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Saturday, July 23, 2016

Is Game of Thrones more Christian than Lord of the Rings?

In a recent Facebook discussion, Rebecca Bratten Weiss (of the excellent "Suspended in Her Jar" blog on Patheos) suggested that the treatment of violence in the "Song of Ice and Fire" books by George R. R. Martin is, in a sense, more truly Christian than Tolkien's treatment of the same subjects. In Tolkien a conquering, messianic emperor brings peace through righteous violence. In Martin, on the other hand, violence is portrayed in its full horror.

Furthermore, in the fourth book, Feast of Crows, Martin presents characters (clerics in the dominant religion of Westeros, the "Faith of the Seven") who provide a moral critique, implicitly pacifist, of the war that has torn the country apart and the ethos of honor and glory that has fueled it. As one of these characters, Septon Meribald, wanders with Brienne of Tarth across the devastated landscape of Westeros, he speaks of the horror of war and the way it eventually "breaks" those caught up in it. "In times like these," he concludes, "the traveler must beware of broken men, and fear them. . . . but he should pity them as well." (Another character, the "Elder Brother" of a monastic community on the "Quiet Isle," has similar things to say.) That Brienne, of all the knights and warriors in the books, is the one to hear these denunciations of war is significant. She's one of the purest-hearted characters in the series--someone who actually takes the code of chivalry seriously, not least because, as a woman, she's not supposed to participate in knighthood at all.

I agree with Rebecca that Martin provides a powerful critique of war in the Song of Ice and Fire and an ethos of compassion toward its victims, and that the books are far from nihilistic or amoral. However, I disagree with her suggestion that the books are more in line with an appropriate Christian ethic than Lord of the Rings, no doubt in part because of our disagreements about what that ethic is.

Rebecca is a pacifist. She believes that war is never justified, and thus that a Christian approach to war needs to be one of total rejection. In particular, she has expressed concerns (in this post, for instance) about "play-acting militarism" that "obscures the reality of war." When we read Tolkien, or Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia, we imagine ourselves as heroes fighting nobly against terrible odds. This could make us more likely to approve of real wars, because we see them through the mythical haze provided by these heroic fantasy narratives. LOTR culminates in the coronation of a heroic warrior king who brings peace and justice to the world. It could quite conceivably lead us to expect such a messianic hero in our own place and time.

And these concerns have plenty of warrant. Right after 9/11, I remember reading an article that used LOTR as a template for the geopolitical situation, comparing the French, if I remember rightly, to Saruman. More than once I've heard neo-conservative supporters of an aggressive foreign policy use (or, in my opinion, misuse) Faramir's wonderful speech about "not loving the bright sword for its sharpness, etc.. . . but the things that these defend" as a justification for their position. The fact that Peter Jackson's first LOTR adaptation premiered a few months after 9/11 made this sort of interpretation of Tolkien's work all the more appealing, not least because the movies emphasized the warlike elements in the books and played down the ironic complexity of Tolkien's vision.

In spite of this, I don't agree that Martin's books are to be preferred (as a whole) to Tolkien's as a guide for Christians in questions of war and peace. This is partly because I'm not quite a pacifist--I believe that just wars are in principle possible, although very rare, a position some people call "practical pacifism." And one of the reasons I take this position is indeed because of my love of Tolkien and Lewis. They have provided me with an idealistic picture of what just war might look like. But I don't find that this makes me particularly likely to justify real wars in the real world. On the contrary, precisely because I have an ideal picture of what just war would have to look like, I have a moral standard by which I can judge the wars that take place in the world around me and find them morally lacking.

In my experience, this position actually infuriates pro-war people more than pacifism does. In a debate I engaged in on Patheos a couple of years ago with David French and Keith Pavlischek, for instance, Pavlischek snapped that I wasn't a "practical pacifist"--I was just an outright pacifist. It's important for many defenders of war to put all their opponents in a bag called "pacifist" and then declare them all irrelevant to questions of whether it's right to wage a particular war. People who say that in principle a war might be justified, but are almost impossible to persuade of the justice of any particular war, mess up that strategy badly.

One of Pavlischek's major arguments against pacifism, drawn from Elizabeth Anscombe, is that it makes all violence equally bad. (See his essay critiquing Reinhold Niebuhr's Christian realism, which argues that Niebuhr and the pacifists share the same basic mistake about the immorality of all war.) In Anscombe argues that pacifism leads to the "loss of the conception of murder." If what is bad is violence or killing of any kind, then people lose the ability to understand why killing the innocent is always wrong. People come to think of pacifism as the "absolute ideal," while assuming that if one is not a pacifist there's no use bringing moral considerations into the business of warfare at all.

I don't think that this is a fair criticism of Christian pacifism. But I do think it's a very fair criticism of the kind of "pacifism" found in the Song of Ice and Fire, and indeed of any pacifism that is primarily founded on the horror of war rather than on the love of one's enemies and the message of the Cross.

For one thing, I'm not convinced that the Song of Ice and Fire is pacifist. Of course there are problems with even asking whether a series of books is or is not pacifist. But I don't find that reading the books makes me more inclined to pacifism. It's hard to see how pacifism would be an appropriate response to Ramsay Bolton or Gregor Clegane or Vargo Hoat, and I see nothing in the books indicating that Martin thinks it would be. Rather, my visceral response to them is "do whatever you have to do to take these monsters down."

Martin's dark vision of the horror of war certainly implies that we should not wage war unless we have to. But it also implies, I think, that if we are forced to fight we should do whatever we need to do in order to win. Martin's books embody precisely the polarity of realism and pacifism that Anscombe and Pavlischek criticize. Because any possible vision of just and honorable warfare is deconstructed so ruthlessly, we are left with two options: a pacifist withdrawal from the "game of thrones" altogether, which is compassionate and admirable but cannot in itself bring justice and order, or a grim determination to do what must be done even if it violates traditional codes of honor and chivalry. This is not nihilism, but it is, I think, relativism and consequentialism. (Here's one concrete example--Jaime's monstrous threat to murder Edmure's child appears, within Martin's narrative world, to be the moral choice, because it results in a bloodless resolution to the siege of Riverrun.)

So which fantasy narrative, Tolkien's or Martin's, would be more likely to give us pause when considering the use of violence in the contemporary world? If my ethical responses were shaped primarily by Martin's view of the world, I would look at ISIS and say, "we must do whatever we need to do to take out these monsters." I would be less likely to worry about the traditional rules of just war, as long as the ultimate goal was to bring peace to the Middle East.

I oppose bombing campaigns and other morally questionable responses to evil precisely because I am formed primarily by Tolkien, not by Martin. I start with an ideal of what a righteous response to evil looks like, not with the horror of the evil I wish to oppose. And I think that's by far the healthier place to start.

I've been quoting G. K. Chesterton a lot lately, because so often he seems to have diagnosed the maladies of our culture a hundred years in advance. In his book Heretics, in the chapter "On the Negative Spirit," Chesterton mentions early 20th-century writers such as Ibsen, Maupassant, and Zola, who were controversial for their (by 19th-century standards) often explicit subject matter. Chesterton dismisses this charge and says that the real problem with these authors is that they have a very clear vision of evil but a misty vision of the good. I don't think that applies to Martin exactly--compassion and empathy come across very clearly in his works as unequivocal goods. But I think it's true of Martin as of the more conventionally "high-brow" figures of modern literature that his moral vision is expressed largely in negative terms.

Chesterton cites an author named G. W. Foote (not someone I've heard of elsewhere) to the effect that pictures of a drunkard's liver would do more to discourage drunkenness "than any prayer or praise," and he takes this as symbolic of the "negative spirit" he sees pervading modern ethics. "In that temple the lights are low, the crowds kneel, the solemn anthems are uplifted. But that upon the altar to which all men kneel is no longer the perfect flesh, the body and substance of the perfect man; it is still flesh, but it is diseased. It is the drunkard's liver of the New Testament that is marred for us, which which we take in remembrance of him." Earlier in the same essay, Chesterton remarks, "A young man may keep himself from vice by continually thinking of disease. He may keep himself from it also by continually thinking of the Virgin Mary. There may be question about which method is the more reasonable, or even about which is the more efficient. But surely there can be no question about which is the more wholesome."

Martin's books are perhaps the best fantasy literature since Tolkien. In spite of some exploitative elements, their dark vision is, on the whole, a deeply moral one. They're well worth reading (for adults with strong stomachs), and I agree that they offer a needed counterpoint to Tolkien's more idealistic vision. In particular, they can help correct the ways many people misuse Tolkien as a sanction for nationalism and militarism. But in the end, if I have to choose, I'm still going to go with Tolkien as my primary fantasy author. Martin, for all his merits, has too much drunkard's liver and not enough Virgin Mary.

Saturday, July 09, 2016

Is organic food really no better than conventional?

Every so often an article appears informing us all, in a very superior tone, that organic food is a big sham which can't feed the world and isn't really any better than conventional food. This article from the Telegraph is the most recent one to make the rounds.

Certainly just "buying organic" isn't a panacea. Most people I know in the sustainable food movement are quite aware of this already. For one thing, most of us are less concerned with whether food meets official "organic" criteria than with whether it is grown in an environmentally sustainable manner, with a minimal use of pesticides of any kind (including "organic" ones), and produced and consumed in a way that strengthens local economies and builds rather than destroying communities. Health is certainly part of it, because if you grow the food yourself or know your supplier you have a lot more control over quality. But I don't know anyone actually involved in the organic/sustainable movement who is so naive as to think that just walking into a store and buying something labeled "organic" automatically makes the food you are eating healthy or environmentally sustainable.

The assumption behind the article is that people in the organic movement want to replace a massive commercial "conventional" system with a massive commercial "organic" system. But we don't. Ideally we'd like to see more people around the world growing their own food and a preservation of traditional foodways. I at least am realistic about the fact that this isn't going to be feasible for many people, and non-judgmental about the food choices people in the developing world (and poor people here) have to make. As I see it, the sustainable food movement has two prongs:

1. Persuade prosperous people (i.e., people living above the poverty line as defined in the "developed" world) to make more sustainable choices, which includes eating local, eating less meat, and being willing to pay relatively more for food compared to other expenses; and then

2. Make sustainable and healthy food options available to less prosperous people as much as possible, without in any way laying a guilt trip on them for not being able to make sustainable choices.

In other words, of course it would be a bad thing to "switch to organic" on some massive centralized scale. But the more firmly sustainable options are established as culturally preferable, the more likely it is that people will make sustainable choices when they can.

I don't understand the kind of economic reasoning involved in saying things like "200 million in lower productivity" that then "can't be spent on health care." That seems to imply that all the GNP goes either to food or to health care, which is patently ridiculous. I'm also not sure how organic food is going to make people other than farmers "less productive." Granted the article's premise that organic food will have much lower yields (which I'm not convinced of, but which may be true), that doesn't necessarily mean less food. Think, for instance, of the massive amount of land in North America that goes to raise corn which is then used to feed animals for meat. If people ate considerably less meat (and most people in the developed world eat _far_ more meat than they need) then all that land could be used to grow vegetable crops instead. I drive through the Midwest and look at the massive cornfields and think, "what if each of those fields was devoted to growing a variety of organic vegetables instead?" 

The flawed logic behind the article is illustrated by the little sidebar discouraging people from eating kale and drinking green tea, because these things can be harmful _in massive quantities_.

Whatever happened to moderation?