A week after a devastating election loss, and the dawn of a new and terrifying era in American life, most people on the left are still reeling. Or numb, or sleepless, or at a loss for words.
Many among them are turning to the Harry Potter books and movies for solace and inspiration as they struggle to understand the election and steel themselves for the fights ahead.
Perhaps you’ve seen the tweets and the memes:
As an ardent fan of Rowling’s magical books, I empathize with the urge to look to the wizarding world at a time like this. For a generation of young people, particularly those who don’t hold to any particular faith tradition, the Potter series is the closest thing to a holy book: a story of love triumphing over hate, a tale of courageous people helping each other and those less fortunate than them, a series full of models for how to live a good life.
The Potter books, with their obvious real-world parallels, are a metaphor for understanding our real world, a way to think through some of the thorniest questions we face questions about prejudice and power and privilege. And, most comfortingly of all in these dark times, when we’re reading “Harry Potter,” we know who wins in the end. We know that whatever disasters befall our heroines and heroes, their suffering won’t be in vain. Good will vanquish evil, because love trumps hate.
Some disdain the turn toward Potter-world and other pop culture comfort food as an attempt at escapism, which is often viewed — wrongly — as the suspicious half-sibling of denial. After all, if this election shows us anything, it’s that out here in the real world, love doesn’t always win: what’s the use in burying ourselves in a children’s fantasy that insists it will? Still, Rowling’s world serves as inspiration for activists and proponents of social justice, and not just in the abstract: The Harry Potter Alliance seeks to harness young people’s passion for the books and direct it toward causes and campaigns that are in keeping with the values explored in the series. That means campaigns to enhance the safety of transgender people, and to build libraries, and to build leadership skills in girls and young women. Their argument is that, “fantasy is not only an escape from our world, but an invitation to go deeper into it.”
I count myself among those who’ve been spending more time with Hermione and Harry lately: I’ve been listening to the audiobooks as much as I can on the train, while I cook, as I fall asleep at the end of each long, dispiriting and frightening day. And in the moments when I can’t be listening to them, it’s because I’m working, at my desk, above which is pinned a handwritten sign that asks: “WWHGD?” What would Hermione Granger do? That plucky, brainy, homework-loving, hardworking, courageous young woman who, for so many of us, is the real protagonist of the series: what would she do in this situation, as prejudice blooms into violence and new discriminatory policies loom? Judging by the number of posters and T-shirts available for purchase, I’m not the only one who finds this motto helpful.
The answer to that question isn’t a simple one. It’s not tied in a neat bow like the final 20 pages of any Potter book. Because what Hermione Granger does, time and again over the course of seven books, is take very real risks in the name of what she thinks is right.
She risks her safety by standing up to bullies at school. She risks her social status by founding an organization that her friends and classmates think is unnecessary and uncool.
She risks her education by breaking probably hundreds of school rules, and plenty of laws, to do what she believes is just: she sneaks forbidden books out of the library, and steals school supplies, and breaks curfew, and messes with the laws of time and space, and aids and abets a convicted criminal, and imprisons and blackmails a journalist, and breaks into government property and oh, yeah, she co-founds a secret child army.
She sides with her friend, the wizarding world’s most wanted man, putting a price on her own head in the process.
She drops out of school and goes on the run. She cuts herself off from her family in order to ensure their safety while she drops out of school and goes on the run. She forgoes the option of leaving the wizarding world and going back to her Muggle life.
She endures torture. She risks her life again and again.
What would Hermione Granger do? A lot. She’d take real risks, lots of them, and endure a great deal of uncertainty, fear and suffering. We’re going to have to do the same. Social justice movements require sacrifice of comfort, or money, or friendships, or political status, or safety, or all of the above. Resistance to governments that target minorities is dangerous, and it demands courage and persistence. And unlike in an already-resolved book, real-world movements require us to make those sacrifices without knowing if they’ll pay off without knowing how the story ends for us, or for anyone else.
Activism comes in all shapes and sizes, and there’s a place for acts and sacrifices small and large. Some of us have less to give, less to sacrifice, less leeway to take risks. In some ways, Hermione has less to give up than others — her Mudblood status grants her less social and political capital than some in the wizarding world.
Still, in other ways, she has far more: she’s financially secure and able-bodied and can leave the wizarding world if she wants. She has a lot, so she gives up a lot. She puts herself on the line for people who are more vulnerable than she is. We’re going to have to do the same. Identifying with Hermione is not the same thing as following her example, and doing the latter will take fierce determination and a willingness to act.
In the last week, we’ve seen a huge outpouring of emotion and a renewed interest in collective action and social justice work. We’ve seen a wave of donations to organizations that defend the rights of the marginalized and we’ve seen thousands of people in the streets. But I’m afraid that a week from now, two weeks from now, our outrage will fade and that those of us who can afford to will begin to make peace with our frightening new reality. That we will stop practicing constant vigilance. I am afraid our courage will fail us. I am afraid we will want to be Hermiones, but choose instead to be Slughorns — protecting our own comfort, our own interests, trusting that someone else will take the risks and make the sacrifices, always waiting until our own safety is imperiled before we’re moved to act.
I’m the last person to sneer at the urge to watch all eight “Harry Potter” movies back-to-back or immerse oneself in the books in search of hope, clarity, comfort or inspiration. But while you’re looking, remember why Hermione is our heroine.
At its core, it’s not her quick wit and her encyclopedic knowledge of arcane wizarding history. It’s because she’s willing to ask herself the hard questions: Why are things this way? Is this just? Whose responsibility is it to make it right? And even when the answers are frightening, she doesn’t ignore the truth. She gets to work.