Opening a Can of Eels: The Far-Right and Freedom of Speech [New Zealand Politics]

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Oh god. It’s still going: the media furore over Auckland Council and a couple of far-right Canadian Youtube figures. It was something I was honestly hoping would go away, but it hasn’t. If anything, it’s gone from being a mere can of worms to a veritable can of eels – it has brought out the worst in a certain brand of well-meaning idiot, while allowing some very slimy people to claim the moral high-ground. As such, I might as well toss in my few cents’ worth, safe in the knowledge that I’m not going to prolong this nonsense beyond its natural life – other people have already done (and are doing) that. Insofar as any good has come out of this sorry mess, it has held a mirror up to the current state of the New Zealand Left – and as a Leftist myself, I do not like what I see.

The background, together with the current state of play, is here. Basically, a couple of far-right Canadians were booked for a speaking engagement at a council venue up in Auckland. A council agency subsequently decided to cancel the booking on security grounds, and Auckland mayor, Phil Goff, then got in on the act on Twitter, stating that “venues shouldn’t be used to stir up ethnic or religious tensions.” The New Zealand Federation of Islam Associations is trying to get Wellington to block one of the figures from entering New Zealand, while a Free Speech Coalition is trying to get the courts to rule on the legitimacy of the cancellation. The matter is still on-going.

Now there are two dimensions to this: legal and moral. Legally, the question is whether the council decision followed correct process. Suffice to say, if it’d had just been left at “security concerns”, none of this would have blown up. It was Goff’s ill-advised tweet that makes it look like the cancellation was politically motivated, specifically that it was based off the pair’s expressed opinions – which is problematic, since New Zealand law places a quite high priority on freedom of expression. Public decision-makers are, of course, bound by the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 – and Goff is just such a decision-maker (ironically, he was part of the Government that passed the Act, nearly three decades ago).

But the legal dimension is being worked out. Today, I am more interested in the moral dimension, and how New Zealand has been reacting to the affair.

Please note – I am not a fan of either figure. “Slimeballs” would be too nice a term for them, and having actually suffered through some of their Youtube videos, I can call them slimeballs with a degree of authority. I also do not believe that they have any inherent right to provision of a platform. But I am uncomfortable with the notion that one can be prevented from commercially booking a venue on the basis of one’s opinions (however repugnant those opinions might be), and I am sure as hell uncomfortable with the notion that such a council decision is in any way progressive, either in intent or in effect.

In short, I believe Freedom of Speech applies to pond scum as much as it does anyone else.

Now, Freedom of Speech is obviously not absolute. Fire in a crowded theatre, and all that. I find the idea of tobacco advertising outside schools pretty repugnant too. The question is whether these speakers are crossing the line… and I cannot see it here. Maybe if they were also orchestrating some parade of blackshirted thugs, a la Oswald Mosley. But they’re not. They’re not forcing anyone to listen to them (thank goodness). It’s a speaking engagement, and if some nitwits want to pay to listen to them, that is the nitwits’ business, not mine.

So that’s my opinion on the central issue (we’ll get to the question of how to combat such people later). But what are others saying…

Well, as a taster, here’s an opinion piece written today. It makes me cringe. It really does – all the more so, since this is a self-identified journalist. For instance:

This is the key to free speech: when you feel the urge to scream your thoughts to the world, you should really think, “Is this helping anyone?”

Sometimes people say unhelpful things. Sometimes people say stupid things. Sometimes people say cruel and vicious things. It’s not nice. Sometimes it’s horrible. But here’s the thing: if you go round screaming at ignorant old bigots to shut up (rather than counter-acting them with your own speech), what’s to stop them screaming right back at you, on the same basis? You don’t think they’re helping. Fair enough. But they think much the same about you… and some of us are familiar enough with history to know where that leads, even in New Zealand.

Then, a week ago, there was this. Note that The Standard is one of the most prominent left-leaning New Zealand political sites – if not the most prominent. One obviously encounters a variety of different commentators, but it is abundantly clear we are not dealing with a fringe view.

The particular piece I cite is directed against Chris Trotter – a major figure of the New Zealand online Left who has actually joined the aforementioned Free Speech Coalition. Now I don’t agree with everything Trotter says on this subject (we’ll get to that), but I agree with the broad thrust of what he’s saying. What does The Standard piece offer by way of reply?

It shouldn’t be a surprise that the far right in NZ would want to press the flesh of the two Canadian ubermensches, however, it’s shameful and ignorant for the old white man Chris Trotter to fall for this blackshirted bollocks.

I really hate it when one’s age, skin colour, and gender is somehow treated as a salient point when considering the merits of one’s opinions.

There never has been free speech. Even its artsy fartsy cousin, freedom of expression, is a mirage. Real freedom is not what you say, it’s how you live. And we do not live free lives. The world is not free from poverty, is not free from climate change, is not free from fear. Most importantly, we are not free of capitalism, which profits handsomely from our enslavement.

And how the hell does the commentator think we are going to change anything without the right of individuals to speak their minds? Again, the most terrifying restrictions on Freedom of Speech ever seen in this country – Sid Holland’s waterfront regulations in 1951 – were put in place explicitly to crush a working class movement. This issue cuts both ways, mate.

Yeah, nah.  There is always consequence. Chat shit, get banged, as the footballing philosopher Jamie Vardy put it.

Lets be clear; fascism is not an intellectual exercise. It’s the epitome of evil, a cancer on humanity. My grandparents didn’t debate Nazis, they shot them.

My grandfather fought them too. But here’s the thing – he didn’t go through six years of hell, just so western society would end up adopting the underlying principles of fascism – the idea that violence against the evil other is the only way of settling things. Has our commentator ever heard of Nietzsche’s old line about fighting monsters?

OK. Perhaps this is low-hanging fruit. Sometimes people just want to rant, without any consideration of deeper issues. Fair enough. That was why I even started talking about politics on this blog – not because I had any interest in persuading anyone (far from it. Your opinion is none of my business), but because sometimes a bit of yelling at the screen after a long day can be therapeutic. But let’s look at someone who really should know better, another Standard post, this time by frequent commentator, MickySavage.

There is another aspect to what was happening, do we allow Ms Southern to even come into the country.  I believe that our government is under no obligation to do so.  But using I/S’s formulation of the test, are we obliged to allow Ms Southern to speak to us?

I wrote in an earlier post about the divide between legality and morality, and the mistakes one makes when one tries to judge legality by morality. Well, MickySavage is doing the opposite. He’s trying to prop up moral arguments by appeals to legality – he starts off quoting Idiot/Savant (who is actually correct on this matter, incidentally), and then discusses whether these Far-Right figures would actually need to incite a riot in order to be banned from the country. Reading between the lines, it’s quite clear MickySavage has decided he wants to stop these two on political grounds, so is hunting around for a legal figleaf to justify what he already wants to do.

Also, note the above quote: MickySavage is framing it in terms of coercion – the idea that a government has to be under some formal obligation in order to respect one’s Freedom of Speech. I would have thought that the onus would go the other way – namely that someone can say what they like, and come to New Zealand if they like, except when there is good reason to curtail those rights. And, frankly, MickySavage does not provide a good reason. No-one is tying him up, sitting him in a chair, and forcing him to watch them speak, a la Alex in A Clockwork Orange.

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Meanwhile, despite MickySavage’s claims, Southern is not about to incite disorder to the level required in Brooker v. Police, her business interests are irrelevant, and he is forgetting that the Human Rights Act 1993 is interpreted through the lens of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990. “Exciting hostility” is a very high bar to jump here.

Thus far, I have devoted a fair bit of space to disagreeing with people on a matter of principle. I could, if I wanted, further note that the entire basis of New Zealand’s archaic Blasphemy Law (the one that everyone wants to repeal, especially the Left) is to prevent public disorder. Blasphemous Libel as it has stood for over a hundred years is not about protecting God – it’s actually a Hate Speech Law, 1890s-style – and there is something genuinely perverse about repealing something like this, only to bring it back via the back door. There is no right to not be offended. But enough of that. Quite apart from principles, I also happen to believe that my colleagues on the Left are making a massive tactical error here.

With the Left focused on banning the enemy, rather than combating them, these far-right slimeballs are able to shift the goalposts. Rather than discussing how idiotic the far-right’s views actually are, the framing of the debate becomes about whether people have the right to hold idiotic views. The extra abstraction obscures the toxicity – it is the difference between arguing with someone who believes the Moon is made of green cheese (which everyone finds laughable), and arguing whether someone has the right to believe that the Moon is made of green cheese (which makes people start thinking about lovely woolly ‘rights’, and that famous Voltaire quote). Never mind that you’re still left arguing with… someone who believes the Moon is made of green cheese.

Moreover, by acting in this manner, the Left allows the Far-Right to paint it as being unable to argue. That its arguments are so weak, it has no choice but to shout, and scream, and talk about banning people, or about silencing them. It’s a propaganda tool, and, well, certain slimeballs just got a whole heap of ammunition as a result of this sorry episode. No prizes for guessing what they’re going to do with that ammunition, and so the cycle continues.

This, indeed, is the point Chris Trotter has made all along. That if New Zealand is indeed a tolerant, free society, the best way to combat this pair of nutters is to let them come, and then defeat them. Actually get them out of their intellectual depth, out of their comfort zone, confront them with people whose knowledge and expertise is greater than theirs. By abandoning the fight, we lose something of our own Enlightenment values.

It’s a nice idea in theory, but I would add one caveat – Trotter is kidding himself if he thinks these two would ever subject themselves to an honest debate. The free marketplace of ideas has always hinged on the power of rhetoric, far more than the power of facts (not least because something can be a fact and yet utterly irrelevant to any wider point, except as a sort of vague dog-whistle). You are already dealing with people who will gladly move the intellectual goalposts to distract from the inherent weakness of their own position – expecting anything other than smoke and mirrors is a futile endeavour. If one is going the Trotter route, one therefore needs people who know the rhetorical game-plan in advance, not some poor hapless academic-types, who will spend all their time countering falsehoods, rather than making arguments of their own.

So if banning is a bad idea, both in terms of principle and in terms of practice, and engaging such people in an honest debate is to cast pearls before swine, what does one do? Well, there is always the peaceful protest option – especially because the protesters would significantly outnumber the audience. There is also the route of satire – one does not need to actually debate someone to make them look incredibly silly. As coincidence would have it, I re-watched Mel Brooks’ film The Producers (1967) the other day. It seemed strangely topical, and indeed it was.

Recall that the plot of the film revolves around our protagonists putting on a deliberately bad Broadway show – which accidentally turns into a runaway success because people find Springtime for Hitler funny, rather than offensive. Well, there is a particularly powerful moment when the Nazi who wrote the original play tries to interrupt proceedings by arguing that the production is horrible and unrealistic, and a betrayal of his true intent – whereupon the audience laugh at him too, because they think he is “just part of the show”. It doesn’t matter that he’s up on stage, ranting about his beloved Reich – no-one takes him remotely seriously, and his words have zero effect. It’s the Far-Right defeated by being made to look ridiculous – and fifty years on, it’s a lesson I wish the Left would re-learn.

***

That turned out longer than I expected. As I mentioned at the start, this entire topic is something I wish would just go away – we’ve got more important things to worry about than these two slimeballs, and I, for one, have better things to do on a Thursday evening than defending the freedom of speech of racist arseholes. It’s just thoroughly frustrating to read the local discourse, all the more so because it has inadvertently revealed something dark about so many people who should know better. There is no easy way to deal with the Far-Right once they reach a critical mass of media coverage, but New Zealand as a society sure as hell needs to pick up its game.

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Judging ‘Judging the Judges’

The Common Law world can be rather opaque. Strange rituals, handed down over centuries – it’s like something out of a Mervyn Peake novel, only in real-life and with fewer owls. To an outsider, then, it may appear to have the same problems as Gormenghast (the fictional society, not the novel)… a world that has become so lost in its own minutiae of tradition that it has lost any exterior meaning, and has come adrift from the moorings of common sense and morality.

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As fun as the idea is, it actually isn’t true. Mostly. Which is why today I thought I’d offer some thoughts on a recent online critique of the judiciary: Judging the Judges, by Brianna Rennix and Oren Nimni.

In a nutshell, this is the sort of article that can only be written by someone with no idea of what they are talking about – yet who nevertheless feels qualified to pontificate on that very subject. I am sure we have all done this at some point in our lives (I do it all the time), but sometimes we find ourselves on the other side. Sometimes we are the ones who are left shaking our heads at well-meaning cluelessness. Oh well.

To take this as an example:

The fact that legal arguments are usually completely divorced from reality is partially a function of the law itself, and not solely the judges. That said, nothing prevents judges from acting like rational, normal people instead of playing games with people’s lives and making lawyers jump through hoops. Yet they often play these games, especially at the Supreme Court. They will straight-facedly ask lawyers, for the sake of argument,to justify things that are clearly insane.

Let’s take an example from a recent Supreme Court case: a U.S. border guard, standing on the U.S. side of the U.S.-Mexico border, shot and killed a child who was on the Mexican side of the border. The lawyer for the child’s family, in attempting to sue the border agent, argued that U.S. officials, when they kill people from inside the U.S., should be held liable. Now, it’s already ridiculous that the lawyer’s liability argument had to hinge on which side of the border the officer happened to be standing on, and not on the simple fact that a child was murdered and the person who killed him should obviously be responsible for compensating the family (I rest my case!). But it gets nuttier. The Court asked the attorney (paraphrasing), “Well, what about drone pilots who sit in Nevada and murder people in Pakistan? Are you saying we should hold them liable?” The lawyer—knowing that no court thinks drone pilots are liable for anything, knowing that if he says, “yes, they should also be liable” his client’s case will be lost—felt forced to make an argument that of course drone pilots are different, for… for some reason. In reality, of course, there is no substantive difference between a drone pilot who murders people from inside the U.S. and a border guard who murders people from inside the U.S. The lawyer knew this, and the Court likely knew it too. Yet the Court forced the lawyer to go through the exercise of attempting to draw an insincere distinction, making the lawyer look silly and further distancing the Court from the actual important questions.

Where to begin…

The writers confuse legality (with which a court concerns itself) with morality (which it doesn’t). We are not talking moral judgements here – probably for the best, since most people would be uncomfortable with the criminalisation of adultery. But the article does not understand this, considering it self-evidently insane that the court isn’t adopting a “common sense solution” to the problem. In reality, the question of which side of the border the guard was standing on is actually of significant importance. Laws differ between countries and states – whose law applies here? If one does not have the jurisdiction to make a decision… one can’t very well make it, which is why the matter needs to be resolved first.

The supposedly “even nuttier” example shows an even deeper misunderstanding of what is taking place. What you are seeing there is the judge making argument by analogy – the idea that similar acts ought to meet with similar treatments. If X is similar to Y, and we treat X in a particular way, we ought to treat Y in the same fashion. Therefore, if someone believes a border guard and a drone pilot ought to be treated differently (or claims to believe it), they need to justify why the guard and the pilot are in different situations. Far from being a silly intellectual hoop, this is really the bedrock of legal reasoning, without which one merely has raw and arbitrary exercises of social power.

This in turn gets to the heart of the problem with the article. The authors treat judges as people who are tasked with delivering morally preferable outcomes (morally preferable for the authors anyway). They treat legal culture as something that gets in the way. In reality, this culture is a feature, not a bug – consistency and precedent is a conscious attempt to limit power, to make power predictable. No-one wants something as important as prison punishments, or who is liable in a contract situation, to hinge on an individual’s whim – so there’s an entire system built around the judiciary to prevent that happening. Sometimes that results in morally questionable stuff happening, but in those circumstances, the onus is really on the legislature to fix things.

And this is where things get a bit tricky.

You see, I live in New Zealand. New Zealand has a completely sovereign Parliament, no written constitution, and no system of judicially reviewing statutes. Add in the unicameral nature of our Parliament, and no overriding external bodies like the European Union, and you have a monstrously powerful legislature. This is the Western World’s Elective Dictatorship, par excellence, where the only limits on power are political, not legal. Quite apart from the quirks of such a system (most of which were thoroughly explored during the abuses of the 1975-1993 era), laws can be updated and changed very quickly.

The situation is very different in the United States, which is what the article focuses on. Yes, it too is a Common Law country, but in contrast to New Zealand, it has a vast array of checks and balances. Which, amongst other things, means that amending the US Constitution is extremely hard, which in turn means that the United States is left running a twenty-first century society off an eighteenth century document. With legislatures being unwilling or unable to move, it has therefore fallen on judges to try and plug the gaps, and keep the law up to date. However, judges aren’t well-equipped to do this – as I have mentioned above, the very structure of the Common Law system is about constraining arbitrary power via precedent. Judges’ bread and butter is consistency, not change, and even if they are changing the law, they rarely let themselves admit it.

So not only does the article completely misunderstand what judges try to achieve (lawful outcomes, not moral ones), and how they achieve it (recognising and adhering to consistent precedent), but the article also blames American judges for having to do a job they were never supposed to do. Whatever criticisms one can make of judges – and the article occasionally stumbles across a valid one or two, more by good luck than good management – Rennix and Nimni’s argument is simply too structurally flawed to take seriously.

Tolkienian Speculative Guessing II: All Shall Love Me and Despair

In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair!

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Following on from my earlier post, imagining the Ringwraiths as rational actors during the Weathertop confrontation, someone posited another Tolkienian “what if:”

How would the story have turned out if Galadriel had accepted the Ring from Frodo?

As someone with a fondness for both Tolkien and Alternate History, I can hardly turn up my nose at Tolkienian Alternate History. This is the sort of messy, unanswerable question I adore. So let’s take a shot.

Before we start, I think it necessary to consider a couple of questions about how Middle-earth operates, and about Galadriel’s motivations. Tolkien himself obligingly provides us with some help, in the form of a letter from September 1963:

Of the others only Gandalf might be expected to master [Sauron], being an emissary of the Powers and a creature of the same order, an immortal spirit taking a visible physical form. In the ‘Mirror of Galadriel’, 1381, it appears that Galadriel conceived of herself as capable of wielding the Ring and supplanting the Dark Lord. If so, so also were the other guardians of the Three, especially Elrond. But this is another matter. It was part of the essential deceit of the Ring to fill minds with imaginations of supreme power. But this the Great had well considered and had rejected, as is seen in Elrond’s words at the Council. Galadriel’s rejection of the temptation was founded upon previous thought and resolve. In any case Elrond or Galadriel would have proceeded in the policy now adopted by Sauron: they would have built up an empire with great and absolutely subservient generals and armies and engines of war, until they could challenge Sauron and destroy him by force. Confrontation of Sauron alone, unaided, self to self was not contemplated. 

Emphasis mine. The basic points are twofold:

(i) The Ring tricks people into imagining they are more powerful than they really are (an extreme example is Sam Gamgee fantasising about turning Mordor into a garden).

(ii) Galadriel with the Ring cannot beat Sauron in a one-on-one confrontation. Only Maiar-level spirits can hope for that – Gandalf, Saruman, Radagast, the Blue Wizards, and (rabbit hole time), the Balrog of Moria. Galadriel must focus on building up armies.

Building armies takes time. The longer the War drags on, the better for Galadriel – whereas it is suddenly in Sauron’s interests to force a confrontation, and quickly.

As a further question of motivation… why might Galadriel accept Frodo’s offer? Tolkien’s Letter explicitly states that she had previously considered the question, and resolved to reject. What could change her mind?

Hypothetically, two considerations. Firstly, she is uniquely stuck in Middle-earth – if Sauron is victorious, she cannot run to the Havens, and she remembers what happened to her cousin, Celebrimbor, when Sauron got his claws on him:

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Secondly, Gandalf’s fall in Moria makes it appear (on the surface) that the Quest is doomed. If the Ring is destroyed, Elven civilisation will be wiped out via the ravages of time, but at least Sauron will be beaten. Now even that hope has gone. Frodo taking the Ring into Mordor is utter madness – while Galadriel taking the Ring is not only in the interests of herself and her people, but also the interests of Middle-earth.

And thus the Lady makes her decision.

***

Frodo finds giving up the Ring difficult, but feels extreme relief afterwards. He informs the rest of the Fellowship. The other hobbits are merely sad or relieved, Boromir is irritated that the Elves get the Ring and not Gondor, while Legolas and Gimli secretly feel excited at the prospect of a Queen – Legolas for reasons of Elvish solidarity, Gimli because he’s in courtly love with Galadriel (not that they say anything). The only truly horrified member of the Fellowship is Aragorn, who tries to talk her out of it.

Aragorn’s efforts fail, and create animosity between the Fellowship and the Lady. There will be no gift-giving. Moreover, since there is no realistic way of heading back, it is agreed that the entire company head to Minas Tirith.

Since Frodo does not have the Ring, Boromir does not attack him, so Frodo and Sam do not sneak away. When Saruman’s Orcs arrive, they capture all four hobbits – Boromir is still killed defending them. We then follow the book – the hobbits end up in Fangorn Forest, while Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli run across Rohan in pursuit. The Three Hunters encounter Éomer, and pick up the horses on the understanding they will be returned.

Gandalf returns to life, and, as per the book, heads via eagle to Lothlórien. There he gets a truly unpleasant surprise. Galadriel has not yet worn or claimed the Ring, since she does not want Sauron to know what has happened, but she is making preparations for War. Gandalf tries to convince her to abandon this madness. Galadriel believes he wants the Ring for himself, and orders his imprisonment. Gandalf surrenders to the Elves.

Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli enter Fangorn Forest, and get extremely lucky – they stumble across an Ent, who takes them to Treebeard and the hobbits. The Fellowship is reunited, and everyone learns of Saruman’s activities. Aragorn decides the hobbits are safest here, but Rohan must be warned. Together with Legolas and Gimli, he takes Éomer’s horses to Edoras.

Without Gandalf to free the King, Wormtongue has all three captured and imprisoned.

Saruman’s forces sweep across Rohan with no resistance. Edoras is easily captured, Théoden is killed, as is Éomer, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli (they never escape the prison). Wormtongue sets himself up as Quisling over any surviving Rohirrim, while Éowyn kills herself.

The Ents take out Isengard, leaving Saruman’s victorious armies with no leader. The Uruk-hai grab what they can, and retreat to the White Mountains in little bands of marauders, while the Dunlendings think about resettling Rohan again after five centuries. Wormtongue gets murdered in his sleep.

Galadriel has now built up enough strength to assail Dol Guldur and Southern Mirkwood. She claims the Ring openly – finally tipping off Sauron about what is happening. The Dark Lord realises he needs to move fast.

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Logistics mean that the only way Sauron can attack Galadriel in sufficient force is via Gondor – and he needs to take Minas Tirith before the Lady wins them over to her side. Denethor is uncomfortable with this turn of events, but ever the Realist, he sends a diplomatic envoy to Lothlórien, asking for an alliance. Rohan is no longer an option, but perhaps the Elves might help?

The envoy does not return in time. Sauron hurriedly assembles a force, and sends it against Osgilliath. Having secured the river-crossing, the Dark Lord then attacks Minas Tirith.

On one hand, Sauron’s attack is even more rushed than the book version, and he will have to keep the Ringwraiths (including the Witch-King) away from the enemy – he can’t risk Galadriel interfering with their loyalty. On the other hand, there is no Rohirrim or Aragorn coming to the rescue for Gondor in this scenario. No Gandalf to lift hearts either.

On balance, I think Minas Tirith falls. Denethor and Faramir die. Denethor’s death is more conventional than the book – the idea of Galadriel as Ring-Lord gives him hope that Sauron can be defeated, and the accelerated attack means he has less time to slip into suicidal despair. That said, Mordor’s lack of organisation makes the defeat of Gondor a close-run thing – Sauron’s victory ends up being a Pyrrhic one.

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Meanwhile, Galadriel has conquered Dol Guldur, forced Thranduil into an alliance (he tolerates it), and set her sights on Erebor, Dale, and Lake Town. Men are willing to serve her, but the dwarves of the Lonely Mountain refuse. She ignores them for now – there are other concerns. She also finds Sauron’s Easterling army (the one that attacks Dale in the book), and converts them to her side. Using logs from Mirkwood as rafts, she gets her new allies back over the Anduin, secures her position, and awaits Sauron’s attack.

Sauron wastes little time sending his forces to Minas Tirith via Osgilliath, and then north to Lothlórien. As mentioned, it is a battle against the clock for him – he needs to overwhelm Galadriel before she can overwhelm him. Quite apart from the losses suffered against Gondor, his troops are tired, poorly prepared, and nervous. More than a few Orcs disappear into the White Mountains en route (Gorbag and his “few trusty lads”), while the Haradrim are annoyed that they have to keep fighting after the defeat of their ancestral enemy – they may hate Gondor, but Gondor is gone.

Galadriel wins the resulting battle.

Sauron realises the game is up, and does all he can to fortify Mordor’s defences against attack. He cannot even use the Ringwraiths for scouting missions now.

Galadriel wins over surviving (rural) Gondorians, and attacks Mordor via Morgul Vale. The evil of the Vale drives a portion of her forces to madness, but it is nothing a few fires can’t fix, and she has reserves anyway. While the Orcs now have the advantage of fighting a defensive war, they find the prospect of fighting the Lady terrifying.

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Rather than hiding in Barad-dûr amid a prolonged siege, with inevitable capture and execution waiting at the end, Sauron might choose to run. With a new Ring-Lord on the scene, his ability to “come back” from such a defeat might well be too limited – so I think he flees east with the Nine Rings. Galadriel’s forces accordingly find an empty Barad-dûr.

Galadriel is now triumphant. The dream she once had, all those years ago in Valinor, of ruling a great realm… it has now been fulfilled. But even from his confinement, Gandalf still defies her. Still insists she ought to destroy the Ring. Rank hypocrisy! He would sit where she sits – but he lacked the courage. She alone defeated the Dark Lord. She alone! And she will brook no rival. But if she executes Gandalf, he might return somehow. Maiar are strange beings, and who knows what plan the Valar have, those who banished her and her people all those millennia ago?

Better to put Gandalf next to Saruman. And what better place than the inescapable dungeons of the Dark Tower? Elrond seems to have escaped to the Havens, back across the Sea, to what her uncle once called the cages of the Valar. Let him run.

She will rule this Middle-earth.

 

Teething Problems: Finding a Blogging Voice Amid Circa 250 Posts

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Blogging is harder than it looks.

It’s a trite bit of wisdom, but it’s completely true. I don’t mean time investment either – I mean actually sitting down and writing a blog article. Then another one. Then another one. Eventually you get better at it, then you look back at your older stuff and cringe… but it’s still there in your archives, haunting you. And (well-meaning) people judge you for it.

I have written 250 or so posts since I started this blog in November 2015 (my, how time flies…), and, suffice to say, it’s been a damn strange evolution. My previous experience at writing consisted of academic work, poetry, fanfiction, original fiction, and over a decade’s worth of contributing to online forums in various fields. I had my interests, I had a drive to share my interests with the world… but actually learning how to communicate this was another matter.. It is a skill I am still developing. Evolution never stops.

My initial idea was to offer thoughts on my writing experiences, and on the books I had read. I like to think I am pretty well-read generally. My notion of a style was derived from my experience in online forums, and Facebook (oddly enough). You can see that in some of my older blog posts – line-quoting and replying to someone else, or else a very short post that would work better as a status update (or as a thread-starter) than a blog. My tendency to post Real Life photos is still a legacy of this, as though I am updating Facebook – never mind the bits and pieces on my actual life, no matter how mundane (car issues, D&D characters). As of early 2016, I found I could create a semblance of regular structure via listing my monthly reads, but other than that, I went the comparatively common route of focusing on aspects of the fantasy genre I thought overdone (with a twist – my overdone things weren’t overdone when it came to criticism!).

Later in 2016, I ended up stumbling across Tolkien as subject matter, courtesy of a fellow author’s article (thanks, Neil!). It was great – a means of structuring my knowledge of the area into a blog series, all the while using my old “quote and reply” technique I inherited from the forums. Tolkien was also something I could safely hang my blogging hat on – I’d debated Middle-earth online for a decade, which is plenty of time to hone one’s ideas of characters and themes. At the same time, my newfound specialist ability worried me. I was (and obviously still am) a writer in my own right. So I made a point of providing updates on my own work progress, as well as more generalised thematic surveys of the genre. These surveys were less specific than my Tolkien material, since there are few authors I am as qualified to comment on in such detail as he, which led to some people being under the impression that I don’t read particularly widely. I hate giving false signals like that.

A nastier example of the false signal problem was when I started posting about politics too. I actually have a fair background in politics, both at the theoretical level, and at the practical level. It’s a subject that has interested me since childhood, and it is something I have written about in multiple different settings. But I really struggled to convert my enthusiasm into blog posts, and I was also well aware how… sensitive… the subject matter could be. Finding a voice was damn hard; my initial approach was to treat each post as a bare comment (Facebook update-style), or a short little rant, of the sort one makes to the TV after a long day at the office. I obviously keep such things out of my fiction (I hate polemical fiction), and also keep them from intruding into areas like my Tolkien or fantasy commentary. Sadly, this “short” format ended up making my political posts feel very superficial. That, in conjunction with the inherently contentious nature of the material, earned me plenty of criticism. My biggest worry at the time was that people would think me a dull polemicist, and my biggest blogging sorrow was giving the impression that I didn’t know what I was talking about. I knew I knew what I was talking about… I was just terrible at expressing it. Because blogging voice is damn hard, especially when you are branching out in an existing blog, and have already given people expectations.

I still remember someone arguing last year that A Phuulish Fellow was a blog best read from the beginning – it is a personalised story of interest, rather than a blog of set theme. I remain, of course, deeply honoured that someone would go back and read my material in this way, but I do think it is an interesting insight. This blog is, and has always been, a messy search for voice. A strange expression of “me” generally. I didn’t intend it to be this way… but then evolution doesn’t intend. It just happens, and the ever-growing “Category” column on the right-hand side is a testament to that. Feel free to make judicious use of that column, by the way – it’s there to weed out stuff you don’t want, and in a blog like this, that might well be wise. Some of my voices are more advanced than others.

Anyway, thanks for reading, whether this is your first visit, or your 250th. 🙂

Tolkienian Speculative Guessing: Rational Ringwraiths at Weathertop

I have previously listed Weathertop as one of the more logically flawed moments in The Lord of the Rings. In near-perfect conditions – night-time, an isolated company far from aid – the Witch-King and his band of merry former-men fail to press the attack, letting Frodo and the Ring slip away. But let us suppose, for a moment, that the Ringwraiths do press the attack. Let us suppose, ignoring the threat of fire in the face of the prize, they grab the unconscious Frodo, sling him over a horse, and gallop full-tilt for Mordor.

What happens?

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It goes without saying, Aragorn and the rest have no means of catching them. The Ringwraiths are on horseback, the party has Bill the Pony. Aragorn has no option but to hurry to Rivendell, and explain his failure to Elrond and Gandalf. What do the latter do?

I think there are four options:

(i) Run to the Havens. Frodo and the Ring are written off as lost – Rivendell is evacuated, with messages sent to Galadriel (she’s stuck in Middle-earth, but her people are not). A highly unlikely scenario, as the non-Elvish population of Middle-earth would be left stranded – but not an impossible one. Gandalf might conceivably try to return to Aman, and plead for the Valar’s intervention, on the basis that the peoples of Middle-earth cannot withstand Sauron without assistance. However, the Valar did not intervene during the Second Age – when Sauron’s might was altogether more impressive – and they continue to let Sauron rule whole swathes of the East and South, so such a plea might well be a long-shot.

(ii) The Denethor Option. No, I don’t mean suicide. I mean accepting that the War is lost, and taking prudent steps to delay the inevitable. Rivendell and Lothlórien are fortified, messages are sent to Rohan and Gondor – though Denethor might already know (Anor Stone). Perhaps there will be an attempt to rehabilitate Saruman, on the basis that there is nothing to lose (though this might get complicated, as we shall see). None of this works, of course, and everyone dies miserably. Or gets enslaved, but we shall get to that. I think this is the most likely option, with perhaps a desperate and futile attempt to plead with the Valar thrown in.

(iii) Hide. The Rangers of the North have been a secretive, nomadic people for a millennium. It is not impossible that one winds up with quite a few other such groups, forming a hopeless (but hardly unprecedented) La Résistance of outlaws. Turning Rivendell or some other refuge into a latter-day Gondolin would not work, however, for multiple reasons – far fewer resources, far fewer fortifications, and Sauron has a palantír to spy out opposition in a way Morgoth did not.

(iv) Invoke the eagles, and try to intercept the Black Riders before they reach Mordor. It would make for terrible storytelling, but in-universe, one could conceive of our protagonists launching this last, desperate gamble – unlike the Ring Quest, secrecy is no longer an issue here. However, seeing as there would be a twelve day window between Frodo being captured in this timeline (6th October), and Gandalf’s arrival at Rivendell to hear the news (18th October), I do not see this as particularly viable. The Ringwraiths can cover a fair bit of ground in twelve days.

So our protagonists can do nothing to stop Sauron. But there is one massive wildcard: Saruman.

The Ringwraiths will return to Mordor via the Gap of Rohan, which will take the Ring close to Isengard. Saruman might have the means of ambushing the Riders as they cross the Isen – it would be a mindbogglingly high-stakes act of him, but I think it far more feasible than an attempted eagle intervention. Saruman has the Orthanc Stone, of course, so likely has no need to wait for news from a desperate and conciliatory Rivendell. He then must weigh up the cost of Sauron’s vengeance (albeit, the Witch-King already knows that Saruman is crooked, so objectively Saruman has less to lose than one might think), versus the payoff of getting his hands on the Ring. I see Saruman trying. Whether he succeeds is another matter.

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This branches off into two further scenarios:

(i) The fun option: Saruman succeeds in ambushing the Ringwraiths, and claims the Ring for himself. Sauron learns of this very quickly, but his problem is geographical: he cannot attack Isengard directly without going via Gondor… and Denethor is not about to co-operate. In fact, I could almost imagine a truly unholy alliance between Denethor and Saruman here (managed via palantír) – Denethor might well consider this the lesser evil (a Gondor-Mordor pact is impossible, and the Steward knows Mordor defeating Isengard means the defeat of Gondor). Meanwhile, Saruman needs Gondor to buy time for him, while he masters the Ring. Even if such an alliance does not eventuate, Sauron will greatly accelerate his invasion plans, since he now knows exactly where the Ring is, and how it will be used.

Saruman will not send Uruk-hai to help fortify Minas Tirith against Sauron, but he might send his Dunlendings (I am sure he can be very persuasive..).Without Gandalf in Edoras to free Théoden, Wormtongue might similarly persuade the King to set aside animosities, and let them pass. Denethor will, of course, request the aid of the Rohirrim anyway (though Théoden does not fight in person here).

So the alternate Pelennor Fields features Gondor, Rohan (stronger than the book version, due to there being no Helm’s Deep), the Dunlendings, and whatever magic Saruman can conjure at a distance, versus a desperate Sauron. To call this messy does not even begin to describe things – and what, exactly, do Gandalf, et al, do here? Remain neutral, knowing that they are next? Try to mitigate Saruman’s evil, in the hope that there might be an opening for them to reclaim the Ring later?

(ii) The less-fun option. Saruman fails to grab the Ring, and the Ringwraiths arrive back in Mordor. Sauron tortures Frodo into a gibbering wreck, but holds back on his invasion plans for now. Recall that in the book, Aragorn tricks Sauron into launching a premature attack – here, Sauron has no such fear. He can organise the war-effort as he wants.

So Sauron emerges victorious, through a series of cautious military campaigns, each projecting incredible and unstoppable force. What does his end victory look like?

I think the Vichy-esque terms offered by the Mouth of Sauron at the Morannon are a red herring. They are thoroughly humiliating, yes, but Sauron never keeps his end of the bargain – it’s more his style to humiliate then backstab in a vindictive manner. I can imagine Minas Tirith razed, the surviving inhabitants of Gondor forced to accept Sauron as a God-King, any captured Elves tortured to death (I suspect a similar fate awaits both Saruman and Gandalf), the Mouth of Sauron put in charge of Isengard, the hobbits genocided out of spite, and forests burned. Even Tom Bombadil will not hold out. In contrast to Jackson’s film, we will not see the extermination of mankind, just its enslavement. A boot stamping on the human face forever, with Sauron hunting down hold-outs, and basking in the worship of a thousand conquered peoples. Every so often, he might even deign to visit the dungeons of the Dark Tower, where he keeps a few select prisoners. Sauron is very petty.

Literary Fiction, Social Media, and Chronic Snobbery: Howard Jacobson Blames the Reader

So we have a prominent writer, Howard Jacobson, blaming social media and short attention spans for declining sales of literary fiction:

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/jul/07/howard-jacobson-says-the-novel-is-not-dead

Ugh. Double ugh. It’s like someone sat down and constructed a deliberate caricature of a certain type of writer. As a disclaimer, I have never read any of Jacobson’s work, but has he any idea how pretentious he sounds?

In the face of plummeting sales of literary fiction, the writer Howard Jacobson has declared that the novel is not dead: the problem is the modern reader, who apparently lacks the attention span to enjoy the intellectual challenge of reading.

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Excuse me while I also quote Plato’s Republic. A text more than two thousand years old:

“The democratic youth . . . lives along day by day, gratifying the
desire that occurs to him, at one time drinking and listening to the
flute, at another downing water and reducing, now practising
gymnastic, and again idling and neglecting everything; and sometimes
spending his time as though he were occupied in philosophy.”

The time-honoured lament of the Grumpy Old Man.

Anyway, back to the article:

He said: “The infinite distractions of the Jumpin’ Jack Flash screen, so deceptively alluring compared to the nun-like stillness of the page, whose black marks you can neither scroll through nor delete. The brutalism of those means of expression, which the unironic internet has put at our disposal: our thumbs up/thumbs down culture in which everything is forgotten, discourse is reduced to statement, dramatic speech is inconceivable, words denote nothing but what is on our minds, writers are only as good as the side they’re on, and meaning is what we intend to mean.

Ironically, I discovered Jacobson’s article via that evil social media. Because here’s the thing – the internet (and all that goes with it) has enabled me to access information in a manner once unthinkable. Far from everything being forgotten, the internet has a truly uncanny way of remembering material – if my local library happens to lack some literary classic (it happens), chances are I will be able to find – and read – an online public-domain version of the text. Furthermore, social media can (and does) identify and recommend books I did not previously know existed. Is that not a boost to literacy and the collective good?

Jacobson’s “nun-like stillness of the page” evokes something of an ancien régime monastery, a world where everyone knew their place, a world before those dirty millennial peasants with their Youtube videos and Twitter feeds came along and changed everything. There is something hideously snobbish (and indeed reactionary) about the implications.

“To say that reading more closely resembles study is not to be a killjoy: concentration and enjoyment are not opposites. Strange that when everyone’s running marathons and otherwise raising sweat for the hell of it, working hard at a novel is thought to take the fun away.”

I am not sure who thinks “working hard at a novel takes the fun away,” except some caricature of a millennial boor living in Jacobson’s head. If someone doesn’t find reading fun generally, chances are they aren’t going to be a target market for literary fiction in the first place.

(I’d also note that once upon a time, novels themselves were frowned upon by the literary establishment – classical poetry in the original Greek is where it’s at, Jacobson!).

“I think the novel is in quite good health. I think there are some terrific novels being written. It is a puzzle to me that novels sell fewer and fewer copies than they used to unless you write children stories or mystery stories … the novel is in good health. The problem is the reader.”

Novels are designed to be read, not written. Blaming the reader is so wrongheaded, I do not even know where to begin.

(And did it not occur to Jacobson that, perhaps, economic predicament might have something to do with declining sales? People in precarious employment and with little disposable income – a fair chunk of those social media users Jacobson hates so much – might not have the time or money to invest in these terrific new novels he talks about. I, for one, invariably get books second-hand or from the library if at all possible).

“Numbers of readers of serious literature are dwindling,” he said. “What will change that? Will people fall out of love with the screen? Eventually will we just get sick of that? Will we recover our powers of concentration? … Until people fall out of love with the screen, I don’t know what will win them back to writing.”

Again, the screen has introduced me to a fair bit of serious literature.

Addressing a question from an audience member who reported feeling pressurised by publishers to write a “page-turner”, Jacobson said: “Tell them to go to hell. You describe the tragic state we are in. When someone tells me they couldn’t put my novel down, I feel they haven’t read what I’ve done. If you read me, you’re going to want to put me down … what you’ve said encapsulates the problem at the moment.

By the sounds of it, Jacobson, I as a reader am going to want to put you down and never pick you up again.

In my own experience, there are few things more joyful than simply losing yourself in a book. Forgetting where you are, what time it is… complete immersion and emotional investment. As a writer, I would consider it to be the utmost accolade that someone could not put my work down.

“It is so deeply insulting to readers, that this is all they want to do.

No, it is deeply insulting to readers that you consider it their fault for not buying a particular genre of book.

Here’s the challenge: how do we educate the reader, so they don’t want to want it? I’ve never understood why anyone wants to read those books. ‘Who committed the murder?’ Who the hell cares?”

They care because the author is good enough to make them care. And a reader who cares is all an author can ask for, whatever the genre.

I, for one, would hate to see a world where readers are “educated” out of liking murder mysteries. I mean, imagine a world where no-one reads DickensPoe, and Conan Doyle?

**** you, Howard Jacobson.

 

In Search of Fantastic Banality: Arendt’s Evil in the Genre

Some time ago, I wrote a piece on Portrayals of Evil in Fantasy. My motivation then was addressing what I considered to be a straw-man on the part of George R.R. Martin – the idea of Evil as being a dichotomy of external or internal. Today, I thought I would revisit the issue from a different angle, namely Hannah Arendt’s famous conception of “the banality of evil,” and how it has been portrayed within the fantasy genre. The matter is of interest to me, since I think fantasy has tended to neglect banal evil in favour of a more remarkable flavour – a neglect that is understandable, in that the latter is generally more fun to read and write about, but which is still a shame. The rules of real-life may not be the rules of the page, but in exploring the fundamental question of why villains act as they do, a dose of reality does not go amiss. And I am a great believer in the idea that most real-life evil is very, very banal.

As a refresher, Arendt explores the idea in Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), where she analyses the trial of the Nazi war-criminal. Her point is that Adolf Eichmann was not a criminal mastermind, or a psychopathic lunatic, but rather that he was a very dull, very ordinary man of no great intelligence, who committed atrocities because his superiors wanted it that way, and because he was going with the social flow. Hence the banality of evil: a realisation that many people who commit monstrous acts are not Adolf Hitlers, driven by unhinged passion and fanaticism, but rather grey little men in grey little offices who are just doing their job before going home for the evening. People who shrug off moral responsibility as “too hard,” and prefer not to think about it. Or indeed think about anything at all.

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All well and good… so where are the examples in fantasy, and what interpretive spin does the genre put on it?

It turns out that examples are actually quite difficult to find. As I mentioned earlier, the genre prefers to make evil more memorable and exotic. Part of this is the Dark Lord motif popularised by Tolkien – Dark Lords are too powerful and individualistic to be mundane mediocrities, and are indeed examples of the “grand” capital E-evil Arendt was arguing against. On the other hand, the genre throws up the likes of Peake’s Steerpike, Martin’s Roose Bolton, Adams’ General Woundwort… none of these are Dark Lords, all of them are villains, yet none of them are Eichmanns. They are all much too interesting to attract the label of banality. And, well, good. Don’t we as readers want interesting villains in our stories? No-one wants to read about grey little men in grey offices. Even the cheesiest villain from the cheesiest sword-and-sorcery yarn, gibbering world-conquering wizard that he is, is more fun than that – it’s why popular imagination has turned so many of the Nazis into a sort of demonic hierarchy of Hell. Dull accuracy is still dull.

Yet, at the same time, the genre is conscious of the idea that real evil is less than glamorous. C.S. Lewis, in his Screwtape Letters (1942) makes the following comment in the preface:

“I like bats much better than bureaucrats. I live in the Managerial Age, in a world of ‘Admin.’ The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid ‘dens of crime’ that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice. Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the offices of a thoroughly nasty business con­cern.”

A soulless, white-collar, mechanical evil, shorn of the energy of psychopathy. It chimes rather well with the petty dull-mindedness Arendt saw in Eichmann. The Screwtape Letters, framed as a series of missives between a senior devil and a junior one, certainly explores that idea thoroughly – Screwtape advises his nephew, Wormwood, on how to corrupt his human charge, all the while illustrating that Hell itself is a very banal place. There is no Miltonian grandeur to be found here, no tragic villainy, just misery, both humourless and boring.

But The Screwtape Letters is an overt Christian apologetic novel, and Lewis was deliberately trying to subvert the notion that Evil is Cool. What of more mainstream fantasy? Where is the banality of evil there? I would argue that Dolores Umbridge, from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, is a poster-child for Arendt’s thesis.

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One of the most fascinating things about Umbridge is that notwithstanding her banality – she is a bureaucratic dullard full of petty spite and self-importance – she is a much more interesting villain than Voldemort. In fact, she might actually be the finest creation Rowling has yet written, all the more terrifying because we have all met ‘Umbridge’ at some point in our lives (I worked with her at one point…). Whereas Voldemort is all passionate hatred and capital E-evil, more caricature than character (he’s most interesting as a self-loathing bully), Umbridge does not parade her evil around. The woman wears pink, fluffy cardigans and keeps kitten plates in her office, has her prejudices – but she’s no worse than Vernon Dursley there – and responds to breaches of rules with more rules. She allows a spiteful sadism to creep into her actions, but it is a very precise, rule-bound sort of sadism, designed to make a point rather than invoke destruction. Rowling’s error is making her look like a toad too (sadly, ugly = evil appears too often in these books), but that is corrected in the film. In short, there is nothing darkly glamorous about Umbridge – she is no Beatrix Lestrange – and nothing grand either. She is just a very ordinary woman, wielding very mundane authority.

So if banal evil is boring, how on earth does Rowling make it work? Believable characterisation, and playing into reader familiarity with the ‘up-jumped little Hitler’ plays a role, but putting such an antagonist in a position of nominal authority over our protagonists – even Dumbledore is sidelined – generates a glorious sense of nauseous suffocation, as though we are being enveloped by a thousand tiny tentacles. Umbridge traps Harry and friends in a way that Voldemort never does – our protagonists are never forced to carry out Voldemort’s instructions, but they do have to obey Umbridge. This accordingly feeds into any frustration that the reader has ever felt towards uncaring or incompetent bureaucracy, and generates palpable catharsis when she is defeated. Who hasn’t channelled their inner V for Vendetta, and fantasised about blowing up The System now and again?

A second major example of the banality of evil in fantasy is Edmund Pevensie, from C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

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Edmund is an odd example, in that he’s a protagonist, not an antagonist. He betrays his family to the White Witch, not for high-minded motives, or because he was forced to, but through a combination of childhood spite, the possibility of being able to lord it over others… and enchanted confectionery. Edmund himself starts off as a nasty little boy (he learns better), but one does not get more banal than committing treason for a fix of Turkish Delight. It’s not too far off Homer Simpson selling his soul for a doughnut.

I would also make three further points, tangentially related to how Lewis deals with Edmund in the book:

(i) Edmund, in contrast to Umbridge, is never in a position of power. Certainly, he wants power (even if he has no idea what to do with it, beyond getting one over his brother and sisters), but he enters the hierarchy of Evil very much at the bottom. The White Witch considers him nothing more than a means to an end, and plans to turn him to stone with all the rest – Evil in Lewis is not grateful for favours, and it certainly does not play as a team. Mean-spirited backstabbing is all it is.

(ii) Umbridge does not need Voldemort to do her thing: she has all the power she needs via the Ministry. Edmund, however, cannot betray his family for the Turkish Delight without the White Witch… and Empress Jadis is non-banal. Yes, in the prequel she destroys a world just to defeat her sister, but she also has glamour, power, and touch of the sexual – a tad odd for an author who in The Screwtape Letters tries so hard to dispel that image of Evil. Still, the implication is that one cannot have petty, banal evil (Edmund) without the temptations created by a grander, more spiritual variety (Jadis). In a sense, those “quiet men with white collars” from Lewis’ earlier quote are (literally) doing the Devil’s work.

(iii) If banal evil is an offshoot of spiritual Evil, it can still be rescued by spiritual Good. Unlike Umbridge, Edmund is not irredeemable, and is saved by Aslan’s sacrifice. Which ties into Lewis’ irritatingly heavy-handed Christian allegory – but in contrast to Rowling, it’s at least a thematically consistent sacrifice (*cough* Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows *cough*).

One handy thing about Edmund being a protagonist – his betrayal of his siblings is actually dramatically interesting. Never mind his motives, Edmund’s actions are of significant importance to the plot and theme of the book. The result is that we aren’t bored by this depiction of the banality of evil, though having things spiced up via Jadis turning people to stone certainly helps too.

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J.R.R. Tolkien does not, at first, seem fertile ground for the banality of evil. Not only is he the genre-populariser of Dark Lords, but so many of his villains are cases of the paragon rebelling – these are grand figures who succumb to their flaws, and turn to Evil as a result. Melkor is the most powerful of the Ainur, Sauron a powerful Maia, Saruman the most powerful wizard, Feanor the most gifted of the Elves. And so on: there is no banality here, just the tragedy of talent turned to ill use and dark purposes. Even the musical interpretation of Good vs Evil during the Melkor’s Discord scene early in The Silmarillion portrays Evil as:

“loud, and vain, and endlessly repeated; and it had little harmony, but rather a clamorous unison as of many trumpets braying upon a few notes.”

This is crudity of evil, ugliness of evil, but not really banality of evil, except insofar as it is unimaginative and believes itself to be more important than it really is. No-one could describe Melkor as an everyday mediocrity.

So does Tolkien consider the subject at all? It turns out he does – through the Scouring of the Shire.

Recall that while our protagonists are busy with the War of the Ring, fighting grand Evil, Saruman is busy doing trade deals with the Shire. And those trade deals end up with the former White Wizard taking over politically. Saruman – an immortal spirit from before the creation of the world – is reduced to bullying hobbits out of petty revenge. Then he is beaten by them, both physically and morally. Quite the come-down.

There are a couple of observations to make here. If Lewis separates spiritual Evil (Jadis) and banal evil (Edmund), Tolkien has one decaying into the other – Saruman starts out a grave threat, and ends up utterly pathetic. It is also a decline we see with Melkor too (from most powerful being in creation, to a mundane tyrant trapped in his physical form), though no-one falls quite as far as Saruman. The other point is that while the ruination of the Shire is Saruman’s handiwork, he takes advantage of what is already there – the bullies, the compliant, the self-satisfied, the greedy. Lotho Sackville-Baggins, Ted Sandyman, the Shirriffs… none of them are monsters. Instead, Frodo and company encounter dull little perpetuators of autocracy, so mundane that Merry Brandybuck even comments on it:

“Of all the ends to our journey that is the very last I should have thought of: to have to fight half-orcs and ruffians in the Shire itself – to rescue Lotho Pimple!”

As with Umbridge, of course, Sharkey’s Shire is also joyless and rule-ridden. It is a world of little food or firewood, environmental vandalism, and no beer. Small, nasty, and so very banal, yet it is an evil so close to home (literally!) for our protagonists – and it is this closeness that prevents the story becoming boring. This isn’t some abstract setting, some faraway Mordor, but the Shire itself. I still remember crying alongside Sam Gamgee on my very first read-through. 

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Terry Pratchett’s villains tend to fall under the categories of supernatural entities, ambitious wizards, aristocrats, and psychopaths. None of these inherently lend themselves to studying the banality of evil. But that is not to say that Pratchett does not tackle the theme – he just normally does not address it via actual villainy. Instead, one encounters commentary from the likes of Lord Vetinari in Guards! Guards!:

“Down there,” he said, “are people who will follow any dragon, worship any god, ignore any iniquity. All out of a kind of humdrum, everyday badness. Not the really high, creative loathsomeness of the great sinners, but a sort of mass-produced darkness of the soul. Sin, you might say, without a trace of originality. They accept evil not because they say yes, but because they don’t say no…”

Vetinari is a supreme cynic, of course – his argument is that there are no good and bad people, only bad people on different sides – but as a summation of the banality of evil, it is a pretty good one. Incorporating it into the rest of Pratchett, I am not sure, however, that this “mass produced darkness of the soul” is ever necessarily treated as the source of great evil on the Discworld. Far from being an explanation for Discworld Eichmanns, it is more a shrug, a leader’s low expectations of his subjects, than an insight into why things happen. If anything, Pratchett tends to present us with the banality of good – on being asked to name their reward for saving Ankh-Morpork in Guards! Guards!, the Watchmen ask for a five dollar pay rise, a new tea-kettle, and a dartboard. And they think the dartboard is pushing it.

That said, one example of genuinely banal evil in Pratchett is Captain ‘Mayonnaise’ Quirke, of the old Day Watch. Rich, thick, and oily, he is explicitly described as lacking the imagination required to be a bad man – instead he is simply a corrupt, self-important mediocrity, with an overlay of racial prejudice, and a tendency to do as he is told. But Quirke is, alas, a side-character, who serves as a foil to Vimes, and as someone detestable (and punch-worthy) without being overly dangerous. He never gets the chance to be an Eichmann.

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A setting as cynical as Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy is a likely candidate for banal evil, and we find an (arguable) portrayal of it in the deeds of torturer protagonist, San dan Glotka. Glotka’s job is extracting confessions for the Inquisition (as a past torture victim himself, he is very good at this), but there is absolutely no sadism or malice involved at all, let alone fanaticism. Evil is a job, no more, no less, and there is no regret or remorse on Glotka’s part. Why would there be? It’s a job, and he’s performing a role. He’s not even sure why he does it.

That same question came into his head, over and over, and he still had no answer.

Why do I do this?

Why?

Abercrombie’s spin on the idea is that while Glotka reduces torture and death to complete mundanity, he is hardly a stuffed bureaucratic shirt. Glotka is not a mediocrity, but rather someone forced to commit mechanical acts of evil on a daily basis – fully aware of his predicament, but unable to break out. He is even rather disappointed by the mundanity of the confessions he elicits. Is it banality of evil if one is aware of the banality? On the other hand, he is no psychopath or cackling monster, is following orders from above, and he certainly goes through the motions while performing his role, so I think he warrants a place in this list. Your mileage may vary.

That said, far from being dull, Glotka is a genuinely witty man, with a sharp mind, which makes him fun to read. He has, however, lost himself in cynicism, self-pity, and his own excruciating pain – a combination of which actually provokes sympathy in the reader, even while we know all about his horrible deeds. It rather helps, of course, that in contrast to Umbridge, Edmund, and Saruman, we have no particular emotional attachment to his victims, but in contrast to the others on this list, Glotka is a real victim himself, trapped in a self-perpetuating cycle of violence. It is no accident that the trilogy ends with Glotka inducting another into the cycle.

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The final example on the list is Janos Slynt, from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. A corrupt mediocrity in charge of a city guard, he is similar in many respects to Pratchett’s Quirke – though we see Quirke through Vimes’ working-class eyes (as a bully), and Slynt through the eyes of the nobility (as a lower-class sleazeball with a distinctive manner of speaking). Slynt has his ambitions, but he is really a stuffed shirt willing to sell himself to the highest bidder.

I do find it odd that in a series populated with such a diverse array of loathsome characters, I am forced to hunt out a character so comparatively minor. For all his commentary on the genre’s lack of realism in the portrayal of evil, Martin’s own rogues gallery prefers the psychopaths (Gregor Clegane, Ramsay Bolton, Joffrey Baratheon), the politicians (Tywin Lannister, Roose Bolton, Walder Frey), the psychopathic politicians (Cersei Lannister), and the Others. Notwithstanding the realism of banality, Martin definitely prefers writing remarkable Evil over banal evil. His treatment of the latter largely focuses on mercenaries, and even then he prefers the clever rogue-types (Bronn) over the dull ordinary ones (Slynt).

(The only other candidate from Martin that springs to mind is the even more minor Merrett Frey. Bowen Marsh too, if you consider him evil. Grand Maester Pycelle… maybe).

**

That concludes our look at how the fantasy genre has depicted the banality of evil. Apart from the two big examples of Dolores Umbridge and Edmund Pevensie, it is surprisingly slim pickings (I am still not sure about Glotka) – examples are there, Tolkien and Pratchett acknowledge it, but such portrayals are not front and centre. I have already suggested that this may be due to writers and reading (understandably) preferring “what is interesting” over “what is realistic.”

Thinking about this dearth a bit more, perhaps in addition to the previously mentioned genre fondness for Dark Lords, there might also be some other structural reasons. As per Lewis’ comment about Administration, banal evil thrives in a more bureaucratic setting – it divorces one from the direct consequence of one’s actions, and merges the individual into an unthinking mechanical system. Bureaucracy rarely lends itself to the pseudo-medievalism that has so dominated the fantasy genre, and even more modern settings don’t give it much attention – it’s there (otherwise we would not have Umbridge), but comparatively rare.

Of Useful Idiots II: The Universality of Social Welfare [New Zealand Politics]

Oh dear. One Shane Te Pou, political commentator, has taken to castigating Labour for making people reliant on the state. Now, Te Pou claims to have belonged to Labour in the past – which may actually be true (albeit he says he’s no longer a member of any political party). But then Roger Douglas was a member of Labour too – and, frankly, anyone whose blog posts get cited with approval by The Penguin is on pretty thin ice, so far as claims to being a socialist go (Te Pou claims to be a socialist). The ice really starts breaking up when one realises that Te Pou’s talking points could have come from the mouth of Jenny Shipley herself. Indeed they have done.

Why does Te Pou feel the need to do the Right’s job for it? Well, he claims that the universality of government assistance is a distortion of the notion that only the poor ought to receive aid. Specifically, he cites the likes of Working For Families, the Winter Fuel Payment, Tertiary Education Assistance, and Kiwibuild, as giving support to people who don’t need it – thereby sucking everyone into the evil communist net of “welfare dependency.”

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Now, I could nitpick some of his examples. For example, Working For Families has become necessary precisely because trade unions are so weak (and we are already seeing employers screaming about reform of the labour market, so that isn’t changing any time soon). And as an inhabitant of Dunedin, the Winter Fuel bonus is extremely appreciated. But that would be ignoring the underlying questions Te Pou raises – why universality of social welfare? Why not focus support only on the poor?

To which I would make three points:

  • New Zealand has a progressive income tax. Those rich people getting Winter Fuel payments pay it back in tax. Poor people don’t. Which means… poor people get subsidised more than rich people. Amazing!
  • Universal support is much easier to administer than means-testing it. Less red tape, and fewer forms. It also means you avoid wealthy tax-dodgers benefiting while the less-rich miss out (this is an issue for means-tested Student Allowances).
  • If the social welfare system only supported the poor, it becomes politically harmless for the Right to cut it. It’s not as if National is particularly interested in the support of social welfare beneficiaries anyway. Contrary to Te Pou’s accusations against Grant Robertson, universality is not some malevolent plan to make everyone dependent on the state – it’s about protecting payments to the poor by also giving them to the less-poor. National does this in reverse with its tax cuts – it’s harder to reverse tax cuts on the rich when in doing so you are also reversing tax cuts on the less-rich. It’s also why superannuation is universal, and why no-one wants to mess with that.

So universality is basically a combination of administrative pragmatism and political pragmatism – so long as one has a progressive tax system, the effects are still redistributive from the well-off to the not so well-off, which fulfils Te Pou’s own criteria for a welfare state, as set-out in his very first sentence.

Citing the sainted Michael Joseph Savage is a bit rich of him, of course. When you are being cited by David Farrar, and parroting the talking points of the Right, it ain’t great for the old socialist credentials.

Not A Reading Challenge: June

Completed reads for June:

  • The Dance of the White Cranes, by Alexander Goeb

June was a month for watching…

2018: Dunedin Midwinter Carnival

One nice little Dunedin tradition (other than closing service providers…) is the annual midwinter carnival. It features fireworks, stalls, and the eerie beauty of the lantern parade. I went along tonight, and took some (admittedly low quality) photographs:

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