Despite the fact that you and I put in some years at the Village Voice, I don't think either of us has ever been too comfortable viewing works like Harry Potter through the prism of the author's politics. Having said that, I might detect in Order of the Phoenix a certain vexation on the subject of the UK's left-wing peaceniks, who would deny the threat of racial and religious supremacists in the shape of [fill in your favorite Middle Eastern Voldemort], and who would seek to limit money spent on Defense [Against the Dark Arts/aka WMD]. It is only because Harry and his fanatical brigade have trained unlawfully and in secret that they can take on the Death Eaters. But I'm obliged to point out that a smart reader, John Hubbard, takes the opposite stance: He sees Umbridge as representing "the power of closed government unchecked" and Minister Fudge as "our own president believing only what he wants to." Hubbard is on firmer ground, I think, when he writes that "Rowling eloquently shows how our current discourse isn't a debate of ideas, but rather a constant questioning of the morals and propriety of individuals." That's in line, too, with Rowling's distrust of the establishment press: It's a sick joke that one is more likely to read the truth in the dotty tabloid Quibbler than the Pravda-like Daily Prophet.
Putting aside the one-dimensional villains, Rowling's politics are either refreshingly nuanced or predictably middle-of-the-road. I find them comforting. She distrusts authoritarians—and yet she's enamored of the Great Father Dumbledore. She approves of religious freedom and seems to think miscegenation a good thing, yet she is a teensy bit skeptical of liberal do-gooders. The author clearly adores Hermione, but Hermione's impulse to liberate the house elves is a mixed bag: It is grounded in just anger at their enslavement; it is also wondrously ignorant of how the elves actually live and what it is they want. (No, this is not an argument that slaves were happier on the plantation. Only that it's one thing to liberate people and another to help them create livable societies.)
I want to thank you for the list of children's books you love—another reason I hope you end up soon with another regular column on the subject. As the parent of a 5-year-old, I face daily questions about how to regulate my daughter's diet of books and movies. She wept for days after Charlotte's peaceful death in Charlotte's Web, yet I think she's stronger for it. (I know she's more callused: I was hesitant to let her see Finding Nemo because of its opening, in which a mother fish and 399 of her eggs are devoured—off-screen—by a predator, but she shrugged that holocaust off.) There's such a damn fine line between scarring a child and helping to "empower" him or her; I suppose in a few years I'll have to decide when to introduce her to the concept of Voldemort (if she doesn't pick it up on her own).
Despite our shared quibbles, I'm going to stick to my guns and say I think Order of the Phoenix is a terrific adventure and a leap forward for J.K. Rowling. (I should warn those who haven't finished that there are spoilers ahead.) She has shown her heroes—Harry, Hermione, Sirius, even Dumbledore—to be foolish on occasion and very fallible. She has deepened Snape, who might emerge as the most complicated character in the series—and one whose failure to embrace our hero is not just a narrative irritant but a personal tragedy. She is filling out Neville Longbottom, giving him a back story that is every bit as intriguing as Harry's. She contrives a fascinating, Gollum-like creature in Kreacher, whose anti-phonal curses are a grim harbinger of the fate of Sirius. She brings Ginny Weasely into her own and gives us fun new characters in the nutty Luna Lovegood and the punky metamorph Tonks. She has devised a heartbreaking exchange between Harry and Nearly Headless Nick, whose assessment of his own ectoplasmic existence is unexpectedly pitiless.
She has also given Harry his first make-out scene—admittedly between the lines, but with stinging aftereffects. (She has neither encouraged nor dampened the idea that Harry and Hermione might end up together, but she did use Hermione creatively in bringing Harry and Cho's budding romance to an end.)
Finally, she hasn't made the Dursleys more attractive, but has managed to suggest that a horrible stable family is better than none at all. I cried when I read Dumbledore say: "Five years ago, then … you arrived at Hogwarts, neither as happy nor as well nourished as I would have liked, perhaps, yet alive and healthy. You were not a pampered little prince, but as normal a boy as I could have hoped under the circumstances."
As someone in our Fray has pointed out, Rowling doesn't end the book with a climactic Quidditch match or any other, and we neither know nor care which house won the cup this year. The beats in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix are similar to those in the last four books, but Rowling hits them from different angles and in distinctly new and minor keys. I think she did good.
Let me add, on a hopeful note, that the next Harry Potter movie has been directed by Alfonso Cuarón, who gave us Y Tu Mamá También and a compromised but exciting and original update of Great Expectations as well as the magical A Little Princess, which is a model "children's" movie. With this book and the new film, the series seems safe from the sort of people who call it a "franchise." Which is some serious defense against the dark arts, no?