Saturday, December 29, 2012

The “Safety of the Keeps,” from Azkaban to Sing Sing

Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is one of the most celebrated books ever written about our country. Published in two volumes, in 1835 and 1840, it is still widely read, particularly by political scientists.

The book has endured because it was a uniquely probing examination of the democratic prospect. As a liberal French aristocrat, Tocqueville sought to extract insights from the New World to understand how the ascendant values of liberty and equality would be likely to fare in the Old.

In search of such insights, Tocqueville arranged an extended visit to America. The occasion was a commission from the French government to study America’s penal system. Tocqueville and a colleague made the visit in 1831 and duly published a report the following year.


In Newjack, his account of working as a guard at New York State’s Sing Sing prison in the 1990s, journalist Ted Conover includes this quotation from Tocqueville’s prison report:

“The safety of the keeps is constantly menaced. In the presence of such dangers, avoided with such skill but with difficulty, it seems to us impossible not to fear some sort of catastrophe in the future.”

And indeed, serving as a correctional officer is still generally hard, dangerous work. That is precisely one of the reasons why Conover wanted to write about it, to give society’s underappreciated proxies a voice.

In the imaginary world of the Harry Potter books, the issue of safety for prison guards is temporarily solved through a Faustian bargain with horrible creatures known as dementors. Author J.K. Rowling depicts them as embodiments of utter despair, intent on extinguishing all hope and joy in the souls of muggles and magical folk alike.


As the tale unfolds, Harry and his friends find ways to confront the dementors by summoning happy memories and focusing the life-force contained in them. When you think about it, this isn’t merely a plot device. It’s a strategy that makes a lot of psychological sense in the real world, too.

Aside from prison guards, here is the broad thematic connection I see between Tocqueville and J.K. Rowling. Each explores themes of democracy and aristocracy against a backdrop of tumult.

For Tocqueville, the tumult was the bloody excesses of the French Revolution. These excesses informed his careful analysis of how democracy tends to operate. Rowling, by contrast, critiques the dreadful excesses of Voldemort’s fascist power grab for “purebloods.”

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