The world of Middle Earth in which the epic Lord of the Rings took place is full of wondrous things, different lands and races but also caricatured simplicity. The clichés of the fair-skinned elves and the deformed dark-skinned orcs have become tired tropes recycled endlessly for much of fantasy before the breakthrough of the grim-dark era of more gritty, grounded and morally grey stories.
Lord of the Rings is either beautiful or boring depending on your preference. I suspect if I had watched it today I would be hating it rather than loving it, seeing it as a woefully simplistic and borderline racist story. In Lord of the Rings, you know who the bad guys always are. Any intellectual leg-work on morality, motivations and causes for empathy are lost because the orcs are always going to be the bad ones.
But of course writing stories in black and white and seeing the real world in that rather than the gradients of grey it deserves is a comforting retreat into a bubble of self-protecting yet self-harming, false sense of moral supremacy. It’s one where the difficult questions and difficult decisions are avoided because it’s so easy to identify who is good and who is bad. If you know who the bad guys always are then anything else that anyone does is really in degrees of reaction to it and you don’t have to ask difficult questions of yourselves. It’s almost as if the world of Middle Earth orbits Mordor and reacts to it. And in our real life, it’s almost as if for many leftists that the world moves around American foreign policy and any other form of action by anyone else therefore is merely a reactionary product of aggressive American colonial interests.
This view is a pretty popular one amongst the left based on a splatter of American mishaps throughout history, ranging from the support for the brutal dictator General Pinochet, the disastrous Vietnam War and Iraq War, the numerous covert operations, the cover ups of tortures and the sense that America is the spider at the centre of the web that is capitalism. If neo-liberalism is the global economic system creating waves of disorder throughout the world then it’s being pumped out of Washington.
From that anything can be either directly blamed on America or as a consequence of something they have done. This again is where the left lazily envisions a world of clear lines, in which it’s easy to paint out who the bad guys are so difficult decisions are never having to be taken. If you can blame everything on one group, you don’t have to ask questions of the other.
And that really is the problem when it comes to the left and Russia.
For a while now Russia have been the spider spinning the webs in the shadows. Their involvement in Ukraine has been to undermine the sovereignty of the latter while in Syria they have participated in mass murder. There has been clear evidence that Russia have meddled in British and American politics, swaying at least a number of votes against Hillary Clinton and the Remain vote. This would suggest a chilling revival of Russian imperialism at the heart of their foreign policy interests, and yet with almost yawning predictability, there are large parts of the left who have shut down over this.
Leftists such as Rania Khalek, Ben Norton, Glenn Greenwald, The Canary and others regularly decry news about Russia as merely distractions from western aggression. They represent the strand of political opinion that the events of the world can be explained in a reaction to something the Americans have done. And even when evidence is laid bare, that the Russians have been interfering in elections, that they have murdered thousands in Syria, these same leftists regularly ignore it all as some sort of McCarthyism witch-hunt. These atrocities and crimes can be explained or justified because America are at the root of it or cannot really be condemned because America have done it all before.
There are two responses to dealing with this and the first is that America under Barack Obama had not been attacking Russian interests in Syria, which is the preservation of the Assad regime. Obama adamantly refused to intervene whilst in Ukraine there’s been little sight of the west. There’s little to suggest that fear of the Americans precipitated a barrage of air strikes from Russia upon the Syrian civilians in cities such as Aleppo. Yet the common anti-war leftist argument now is that the supply of arms to supposed terrorists is what enraged the Russians into action.
The era of fake news fuelled by social media means that myths are harder to debunk once they’ve settled. Russia know this and pounce upon this, spreading misinformation under the guise of alternative media. Yet what the new brand of supposedly revolutionary, edgy media often ends up being is substituting one imperialism for another. Here the focus is so overwhelmingly on the Americans that it erases the Russians out of the limelight because they can’t be bad if only the Americans are bad.
One can hold both the position that Trump’s victory and Brexit were largely the fruit of economic and cultural tensions whilst still acknowledging that Russia’s creeping hand over world affairs is not something to be taken lightly.
If you watch Lord of the Rings you realise the decisions are so easy for the heroes to make because we know who the bad guys are and where they are. That is how some of the western left have imagined the world.