You really know your political career is in trouble when people start comparing you to Gollum. Poor Theresa May was on the wrong end of some Tolkien-inspired satire last week, when the actor Andy Serkis released a spoof video with the title “LEAKED: Footage from Inside No 10 Downing Street!” Serkis, who played Gollum in Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings, had the inspired idea of combining the characters of the prime minister and Tolkien’s cadaverous, covetous, conflicted villain.
“Our precious, our agreement, our deal,” hisses Mayllum to herself. “Yes, yes, we takes back control, borders, laws, blue passportses . . .”
Just as in The Hobbit, the novel that introduced Gollum to the world, Mayllum has a split personality. Part of her craves the draft withdrawal agreement as obsessively as Gollum craves the magical golden ring. But part of her — the remnant of the person who 2½ years ago half-heartedly campaigned to keep Britain in the EU — resists.
“No!” she moans. “It hurts the people, makes them poorer . . .” Yet the allure of the agreement is as irresistible as the allure of the ring. “But I finds it,” she hisses back at herself. “I negotiates it, we wants it, we has to do it.”
Serkis’s spoof struck a chord in our household not because we are diehard remainers (as all actors appear to be). Brexit has divided our family in unexpected ways. My wife is a committed leaver; a majority of the children are, like most of their generation, remainers.
Having campaigned against Brexit and lost, I came to terms with the referendum result, but I confess to having my own Gollum-like moments of inner struggle, which is probably why the Serkis video didn’t make me laugh.
The funny thing is that our family is equally divided over Tolkien. As a boy, I read and re-read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. My daughter is just as addicted to the films. My third son is a fellow hobbit. At the tender age of two, he responded with complete fascination when I first read him The Hobbit. Now six, he is immersed (as am I) in the spellbinding audio version recorded in the 1990s by the Australian-born actor Rob Inglis.
The scientists in the family remain baffled by our Tolkien mania. My mother and my sister — both physicists — have long regarded any book containing either elves or dwarfs as unfit for consumption by rational beings. They have been mocking me on this subject for close to half a century.
They and their ilk, however, are losing the argument. Leaving aside the great monotheistic scriptures, the Bible and the Koran, The Lord of the Rings is the most popular book in the history of publishing, having sold more than 150m copies since its publication in 1954.
Its influence is ubiquitous from Oxford, where JRR Tolkien spent most of his life, to Silicon Valley, which is full of Tolkien enthusiasts. The tech investor Peter Thiel named one of his funds after mithril, a fictional metal dreamt up by Tolkien. A palantir is a kind of crystal ball in The Lord of the Rings; it’s also the name of Alex Karp’s pioneering big data company, which hands out “Save the Shire” T-shirts to visitors. I could go on.
There is, nevertheless, a puzzle that has only just struck me. Why, if his books are so immensely popular, has Tolkien’s deep-rooted conservatism had such a tiny influence? For nearly all Tolkien’s millions of readers seem somehow to have missed the fact that the great edifice of his fiction stands on a foundation of profoundly Tory philosophy.
A devout Roman Catholic who preferred the mass in Latin and looked down on his friend CS Lewis’s Protestantism, a tweed-clad Oxford don who despised central heating and abhorred the advance of the automobile, a pipe-smoking reactionary who refused to touch French cuisine or visit the United States, Tolkien was a little Englander to the point of self-parody. In prosperous old age, he crossed a cheque to the Inland Revenue with the words “Not a penny for Concorde”. Even the Norman Conquest struck him as a contamination of his country’s Anglo-Saxon essence.
Though Tolkien himself dismissed all attempts to find contemporary meaning in The Lord of the Rings (“I dislike allegory wherever I smell it,” he once said), it is hardly accidental that his diminutive heroes inhabit an idyllic Shire, while “the enemy” is based in industrial-totalitarian Mordor, located in the east of Middle-earth.
Tolkien hit on the title The Lord of the Rings in 1938, about the time of the Munich agreement. He was contemptuous of Hitler — “that ruddy little ignoramus” — but much more suspicious of Stalin. As war drew near, Tolkien reflected that he had “a loathing of being on any side that includes Russia” and believed that Stalin was “probably ultimately far more responsible for the present crisis and choice of moment than Hitler”.
“People in this land,” he wrote in 1941, “seem not even yet to realise that in the Germans we have enemies whose virtues (and they are virtues) of obedience and patriotism are greater than ours in the mass. I have in this War a burning private grudge against . . . Hitler for ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making for ever accursed, that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved, and tried to present in its true light.”
Tolkien was first and foremost a linguist and philologist of exceptional ability. But the spirit that infused his work was so conservative that, if he were still alive today, he would be no-platformed on every campus in the land. “I am not a ‘democrat’,” he once wrote, “if only because ‘humility’ and equality are spiritual principles corrupted by the attempt to mechanise and formalise them, with the result that we get not universal smallness and humility, but universal greatness and pride, till some Orc gets hold of a ring of power — and then we get and are getting slavery.”
A veteran of the Great War who modelled the character of Sam Gamgee on his batman, Tolkien even defended deference. “Touching your cap to the squire may be damn bad for the squire,” he once remarked, “but it’s damn good for you.” The central storyline of both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings is of a pilgrimage, full of trials, tribulations and temptation, not to mention self-sacrifice. The books are only multiracial in the sense that there are hobbits, elves and dwarfs as well as men. Yes, men. In Middle-earth women are occasionally seen, rarely heard.
We are left with a profound paradox. The most popular author of modern times filled our imaginations with unforgettable characters such as Gollum — and yet failed completely to instil in us an iota of his Tory principles. The bitter irony that remainers now use Gollum to mock Brexit would not have been lost on Tolkien. Never in the field of English literature was so much misunderstood by so many.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
At the beginning of the Cold War, the artist wife of the physicist Alexander Langsdorf came up with the image of the “Doomsday Clock”. It appeared in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to illustrate the fear of many physicists, including some who had been involved in the creation of the atomic bomb, that a “technology-induced catastrophe” might be terrifyingly close. Midnight on the Doomsday Clock meant nuclear armageddon.
For many years it was the bulletin’s editor, Eugene Rabinowitch, who decided where the hands on the clock stood. After his death a committee took over, meeting twice a year to adjust the clock. During the Cold War the closest it came to midnight was in the years 1953-9, when the Doomsday Clock showed two minutes before midnight. The scientists also thought the years 1984-7 were pretty hairy: it was three minutes to midnight for four straight years.
All of which goes to show how absurd such exercises are. No matter how many reputable scientists endorsed the Doomsday Clock, historians today agree that the most dangerous moment in the Cold War was the Cuban Missile Crisis. But the Doomsday Clock was at seven minutes to midnight throughout 1962 and went back to 11.48pm the following year. Rather disconcertingly, the atomic scientists currently think we are back to two minutes to armageddon today.
I have no doubt that somewhere in academia someone is busy devising an American civil war Doomsday Clock. Any day now they’ll publish it under the headline “Two minutes to Fort Sumter”. But just how close is the United States to the kind of internecine slaughter that began when Confederate forces opened fire on South Carolina’s best-known fort in April 1861?
As I’ve argued on this page before, there is a kind of cultural civil war already being fought on social media. With the mid-term elections just over a week away, that culture war gets more febrile by the day. (I especially enjoyed the latest self-flagellating ravings of the professor at Emory University who decided to denounce himself for sexist thoughtcrimes. He really would have enjoyed Mao’s Cultural Revolution.)
Of course, the culture war is no more a real war than the trade war Donald Trump has launched against China. Nevertheless, the news last week that amateurish pipe bombs had been posted to a dozen of the president’s best-known critics, including Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, the hedge fund billionaire George Soros and the actor Robert De Niro, provided the cue for new prophecies of a second American Civil War.
The arrest on Friday of a Florida man named Cesar Sayoc, 56, was greeted with cries of “Gotcha!”. His van was covered in pro-Trump stickers including one reading “CNN sucks”.
“Trump owns this!” declared a normally sober Washington correspondent. I wonder. I don’t much like Trump’s regular criticisms of the mainstream media and occasional glorification of body-slamming. But a direct causal relationship to a nut posting a bunch of homemade bombs?
Strange how in June last year the same journalist omitted to tweet, “Sanders owns this!” after the Republican congressman Steve Scalise and three other people were shot and wounded by James Hodgkinson, a left-wing supporter of Bernie Sanders. You may say that Sanders’s rhetoric was never as inflammatory as Trump’s, but these are fine distinctions. In 2016 Sanders called Trump “particularly dangerous and un-American”, accusing him of “bigotry”. In July of this year he called Trump “our idiot president”.
Yesterday’s massacre at a synagogue in Pittsburgh makes matters much worse. Trump is no anti-semite, but some alt-right elements routinely abuse Jews. But then again, the hard left has its anti-semites too.
That people on both sides of the political divide are using intemperate language is undeniable, even if the left will always insist the other side is worse. That there is a potential for an increase in US political violence seems clear. By European standards there are terrifying numbers of lethal weapons in private hands. But civil war?
Some of the people who make this argument can be dismissed as scaremongers. When a Canadian novelist fantasises about Trump being assassinated, the United States tearing itself apart and all the nice Americans moving to Canada, it’s better to avert your gaze. Same drill when a marine turned chat show host calls for red states to secede if a future Democratic administration comes for their guns.
But when a colleague at the Hoover Institution, the historian Victor Davis Hanson, warns that we are “at the brink of a veritable civil war”, we all need to pay attention. The same goes for the National Review’s Reihan Salam, whose new book argues that without root-and-branch immigration reform, the US will come apart at the seams. I also take seriously the work of Peter Turchin, who has been arguing for some time that several leading indicators of political instability (notably inequality) are set to peak around 2020, making the US “particularly vulnerable to violent upheaval”.
Hanson’s argument is that the tensions arising from globalisation, the internet, campus leftism and illegal immigration have led to an ideological split that is also geographical. The toxic atmosphere puts him in mind not only of the 1850s but also of the 5th century BC, when “stasis” (meaning internal strife) tore apart the ancient Greek city states.
Like our colleague Morris Fiorina, I am inclined towards the optimistic view that most normal Americans find the culture war exhausting. As I argued here last week, the evidence suggests that the extreme right and extreme left are two noisy minorities. They would be lost without one another, but they turn everyone else off.
Hanson, who still sees further polarisation as avoidable, makes a crucial point, though. History repeatedly shows that “zealous and sometimes warring tiny minorities can escalate tensions, nullify opposition and bully the silenced majority to sanction — or at least not object to — violence”.
The most troubling analogy I heard last week was between the 2020 presidential election and that of 1860. My interlocutor noted that Abraham Lincoln won a four-way race in 1860. If a centrist, say the Ohio governor John Kasich, runs as an independent, if the Democrats nominate a progressive (Kamala Harris, anyone?) and if Trump seeks re-election, we could have a somewhat similar situation.
The implication is not comforting. For the election of 1860 made clear that the divisions over the issue of slavery had become unbridgeable. Lincoln’s victory was swiftly followed by the secession of seven Southern states and the formation of the Confederacy.
True, there is no single issue in today’s culture war. True, the time on the civil war Doomsday Clock looks more like 11.08 than 11.58. But when I tell you who drew the 1860 analogy to my attention, you’ll know why I’m troubled. Reader, it was Steve Bannon.
It was the week identity politics ate itself. It was the week we learnt that the Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren is between 1/1,024 and 1/64 Native American Indian. It was also the week that Harvard — a bastion of American liberalism — was taken to court for discriminating against Asian-American applicants. Savour these moments. They may mean that we have reached a long overdue turning point.
By undergoing a DNA test, Warren no doubt intended to counter the taunt that she had made up, or at least exaggerated, her Native American ancestry. At some point, repeatedly being called “Pocahontas” by President Trump just became intolerable.
Yet the results of the test can only have been disappointing. To have it established scientifically that you are between 0.098% and 1.563% Native American is hardly a resounding vindication if, as Warren did, you changed your ethnicity from white to Native American at the University of Pennsylvania in 1989 and you agreed to be listed as Native American when you taught at Harvard, too.
In 2012 Warren claimed her mother and father eloped because the latter’s parents didn’t want their son marrying a woman who was “part Cherokee and . . . part Delaware”. Which two toenails were they worried about?
Looking back, you can see why Warren was tempted to turn the family lore that her great-great-great-grandmother was a Cherokee into a full-blown claim to minority status. She built her career as a law professor during the 1980s and 1990s, when the first great wave of political correctness was sweeping American campuses. At that time, being both a woman and a Native American suddenly became advantageous.
Similar calculations were being made by Ivy League admissions offices as they sought ways to increase the diversity of their very white student bodies. The policy of “affirmative action” was introduced, which lowered the standards expected of African-American, Hispanic and Native American applicants. The immediate and intended consequence was to deny some well-qualified white students places at Harvard and Yale they would otherwise have won.
But then admissions deans noticed a worrying trend. Each year the number of very, very well-qualified Asian and Asian-American applicants was rising. Diversity was not supposed to produce an undergraduate population that was two-fifths Chinese, if not more. The goal was a rainbow nation, not Chimerica.
As a Harvard professor, I first became aware of the issue when Ron Unz published a disturbing critique of Ivy League admissions policies. Since the mid-1990s, Unz pointed out, Asians had consistently accounted for around 16% of Harvard enrolments. At Columbia the Asian share had actually fallen from 23% in 1993 to below 16% in 2011. Yet, according to the US census, the ratio of Asians to whites aged 18-21 had more than doubled in that period. Moreover, Asians now accounted for 28% of National Merit Scholarship semi-finalists and 39% of students at CalTech, where admissions are based purely on academic merit.
Now the advocacy group Students for Fair Admissions, which opposes affirmative action, is suing Harvard for discriminating against Asian applicants. Its court filings include evidence that Harvard’s Asian applicants have better grade-point averages, higher test scores and even more extensive extracurricular involvement than their counterparts in any other ethnic group.
The way the system seems to work is that Harvard admissions officers give poorer personal ratings to Asian-American applicants. “He’s quiet and, of course, wants to be a doctor,” was the verdict on one Asian who didn’t make the cut.
Don’t get me wrong. I loved my time at Harvard. The college’s dean of admissions, William Fitzsimmons, has an extraordinarily difficult task each year of selecting just 2,000 young people out of more than 42,000 applicants — which he has performed with great dedication for more than 30 years. In its way each Harvard graduating class is a work of art. But the impression has nevertheless been created that Harvard has reverted to the bad habits of the 1920s, when its president, Abbott Lawrence Lowell, sought to reduce the share of Jews in the student body by introducing loaded criteria such as “character” to the admissions process.
This is where identity politics leads. Over the past three decades, self-styled progressives have insisted with fanatical zeal on the primacy of racial and sexual identities. Meanwhile, the so-called “alt-right” has responded with increasingly overt appeals to “white nationalism”.
At times it can seem as if Americans have decided to re-enact the Civil War on the internet. But in today’s culture war there are any number of sides and issues, not just two sides and one issue.
Yet, as a newly published study shows, a reassuringly large proportion of Americans think all this is nuts. Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarised Landscape offers a new political typology that divides Americans into seven political categories:
1 Progressive activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry (8%)
2 Traditional liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious (11%)
3 Passive liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned (15%)
4 Politically disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial (26%)
5 Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant (15%)
6 Traditional conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic (19%)
7 Devoted conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising, patriotic (6%)
On the extremes — groups 1 and 7 — life is literally as well as metaphorically black and white. Fully 99% of progressives believe that “Many white people today don’t recognise the real advantages they have.” But 82% of devoted conservatives reject this, maintaining, “Nowadays white people do not have any real advantages over others.” It’s the same polarised story on the whole suite of identity politics issues: immigration, Islamophobia, feminism.
But the picture is very different in the middle. The study characterises groups 2 to 5 as “the exhausted majority”. The striking thing is that, though they have been completely turned off politics by the shrill extremes, they still have views — and on identity politics there is no mistaking their rightward tilt.
Four-fifths of all Americans believe that political correctness has gone too far. Only 30% of progressives agree. The strongest proponents of identity politics are in fact out of sync with the great majority. And 85% of all Americans — close to 90% of the exhausted majority — also believe that race should not be considered in the college admissions process. Only 40% of progressive activists agree.
I am not saying that, at most, 1/64 of American DNA is progressive. But I am saying that identity politics is devouring itself. And, as Elizabeth Warren can testify, it tastes bitter.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
There are autocrats. Look around. According to Freedom House, a quarter of the world’s states are “not free”. More than a third of the world’s population lives in those states. From Venezuela, the least free state in the Americas, all the way to Vladivostok, an even larger share of the world’s land area is ruled by autocrats of one sort or another: presidents for life, hereditary monarchs, ayatollahs, dear leaders.
“Undemocratic regime kills journalist” is a headline that, most of the time, vies with “Dog bites man” for the bottom right-hand corner of page 5. However, the fate of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi — who has not been seen since entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2 — has become front-page news. Why?
Cynical commentators have been reminded of Stalin’s observation that “the death of one man is a tragedy; the death of millions is a statistic”. After all, the Saudi regime has been killing a great many people in Yemen, where its armed forces have been fighting Houthi rebels since 2015. Only on a very slow news day does that war make the front pages.
Yet this misses the real point. Democratic states also go to war from time to time and generally kill plenty of people when they do. Making war is not a peculiarity of autocrats. But democratic politicians cannot order the assassination of journalists (even if they may sometimes fantasise about doing so).
The real question here is why Khashoggi’s fate is attracting so much more attention than that of, say, Ibrahim al-Munjar, a correspondent for the Syrian news website Sy24, who was shot and killed in the city of Saida on the morning of May 17.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Khashoggi’s death would make him the 45th journalist killed this year; 27 of them were murdered. Ten of the victims were journalists working in Afghanistan, under a government that depends on US military support. I’ll bet you can’t name a single one of them.
The explanation of the storm around Khashoggi is simple. First, he worked for The Washington Post. Second, the strong suspicion that he has been murdered at the orders of the Saudi government is highly embarrassing to the administration of Donald Trump — if not to the president himself, who is of course incapable of being embarrassed — because resuscitating the relationship between Washington and Riyadh has been central to its strategy in the Middle East.
It is embarrassing, too, for the very large number of western businessmen and journalists who over the past year have accepted the invitations of the Saudi crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman (MBS). That clicking sound you hear is hundreds of emails being sent to cancel the earlier acceptances of invitations to MBS’s Future Investment Initiative (“Davos in the desert”), which is due to take place later this month.
It should go without saying that I deplore the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, if that was indeed the fate that befell him. But I deplore all murders, not just the murders of journalists who work for The Washington Post. I am also quite strongly opposed to wrongful imprisonment. The government currently pointing the accusing finger at Saudi Arabia is none other than Turkey’s. Right now, 68 journalists are serving jail sentences in Turkey, with a further 169 held awaiting trial.
In Washington the chorus of the permanently indignant — after a brief pause to digest its failure to derail the confirmation of the Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh — is now demanding that the Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, join the boycott of Davos in the desert. But some Republicans are also up in arms. On Thursday the Republican chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, Bob Corker, said America should impose sanctions on Saudi Arabia if Khashoggi has indeed been murdered.
Wait a second. The Turks say they have audio and video evidence to prove their allegation. Let’s see it first, shall we? Because I no more trust the Turkish dictator, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, than I do MBS. And Erdogan has no shortage of motives for skulduggery of his own. He has every reason to mistrust his Russian spouse-of-convenience, Vladimir Putin, when it comes to Syria. His currency just fell off a cliff and his banks are in trouble, so he could use some help from the International Monetary Fund. Funny how the Khashoggi story broke a few days before the Turks released the US pastor Andrew Brunson this weekend.
As I said, there are autocrats — lots of them, especially in and around the Middle East. When it comes to press freedom, it’s a really close ugliness contest. Is the US supposed to have diplomatic relations only with liberal democracies? If so, that means just Israel in that part of the world. Hands up, all those in favour of that approach. (At this point Jeremy Corbyn and all those on the left who share his deep antipathy to Israel start hissing.)
The problem is not a new one: it is as old as American foreign policy. You can’t be a great power, much less a superpower, and not have dealings — and sometimes alliances — with nasty, undemocratic regimes. And the mere fact you form alliances with them won’t make them change their ways.
You would think by now this simple truth would be obvious. But no. There will always be a market for hacks wanting to write “J’accuse” articles about any president or secretary of state (so long as he’s Republican) who has “blood on his hands” because he shook the hands of dictators.
What’s more irritating is the inability of the authors of such articles ever to get the orders of magnitude right. For reasons that are hard to fathom, Henry Kissinger has been condemned over and over again for having conveyed American support to General Pinochet’s regime in Chile, yet he has been praised to the skies just as frequently for having brought Richard Nixon to China to shake the hand of Mao Tse-tung. Which dictator killed more people? There’s no contest.
I’m still waiting for the “J’accuse” about the Obama administration’s restoration of military aid to Egypt in 2015 — two years after the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Mohamed Morsi and the bloody repression of his Muslim Brotherhood supporters. In 2013-14, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, eight journalists were killed in Egypt, two in crossfire. Since 2013 Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s government has imprisoned 20 journalists. Where were the headlines when the F-16 fighters were delivered to Cairo in 2015?
In foreign policy, sad to relate, the measure of success is not the cleanness of the hands you shake; it’s how far the strategy you pursue achieves its intended goals. I still rate the Trump administration’s strategy higher than that of Obama, because confronting Iran with a broad coalition — from Israel to Saudi Arabia — makes more sense than betting on good behaviour by Tehran, which was the essence of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
Will this strategy make the Arab autocrats nicer people? Did the Iran deal made the ayatollahs any sweeter?
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford