No one is off limits from the cerebral scrutiny of local political writer Ari Armstrong. On his FreeColorado.com blog, he smacked down the liberal website ProgressNow for its hypocritical stance on the word “bitch-slapped.” Lately right-wingers, too, have been feeling his highbrow wrath, thanks to columns he’s published online and in newspapers arguing against GOP faith-based politics and the right-to-work issue on the November ballot. Armstrong was once a member of the Colorado Libertarian Party, but now the only thing he swears allegiance to is Ayn Rand’s objectivism philosophy. That means he’s all about the protection of individuals’ rights and the promotion of economic and religious freedom -- and he aims his weighty pen at anything contrary to these ideals.
Lately Armstrong’s objectivist scrutiny has been focused on a subject even thornier than politics: the contentious and complicated world of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. In his new book, Values of Harry Potter: Lessons for Muggles, Armstrong, true to form, challenges Harry Potter theorists of all stripes. While some call the Harry Potter books anti-Christian, and others suggest they celebrate Christian principles, Armstrong argues persuasively that Harry Potter neither promotes nor rebukes Christianity, but instead advances more universal, and thought-provoking, human themes. Here are some insights gleaned from a recent conversation with Armstrong on Ayn Rand, electoral politics and Avada Kedavra (major spoiler alert, by the way, for the three people out there who haven’t yet read the books):
On his interest in Harry Potter:
"I enjoyed the first four books, but it was with the fifth book I realized this was a great literature, that this was something of lasting value. It is the one where the government it taking control of the school and the students are taking on the establishment and fighting for their ability to have an education and fighting censorship. The sixth and seventh books started getting into themes that I found interesting that didn’t fit as well with the earlier themes. Particularly the idea of life after death and immortality and self sacrifice in a religious context, versus what I see as the main idea of heroic characters fighting for things that really matter to them."
On what he sees as the series’ central theme of rational self-interest:
"Obviously, the idea of heroes fighting for values in some sense has to be part of any compelling fiction. For example, you see some similarities with Tolkien’s works, but what strikes me about the Harry Potter series is the richness of the characters and their commitment to their personal values. In the first book, Harry uses a speech to Ron and Hermione to show that they really need to stop Voldemort from coming to power, that their very lives are in danger and everything they care about, from their ability to study to their loved ones, is in danger. Harry is very self motivated in that sense. He’s putting himself in the middle of that fight.
"Obviously there’s always some setup. But there is more self-motivation, for example, than for Frodo, Tolkein’s hero, who to a great extent is pushed in this battle by the gift of this ring and the wizard Gandalf directing him to take this quest. He is not fighting for his core life values, as they are in Harry Potter. That is why we can relate to Harry. If he loses, he loses everything that matters to him. Everyone who is important to him. It is the richness of values that is key to this series."
On the books’ religious undertones:
"There are a lot of people saying these books promote witchcraft, these books are satanic. You have a lot of fairly stringent attacks on the books by Christians. And then you have some Christians who are arguing the books are in fact fundamentally religious in nature and are promoting key religious ideas.
"These are interesting debates, but I am offering a fundamentally different way to look at the books. I am saying, yes, they do include these religious elements. But they are fundamentally at cross-purpose with Rowling’s central theme, which is all the elements related to this heroic fight for values. Take the Bible. Jesus Christ is not fighting so he can marry his sweetheart and have a career. He is willfully giving up his life for a religious cause, for values that are relevant only in the afterlife. What they are looking for is the bliss of heaven. That’s not really what we see in Harry Potter."
On Harry’s Christ-like self sacrifice at the end of the series:
"I do think she is intending this long-term battle between Harry and Voldemort to parallel the long-term battle between God and Satan. There is this idea of Harry going to his death to willingly save those around him. I think this is when the books are at their weakest. They don’t seem as compelling at this point. It does feel like a set-up. It is an artificial way that Harry has to pit his life against Voldemort.
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"But even here, Rowling is really hedging. Because Harry is not like Christ, trying to sacrifice his life to save all sinners or save his enemies. Voldemort is going to destroy his entire world. All he can do is go against him toe to toe, and in this situation he may possibly die. Harry has this death period, which is sort of like Jesus’ death and resurrection. But you don’t get this sense it is divine intervention, where he rises from the dead, the earth is shaking, etc. In this case, Harry defeats Voldemort because he doesn’t die."
On political lessons in the books:
"One of the reasons I wanted to unpack these themes of self sacrifice in the books is when you commit yourself to self sacrifice as a moral idea, in terms of giving up your moral values for whatever the goals of the group, it is a short line between that and what John McCain is talking about, which is that we have to sacrifice for something greater than ourselves.
"Rowling is certainly not coming down on the side of people who sacrifice themselves for the will of the collective. Collectivism means you have to give up your life and values for some group, no matter how that group is defined." -- Joel Warner