Comparative Racism

I am going to try to continue the habit of responding here (rather than there) when I see comments that I want to respond to – yet that do not really follow the original subject matter. In this case, a comment from another blog:

The racism of Tolkien and the others is disturbing, despite the stories being wonderful in so many ways. Very insightful piece. Are we more afraid of our desires or pain or perhaps fear itself? I liked Harry Potter’s fear of fear itself. Beware: interesting thinking here.

The critiques of Tolkien as racist don’t hold up under scrutiny.

If we’re saying that orcs equal something, we’re importing something that Tolkien never intended. I think the fact that so many people want to see orcs as nonwhite races says more about the racism of the viewer, not about Tolkien – since if there’s any proof at all that Tolkien intended any such thing, I’ve never seen it.

If the orcs “equal” anyone, it seems to me they’d equal Germans – but that’s not “racist”, since Germans are the same “race” as Tolkien, and he knew it. Tolkien fought against Germans in World War I (and two of his best friends were killed), but the only evidence I’ve seen of hostility toward Germans comes later – in the buildup to World War II – although he seems to have invented orcs before then.

If he is working with “inherited racism” (that is, drawing from a tradition that once descended from racist origins), I don’t think that’s particularly fair to criticize him for – especially given how common it is today for some of the most supposedly diverse people to “Other” (to use their phrase) Christians – especially Catholics, Mormons, and evangelicals – and conservatives, and anyone who strikes them as provincial (e.g. doesn’t share their views).

But back to Tolkien: if we’re saying his comments about “dark skinned” people are racist, we’re missing the fact that he’s talking from the point of view of the Bree-folk – and he later makes some heroic figures distinctly dark-skinned and southern. (And he makes a point of depicting Aragorn as also viewed as dark and swarthy by the Bree-folk.)

If we’re saying that he’s racist because Gondor bears similarities to Rome and Gondor’s enemies bear similarities to Rome’s enemies, we’re stretching out pretty far (again, with problems around the fact that some of those southern kingdoms are on Gondor’s side).

And Gondor does bear similarities to Rome. This leads to questions such as whether contemporary standards about racism require us to refrain from ever using our own history, or “Rome vs. Barbarian” scenarios (even though so many of us are descended from the barbarians, rather than the Romans)?

Going back to the comment (above): since Tolkien repeatedly makes clear that the only way to really be bad guys are to ally oneself with Sauron, I’d say that calling him racist is only possible if we also call J.K. Rowlings the same – for doing the exact same thing to middle class Protestants (a.k.a. Muggles) and far more crudely.

We’re getting away from “race” – clearly “bigotry” is what is meant – but since we are at a point where our vocabulary needs to develop before we will be able to accurately express what we’re saying anyway, I think that should be treated as not particularly important.

(It still bothers me that one of the Harry Potter films openly justified what can only be described as domestic violence using Harry’s powers – I don’t much like anything that makes little kids argue that using your magic powers to physically abuse someone is all right “because Dudley had it coming”….)

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