Harry Potter and the Death of Democracy

“Democracy Dies in Darkness” is a phrase used in an interview by Jeff Bezos, owner of The Washington Post, and multi-billionaire CEO of Amazon. Democracy indeed dies in the profound darkness of economic inequality and social injustice — both of which are the result of low wages, dangerous working conditions, and poverty — the dark underbelly of Amazon and the corporate world. From books to Zantax, Amazon has what we want and need. We can’t stop ourselves from shopping there. It’s like an Imperious Curse. The Dark Lord should be pleased.

Donald Trump is not pleased with Mr. Bezos. Mr. Bezos cannot control the insistence of The Washington Post to fact-check and tell the truth about Mr. Trump’s disastrous effects on the social, political, and economic well-being of the United States. Donald Trump thinks he can win a second term by lying, and killing hundreds of thousands of people through his non-action on COVID-19. Donald Trump is not pleased with Republican governors of states that do not follow his command to reopen in the face of a pandemic. He is unaware of his own blatant racism and misogyny; he is incompetent to govern any aspect of society because he is consumed with preserving the Horcruxes of his own life: Money, Property, and his own name. Worse, like Voldemort, he is incapable of remorse.

The overarching story line in the Harry Potter series: Innocent kid, whose heart is pure, defeats the Dark Lord, and saves humanity. The story is an ancient and familiar one, that occurs in the mythologies of every tribe on the Planet. But there is much more than initially meets the eye. Harry Potter is not just a fairy tale for children. The series gets darker as the story progresses into the exploration of the very nature of evil: What is evil, and how are humans susceptible to collaborating with it; the gradual awakening to evil and injustice that we all experience, and the existential struggle to defeat it. The personification of evil dies because his own death-dealing spell backfires. At the close of the saga, the scar that had marked Harry Potter as the one who had survived and was prophesied to defeat the Dark Lord “had not pained him for nineteen years. All was well.”

Like all good story tellers, J.K. Rowling leaves an open end.

Much of the charming fun of the series is the genius behind the names of the characters. Who can forget Luna Lovegood, her father Xenophilius (the opposite of a xenophobe)? Professor Sprout (who teaches herbology)? The Malfoy family, plagued with bad faith? Lupin, the werewolf? Or consider the bureaucrats in the Ministry of Magic: Fudge (don’t they all?) Pius Thicknesse –just what is needed in law enforcement: Thick-headed, pious refusal to hear or see nuance, and therefore susceptible to Imperius Curses.

Most important, “Vole” is an archaic term for winning all the tricks at cards. “De Mort” is French for “of” or “from” death. De Mort could also be a noble title like “Guy de Moupassant.” Certainly Voldemort did his best to win all the tricks from Death. Now, twenty-two years after the Battle of Hogworts (May 2, 1998) and a mere three years after Harry’s nineteen-year respite from the mind of the Dark Lord, we have “trump” — the most valuable card in the suit; a surprise move to gain an advantage. How many scars are burning?

The Harry Potter saga does not translate directly into the present-day malaise affecting the United States and much of the Planet. Nevertheless, striations of social justice issues are found throughout. House elves are enslaved beings tied to Wizard families, and tasked with all the work that supports the Hogwarts school from the kitchen staff to cleaning crew. In the Forbidden Forest live mythical beasts, hybrids rejected and mistreated by humans: unicorns, hippogriffs, and embittered centaurs. The original sin underlying all of it is pure blood Wizards versus half-bloods and Muggle-borns. The racial slur “mudblood” echoes our own dog whistle politics. Looking closer, we discover the lie: pure blood Wizard families occasionally and inexplicably produce “squibs” who are unable to do real magic; and Muggle born witches like Lily Potter and Hermione Granger are powerful sorceresses. Lily is Harry’s mother, whose final desperate spell cast from self-sacrificing love causes Voldemort’s spell to rebound, and transforms baby Harry into “the one who lived.” The one able to defeat the Dark Lord is not a pure blood Wizard. If not for Hermione’s prodigious ability with magic, Harry’s quest would likely have failed. Voldemort himself is the hybrid son of the Muggle Tom Riddle and pureblood Merope Gaunt, direct descendant of Salazar Slytherin, one of the founders of Hogwarts.

The foundation of racial xenophobia in present day United States is graphically evident in the humanitarian disaster that is our immigration policy; and in the 400-year crime against humanity that began with the genocide of Native Americans, and continued unabated with slavery, Jim Crow, police shootings of unarmed black people that amount to lynchings; and the school-to-prison pipeline. Now COVID-19 disproportionately affects low-wage workers who are care providers, first responders, nurses, migrant farm workers; the pandemic threatens the global food supply, and has begun to reach into the upper echelons of privileged white society.

The Death Eaters

“The Ministry has fallen. Scrimgeour is dead. They are coming.” We could well paraphrase: “The Department of Justice is compromised; Inspectors General are fired; the National Guard is mobilized.”

Branded with a symbol that acts as an implanted communication device, Voldemort’s inner circle is at his beck and call. Trump’s inner circle is likely much smaller than the total list of Executive Branch secretaries, some of whom may not be “Death Eaters,” who suffer death if they do not do the bidding of the Dark Lord. Instead, a short list of true believers may include:

Mike Pence
Ivanka & Jared
Bill Barr
Mike Pompeo
Steven Miller
Mark Esper
Betsy DeVos
Alex Azar
John Ratcliffe
Steven Mnuchin
Mark Meadows

Death Eaters outside the Executive Branch may include Mitch McConnell (self-described “Grim Reaper”), Lindsey Graham, Matt Gaetz, Steve Bannon. Assigning characters from the Harry Potter series is certainly fun, but the metaphors only go so far. The Malfoys, for example, whose name means “Bad Faith,” could resonate with Ivanka and Jared. Betsy DeVos begs to be associated with Delores Umbrage (truly annoyed and utterly offended by the very idea of public education). The highest honor for duplicitous evil surely goes to Severus Snape. Holding contradictory thoughts simultaneously is either a sign of colossal cluelessness, madness, or intellectual dishonesty on a biblical scale. Attorney General Bill Barr fills the role, as he claims to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States while dismantling it, article by article, and protects and defends Donald Trump from all enemies, foreign and domestic.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is a close second. Now that China has made clear its intention to subsume Hong Kong into what is certainly one of the worst regimes on the Planet, Pompeo has certified to Congress that Hong Kong no longer enjoys a high degree of autonomy from China. While this is true on its face, this decision could jeopardize the civil and human rights of the people, and decimate the democratic foundations of an autonomous region, established in 1997, when Britain returned the island to the jurisdiction of the Chinese government. The loss of Hong Kong’s special trading status with the US and the threat to its standing as an international financial hub is just another illustration of how democracy does indeed die in darkness. President Donald Trump and Congress will decide what actions to take as a result of the certification from this personification of Severus Snape. While ending the special trading relationship that has existed for decades would cost American business, this unilateral action will further weaken an already fragile global economy. Worse, it will damage the people of Hong Kong, not the rulers of China.

Evil Personified

Canadian mystery writer Louise Penny offers this insight from Inspector Beauvoir: “Beauvoir knew that the root of evil wasn’t money. No, what created and drove evil was fear. Fear of not having enough money, enough food, enough land, enough power, enough security, enough love. Fear of not getting what you want, or losing what you have.” The Beautiful Mystery, New York, Minotaur Books, 2012 (p. 159). Voldemort’s appetite for power lures those afraid of not having enough, or losing what they have, into the voracious trap his promises have set. His own fear of the death that comes with the conviction of not having enough or of losing what little he has propels him into the towering blindness and deafness to love that is his own catastrophic downfall.

Human history is perhaps defined by the rise and fall of personified evil: King Saul, Emperor Nero, Lucrezia Borgia, Ivan the Terrible, Napoleon Bonaparte, Stalin, Hitler. Interestingly, evil women are not often listed in the annals of misused political power, but are instead defined as murderers, or partners of criminals. J.K. Rowling’s Bellatrix LeStrange may be the exception. She is obsessed with purity of blood, and has no love for anyone, not even her nephew Draco. She is so powerful, that she threatens Voldemort himself, but falls out of favor because she is related to the disgraced Malfoy family, and also because her half-blood niece, Nymphadora Tonks, has married the werewolf Remus Lupin. As we have seen, Voldemort is in denial about his own half-blood status, so Bellatrix is on shaky ground — as are all of the Death Eaters.

The ultimate trick in J.K. Rowlings masterpiece is radical fairness, or as Harry says, “love if that’s what you want to call it.” Severus Snape may be the most conflicted of all the characters in the story. He feels personally responsible for the safety of Harry Potter because he loved Harry’s mother long before any of his generation went to Hogwarts. But Snape is a soul divided between Dumbledore and Voldemort, between love and hate. Voldemort realizes he has no need for Snape to bring Harry to him; Harry will come to the Dark Lord on his own. Snape cannot explain why — no matter what magic wand Voldemort uses — he is unable to kill Harry; and so the double dealer is murdered at the end.

Voldemort’s desire is to never die, and he thinks the Elder Wand will give him that power. But the true owner of the Elder Wand was Dumbledore, who fell to his death in a plot with Snape. Voldemort believes Snape is the true owner of the wand, because it appears that Snape did indeed kill Dumbledore. In a trick that is outside Voldemort’s understanding of the game, the Elder Wand will pass to another owner not through theft or murder, but by winning a fair fight. If Voldemort kills Snape, he thinks the wand will be his, and he will be able to kill Harry and live forever. In contrast it is the radical fairness that has defined Harry throughout the whole adventure that impels him to give Tom Riddle (Voldemort) one more chance to show some remorse — to repent — for the evil he has caused. When Riddle refuses, the curses are cast, and still Harry Potter seeks to disarm, while Voldemort seeks to kill:

“Expelliarmus!” The wands fly into the air, and Harry catches them as he caught the Quidditch Snitch.

“Avada Kadavra!” The curses collide, the killing curse rebounds upon him, and the Dark Lord dies.

Is Donald Trump the personification of evil for our times? Can the forces of non-violent, radical fairness, and love defeat the fear at the heart of civilization today? Only the Shadow knows for sure.

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