Tuesday, November 6, 2018

The Saruman trap — or Tolkien on politics

The Lord of the Rings is not overtly a political work, being more concerned, broadly, with the problem of power, but where we can say that questions of politics are also questions of power, then this recent piece on the "Saruman Trap" has particular resonance.

Saruman is, of course, the greatest of all the wizards of Middle Earth, who chooses, nevertheless, to side with Sauron, his justification being that Sauron's victory is inevitable, but with the even more insidious rationale that his wisdom, his persuasion and knowledge, can direct and control the brute strength of Mordor, guiding evil to high ends while deploring its methods.

This, as Gandalf knows, is nonsense, but it is persuasive nonsense, just as the "voice of Saruman", subtle, insinuating, lying, is a metaphor for the worst forms of political persuasion, the reasoned tones that cloak abhorrent policy.

This year, in the mid-term elections, many of us may consider the Saruman trap, particularly those conservatives whose Republican Party has been captured by extremism and naked bigotry under the cloak of populism, but also, perhaps, those progressives who are berated for their lack of civility in debates with figures who have no concern themselves for civil liberties or reasoned positions.

Tolkien had first-hand experience of totalitarianism in its most dreadful forms, and Donald Trump is neither Sauron nor Hitler, which is not to diminish the grave danger his posturing, lying, self-aggrandizing incompetence and cruelty pose to American democracy. But Tolkien understood the  risks of opposing totalitarianism on its own terms, of confronting brutality with brutality, and lies with lies, or tacit acceptance that ends up as complicity. Gandalf chooses the path that is neither, knowing the dangers, but knowing also that it is better to answer a lie with a simple truth, no matter how dangerous to the truth-teller.

When Saruman makes his last, most formidable appeal from the balcony of his ruined tower, Gandalf can only laugh, and the spell is broken.

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