Satire, escapism but not really


Whenever I don’t feel well, I read Terry Pratchett.  The other day I felt kind of icky, so I dug through a few of the boxes of books piled around my tiny efficiency apartment until I dislodged The Truth. It’s about a young man, William de Worde, who happens to invent the newspaper.  He doesn’t set out to shake up the political framework of his city, but he does so anyway.

If you’ve never read a Discworld novel, it’s satire.  Pratchett holds a mirror to our existing society.  He provides a lot of commentary on the motivations of ordinary people.  His leading characters often have some grand goal or scheme, although not always on purpose.  They always have to push through the miasma of the entropy that governs the common men and women that surround them.  They usually don’t succeed in changing “the people” but do somehow become an accepted part of the everyday background noise.

Here is William’s first conversation with the head of the Watch, Commander Vimes. He’s the top police officer in the city:

At last, like some oracle that speaks once a year, Vimes said, “I don’t trust you, Mr. de Worde.  And I’ve just realized why.  It’s not just that you’re going to cause trouble.  Dealing with trouble is my job, it’s what I’m paid for, that’s why they give me an armor allowance.  But who are you responsible to?  I have to answer for what I do, although right now I’m damned if I know who to.  But you?  It seems to me you can do what the hell you like.”

“I suppose I’m answerable to the truth, sir.”
“Oh, really? How, exactly?”


“If you tell lies, does the Truth come and smack you in the face?”

This passage makes me think about the responsibility of journalists, a conversation I’m sure we’re all sick of.  There’s a lot of public hand-wringing about the 24-hour news cycle and over-coverage of tragedy.  Just yesterday I was listening to a podcast about letting cameras in the Supreme Court, and one of the arguments against allowing cameras is that TV journalists will take soundbites to use in the evening news and the public won’t understand the context of those soundbites.  It’s the same concern that Vimes has when de Worde writes about his investigation.  He makes a good point: who holds the press accountable when they mislead the public?  Just this week NBC news anchor Brian Williams confessed to gross exaggeration about a war story he has been telling for twelve years!

I think the correct answer to Vimes’s question is that each of us holds each other accountable.  The problem is that most people don’t consider it their responsibility to question every authority.

After the first publication of the newspaper, William de Worde listens to a conversation of folks who don’t know he was the publisher.

“It says here fifty-six people were hurt in a brawl,” said Mr. Mackleduff… He had bought a copy of the Times on his way home from the bakery, where he was a night-shift foreman.

“Fancy,” said Mrs. Arcanum.

“I think it must have been five or six,” said William.

“Says fifty-six here,” said Mr. Mackleduff sternly.  “In black and white.”

“It must be right,” said Mrs. Arcanum, to general agreement, “otherwise they wouldn’t let them put it in.”

“I wonder who’s doing it?” said Mr. Prone, who traveled in wholesale boots and shoes.

“Oh, they’d be special people for doing this,” said Mr. Mackleduff.

“Really?” said William.

“Oh, yes,” said Mr. Mackleduff, who was one of those large men who were instantly expert on anything.  “They wouldn’t allow just anyone to write what they like.  That stands to reason.”

So a typo leads to widespread belief that 56 people were injured in a brawl, when logically, that number should be 5 or 6.  Mackleduff assumes that because it was printed in “black and white” it must be true.  Because the common men and women don’t take a moment to question the integrity of the paper– instead they have faith that some authority is verifying everything– the perception that a huge brawl took place becomes Truth.  We know that because rare stories about violence get the most press, people perceive their hometowns as a more dangerous place.  This leads to real harm.  The mother of a 6-year-old in Missouri staged a kidnapping of him to teach him to stop talking to strangers.  Nevermind that the head of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children said that stranger-danger is a myth.

Well, now I’m frustrated with the world again, which makes me feel icky.  I think I’ll go read some more Terry Pratchett.

Nature Lover

The Hobbit Party by Jonathan Witt and Jay W. Richards
The Hobbit Party by Jonathan Witt and Jay W. Richards

Chapter 7 of The Hobbit Party discusses Tolkien’s love for nature.  I remember watching The Two Towers in the theater, when Treebeard describes Saruman has having “a mind of metal and wheels ;and he does not care for growing things, except as far as they serve him for a moment.”

Tolkien’s attitude toward the industrial revolution always made me uncomfortable.  Growing up, my family would regularly go hiking or camping and I still love to escape from the city to be among trees and water.

There is scientific support that just being out in nature is healthy for us (from Drop Dead Healthy by A.J. Jacobs):

A 2010 study asked 280 subjects in Japan to take strolls in both the park and the city.  After the nature walks, the participants showed lower “concentrations of the stress hormone cortisol, lower pulse rate, lower blood pressure.”  Strolling through parks is apparently a popular hobby in Japan, and goes by the poetic and slightly racy name of “forest bathing.”

On the other hand, the kind of people who generally speak out about protecting the environment are also the kind of people who tend to place little value on human life.  They also tend to support laws that violate property rights–which I cannot support.

And so, Witt and Richards come to the man responsible for an inordinate amount of anxiety I suffered in college: Rousseau.

One mistake that Tolkien-appreciating contemporary environmentalists seem prone to is seeing Tolkien as a kissing cousin of eighteenth-century French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau… The English writer and psychiatrist Theodore Dalyrmple summarizes Rousseau’s view as “the complete opposite of the idea that man is born with original sin”, and suggests that it spread quickly through Western culture “because it means all you have to do to be good is to be your true self, and since your true self is really determined, you know what your true self is by doing exactly what you like.”  The idea does more than excuse bad behavior, Dalrymple emphasizes.  On Rousseau’s telling, “doing what you like, exactly what you like, becomes virtue, which is one of the reasons, for example, why in this country now, people who get very drunk in public believe that they’re acting virtuously”

We’re back to hippies.  “Be true to yourself” is a nice concept, but it also forgives a lot of selfishness.  Virtue is not about acting on impulse or instinct, but rather, recognizing that serving others’ needs actually makes us better and happier.  Humans constantly struggle with the conflict between short-term satisfaction and long-term satisfaction, just ask the diet and fitness industry.  It’s not that “be true to yourself” is wrong, we just have to be clear what it means in practice.  Jacobs wrote in Drop Dead Healthy that he took a picture of himself and ran it through some aging software.  He used the picture of his future self for motivation to eat healthy and exercise, being true to his future self who will want to play with grandchildren and remember their names.  That picture reminded him of long-term satisfaction, which helped him deny short-term temptation to sit around and eat junk food.

I always get lost in these trains of thought… For example, communities with strong familial bonds show high incidence of longevity, because maintaining relationships is healthy.  So is it selfish to maintain a friendship because of the ultimate benefit?  Or is it unselfish, because you’re considering another’s needs?  I suppose it’s both, and doesn’t really matter.

As for environmentalism, it does not make sense to simply leave nature to its own devices.  The Hobbit Party cites Matthew Dickerson and Jonathan Evans who identify Tolkien’s attitude as “humans are best seen as both managers and servants, gardening a natural order that is useful but also valuable in its own right.”  This reminds me of Pride and Prejudice, when Elizabeth first sees Mr. Darcy’s home of Pemberley.

Elizabeth was delighted.  She had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste.

Earlier in the novel, Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s home serves as the example of awkward taste.  Pemberley provides a beautiful, orderly home for the Darcys without disrupting the natural resources of the country side.  Humans and nature coexist harmoniously at Pemberley, same as the Shire.  The presence of human civilization does not automatically cause the destruction of nature, as Rousseau and his intellectual progeny believe.  Rather, as in the Garden of Eden, we are here to serve as caretakers.

A new look at Middle Earth

The Hobbit Party by Jonathan Witt and Jay W. Richards
The Hobbit Party by Jonathan Witt and Jay W. Richards

My mom gave me this book for Christmas, after I made her listen to the Tom Woods Show podcast during our Thanksgiving road trip.  It’s called The Hobbit Party by Jonathan Witt and Jay W. Richards.  This book was pretty much written exactly for me, because it blends my love of fantasy with my love for economics and libertarian political philosophy.  As a bonus, there’s a bit of theology as well:

Tom Bombadil is, among other things, an exercise in one of the great theological what-ifs–what if God had created a species of flesh and blood, made in his image, but one that never reached for the forbidden fruit, never sinned, never fell?  Would such a person be a naive, insipid figure of innocence? No, because goodness does not require evil to complete it.  Instead, as an intimate friend and steward of the Creator, he would be far more likely to develop something of the verve and fearless authority–the joyful exuberance, the playfulness, and magnanimity–of a Tom Bombadil.

I love this description of Tom Bombadil.  It reminds me of Kierkegaard’s man of faith in Fear and Trembling.

Witt and Richards make the distinction between a hippie-quality of valuing disorder and self, and the Christian quality of hospitality.  I remember discussing the Ancient Greek concept of “Xenia” which is also the quality that Abraham and and Lot expressed when they protected strangers in their homes– those strangers turned out to be angels.  The Christian tradition of putting others needs before self, and Bilbo’s observance of propriety that demands hospitality, are what give Bilbo the strength to overcome his fear, to overcome the instinct for self-preservation.  Thus, he becomes a hero.

This explication clarified for me a discomfort I always had for hippie culture.  I love the music and freedom that hippie culture values, but I always felt a disconnect from the culture.  Witt and Richards identified the cause for my disconnection: it’s self-centeredness, or solipsism (one of my favorite words).  More importantly, a culture that places value on hospitality also places value on welcoming people and ideas who are different.  You can certainly see a lack of openness on many college campuses today.  Check out these draconian speech codes, compiled by Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

[This] degraded view of custom and courtesy, far from being merely cosmetic, threatens our capacity to sustain culture and forge authentic connections with other people and peoples.  The loss of courtesy in the older and richer sense of the term signals a growing inability to connect with anyone but our own increasingly limited selves.

In other words, it sounds lovely to be free from schedules and bourgeois obligations, to focus on the intangible benefits of loving people freely.  On the other hand, if you can’t keep a date or are regularly late to meet up with loved ones, you disrespect their time and show love of self, not love of others.

I don’t usually identify myself as a conservative, but Tolkien’s flavor of conservatism, as described in The Hobbit Party, is something with which I can identify.  It’s a devotion to order and custom, specifically courtesy.  Courtesy, on a broader scale, becomes respect for the rule of law, respect for a consistent process.  Rule of law requires all parties to agree to contracts and rules of order so that cooperation can occur.  This book describes the game of riddles between Bilbo and Gollum.  Bilbo accidentally asked, “What’s in my pocket?” and Gollum treats it as a riddle in the game, although Bilbo and the author recognize that it isn’t.  You could justify Bilbo’s cheating by saying his life was in danger, that Gollum is evil, so what does it matter if he cheats a bit?  I see this type of reasoning all the time, because I work in politics.  This reasoning values the self over others; it’s dangerous because it is egotistical.  We play by the rules because we recognize that our perspective is not the only perspective.  We play by the rules because we are humble.  It’s for this reason that the CIA should not torture prisoners of war, regardless of who signed which treaties.