Childhood’s End: A Meditation on America After Obama
This is the third piece in a multi-part series on the Orphan and the Empire.
This is the third piece in a multi-part series on the Orphan and the Empire.
In the original 1977 Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, Princess Leia (played by the recently departed Carrie Fisher) sends a holographic message to Obi Wan, asking him for help and adding, “You’re our only hope.” In the wake of this message, Obi Wan invites the orphan Luke Skywalker off of the planet Tatooine and into the entire galaxy. And yet, even after Obi Wan introduces Luke to the power of the Force, Luke looks to Obi Wan as his source of safety and knowledge as they face an Imperial Empire.
Luke watches Obi-Wan surrender to Darth Vader’s lightsaber and die. Now on his own, Luke must fully integrate the lessons that he had at this point, unknowingly internalized from Obi Wan. By the time he flies head on to destroy the Death Star, with Darth Vader—superior in skill to Luke in every way—close behind him, the chances of defeat seem assured. And then somewhere within, Luke hears Obi Wan’s voice: “Use the Force, Luke.”
In this moment, close to his own demise, Luke allows the spirit of Obi Wan to be fully alive within him. As he does, Luke’s understanding of the Force goes into “ludicrous speed,” he is able to break free of Vader and use the plans that Leia had transmitted in the beginning of the story to make a “one in a million” shot that blows up the Death Star. Vader retreats, the Imperial Empire receives a serious blow, and the Rebel Alliance: a New Hope. Most important, when Obi Wan’s spirit is reborn in the son of Darth Vader—an act that will eventually bring down the emperor—we understand Obi Wan’s cryptic warning to Darth Vader before his death: “If you strike me down I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.”
Barack Obama: A New Hope
Here in the United States, the emotional dependency that Luke felt to Obi Wan is akin to the dependency that many of us felt towards President Obama. For years we had been subjected to the Bush administration’s use of 9/11 to attack FDR’s Four Freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from fear, and freedom from want.
We who fought to protect these four freedoms often felt so alone, sad, and angry that the only thing we could chant with our fellow protestors was, “No they can’t!” But then Obama emerged as a mentor at the DNC in 2004 and with poise, warmth, and humor soon gave us and the entire nation a chance to chant, “YES WE CAN!”
During his first presidential campaign, he calmly spelled out the kind of president we deserved after September 11:
…we will never use 9/11 as a way to scare up votes, because it is not a tactic to win an election. It is a challenge that should unite America and the world against the common threats of the 21st century: terrorism and nuclear weapons, climate change and poverty, genocide and disease.
His sincerity and soaring rhetoric around our potential awoke an intergenerational movement, which led so many who had never engaged politically to start knocking on doors. But it was not only his belief in us that was inspiring, but what that belief represented. It was the unlikely story of a black man with a white family who grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia, had been an activist on the South Side of Chicago, a constitutional law professor at Harvard, and an Illinois state senator devoted to his faith, his family, and the human family as one people. It was the story of one person whose skin and story represented a global citizen.
Shepard Fairey’s iconic poster made Obama’s very face represent more than just himself. In a nation where blacks were enslaved and now one could become president, Obama became a symbol of hope. And the world noticed: Nations who had spent eight years fearing the patriarchal Dick Cheney and his contempt for the world cheered for a leader who seemed to believe in them too. All over nations in Africa (particularly Kenya), parents were telling their children to look at Barack Obama, a son of Africa, a black man who was headed for the White House.
America began to embody what so many had always wished it to be: a kind of high school reunion for all of humanity (“so, what have you all been up to for the last 10,000 years?”) where we can learn not simply in spite of our differences but because of them. Many of us knew that this “kumbaya” feeling was more temporal than permanent but it at least provided something aspirational; a vision of the global citizens we could one day become, even if we would not do so, as so many had convinced ourselves, overnight.
And with the sage-like wisdom of a Jedi Knight who could see “things not seen,” Obama asked us to join him in deeply seeing the audacity of hope within both the human heart and the long arc of human history:
It’s the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs; the hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores…the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him too. / Hope in the face of difficulty, hope in the face of uncertainty, the audacity of hope. In the end, that is God’s greatest gift to us, the bedrock of this nation, a belief in things not seen, a belief that better days are ahead.
With “a belief in things not seen,” he asked us to see that the mysterious “Force” of history was all around us, connecting us. We were more than what we perceived ourselves to be in one moment. Instead, buried within this very moment are all of the moments of those before us, who believed in things not seen. And with the magic of abracadabra, which means, “I create as I speak”, Obama created a chance for us to see those moments as one. As we chanted “yes we can,” he took us on a journey to join the Jedi Knights of history who had done the same:
It was a creed written into the founding documents that declared the destiny of a nation: Yes, we can. / It was whispered by slaves and abolitionists as they blazed a trail towards freedom through the darkest of nights: Yes, we can. / It was sung by immigrants as they struck out from distant shores and pioneers who pushed westward against an unforgiving wilderness: Yes, we can. / It was the call of workers who organized, women who reached for the ballot, a president who chose the moon as our new frontier, and a king who took us to the mountaintop and pointed the way to the promised land: Yes, we can, to justice and equality. / Yes, we can, to opportunity and prosperity. Yes, we can heal this nation. Yes, we can repair this world. Yes, we can.
And together in a historical campaign for the presidency, WE actualized magic, allowing Michelle Obama to one day say, “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.”
Donald Trump and the Empire Strikes Back
Eight years ago, at the inauguration of our mentor, Barack Obama, I watched George W. Bush’s helicopter fly above us and felt that we had overcome the Empire of Patriarchy. And now as the Empire spent the last eight years striking back, only to produce the most pathological president in U.S. history, I am reminded of Professor Trelawney’s prophecy in the third book in the Harry Potter series: “The Dark Lord will rise again….greater and more terrible than ever he was.”
In the absence of more people pounding the pavement for the Politics of Health—healthcare, healthy planet, healthy national security, healthy infrastructure, healthy discourse—we allowed room for the Politics of Sickness.
The Patriarchy of the Bush years, beaten back during Obama’s ascension, began fighting to return just as Voldemort had in the first Harry Potter book. Donald Trump, who started his career barring black people from housing, did not like that a black man had entered the White House. An alleged sexual abuser whose life embodies the Patriarchal Empire’s ideals of white male dominance, Trump teamed up with the alleged sexual assaulter Roger Ailes and his Fox News Network’s attempt to smear Obama with the racist Birther movement and the racially charged “Tea Party” movement. Shockingly, the demographic destiny that we had come to believe would bring Hillary Clinton to the White House ended up bringing us back to the Empire of Patriarchy, greater and more terrible than ever it was.
Matt Yglesias’ piece that Trump’s economic agenda is a “second coming of the Bush administration,” is made more terrible by Steve Bannon’s brownshirts on Twitter who threaten the lives of women, blacks, Muslims, and Jews; the gaslighting by “Kellyanne Conartist”; not to mention a president whose only intimate relationship is to his Twitter account and its ability to distract us from the real enemy: he and his Empire.
Had there been a music video to describe the movement around Trump, it would not be will.i.am’s “Yes We Can” but “Run Like Hell” from Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” (no pun intended regarding the building of a “wall”).
Like President Snow in the Hunger Games, who played District 12 of Appalachia against the people of color in District 11, Trump has created an American Hunger Games by pitting the oppressed white working class against oppressed people of color. Meanwhile, his first seventeen cabinet picks have a combined wealth that is higher than one third of Americans (that’s over 110 million people). His past actions over Twitter, celebrating himself in the wake of mass shootings offers a portrait of a person who derives an incomprehensibly public and sick satisfaction in the face of murder. I shudder to think of the opportunistic “pleasure” he might derive were he to bait ISIS or some other fundamentalist group into a large scale attack proportionate to 9/11. After all, fear is to both Trump and to ISIS what paint was to Picasso.
Meanwhile, other countries are falling deeper into their own chaos with Brexit, white nationalism spreading across Europe, autocracy deepening in Russia, a once promising set of left-wing democracies in Latin America crumbling, China continuing to crack down on democracy, and fundamentalist terror not letting up in the Middle East, it feels as though the lights are all going out.
What felt like a promising Revolution of Interdependence just eight years ago now feels like we are being swallowed up by “VoldeTrump” and his Death Eaters, taking down all of Obama’s protection spells. Suddenly I am reminded of the lines in the seventh Harry Potter book, “The Ministry has fallen. Scrimgeur is dead. They are coming…” and I think of how this takeover begins in the wake of Dumbledore’s death.
Surrendering to Our Orphanhood
The emotional dependency that Luke felt towards Obi Wan and that so many of us feel towards Obama is echoed in how the orphan Harry Potter feels about Albus Dumbledore. When Harry is invited to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, he finds the first place that he feels is his home. Every Hogwarts student tells him that it is Dumbledore who has for decades made their magical school a refuge of safety where “help will always be given.” In losing Dumbledore, Harry comes closer to surrendering to the orphanhood that has haunted his entire life (and for we as readers who struggle with the existential feeling of orphanhood).
“And Harry saw very clearly…[that]…he must abandon forever the illusion he ought to have lost at the age of one, that the shelter of a parent’s arms meant that nothing could hurt him….and he was more alone than he had ever been before.” Perhaps this is a feeling that some can relate to in the wake of Trump’s ascendancy.
But in that moment of breaking into his orphanhood, just as in all stories of the Orphan and the Empire, Harry breaks open. At the end of the ceremony at Dumbledore’s funeral, Harry is approached by the Minister of Magic who asks him insensitive, politically motivated questions. Harry responds by explaining that the answers to those questions were private between he and Dumbledore. The Minister of Magic chides him, “Such loyalty is admirable of course—but Dumbledore is gone, Harry. He’s gone.” Conjuring from his heart something Dumbledore had said to Harry in his second year, he replies, “He will only be gone from the school when none here are loyal to him.” Confused, the Minister of Magic ends by saying, “I see you are—” and Harry interrupts, “Dumbledore’s man through and through…that’s right.”
As executive director of the Harry Potter Alliance from 2005 to 2015, it was incredible to watch millennials who made up the Harry Potter generation seem to be among the most “fired up and ready to go.” Obama’s belief in diversity was echoed by Albus Dumbledore who taught us that, “Differences of habit and language are nothing at all if our aims are identical and our hearts are open.” Obama’s opposition to torture echoed Dumbledore’s position against using dementors to torture prisoners in Azkaban. His belief that we can disagree without being disagreeable matched Dumbledore’s calm poise in the face of an enemy. His wish to wake America up to our health care and climate crisis matched Dumbledore’s wish to wake the world up to Voldemort’s return. And his belief in the power of the global citizen to define the face of America, matched a love affair that Harry Potter fans would one day have with Lin Manuel Miranda’s musical masterpiece retelling of our founders played by people of color with the revolutionary beats of hip hop.
And now it feels as though the Ministry has fallen, Obama is gone, and “VoldeTrump” is coming.
This is the moment in the story when we, the orphans want to run. But as the Lion King’s shaman monkey Rafika shows the self-exiled Simba, he must return to fight his uncle’s empire, for Mufasa is alive inside of him. Though many of us may want to retreat as Simba had, we do not have that luxury. This is the moment in the living myth where we must internalize the mentor that set us on this path as Luke does with Obi Wan.
This is the moment when we must remember that the spirit of the global citizen represented by Obama will only be gone so long as there are none here that are loyal to it. But we are loyal to it. For just as Harry, after his mentor’s death is Dumbledore’s man through and through, so too are we, after his presidency, Obama’s men and women through and through.
“More Powerful Than You Can Possibly Imagine”
And so, rather than retreat or rather than define ourselves simply as “No they can’t!” we shall allow Obama’s example not simply as a president but as an archetypal mentor to fill our hearts. Just as Luke, Simba, Harry, and all of our orphan heroes are introduced to their adventure by a mentor only to be reintroduced to their orphanhood at the loss of that mentor, so too are we faced with a need to internalize our Mufasa, our Obi-Wan, our Dumbledore: Barack Hussein Obama.
Now we must finally take seriously that WE are the ones as he asked us in his final address: “I’m asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change — but in yours.”
We must come to realize that there is no great and powerful Oz who will help us win back Kansas when the “ruby slippers” to do so have been at our feet the entire time.
But that requires our ability to see ourselves as part of a story where we can make the arc of history bend towards justice. And to be completely meta, given that the mentor Mufasa and the villain Darth Vader are voiced both by the same actor (James Earl Jones) I am reminded of Obama’s asking us for HOPE in “a belief in things not seen.” I believe that beyond what we can see, this Empire striking back is a temporary wrinkle in time; a dialectic reaction by empire to the progress we are about to make as a culture of orphan heroes.
With the threat of losing Obamacare, the Affordable Care Act may very well become greater and more powerful than the GOP could possibly imagine. And we can find hope in the brave men and women who are for the first time telling the story of how it saved their lives. We can look to the organizers of the Women’s March and realize that they have already become the ones we are waiting for. Just look at their poetry and see that the soaring rhetoric is now coming not simply from a man but from a movement. As they embody the words of the first major female presidential candidate: “women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights” and over 200,000 join their march, the spirit that we found in Obama is growing stronger within us.
All around us, a Force is awakening. Instead of one politician serving as a New Hope, in the wake of an Empire Striking Back, we are part of a Return of the Jedi, and all of us can discover the Force within each other as in the words of our mentor: “There is something happening in America.”
Eight years ago, we had the luxury to believe in an error. Instead of believing in Obama’s words that “We are the ones we have been waiting for,” many of us believed “HE is the one we’ve been waiting for.” While Obama’s post-election saw a serious drop off in engagement, Trump’s victory is seeing the opposite. A United States of Resistance is emerging quickly, but it’s different than the one during the Bush years. As the demand to say “yes we can” engage expands, opportunities for engagement are expanding as well. People are ready in a way I have never seen before to be the ones we have been waiting for.
We can join the tribes at Standing Rock, workers organizing for a living wage (and still winning post-Trump!), and the growing movement for renewable energy and climate justice. We can organize dinners to talk about times where we have been bullied and triumphed in a truly innovative movement called the Dinner Party.
In a nation whose racial wounds are now so visible, we can embrace Gandhi’s message that you cannot heal something if you cannot see it. We can thank Donald Trump for this opportunity to see and thus to heal the racial wounds that go back to our founding as a nation. We can stand with Congressman John Lewis and the living legacy of the Civil Rights movement by embracing Black Lives Matter as both leaders and allies. Religious leaders of all faiths are engaging to build sanctuary cities and the immigration reform movement is not simply prepared for defense but to move a message that will help us Define American.
We can learn from the guides coming out in pushing for a United States of Resistance. We can find cultural levers of power by joining a stunning movement to get museums to divest from fossil fuels, join the HPA’s Neville Fights Back and the Imagine Better Network (which I direct) with the Hamilton Alliance, the Hunger Games-inspired Odds In Our Favor (in concert with the HPA), a Star Wars inspired campaign to protect education, fans of the Avengers for climate justice, and a campaign to Save Santa’s Home.
This is not to mention the political efforts to win back local and state legislatures (and yes, that means that everyone should consider running). The possibilities of joining and creating resistance for our Revolution of Interdependence are endless.
When Donald Trump and his Empire feel frightening, we can remember that a beast is scariest when it is dying. From Sleeping Beauty to Aladdin, most Disney villains become as big as the entire sky mere moments before their defeat. And a good indicator that the Empire of Patriarchy is more fragile than it might appear: this time they sent us a cartoonish emperor with an aesthetic stuck in the 80s and who literally inspired Biff Tannen, the thuggish bully in Back to the Future whose plans always end with him covered in manure.
As Donald Trump becomes one of the most unpopular people to ever enter the office of the presidency, we can hold his supporters with love and solidarity, knowing that like us they are broken orphans tempted by empire, and we can draw them back into the Politics of Health rather than the Politics of Sickness.
How fitting that 2016 ended with the release of Rogue One, a prequel to the original Star Wars about how Princess Leia received the plans to destroy the Empire’s Death Star. A rebel general asks her what the brave, unseen heroes of the story we had just seen had given them, and Carrie Fisher turns around and utters: “Hope.”
As we lick our wounds in the wake of daunting defeat we can look to Obama’s own hopeful words in the wake of his primary defeat in 2008 in New Hampshire. They are a roadmap that we can now internalize as we truly become the ones that we have been waiting for:
We know the battle ahead will be long. But always remember that, no matter what obstacles stand in our way, nothing can stand in the way of the power of millions of voices calling for change. / We have been told we cannot do this by a chorus of cynics. And they will only grow louder and more dissonant in the weeks and months to come. / We’ve been asked to pause for a reality check. We’ve been warned against offering the people of this nation false hope. But in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope.
Yes we can and yes we will.
Special thanks to Paul Adler for contributing his thoughts to this piece.