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beyond the Kuiper Belt, over the sea

Archive for December, 2016

The End of the Third Age

Sunday, December 18th, 2016

I’m going to talk about the Lord of the Rings. Or maybe America, at this juncture in time. Tolkien, famously, hated allegory and rejected allegorical interpretations of his work. And yet, time and time again, people have found an allegorical reading of his Lord of the Rings inevitable and tempting. There are plenty of reads mapping the various stocks (hobbits, elves, dwarves, orcs, men, and more) to various nationalities or ethnicities. But I want to talk about an angle Max Gladstone mentioned recently.

Gladstone suggests that the One Ring can be read as representing the ideological and practical foundations of a militarized fascist state. The meeting point of Walter Benjamin’s aestheticization of politics with the military-industrial complex. I think this is an important read, but not just for what it says about the One Ring. If the One Ring is fascist ideology, what, then, does that mean for the rest of the pieces of the Lord of the Rings?

At the time of the Lord of the Rings, Middle-Earth is at an inflection point. The age of the elves is drawing to a close, and the lands of the elves are proving increasingly untenable. Three holdouts of peace, beauty, and wisdom remain: Rivendell, under the rule of Elrond, Lothlórien, under the rule of Galadriel, and Lindon, under the rule of Círdan. Each of these rulers had one of the Three, three great rings of power that enabled them to hold their realms together despite the changing of the world. But these rings, as all of the other rings of power, were subordinate to the One Ring. They derived their power, ultimately, from the One Ring, and could not survive its destruction.

Where does that leave us? The realms of elves, these havens of beauty and justice, were built on a foundation that was intimately entangled with the roots of what we will read as fascism. With the one, came the other. And, in pursuit of true justice and peace, the elves knew that their realms must cease to be.

I live in Boulder, Colorado. It is growing quickly and particularly attracting those with advanced degrees and technical knowledge. Its history as a hippie enclave and the general political preferences of the well-educated mean that this is a very left-leaning town: including the more conservative suburbs, registered voters are 41% Democratic and 20% Republican. In the aftermath of the election, many people here have been looking around and wondering what the rest of the country is like. We knew we lived in a bubble, but we didn’t think it was that bad. We are, perhaps, in our own Lothlórien. To dismantle the power of the One Ring, we must sacrifice our Lothlórien. In this case, that will require actively pursuing political, economic, and racial diversity that we lack here. In other cases, it will require other sorts of changes.

Ta-Nehisi Coates talks, in his book Between the World and Me, about what he calls “the dream”. I think that I refer to, in some degree, the same thing he does. The Dream is about something more than comfort, it’s about what we call making it, not just living a life that by the standards of most of human history is unimaginably safe, comfortable, and healthy, but doing better than those around you. No one would frame it that way, either explicitly or to themselves, but that is part of the power of the One Ring that we build our havens on: the off-loading of risk, pain, and bodily harm onto other people, in other places.1 Put another way is Gibson’s famous saying: “The future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

In the Lord of the Rings, the connection between destroying the One Ring and the loss of the elves’ power to sustain their realms is mystical, powered by magic and allowing action at a distance. In our material world, I think it is quite the opposite: I think that the work of destroying fascism intrinsically requires us to set aside our Lothlóriens, to recognize that however peaceful and plentiful they may seem, that peace is built on the bodies of others and on the same golden-age lies that breed fascism, white supremacy, and death. We must understand that a simple passive desire for harmony perpetuates segregation, and that we must therefore work proactively, struggle proactively, to make our communities more accessible and just and integrated. (What about those (white) liberals living in the most diverse cities in the USA? Yes, even your cities have this work to do. Segregation writ small is everywhere, and economic opportunities are very unevenly spread.) And this will not leave our world as it has been, and while there will be costs in comfort and familiarity, this is good, because this age has been, as all ages are, built on injustice.

  1. More generally, this is something capitalism excels at: accounting fraud. I don’t mean that in a legal sense, but rather in a holistic one. Everything we do in this world has costs, and the more we can put those costs on someone else’s books, the more we can lower our personal tally. There is no way out of this but pursuit of an ethos of holistic accounting, where nothing is dismissed as an “externality”, but rather accounted for. 

South Pacific

Thursday, December 8th, 2016

I grew up listening to a lot of Rodgers and Hammerstein; it was some of my mother’s favorite music, and so there was a lot of it in the house. More than any other musical of theirs, I listened to South Pacific.

Now, there are problems, of course, with that show. It’s a product of its time, and the original cast recording captures in amber some choices we might not make today. But for all that, the writing of the show, the message of it, is pointedly anti-racist. The two main plotlines each deal with different facets of specifically white, American racism, and different answers to it.

I’m listening to it again now, for a whole confluence of reasons, and really appreciating the message of it. Talking with Allie about it, she asked an interesting question: how were the negative responses to the anti-racism of it framed at the time? Where now people might likely say things like “PC gone too far!”, what did people say at the time to try to frame themselves as the “good guys” while opposing a message of anti-racism?

I ended up doing a little reading and research on this. It seems that the two pillars American white supremacy relied on at that time for its public defense were “decency” and “anti-communism”. When South Pacific was on tour, the Georgia legislature apparently introduced a bill outlawing entertainment containing “an underlying philosophy inspired by Moscow.”

How did people at the time undermine that? I don’t know. But I do know that Rodgers and Hammerstein stuck to their guns. They would not change one bit of the show to play better in the South. They turned out to be right not just morally, but artistically and economically: it ended up being one of their longest-running shows and eventually one of the canon of classic musicals, and “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught” (the most explicitly anti-racist number) is one of the most remembered songs from the show.

There are many fronts we are fighting on today. We’re not just fighting racism and a renewed Jim Crow, but the rise of an authoritarian kleptocracy. But on the cultural battlefront, we can and must make our art unapologetic, as good as we can, and, well, convincing.