Friday, February 8, 2008

Race, Lord of the Rings, and You

1. We make generalizations. If we didn't create categories we would be perpetual newborns in an incomprehensible world, trying to eat anything in our tiny hands. As we grow up we reduce reality and learn to make assumptions. We lose our innocence but we gain rules for how to act and what to eat. These teachings keep us safe.

2. We define ourselves by what we're not. There are lots of social bonds that keep us together but we also become ourselves in relation to an "other".

These two features of humanity give us discrimination. We make assumptions about people that we group into "other" categories. Historically, race is the most recent way to discriminate against an "other". But it hasn't always been around. Race was invented in the last five hundred years (mostly in the last two hundred); it rose with modern science. Scientists work to discover how phenomena can become predictable and replace our assumptions with facts. They divided the world into categories and made conclusions about each race's limitations. They weren't "bad" people, they worked in the spirit of understanding the world and making it a better place. In retrospect it seems that whenever humans study other humans they cannot put their political and economic biases aside. European scientists eventually ended up "proving" their superiority in a racial hierarchy -conveniently 'discovering" that other races were designed to serve them. The racist worldview was created, that is, the idea that you could make useful conclusions about someone simply by knowing what racial category they were from. Later, these categories and the rest of race science was shown to be bullshit. For a superior experience learn this by visiting the Ontario Science Center's exhibit "The Question of Truth". Also, go to the section where they measure how well you can jump and land like a cat.

Before race the widely accepted worldview in Europe was that there was royalty (and aristocracy) and beneath it was the peasantry (it's hard for us to imagine previous ways of creating the "other" because we cannot relate. Have you ever really felt inferior because you're not of royal blood?). We live in the rise and fall of race. After the Holocaust, the "science" of race collapsed but the perspective still lingers. We will live our entire lives in the echo of the racist worldview.

Thus, we are all racist. Want me to prove it to you?

First off, we're not all racist in the sense that we think "only Negroes should vote" or "Caucasians are the highest jumpers" or "Mongoloids are the most likely to be geniuses". Those old tyme assumptions that science failed to turn into facts are reserved for only the most dedicated racists in our culture. We are all racist because the racist worldview makes sense to us. We talk about people as if black, white, Chinese, Indian, Latino, etc. are useful categories -maybe they are if we accept that they are not rigid but that is another discussion. My point is that focusing on obvious acts of racial hatred allows us to overlook it's consistent subtle presence in our lives.

You know you're racist when you could comfortably watch Lord of the Rings. Think about it, race is central to Lord of the Rings (published in the 1950s) we've got: Elves, Hobbits, Humans, Goblins, Orcs, Trolls and those Beastface dudes that were always so angry and pumped up. Interestingly enough, after each battle the Humans and Elves never take any prisoners. They make a point to slaughter every last Goblin. Because they believe that no one can transcend their race. Essentially, the heroes in LOTR are on a genocidal campaign. Now this is all set up quite well by Tolkien. There's no suggestion that the reader should sympathize with the forces of evil.

LOTR is essentially a text with a racist worldview. Once again, not because it tells us obvious racist slogans like "black people are good at sports" or "white people cannot dance" but because it sees the world in categories of race. That's not something we're born doing. That's something we train for. The racist worldview is encoded all around us; that's why I don't hesitate to say that we're all racist. Not because we're bad people but because we live in history.

note: you can go through historic fiction, back to the Ancient Greeks, and see how it is tainted with the aristocratic/peasantry worldview. Their stories are full of things like a royal-blooded baby is separated from the court (like Oedipus Rex) and they live with the peasantry. Yet, as they grow up, everyone notices some sort of innate greatness about them.

note note: The Princess and the Pea is a great example of this old royalty/peasantry worldview. So she's a Princess and that means she's inherited some super spine sensitivity WTF?


lfar said...

man, I always start by being like "YEAH? CONVINCE ME" absolutely certain that you're not going to change my perspective. And then you always do.

Liz said...

I found this with Star Trek as well...each new series reflects the cultural paranoia of its time.
P.s. only nerds watch Star Trek.

trina said...

I have to humbly disagree with some aspects of your post.

Although it could be said race and the rise in “modern” science (which should be defined more clearly) are connected – there are definitely other factors at play. Part of the historical narrative you construct here rests on the way you leap frog multiple centuries in your outline of “race” history. There is quite a difference between notions of “race” five hundred year ago” and the phenomenon you discuss of the creation of racial hierarchies (usually date to the mid-nineteenth century).
Before “scientists” there were theologians that divided the world into categories, not based on “race” but on faith. Take the debate in the 1500s with Las Casas – the issue at hand in the papacy was not whether “Indians” were of a different race – but rather, whether they had a soul and if they lived according to the bounds of “natural law.” This debate occurred in part to define a cultural (read: theological) difference, but the conference was mostly organized to debate the theological legitimacy of controlling another people’s economic and political sovereignty. In addition, your royalty/peasantry dichotomy of a time “before race” seems to be emerging from some kind of Marxist history, but it is interesting in the way that it complicates your story about race. “Race structure” did not just replace “class structure,” but what is interesting is the way that the two operated contemporaneously within the management of Empires. Identifying differences (whether they be racial, gender, class, political structures) were ways of managing how to rule people from different places within a complicated milieu of the birth of abolition movement, liberal thought, evangelical Christianity, universalism, and theories of evolution/development. I would agree with you that we live in the “echo of the racist world view” and that “we live in history” – but scientific racism was only one (and highly debated in its time) of many takes on race in the nineteenth century.

Secondly, Lord of the Rings was written during the Second World War (’37-’45) and was published after the time “race” was being denounced by the UN as a “social construction.” Tolkien was a devout Catholic and theologian, and was influenced heavily by classical mythology and literature. He also served in WWI, and saw battle and trench warfare first hand. He lived in a time of the heyday of empire, and well as its collapse. I think LOTR is an intensely political piece, but many different “races” come together and work together (hobbits, elves, wizards, dwarves, men, ents, etc.) to fight the forces of evil. How is this then tract about racism and not global politics?

In short, although the temptation to create historical narratives for the origins, periods, shifts or dominant hegemonic discourses on things like race, gender, civilization, modernity– it is important to remember that these contemporary analytical categories are just that – present day categories – and these terms were not necessarily used or understood in the past in the way we consider them today.

Nemo Dally said...

Trina, I think we're more in agreement then we might appear on paper.

I certainly agree with your conclusion. Projecting our modern concepts of "othering" (ex. race or class) obscures an understanding of the past.

My goal was to counter those who claim that they are not racist. My point was that you might not have any wildly racist viewpoints but we still live in a time of a racist worldview. Even though scientific racism has been crushed, race has survived in peculiar ways (nationalities have become races, we continue to understand people as "whites", "blacks", "aboriginal", "latino", etc).

The only people who could claim that they are not racist are those that lived under a different paradigm of xenophobia. For instance, the ancient Greeks had no concept of race. They did have a peasant/nobility dichotomy. For instance, stories (such as Oedipus Rex) where the royal son is exiled to the peasantry but something about him, inherently, allows him to rise back to royalty.

I was struck by this when reading Herodotus' description of the Persian leader Cyrus the Great. Cyrus is not "othered" to the Greeks. Even though he is Persian his story is told through the peasant/royalty worldview and it allows him to be an accepted hero.

Tolkien's LOTR would have looked different in Ancient Greece. There would have been more emphasis on the realization of noble lineage. And armies would have surrendered out of respect instead of requiring genocide. But it's hard for us to imagine. That was my point.

alex.tame said...

The Lord of the Rings is a typical fantasy world book so of course there are going to be races (just as there are in every fantasy book)Goblins and orcs have been portrayed as evil beings way before Tolkein so stop judging this as a modern day book! People who think he was being racist are just plain retarded! The Lord of the Rings are a masterpiece of books and anyone who is going to criticize Tolkein and his work because of something as stupid as this shouldn't even have access to the internet.

Honestly, people seem to think anything is racist nowadays, it makes me physically sick.