Book 5 is probably the book in the series where we see Dumbledore the least. Near the end we find that this was intentional on his part; fearing that the connection between Harry and Voldemort could be used in a negative way, he purposefully distanced himself from Harry as a protective measure. And since we’re viewing events through the lens of Harry’s experience, we obviously don’t see very much of Dumbledore because of this.
Order of the Phoenix is possibly my favorite book in the series (I’m wavering right now… I need a good reread of all 7 before I can pick just one fave). You’ve got one of the scariest literary villains to ever grace the page (and no, I’m not talking about Voldemort. Hint: think pink), you’ve got issues like censorship and corruption in government, you’ve got these kids going through the emotional range of puberty, from teen angst (ALL CAPS ANYONE!?!?) to first love (one very “wet” smooch below the Nargle-infested mistletoe). Lots of great stuff, lots of stuff about which I’m sure Dumbledore would have had great wisdom to share, but we don’t get to see that.
I guess I’m most interested in what Dumbledore would do in the face of someone like Umbridge, someone who’s doing their utmost to take away civil liberties and to force a regime that promotes, among other things, media control, censorship, and prejudice.
And knowing Dumbledore like I feel we all do after reading 7 books, I know he’s opposed to these things and I feel like I should be able to write with some assurance that put in a situation where he was faced with injustices of this kind he would do something to stop it.
But if you look at Book 5, what do you see?
Umbridge enacts truly cruel and abusive punishments on Harry in detention.
Dumbledore does nothing to stop this.
Umbridge bans activities, social interaction, intellectual intercourse, and media consumption.
Dumbledore does nothing to stop this.
Umbridge fires a teacher for not meeting Ministry standards (granted, she was a crazy old bat, but still…)
Here we see Dumbledore take some action. While not in a position to restore her teaching post, he does very calmly but firmly insist that Trelawney can remain to live on Hogwarts grounds even though she will not teach. Also, Dumbledore asserts what little powers he has left at Hogwarts at this point by appointing Firenze the centaur to replace Trelawney in the post. Though I’m sure Dumbledore hired him for his skill at Divination, he must also have known that due to her ignorant prejudices, the appointment would seriously bother Umbridge. I see this as a subtle way of him standing up to her.
It isn’t until Chapter 27, though, when the “sneak” reveals Dumbledore’s Army and Fudge is set to have him arrested, that Dumbledore finally stands up. In fact, it’s impossible for me to read this scene without thinking Dumbledore’s pretty badass…
“You seem to be laboring under the delusion that I am going to—what is the phrase? ‘Come quietly.’ I am afraid I am not going to come quietly at all, Cornelius.”
Then he stuns them all with a flash of silver light, issues a few last words to McGonagall, and swoops off. By the end of the chapter I find myself agreeing wholeheartedly with the portrait of Phineas Nigellus: “You know, Minister, I disagree with Dumbledore on many counts…but you cannot deny he’s got style…”
Still, basically Dumbledore, when faced with Umbridge and the threat of the Ministry’s interference at Hogwarts, chose to do nothing until he was placed in a situation where he was forced to act.
So what is that supposed to say to us, exactly?
Well I guess we have to look at context. Dumbledore knew Fudge was looking for an excuse to get him out of the way, being that he was so convinced that Dumbledore was after his job and so afraid to believe that what Dumbledore and Harry were claiming was true. Dumbledore wanted to stay at Hogwarts, where he could ensure the safety of the students and keep a watchful (if distant) eye over Harry. If staying at Hogwarts meant jumping through the Ministry’s hoops, then I guess he decided to grin and bear it. Dumbledore chose to be cautious in the way he stood up to injustice. He considered his position and how he might continue to do the most good as opposed to recklessly diving into the fray.
Now… this contrasts very much with how Harry chose to deal with things. Harry stood up to Umbridge blatantly in classes, declaring before many witnesses that Voldemort was still around. He was outspoken in his contempt for her and her policies, and this cost him dearly. Not only did it leave those lovely stinging words on the back of his hand, but it also caused him and his friends to become Umbridge’s targets.
So which is the better course of action when facing this kind of threat: fly under the radar so that you can stay in a position where you can attempt to influence things for good in subtle ways, or stand up directly to the threat and face the consequences?
I don’t know. I think if Dumbledore had been in a different position, he may have acted more like Harry. But because so much hinged on him, and because he wanted to protect the students by maintaining a presence at Hogwarts for as long as possible, he was forced to take the other course of action.
I think this teaches us that there is more than one way to do the right thing. Sometimes you’re forced to move more slowly or quietly or indirectly than you might like. But it’s important to consider the final outcome and your role in bringing that about when you think about how to act and how to stand up to the people who are attempting to promote injustice in the world.