April 24, 2009

The first ring

Plato got there first. Image courtesy of wikipedia.

El Cabrero has been musing this week about Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy and its practical applications for people interested in social justice (short version: there are some). It occurred to me, though, that part of the inspiration for Tolkien's epic came from an ancient work of Greek philosophy.

I'm referring to Plato's Republic, a long dialogue about the nature of justice that moves from the individual to the state. It's full of memorable images and stories or myths and one of these is the myth of Gyges.

In the discussion, Glaucon, Plato's brother, imagines a situation in which it would be hard for anyone to be just--a situation in which he or she has absolute power thanks to finding a magical ring. He tells the story of Gyges, a shepherd in the service of the king of Lydia in what is now Turkey:

According to the tradition, Gyges was a shepherd in the service of the king of Lydia; there was a great storm, and an earthquake made an opening in the earth at the place where he was feeding his flock. Amazed at the sight, he descended into the opening, where, among other marvels, he beheld a hollow brazen horse, having doors, at which he stooping and looking in saw a dead body of stature, as appeared to him, more than human, and having nothing on but a gold ring; this he took from the finger of the dead and reascended.

Gyges found that the ring gave him the power of invisibility whenever he turned it on his finger. (There are times when I wouldn't mind having one of those.) Anyhow, Gyges arranges to visit the palace and with the help of the ring he seduces the queen, kills the king and becomes the ruler and ancestor of the fabulously wealthy King Croesus (search this blog for his story).

In Glaucon's view, such a ring of power would corrupt anyone:

Suppose now that there were two such magic rings, and the just put on one of them and the unjust the other; no man can be imagined to be of such an iron nature that he would stand fast in justice. No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market, or go into houses and lie with any one at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a God among men. Then the actions of the just would be as the actions of the unjust; they would both come at last to the same point.

Sound familiar? He further argues that anyone who thinks otherwise is hopelessly naive:

If you could imagine any one obtaining this power of becoming invisible, and never doing any wrong or touching what was another's, he would be thought by the lookers-on to be a most wretched idiot, although they would praise him to one another's faces, and keep up appearances with one another from a fear that they too might suffer injustice. Enough of this.

In the Republic, Socrates argues, unconvincingly in my book, that a truly virtuous person would not be tempted. I'm with Glaucon--and Tolkien--on this one.

But there are definitely times when a little gizmo like that could come in handy.

CLUTTER AND MORE. Here's the latest edition of my friend the Rev. Jim Lewis' Notes from Under the Fig Tree. For some reason, this one reminds me of William Blake's poem London.

HEALTH CARE REFORM, if it's going to get things done, needs a public insurance component, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Goat Rope concurs.

IT'S THE END OF THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT. Here's more on the ruling class hissy fit over the Employee Free Choice Act.

FOOD FIGHT. Here's Michael Pollan again on the movement for local and sustainable food.

A TORTURED CONVERSATION is well summarized here.


April 23, 2009


This week at Goat Rope, El Cabrero is fessing up to being a Tolkien dork. It is my opinion that, far from being just escapist fantasy, The Lord of the Rings has some pretty practical applications for those struggling for social justice.

Here's one for today. In contrast to epics like the Iliad or the Aeneid, in which the big dogs get most of the airspace, with Tolkien a decisive role is played by the (literally) little people or hobbits.

These are often dismissively referred to in the books as "halfings" and often are not considered worthy of serious attention by the apparently more significant (i.e. bigger and louder) characters. But without them, all would have been lost.

It's yet another riff on the ancient theme in myths, folklore and religion that, as the psalm put it, the stone that the builders refused has become the cornerstone.

And it's a good reminder that one doesn't have to be a politician or the head of some major organization to make a difference. Ordinary people at the grassroots level can have far more power and influence than anyone expects (including themselves).

THE COLOR OF JOBLESSNESS. Unemployment is hitting college-educated African Americans much harder than others with similar levels of educational attainment.

GREEN BOTH WAYS. Investing in green jobs pays of in more ways than one, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

MOVING MOUNTAINS. Here's a Newsweek interview with an award-winning anti-mountaintop removal activist.



April 22, 2009

The Fellowship of the Ring

Image courtesy of wikipedia.

The theme at Goat Rope lately is Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and some practical insights it offers about working for social justice. As I've argued here before, one mark of a good story is that it is one you can find as well as lose yourself in.

I remember reading somewhere that at least some leaders and participants in the Civil Rights movement--including the great Robert Moses--drew inspiration from Tolkien's trilogy for their work in the Deep South.

It makes perfect sense to me. Whatever Tolkien's shortcomings might or might not be, The Lord of the Rings makes perfect sense when you're engaged in a struggle against the odds for social justice. Over the next few days, I'm going to talk about some examples of this.

The first on is all too obvious. If you're going up against the latest version of the Dark Lord or Saruman, you need some strong and diverse coalitions.

Getting there isn't easy. In the trilogy, the good guys don't have much use for each other in the beginning. The humans from Gondor and Rohan, once allies, mistrust each other. Elves and dwarves have issues from way back. And nobody important cared about hobbits. It makes getting coal miners and environmentalists to work together on issues seem pretty simple. But it can be done, at least sometimes.

Sometimes things get so bad you have to either form coalitions or just give up. But coalitions, which tend to be at the organizational level, are only held together by relationships at the personal level, as exemplified in the story by the small band that sets out to try to destroy the ring.

In a small place like El Cabrero's beloved state of West Virginia, where nothing is ever forgotten, relationships are everything. One state politician once quipped "In West Virginia, everything's political except politics and that's personal."

If I had to choose between winning a big one and damaging coalitions and relationships versus losing a big one and maintaining them (and I have been there), I'd probably prefer the latter. Struggles come and go, and victory or defeat often depends on conditions you don't completely control. Relationships take a long time to build and are hard to repair when damaged.

Winning and keeping them would be my first choice though.

AFTER THE FALL. This NY Times article discusses Obama's post-recession (assuming we get there) vision for capitalism.

LOCAL FOOD makes sense in lots of ways, but it can be a pretty complex issue.

TAXES. Here's economist Dean Baker's contribution to a debate on the merits of progressive taxation.

WASTED. Bill McKibben discusses our wasteful habits and the possibility of changing them.

DOWN TO THE WIRE. For addicts of the late lamented HBO series The Wire, here's a lengthy interview between Bill Moyers and Wire creator David Simon.


April 21, 2009

What escapism?

El Cabrero admitted in yesterday's post to being a Tolkien dork. I've read the trilogy several times since discovering it in jr. high and of course have seen the movies.

As such things go, I have a fairly minor case of Tolkiendorkitis. A friend of mine who is an occasional reader of this blog is a member of a Tolkien society and has read The Silmarillion multiple times. (I'd recommend getting help after reading it more than once.) I made the mistake of listening to it on a long trip while I thought the Spousal Unit was asleep and never heard the end of it.

But I digress...

Anyhow, I most recently re-read the trilogy in late 2003/early 2004, a time when it seemed that the forces of evil were taking over the world and were going to keep it for a very long time.

It is a popular criticism of such books to view them as mere escapism. I beg to differ on several fronts. First, the proper measure of escapism can be a great aid in dealing with the realities of the world. More to the point, however, was that The Fellowship of the Ring seemed to be more a description of the world as it was than a break from it.

In that book, dark forces are sweeping over Middle Earth, even to places like the Shire that had often been spared from world events. The powers of evil were arrogant and insolent and there seemed to be no stopping them. The good guys were divided and mistrustful of each other and things seemed to be hopeless.

It was like the line from Yeats' poem "The Second Coming" about the best lacking all conviction and the worst being filled with passionate intensity.

In other words, the book was pretty much exactly like 2003/2004. And it even offered suggestions about how to get past it. More tomorrow.

INCOME INEQUALITY hit record levels in the Bush years, according to a new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

HARD TIMES. Here's a look at the human side of the recession.

CLIMATE CHANGE, COAL-FIRED POWER PLANTS and the Clean Air Act are discussed in this post from Ken Ward's Coal Tattoo.

JAR JAR BUSH? This New Yorker blog post ponders Star Wars, torture and the ex-prez.

FRIENDSHIP is good for your health.


April 20, 2009

OK, so I'm a Tolkien dork

J.R.R. himself. Image courtesy of wikipedia.

When El Cabrero was in 8th grade, I believed that J.R.R. Tolkien, Bruce Lee, and Alice Cooper (not necessarily in that order) were gods.

What can I say? I had pretty good taste in 8th grade. All three remain in my pantheon.

I still remember when I first stumbled on Tolkien's work. I had gone with my mother to visit my older brother, who was working as a journalist in Florida and was living with some old college friends. On the bookshelf were several paperbacks with really odd and enticing covers. People old enough to remember those editions will know what I'm talking about.

It took a while to figure out which one came first but I started with The Hobbit and was immediately hooked. I still remember the letdown on finishing The Return of the King. I went into a period of mourning and was convinced I'd never read anything that compelling again.

I'm pleased to say I was wrong about that, but, like the song says, the first cut is the deepest.

I'm not up to answering the question of whether The Lord of the Rings is great literature, but it does fit the Goat Rope definition of a great story as something you can find as well as lose yourself in.

The weird thing is that as I got older and tried to fight against some of the evils of my time, it seemed less and less like a work of fantasy and more like a description of reality. I think it contains some practical insights on organizing and struggling for justice.

About which more tomorrow.

UNEMPLOYMENT. As jobs disappear, demand for unemployment insurance is hitting states hard.

SIGN OF THE TIMES. Here's a look at life in a tent city.

STIMULUS VS BAILOUT. Here's Robert Reich arguing for the former.

ANSWERS to the weekend Bob Dylan lyric quiz can be found here.