Friday, March 11, 2016

This Wouldn't Happen If She Asked Hermione for Help

In advance of the new Harry Potter spin-off films, J.K. Rowling has released a brief history of wizardry in North America. The essays are each the length of a middle schooler's research paper, and about as well researched. Now certainly we should allow Rowling some creative license and recognize that her target audience isn't necessarily adult (though even someone who read The Deathly Hallows at the age of six would be a high school sophomore by now), but nonetheless you cannot simplify history without creating a false narrative of the present.

Rowling's main problem is monolithism -- the tendency to treat groups as undifferentiated masses rather than agglomerations of individuals who happen to have some common trait. This is a common failing in humans. We see it in political discussion all the time -- the Democratic and Republican parties aren't unitary entities full of people who all believe the exact same things; both parties have factions with ideals that overlap just enough for them to work together, and every faction has individuals who may agree on the broad strokes of many issues, but can hold wildly divergent views on other things. We see it in society, when people act like every black guy in a hoody with baggy jeans is a gangbanger looking to rob a convenience store. And of course we see it all the time in SF where alien races and foreign cultures are usually defined by one or two points, and everyone within that culture fits those points, even if it makes no sense. (Come on, the Klingons have to have shoe makers, hairstylists and computer programmers; they can't all be warriors.)

We see this in Rowling's first essay, where she covers all of native culture in a few paragraphs with only a vague attempt to differentiate different cultural groups.
In the Native American community, some witches and wizards were accepted and even lauded within their tribes, gaining reputations for healing as medicine men, or outstanding hunters. However, others were stigmatised for their beliefs, often on the basis that they were possessed by malevolent spirits.
Notice first the broad catchall, "the Native American community" as though the Inuit and Seminole were any more aware of each other than the Medieval Irish and Japanese. She does allow some variation by talking about how some groups were more accepting of magic users than others, but that's just vague handwaving with no connection to actual cultures that existed in North America.

Rowling doubles down on the problem in the next paragraph:
The legend of the Native American ‘skin walker’ – an evil witch or wizard that can transform into an animal at will – has its basis in fact. A legend grew up around the Native American Animagi, that they had sacrificed close family members to gain their powers of transformation.
This is a standard problem with bad writing about indigenous peoples -- rather than doing research, the writer relies upon half-remembered bits and pieces she read once even though she doesn't have any context for them. Rowling presents the skinwalker as a generic Native American belief rather than a specifically Navajo variation on the shapeshifter myths found the world over. We see this all the time in fiction, usually crafted to fit the preconceived notions of the audience who like to envision non-European cultures as mystical and in touch with the Earth. All Australian aborigines believe the same new agey version of the Dreamtime. All Native Americans go on vision quests in smoke holes, which always involve spirit animals (invariably a wolf, coyote or eagle; never a prairie dog or buffalo). What Rowling does isn't quite as insulting as what the writers of Star Trek: Voyager did to poor Chakotay, but she only has a few hundred words.

Certainly Rowling did something similar with European wizards in the main series, with Eastern Europeans all going to Durmstrang and being a bunch of gloomy gusses, while Western Europeans attend Beauxbatons. But Eastern and Western Europe are much smaller geographic units than all of North America. It'd be absurd to suggest that all ancient European wizards were druids, or practiced Delphic rites, but that's what Rowling does for North America.

The second essay, covering the colonial period, doesn't get much better.
Not only had conflict developed between the immigrants and the Native American population, which struck a blow at the unity of the magical community, their religious beliefs made them deeply intolerant of any trace of magic. The Puritans were happy to accuse each other of occult activity on the slenderest evidence, and New World witches and wizards were right to be extremely wary of them.
Anyone who went to school in Virginia is gnashing their teeth after reading that paragraph. Pop culture, with its focus on the Pilgrims, Mayflower and the first Thanksgiving, has largely erased the fact that the first permanent English colony in the Americas was Jamestown in Virginia, and it wasn't settled by a bunch of religious fanatics. (Well, they'd be religious fanatics by modern standards, but they were middle-of-the-roaders in the 17th Century.) This erasure is so great that if you asked people where Pocahontas was from, they'd probably say Massachusetts. This is an old issue, going back at least to the 1930s, but there's really no excuse in the age of Wikipedia for an author to reduce Colonial America to the Puritans.

At least the main text doesn't claim that the Puritans burned witches, however the promotional video released for the project does just that: Okay, writers, would you please stop with this bullshit. Under the Common Law, the penalty for witchcraft was hanging. Everyone convicted at Salem was hanged (though Giles Corey famously died under torture while refusing to confess). The same is true for the handful of other witch trials that took place in the Thirteen Colonies, and indeed England as well.

Burning at the stake was a punishment under the Common Law, but it was reserved for petty treason. Whereas high treason is the betrayal of someone to whom you owe a natural fealty -- i.e., God or your sovereign -- petty treason is the betrayal of someone you owe loyalty to by way of an oath, typically a servant against his master or wife against her husband (marriage being a special class of servitude in the pre-modern world). All the recorded cases of burning at the stake in British North America involve rebellious slaves, or one case of a woman murdering her husband.

And this is a far, far more horrific truth. In the mindset of the 17th Century, witches were engaged in active conspiracy with Satan against the human race. They were subverting God's work on Earth in the hope of bringing about the rule of the devil. And under the Common Law they were hanged -- horrific, yes, but not unreasonable if you accept the basic premise. But a slave fighting for his freedom against the people who kept him in chains -- that warranted one of the most torturous, horrific deaths imaginable. Even worse: Witch trials ended within the British Empire in 1735 when Parliament redefined witchcraft as a kind of charlatanry punishable by only a year in prison, but burning remained a punishment for slaves in America for another century, well past the Revolutionary War and establishment of the United States.

It's time we stop perpetuating this myth of witch burnings at Salem and face up to the truth of who actually was executed that way.

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