This month’s Law and Society Association Newsletter, just published, leads off with a message from our president, Rick Lempert. Lempert sounds a mournful tone in describing the tactics employed in this year’s presidential election primary campaigns. He bemoans the whatever-it-takes-to-win approach deployed by “campaign professionals” who see winning the nomination as their only goal, often burning their candidate’s chances for the general election in the process. Lempert then reflects on the signal changes in elections themselves, particularly the use of early voting, voter ID laws, and the issues raised by voter fraud. “Much of what social science can contribute is law-related,” Lempert concludes (p. 3).
So far, so fairly conventional. But Lempert’s analysis then takes a more startling turn. “In the Harry Potter books, Harry and his fellow would-be wizards have to take a course in Defense Against the Dark Arts. The time has come for social scientists to devote more attention to producing the material for such a course. . . . [We] need to know how we can aid people to assess the sense and truth of persuasion attempts, to perceive when attempts are being made to manipulate their views through quotes out of context, half-truths and outright lies, and to resist the attempts perceived” (ibid.). Lempert argues that an electorate so armed will be more able to resist emotional appeals and to make decisions about candidates based on the higher virtues of reason and wisdom.
Though I’m not likely to contribute to the social scientific literature on, for example, ex-felons and the franchise or the actual extent of voter fraud in the 2004 election, I can report that I have already supplied Lempert with one deep reading of the intentional misdirection in Harry Potter. I wrote this paper for the 2006 LSA meeting in Baltimore and explained my theory to anyone who would listen before the final book came out. Much as Barack Obama tried valiantly to introduce complexity and ambiguity into the national discussion of race and identity on Tuesday, I try in this paper to show how the most interesting character in the HP novels is the most morally complicated one: Severus Snape. Snape embodies the conflict between good and evil that lies at the heart of every morality tale. Understanding how something fundamentally good can sometimes be concealed within something (or someone) who appears distasteful, unappealing, or even hateful is a pretty demanding thing to ask of readers of fiction. Given the reactions to Obama’s speech the other day, it’s apparently even more difficult for an entire nation that’s been primed to regard the racial Other with suspicion, even dread, for centuries, to muster the will to try. But that is exactly where we social scientists can marry popular culture and empirical knowledge. We can train our students to aspire to higher levels of discernment when it comes to assimilating information that is crafted to slant opinions in the heat of election seasons. And if Harry Potter helps us model that, I’m all for it.