Yitzchak Blau
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Tolkien and contemporary politics

Since few choose between pure good and pure evil, finding nuance in 'the other side' would improve the current discourse
Frodo Baggins, Samwise Gamgee, and Gollum (Smeagol), from Lord of the Rings. (Screenshot)
Frodo Baggins, Samwise Gamgee, and Gollum (Smeagol), from Lord of the Rings. (Screenshot)

In an interview on Israel’s Kan 11 channel, MK Simcha Rothman described “The Lord of the Rings” as a right-wing movie because it neatly divides between good and evil without trying to find redeeming aspects to the evildoers. I disagree with his sharp bifurcation serving as our default view of the world and bemoan the reality that both conservatives and liberals often adopt it. Life tends towards more complicated conflicts. Tanakh demonstrates very well how the Jacobs of this world also err (deceiving his father, favoring one son) while the Esaus also exhibit positive behavior (honoring his father, not taking vengeance on his brother), even as the overall evaluation favors Jacob. Along the same lines, most collective battles are not Nazi Germany against the angelic retinue. Even the side basically in the right should investigate its own flaws and acknowledge the opponent’s positive traits. Doing this does not entail falling into the trap of moral relativism or automatically asserting ethical equivalence.

Political polarization in both America and Israel currently prevents this kind of nuanced thinking. Men behaving badly serve as an excellent example as each side tends to castigate offenders of the other while defending their own. Let us investigate a few men who have taken advantage of power imbalances to sexually exploit women.

Bill Clinton served two presidential terms in the 1990s. In 1994, Paula Jones accused him of sexual harassment and the case was eventually settled out of court. Kathleen Wiley and Juanita Broaddrick also made accusations of sexual misconduct. In 1998, it emerged that Clinton had engaged in a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky, a 22-year-old intern at the time. Clinton also ultimately admitted to an extramarital affair with Jennifer Flowers and other women also claimed to have had affairs with him when he was governor of Arkansas.

How did liberal feminists react to these accusations?  As Marjorie Williams documented, many of them discounted or ignored the allegations and they certainly did not support the women. This stood in sharp contrast to their support for Anita Hill in her sexual harassment accusations against eventual Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Apparently, liberal men merit defense, but conservative men do not.

In 1991, Woody Allen began a sexual relationship with 21-year-old Soon Yi Priven whom he ultimately married. Allen is 35 years older than she is and she was the adopted daughter of Allen’s former partner, Mia Farrow. Thinking this man sick, I stopped going to or renting his movies so as not to provide him with financial support. However, his behavior did not impact on his social standing and, at the time, all the A-list actors continued to work with him. Only after sexual molestation allegations emerged in the #MeToo period did Allen’s status suffer.

Moving to another point on the political spectrum, Donald Trump has been married three times and his first divorce followed an affair with his soon to be second wife Marla Maples. In a recording from 2005, Trump boasts about pursuing a married woman and bragged that when you are famous, you can just grab women by their private parts (although, as most recall, describing this in the most crass language). None of this lessened enthusiasm for Trump from his Republican base, despite Republican claims that they represent traditional values and the sanctity of the nuclear family.

It helps the perpetrator even more when he can portray himself as a victim of the liberal mafia. Joshua Katz was a Princeton professor suspended for a year on account of a consensual affair with a student. He later married a different former student more than 20 years his junior. The imbalanced power dynamic in his relationships does not bother his fans and Katz does not seem particularly embarrassed about his romantic interest in students. In an essay for First Things titled “Finding Refuge at the University of Dallas,” Katz fondly recalls a world where students and faculty attended “raucous parties” together. Since Princeton ultimately fired Katz for his criticism of a Black student group, Katz has portrayed himself as a martyr figure and has published in right-wing journals such as First Things and Sapir.

As mentioned, none of this calls for moral equivalence. I personally think that Woody Allen behaved much more abominably than Prof. Katz and that Trump’s ethical shortcomings far outstrip those of Clinton. Yet the entire picture reveals how the desire to protect one’s ideological allies prevents acknowledging and addressing deep moral flaws. Appreciating how most conflicts (even when we can justifiably term one position “the good”) involve some measure of good and evil on both sides, will better serve us and could lead to a much healthier culture of political discourse.

Actually, Rothman misreads Tolkien as well. Sauron has no redeeming qualities, but the character distinction between Frodo and Gollum is much more complex than Rothman allows. Frodo, unable to resist the lure of the ring of power, cannot bring himself to destroy it by casting it into the flames of Mount Doom. Gollum, even after years of bearing this corrupting force, still has moments when a more decent Smeagol emerges. We should adopt a more nuanced read of both Tolkien and life.

About the Author
Rabbi Yitzchak Blau is a rosh yeshiva at Yeshivat Orayta and also teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum. He is an associate editor of the journal Tradition and the author of Fresh Fruit and Vintage Wine: The Ethics and Wisdom of the Aggada.
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