Harry Potter prequel features disturbing draconian laws
Spoiler alert: This post contains details of the film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
In the original books and movies about Harry Potter, we see that the wizards of Great Britain have a government that parallels the muggle (non-wizard) government—a “Ministry of Magic,” complete with a minister and thousands of bureaucrats. Portrayals of the ministry are largely satirical, sometimes to comic effect and at other times disturbing, as familiar bureaucratic problems of incompetence, inefficiency, perverse incentives and corruption each make an appearance.
The new film to spring from author J. K. Rowling’s mind shows us the wizarding world in the United States, and here too it seems as though American wizards have their own government, with all the problems their British cousins have.
Rather than a British-style ministry, we are shown the Magical Congress of the United States of America, which they refer to by its acronym, MACUSA. This seems superficially analogous to the actual U.S. Congress, although we are not told what sort of representative body it is, and it has a president. But there the similarities end. Based on what is seen in the film, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the magical government is highly illiberal.
The president of the MACUSA, Seraphina Picquery, is an African-American female, so since the film takes place in 1926, we can infer that the MACUSA is more progressive than the “no-maj” (American for “muggle”) government. However, we learn that MACUSA forbids intermarriage between the magical and non-magical populations, which is legal for British wizards. Also, President Picquery seems to have unilateral power similar to that of her British counterparts.
One of the most disturbing examples of this occurs when President Picquery delegates to an Auror, Percival Graves, the power not only to investigate the mysterious events taking place in the film, but to be sole judge of guilt. In Britain, such investigations lead to a trial, where the accused has a right to counsel and where evidence is weighed and discussed by jurors before a verdict is rendered. (No Golden Thread for American wizards, apparently.) Even worse, when Graves finds our protagonists guilty, he has the power to summarily sentence them to death, with no possibility of appeal. (It’s revealed later that Graves is an evil wizard, but his ability to pronounce guilt and immediately execute prisoners seems not to depend on that, but is actually an accepted part of the legal system.)
Our protagonists are able to escape, of course, but that the American wizards’ legal structure is so draconian makes one wonder how things got so bad. In the real world, the American legal system is based on the English system. The original colonists brought English law and legal procedure when they came here. There are evolved differences post-Independence, of course, but many of the common-law elements remain—trial by jury, independent judiciary, presumption of innocence, right to counsel, right to confront witnesses. So one wonders why the American wizarding community would have a system with none of these things.
When the American colonists declared independence, it was to ensure greater protection of people’s rights. The governments of the colonies all had constitutions and laws, derived from English law but reflecting some newer sensibilities, and the federal system that came later, while anti-monarchical, still had a legislature vaguely resembling its ancestor. When the colonies were still British, was the magical government part of the British Ministry of Magic? Was the MACUSA formed only after independence, or were wizards in the colonies always governed by the MACUSA?
In either case, it’s astonishing that they would choose to be governed by a legal system with so few safeguards of people’s rights.
Maybe they have those structures because they are fearful of unjust persecution from the non-magical world, as in the Salem trials. But in that case, American wizards would do well to heed the warning of Benjamin Franklin: “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”
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