Then Denethor leaped upon the table, and standing there wreathed in fire and smoke he took up the staff of his stewardship that lay at his feet and broke it on his knee. Casting the pieces into the blaze he bowed and laid himself on the table, clasping the palantír with both hands upon his breast. And it was said that ever after, if any man looked in that Stone, unless he had great strength of will to turn it to other purpose, he saw only two aged hands wither in flame.
—The Pyre of Denethor, The Return of the King
Editor’s Note: We tried to stop him, but the bear got into the mead a bit hard this time. It’s been cleaned up as best we could manage, but caveat lector: what follows can generously be classified a rant.
Well, that was unpleasant. Let’s never do that again. But wait, there’s more. The calendar rolls over and time marches on its inexorable path toward entropy. Forgive this morose bear, but it is difficult to look back on this year with any sort of fondness. In the annals of annorum, this was surely one of the worst.
What better way to commemorate such a travesty than in my usual ursine fashion, as a farcical deck. Per usual, find the list on RingsDB.Time will tell whether this year inspires a creative renaissance. It did not feel appropriate to create alternate art for this offal – the prospect of representing 2020 visually was unseemly. Those wishing to double down on the joke and build this for themselves are left to collect scraps from the table of official reprints, like plebeians after a particularly grotesque Bacchanal.
Ordinarily, winter is the time bears spend hibernating and I was looking forward to just such respite. This year taught us many lessons, one of which was that plans are made to be changed, or even exploded into small cough-inducing sputum. In a sense, 2020 can be seen as one prolonged stupefying hibernation. At last count, I read over 80 books this year. Do not mistake me – this is not some impressive achievement. It only stands as solemn testimony to all of the other things I did not do this year (fingers crossed for Con of the Rings 2021).
Pedants will doubtless question the inclusion of Denethor in this deck list. At best, Gondor’s hapless steward is no better than any other ally to be mustered by his short-lived successor (bit of a thematic chicken-or-the-egg paradox, that). Other times, he sits like a dead fish in your hand, wanting desperately to be anyone else. Anyone who could actually help quell the tide of evil building outside the walls. At worst he destroys himself instantly in an immolation of hubristic nihilism. I simply cannot think of a more fitting mascot for this year than a paranoid but ineffectual leader whose ultimate undoing is his own narcissism.
Strategy, these articles require strategy, don’t they? The one who smells like he lives out of doors (spoiler alert: he does) lays traps, which help to bring more traps. This year was nothing if not trap-laden. Astute readers should at this point start to sense a theme. The woodman/woodwoman/woodperson uses her ingenuity to find more fuel for the conflagration. Despite being essential to the engine that keeps the whole mad escapade running, her quiet competence is unsettling to the superstitious townsfolk. They will either reward her with burning at the stake – or 70% of the remuneration of her male counterparts. The princeling uses fascistic criteria to decide who among his friends will next be scarified for the needs of Capitalism, also known as combat phase ally mustering.
We placed the necessary word progress on that side thread, now back to the main thread. In retrospect, I made the classic mistake of hanging expectations on an arbitrary hook, one not attached to a load-bearing section of reality. In my naive bear-like mind, I thought that 2021 would bring some kind of change. Some difference to the soul-numbing sameness of this year. You see, I did not in fact want to spend the entire year isolating and reading books.
Like any self-respecting introvert, I enjoy my brief forays into the alien world of the “normals”. Not only do these adventures expose me to interesting ideas outside of my own headspace, but they provide much needed recharge to fuel further introspection. Instead, this year has been an unending series of half conversations, banal and repetitive. They take place only in my head.
If only I had listened to my Zen master as a young cub. Desire is the root of suffering, and my desire for the new year to bring some solace has only fueled my angst, now that this looks unlikely. Still, a bear can do naught but hope. Vaccines – for those actually willing to take them – offer one such glimpse of sunlight. These are countered by news that another mutation of the virus has begun spreading. The tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and too many others looked – for the briefest of moments – like they might spur some small improvement in social justice. Sadly, the economic fallout of the pandemic along with a historically contentious election have drawn people’s attention elsewhere. I do not discount the impact the pandemic has had on people’s lives and livelihoods but a society which does not treat its citizens equally is fundamentally without freedom for anyone. While we obsess over when things “go back to normal”, it’s easy to forget that “normal” means so people are still treated as less than.
Several books I read this year, specifically because I wanted a deeper understanding of the Black experience in America, in their own words. I can wholeheartedly recommend: Beloved, The Color Purple, Roots, and The Known World. These merely scratch the surface of a background for slavery and the civil rights movement, but they’re a good start. Frankly something like the above syllabus should be required reading in all American schools. Reading (or in some cases re-reading) these books was not only moving, but helped me have a more nuanced perspective of issues affecting Black people in America today.
Humor me, dear readers, while I make an aside inside of an already precarious narrative thread. One particularly salient detail of the civil rights struggle was unknown to me, and is essential to a deeper understanding of the history of Black people in America. Before emancipation, many Southern communities lacked any kind of official police force. Indeed, police and fire departments are precisely the kinds of thing one uses to measure when a society had “grown up”, so to speak. However, what many of these communities did have is rag-tag bands of poor, mostly uneducated White people, who served as slave catchers for the landed gentry.
As with any oppressive system, many slaves rebelled and ran away, therefore communities needed men who would hunt these slaves and return them to their owners. In the antebellum South, this is what “keeping the peace” meant. Setting aside for a moment the barbarity of a system where human beings own each other, there is a fundamental problem with using poor uneducated Whites as your de facto police force. The stories of brutality inflicted upon slaves and free Blacks by these men are horrific in nature. Murder, rape, mutilation, and kidnapping, all were regularly inflicted on Black members of Southern society at the hands of these “slave catchers”. The very men committing these atrocities were the ones who evolved into the police forces of these post-war Southern communities.
With emancipation, slaves were technically freed, but the system of oppression did not substantively change. The same barbaric slave catchers stayed on to coalesce into police forces while Jim Crow laws were enacted to systematically disenfranchise Black people. The Ku Klux Klan joined these former slave catchers on the police forces all across America. One common refrain heard this year: “if Black people just obeyed police commands, they wouldn’t be hurt”. Not only is this demonstrably untrue, but it completely ignores the history of America.
The mentality of many of these police forces from their very inception has not been to protect and serve Black people, quite the contrary. As with many systems founded on false premises, these institutions are fundamentally incapable, as currently constructed, of carrying out their stated duties. For generations, those “keeping the peace” where operating from the perspective of “protecting White civility from the dangerous Blacks”. One only needs to look at procedures (“knee on the neck”, etc.) utilized by police forces across America, disproportionally aimed at Black Americans, to see how this mentality survives in 2020.
There is hope. I have to believe that we can be better as human beings. Better at recognizing the systems of inequality inculcated in our past. Better at righting wrongs and moving forward together. For my part, I want to specifically find ways to be more compassionate and take that extra moment to think about how someone else’s experience might be different from mine. Change really can be a series of small steps in the right direction, but we have to make those steps – we cannot wait on future generations to succeed where were have failed to even try.
I won’t mince words. This year was a dumpster fire. I don’t see 2021 being drastically different in the immediate term. The tiny spark of an optimist still alive inside of me is hoping that things eventually improve. Somehow, spilling words all willy-nilly on a page does bring a small catharsis. If nothing else, I can pretend that I am not alone in shaking my paws at the universe and wondering what the heck is going on, and when the sun will break through the clouds.