I love an epic adventure in which a plucky hero combats an implacably evil foe—the dark in Dark is Rising, Voldemort in Harry Potter, the White Witch in Narnia, or Sauron in Lord of the Rings. Of course, it’s fun and easy to identify with hobbits, kids, and bold battlers for magical good like the wizard Gandalf, but it’s the evil of these stories that really drive the plot.
Storybook evil is so obviously bad that it’s urgently clear who you need to fight. In real life, often takes far less compelling forms, failing to catalyze heroic resistance against it. Worse, it may go unrecognized until too late. Evil is tricky like that.
The Black Lives Matter summer felt heroic and urgent. Millions leaned into the battle against police killings of people of color. For a shining moment, we seemed to be clear about the enemy and united in standing up. Now public support for Black Lives Matter has fallen to new lows, promised changes to policing have fizzled out, and killings continue at much the same rate as before. The durability of conventions in policing is the enemy, along with longstanding misconceptions about how best to make neighborhoods safe.
Here’s another example. Who would have guessed that an obvious lie about vote-rigging would actually lead to major structural changes that reduce access to the ballot box for people of color? I still don’t know who the heck these state legislators are around the country or how to combat their efforts to prevent people they don’t like from voting. A combination of self-serving legislators and a bizarre conspiracy theory is wreaking havoc with democracy—but again, there isn’t one clear-and-present villain we can easily stand against in order to stop voting rights from being stolen.
Greenhouse gas emissions are rising rapidly without any binding global agreement about how to stop ruining our fragile planet. But what is the face of this evil? Spineless politicians, lethargic consumers, and voters, business as usual? If only Sauron were behind it so we could ride into battle against him and defeat global warming once and for all.
Real evil doesn’t usually roll out like a story. It happens behind your back when you think the threat is elsewhere. And the fight against it doesn’t always feel heroic. It’s easy for people to go about their daily lives without giving much thought to the real evils of our time. It’s hard to sustain activism for long enough to force real changes through.
Maybe the problem is in how we tell these stories. Maybe we need a media that like some pointer dog of old isn’t afraid to direct our attention where it’s needed and keep directing us until the problem is fixed, not forgotten.
One way we can all be heroes is by showing up and voting—especially now as we consider the prospect of a pendulum swing at the midterm. Democrats haven’t had the chance to cement their platform into law yet, without a real majority in Washington to push legislation through. It’s not as romantic as a storybook battle but it’s equally urgent that we ordinary folk of the shire take up our pens and make our marks for good.
I sense a time for heroes is coming soon. The dark is rising and only we can stop it. And while millions of real heroes may remain unsung, they are no less heroes than a protagonist from some epic tale.
Alex Hiam is the author of Silent Lee and the Oxford Adventure and Silent Lee and the Adventure of the Side Door Key, available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle now.