Parliament, it’s elected MPs. In the Ministry of Magic, it’s simply the Minister’s selectorate.

Vocab Corner: In a democracy, the government is chosen (and is therefore accountable) to the electorate, the body of eligible voters that make up the state’s citizenry. However, in non-democracies, the leader of the state must rely on the support of a selectorate. These are the influential groups in an autocracy from which the dictator draws authority. The selectorate could be the army, the church, a cabal of rich oligarchs, the party. As long as the leader can maintain the support of their selectorate, they can stay in power.

Who is the selectorate for the Minister? We’re never really sure. We know that Fudge has lost their confidence at the start of book 5, but who are they? And on that note, who selects Rufus Scrimgeour as the next Minister? Is there a committee? Does it work like the USSR’s Politburo? Is there a line of succession? We don’t know.

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Scrimgeour barley edged out Leon Trotsky to become the next Minister of Magic

The Ministry also seems to be filled with apparatchiks, members of the bureaucracy that gain their positions not through skill or competence, but by the very nature of being political insiders. In the Ministry, the poster of these apparatchiks is Dolores Umbridge. Over and over again, she receives appointments (Professor of Defense against the Dark Arts, Hogwarts High Inquisitor) not because of her qualifications, but because of her personal loyalty to Minister Fudge. Just like in the Soviet Union, political advancement in the Ministry of Magic comes from ones ability to work the internal politics.

Another terrifying aspect of the Ministry is its lack of an independent judiciary. In all of Harry’s dealing with the Wizengamot, Britain’s highest wizard court, it seemed as if the court was highly susceptible to influence from the Minister’s Office. Its members also seemed to hold other (executive) positions in the Ministry. So now, not only does the Ministry create and enforce the law, but it is also has the power to interpret the law. That’s never a good combination.

Like most good Soviet-style governments, the Ministry also comes complete with its own official mouthpiece: The Daily Pravda…I mean Prophet. Disturbingly, this newspaper 1) only seems to publish what the Ministry wants it to and 2) seems to be the only newspaper of note in the wizard community. The wizard community lacks independent reputable new sources, which are vital to civic engagement.

This discussion doesn’t even address the issue of having two separate governments occupying the same geographic space. Do wizards vote for MPs in Britain’s Parliament? Does the Ministry of Magic draw its legitimacy and prerogatives from Her Majesty the Queen? Can a Wizard be tried in a Muggle Court and visa-verse?

The point is the Ministry of Magic is an unelected clique that possesses legislative, executive, and judicial powers, not to mention the obvious fact that they are also all magic and can mess up our day if we make them angry. Due to the lack of an elected parliament or and independent judiciary, this clique is not subject to any kind of political scrutiny. All reform, if it exists, must come from reformist elements within the Ministry, which still means it is lacking in political legitimacy.

ImageJohn Locke is saddened by the Ministry of Magic’s lack of legitimacy

And the most tragic element of this entire situation: British wizards don’t realize any of this, since political science is not a class offered at Hogwarts.

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Beauty and the Beast and Maximilien de Robespierre

It’s Movie Review Monday (on a Tuesday, but still, I like the alliteration)

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I don’t need to sum up the plot of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. We all know it. We’ve all seen it. It’s a masterpiece. And it has such a happy ending. The Beast and all his servants change back into humans and Belle presumably gets married, becomes a Princess, and escapes the dreary monotony of her rural French village. Just in time for all of them to be guillotined by the Committee of Public Safety.

Now I do not claim to know when Beauty and the Beast is set. However, the Disney version is mostly based on a version of the story written by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont in 1757. However, we see Belle’s father, the inventor Maurice, working with a steam-driven invention, which would not have been practical until the mid 1760s. So I feel fully comfortable saying that Disney’s Beauty and the Beast takes place some time between the late 1760s and the late 1770s. Also, in case you hadn’t noticed, it also takes place in France.

So, to recap: The ex-Beast and Belle are now a Prince and Princess in France, during the reign of King Louis XVI (r. 1774-1792). How do you think that is going to end up? 

Honestly, the entire movie is constantly foreshadowing the French Revolution. How does it begin? With a vapid and spoiled French nobleman refusing to show charity to an old woman. Could this perhaps be symbolic of the fact that French noblemen were completely exempt from paying taxes? The movie then cuts to Belle and her father Maurice, who are both clearly well educated, literate, and embody middle class values. However, they are currently stuck in a poor village, filled with provincial rubes. This village clearly represents the French Third Estate.

Image Pictured: The Third Estate

A note on the French system of Estates: The Kingdom of France was divided into three estates. 1st Estate=Clergy, 2nd Estate=Nobility, 3rd Estate=Everybody Else (Belle, Maurice, Gaston, LeFou, all of the townspeople from the opening song). These three bodies could occasionally meet collectively as The Estates-General, which represented the interests of each estate to the King. However, each estate only got one vote. The fact that the 3rd Estate made up 97% of the French population didn’t matter at all. Their vote counted the same as the 1st Estate’s (1%) and the 2nd Estate’s (2%). 

The other problem with the Third Estate was the fact that it was, by it’s very nature ridiculously diverse. It included both the rich merchant and the poor farmer. So at the beginning of Beauty and the Beast, the well-educated and worldly Belle is trapped in a small village with a bunch of French peasants. Clearly, Belle is representative of the small French middle-class, wanting political recognition as distinct from the poor masses, and to gain more influence within the French society.

The story then continues with Belle going to rescue her father from the Beast, where she is imprisoned. The Beast serves as a representation of the decadence of the aristocracy. Just look at the size of his castle, and how many pieces of magical silverware he has! The musical number “Be Our Guest” is a gigantic showcase for how over the top and disconnected the world of the French aristocracy was from the real world.

Image “Let them eat the grey stuff. It’s delicious”

At first, the Beast is only willing to feed Belle on his terms. When she refused to dine with him, she is locked in her room. This is a subversion of the French delegates to the Estates General being locked out (haha, subversion) out of their meeting room when they refused to obey the King’s wishes. However, Belle, with her staunch middle class values, such as moderation, patience, and education, Belle gradually wins over the Beast and reforms him, turning him from a decadent aristocrat into a model of middle-class respectability. This could be seen as France’s experiment with a constitutional monarchy during the moderate phase of the French Revolution in 1790.

Although Belle has achieved her desire for an worldly adventure, the French peasants are having none of this. Belle is seen as a traitor to the Third Estate (such as when Gaston accuses her of trying to protect the Beast rather than help kill it). She has sided with the aristocrats, and as a result of the continued poverty of the French peasants, they form an angry mob that proceeds to march on the Bastille…I mean Versailles…I mean the Beast’s castle.

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“Do you hear the people sing, singing the song of Angry Mobs?”

However, the angry mob is defeated by the magical items within the castle, which further proves my point that no social revolution to stand up to magic.

Anyway, Gaston is ultimately defeated not by the Beast, but by his own hand. He overreaches in his attempts to kill the Beast, and he falls to his death of a cliff (as is tradition). So when both Gaston (the French Peasant) and the Beast (the French Aristocracy) are falling, Belle (the French Middle Class) chooses to save the Beast. This could be seen as the classic Thermidorian Reaction.

Vocab Corner: The Thermidorian Reaction was a revolt by moderate French republicans (supporters of the French Republic) against the more radical Jacobins that had up to that point been the drivers of the French Revolution). This represented a major turning point, as ended the radical revolution a brought to power much more conservative (suspicious of change) politicians, like Napoleon Bonaparte. The term is used nowadays to describe the point where the revolutionaries become the new “Establishment” (see: most third-world countries). 

So in the end, it is Belle and the ex-Beast who live happily ever after, while Gaston falls to his death. This ultimately is symbolic of the formation of the French July Monarchy in 1830, which represented a centrist alliance of the French Aristocracy (whose authority had been undermined by the Revolution) and the French Middle Class (who had finally be enfranchised and empowered by the Revolution). At this point, it is impossible to ignore the fact that Beauty and the Beast is clearly a film that endorses the Orleanist line of succession.

Of course this is just one interpretation. It is also very likely that Beauty and the Beast is simply a fairy tale with lessons about finding beauty within and learning to trust others. But you know you secretly want it to be about the French Revolution, right?

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Why W.S. Gilbert is my spirit animal

Now that I have gotten past the initial “why I started a blog post” it is time to get to the actual blogging. So where to begin?

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Anyone who has known me for even a short period of time knows of my borderline obsession with the 13 operas (Thespis does not count) written by W.S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan in the 1870s and 1880s. But what is it about the so-called Savoy Operas that I find so enthralling? Sullivan’s music is a key part. But Sullivan’s music is important enough for a separate blog entry. This article is about W.S. Gilbert, and how 13 “topsy-turvy” operas that he wrote over 130 years ago (Iolanthe turned 130 last year) can resonate in the 21st Century.

For a more comprehensive biography of Gilbert, I would recommend Wikipedia. The short version is W.S. Gilbert was a lawyer turned journalist turned writer. By the 1870s, Gilbert was a prolific writer of satires and farces. In 1875, he began a collaboration with composer Arthur Sullivan, and together they became one of the greatest librettist-composer duos of all times, producing such famous works as HMS Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, and The Mikado.

So back to the original question: What is it about these operas that a 22-year old American in the 21st century like myself can find entertaining? The short answer: They are funny. Gilbert was a master of satire. He was a 19th-century Stephen Colbert, critiquing politics and society by taking viewpoints and stances to their logical extremes. He also went after the sacred cows of his day. In his first six operas with Sullivan, he satirized the British legal system, British social norms, the Royal Navy, the British Army, a popular British cultural fad, and the British government (are you noticing a theme here?). His opera Iolanthe (1882) was considered scandalous at its opening because the members of the male chorus portrayed Britain’s House of Lords. We see parodies of politicians all the time on SNL, but in the 1880s this was considered quite shocking. And the audiences loved it.

For example most people are familiar with the famous song “I am the very model of a modern Major-General” from Act I of The Pirates of Penzance. However, the humor of the song can be missed if you don’t play close attention for the punchline. Here is a Major-General boasting about his knowledge of mathematics, natural science, history, languages, and the fine arts. It’s a fun song full of tongue-twisting lyrics, but the last line of the song actually delivers the joke: “For my military knowledge thought I’m plucky and adventure-y/ has only been brought down to the beginning of the century. But still in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral, I am the very model of a modern Major-General.” So as much as this general knows about art and science, his knowledge of military matters is about 70 years out of date, and furthermore this seems to be typical for most “modern major-generals.”

It’s true some of the humor is lost on modern audiences. For example, the 1881 opera Patience was a smash hit in its day but is one of the lesser known Savoy operas today. The reason is because it specifically satirizes the Aesthetic movement, a ridiculously popular cultural trend in the late 1870s. Because of the opera’s topical nature, it quickly faded into obscurity. But the fundamental plot is still funny. It stars a poet named Reginald Bunthorne, who has adopted a persona similar to Oscar Wilde’s as a way of attracting women. It only takes a few minutes with Bunthorne on stage to realize what he truly is: A Hipster. He even sings a song about how special he is for liking artists and reading books you’ve never heard of.

And that right there is what makes Gilbert’s humor special: it’s capacity to be timeless. Sure, not a lot of people in the 21st century have met an aesthetic poet, but we’ve all met someone that thinks they’re cool because they can say “Oh my favorite band? You’ve never heard of them.” Gilbert’s humor is able to satirize elements of the human condition that are still with us today. Topics addressed in the Savoy Operas include: Ineffectual politicians (Iolanthe), governments trying to legislate morality (The Mikado), love and marriage (The Sorcerer), annoying pop culture fads (Patience), gender relations and inequality (Princess Ida), and incompetent people in positions of authority (actually this is pretty much common in all 13 Savoy Operas). These are all still relevant issues today, so Gilbert’s humor stays relevant.

It’s not just Gilbert’s humor that interests me, but his life and personality resonate with me too. I recognize a lot of myself in W.S. Gilbert. He constantly suffered from anxieties, felt uncomfortable in large groups, stressed over insignificant details, and was generally introverted. People that didn’t know him very well often characterized him as misanthropic, a characterization he did not go out of his way to dispel. He even tended to cultivate this image. But at the same time, he enjoyed the company of close friends and went out of his way to help people he cared about (he died in 1911 at the age of 75 trying to rescue a drowning girl).

Is this all a tad corny? Yeah. But hey, I’m sure everyone at some point in their life looked at some famous person as a role model. Mine was just an English playwright that died 80 years before I was born.

At some point, I will dedicate a full blog post to each of the thirteen Savoy Opera (again, Thespis doesn’t count). I really love these operas, and nothing would make me happier then for you, dear readers, to go out and discover them on your own. Spotify is very helpful in that regard. But it is occasionally hard to understand all of them (I still don’t get all the jokes), so stay tuned for my Gilbert and Sullivan’s sparknotes series, coming soon to a blog near you. Hopefully this will help you understand (if only just a little) why I am the way I am.

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Yes, I really did get a blog.

You’re probably asking yourself right now “Greg, why would an infamous Luddite like yourself suddenly start a blog?” (If you didn’t ask yourself that, ignore the previous sentence). The short version is I have been wanting to start one for sometime and I finally found a free moment. I’ve thought about keeping a journal, but at the same time, create something that other people might find interesting enough to read. More than any other form of social media, a blog (if used properly) captures all the charm and elegance of old fashioned letter and journal writing. There is this constant fear that modern social media is forcing everyone to reduce all their thoughts and beliefs to 140 characters. I don’t know how founded that fear is, but I know that expressing myself in that small of a space is rather limiting. I also read somewhere that keeping a blog is a great way to practice writing, both from a content and an editing perspective. As much as we would like to ignore this fact, expressing yourself in writing is still one of the most valuable skills an adult can have. So now is the time to get better at it.

This is not going to be one of those blogs where I write vaguely about the emotional ups-and-downs of being a 20-something. You might occasionally get some of that, but ultimately, this blog is going to attempt to be fun, witty, and entertaining. But also educational (there’s that word). As any of you that know me personally can attest, it’s impossible to be around me for more than a short period of time without being bombarded with obscure movie quotes, references to a Gilbert and Sullivan Opera, or random facts about some European Duke that you’ve never heard of. So now, rather than talking about 18th century Austrian foreign policy at a bar (an analysis of Maria Theresa’s policy of detente with France in the 1750s doesn’t really make for great small talk), I’m posting all of that stuff here, to browse at your leisure.

If you want to see funny .gifs and short posts about movies or sports, check out my Facebook wall. If you would like to see my thoughts on topics as diverse as US foreign policy, music, movies, literature, art, and 19th century history, then stick around. I can’t promise it will always be fun and entertaining, but I’m trying my best. It will however always be educational (stop rolling your eyes already).

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