Magic Stories but Small
NOVEMBER 30, 2023

The Opposition

Welcome to the flipside


Dear Friend, 

On a stage a table is set, and behind the table a chair, and on that chair is where I’m sitting. In front of me, the auditorium is full of people with no faces. They whistle, scream, and spit. They wag their fingers and throw their arms at me. They’re accusing me of something, but I don’t know what exactly. Still I sit there calmly. I think I even enjoy the moment. Then I lean toward the microphone. 

I’ve been having this vision for years now. I believe it’s a vision of my heroic self – and I know where it comes from. 

As a kid, I never dreamed to be a billionaire or king, and I always preferred to be the seer than the seen. I was never impressed by money, power, or popularity. I looked up not to the giant, but to the boy with the stone in his hand. My childhood heroes were knights driving at windmills, lone warriors closing in on castles, dissidents plotting the revolution in the underground.

There were many reasons for this, such as the fact that, as an Armenian, I was born into the historical position of the opposition. As an American, I had inherited the dream of rags-to-riches and the tale of the underdog who beats the odds. And as a Christian, I had accepted that the greatest hero of all time was actually an opposition figure. 

There was also an opposition figure closer to home. 

Born an Armenian-American like me, my father had definitively chosen the less glamorous side of his hyphen. He had become a high-power lawyer in Los Angeles – only to quit his job. Against the protests of his family, he had moved them to the Soviet Union – only to protest against the Soviet government. 

When that empire fell, my father had become independent Armenia’s first minister of foreign affairs – he had raised Armenia’s flag at the UN and developed diplomatic relations with most countries of the world – but only to resign and oppose his government. And he did the same with the government that followed. And the one after that. 

The party he founded, Heritage, was the only opposition party in parliament. 

What this meant for me was that I spent my childhood running away from KGB operatives, rather than being escorted by them – egging the Hummers of our post-soviet oligarchs, rather than riding in them – playing soccer with street kids, rather than snooker at the governmental dacha. My family was never invited to dinner at the presidential palace or even to the cocktail  parties of our own supposed friends, who were more practical than we were, in not burning bridges with the powerful and the rich. 

Instead we had hunger strikes. And during one of these – in a tent pitched in the heart of winter at Liberty Square – the thought did cross my mind that what my father was doing was ridiculous. On hunger strike myself, in a gesture of solidarity, my body was shivering – and my resolve along with it. My doubts were attacking me:

What was the meaning of our suffering? Were these weeks of starvation going to result in some kind of victory? Were we delusional?

There was, in fact, a real problem with being in the opposition – which is that when you grow used to this position, you actually begin to like it – you enjoy the song of your own complaint – you even make a cult out of suffering. In this way the hatred of the rich becomes the very spiritual glue that binds us to eternal poverty. And the righteousness of the powerless replaces the responsibility we have to actually take power – and deliver on our promises. 

Fortunately, the time to take responsibility had come. As he announced his campaign for re-election, the incumbent president had the backing of every branch of government, every last oligarch, and of course the more famous oligarchs of that northern nation to which we’d sold our gold mines and electricity plants. As my father entered the race, the polling organizations of the world maintained that he would not clear even 5%.

That season I followed my father across the country until his shoes broke down. In the faraway corners of the republic, ruled by the feudal lords loyal to the government, I detected the secret whispers and subtle smiles of frightened villagers. At nights I found my father’s hands bruised and bleeding from their impassioned grips. 

I began to observe what nobody else could – what no analyst could quantify – which was that my father’s decades in the opposition had given him some kind of special access to the people of this land. He was interacting with them in a manner at once mysterious, emotional, and mythic – just below the layer of life people typically refer to as “reality.”

The results were magic. The election commission gave my father 37%, officially. As for the unofficial number – the one excluding the votes of the coerced, the bribed, and the dead – the people could only guess at it. But they had glimpsed the flash of a great secret. They had seen all that “reality” flipped by the power of a single card. And they flooded the streets to demand the resignation of the government. 

Naturally the momentum was lost over time. The movement did not last. The deck flipped back. The flash of that great secret was covered up. 

But I, for one, never lost sight of that secret. And even as our fortunes were reversed that season, I never again doubted my role in the opposition. I never again craved false victories nor did I suffer too much from great defeats. Even the possibility of martyrdom no longer troubled me – if it was true martyrdom. As in those stories I loved as a kid, I understood that true martyrdom was not an end in itself, but rather the necessary means to the ultimate victory: the magical transformation of the man into hero – and the hero into savior. 

That is why I sit before you today, on this stage, leaning into the microphone. I feel calm and free. I believe I am even enjoying this moment. And more and more, I think, I will begin speaking honestly to you – I will tell you what I really think. But I don’t think you’re going to like it.  

I can see you so clearly – the faceless crowd I’ve worked so hard to win over – and yet you will be spitting and whistling and screaming. Your fingers will wag in the air. You will throw your arms at me to make some great accusation. 

I shall be looking forward to that. 



More Magic to Come

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