Sometimes, it's just a cigar

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Analogy and superficiality

Sunny Hundal, who has a platform all his own in the centre ground of the commentariat approvingly re-tweeted this article into my timeline.

I’m sure Hundal endorsed the sentiments of the article; he’s never been averse to using a very broad brush to smear all those on the left he disagrees with.

I’m not sure if he read the article beyond the headline, or, if he did, if he thought for more than a nano-second about the central peg of its rhetorical framework. For the sake of depriving Rabbil Sikdar of clicks, here it is;

“Lord of the Rings is either beautiful or boring depending on your preference. I suspect if I had watched it today I would be hating it rather than loving it, seeing it as a woefully simplistic and borderline racist story. In Lord of the Rings, you know who the bad guys always are. Any intellectual leg-work on morality, motivations and causes for empathy are lost because the orcs are always going to be the bad ones.”

Now, you don’t have to claim Lord of the Rings isn’t racist to be able to see what’s wrong with that paragraph. Want an easy shot at it? Boromir. Impeccably noble, whiter than white, comes across throughout the story as morally flawed, and brings the expedition to the point of disaster with his lust for power and his desire for easy solutions. Of course he is redeemed at the end of his struggle; one of Tolkien’s devices is that, for all the human or humanoid figures, there is always the prospect of redemption.

Want another example? Gollum. Yes, the most horrible of characters. A sneak, an informant, a torturer of animals and a murderer, but Tolkien is at pains, both in the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, to emphasize that Gollum was a humanoid too, a humanoid who went bad, who chose the dark side even as the dark side overcame him. One of the key plot devices of the Hobbit and the LOTR trilogy is Bilbo’s refusal to kill Gollum, and the belief that he should be spared because he might repent. Of course, there’s a huge moral challenge in the consequences of those decisions (and Gandalf’s decision to imprison Saruman rather than kill him) but they are the classically liberal dilemmas about capital punishment and retribution.

There are plenty of other examples. The elves all too often come across as haughty, selfish, arrogant and self absorbed.  Dwarves are greedy opportunists, small minded, short sighted and incapable of seeing beyond their desire for gold. Denethor, through grief and grandiose views of his own importance, becomes a wicked tyrant and almost the murderer of his son.There are a plethora of minor characters who are greedy, venal, foolish, weak and morally corrupt. The pattern is set early in the tales – the Sackville-Bagginses are the exemplars of the morally deficient bourgeoisie. You can call that a lot of things; snobbish, sexist, racist, often tedious but it’s not shallow or two dimensional. If I could add one thought it’s this; all the wicked creatures, orcs, trolls, Nazgul are made by Sauron. This is in a book written a decade after the first stories about robots, yet there is something akin to middle class Luddism in Tolkien’s distaste at the industrialized world of Sauron. (Similar themes bubble through C S Lewis’s science fiction – Ransom is repelled by the workshop in Out of the Silent Planet, and the nexus of industrialization, progress and evil is the central theme of That Hideous Strength).

Far from being shallow, Lord of the Rings, within its racist framework, is a tale built round ideas of difficult choices, of morality and even a kind of accountability. The council at Rivendell sets out the story of the ring, and who was accountable for its escape into the world. There is a theme of reckoning as well as redemption, and amongst it all there are plenty of opportunities for lefty writers to dig out clickbait; if I could be bothered there’s a great article to be written entitled Tony Blair; ‘Saruman or Boromir?’

So what’s my point, besides ridiculing the shallow intellectual pretensions of Sunny Hundal’s clique? Ask Hundal or his friend Rabbil Sikdar about whether they’re opposed to fake news and they’ll tell you that of course they are. Fake rhetoric though, appears to be fair game.

There are sections of the left whose anti imperialism is still binary; their enemy’s enemy is still their friend. Sikdar is the direct reverse of that. His binary is still shaped by the Cold War, by the need to call out Russia and anyone else who opposes the atlantic hegemony that has so shaped Labour politics for the last fifty years. Just as the tabloids fell in love with the idea of JFK and Camelot, so the centre left in Britain fell in love with the idea of a democratic Atlantic bloc that, despite its errors and flaws, was still the world’s best hope against evil and totalitarianism.

We know where that leads; Baghdad, a beautiful and historic city is now Osgiliath.

Lazy rhetoric, shallow analogies drawn from cinema not the original literature and broad brush smears of anyone with whom you disagree do not make for an intelligent debate. I used to find some comfort in the old post trotskyite slogan of neither Washington nor Moscow, but the decline of the SWP into a cult that denies the crimes of its central committee members makes that a cliche too far. Maybe, for the new year, the ambitions should be a queer politics that, like a brief encounter in a corner of a sex club, always starts from first principles, irrespective of the force of desire or the sense of urgency.

I know, that’s a metaphor too far, perhaps, but I’ll defend it. No mater what the circumstances, no matter what the opportunity, you still go through the mental checklist of informed consent and power relationships. Politically, instead of relying on the old frameworks, more than ever, we need to go back to first principles before deciding which side we’re on, which line we take.

If that means reflecting more and researching more before banging out another clickbait article for your favourite internet platform, or recommending another shallow rant that matches your prejudices, the world might even be a better place.


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This entry was posted on December 29, 2017 by in Uncategorized.

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