Friday, July 15, 2011

Harry's Valuable Lessons: Coming of Age with Voldemort and Osama

by Jack Solowey

(Spoiler Alert: reveals the ending of the Harry Potter saga and the fate of the Al Qaeda terrorist.)

This morning, at 12:00 am the final installment of the Harry Potter movie series, The Deathly Hallows Part II, was released in American theatres.

To the viewing public, Voldemort is now dead, and so is Osama.

On the night we learned that American special forces successfully killed Osama Bin Laden, a large number of American college students went out into the streets to express their emotions. Many waved American flags, some cheered, others sang the national anthem, and several answered questions for reporters.

The next day, in the media frenzy that surely had to follow the killing of the world’s most wanted mass-murderer, many voices criticized these students.

Pamela Gerloff of the Huffington Post wrote, ‘Celebrating’ the killing of any member of our species--for example, by chanting USA! USA! and singing The Star Spangled Banner outside the White House or jubilantly demonstrating in the streets--is a violation of human dignity.”

The Guardian’s Mona Eltahawy decried, “No Dignity at Ground Zero,” “It didn't take 10 minutes for the frat party atmosphere to sicken me.”

Rather than condemning personal acts of catharsis, Neil Howe, the scholar credited with naming my generation the Milennials, sought to explain these acts of “celebration” in the context of my generation’s experience. 

"It's like Voldemort is dead," Howe declared. "It's a Harry Potter world. For this generation, there's either pure evil or pure good. There's no anti-hero. They're out to get rid of these terrible forces and have a celebration. A happy ending. This is very defining for their generation.”

I take exception to this absolutist categorization, as both a member of the milennial generation and a fan of the Harry Potter series, which Howe would probably say is a redundant statement.

Howe is entirely right that the Harry Potter morality play informed my generation’s moral identity, but for that very reason his assertion that we embrace a primitive black and white view of the world is dead wrong.

In condemning the Milennial’s reaction to O.B.L.-K.I.A., Gerloff and Eltahawy tried to portray us as frivolous immoral jingoists. Based on the Pew Research Center’s recent publication Milennials: Portrait of a Generation, however, Gerloff and Eltahawy would aptly be described as factually incorrect journalists. Pew: “This generation is the most culturally diverse in the history of the nation, college-focused and more tolerant than any before them. They believe that good parenting, successful marriage and helping others are among the most important things in their lives.”

It should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the Harry Potter series, that a generation said to have learned valuable ethical tropes from those books is the most tolerant in history. In the Harry Potter saga, Voldemort and his “Death-Eater” followers seek to purge the wizarding world of “mudbloods” – wizards with non-magical family. Voldemort and the Death-Eaters wage a campaign to impose racial purity, in a manner akin to Hitler and the Third Reich. Harry and his cadre of protectors give shelter to the non-Aryan wizards and seek to defeat Voldemort’s wehrmacht.

While this is surely a tale of good vs. evil, it is not as Howe suggests, without nuance or shades of gray. In the days preceding the rise of Voldemort, Harry tries to warn the Ministry of Magic (the government of the wizarding world) that the “Dark lord is back.” The head of the Ministry, Cornelius Fudge, however, refuses to acknowledge the danger in a Neville Chamberlain move. When Harry refuses to be censored, the Ministry declares him a terrorist and the press labels him public enemy number one. Nevertheless, Harry continues his quest to reveal the truth and protect the community.

Dr. Lawrence Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development would place Harry’s actions at the highest level of morality. Harry transcends the “Primitive Ethics” of obedience and punishment in not cowing to the Ministry’s threats. He then rises above the “Conventional Morality” of law and order in refuting the government’s dogma.

Harry exercises rational ethical thought beyond the demands of his id and his superego. Not only is he able to tease out right from wrong in the face of obfuscating authority figures, but he also risks personal harm to do so.

He is an ideal role model for a generation that was gripped by tragedy at a young age. Surely, many children of the milennial generation who lost their parents in Osama’s fires took solace in Harry’s story: his own parents were murdered by Voldemort.

I do not look askance at the 10-year-old boy who saw the Twin Towers destroyed on a TV in his 5th grade classrooom one Tuesday morning in September. I do not question his education when he learned that day that Osama Bin Laden was the face of evil. I don’t shake my head that this boy navigated adolescence reading the story of another brave boy, who selflessly fought to protect his community and friends in the face of withering opposition from the government and the press. 

And I certainly do not have the temerity to question the manner in which this young man chose to respond to his President’s declaration that “justice has been done.”

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