In watching the latest Fantastic Beasts movie, I was struck in particular by the failure of many reviewers, who themselves are part of that accursed tribe of contemporary journos, to recognize the subtlety of the portrayal of political matters and how one learns from the political history of the past (and present). It was not immediately obvious that Gellert Grindelwald was portrayed as being either right-wing or left-wing, as the appeal to governments to take power for the greater good and to eliminate those viewed as threats to one’s power and position can easily be found in regimes of both kinds. Indeed, at least to my viewing, Rowling’s portrayal of the bad guys is a Rorschach test that can help reveal the evil tendencies of regimes in general–regardless of their ideological labels–to seek unaccountable power to themselves to create misery for ordinary humanity.
Yet this lesson was not what many journalists saw. Without naming names, it is not very difficult to find in reviews about the film and in writings easily available on Google discussions about the film that view the Fantastic Beasts baddie as being both Hitlerian and Trumpian, and as being a political allegory about the danger of the populist right. To be sure, contemporary leftist journalists are always keen on demonizing anyone remotely right of center while remaining ignorant to the dangers of the authoritarian left. As someone whose feelings about populism in general are decidedly ambivalent at best, it is worthwhile to recognize that populism is itself a sign that there are significant problems within society, and can serve as a canary in a coal mine even where one does not like the manifestations of that populism. Fear can be exploited in a variety of ways, but it does not mean that we should ignore the state of society from which that sort of fear comes, as the hostility of ordinary people to elites is itself a sign that is worth following up on in ways that seek to calm the inflamed sensitivities of ordinary people, not something one sees either now or in many eras of history.
If one seeks to understand the history and danger of dictators, it is well worth considering that there are a wide variety of ways that dictators can come into power, and a wide variety of viewpoints that those dictators may espouse. If there are certainly a lot of patterns and family resemblances to be found within dictatorships, including a mistrust of popular opinion and a conscious desire to shape that opinion through dishonest propaganda and repression of dissident voices, the specific ideologies that corrupt and dictatorial authorities attempt to shape through that lying manipulation and repression are highly varied. There are many bogus ideologies who cannot bear the harsh light of day when being subjected to withering and hostile skepticism, and those ideologies have often sought the protection of the power that institutions serve in order to protect themselves from such scrutiny. Indeed, we may find the attempt to delegitimize competing discourse as being strong evidence that what is being protected is in fact a bogus ideology that cannot bear to be called into question because it is not in fact true. The truth can handle conflict, can handle debate and discussion and can overcome false arguments and bad logic. It is lies that must be protected by double standards of enforcement and institutional power.
What we see when we look at the understanding of politics as it is portrayed in works of art and literature often involves a failure of imagination. Jane Austen, for example, is often viewed as being an apolitical writer who was only interested in the social affairs of the gentry and pseudogentry, of which she was herself a part. That said, her novels often reflect a shrewd, if understated, appreciation of the political world in which she was a part. Pride & Prejudice contains a thoughtful exposure of the behavior of the militia and their role within society. Both Mansfield Park and Persuasion examine the role of the navy within society, and Mansfield Park contains a subtle criticism of the slave trade and of slavery within the New World as being an underrecognized basis for much wealth among English notables. It is the often-ignored Northanger Abbey though, which shows the odious General Tilney serving as a voluntary spy on his neighbors, reading pamphlets until the late hours scouring for criticism to the government and helping through his position in the repression of English dissident opinion. Those who seek to oppress the people have always sought to deny from people the freedom to safely speak their mind when it opposes whatever brand of bad thinking is popular at the time. When we see those who cannot bear to be silent about their own thoughts and feelings and desires but who wish to silence other people, there we find the true enemies of humankind, even when it means looking in the mirror.