Culture, Politics, Race

There was some discussion about this essay on the movie The Return of the King, over at Uncle Jazzbeau’s Gallimaufrey. Before I comment on this discussion, here is the relevant section of K.A. Dilday’s essay:

We are living in times when the public rhetoric is medieval. Politicians and pundits invoke the words good and evil casually, as if the age of reason never happened. They speak proudly of killing, bullet-ridden corpses are triumphantly paraded. And like in Lord of the Rings, we define evil by demographics. The bloodline, the color of skin, the ethnic background or nationality makes someone immediately suspect.

Can one judge a film with the morals of politics? Is Lord of the Rings seen differently in the United States than it is in Europe where the majority of people were against the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq? A fable is a narration intended to enforce a useful truth.” When I look at the Lord of the Rings as the fable its author, J.R.R. Tolkien, intended it to be, I see a world clearly divided into races and regions of leader and followers, I see Calvinist pre-determinism and I see the vindication and veneration of empire unfolding in frame after frame. And I feel the quick burn of shame that I always feel when realizing that as a child I was taken in by a useful truth” that now seems odious.

First let me respond to a truly ignorant and idiotic statement in Douglas Murray’s response. I don’t usually waste my time on such drivel, but it becomes important for what I want to say later:

It is countries and races of people (usually of the same skin-color) that go to war, and to discuss and appreciate Tolkien we must talk about the issues he raises, not try and stop the argument with a that’s racist” broadside.

There are so many things wrong with this it is hard to know where to begin. For one thing, the concept of race does not apply to human beings. Differences within any specific ethnic groups are always much greater than the variation which exists between groups. Scientists have long agreed that this is true at the level of biology, and I would argue that it is true of most cultural traits as well. But Murray insists that in a large world, race, skin-color and nationality are, as they always have been, pretty good ways of describing people one will never know individually.”

Murray seems to feel that it is somehow useful for us to say The Irish are generous people.” But what could that possibly mean? Does it mean that the people who live in Ireland are generous people? Does it mean the people who have some kind of Irish phenotypic marker (a certain hair coloring or complexion) are generous people? Does it mean that people who adhere to the Irish Catholic religion are generous people? What does it imply about Irish Jews? Are they not generous people? Are they not Irish? Since it is now proven that most Icelandic people have Irish mitochondrial DNA (presumably because their ancestors raided Ireland for women), does that make the Icelandic people generous as well? How about Irish Americans (who were once not considered white)? How is this a good way of describing anything? (For more on this topic, see here and here.)

Secondly, his conflation of countries and races is very dangerous when he talks about war. Throughout the history of Europe, many wars were in fact fought with soldiers from countries other than the ones ostensibly at war. Some nations seemed to have specialized in hiring themselves out as mercenary armies to the highest bidder. In fact, it wasn’t until the modern era that nationalist projects and the rise of the modern nation state gave birth to the concept of there being some link between race and nation. By failing to understand the historical specificity of modern ethnic nationalism Murray naturalizes very questionable concepts. Even during World War One and Two, many colonial people died fighting in wars for other nations.

OK, I’ve wasted enough time on Murray’s ignorant remarks. Lets just assume that we are all educated enough to understand that nations are not the same thing as races, that races don’t apply to humans, and that cultural nationalism is a modern fiction whose shaky foundations have long since crumbled under objective scrutiny. If we understand this then we can immediately understand that starting with Tolkein, most modern fantasy and science fiction perpetuates the myth of cultural nationalism by turning each nation into a truly different species. While races don’t exist amongst humans, in the world of Star Trek, Star Wars, or the Lord of the Rings, Klingons, Trolls, Wookies, etc. conveniently naturalize ethnic stereotypes. Culture becomes biology. We can’t expect Klingons to change and become peaceful, because that is what they are. (And, of course, the cultural traits associated with Klingons changed with the waning of the Cold War, as Klingons appeared less Russian and more Asiatic.) It would be interesting to trace the emergence of such a racialized bestiary in the medieval fairy tails and legends from which Tolkein got his inspiration. But it is also important to realize that many of these tales were told orally for many years before being written down, and in the process Basques are replaced by Saracens in the Song of Roland, and I’m sure many other changes took place, not unlike what has happened to Klingons in Star Trek.

This gets me to a comment left by Language Hat on Uncle Jazzbeau’s Gallimaufrey original post:

Artists are not meant to be moralists.

Surely there are artists who do not mean to be moralists — but there are just as many who do. For much of European history, art was about Christian morality if it was about anything. The amoralism of modern artists must be understood as a historically specific phenomenon, and explained in terms of the changing nature of morality itself. And nobody would deny the political nature of some great works of art, such as Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will.

But I deliberately misunderstand Language Hat. I believe he is stating that it is not appropriate to use the moral standards of one era to judge the art of another. I don’t fully agree with this point (at the very least it is important to understand the moral universe in which a work of art was meant to be understood), but I’ll concede it in order to get to what I think is the more important point: how do we deal with the moral standards of a previous era when recreating that work in our own?

Surly, there are some works we would not wish to recreate. Would anyone care for a remake of The Birth of a Nation? Other works can clearly withstand reinterpretation. Shakespeare has been translated into almost every language in the world, and performed in countless arrangements without loosing his luster. When Orson Wells decided to set Macbeth in the Caribbean and use an entirely African American cast, it probably made the original language all the more richly appreciated. While many orthodox performances of Shakespeare (even if they digress by casting women in the female roles) are able to suck the life out of the bard’s work.

As much as I liked Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, I felt that the elves were turned from somewhat arrogant and inhuman creatures into Scandinavians. Jackson had no problem adding a sappy love story that wasn’t in the original book, but couldn’t see his way into expanding middle earth’s human population to include non whites. Although I did notice that the evil humans looked remarkably darker … While I agree with Language Hat that art should not be reduced to politics, it seems to be that the best art is able to find creative means of expression that is not limited by the moral and political universe of its time. Peter Jackson’s lack of imagination is unfortunate and tarnished an otherwise enjoyable film.