“I don’t care about my legacy—I’ll be dead,” is a quote from Rudy Giuliani and (allegedly) Donald J. Trump. Given the narcissism and opportunism evinced in spades from two men who are, objectively, power-consumed liars, this sentiment tracks. And now, J.K. Rowling has joined the chat.
“I do not walk around my house thinking about my legacy. What a pompous way to live your life, thinking what will my legacy be,” the author says during the first episode of The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling. “Whatever! I’ll be dead! I care about now. I care about the living.”
This is what passed for a scoop in the first two episodes of the new podcast from Bari Weiss’ company the Free Press. Though touted on its website as featuring “unprecedented candor and depth about the controversies surrounding [Rowling]—from book bans to debates on gender and sex,” The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling was dead on arrival by the time it dropped Tuesday. Each of its two premiere episodes are openly suspicious of those who’ve challenged Rowling’s TERFy rhetoric, flabby with exposition, and devoid of actual news. They’re also delivered without charisma from the show’s host, Megan Phelps-Roper, who is best known for defecting from the Westboro Baptist Church over 10 years ago after being raised in the hate cult, waving its “God Hates Fags” banners, and controlling its social media.
“People on all sides of this conflict felt so attacked, so threatened, that they invoked the language of witch hunts, even as they vehemently disagreed on who was the witch and who was the mob lighting the fire. I’m Megan Phelps-Roper and these are The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling,” is how the first episode’s intro postures a concern with fairness and balance.
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There is reason to be wary of Weiss, who spun quitting the New York Times (after writing some incompetently argued opinion pieces that were rightly dragged on Twitter) as some kind of cancel-culture crusade, as though she’s been endowed with a kind of insight that allows her to see the truth without the blinders of “wokeness.” Her Free Press endeavor was “built on the ideals that once were the bedrock of great journalism: honesty, doggedness, and fierce independence.” At last, someone said it!
Phelps-Roper has struck a similarly haughty pose: In a story published on the Free Press in 2021, she claimed to add context to the viral Central Park Karen episode of 2020 by determining that bird watcher Christian Cooper had “threatened” Amy Cooper. Her source was Christian Cooper’s initial Facebook post on the subject, in which he explained that he had told Amy Cooper, “Look, if you’re going to do what you want, I’m going to do what I want, but you’re not going to like it,” in reference to attempting to ply her dog with treats to get it to leave the area where it was illicitly off its leash. Hardly the gotcha that Phelps-Roper tried to contort out of several hundred words. And what a look to adopt: Karen apologist.
As in that piece, Phelps-Roper draws on her Westboro Church background in The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling. And sure, veal calves intimately know misery, but they were still raised in a box. I don’t mean to dismiss redemption or suggest that Phelps-Roper has no place in media, I’m just suspicious that her eyes are particularly adept at seeing the thing no one else is seeing in an object that everyone’s staring at. That implicit claim has the makings of pure hucksterism, and there’s nothing in the first two episodes of The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling to suggest any truly complex thinking. Instead, this podcast, derived from an interview that Phelps-Roper conducted last summer at Rowling’s 16th century Scottish castle, strikes me as an article’s worth of material stretched threadbare into a series.
Offering one of the world’s most-read authors, who has 14 million followers on Twitter alone, another platform to explain her misinformation-laden stance on trans people is suspect in its own right. But The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling isn’t completely devoid of an angle. Objectively speaking, it must be wild to watch your trajectory go from people on the right calling for your books to be burned to people on the left making the exact same recommendation. “Growing up, it was my community that thought J.K. Rowling was evil and it was other Christian fundamentalists, who had amassed in force to condemn Rowling and to call her work dangerous,” explains Phelps-Roper. As such, the hourlong second episode is devoted to revisiting the Christian right’s condemnation of Harry Potter for supposedly promoting witchcraft.
I’m sure that condemnation was annoying for Rowling, but given the sheer popularity of Harry Potter, how the series spawned an industry and was, within just a few years of its emergence, canonized among the most cherished literature of all time, clearly the right’s censorious argument held no water. It was ultimately just noise, which is why the podcast’s focus on it thus far amounts to tedious chatter. The effort to ban Rowling’s books was fantastically unsuccessful, and hearing various forces explain their reasons for wanting to do so is about as useful as listening to Trump prattle on about losing the 2020 election.
Thus far, Witch Trials only offers a taste of what anyone who’s been following along actually cares about: Rowling’s antagonistic stance toward what she repeatedly referred to in a factually dubious June 2020 essay as “the new trans activism,” and her calls for the exclusion of trans people in a variety of spaces. On the podcast, said taste comes in the form of a sonic montage, played in both episodes, of people discussing their stance against Rowling’s stance against full trans acceptance and equality. We hear someone advocating for the burning of her books, and another saying, “It’s disgusting and it’s problematic. I mean, let’s face it, Hermione would literally punch this woman in the face right now.” That in the second episode this montage is played right after a bunch of mouth-foaming political Christians have had their lack of rationale laid bare is a good indication of where this thing is going, whenever it gets there.
Rowling tends to couch her paranoia about “erasing the concept of sex” with placating caveats that attempt to deflect any and all accusations of transphobia. She’s gesturing toward nuance but the net effect is incoherence. She wrote in that June 2020 essay: “It would be so much easier to tweet the approved hashtags – because of course trans rights are human rights and of course trans lives matter – scoop up the woke cookies and bask in a virtue-signaling afterglow. There’s joy, relief and safety in conformity.” In that same piece, she claimed, “I want trans women to be safe.” BUT!!! “At the same time, I do not want to make natal girls and women less safe. When you throw open the doors of bathrooms and changing rooms to any man who believes or feels he’s a woman – and, as I’ve said, gender confirmation certificates may now be granted without any need for surgery or hormones – then you open the door to any and all men who wish to come inside.”
The result is self-protecting, exclusionary rhetoric that people way more familiar with trans experiences have rightly called bullshit on. These contradictions are easy to make when you’re babbling to yourself on Twitter and your website, but any interviewer worth their salt will challenge and scrutinize the faulty logic and its implications. Is Megan Phelps-Roper up to the task? Only time will tell. I’ll be listening as her podcast drips on, but at the moment, signs point to no.