Is Moria the Promised Land?

21 10 2009

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Here’s something interesting that jumped out at me while playing Turbine’s Tolkien-themed MMO The Lord of the Rings Online on Saturday. The Morroval are monsters that live in Moria that the player must battle. These half-woman half-bat demon things are an original Turbine creation based on small references to “fouler things than orcs lurking in Moria” in the books and Morroval NPCs are programmed to issue various statements during battles. Some of them are hints on how to fight them. If one says “Protect me, my sisters!” that’s your Loremaster’s clue to dispel corruption because they’ve got a nasty protective enchantment that can make them really tough to kill. One thing that they say really got me and made me think though. Just before they die they’ll ask the player “Why do you attack us in our home?”

The more I think about that, the more I think that that statement must be deliberately provocative. The storyline in the Mines of Moria expansion is that the death of the Balrog has created a power vacuum in Moria and various factions in Middle-earth are moving in to take advantage of it and claim Moria and its treasures for their own. Throughout the game, the player is supporting an effort by the dwarves to reclaim their ancient home and will see Mordor and Isengard orcs fighting against goblins and other creatures that have been living in Khazad-dum long enough that they could conceivably be considered “native Morians.” Here’s the thing, though — if you apply a post-modern filter to this storyline, shouldn’t your sympathies lie with the Moria goblins and the Morroval?


Think about it. Khazad-dum was abandoned 7,000 years earlier when the Dwarves dug too deep in their search for Mithril and released the Balrog. That the Balrog is evil isn’t in doubt but what blame do the goblins who took up residence in the abandoned halls of Moria hold beyond doing what they needed to to survive under the brutal tyranny of the Balrog? At what point do the crimes of the past become irrelevant to the modern era? Yes, the Dwarves were kicked out of their home into a diaspora and have finally returned, but by what right do they claim land where hundreds of generations of goblins and Morroval have lived and died?

Even worse, there doesn’t seem to be any common ground between the three factions that could broker any sort of structured solution. Of course while hopeful peacemakers attempted to do so, the Dwarves would continue to build and expand their illegal settlements in the Dolven-view and the Twenty-first Hall while the goblins and Morroval fight back with what weapons they have — stealth, surprise and terror. It’s an endless cycle of violence where killing begets killing that merely begets more killing.

The problem with this line of thinking is that it leads one to make a moral equivalence where there really isn’t any. Yes, each side has some historical validity to their claims but ultimately my sympathy goes to that side that ultimately carries itself with greater moral elevation despite the often tough choices that war can create. In such a case, my sympathies must ultimately lie with the Dwarves not because of what the Morroval or the goblins do to them, but because of what goblins and Morroval do to each other and the kind of culture they create for themselves. Goblin and Morroval culture is one of stark brutality where the strong dominate the weak through murder and fear and rule by force is the norm. They make a virtue of killing and death and under their care Khazad-dum — a land of grace, beauty and freedom literally carved from the unforgiving Earth — became “Moria,” the Elvish word for “Black Pit.” No, the Dwarves are hardly innocents but when choosing between the imperfect and those who consciously choose evil (no matter that some of their claims may be justified), I’ll take the imperfect every time.

Any similarity between Moria and a particular country in the Middle-east is purely coincidental, by the way.

Tune in to the Lars Larson Show tonight

23 09 2009

Tune in to the Lars Larson show tonight at about 3:40PM Pacific time to hear me talk about my latest essays in The Politics of Schoolhouse Rock series. If you haven’t had a chance to check them out yet, take a look at Verb, that’s what’s happening which is all about racism and the tea parties and The Great American Melting Pot, which discusses cultural imperialism and immigration.

The Politics of Schoolhouse Rock

6 09 2009

I’ve added a new section to the blog — The Politics of Schoolhouse Rock. After the response my essay on Elbow Room (Everything I Need to Know I learned from Schoolhouse Rock, I decided that I might like to go through the rest of the old videos (especially America Rocks) and see what kind of thoughts they inspired. I started by expanding my initial “Cultural Imperialism is a Crock” block post into a whole new essay about The Great American Melting Pot.

Please enjoy! And if you do, why not share the blog with some of your friends:

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Finished up with Lars Larsen

5 09 2009

Finished up with the Lars Larsen show where we got into a wide-ranging discussion about the Politics of Schoolhouse Rock series. Lars could not have been any nicer (we had an interesting discussion about terrorism, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Cory Doctorow’s new book during the commercial break) and I had a great time talking about the inception of the series and the first entry. I also mentioned that I was going to work on the next one in the series — “Sufferin’ till Sufferage.” I should probably get started on that.

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Tune in to the Lars Larson radio show…

5 09 2009

I’m going to be on the Lars Larson radio show tonight at about 5:30 PM Pacific time talking about the first in my Politics of Schoolhouse Rock series. Check it out and keep an eye out for the next one in this series along with this week’s Angry Bear!

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Everything I know I learned from Schoolhouse Rock – Part I

18 08 2009

There’s a generation out there — call us “X” — for whom the influence of Schoolhouse Rock simply cannot be understated. It’s more than just being able to sing the preamble to the US Constitution or knowing what goes on at “Conjunction Junction.” Schoolhouse Rock captures an amazing pre-MTV moment when the nascent entertainment-industrial complex was just catching on to how the power of music and amusement could fundamentally shape the way people viewed the world. (I don’t believe it’s a stretch to say that much of the way most people view Sarah Palin has less to do with her actual policies than her portrayel by Tina Fey on Saturday Night Live). In this case, though, that power was applied to a more benign purpose — teaching kids the multiplication tables.

Schoolhouse Rock was the brainchild of ad man David McCall and a host of talented musicians who came primarily from the jazz and folk music world (if you listen to Schoolhouse Rock, there’s actually remarkably little “rock” — the outstanding “Sufferin’ until Sufferage” notwithstanding). There’s also an appealing naivete to them, especially the ones collectively referred to as “America Rocks.” These are a series of shorts concerning American history and government that predate the politically-correct educational agenda that casts America as the quintessential villain in its own history. I always wanted to go back and take a look at some of these shorts with the perspective of time and experience and talk about the way I viewed them them, the way I view them now and what they still have to teach us about — well, everything.

With that in mind, why not start with what is easily the most controversial Schoolhouse Rock — “Elbow Room?” There’s a politically incorrect howler in almost every frame of this little classic. “Trample down the wilderness?” A celebration of Manifest Destiny? “Plenty of fights to win land rights?” To hear some people tell it, this three-minute clip should be nothing but tears over the theft of this country from the Native Americans and the atrocities and genocide that accompanied the settlement of the American West.

Now I’m the last person that would ever claim that this country has clean hands when it comes to its treatment of Native Americans or blacks or women or anybody else for that matter. A lot of bad stuff happened in this country’s 200+ year history. What I resist is the idea that this country’s history is uniquely dark or savage or that it’s darkness outweighs the good it has done. Take, for example, describing what happened to the Native Americans as “genocide.” Put simply, there was no genocide. Indeed, as Jared Diamond pointed out in “Guns, Germs and Steel,” What happened in America is an almost stereotypical historical conflict between stationary farmers and classical hunter-gatherers and most of what is referred to as “genocide” was in fact carried out by diseases against which the Native Americans had no defense and the settlers had no idea they were carrying.

This part of history is tragic, no doubt and I do not mean to minimize the suffering of Native Americans or the real injustices that have been perpetrated against them but calling the settling of the American West “genocide” implies a concious choice on the part of the settlers and the United States that simply was never in the minds of most 18th and 19th-century Americans. Considering how many Natives died never having seen a white face, we must perhaps consider the possibility that the sterotypical vision of the American West seemed true for many of the settlers — that it was a vast and empty land waiting to be peopled. Yes, it was empty because many of the people had died of disease, but the fact remains — for people coming from a farm culture used to a much higher population density than that of Native American hunter-gatherers and nomads, the land was empty and waiting for use. The plagues were tragic, but hardly the fault of the settlers (and please don’t throw up the “smallpox-infected blankets” at me. If that happened, the historical evidence for it is pretty limited and it was certainly never a widespread practice.)

I’m reminded of the classic historical “rip-off,” the sale of Manhattan Island for $24 worth of beads and trinkets. It seems to me like both sides might have thought they were ripping off the other in that transaction. A group of people from a farm culture was purchasing land from a hunter-gatherer culture that simply had no concept of land ownership. For nomads, “treasure” consists of useful items that can be carried and moved. If you’ve ever seen the movie “The Gods must be Crazy,” it quickly becomes apparent that the African natives in that movie would sell you the whole Kalahari Desert for a case of empty Coke bottles and consider themselves getting the better part of that deal. This is neither “simple” nor “primitive.” It’s merely a statement of different cultural values shaped by different lifestyles.

If you truly believe in appreciating unique cultural perspectives, one cannot judge the actions of one culture through the values of another. This, by the way, is not something that I believe, but it seems to be an article of faith amongst those who perpetuate the fiction of an American genocide in the West. Despite this, they seem to have no trouble judging the motives and actions of 19th-century Americans by the values of 21st-century Americans and infantilizing and romanticizing Native Americans with the silliest of “Noble Savage” stereotypes.

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