Thursday, February 9, 2017

The Time That Is Given Us (or, Saving the Republic)


“I wish it need not have happened in my time," said Frodo.
"So do I," said Gandalf, "and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

 --J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

It is a frightening thing when the real world surpasses not just science fiction, but epic fantasy.

An enlightened, scandal-free Black President has been succeeded by a narcissistic misanthrope and his white nationalist allies. Power-hungry corrupt politicians are all too willing to jump on his fascistic bandwagon, just so long as it helps them realize their vision of a regulation-free, billionaire-friendly America. In Europe, interdependent globalism collapses to make way for similarly bizarre demagoguery. Meanwhile, global temperature records are broken every year. The populists are fiddling as the world burns.

You could make this stuff up, but no editor would accept the manuscript. "Ludicrous! Unbelievable! Write me something that could actually happen!"

This is the moment in epic fantasies, both ancient and modern, when the hero emerges: Hercules, Beowulf, Sampson, the Golem, Superman, Luke Skywalker, Indiana Jones (and yes, I'm aware those are all--with the possible exception of the Golem--men), saving the world with courage, goodness, cleverness, and at least a dash of some magical superpower. It's a brawny trope present in so much classic literature that, when I see it happening in a novel or movie, I find myself yawning.

And that's what makes The Lord of the Rings (as well as its prequel, The Hobbit) a true classic. J.R.R. Tolkien was steeped in epic fantasy, and clearly loved it. But he lived in a world shattered by world wars that put the battles in those classics to shame. The twin apocalypses of those conflicts demonstrated that true victory comes not from expending destructive power, but from the deeds of ordinary people who overcome their fear and weakness to turn the tide for good. The heroes of these books are hobbits, small people who eschew adventure, preferring the pleasures of home and hearth. They would rather keep to themselves while the world beyond the borders of their Shire tears itself asunder.

But the world will not leave them alone, and almost by accident, four of them are caught up in the maelstrom of a world war upon which the survival of humanity depends. They're too small to really fight, easily scooped up and put in chains by enemy forces eager to use them as hostages. The real fighting is done by the more traditional heroes: the noble elves, the courageous riders of Rohan, the brave soldiers of Gondor, aided by the powerful wizard Gandalf, led by the demigod prince Aragorn. These forces battle the evil armies of Sauron to a standstill.

And then Frodo, despite himself and thanks to the intervention of the even more unlikely Gollum, succeeds in his quest of throwing a ring into a volcano.

That simple act brings down Sauron. His armies collapse. Gondor and its allies are victorious. Aragorn is installed as king, and an era of incomparable prosperity ensues. The elves retire across the sea, their role in Middle Earth complete. The hobbits are honored for their decisive role in defeating the evil empire. But the toll on their souls is great, too much for Frodo: he joins the elves on their journey across the sea.

To return us to our present dystopian reality: if our republic is to be saved, and with it, the planet, it will not be great heroes who accomplish this victory. It won't be Hillary Clinton. Nor will it be Bernie Sanders, or even Elizabeth Warren, though they are doing all they can to hold off the creep of corrupt authoritarianism.

The saviors of our republic will be hobbits.

I'm speaking metaphorically, of course. But only a little: the strength of American democracy has always been ordinary people doing their jobs with integrity. People the Twit in Chief despises. No, I'm not talking about the working class people he claims to love, who turned out in just barely large enough numbers to turn just barely enough electoral votes in his favor, handing him a technical victory even as the popular vote was against him. He is President now because this is a nation founded on due process and the rule of law--two principles for which he is, ironically, little respect.

Throughout the campaign, and continuing from the Oval Office (or, perhaps, his bedroom in the Residence), Trump has tweeted incessantly about individuals, institutions, and corporations who stand in the way of his agenda. His cruel racist travel ban is being turned back by courts, so he casts aspersions on the judicial system, earning him the dismay of his own nominee to the Supreme Court. Any reporting on the unseemlier aspects of his regime is dubbed "fake news." Celebrities who stayed away from the inauguration or, worse, have the nerve to publicly satirize or ridicule him are labeled has-beens, unfunny. UC Berkeley's decision to cancel a controversial speech to protect the speaker from violent anarchists led Trump to threaten their federal funding. States speaking up for their federalist rights to decide policies within their own borders have also received the defunding threat. Ordinary bureaucrats exercising their statutory rights to disagree with Trumpian policies have been told to resign. And most significant of all, the millions who have turned out to peacefully protest the regime have been told to grow up, top being crybabies, and just accept the undemocratic result of the election.

Trump seems not to understand that dissent is the sine qua non of democracy. Without the astroturfed Tea Party opposition to the Affordable Care Act, it would have far fewer flaws, as Congress had to respond to all those objections--and yet, it would also be a far less American program, delivered by edict of the tyrannical majority. Trump has been trying for three weeks now to impose all of his agenda in this way, issuing executive orders with little or no consultation, becoming furious when demonstrators, lawyers, civil servants, the news media, and even a few members of his own party fight back. He reacts in true toddler tyrant fashion, tantruming on Twitter, occasionally sending his flacks and lawyers to do battle for him as they spout untruths and seek to spin the chaos his edicts create.

The good news is that the hobbits are succeeding. Unlikely heroes all, they are individuals who are often on the receiving end of negative polling: lawyers, journalists, feminists, bureaucrats, professors, activists. They are people who care about principles. Yes, they've been mostly quiet during eight years of progressive erosion, as Republicans have aggrandized the power of Tea Party fury into majorities in state houses and the Capitol. That hibernation has come to an end now--a bit too late to save the election, but not to late, it can be hoped, to bring the republic back from the brink.

It appears the travel ban will be turned back by courts. It appears, as well, that the news media will finally shed the illusion of false equivalency, as even the New York Times is calling out the President on his lies in its headlines. Bureaucrats have only begun to fight, using rogue Twitter accounts to broadcast unpleasant truths about the regime, signing letters of dissent at the State Department, and very much not resigning their posts. And the masses of dissenters have found new strength in numbers, joining together to fill city streets with their marches. 

I'm tempted to say it's a good time to be a hobbit, but it's not. As Gandalf acknowledged to Frodo, none of us want to live through times like this. But that is not for us to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.

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