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Culture War Roundup for the week of January 30, 2023

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Yer a Nazi, Harry! or, the alleged anti-Semitism in the work (particularly in the latest video game) of J.K. Rowling.

I think by now we are all aware of the ruffled feathers over J.K. Rowling, most heinous TERF of our time (if I believe all the gnashing of teeth and wailing). I'm going to immediately swerve off on a tangent to register my amusement about, ironically in view of where it's all happening, Nicola Sturgeon's attempt at No True Scotsman in the latest case of "sex offender decides he's really a woman so he should not be put in man-jail but in woman-jail where it'll be perfectly safe to put him, even though he still has a working dick and raped two women".

Okay, I've had my sardonic laugh, on to the main point of this rambling.

So the Gringotts goblins are supposed to the be an anti-Semitic caricature of Jews, because "hooked noses, love money, put it together yourself". While I wonder how it is that the brave defenders of minorities leaped to the conclusion "these beings love money and have certain features - THAT MEANS THEY'RE JEWS!!!!", I realise that the proponents of this don't care if it's true or not, because any stick will do to beat the dog. People who may not be convinced that Rowling is Female Hitler by the trans stuff may be convinced by "she's anti-Semitic" and "she's pro-slavery" (the house elves, who if you look at their depictions in the movies and games look more akin to the goblins than any other species. Are the house elves Jews, as well? Why not, may as well throw that into the pot).

I'm going to address the question "are the goblins meant to be Jews?" by yelling, once again, you durn kids get off my lawn. I don't want to blame Americans if it's not their fault, but this kind of thing - the whole progressive angle of antifa and the rest of it- is largely driven as an online phenomenon (I'm not going to talk about offline real world influences) by the stereotypical dyed-hair college kid types and from an American angle. This means that they have no idea what references in a British context mean or whence they are derived. Also, being young, they will never have heard of this reference that I am going to quote, since it's before their time.

I propose that the Gringotts banking goblins are not a reference to Jewish stereotypes but to the Gnomes of Zurich and to gnomes in general. When the Harry Potter books first came out, there was a lot of speculation about alchemical references, and even a Grand Plan, in the books. While I'm not sure about that, I think that as a fellow Gen Xer from the British Isle who is bookish, she would have had at least a nodding acquaintance with such references like myself.

Enter the Gnomes.

There's a series of influences that lead me to think the Gnomes came from the inspiration detailed below.

(1) The Gnomes of Zurich. She would have heard such references the same way and the same time I did, first as children growing up and then in 2010 when there were yet more banking crises:

But the current financial turmoil in Europe, as well as news that London's best bankers are considering moving to Switzerland to avoid stricter regulation and public hostility, has resurrected an ancient and intriguing phrase - the "gnomes of Zurich".

First coined by British politicians facing a currency crisis in the 1960s, the phrase has lurked ever since whenever speculators are suspected of destabilising a country. But why gnomes? And why Zurich?

Forget kitschy garden ornaments. These gnomes emerged from medieval fascination with the secrets of wealth, especially gold, buried underground and mined by mysterious beings. Goethe writes about them in his epic Faust - ambiguous characters creating wealth which others, depending on their morals, use for good or evil.

So as the secretive world of Swiss banking took shape, centred on Zurich, and based on underground vaults with anonymous numbered accounts in a fiercely independent, mountainous country, you can see why the idea of gnomes sprang to mind.

...Disparaging references to Swiss bankers had already been heard in Britain in the 1950s. But it was the intervention of the leading Labour politician George Brown in November, 1964, that made headlines. Emerging from a crisis meeting at which the Labour government discussed the plummeting pound, Brown snapped: "The gnomes of Zurich are at work again."

Mr Brown, famous for forthright utterances, had created a new catchphrase. Soon it was on many other lips, including those of the prime minister at the time, Harold Wilson, promising to resist the gnomes' "sinister" power.

The Swiss were unrepentant. "In the world it is not the image, but the substance behind the image which counts," sniffed top banker Paul Rossy at the time.

...Some Zurich bankers took to answering the phone to British callers with "hello, gnome speaking". Others retaliated mischievously by suggesting that trade union power - "the gnomes of Transport House" - rather than currency speculation, was weakening the British economy.

One enterprising, and courageous, Zurich banker moved to London to set up in business, where he was promptly dubbed "the gnome of Notting Hill".

(2) Gnomes via our boy Paracelsus (this is where the alchemical references come in):

A gnome is a mythological creature and diminutive spirit in Renaissance magic and alchemy, first introduced by Paracelsus in the 16th century and later adopted by more recent authors including those of modern fantasy literature. Its characteristics have been reinterpreted to suit the needs of various story tellers, but it is typically said to be a small humanoid that lives underground.

...The chthonic or earth-dwelling spirit has precedents in numerous ancient and medieval mythologies, often guarding mines and precious underground treasures, notably in the Germanic dwarfs and the Greek Chalybes, Telchines or Dactyls. The gnomes of Swiss folklore follow this template, as they are said to have caused the landslide that destroyed the Swiss village of Plurs in 1618 - the villagers had become wealthy from a local gold mine created by the gnomes, who poured liquid gold down into a vein for the benefit of humans, and were corrupted by this newfound prosperity, which greatly offended the gnomes.

(3) A recurring joke in "Private Eye" magazine:

Lord Gnome is purported to be the proprietor of the magazine, and is an amalgam of various different media magnates. Originally modelled on figures including Lord Beaverbrook and Lord Thomson of Fleet, first appearing under the name "Aristides P. Gnome" in the early 1960s, Lord Gnome has since accumulated other characteristics to encompass the likes of Rupert Murdoch. He is portrayed in the magazine as a man of great wealth, greed, unscrupulousness and vulgarity. Lord Gnome rarely writes under his own name, but issues his proclamations, editorials and threats through a fictional underling...

...Lord Gnome, as well as being a media magnate, is regularly referred to as having other business interests. Special offers from "Gnomemart" frequently appear in the magazine, which also carries an occasional column called "The Curse of Gnome", chronicling the subsequent misfortunes of those who have in the past taken legal action against the publication. ...The word "Gnome" may refer to the Gnomes of Zürich.

(4) This one is pure speculation on my part, but since the name "Gringotts" has various theories as how it was derived, this is as good as any. When I read the name "Gringotts" for the first time, it reminded me of the German greeting Gruss Gott which is originally from Austria, Southern Germany, and the mixed land of Northern Italy/bits of south Germany/bits of Switzerland called the South Tyrol:

The expression grüß Gott (from grüß dich Gott, originally '(may) God bless (you)') is a greeting, less often a farewell, in Southern Germany and Austria (more specifically the Upper German Sprachraum, especially in Bavaria, Franconia, Swabia, Austria, and South Tyrol).

The Tyrol and Tyrolean are terms associated over here with Switzerland as well as Germany, mostly from the 19th century:

The Tyrolean hat, also Bavarian hat or Alpine hat, is a type of headwear that originally came from the Tyrol in the Alps, in what is now part of Austria, Germany, Italy and Switzerland.

Which brings us handily back to our boy Paracelsus, inventor and populariser of the term "gnome" (amongst others for elemental beings) who was - wait for it - Swiss!

So this ties up all the Swiss/German influences behind the word "Gnome" which I hope I have at least presented as an alternative to the "deliberate anti-Semitism by the TERF trans genocider" theory.

I thank you.

Is it even feasible for a premodern moneylender stereotype to not have connotations of greed? Being stingy about money of other people is an inextricable part of the occupation. And Jews are linked to that overwhelmingly due to their undeniable historical overrepresentation in moneylending in Europe (for reasons beyond the scope of this comment, but I'd say at least it wasn't about petty greed). If you are going to depict a stereotypical premodern banker, as befits the archaic Wizarding world (Eliezer in HPMOR justly mocked their financial system for its easy exploitability, by the way), people of European extraction will associate that image with a Jew; but that cannot be taken as an intentional depiction of a specifically Jewish stereotype. I suspect non-Westernized South East Asians would see a Han Chinese in the same portrayal, unless they try to see it through Western eyes. The point about physical appearance makes a little bit of sense but, really, Jews don't have monopoly on noses, and I think the association of long noses and untrustworthiness exists independently of ethnic stereotypes; it's a staple of physiognomy, even if woke Jewesses neurotically try to read Anti-Semitism into it (that vile now-deleted gnome thread is another case in point).

Truly, the day when we have to portray moneylenders as a whole as generous folk just to not offend groups which have historically been overrepresented in this line of work (and still are, just less so) will be a dark one. Reminds me of the war on the word «thug» which is ostensibly black-coded. (And it's counterproductive, too: all you'll achieve is switching gears on the euphemism threadmill, sending it to overdrive, so that an innocuous term like «urban youth» becomes a tongue-in-cheek reference to thugs.)

But on the other hand. The bigger issue here, the one that leads to such false alarms, is that Rowling's world, like all classical fantasy/sci-fi worlds and especially ones informed by British mythology, is biodeterminist. It's not just exaggeration of class differences; Rowling herself may be staunchly liberal but her intuitions are... quaint, and her commitment to not recognizing trans women as women is of the same intuitive root. Humans are treated as interchangeable M&Ms in settings like Harry Potter's one because the traditional, intuitively neat and narratively fertile descent-based stereotypization is safely displaced into sapient non-humans. These «races» don't just look different, they have obviously different philosophies, psychological and moral tendencies, talents; there is variation and overlap, but it's not obvious if culture can do much to bring them closer. Hermione's project of house elf liberation flops, and it is clear that Rowling considers it misguided and puts some effort into ridiculing it. Some house elves are just abused; the rest are quite content with their unequal symbiotic relationship to wizards, and while this can be framed as Marxist false consciousness, Hermione's belief in it comes across as unfounded condescension. The moral lesson here brings Moldbug's more inflammatory takes about «peoples better fit to serve» to mind. Centaurs, except very few, are inscrutable aliens and disdain human lifestyle. Mermaids are even more alien and unsettling. Giants and goblins are plain nasty, and have sound reasons to believe they're better off aligning with what human wizards consider evil. An American or a Japanese author would have brushed it off with a blithe foodie assumption of national superiority – once Aliens/Devils/Orcs/Elves taste our Burger/«Hambagu», they'll see the light and set their worthless peculiarities aside. A British author is less sanguine. (Maybe with better cuisine or less self-awareness...)

Race relations in the Wizarding world are at once simple and hard. They are simple because they naturally reward tolerating the status quo and live-and-let-live secessionist attitude that in reality is reserved to indigenous peoples. But once you aspire to build any kind of a productive modern multicultural society, they create a hairy diplomatic problem that cannot be solved with a bit of Civil Rights, redistribution from haves to have-nots, taking the knee and pro-equity sloganeering. Magic «races» are not at all mere social constructs or identities, and their discordant preferences are inextricable from their descent! Does Rowling herself realize implications of such a society? I am not sure. But as @erwgv3g34 and @covfefeAnon remind us, The Woke Are More Correct Than The Mainstream. They can notice where it's coming from; they do not accept «it's in Minecraft bro» as an excuse; they are rationally attacking a philosophical underpinning that discredits their politics. Once they got Rowling tagged as an outgroup due to her TERF (frankly just TEF) beliefs, the scales of infantile infatuation have fallen off their eyes, and they're scrutinizing her work for other signs and mental patterns of heresy, And by God do they smell it.


An excellent argument in favor of seeing biodeterminism in Harry Potter. However, I would argue that you're reading too much into why she's getting attacked now by progressives.

The answer, as far as I can tell, really does have to do with the trans question. People called out the supposed Jewishness of the goblins years before, but it fizzled because people didn't care. Now, they hate Rowling for not being trans-positive by their standards, so they just throw all possible arguments out there. Standard arguments-as-soldiers by people doing some culture-warring.

Nobody started worrying "ZOMG, the goblins are Jewish!" until Rowling got into trouble for her views on trans matters. And it really is a peculiarly American obsession over racial and ethnic categories, which has been imported over here by the local trend followers who parrot word-for-word American scripts.

I'm going to say that if someone goes "A photo of a gorilla? That's referring to BLACK PEOPLE, YOU RACIST!" then that's a you problem. Same way with "GOBLIN BANKERS? OBVIOUSLY JEWS!" That's a you problem, not the author secretly inserting racist stereotypes when there's a long-established pre-existing joke about Swiss bankers.

Kids these days don't know no history, and it shows.

I'm going to say that if someone goes "A photo of a gorilla? That's referring to BLACK PEOPLE, YOU RACIST!" then that's a you problem. Same way with "GOBLIN BANKERS? OBVIOUSLY JEWS!" That's a you problem, not the author secretly inserting racist stereotypes when there's a long-established pre-existing joke about Swiss bankers.

It's like Alan Partridge trying to be nice to the Irish:

Do not "rewrite" what someone else says into your own uncharitable projections, and don't lazily pattern-match an argument into something you want to attack just because you have a hammer and you're looking for nails.

There's nothing of substance to dispute, you've missed the point.

Dude, do you have some beef with me? Why the misrepresentation? Is this about me thinking that a typical «weed bro» lifestyle is degenerate? Last I've seen you responding, you've been intent on strawmanning what I wrote as a haughty screed of an «Internet goblin» (weird, given the current context; does the word mean something to you?). Now you're in effect calling me a blank slatist. That's... so wrong it's funny.

I can rephrase the quoted passage (plus more) in simpler words. Like so:

Rowling is a modern liberal, thus she's avoiding thoughts about intra-species biodeterminism and innate human race differences, even fictional. Also she didn't feel the need to turn her book into a bully pulpit to preach about racial justice, like some current year writers do. But heritable traits and race/species differences are enshrined in the tradition of genre fiction, feel intuitively cool to her, and make for easy subplots. So she invented non-human species as «Magical Beings» (plus some smarter beasts like trolls) and endowed them with innate characteristics, displacing the intergroup variability from humans onto this category. In this manner she can have White and Black and Jewish and Asian and Slavic wizards who are basically the same group (Houses, too, don't seem to map to real-world demographic groupings), but there are also populations of non-human sapients that robustly differ from humans, each in their special ways.

Fantasy racialism is, psychologically, either a derivative of or a surrogate for real-world racial and demographic stereotypes, and Wokes, who are hyper-sensitive to group-stereotypical thought and have been triggered by her trans comments, began sniffing around. Therefore they suspect that goblins = dogwhistle for Jews. They're probably wrong with regard to her intention (although goblins absolutely do pattern-match to medieval Jews in many ways); but they are right in that she has created a demi-human race with a homogenous «goblin character». It doesn't matter much that she doesn't mean real-world Jews: goblins are an entire biologically distinct, insular race of highly intelligent, greedy, untrusting finesmiths and financiers – a race which at least in theory can be correctly stereotyped. That's halfway to real-world HBD.

Of course the same is true for most fantasy settings. But as you perhaps know, there's a crusade to rectify stats of Orcs and such too. It's true she got in trouble for trans stuff. But my point is, by Woke standards her world absolutely reeks of heretical thought – they just never noticed before, because she was in such a good standing on the Left, with a generation having grown up loving her books.

Personally I strongly believe in HBD, but that has little to no bearing on my argument here.

P.S. There are ways to insert innate differences into fiction while (kinda) successfully dodging the race realism detector. @Meriadoc suggests phenotypic mixing, but I think a cleverer way is to make a whole different foundation. One example that jumps to mind is the webcomic Unsounded (that I have dropped several years ago, but at least the first few arcs are great). It's Le Guin-esque with its intricate feminine touch on systems very different from ours (I particularly like the exploration of mature power structures in a world with magic but that has reasonable economies of scale).

Two major powers on the continent of Kasslyne are Cresce and Alderode. Native Crescians are simply black, live under a matriarchal monarchy, ferociously support a militant polytheistic religion with human sacrifices, and use a weird economic system that's normatively egalitarian and superficially communalist, while also being planned, centralized and controlled via the issuance of trackable magical NFTs that are the only legal form of currency (the inability to buy anything in Cresce with gold and anything real interesting with Labor Tokens is a point of complaint, and an existential problem for certain low-performing communities).

Alds, however, are truly weird. Their society, generally backwards, warlike and totalitarian but also lawful and democratic (only men of decent standing are enfranchised, though) and religiously more tolerant than the Crescian one, is biologically regimented. The cool thing is, their differences are artificial (except for a small minority of a bona fide separate ethnicity). Aldish embryos are developmentally biased in utero, with the magitech equivalent of Huxley's Brave New World approach; the resultant castes are strongly encouraged to intermarry but it seems this is just to maintain social harmony and not somehow transfer the alteration to DNA (indeed, humans of Kasslyne are woefully ignorant of biology and all natural sciences). Castes have political competition and differ in maximal lifespan (400 to 30 years), magic aptitude, typical characters and appearance. Man, I should catch up.

P.P.S. Some time after this post it has occurred to me that the Aldish system is just magical CRT. Alds seem to be born with immutable psychological and physiological traits, that they apparently inherit from their parents, and distributions of those traits differ between endogamous population groups... but! Actually it's just the invisible omnipresent magically acting systemic bias imposed by the elites, and without it the groups would be impossible to distinguish!

Sigh. Way to hide it in plain sight.

We usually let it pass when someone decides to get snippy with mods, but belligerently declaring that you are going to disregard a request to post in accordance with the rules tells us that you aren't clear on how things work here. You are required to post in accordance with the rules. If you think a mod warning is wrong or you have been misunderstood, you can argue that. If you don't understand why your post was not compliant with our rules of discourse, you can ask for clarification.

"Disregarded, you aren't the boss of me" is both childish and signals bad intent.

Take a 1-day timeout and decide what you wish to do with this attempt to broaden your understanding.

One thing the Stormlight Archive does, which I quite like, is create fantasy races. By this I mean that the existing human races in the series don't correspond to our Earth ethnicities but rather take some racial features from some races and others from others. The kingdom most directly coded as "war-hungry imperialist americans" are fairly dark-skinned and have epicanthal folds, while the kingdom most coded as Chinese is more similar to white people. Maybe some other fantasy series do this too, but I'm not aware of any. I think it is one of many steps which can be taken to partially mitigate these sorts of objections to the work.

while the kingdom most coded as Chinese is more similar to white people

Which kingdom are you thinking of? My guess is Shinovar but I'm not sure

That's what I was thinking yeah.

World building is part of it - like the world of the stormlight archives is based on a rock pool he saw at the beach iirc, so the parshendi have crustacean features (although I always got more insect vibes from them) and the humans are transplants from another universe or something, so they settled like refugees and developed different cultures. Wait does this make Sanderson a hbd guy?

I always find those attempts very annoying. Not just due to the fact that it intentionally distorts basic intuitive assumptions that a fantasy desperately relies on to create a believable world. But that it's an obvious admission of the reality of those intuitive assumptions. It's only pretending they're not there because they obviously are there.

It's the equivalent of taking a Rubik's cube, recognizing that it does look satisfying when there is obvious order to the colors, jumbling it up until it's an incoherent mess and then presenting it saying 'There. Isn't this satisfying?' No. It's not. It's a jumbled incoherent mess and the only reason you jumbled it up is because you recognize order and the inherent reality congruent intuition everyone has about these things. But for reasons that are purely derived from modern political norms authors predictably and performatively distort them without acknowledging that without the intuition and order they would have nothing to write about in the first place.

But for reasons that are purely derived from modern political norms authors predictably and performatively distort them without acknowledging that without the intuition and order they would have nothing to write about in the first place.

I think this is true of plenty of other, more important things besides race. Things like gender differences, age differences, and sheer institutional inertia are often ignored to give heroes slightly better stories, even though ignoring them often defeats the purpose entirely if you think about it for too long.

Evil institutions are threatening because they're enormous and oppressive, so if the hero and a few sidekicks can take them apart in an afternoon, they shouldn't have been threatening to begin with. Female soldiers are incredibly exceptional because the average woman is so much weaker than the average man, so if your armies are full of women, this should no longer be a big deal because clearly in your fantasy world there are no strength differences. Age is similar--we give elves a lot of respect as people who have lived 100s or 1000s of years, but if an elf who has been 25 for 10,000 years is still a poor swordsman, elves should no longer earn such respect. If anything they should be denigrated for wasting so much time.

I'm trying to gesture here towards the general rule of "make exceptional thing normal, but continue to rely on our intuition of it as exceptional."

In other words, I agree that what you're describing can be an issue, but only when the narrative actually relies on it to any extent. Many other stories already rely on this sort of thing to much greater extents.

When it's done like this, I don't think it's anything all that bad, just a defense mechanism.

Wheel of Time did that, to an extent. The psuedo-Asian Borderlanders did have vaguely Asian appearances, but the Japanese and American Indian inspired Aiel are all blonde and redheaded white people and the Sea Folk are black.

Yeah, I read that series a long time ago but somehow didn't pick up on that. That's probably where Sanderson got that idea from.

The Wheel of Time (books) also does this. A lot of readers like to try and pattern match the various nations to various real-world nationalities, but it's pretty clear that Robert Jordan intentionally designed a lot of them to not match any we know in particular.

For sure, I think in WoT it's more cultural though. They're still supposed to be Earth ethnicities, just in a vastly different context.