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.

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.)

Honoring Our Heroes

Please bear with me as I step away from literature for a moment, this one day.

It is, once again, 9/11. We have routed the Taliban, who helped evil men plan and perpetrate the murder of 3,000 innocents. Al Qaeda has been dispersed, though like any infection each living cell has become the center of a new cancer. We have seen the death of Osama bin Laden, the sick and twisted man who masterminded Al Qaeda. We are winning this war, though others may follow behind.

We have also seen the deaths of over 6,500 American servicemen and women, more than half of whom were in their 20s – young adults leaving behind families and the unfulfilled potential of a good life. One of those young men was under my brother’s command in Afghanistan, killed by an IED when an inexperienced officer took their vehicle through the wrong area. Another was a friend’s brother, a young officer shot by an Iraqi sniper when he stepped outside the safety of his tank. My husband and my oldest son have both been deployed to the Middle East multiple times in the last ten years. Millions of Americans have good reason to remember 9/11, as they have been directly and indirectly affected by that day and its lengthy aftermath.

You will hear media talking heads try to define these young warriors as victims: victims of failed policies, mistaken choices, terrorists. They are not victims. Not a single one is a victim. They are all heroes, the people in our country who stepped forward to say NO! Not another American will be involuntarily lost to savagery.

Take a moment today to remember the innocent victims lost on 9/11. Their fates were not their choice, and the monsters who stole their futures are surely being punished by a fair God.

Then take a second, separate moment to celebrate the courage and sacrifice made by our heroes, the 6,500 and more who gave their lives for our freedom, the millions who served and were prepared to make that sacrifice, and the supportive families these millions left behind. Our soldiers are heroes, not victims.

Let’s never, never forget that.

Storytelling and the Empty Chair

Commenters at all levels of sophistication have criticized Clint Eastwood’s “empty chair” speech. I confess to being confused at their confusion, if in fact that confusion is legitimate and not feigned. Eastwood was drawing on a long history of stage symbolism; the empty chair is quite common on stage and in ceremony as a symbol of something that is absent.

In Jewish tradition, for instance, an empty chair is used to represent loss or sorrow, the guest who is not present at the table. When the Samuel Beckett play “Waiting for Godot” is staged, directors often use empty chairs to represent those who should be present but who are absent, or to represent Godot, who of course never shows up. Detective dramas use empty chairs to symbolize the murder victim, and television and movie dramas of all sorts use them to symbolize absent loved ones: children, spouses, and others. Clint Eastwood is a master of dramatic art; certainly he was not ignorant of the history of this piece of stagecraft.

Of course, as an actor, Mr. Eastwood may have had a different empty chair in mind: the theater seat that should be filled by a listening and engaged person but is instead conspicuously empty. What better metaphor is there for Obama’s complete disengagement with most voters? At least this way, Eastwood gained an audience (I use the term intentionally) with the President.

(For that matter, Obama may be a bit concerned about empty chairs in theatrical settings himself – the ones that loom in his nightmares at his DNC acceptance speech, haunting him with the cricket-chirp of an empty stadium. An empty chair talking to empty seats – I like the image!)

Symbols have power. It is easy to make fun of them,, particularly the simplest ones, as the liberal left is furiously doing. But symbols are more than “just words,” and they are more powerful than any thousand words Obama has ever spoken. A symbol used properly is a conduit directly to the human soul. The best symbols are universal, easily interpreted within a story by just about anyone even when the audience is not intending to interpret at all. Judging by the empty-chair meme he seems to have initiated, I think Mr. Eastwood’s symbol may have touched quite a few people right where it counts.

Now a writing note: writers, consider how powerful Eastwood’s thirteen or so minutes of addressing an empty chair has been to the story surrounding the election. He used simple words, simple ideas, a shtick that has been around since before Vaudeville reigned – and he created what may be an immortal moment, a point upon which the future of our country may hinge. (For I think Eastwood’s empty-chair speech may be identified as that moment when Obama most clearly began losing this election.) The power of clear communication, drama, and a storyline, all displayed for us in a brief free-form performance by a master of the storytelling art: this is a gift on many levels we should appreciate, examine, and learn from.

Book Review: Michael Isenberg’s Full Asylum


It’s hard to know quite what to say about this book. Was it good? No, it was outstanding. What genre is it? Um, comedy/suspense/satire/men’s action/political commentary, if you must nail me down. Oh, and romance. And, as we Southerners call it, rasslin’, the performance-art version of wrestling. Michael Isenberg’s Full Asylum is, like many independent books, in a genre of its own and must be read to be appreciated.

Gimbel O’Hare is Everyman, a brilliant programmer and out-of-the-box thinker who has been trapped by the accident of his sex in the slow lane of corporate advancement. He’s also, like most men, thoroughly confused by women, particularly women in this day of Third Wave Feminism. Because of an unfortunate comment referencing his obsession, the debonair secret-agent character John Dunn, he finds himself inveigled in a sexual harassment case at work that nearly costs his job. Because he goes over the head of his brown-nosing Peter Principle boss to suggest a cost-saving measure that would eliminate his entire department, he finds himself in an escalating battle to keep his job, his sanity, and his life.

I don’t want to say too much more about the book because the surprises Isenberg tosses out left and right are just so much fun. I’m a sucker for eccentric characters, and there are some real gems in this book, particularly Brownie, the old hippie with a surprising love for dangerous technological tinkering, and Cheri Tarte, an absolutely priceless and gorgeous caricature of an Amazonian wrestler-chick with a very sharp mind. Some of the story structure is modern epistolarian, including excerpts of television, movies, and notes to move the plot forward, and these parallel tales enhance the main story very nicely. Perhaps the best thing I can say about this story is there’s not one moment in the book that I can recall skipping over or getting distracted. It’s a rather long novel, and I literally could not put it down.

The single flaw was the tendency of some characters for, to use a TV Tropes concept, author filibuster.  Isenberg does it rarely, and it’s always from the mouth of Cheri or O’Hare, but it did throw me out of the story a bit. The mini-lecture was always conservative libertarian in nature, so I glossed over them, but a liberal might have a different opinion! This flaw was more than made up for, however, by the plot content before and after each; the lectures seemed almost to be a means to slow a plot down that was careening nearly out of control.

I think every single conservative and libertarian out there with a shred of humor would love this book. If you love James Bond, Kurt Vonnegut, and Douglas Adams and would love to see the three blended together in a slightly-dystopian, completely-hilarious book, you MUST read Full Asylum. I’m not kidding – get it.

(Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book but no other compensation.)

Michael Isenberg Asks, “Who Is Henry Galt?”

Over on his Full Asylum website, author Michael Isenberg posted an interesting review of Garet Garrett’s The Driver, published in 1922. He does a great job of linking the history recounted in this book with what we can all see happening around us today. An excerpt:

The Driver begins amid the economic Panic of 1893. While everyone else is convinced the country is bankrupt, Wall Street speculator Henry Galt is certain it’s rich. He takes advantage of the crisis to buy up shares of the Great Midwestern Railroad at bargain prices. Making himself chairman, he cuts costs, reforms a corrupt procurement system, and takes over other railroads. The resulting powerhouse makes Galt spectacularly wealthy and breathes new life into the American economy. But the pugnacious Galt makes enemies along the way. Unable to defeat him on the level playing field of the market, they turn to the government to take him down.

Sounds familiar, no? Go read it – he makes some very interesting points. History does repeat itself, but it’s amazing how plain this truism is in the circumstances we find ourselves in today.

Michael Isenberg is the author of  Full Asylum, a novel about politics, freedom, and hospital gowns. Check it out on Amazon.com.