Friday, August 05, 2011

Harry Potter and the Chambers of Congress: Are Michelle Bachmann and the Debt Ceiling Debacle Ushering In a New Generation of Irony?

The ancient Greek philosopher Empedocles argued that the universe was forever oscillating between chaos and order. The early 20th century sociologist Pitrim Sorokin contended that society bounced back and forth between worldviews governed by empirical, scientific leanings and romantic, religious aspirations. The release of the final Harry Potter film during the fight over the raising of the nation’s debt ceiling makes me wonder whether the real cultural poles are actually irony and authenticity, that we live in a world in which forever alternates between eras of seinfeldian nihilism and rowlandian earnestness.

The generation leaving college today and trying to enter the work force is the Harry Potter generation. If I were to refer to someone in my classroom as “puckish” or “pickwickian,” I’d most likely receive blank stares. But if instead, I used the adjectives “snape-ish” or “flitwickian,” head nods would result. These stories and characters populate their collective cultural consciousness. The conclusion of the film version of the epic is, for them, a major occurrence.

For me, a philosophy professor of generation X who suddenly finds his beard more salt than pepper, it exposes the meaning of “out of it” – when a significant social event possesses no personal significance. For me, the allusion connected with the surname Potter is colonel Sherman T., not wizard Harry. But as I engaged the books with my own children, I noticed a peculiar similarity with a series of texts that were just as formative for readers of my time – Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy. Both featured protagonists who found themselves alienated from British middle class life, only to be thrust against their wills into bizarre realities that existed alongside their more mundane lives, but which remained invisible to everyone else around them. They explored these new realms with a female companion who was also human and possessed superior intelligence, and a goofy male friend who could serve as a guide as he hailed from this strange new world. And in both cases, unbeknownst to most people, the Earth was in mortal danger.

While the parallel structure of the two is striking, it is the differences that are telling. Where Harry Potter’s Voldemort was the embodiment of evil bent on destruction of the world for power and ego, the Hitchhiker’s Guide’s Arthur Dent’s earth would be destroyed by Zaphod Beeblebrox, the President of the Galaxy, out of sheer incompetence. He didn’t bother to read what was put in front of him assuming it was yet another request for an autograph and this sent the Vogons – a race of aliens that combine Dr. Who and Hannah Arendt – to simply do their jobs in making way for a hyper-space bypass. Bad things in this universe were not the result of ill-intent, but rather of a system that could not be trusted to be rational.

This made perfect sense to the Watergate babies. Of course, the authorities were lying to us about everything. That’s what authorities do. “The truth is,” we were told in All the President’s Men, “these are not very bright guys and things got out of hand.” We saw the Berlin wall come down and Ronald Reagan’s “evil empire” exposed as a fraud. We were worried about mutually assured destruction with THEM? Is THAT really what everyone got so worked up over during the McCarthy period? When you pulled back the curtains on the great and magnificent Oz, there was nothing there to be afraid of. The response to the times was one of hip skepticism.

It also helped that it was the polar opposite of the baby boomers’ strident sixties and sensitive seventies. No, they didn’t levitate the Pentagon and no, all you need is not love…unless it’s the love of supply side tax cuts and BMWs. After enduring thousands of air raid drills cowering beneath their school desks to shield them from global nuclear destruction, they tried to change the world. Well, at least until they controlled it. And so, generation X, living forever in their shadow, turned our collective back on their claimed genuine connection with the world and opted instead for cool cynicism.

But the Harry Potter generation are the children of Columbine, Oklahoma City, 9/11, and Virginia Tech. Unexpected violence could erupt spontaneously taking the lives of innocent people anytime, anywhere. Not just in the dangerous parts of town, but even where the well-off folks stay. Nowhere is safe and this lack of security is not only cached out in terms of life and limb, but also class. There is no guarantee that they will end up where their parents are, living the comfortable lives they have been born into. Theirs is not an ironic existence.

They have heard the rhetoric of black and white, good and evil their entire lives, so it comes as no surprise that they would be attracted to stories in which threats come from malevolent forces that seek to undermine all that is good in the world. We see it not only in Harry Potter, but also in the revival of the thinly-veiled Christian fables of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Ring books, both of which received multi-million dollar cinematic treatments during this period. It was widely announced that after 9/11, the era of irony was over, but truth be told this generation had begun rejecting it already. You see this re-engagement in the commitment to public service in terms of local projects and their ability during the last election to vote in record numbers swayed by a message of hope.

But when you look at the news today, that hope has been dashed. Our crisis is not a hurricane or tornado, but an artificial calamity of our own making. And those leading the charge, the tea party, deny the existence of global warming, deny the basis of macro-economic theory, and have a leader in Michelle Bachmann whose husband holds that homosexuality is a malady curable by a modern brand of Christian faith healing. This is the world molding those who will be the post-Harry Potter generation. They hear black and white rhetoric from those whose worldview is cleaner than the world itself. Things are more complicated, and yet that intricacy is not allowed to be addressed in trying to solve problems we create for no good reason other than to have crises for which we can then pretend to be the white knights riding in to save the day. This generation has seen wars that were cheered on by those who had no intent to put themselves in danger to fight them, but who consider themselves patriots for having merely voiced support for them. With years of families losing their homes, with these children’s families fearing for the jobs of their bread-winners, to see the silliness of the response from the system, the end of Harry Potter may well be the end of our respite from irony. Sarcasm and cynicism may be the order of the day for the new generation. And if it comes to be, I’ll be waiting with my old Hitchhiker’s Guide books and DVDs of Seinfeld we could enjoy together.