Monday, October 20, 2008

Harry Potter and the "Real World"

These days it sometimes seems as though to find a world with some order to it one has to escape to fiction.

There is the usual fiction of fairy tales and guaranteed happy endings. But that’s not what I’m referring to, I’m talking about the ones where we know there is order but we aren’t sure how things will turn out. An example, I think, is the successful Harry Potter series. Things don’t always work out for the best, there is a great deal of strife and struggle, and important and beloved characters die. Still, we know there is an order to this world, that when Harry Potter’s mother gave her life to save her baby it was not in vain but this beautiful act carried the powerful magic to protect Harry, that the evil in which Voldemort found his strength was his greatest weakness, and that the greatest magic of all always seemed to come about through the goodness and courage of Harry’s heart, a magic so powerful even the greatest villain would shrink in its wake.

The order we see in a fictional world is not about magic; it is about consequences. Sure it’s cool that Harry can fly on a broomstick or move an object with a twirl of his wand, but it’s beautiful that there is justice for characters’ good and evil acts alike, that what goes around comes around, that there are consequences.

In “the real world” it often seems that there are no consequences. After I heard about the passage of the $700 billion bailout bill, my representative being among those who changed his vote to pass it, I wondered: What am I supposed to learn from this? That those who terrorize our nation’s economy through greed, not only get away with it, but also win? That if I desire financial security I too should give up thoughts of altruism and put my intelligence and energies into a cutthroat world of lawlessness and malevolence? Sure, billions of others will suffer, but that’s the world we live in and at least I won’t be one of the ones suffering, at least I won’t see the consequences. That does seem to be the lesson learned by the Democratic Party leadership, trying to beat “the Republicans” at their own game of bowing to corporate interests.

When people say their only real option is to vote for the lesser of two evils (particularly those who admit that candidate is quite evil), when they say it’s never going to happen so why waste a vote on Nader, they are expressing a belief. It’s the “real world” everyone’s been telling us about since we were little kids. Accountability for elected officials is not something that happens in this world—even if they support taking our civil liberties away with the PATRIOT Act and FISA, even if they will continue a war that’s already ended the lives of well over a million people, even if with the economy in shambles they stubbornly refuse real regulation of those responsible, even if with tens of thousands of Americans dying each year they support a pay-or-die health care system, even if…a million more things, in this world they can get away with it. According to this view, the best we can hope for isn’t order and it’s most certainly not justice; it’s a slightly less total corruption.

When I was in elementary school learning about American history, the Constitution seemed sacred. I could never imagine that in my lifetime there might be an assault on the Bill of Rights or that my government would torture people (or whatever it’s being called these days). I knew there had been problems with racism, sexism, McCarthyism, and even internment camps but we had learned from that and if somehow something like that did happen again, surely, surely, there would be a huge uproar. Then it happened and the silence was deafening; not only did I not see much of an uproar, but many people seemed to have also fallen for the politics of fear, whether fear of outside threats or fear of “the Republicans” emphasizing those outside threats.

It manages to appear quite rational at times, but the problem with this rationality is it is just a rationalization. Just because in our present-day society our daily actions are often divorced from an immediate feeling of their impacts (take global warming or the effects of corporate deregulation on everything from our moral and family lives to our economy), doesn’t mean those consequences do not exist. It’s easy to imagine a world without consequences when we’re not the ones being spied on, detained or tortured, when we’re not the ones dying in a war on the other side of the planet, when we’re not part of the statistics of hundreds of thousands of Americans who die needlessly for health and safety reasons every year or the tens of millions of Americans who can’t afford to eat.

Sometimes the unexpected and unfathomable happens. If there’s anything social scientists can tell us for certain it is how incredibly interwoven everything in our social fabric is, which is why when social crises (good or bad) occur, societies stop and deal with their reverberations for survival. But when society refuses to do so, denying there was any occurrence that needs to be addressed, we have two choices: we can tell ourselves that this is how “the real world” is and it wasn’t a big deal after all, or we can open our eyes to our survivability.

The lesson to remember is that if the unimaginably horrible can occur (what we thought was just the stuff of history or story), so can the unimaginably wonderful, if we attend to real consequences and reverberations.