J. K. Rowling as Ungrateful Liberal Wretch: The Anti-PC View

Friend of this blog and author of Thought Prison: The Fundamental Nature of Political Correctness, Bruce Charlton, has written perhaps the most damning critique of Ms. Rowling’s self-importance and agenda as a writer since Orson Scott Card let her have it with both barrels over the Copyright law suit years ago. Mr. Charlton thinks we need to have a ‘Emperor Wearing No Clothes’ moment in the wake of Casual Vacancy’s transparent screed against everyone not celebrating Redistribution of Wealth. You can read it in a piece he’s titled ‘Case study of Leftist resentment, moral inversion and the corrosion of character: J.K Rowling.’

Mr. Charlton errs on the side of the right, perhaps, in his hyperbole but it seems like a small breeze of fresh air and something of a counter balance from the excess Jo adoration we are accustomed to from the political left (can you say ‘Harry Potter Alliance‘? I can). Reading Ms. Rowling’s recent ‘By the Book’ interview in the New York Times , you’d have to be numb not to be struck by the author’s pretense and desire to be admired and respected by the cognoscenti. As a UK correspondent of no little reading penetration and literary accomplishment wrote me, “Reading the article made me feel dumb.  And boring.  And provincial, in the worst sense. Oh yes, and unsophisticated, too.”

This is a shame. As we’ve noted here many times over the years, Ms. Rowling’s charitable efforts and personal restraint in the Public Square have been remarkable and laudable given her unprecedented celebrity and the speed she traveled to it from total obscurity.  Her behavior has seemed wonderfully unnatural in her remaining balanced and not as pre-occupied with herself in public as fame encourages, even demands. It seems of late she is sadly human after all and, if Mr. Charlton is correct, her fame and wealth and power have left their mark.

Ms. Rowling was relatively subtle politically through her Potter Period, if her resentment and agenda was never very far from the surface of the story. She told Charlie Rose that the voice she misses writing is Dumbledore’s and I’m afraid I’m obliged to admit I miss him, too. The balance, the charity, and the humility of the Headmaster are qualities missing from the voice in Ms. Rowling’s latest book, her recent interviews, and her public posture.

I’m not sure if Mr. Charlton’s charges will be able to act as a counter-spell for Ms. Rowling’s condition; forgive me for suspecting she is immunized to correction from any quarter. I’d like to think, though, that his anti PC message might bring a little sobriety (via the cold water in the face treatment?) to those of us who think Ms. Rowling’s artistry and accomplishment in the Hogwarts Saga must mean she gets a Free Pass for her pedestrian, tired, and self-righteous liberalism. Let us hope that she does not become the cartoon of the Left herself that she has made of the cartoon conservatives, the Mollisons and Dursleys, in her fiction.

Your comments and corrections this week of the Presidential election are coveted, as always.

UPDATE: Comments to this thread have been closed with Mr. Charlton having the ‘last word.’


  1. Why is it that just because Rowling is now very rich she is not allowed to continue to comment on what she sees as injustices in society? That makes no sense to me and this whole line of boo to the liberals is out of line. If you or the writer of the article doesn’t like the book or the points she was making, then fine. But why blame that on the fact that Rowling is now wealthy. All that money did not make her go suddenly blind to the conditions of the poor or take away her voice so that she can’t comment.

    I see people like Terri and Krystal every week when I volunteer at the food bank. Some are really trying to turn around their lives or to have better lives. Some of the kids will never have a chance because of the way their parents have chosen to live. And some will make it out of that cycle of poverty, but not without the help of teachers or others like Barry.

    As for the conservatives that Rowling portrays? I know not all conservatives are like that, but I do know a fair few who are – presenting one face to the public and preaching to everyone how they should live when they really need to clean up their own lives and find a way to be compassionate rather than so judgemental towards others.

    Of course, this is coming from someone who is firmly on the liberal left with Ms. Rowling – and glad to be where I am.

  2. Thank you, Eeyore, for the welcome rejoinder from the Great Northwest’s ‘Left Coast’!

    Forgive me for having to note, though, the evident irony of a charge of “judgemental-ism” coming from either side of the political spectrum.

    And the charge that Ms. Rowling’s “right to comment” on political matters is being questioned or revoked (!) above or in Mr. Charlton’s piece is unfounded.

  3. Louise M. Freeman says

    At the risk of being “morally inverted” by my lengthy “education” (does my PhD put me in the ranks of the cognoscenti? If so, Ms Rowling needn’t worry about earning my admiration and respect, she managed just fine. Really!) I must say I was not impressed with Mr. Charlton’s post. Nowhere in the interview he quoted, or in any other thing I’ve ever read about her, have I see evidence that Ms Rowling was “ungrateful” for the public assistance or “resentful” that she did not have a higher standard of living during that time. She said that period permanently shaped her worldview. I would expect it to. I don’t see that as a bad thing, nor do I think the character of Barry Fairbother would be created by someone who lacks balance, charity or humility.

    She also said she felt scapegoated and stigmatized. If she encountered many people that share Mr. Charlton’s apparent attitude, I can see why she feels that way.

    Ms. Rowling did exactly what people on public assistance are supposed to do: she worked hard and got off. And, in her case, assuming she pays taxes now, I’d say the British government made a pretty good investment.

    I lived largely off government grants and in state- (university) subsidized housing (with monthly government cheese distributions!) while working on my PhD. The taxes I pay now help support that same government that once helped support me, and frankly, I consider that a pretty good deal. Though a political liberal, I’m not overly drawn to political discussions (I leave that to my much more conservative husband). I have a friend much more into political blogging who wrote on column recently on her own experience with welfare and stigmatization. She says it better than I ever could. http://pragmaticdemocrat.wordpress.com/2012/09/27/a-hand-out-or-a-hand-up/

  4. Thanks for that thoughtful article.
    To me, the most interesting part is that:
    …forgive me for suspecting she is immunized to correction from any quarter… Let us hope that she does not become the cartoon of the Left herself…
    On the contrary, I hope very much that she would be humiliated precisely on that score: I believe this is the only way she could return from the dark side if there is a bit of Christian faith left in her.

  5. There goes another excellent example of the unfortunate (at best) effect America’s political polarization is having on current thought and expression.

    I lean conservative, and have very Catholic morals, but with all due respect, I found this piece unjust. Whether we believe that the primary obligation for care of the needy lies with private charity or government, who among us actually believes that we ought not care for them one way or another? And who among us, no matter how firm our belief that marriage ought to be for life–I believe it’s indissoluble when properly entered into, myself–who among us would not help a woman and her child escape a husband if the situation called for it? I have, in concert with family and church. I’d do it again. Do we know why Rowling left her first husband? No; and it being none of our business, there’s a limit to how much we can judge, even from strict standards.

    Perhaps there is irony in my even pointing this out, but is not the entire tone of liberal vs. conservative discussion awfully nasty? It seems to me that both sides have some excellent moral points, and both sides have some appalling moral blindnesses. And both sides seem terribly prone to letting Voldemort divide us and make our disagreements into enmity, when we both desperately want a society where people live in peace and decency.

  6. Casting J.K. Rowling and The Casual Vacancy in a Right vs. Left stand off, misses the point entirely. Charlton’s post is so colored by his own viewpoint, he is not an accurate reporter of Rowling’s inner mind or character. And I’m afraid I have to take issue with John’s characterization of the novel as a “….transparent screed against everyone not celebrating Redistribution of Wealth.” Sorry. It’s not about “Right vs. Left. It’s about loving your neighbor, in personal terms. When I hear Rowling, I hear humility, and a careful lack of direct attack against large groups of people. She is particular and nuanced. In so many morally high handed statements from so called conservative bastions of morality, all I hear is anger, judgement and pride. I just don’t get it.

  7. To clarify, I’ve no intention of suggesting that either Prof. Granger or Mr. Charlton would refuse to support anyone in need. I believe the opposite of both gentlemen, actually. My point, which being in a hurry I appear to have made rather less than clear, was that Mr. Charlton’s repeated emphasis on Rowling’s ending up on welfare by her own fault in leaving her husband was not in particularly good taste. It’s the sort of thing that makes people on the left (usually unjustly, if understandably) question the empathy of people on the right.

    Regarding the original posts: I get annoyed with the HPA’s self-righteousness, too, and absolutely agree that Rowling’s public comments are open for criticism. But again, I doubt whether partisan arguments from either side are helpful. They seem to inspire not thoughtful response, but further defensiveness and outrage.

    It’s just an observation, that’s all.

  8. For years, the only two things that appeared in every one of the many articles about the Harry Potter phenomenon were that Ms. Rowling was living “on the dole” when she began her writing career, the aptly named ‘Cinderella Angle,’ and that her work was controversial among Christian groups.

    My belief is that the former and latter public response to her work “shaped her world-view” as much as her experiences on return from Portugal, at least insomuch as she seems to be determined to show those in the know that she is a “serious writer” (TM) and anything but a Christian moralist.

    As a serious reader wrote to me about the NYTimes interview linked to in the post above:

    I think Rowling is really just posturing throughout this interview. It seems very disingenuous to me, not at all like her early interviews during the pre-pheonmenon days. Or even her early interviews during the phenomenon. …

    There’s nothing she’s said in this interview that isn’t in vogue among authors giving interviews right now. “I don’t read poetry but if I did it would be this.” “I adore Elizabeth Bennett- -try to live like her, in fact.” “In all things, I try to emulate Dickens.” And especially the “No, I don’t read literary criticism on my works” line–very chic at the moment. You can find Neil Gaiman and George Lucas and others saying the same thing. JKR is striving desperately to be taken as A Real Author (bitterly ironic!). Which sadly means she seems to be turning into an author of the poncing, strutting type. The only time there’s a flash of authenticity is when she talks about remembering her father reading Wind in the Willows.

    Agreed. She’s a real person, with real insecurities about her abilities, social station, and unprecedented success, all of which show in her public comments of late and in the allegorical elements of Casual Vacancy.

    None of which, to repeat myself, diminishes her accomplishments as a writer in both the Hogwarts Saga and Casual Vacancy or does anything but highlight her remarkable charitable works for the orphans of Eastern Europe, MS sufferers, and the many individuals she has helped privately in effective anonymity. J. K. Rowling is a writer of the first order and has survived the great leap from ‘Nobody’ to A-List Celebrity better than anyone since Jimmy Stewart.

    I’ll make the obvious point, too, that few if any writers have spent as much time and energy as I have explaining the artistry and meaning of her written work or have done as much to advance the cause of her being taken seriously as an author.

    But, having said that, I’m not blind to the human faults, either, or willing to embrace the personally spiteful PoMo politically correct package that is best kept apart from the works, as much as that is possible.

  9. It’s the last part of your comment where I disagree with you, John. I don’t see anything she wrote in the book or said in the interviews as a “personally spiteful political package”. And the quoted interpretations of the interviews are so far from what I got out of the interviews that I almost wonder if we read different things.

    I have a problem when we as readers start to presume that because we have read and re-read an author’s works we thoroughly understand their every motive and personal motives. But I also have a problem with the dismissal of what an author is willing to share with us about her or his personal life.

    Everything in my own life, every action, every thought, every experience shapes who I am and how I think and react. But no one here (or most people I know in person) should ever assume that they know why I answer questions a certain way or have the political views that I have. And we shouldn’t try to do that with Ms. Rowling.

    Back to the one article – I was highly offended when he kept talking about Rowling leaving her husband, like it was some kind of failing on her part. I don’t have a quote to support this but I think at some point she said or hinted that she left because he was abusive. Good for her. If only more women had the courage to get out of abusive relationships, there would be more women and children who are safe and have a chance at having a normal life. When they do, the last thing they need is any criticism from someone else. Very often women in that situation do need to go “on the dole” for a time while they finish their education or learn a new trade so they can support themselves and their children without the involvement of an abuser.

    That was what I saw in the characters of Terri and Krystal. Terri could not find her way out and as a result, her lack or strength was devastating to her children. But Terri’s only chance was through government help. The rest of society – the private sector- had written her off as worthless and a lost cause. Krystal eventually couldn’t get out either but she did get a glimmer of having a better life for herself and her brother.

    I just didn’t hear the same things as Charlton when I read Rowling’s interviews. I really had no problem with the answers that she gave. Of course her answers will be different than they were when she was writing Harry Potter. The story wasn’t finished and she didn’t want too much known about her because she felt it would give too many clues to where she was going.

  10. Bruce Charlton says

    Thanks for covering this.

    For what it’s worth I should point out a few misunderstandings.

    1. I argue that JKR is ungrateful not as a personal defect but because it is impossible for anyone to be grateful for being supported by coercive taxation and bureaucracy; since the money is taken from people against their will and distributed by paid officials. It is just a matter of impersonal, grinding procedure – who or what is there to be grateful to? This amoral situation leads instead to resentment – this is a reason why the welfare state is so corrosive. But this resentment, while natural, is evil. So the welfare state tends to produce evil. Evil is inevitable, but must be repented. JKR does not repent her resentment, but trumpets it; and JKR wants to expand the welfare state and its evil tendency.

    2. I did not say anything anywhere in my article about blaming JKR for leaving her husband – nevertheless of course she is to blame. She may have reasons, and the reasons may be strong, but of course she is to blame. She picked out and married a man and swore to stay with him until she died and she broke this solemn pledge – of course she is to blame. There is absolutely no reason why I should withhold judgment for the breaking of a solemn pledge – to break a solemn public considered promise is a very bad thing to do. There may be strong reasons why she did it, but it was a bad thing to do – and it is wicked to say otherwise. If breaking a solemn promise is not bad, then what is?

    3. Finally, my article was written from the perspective of a Christian and reactionary. The Harry Potter books were, at a deep level, perhaps the most powerful support to my perspective in modern mass culture. Since this was the deepest level of the HP series, I infer that this was the deepest level of JKR. But she has now – to all appearances – repudiated both Christianity and her traditional morality. This, for me, is a tragedy and a betrayal of the first order, the loss of our most influential advocate, and not least puts her soul in a situation of extreme peril as someone who has known the truth and willfully rejected it.

    Naturally, things will not look that way to Leftists and Atheists – but they are wrong, and I am not writing for them. They have the whole of the mass media, public administration, professional politicians, the legal and education systems to argue on their side; a perspective which is being rammed down everybody’s throats, screamed into their ears and blasted at their retinas 24/7 – and it is a perspective now dutifully parroted by JKR.