L. Neil Smith's
Number 231, July 13, 2003


How Bad Government Gets Worse
A review of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
by Francis A. Ney, Jr.

Exclusive to TLE

Finally, after three years of angst, pregnancy, writer's block and lawsuits, the long-awaited fifth book of the Harry Potter series has been released. Harry is now fifteen, an age of angst and anger even for the best of kids. When a major force of darkness, recently reborn from Harry's own blood, is seriously honked off and looking to remove the source of his misery, don't expect matters to improve. It doesn't help that, with few exceptions, no one believes the aforementioned darkness has truly returned. To top it off, the people Harry has been looking to for information, advice, encouragement, and support are now inexplicably leaving him out of the loop, covering up, and basically treating him like an idiot child.

This will not be a good year for Harry Potter. Given the events of the previous four years, that's saying something.

I could say with some justification that this is not Ms. Rowling's best work, but that would be like damning a baseball player who hits four home runs one day and only one the next while popping out and hitting into a double play. There is no sudden near-end-of-book plot twist that we have come to expect from the previous four books, and in all fairness I fail to see where one could happen. I was hoping for a bit more character development, but I can't really voice disappointment in that category. She does an excellent job characterizing a very put- upon teenage male. Harry comes off a bit whiny at times, but what do you expect, a robot? For someone who's a candidate for Critical Incident Stress Debriefing four times over thus far I'm amazed the author didn't write him as more of a ticking time-bomb than he is.

Book five can't really be considered stand-alone. That is a departure from her previous work, but given the events probably a necessary one. My experience with long-term book series is that inevitably you end up with at least one 'bridge' book somewhere in the pile. A perfect example of this is Echoes of Honor from David Weber's Honor Harrington series, a book where nothing much exciting happens but is necessary to set up certain events for the next book. This appears to be the purpose of Order of the Phoenix. Not much is happening with respect to the main plotline (Harry vs. Voldemort), but there is a lot of backstory and behind-the-scenes stuff going on that is necessary for book 6, and requires information from at least The Goblet Of Fire. I personally consider it required reading if only to show how and how badly the situation has deteriorated and how much catching up will be required once certain characters are hit by the clue train.

The Order of the Phoenix is also much darker than the previous four books, darker even than The Goblet of Fire. While supposedly marketed to tweeners, this is the first book of the series I would seriously think on before handing it to someone under the age of ten or so, for reasons that will become obvious in the second part of this article. It's certainly a reality check on the subject of "all the idiots work for Lord Voldemort" which in itself is not a bad thing.

In summation: "Not her best work" translates as "still pretty durn good." Some readers will be disappointed in this book, I expect. I personally am about as disappointed with The Order of The Phoenix as I was with Echoes of Honor—not very.


Here endeth the book review. Now, for the political essay. If you have not read The Order of the Phoenix, what follows contains plot points and information commonly known as "spoilers."

Continue reading at your own risk. You. Have. Been. Warned.


Much has happened in real life between the release of The Goblet of Fire and The Order of the Phoenix. While I understand that the general outline of all seven books was established well before publication of The Philosopher's/Sorcerer's Stone, I can't help but wonder how much the events of September 11, 2001 and the subsequent government overreaction has influenced this most recent book. The parallels that can be drawn between the inept and often tyrannical Ministry of Magic and the inept and often tyrannical Bush/Blair administrations are too stark to be mere coincidence. Ms. Rowling likely used the UK government, but as I am more familiar with US government I will restrict my commentary to that sphere.

Poor Harry doesn't catch much of a break after the events of the Triwizard Tournament. For four weeks, he's been cooped up with his dysfunctional family, cut off from news of the wizarding world. That's partly his own fault: Even though he subscribes to The Daily Pravda—oops, I mean Prophet, he only reads the front page. More on this later. Due to the fact that Dumbledore is scraping the bottom of the barrel for personnel to battle on the side of good and light, Harry and his muggle cousin end up facing dementors, creatures with the ability to remove a person's soul while leaving the body alive. Harry is forced to defend himself using magic.

Now, a reasonable person would say that this was a legitimate use of force in self defense. Unfortunately, the Ministry of Magic acts more like zero-tolerance school administrators or British constabulary than rational, sapient beings. Harry is ordered expelled from Hogwarts and ordered to surrender his wand for destruction. Orders, as it turns out, the Ministry of Magic did not have summary authority to give. Similar situations in real life are legion.

After the dust settles and Harry is moved to a more secure venue, he meets up with his friends and finally learns some of what's been going on. The good news is Voldemort isn't doing much of anything overt. The bad news is Voldemort isn't doing much of anything overt, which gives the Ministry of Magic and its mouthpiece The Daily Pravda—oops, I mean Prophet—the opportunity to discredit anyone claiming that The Vile One has returned. Harry himself is painted as a "deluded, attention-seeking person who thinks he's a great tragic hero." The reason Harry hasn't seen it is that such things were buried in the interior pages and below the fold. Dumbledore is viewed as an old fogy who's finally lost his marbles and is removed from every wizarding office except Headmaster. Anyone within the Ministry who actually sides with Dumbledore is keeping quiet on pain of dismissal for cause. (Remember Ashcroft's infamous "if you question us you are assisting terrorism" screed?) Most of the wizarding public has been sucked into The Big Lie, which on the whole makes them no better than the muggles. By this time it is quite obvious that the Ministry has been all but taken over by "reformed" Death Eaters (followers of Lord Voldemort).

By now, most of you should have an inkling of what's about to happen. Cornelius Fudge, the Minister of Magic, has all the intelligence of your standard Democrat (US) or Labour (UK) politico. In other words, slime molds hold an advantage. To say that he's a paranoid moron is an insult to both paranoids and morons. Fudge is afraid that this "false rumor" of the return of Voldemort is Dumbledore's scheme to launch a coup d'etat and take over the Ministry. Psychologists call this "projection." Guess who's the prime mover in the deconstruction of Potter and Dumbledore? Guess who is instrumental in turning Harry's infraction hearing over his defensive use of magic into a full criminal court and conveniently doesn't notify the accused in a correct or timely manner? Are we sure Fudge isn't moonlighting for a federal court somewhere on this side of the Atlantic?

It gets better. Fudge must have overheard a certain Clinton staffer, because he takes "stroke of the pen, law of the land, kinda neat" to heart, and to parchment. Educational Decree Number 22 grants himself the authority to appoint professors at Hogwarts to fill vacancies. He promptly appoints a toady named Dolores Umbridge as Defense Against the Dark Arts (DADA) professor, specifically to ensure that no Hogwarts student learns anything more about defensive spells and charms. This is on the theory that Dumbledore is attempting to create an army of Hogwarts students to forward his plans for the coup, much the same kind of fear that gives us crap like zero tolerance. "Professor" Umbridge also attempts to enlist the entire student body as STASI informers, to report on any mention of Voldemort's return. PATRIOT Act and Total Information Awareness, anyone? Not to mention every form of 1-800-RAT-FINK from guns to drugs to unmowed lawns? Harry's defense of the truth of Voldemort's existence earns him a rather grisly week of detentions.

Apparently that isn't enough for Fudge and Umbridge. Educational Decree Number 23 creates the office of Hogwarts High Inquisitor. If you think this means "Political Officer" you would be correct. Guess who becomes High Inquisitor? This decree appears to also be used to intercept post owls and monitor fireplaces, effectively blanket wiretaps, computer monitoring and mail interception and inspection similar to USA PATRIOT.

None of this sits well with Harry and his close friends. It doesn't exactly sit well with the other professors, who at this point appear powerless to stop the juggernaut. Ordinary Wizarding Level (OWL) tests are given at the end of this school year, and fifth years will be woefully unprepared for at least the DADA OWL. That they would also be unprepared for minor threats like Death Eaters is also a consideration. Smart girl Hermione comes up with the idea that, if Umbridge refuses to be a responsible teacher, it falls upon Harry as the best DADA student in fifth year to teach the class. Harry reluctantly agrees. Unfortunately, being teenagers, terms like "operational security" are not in their lexicon.

Thus, Educational Decree Number 24, granting the High Inquisitor further tyrannical powers: The disbanding of all student gatherings numbering three or more without the approval of the High Inquisitor, on pain of expulsion. This includes study groups and Quidditch teams. PATRIOT Act once again, with a little bit of Anti-RAVE Act thrown in. In a fine demonstration of selective enforcement and preferential treatment, the Slytherin team gets automatic approval, while the Gryffindor team requires the intervention of McGonagall and Dumbledore. Lesson learned, the ersatz DADA class takes on the organization and trappings of a revolutionary cell.

Standing Toe-to-Toe with the High Inquisitor over the quiddich team turns out to be a bad idea. Educational Decree Number 25 grants the High Inquisitor the authority to strip students of school privileges, overriding the authority of the Heads of House. A post-game brawl between the Gryffindor and Slytherin teams gives the High Inquisitor the excuse to ban Harry and the Weasley twins from the quidditch team for life and confiscate their brooms to enforce that ban. Slytherin gets off, as expected, even though they were the instigators (unsportsmanlike conduct both on the field and in the stands).

Meanwhile, the High Inquisitor is making use of ED#23 to remove professors she doesn't like, and put others she doesn't like but can't remove on probation. There is also a mass escape of convicted Death Eaters from the Wizard's Prison that the Minister of Magic insists is the work of Harry's godfather, Sirius Black, not Voldemort. Educational Decree Number 26: "Teachers are hereby banned from giving students any information that is not strictly related to the subjects they are paid to teach." The teachers also feel unable to speak freely in the staff room, knowing that the High Inquisitor would love to have any reason to dismiss them or have them arrested. Sounds like the early days following 9-11, doesn't it? Say the wrong thing and you have Fan Belt Inspectors knocking on your door.

Valentine's Day sees the students on leave to the local village. Harry takes the opportunity, provided by Hermione, to tell his side of the story to a reporter. Because of tight Ministry control over The Daily Pravda—oops, I mean Prophet—the story is published in The Quibbler, a magazine that in the wizarding world is on the level of The Weekly World News. Publication does not sit well with the High Inquisitor: Harry is banned from school leave and gets another week of bloody-hand detention. Educational Decree Number 27 grants the High Inquisitor the power to censor all material within the school and forcibly search students for banned material. So much for freedom of speech, but it does have the effect of encouraging every student and teacher to read Harry's interview. At this point every Hogwarts teacher is bending over backwards to show their approval to Harry under the Inquisitor's nose.

Harry's luck runs out—someone from his DADA class spills the beans to the High Inquisitor, resulting in Dumbledore's removal and Umbridge's appointment as Headmaster via Educational Decree Number 28. Dumbledore has effectively at this point become a fugitive from what the Ministry of Magic laughingly calls 'justice.' The new headmaster immediately forms a special "inquisitorial squad" of students to do her bidding. That's right, her own little squad of brownshirts. Guess which house is tapped for members? Her second act is to illegally dose Harry with truth serum to discover the location of Dumbledore. I should say attempt to, Harry dumps the tea into a potted plant.

At this point, the entire student body is practically in open revolt, the teachers have declared a "white mutiny", and everything is nicely going to hell on the High Inquisitor's watch. Then comes Educational Decree Number 29. The Minister of Magic reinstates flogging as a student punishment. This makes Filch the caretaker very happy. It also makes the Weasley twins resign informally from Hogwarts and formally open their joke shop, which in turn inflames the student revolt.

You can see the progression. Towards the end Hogwarts becomes a microcosm of both the US government and the government-run concentration camps we call the public school system as I fear they will soon become. I wish I could say this book has a happy ending. I fear the same for us unless we show the same determination and innovation of Harry, his friends, and The Order of the Phoenix. This kind of government heavy-handedness leaves us open to the same sort of evils represented by the Death Eaters. I almost believe that this book is a cautionary tale.

Edmund Burke said, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." Quite true, as Percy Weasley was a prime example of such in this book. It is also true that evil can triumph though the use of fear, uncertainty, and doubt planted by the forces of evil. All three were in evidence at the Ministry of Magic. All three are in evidence in various forms in our government. Bush, Ashcroft and Ridge peddle all three on a daily basis, and to great effect. Has someone taken a look at their left forearms recently?

So where is our Dumbledore? Where is our Harry Potter? I'd like to think that they are somewhere in the by-lines of Rational Review and The Libertarian Enterprise.

Frank is a freelance computer consultant and professional gadfly. His main hobbies are guns, computers, ham radio and libertarian politics. He lives in West Virginia, along with his SO of eight years, a number of horses, an aging wolfdog and a cat that thinks he has 6 legs. He occasionally entertains antlered rats (aka whitetail deer), foxes, turkeys, woodpeckers and pheasant just because they show up for the free food. When he can he volunteers with the local fire department as an EMT.

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