Friday, April 23, 2010

“What Can Men Do Against Such Reckless Hate?”

-King Theoden, (from J.R.R Tolkkien’s The Two Towers)

It should be no surprise to me that the works of Tolkien, an author relegated to the plastic bin of adolescent fantasy genres continues to rise above all others in my daytime mind as I look at the shaping of the 21st century. I’m surprised and even a little embarrassed at myself. -It feels like a nerdy impulse. As if nothing profound could exist among the chapters and books of a body of work so widely read, obsessed over and loved, his three most notable books are often ignored and abjured as simple adventures. For all my self-professed independence, maybe, -just maybe- I buy into all of that; my convictions dwarfed, as everyone’s attitudes are, by the opinions and tastes of the masses.

Tolkien himself aggressively dismissed any analyses or critiques that cited possible allegories, however salient and obvious. This may have been the manifest fear Tolkien had and shared with all authors: That their work become dated by too close an association with a specific history or time.

Yet Tolkien’s works, the legendarium he built meticulously across several years, with its invented languages, histories, cultures, plague me when I read headlines today. Beyond his symbolism of bound rings ruling all, as the actual symbol of the nuclear model of the atom haunted the minds of children from Hawaii to Sibera after the bombings of Japan in 1945; beyond his imagining of an undying embodiment of fascism in the caricature named Sauron (The fictionalized Hitler and made-up Stalin of his Middle Earth), beyond his proto Orwellian warning of totalitarian rule in the image of Sauron’s all seeing eye; it is Tolkien’s ideas and conjectured suppositions about race that are the most haunting today.

Yes, race.

As a child, I was aware from the time I was able to speak, that I was an American, but that I was different from “Americans.” This is something that was told to me by the television I saw, the books I read and the world I walked in. It is something that in my darkest personal moments, I even told myself.

I didn’t think of someone who looked like me when I thought of the word American. I thought of African-Americans; the various hyphenated Caucasians: Italian-Americans, Irish-Americans, Polish-Americans, but not brown, tan skinned, or Asian people or anyone who spoke with any accent or had an “ethnic” name. I knew I was born here, but my mother’s coming to the United States of her own will, in a determined against-all-odds struggle for her American dream and her citizenship somehow made me illegitimate in my own mind. I have always felt intrinsically foreign, despite the fact that I think in English, despite the fact I cannot think of any other place as home. My mother’s origin in immigration placed an asterisk next to my skull that I could not outrun. Because of this mediation of my nationality, I have always been sensitive to portrayals of race in fiction and “news.” As long as I can remember, I have always been “looking for the Indians.” In every story about mass struggle, war, national upheaval in any time there is a group of people central to the narrative who are portrayed less as persons and more as a identity-less force to be overcome and destroyed: an inhuman force like a storm or tidal wave. This is the role of the Indian in orthodox American “Western” fiction: Indians “oppose” the movement of “Americans” westward and must be outlasted, defeated, massacred. To me, in Tolkien’s world, “the Indians” are the Orc hordes and the “men of the East.” They only exist to oppose and threaten the peoples of West, and for that reason only. Therefore they can conversely only be defeated and destroyed. This is the essence of racism: the casting of others into a group deemed disposable by virtue of a supposed non-humanity.

How I can think of a book such as Return of the King at times like these, with two wars going on, with fundamentalists claiming that cartoon writers are fair game for murderers, with entire swathes of human beings being convicted by the flimsiest of associations, or by assumptions made of the many based upon the criminal actions of the few? It seems silly. But Tolkien’s work, with all its grandeur, profundity, and sinister contraindications is of utmost relevance at times like these. His trilogy is an attempt at recreating a lost world in compensation for the loss of the Saxon culture and its foundation myths under the Norman conquests. In creating a world, Tolkien intentionally or incidentally shed unflattering light on our own.

The turmoil, massacres, internecine exhaustion of natural resources and corruption threatening to destroy Middle Earth look like every century on our own Earth for which there is reliable history to read and contemplate. And now Middle Earth’s holocaust is again frighteningly applicable to our time. Specifically, what is happening in America -again, this time?

Racial profiling has been made into law in Arizona.
What is next? -Concentration camps to hold “illegals?” (read Mexicans, the Indians of our current narrative/reality) What is happening is this: The measure of our worth as citizens of the world, as human beings will be determined by the extent to which we allow fear, hatred to inform our actions toward one another. Today’s Orcs will not be conveniently swallowed up by a sudden earthquake at the end of the story after the screaming and fighting is done. History is anything but convenient.

We would do well to improve on Tolkien’s story, by recognizing the personhood of the masses of people coming to America to work at the jobs no one wants to do. We would do well to recognize and concede our common humanity.

We must remember, with an appropriate measure of horror that King Theoden’s question in the title of this post was never answered, -not with words in any case.
-SJ

My thanks to Oso, Holte Ender, Lazer's Edge and Mad Mike for inspiring this train of thought.
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Tuesday, April 06, 2010

In the Eye of the Beholder

The public education system in this country is broken. It is not the fault of the teachers (although mass firings would lead you to believe it is), it is not the fault of the students, it is not the fault of the parents and it is not the fault of the government. The fault lies in the system itself. In a pre Brown V. Board of Education world, the public school system was comprised of two parts, one for white students and one (that was called "equal") for blacks. The schools for the black children were woefully under resourced (and in many cases overcrowded) and had no chance (for the most part) to compete for the best available teaching talent. Flash forward to today, 55 years after the landmark Supreme Court case that outlawed the policy of "separate but equal" and we have a public school system that in many ways mirrors the landscape as it stood in the pre Brown days.

The policy of "separate but equal" was kept in place, in part, to not only keep children of different skin colors apart, but in order to perpetuate a permanent underclass in this country. The policy proved incredibly successful in that respect. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, life for those on the wrong side of the "separate" doctrine remained amazingly stagnant. The tidal wave of prosperity that swept the entire country following the end of WWII somehow managed to elude those at the very bottom of the socio-economic chain. In the south, especially, those born with the wrong skin pigmentation could not realistically hope that their lives would be any better than those of their parents. And the law of land saw to it that their opportunities for advancement were very limited indeed.
The changes that were brought about due to Brown and the subsequent Civil Rights acts and voting rights act of the following decade led to a new outlook. The 60's ushered in a new age of enlightenment. LBJ dreamed of a "Great Society" and of the end of discrimination and poverty and for a time, the country, caught up in the age of Aquarius, went along for the ride. Schools were desegregated; For the first time in the history of the nation a thriving black/minority middle class emerged; affirmative action helped to limit the effects of discriminatory hiring practices; And education, which for over a century had provided a barrier to any chance of upward mobility, gave those with less, a chance for more.
Then came the 80's and the attacks on the hopes and goals of the "Great Society" came fast and furious. Our nation became much less concerned with US and much more concerned with ME. White flight to the suburbs became a rushing torrent and our inner cities were left to be, more and more, the last refuge for those with no other choice. One of the major consequences of the flight to the suburbs was the loss of the tax base that helped to support the public school system. Property values dropped and the stream of revenue that helped to support the education of our children began to dry up. With the loss in revenue came a loss in the quality of education that could be provided to those children who happen to be unfortunate enough to be born in a underfunded district..
Funding for public schools comes from a combination of federal, state and local government money. Federal and State money are usually handed out equally based on school populations, but local money is most often kept within the locality. So the upshot of that policy is that, here in NY there are schools that have computer labs that provide every student with a computer, and there are those that require that multiple students to share one. There are schools that have average class sizes of 20 and those that have average class sizes of 40. There are schools that have modern facilities and textbooks, and there are schools that have to convert closets to classroom spaces because they have no more room to fit their expanding population. I know I've taken a long time to get to my point, but here it is: The simple question that should be posed is why, do we as a country, value some children more than others?
The beginning of one the most quoted and repeated lines in all of history says, "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal". Let's look past the obvious contradictions of the statement at the time it was written, to the actual meaning of those words. We, as Americans believe as part of our DNA, that everyone in this country should have an equal opportunity to succeed. We believe that we are a meritocracy despite all the evidence to the contrary. Life may not actually work this way, but we, as a people, are not ready to admit that a kind of social Darwinism should reign supreme. Yet as we close our eyes to the absolute inequity of our public school system, that is exactly what we are doing.
"Let's fire all the teachers!", some say. "It's all the parents' fault", still others will claim. Yet as we point fingers at each other, another generation of our children is being lost. Wait, let me rephrase that, another generation of lost souls is being created. As it was before Brown and the Civil Rights Acts, we, as a country are in back in the business of perpetuating a permanent underclass. People can go to the movies and watch a Sandra Bullock movie, where one black kid is "saved" and becomes a success and believe that all is right with the world. Unfortunately, that story is not repeated very often. Most of us do not have an extraordinary skill. Most of us would not stand out on a field or court. Most of us would not stand out against the best or brightest in any of the endeavors that we have chosen to undertake. That has not, however, precluded us from some acquiring some level of achievement or satisfaction in our lives.
I took my education for granted, as I'm sure most of us did. The children who now attend public schools in well funded districts probably take their education for granted as well. They have what they need to satisfy any intellectual curiosity that may be sparked during their typical day. Children who come up on the short end of the birth lottery most typically would not have the resources to satisfy that curiosity. When the intellectual spark is not nurtured into a fire, it eventually disappears. We, as a country, are currently in the business of choosing who gets that opportunity and who does not. And what happens to those kids whose curiosity isn't nurtured? You already know the answer. We all do.
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