Harry Potter, Karl Rove, and the allure of puzzles (safe to read – no spoilers!)

Those of you who have followed the series know that Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is the penultimate book. There are clearly many ways in which the saga can proceed to its conclusion and there are heated discussions as to the various ways that the story could end. I myself have had a series of discussions with people where we compared our various predictions of where the stories would go. The people I was arguing with had carefully read all the books and had noted all kinds of details, which they insisted were hints at the author’s intention. Since I am told that J. K. Rowling had mapped out the entire plot line in advance, these hints had to be taken seriously.

Since I had read only two of the six books (but have seen all three films) I was at a bit of a disadvantage arguing with these Potter mavens, and they were clearly amused by my temerity in advancing theories without having all the facts. Nevertheless I had my own strong views of how I thought the story would end and I stuck to my guns in the face of their clearly better-informed arguments.

But I started wondering why so many of us are so absorbed in trying to predict the end of the Potter story. It is after all, a work of fiction that has no real importance. But it captivates people. Even in one of the serious political websites that I read, the author of a posting, just in passing, posed a simple question about the ending of book six and what it implied for the future, and immediately there were a huge number of comments with people passionately advancing all kinds of theories and explanations.

Clearly many people are attracted to puzzles such as these and it struck me as a possible explanation for why the Karl Rove-Valerie Plame story has achieved such staying power in the media.

(A detailed time line of the events can be found here but here is a quick recap for those of you who have somehow managed to avoid this story. On July 6, 2003, former ambassador Joseph Wilson wrote a New York Times op-ed saying that in February 2002 he had been sent by the CIA to Niger to investigate the claim that Saddam Hussein’s government had tried to purchase ‘yellowcake’ uranium, presumably as part of a weapons program. He could find no evidence of such efforts and had reported this. He said he had then been surprised by the famous ‘sixteen words’ in President Bush’s January 2003 State of the Union address (““The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”) which he felt implied something that was opposite to what he had found and reported. As a result, he wrote the op-ed. The very next week, newspaper columnist Robert Novak wrote that he had been informed by unidentified administration sources that Wilson had been suggested for this mission by his wife Valerie Plame, who worked for the CIA. That was when events escalated because revealing the identity of a covert CIA employee is a crime. There is now a full-scale investigation before a grand jury empanelled by a special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald who has been working since December 2003 on the case, and much of the speculation about the sources of this leak centers on the President’s close advisor Karl Rove and the Vice President’s chief of staff ‘Scooter’ Libby.)

The media have been all over this story and their doggedness bemuses me a little when I think of all the far more serious stories that they glossed over. After all, the attack on Iraq was from the beginning based on false premises that could have been uncovered and exposed if the media had approached that task with anything close to the thoroughness with which they are acting in the Valerie Plame case. The war has resulted in the deaths of about a hundred thousand Iraqis, untold numbers injured, nearly two thousand US soldiers dead and about ten thousand injured, Iraq in ruins with its infrastructure shattered, the US undermining its own armed forces, spending money it cannot afford, and still there is no good solution or end in sight. All this might have been avoided if the media had not given this administration a free pass in selling this war by letting all kinds of misleading statements to be made and left unchallenged, and allowed the country to be raised to a fever pitch of fear. (See this week’s Tom Tomorrow’s This Modern World cartoon here.)

So why this media doggedness with respect to the relatively minor Plame revelations? (I am not saying that revealing the identity of a CIA agent is not important, just making a comparison with all the other shenanigans going on right now.) Reporters are examining documents closely, parsing words and sentences, creating timelines, comparing different statements for possible contradictions, poring over evidence, questioning motives, digging for information, not taking things at face value, aggressively challenging the White House Press Secretary’s statements, and so on. Very little of this was done when the significantly more important question of war was involved. Then the press dutifully repeated what the administration told them, acting like stenographers and mouthpieces and cheerleaders rather than reporters. No one was more guilty of this kind of behavior than Judith Miller of the New York Times who has been jailed by the special prosecutor for contempt, possibly because she is protecting the administration sources that fed her false information about Iraq and its purported weapons of mass destruction, and which she dutifully ‘reported’ as part of the effort to create war frenzy. Sam Smith in an essay titled How Journalism Went Bad on his website Progressive Review traces some reasons for the decline in journalism.

I think the reason for the interest in the Valerie Plame-Karl Rove story is the same as that causing the Harry Potter interest. People like puzzles that clearly have a solution, where there are tantalizing clues, where there is a paper trail, and, most importantly, where the consequences are not that serious. After all, in the Plame affair, nobody is going to die and the government is not going to collapse. At the worst, some minor official will resign or go to prison for a short time for perjury or revealing classified information. This makes the whole exercise a game, like playing Clue, and it becomes a race to see who first solves the puzzle correctly. Reporters love this kind of thing.

Serious matters like starting an unprovoked war against another country on false pretences, however, involve high crimes and misdemeanors and are grounds for impeachment and the basis for trials of war crimes. Reporters are not going to go anywhere near that kind of thing out of fear for what they might uncover.

It sometimes does happen, like in the case of Watergate, that what starts out as a simple and small and intriguing puzzle (which was what the initial Watergate investigation was) could end up unraveling the whole fabric of the government. But I think that there is no chance of that happening in this case. The really big scandal associated with the Plame affair, that the country was taken into a catastrophic war on false pretences, is by now well established and there seems to be no huge public outcry. So the Plame affair is likely to stay an intriguing puzzle that can be enjoyed by everyone who is not too preoccupied with speculating about the end of the Harry Potter saga.

POST SCRIPT

The London bombings have raised again the issue of whether security forces should randomly search people or use profiles for targeted searches. Tim Wise argues in The Faulty Logic of “Terrorist” Profiling why profiling will not help.

Harry Potter’s school life and mine (safe to read – no spoilers!)

One of the appealing things for me personally about the Potter books are the similarities with my own education, which results in waves of nostalgia sweeping over me as I read the stories. I went to a single-sex private school in Sri Lanka that was modeled on the British boarding school like Hogwarts, although about half the students (including me) commuted from home. We were called ‘day-scholars’ which, looking back now, seems like a quaint but dignified label when compared to the more accurate ‘commuters.’

As in Hogwarts, we had teachers (some of whom we liked and others whom we disliked), who mostly taught in a didactic style, and we did have punishments like detention, writing lines, and even canings. In my own school, only the principal and vice principals could officially cane students, though some teachers still resorted to painful raps on the knuckles with rulers or even slaps across the face. Our chemistry teacher, who was an exceedingly kind and gentle man, nevertheless could be provoked to fits of violent rage which completely transformed him for a short time into a raging monster, during which he would lash out with the rubber hoses that were readily available in the laboratories, sometimes raising welts on an offending student’s arm. The rage would subside as quickly as it was triggered and the teacher would be immediately overcome with remorse, apologizing profusely and begging for forgiveness, which we always agreed to because we liked him. We were fascinated by his Jekyll-and-Hyde transformations.

We also had the system of ‘houses’, which involved the separation of students into separate groups (such as Gryffindor, Slytherin, Hufflepuff, and Ravenclaw), each of which had a master in charge. The boarded students (or ‘boarders’) even had separate dormitories based on the houses. These houses were set in competition with each other, earning points for various achievements, These points were totaled at the end of the year, with a trophy going to the winning house, giving them bragging rights for a year.

The houses were a good way of encouraging team spirit and intramural competition, and provided opportunities for students who were not good enough to be in the school teams (or ‘varsity’ teams as they are known here) to still take part in a competitive program with their fellow students. I think that this system helped to increase participation of students in extracurricular activities because most students took seriously their responsibilities to help their house do well. The downside was that the competition could sometimes be too fierce, leading to churlish and unsportsmanlike behavior. The intramural quidditch games that take place at Hogwarts were mirrored in the cricket, rugby, and hockey matches at my school.

We also had the ‘prefect’ system, which must sound strange to American readers. (Hermione is a prefect in book 6 and I too was a prefect during my last two years in school.) A prefect was essentially a student who was given authority over his fellow students. A prefect was selected by the master in charge of each house and appointed by the school principal. Very few students were prefects. We had special privileges that others did not, such as being allowed to leave school premises during the day and a special lounge reserved exclusively for our use. We had the power to enforce rules during the school day, at special functions, and at athletic events, and could issue punishments such as detentions to ‘evil doers.’ In earlier times, prefects at my school were also allowed to use corporal punishments (such as caning misbehaving students), but that was taken away before my time as the use of corporal punishments became more restricted.

At that time, we saw it as a great privilege and honor to be selected as a prefect. It was viewed as recognizing and building leadership qualities. Looking back now, it does not seem to be such an unadulterated good thing. I sometimes wonder whether the house and prefect system was not also a cheap means of extending the reach of the school administration by creating a free labor force of rule enforcers. The house system and the prefect system may also have been a means of enhancing teacher and administration control over students by weakening overall student cohesion, another manifestation of the ‘divide and rule’ philosophy that the British used so successfully to maintain control over their colonies but which often resulted in ethnic strife and civil wars when they left.

But at other times I think that I am reading too much into this, and seeing too many dark undercurrents in well meaning, if perhaps misguided, attempts at encouraging student participation and developing student leadership. Perhaps I should lighten up.

POST SCRIPT

I find William Faulkner difficult to read and understand, and struggled through The Sound and the Fury. But I found the winning essay in the 2005 FAUX FAULKNER contest hilarious. It is by Sam Apple and is called The Administration and the Fury: If William Faulkner were writing on the Bush White House. You can read it here.

Harry Potter’s school life (safe to read – no spoilers!)

I just finished reading the latest episode of the Harry Potter saga. I cannot claim to be a rabid fan since I have read only book 2 (Chamber of Secrets) and book 6 (Half-Blood Prince), although I have seen all three film versions, but they have all been enjoyable.

Reading these books reminds me of my own school days and of much of the British schoolboy literature I read as a child, especially the Billy Bunter series and the Tom Merry series, both written by the same author Frank Richards. (These books were produced at such a prodigious rate that there were suspicions that ‘Frank Richards’ was the pseudonym of a whole stable of authors just churning out the stuff.)

There was a rigid formula to these books, the main features of which the Potter series largely adheres to. The schools were all boarding schools, and the stories started with students arriving at the beginning of the academic year and having various adventures that fortuitously ended just at the end of the school year. (There was a complementary series of children’s books by Enid Blyton which took place during the summer, with a group of friends arriving at their home town from various boarding schools, and having an adventure that ended just in time for them to go their separate ways the next academic year.)

The big difference between Harry Potter and the earlier Billy Bunter and Tom Merry series is that although the context of a British boarding school is the same, the Potter books are far better written, with complex plots and characters developed realistically, dealing with important issues of good and evil, and real human emotions. The books I read as a child had stereotypical characters (the smart student, the bully, the figure of fun, the lisping aristocrat, the athlete, the sarcastic one, etc.) who all behaved in highly predictable ways. Those characters were two-dimensional and never changed, never grew or matured. This was reassuring in some ways because you knew exactly what you were getting with the books, but you cannot enjoy them as an adult the way you can with Potter.
The earlier books and schools were also single sex and we young boys only read the books about boys’ schools, while girls only read equivalent books dealing with girls’ boarding schools. The only members of the opposite sex that appeared in the books were siblings who made cameo appearances. For all we knew, the books written for the boys may have been identical to those written for the girls with just the genders (and sports) of the characters switched, such was the rigid separation between what boys and girls read when we were growing up. There was no romance whatsoever in any of the story lines. Hogwarts, on the other hand, is co-ed, a major difference.

Another similarity between Potter and the earlier books is that the educational practices in all the schools are pretty conventional. The classes are run in an authoritarian way. As someone pointed out, Hogwarts seems a lot like a trade school, with students learning very specific skills involving potions, hexes, and the like, mostly by rote memory and repetitive practice, similar to the way the earlier books had students learning Latin and Greek. There does not really seem to be a theory of magic or even any interest in developing one. Some magic works, others don’t, with no serious attempts to discover why. There is little or no questioning of the teachers or class discussions, or inquiry-oriented teaching.

Rowling is mining a very rich vein of British school literature. As we will see in the next posting, the world she creates is probably very familiar to anyone (like me) who grew up in an English-language school anywhere in the British colonies. What she has done is added magic (and good writing) to a tried and true formula. But since that tradition of boarding school-based fiction is not present in the US, it is interesting that she has managed to strike such a chord in readers here as well.

POST SCRIPT

An anonymous commenter to an earlier post gave a very useful link to the various shades of meaning attached to atheism and definitions of atheism and agnosticism.