Hobbits and TEA Parties

A while back, John McCain drew the ire of the conservative rank-and-file when he said, “Then Democrats would have no choice but to pass a balanced budget amendment and reform entitlements, and the tea party hobbits could return to Middle-earth.” There’s a whole universe of metaphor in what he said, though I do not think he realized it.

The issue on which he was speaking at the time was the raising of the debt ceiling. The establishment seem to believe there is no alternative to doing this when we have – again -outspent our resources. The ordinary people, however, look at their own budgets and note that they do not simply take out another credit card every time they need money – and that if they did, the results long term would be disastrous. The TEA Party is particularly outspoken about this.

“Though I Do Not Know The Way.”

While McCain was blasted for his condescension toward the TEA party peeps – and he should have been – he was not wrong in calling the TEA party a bunch of hobbits. Look at the similarities: a group of small (in size for hobbits, in power for the TEA party) people set forth from their safe haven to achieve a goal that seems far beyond any of them. As they learn more about the goal and their role in it, the achievement of success seems further and further away. Yet, they persevere, in the light and in the dark, struggling to reach the end of the road and destroy the perverted power that threatens to corrupt them all.

Pretty clear analogy, if you ask me.

But the hobbits did not do it alone. They had a great deal of help from those IN power who recognized the importance of the Ring’s destruction. When Frodo accepts the burden of the ring in Rivendell, he says, “I will take the ring to Mordor, though I do not know the way.”  This was probably the most critical line in the whole book. If you follow Joseph Campbell’s storytelling theories, it was the moment when Frodo accepted the Call to Adventure, and was thus irrevocably committed to the hero’s role.

The TEA Party had a similar moment, on April 15, 2009 when they rallied in Capitol Mall and in cities across the country to show their commitment. While up to that point, they had been talking about changing Washington (since no one else was willing to do it), at that moment they announced themselves willing to change it. The problem was, of course, that they did not know the way.

That’s where the Washington insiders should have helped. In The Lord of the Rings, the role of the powerful was protecting the mission to destroy the ring, not directing it. They were to lead the way, but not dictate where that way led. Gandalf was the glue holding them together; he knew them all, and they all knew and trusted (more or less) him. Not until he fell in Moria was the party at any real risk of falling apart.

There was, however, no Gandalf in Washington to help the TEA Party. Instead, they found themselves beset on all sides from the very beginning. The most powerful Washington insiders either refused to involve themselves or made fun of TEA Party ideals, considering them unrealistic and unattainable. The people in power could have empowered the TEA partiers; instead they hindered them, making it even harder for these relatively powerless citizens to figure out which way to turn.

Yet the TEA Party persevered, to the point that they became a gadfly to the Washington insiders. They persevere yet, from quiet hidden places.

Power Corrupts

Whenever you have power you have temptation. In The Lord of the Rings, Boromir fell victim to that temptation (and I wonder if it was accidental that of all the Companions, he was the one most arguably a politician?), and his greed for more power, even though his intentions were good, drove Frodo to strike out on the path to Mordor by himself – even though he still did not know the way. He did not dare take the chance that others would be corrupted by the Ring.

Similarly, the TEA Party rejected overtures by many in power to “help” them – “help” really being a euphemism for “follow me and I’ll lead you to where I want you to go.” Most of their leaders are either hobbits themselves or those who have been somehow rejected in Washington: Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann, Marco Rubio. Like Frodo, they do not dare trust even those who seem to have their best interests in mind. By themselves, the TEA Party must travel to Mount Doom – and the way is long and dangerous and demoralizing.

The Role of Power

This does not mean that those who are in power can do nothing. In The Lord of the Rings, the role of the powerful was to distract and hold off the forces of evil while the hobbits made their way toward Mordor. For the hobbits to succeed, everyone had to work together to achieve the same goal.

We have Boromirs in the ranks of the powerful – those who would seize the same power we’re trying to destroy in order to pervert it to their own goals, but become corrupted in the process. We also have Aragorns – those who are willing to take terrible punishment and pain in order that the TEA Party succeed.

Ultimately, just as in The Lord of the Rings, whether or not the hobbits succeed depends on their level of faith. If we do not give up, if we maintain strength in the face of all the terrible things that come our way, we will eventually succeed.

***

So overall McCain was right, to a point: the TEA Party hobbits had set forth from their safe homes in Middle Earth to destroy the power that threatened everything they loved. However, he should have read to the end of the book: the hobbits did not return to the Shire until they were successful, and even then they had to fight to get their homes back. We will be doing the same. We are all hobbits, and we are strong enough.

Tolkien’s Heroes: Conservative to the Core

Sam Gamgee, the most ordinary of Tolkien’s major characters – and the most heroic, in the end.

One of the clearest differences between conservatives and liberals is how we envision our heroes. Conservatives love tough, enigmatic, good-upholding heroes, heroes that do not dither or worry about whether they are doing the right thing. They have internalized ethics. They are prepared for disaster, and whether they are ordinary guys like Todd Beamer or trained military men like Glen Doherty, they do not quail in the face of death.

Liberals, on the other hand, tend to take Everyman or even victims and elevate them to hero status regardless of real accomplishments, the main criteria being that they fit a certain story. Their heroes are literary characters like Garp or Randle McMurphy, or real people like Sandra Fluke or Ted Kennedy. One cannot imagine any of these figures “taking arms against a sea of troubles,” but it’s certainly conceivable for any one of them to stand at a podium and give a good speech.

This particular vision of heroism has led to cases like MSNBC commentator Chris Hayes stating he’s uncomfortable with calling American soldiers heroes. Why? Because soldiers take action, instead of talking action? Because soldiers act heroically as individuals, rather than standing at the front of a mob yelling, “Let’s get ’em!”? Because soldiers rise up out of complete anonymity, make a difference, and then disappear back into obscurity (unless they die)?

Conservatives believe heroes make a difference. Liberals see them as victims of fate, icons of an entire class of people just like them – symbols, not people.

Tolkien’s heroes are definitely in the conservative mold, as most popular literary heroes are. Some are traditional action heroes.  Thorin Oakenshield is a mighty king in his own right and a well-known warrior and leader. Gandalf roamed Middle-Earth for a couple of thousand years doing good and working toward the ends of the White Council. Strider/Aragorn has devoted his entire adult life to quietly keeping men and hobbits safe, even though they regard him with suspicion and distrust. (Doesn’t that remind you of the liberal attitude toward our men in uniform?)

The more interesting heroes, however, are those who were ordinary men and hobbits who rose to meet deadly challenges. The hobbits, of course, are first on that list, especially Frodo and Sam. All were raised in comfort, in a safe homeland protected from danger and evil by the Rangers, yet bravely persevered even when all seemed lost to do what needed doing. There were, however, many lesser characters throughout Tolkien’s works that fit this mold. Bard the Bowman of Esgaroth slew Smaug, then refused to rule over his fellow citizens when they asked him in favor of upholding the government as it stood. Eowyn, the niece of Theoden King of Rohan, refused to stay behind and instead traveled seemingly to her death, where she fulfilled a destiny she was not even aware of. Treebeard and his people are roused into a passion when they realize everything they love is threatened by Saruman, and they march into fire to stop him, some of them dying terribly.

In each case, Tolkien’s Everyman heroes follow a pattern: they are more or less ordinary people of great character; they face death or worse, and succeed; they refuse honors and accolades and instead pass back into ordinary life. These, it would seem, are the sorts of people Tolkien admires most. We need more heroes in real life like these.

Celebrating Tolkien’s Atavism

Fun fact: Tolkien’s opus Lord of the Rings was utterly rejected for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1961, at least partly because the Swedish translation was abysmal.

In honor of Hobbit Day (September 22), I’m devoting this week’s posts to J.R.R. Tolkien and his worldview and philosophy. While his works have been embraced by a leftist society, the truth is both he and his close friend C.S. Lewis were conservative lions. This was largely due to the atavism shared by both.

Consider this, from Peter Kreeft’s The Philosophy of Tolkien:

C. S. Lewis too was a conservative and called progressivism “the vulgarest of all vulgar errors, that of idolizing as the goddess History what manlier ages belaboured as the strumpet Fortune .

Progressivism is “chronological snobbery”, he wrote, “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood (Surprised by Joy, pp. 207—8).”

Progressivism is arrogant, for we know the past far better than we know the future: “We have no notion what stage in the journey we have reached. Are we in Act I or Act V? Are our present diseases those of childhood or senility?… A story is precisely the sort of thing that cannot be understood until you have heard the whole of it” (Christian Reflections, p. 106).

In simpler terms, progressivism ignores the past in favor of moving forward. It is as if we have no anchor in the past, but rather one in the future that is inexorably drawing us forward. It is backward thinking, oddly enough, in that it gets it exactly wrong: we know what happened from the past and can learn from it in order to change the future. Progressivism seeks to eradicate the past from our future by claiming that we can know the future but we cannot truly know the past.

Progressivism permeates the liberal movement today, from literature to politics and everything between. Political progressivism generally rejects the ways of the past as something that was created by old white men who owned slaves or ruled countries or in some other way dominated other people. Progressive religion rejects the hierarchy that has developed over decades or centuries or millenia in favor of promoting things that address the evils its proponents see before their eyes. The literary brother of progressivism, deconstructionism, rejects history and seeks reality in experience alone (which is silly, I think, since history is just collective experience.) Progressives, in short, tend to reject the idea that they are “standing on the shoulders of giants.” Instead, they try to encompass the whole of wisdom inside themselves.

Now, the giants weren’t always right. But history proves – over and over – that listening to her lessons is a valuable way to prevent missteps in the future. While repairing the evil of poverty by giving people money may address this moment’s issue, it does not prevent poverty in the future; only by teaching people self-motivation and self-respect through denying more than the bare basics can you help them overcome poverty themselves.

There is another reason Tolkien looked to history and had little but scorn for the progressive movement. Like many men his age, he’d had a difficult time during World War I; he stated himself that only one of his close friends was still alive in 1918. He saw firsthand the horrors of war exacerbated by technology and inhumanity. After such an experience, it is perhaps reasonable that he rejected the progressive’s hopes that technology and progress would eliminate all human problems in the future, looking instead to the past, a time that was perhaps difficult but that he’d survived, for his inspiration.

(It is particularly interesting to me to note that of the early 20th century speculative fiction writers, those who wrote science fiction tended to be progressives and believed that the future could be shaped into a perfect utopia, whereas those who wrote fantasy and horror looked to the past for their inspiration. Today’s science fiction is largely dominated by military science fiction, which is libertarian in tone, and fantasy is dominated by environmentalism, progressive in tone.  The story can be changed.)