Last week marked the twentieth anniversary of the first Harry Potter book, which was released on June 26, 1997. The Internet went ablaze with tributes and toasts to this series which changed the imagination and the vernacular—and, some argue, the entire worldview—of a generation.

I like the Harry Potter books as much as the next person, which is to say, a lot. So I need not go into too much detail about the wonderful wizarding world therein.

Political columnist Ross Douthat, however, recently stirred the pot over at The New York Times, drawing out a lively debate about what the Potter books mean for us today, in our everyday lives (ht KW). Though we’ve often read this series as a rousing story of good versus evil, its real legacy, Douthat argues, may not be as righteous as we had hoped. According to him, we’ve taken from it a “childish” outlook that sorts people into different categories, usually with a heavy dose of judgment and (political) vindictiveness.

Methinks he’s right, at least in part: We laugh about Donald Trump being Lord Voldemort, or Hillary Clinton being Dolores Umbridge. We sort the people we don’t like into Slytherin House and exult our heroes as Gryffindors. Our bad guys are The Bad Guys, and our good guys are The Good Guys…or at least The Better Guys. We sort ourselves with slightly more confusion: most people are too bashful to sort themselves into Gryffindor—come on, no one’s that good—so we usually think, “Well…I’m probably a Ravenclaw,” which is a slightly more ambiguous sorting. It certainly sounds good—it means we’re clever, perhaps a bit mysterious, but at the end of the day, good at heart. (God forbid anyone be a Hufflepuff…though we all are in the end…)

Douthat refutes these distinctions on several bases: first, in real life, there are no good guys and bad guys. We’re all caught between the poles of good and evil, inching along, just doing the best we can.

[Lara] Prendergast also offered a harsh assessment of the trend [in an article for The Spectator]: “If you have ever wondered why young people are often so childish in their politics, why they want to divide the world between tolerant progressives and wicked reactionaries, it helps to understand” that they think they’re living in a Potter novel…

But I’m not sure that sort of Manichaean vision is actually the most important political teaching in the Potter novels. Because if you take the Potterverse seriously as an allegory for ours, the most noteworthy divide isn’t between the good multicultural wizards and the bad racist ones. It’s between all the wizards, good and bad, and everybody else — the Muggles.

Not only are Potterheads wont to divide the world between good people and bad people, but worse, we’ve bought into the idea that some people are more extraordinary than others; it’s your classic inside/outside divide, the pervasive sense of exceptionalism.

Note that this is an especially pertinent topic for Christians, who often gravitate to a weird “behind the curtains” mentality, thinking that the important things in life are being handled in certain prayer circles and have little-to-nothing to do with those nonbelievers out there. We are quick to set up divides between ourselves and “the world”; we like to hide behind the great stone walls of our cold, religious castles.

All this aside, Douthat follows the more secular route, tracing the seeds of meritocracy in the minds of readers:

So even from the perspective of the enlightened, progressive wizarding faction, then, Muggles are basically just a vast surplus population that occasionally produces the new blood that wizarding needs to avoid becoming just a society of snobbish old-money inbred Draco Malfoys. And if that were to change, if any old Muggle could suddenly be trained in magic, the whole thrill of Harry Potter’s acceptance at Hogwarts would lose its narrative frisson, its admission-to-the-inner-circle thrill.

Which makes the thrill of becoming a magical initiate in the Potterverse remarkably similar to the thrill of being chosen by the modern meritocracy, plucked from the ordinary ranks of life and ushered into gothic halls and exclusive classrooms, where you will be sorted — though not by a magic hat, admittedly — according to your talents and your just deserts.

I am stealing this magic-and-meritocracy parallel from the pseudonymous blogger Spotted Toad, who wrote a fine post discussing how much the Potter novels and movies trade upon the powerful loyalty that their readers feel, or feel that they should feel, toward their teachers and their schools. But not just any school — not some suburban John Hughes-style high school or generic Podunk U. No, it’s loyalty to a selective school, with an antique pedigree but a modern claim to excellence, an exclusive admissions process but a pleasingly multicultural student body. A school where everybody knows that they belong, because they can do the necessary magic and ordinary Muggles can’t.

Thus the Potterverse, as Toad writes, is about “the legitimacy of authority that comes from schools” — Ivy League schools, elite schools, U.S. News & World Report top 100 schools. And because “contemporary liberalism is the ideology of imperial academia, funneled through media and nonprofits and governmental agencies but responsible ultimately only to itself,” a story about a wizarding academy is the perfect fantasy story for the liberal meritocracy to tell about itself.

Especially because (unlike reality) it writes the Muggles, the genuinely ordinary people, out of its political clashes and good-versus-evil conflicts. In the Potter novels the selective school is conterminous with wizarding society as a whole (allowing for some elves and goblins to do maintenance and keep the books), and thus the threats to that world’s liberal integrity all come from within the academy’s walls, from Slytherin House and its arrogant aristocrats, who must be constantly confronted in the halls and classrooms of the beloved school itself. Voldemort, the dark lord, has Muggle blood, but he isn’t trying to rally an army of non-magic-wielders to seize Hogwarts’ towers; he’s trying to remake meritocratic — er, magical — institutions in his own dark image. And so the battle for Harvard — er, Hogwarts — is the battle for the world.

It certainly rings true for this Potterhead who fought tooth and nail for his own Top 100 acceptance letter. But maybe it’s not JK Rowling who, like patient zero, introduced this ideology and infected us with fancies of a meritocracy. Maybe, instead, we love the meritocracy of Harry Potter because it fits so perfectly into an ideology that we innately assume, which suggests that our abilities are linked to our identities, that what we can do defines who we are. Which usually, in the end, turns up empty, eventually leaving us with anxiety and insecurity while we buzz about maintaining our exceptional self-image.

Beyond this, there’s a little voice in my head (Alan Jacobs’) saying that perhaps Douthat’s analysis is not exactly fair. To demand that the Potter books dismantle meritocracy is a bit much, isn’t it? Jacobs (who previously, persuasively, argued that HP is not a Christ figure) wrote a thoughtful rebuttal on his own blog, arguing that Harry Potter “isn’t about the One Percent, it’s about the artsy counterculture”—if, that is, it should be considered an allegory at all.

Think about it: In childhood, Harry finds that he has certain interests and gifts that his bourgeois family find weird, useless, and even disgusting — not gifts at all but some kind of perversion. Then, at the cusp of adolescence, he discovers that there is a whole world out there of people who share those gifts and interests, and who believe that, though only some people intrinsically have what it takes to pursue such matters, the ones who do have it must work hard to fulfill their gift: talent must be enhanced by disciplined craft. The vast majority of people who seek such mastery come from families that also value it; very few lack that supportive background in which the requisite abilities seem both natural and praiseworthy…

And that’s if you insist on reading the books as political allegory. I don’t insist on that, and indeed, I’d prefer not to, because frankly, in our hyper-politicized environment that’s how people interpret almost everything. It’s a hazard for us all, not just for political columnists like Ross. I’d suggest an effort to redirect our attentions to what the books are really and directly about, which I think we can achieve by looking at the two epigraphs of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. The first is from Aeschylus:

Oh, the torment bred in the race,
The grinding scream of death
And the stroke that hits the vein,
The hemorrhage none can staunch, the grief,
The curse no man can bear.

But there is a cure in the house,
And not outside it, no,
Not from others but from them,
Their bloody strife. We sing to you,
Dark gods beneath the earth.

Now hear, you blissful powers underground –
Answer the call, send help.
Bless the children, give them triumph now.

The second is from William Penn’s More Fruits of Solitude:

Death is but crossing the world, as friends do the seas; they live in one another still. For they must needs be present, that love and live in that which is omnipresent. In this divine glass, they see face to face; and their converse is free, as well as pure. This is the comfort of friends, that though they may be said to die, yet their friendship and society are, in the best sense, ever present, because immortal.

Such matters, while often absent from “adult” novels in our time, are anything but “childish.” Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.

For further reading on this, the Twentieth Anniversary of the Boy Who Lived: