Harry’s dreadful relatives mouth vaguely conservative political opinions meant to illustrate their close-mindedness, but fear of magic is their
cardinal sin—rather than their behavior at the ballot box. The only real-world political figure to show up in the books is the British Prime
Minister, who is understandably nervous about a series of violent incidents, but who doesn’t take political actions. Imagine if Rowling had
written that the PM wanted to deport wizards; the move would have been read as an incendiary analogue to true-life policies like the EU's crackdown on radical imams.
In the novels, the rise of the dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald coincides with World War II, which seems fairly uncontroversial—portraying
Hitler’s evil through fiction is a time-honored tradition. But even though there are obvious parallels connecting the dark wizard Voldemort and his
the Death Eaters with Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, the events of the Harry Potter novels take place between 1991 and 1998, slightly apart from
our present era. That minor offset means Rowling could write about events like the Ministry of Magic’s harsh interrogations and attempts to push
prisoners to despair by using Dementors—without running into accusations that she was taking sides in an ongoing debate.
Of course Rowling, who published the first Harry Potter novel in 1997, couldn’t have predicted September 11, or the Bush
administration’s reliance on torture to prosecute the War on Terror. And as
Rowling’s commencement address at Harvard in 2008 made clear, her views on torture and human rights were shaped by her work for Amnesty International long before the rise of global Islamic terrorism and the
extreme tactics brought to bear against it. Events conspired to make her novels painfully relevant to American politics and ethical debates, but by
dint of timing, nationality, and massive, transcendent popularity, Rowling’s novels were never enmeshed in the sharply partisan clashes over those
issues (most of the clashes about Potter have been over issues outside the novels, in
fact). Given how murky and agonized our debates over torture and extraordinary rendition have become, there’s something useful and clarifying
about Rowling’s decision to place these issues in another context. Of course torture drove Barty Crouch, Jr. insane and radicalized him further.
Of course good people, like our hero, avoid torture as a matter of strategy and moral distinction.
That political potency may be the most important result of Rowling’s decision to detach her novels from an overly specific timeline. But other
things she does that make the world of Harry Potter feel antiquated now also ensure that it won’t feel dated in the future. It might be
odd for the books' teenagers not to spend lots of time on computers or with cell phones, but that absence also means that the series won’t feel too tied to
a particular moment. Past and present converge in the halls and on the walls of Hogwarts, as ghosts help raise successive generations of students and
headmasters linger to offer advice.