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Why JK Rowling’s statement on Johnny Depp’s Fantastic Beasts casting is so troubling

“Based on our understanding of the circumstances, the filmmakers and I are genuinely happy to have Johnny playing a major character in the movies.”

The casting of Johnny Depp as a major character in the new series of Harry Potter films has caused considerable debate for the past year. Depp was cast as Grindelwald in the Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them a few years ago, but it was kept a secret, as keeping his role under wraps formed a big twist in the first Fantastic Beasts film.

But in the summer of 2016, a few months before that film was released, Depp’s (now ex-) wife Amber Heard accused him of domestic abuse. A video of Depp throwing bottles and glasses and shouting at Heard, photos of Heard’s bruises, and text exchanges between Heard and Depp’s manager supporting her claims can all be found online. The couple later released a joint statement saying neither party had lied for financial gain and that there was “never any intent of physical or emotional harm”.

Many fans were upset that Depp was not re-cast, insisting that someone accused of domestic abuse should be removed from such a high-profile role, especially in a progressive children’s franchise. Their concerns take on new urgency in a post-Weinstein world.

Despite the clamour, JK Rowling has stayed remarkably silent on the issue – especially for an author so engaged with her audience on Twitter, and generally happy to speak on political issues. Today, she breaks that silence with a statement on her website.

In it, she writes that she and director David Yates “naturally considered the possibility of recasting”, but that “based on our understanding of the circumstances, the filmmakers and I are not only comfortable sticking with our original casting, but genuinely happy to have Johnny playing a major character in the movies”.

She adds that while “the inability to speak openly to fans about this issue has been difficult”, the “agreements that have been put in place to protect the privacy of two people”. She concludes: “I accept that there will be those who are not satisfied with our choice of actor in the title role. However, conscience isn’t governable by committee. Within the fictional world and outside it, we all have to do what we believe to be the right thing.”

Perhaps now is the time I should disclose something. I Was A Teenage Johnny Depp Fan. I discovered him, like many did, via the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise when I was 11, and quickly raced through his other movies thanks to my local HMV. I loved Edward Scissorhands, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and Benny and Joon. But most of all I loved him. I would camp out at film premieres to shake his hand and thrust gifts of homemade jewellery at him, and then promptly burst into tears of adrenalin and relief that he was kind to me.

There were so many things I liked and admired about him, which would seem distasteful to list here now. In 2016, I no longer idolised him, and looked back on my obsession with nostalgic embarrassment. But when I heard Heard’s claims, it still broke my 11-year-old heart. I hear, believe and support Heard, but if I don’t watch myself, I feel that 11-year-old rising up in my brain, trying to persuade me not to.

Like almost everyone my age, I was, and remain, an enormous Harry Potter fan. So Rowling’s statement breaks my heart, too. It comes after Fantastic Beasts director David Yates spoke on the issue last Tuesday, telling Entertainment Weekly that the controversy is “a dead issue”. Contrasting the allegations against Depp with those against Harvey Weinstein, Yates said, “with Johnny, it seems to me there was one person who took a pop at him and claimed something. It’s very different [to instances] where there are multiple accusers over many years […] Johnny isn’t in that category in any shape or form. So to me, it doesn’t bear any more analysis.”

Yates sees the situation as being Heard making “a pop at” her ex-husband, placing the blame on her and not on Depp, and using language worryingly similar to those who insist Heard fabricated the story of her abuse for monetary gain. (Heard said she would donate her portion of the divorce settlement to charity.)

The most troubling element of Rowling’s statement is, for me, that she aligns her belief with Yates’s. She mentions him specifically by name and explains that “we naturally considered the possibility of recasting”. She refers to “our understanding of the circumstances”, “the filmmakers and I”, “our original casting” and “our choice of actor”. She says they are “genuinely happy to have Johnny playing a major character in the movies”. She does not, at any point, distance herself from his language. The implication is that she shares Yates’s thoughts on the matter. This would be incredibly disappointing.

Perhaps this is ungenerous; perhaps we are meant to infer something else from Rowling’s statement. She does not engage with specifics, so it’s hard to tell. One reading could be that when Rowling refers to their “understanding of the circumstances”, she does not mean that Depp’s alleged behaviour was fabricated, or justified, but that it was out-of-character, is genuinely regretted, and that he’s changed.

Perhaps she is simply stating her belief in rehabilitation, one that many will share (though whether rehabilitating someone into society, and giving them the privilege of a celebrated, high-profile, financially lucrative position in a beloved children’s franchise is, of course, a separate question). As with her other gestures towards the issue, her motivations remain indecipherable, and it’s impossible to say what her position actually is.

The problem is that we, the public who have to decide whether to spend our money supporting the Fantastic Beasts franchise, can’t know for sure why Rowling thinks it’s OK to keep Depp in her films.

She refers to “the inability to speak openly to fans” as a result of “the agreements that have been put in place to protect the privacy of two people”. This might be true – but there is little acknowledgement that this puts concerned Harry Potter fans in a difficult ethical quandary.

In fact, the opposite is implied: Rowling insists that it isn’t in our jurisdiction to have our moral concerns heard on the casting. In her own words, “conscience isn’t governable by committee”. Instead, we’re simply asked to trust her, ourselves not being trusted with enough information to come to a conclusion of our own.

The practice of giving men in power the benefit of the doubt simply because other powerful people vouch for them is sometimes known by another name: rape culture. This could not be more deafeningly obvious in 2017, a year defined by the discovery of known, high-profile male abusers and surrounding systems of enabling.

Rowling writes that “we all have to do what we believe to be the right thing”. She’s right. But we can only have the privilege of behaving according to our individual morals when we are given the tools to make both informed and empowered ethical decisions. Her statement robs her fans of that opportunity.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

PHOTO: ROBERTO RICCIUTI/GETTY IMAGES
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“I want the state to think like an anarchist”: Dutch historian Rutger Bregman on why the left must reclaim utopianism

The Dutch thinker advocates global open borders, a universal basic income and a 15-hour working week. 

History consists of the impossible becoming the inevitable. Universal suffrage, the abolition of slavery and the welfare state were all once dismissed as fantastical dreams. But in the Western world, politics today often feels devoid of the idealism and ambition of previous generations. As the mainstream left has struggled to define its purpose, the right has offered superficially seductive solutions (from Brexit to border walls).

One of those seeking to resolve what he calls a “crisis of imagination” is the Dutch historian and journalist Rutger Bregman. His book Utopia for Realists advocates policies including a universal basic income (a guaranteed minimum salary for all citizens), a 15-hour working week and global open borders. Since its publication last year, Bregman’s manifesto has been translated into more than 20 languages, establishing him as one of Europe’s pre-eminent young thinkers.

“I was born in 1988, one year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and people of my generation were taught that utopian dreams are dangerous,” Bregman recalled when we met for coffee at the London office of his publisher Bloomsbury. A softly-spoken but forceful character, dressed casually in a light blue jacket, jeans and Nike Air trainers, Bregman continued: “It seemed that the age of big ideas was over. Politics had just become technocracy and politicians just managers.”

Bregman’s imagination was fired by anarchist thinkers such as the Russian philosopher Peter Kropotkin. He identifies with the left libertarian tradition, which emphasises individual freedom from both market and state domination. Another formative influence was Russell Jacoby, Bregman’s history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose book The Last Intellectuals (2000) lamented the decline of the polymath in an era of academic specialisation. Utopia for Realists, a rigorously argued and lucidly written work, fuses insights from history, politics, philosophy and economics. Bregman echoes Oscar Wilde’s sentiment: “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.”

Such romanticism partly filled the void left by Bregman’s loss of religious faith at the age of 18 (his father was a Protestant minister in the church opposite the family home in Zoetermeer, western Netherlands). “Maybe utopianism is my form of religion in a world without God,” Bregman mused.

For him, utopia is not a dogma to be ruthlessly imposed but a liberating and inclusive vision. It would be “completely ludicrous”, Bregman remarked, for a Western politician to suddenly propose global open borders. Rather, such ideals should animate progressive reforms: one could call it incremental utopianism.

“History will tell you that borders are not inevitable, they hardly existed at the end of the 19th century,” Bregman observed. “And the data is behind me.” Economists liken the present system to leaving “trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk” and estimate that allowing migrants to move to any country they choose would increase global GDP by between 67 and 147 per cent.

The thoughtful Conservative MP Nick Boles recently objected to a universal basic income on the grounds that “mankind is hard-wired to work. We gain satisfaction from it. It gives us a sense of identity, purpose and belonging”.

Bregman did not dispute this but argued for a radical redefinition of work. “A YouGov poll in 2015 found that 37 per cent of British workers think their own job is absolutely meaningless,” he noted. Rather than such “bullshit jobs” (to use the anthropologist David Graeber’s phrase), work should be defined as “doing something of value, making this world a little more interesting, richer, beautiful – whether that’s paid or unpaid doesn’t really matter.”

In Utopia for Realists, Bregman decries “underdog socialism”: a left that is defined by what it is against (austerity, privatisation, racism), rather than what it is for. How does he view the ascent of Jeremy Corbyn? “Most of the ideas are sensible but they’re a bit old-fashioned, it felt like stepping into a time machine,” Bregman said of the 2017 Labour manifesto (which majored on renationalisation). Yet he recognised that Corbyn had expanded the limits of the possible. “All this time, people were saying that Labour shouldn’t become too radical or it will lose votes. The election showed that, in fact, Labour wasn’t radical enough.”

“We need a completely different kind of democracy, a society where you don’t think purely in terms of representation,” Bregman explained, citing the Brazilian city Porto Alegre’s pioneering experiments in participatory democracy (citizens’ assemblies, for instance, determine public spending priorities). “I call it the anarchist state. The anarchists want to abolish the state; what I want to do is to make the state think like an anarchist.”

Rutger Bregman has a fundamentally optimistic view of human nature: “People are pretty nice” (his next book will challenge “the long intellectual history in the West that says, deep down, we’re all animals, we’re all beasts”).

He dismissed those who cite the 20th century – the age of Stalinism and fascism – as proof of the ruinous consequences of utopian thought. “People are always yearning for a bigger story to be part of, it’s not enough to live our own private lives. If you don’t give them [people] hope, they’ll go for something else.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist