Tolkien, Politics, and Hobbies vs. “Real Life”

Bear with American Flag
Other than the odd post with alternate art cards, I’ve been notably silent these days. More than the typical “life is busy” refrain, this stems from a certain unease with events outside of the game. “Real life”, so to speak, has intruded into the life of my hobbies. It is fair to say that US politics have changed rather dramatically in the last several months. Like most seemingly radical changes, it is probably more accurate to say that things have been changing for quite some time but it took a singular moment for many Americans (myself included) to finally notice this shift.

It’s best to acknowledge up front that I am delving into the dangerous realm of politics. This blog is about a game, which I play as part of my hobby, and many readers and fans of the game play specifically to escape from the drudgery and ugliness of “real life”. I too live with this bifurcation between the outside world and the world of my hobbies. This has been a comfortable fiction, but a fiction nonetheless, and one which no longer serves its purpose. For those who only want to read articles about the game, and see pretty pictures of alternate art cards, I recommend you skip this article. For those who are curious about what has been going on in the life of the author, read on.

About a month ago, I posted a deck to RingsDB called “Middle-earth, Without Immigrants”. This was my first attempt to break down these self-imposed barriers between games and my everyday life. The primary intent of that deck, beyond pointing out the irony of anti-immigrant rhetoric, was to start a conversation about how abstract political agendas have a very real impact on people’s lives. This fine community of players did not disappoint me, and the comment thread of that deck evolved into an interesting discussion. Contributors added their voices in support and provided unique viewpoints on the issue. I ended up sharing part of my wife’s immigrant story in one of the comments, but I’ve decided that it deserves its own place here. I’ve used this blog to make announcements of my achievements, to share the sadness of my loss, and to revel in the fraternity of community, so it feels appropriate to share about what is affecting my life most in the last several months. What follows is an excerpt of the story which I first shared in that comment.

One of the reasons why America is great is because we have welcomed wave after wave of immigrants. I do not see this as a controversial statement, and if you disagree, I challenge you to go back through our 240 year history and try to make that case. The anti-immigrant sentiments that are de rigueur are by no means new. The same terrible lies were made about (among others): Germans, Italians, Polish, Irish, Koreans, Chinese, Japanese, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, etc. – this list goes back to the first two tribes of human beings. They were xenophobic lies then, and they are xenophobic lies now.

I make this argument not as some abstract part of a political platform to which I hold blind allegiance. I say this because it is something which I know intuitively to be right and just and decent. I also happen to have seen the effects of this anti-immigration propaganda in the lives of my loved ones.

My wife immigrated to the United from Mexico only 10 years ago. Her father was a powerful man in Mexico, but he refused to submit to the will of the Cartels. They threatened to kill his family, and rather than give in to corruption, he and his family fled to the United States.

If we want to be technical about labels, they really should have been called refugees, but as Mexicans the United States government has an official position of treating them (at best) with suspicion and (at worst) with outright disrespect. Overnight, her father went from being in a position of power in the second largest state of Mexico, to cleaning toilets in office buildings. His youngest daughter, my wife, went from studying for a law degree to working two jobs at minimum wage to help support her family. I strongly suspect that those who say things like “immigrants are stealing our jobs” or “immigrants are lazy” have never taken the time to get to know an immigrant. Ignorance is so often the breeding ground for erroneous notions. Meeting people who are different from us is like the sun, it drives away all shadows of fear and mistrust.

The fact that her family does not all still work minimum wage jobs is a living testament to the American dream. They worked hard, and they earned a better life for themselves and their children. That is all any of us can aspire to. My wife is a permanent resident, but as a Mexican the process has been long and expensive. Talking to friends with spouses who immigrated from Europe, I am appalled. The process for a Mexican, without a criminal record and with job skills, is so much harder than for someone from Europe who is otherwise in a similar situation. I struggle to find any explanation for this difference other than bigotry. There has been talk of even trying to deport permanent residents if they hail from Mexico or certain Middle-Eastern countries. This would be America breaking her word to those who need her freedoms most.

With that story as background, one can imagine the fear and uncertainty at Casa De Beorn with the vitriolic rhetoric issuing from the Federal Government after the recent election. Unfortunately, this fear-mongering has not been limited to the corrupt officials who live in oblivious detachment in our nation’s capital. Here in Texas, state politicians recently passed a bill which allows any law enforcement officer to act as a “liason” for an Immigration and Customs official. What this means is that a police officer can pull someone over for a traffic violation and then, if they deem fit, ask them for proof of citizenship. To some, this seems like a reasonable law. The argument goes: “this only hurts illegals, and they don’t deserve to be here anyway”. This is the perfect real world example of the law of unintended consequences. How do you suppose, is an officer to determine who is and is not in this country legally?

As someone born here and who has only ever lived here, I have never carried proof of my citizenship on my person. I carry a driver’s license, but this in no way proves that I am a citizen. The fact of the matter is, no police officer is ever going to ask me if I am in the country legally. They will take one look at the color of my skin, they will hear the way that I speak English, and they will decide that I am allowed to be here. On the other hand, they will look at my wife’s dark skin, they will hear the thick accent with which she speaks English, and they will suspect that she does not deserve to live here legally.

My wife is a legal permanent resident. She now has to carry proof of this with her at all times, or risk being sent to a deportation facility at the border. According to the law of the land, I could come home from work one day to find that my wife is detained 100 miles away and that without my intervention she could be taken away. A simple mistake like leaving her purse at home would mean that my wife is in danger of forced deportation to a country that she hasn’t called home for 10 years. A country which she and her family fled, in danger for their lives. One government employee failing to find her file in their database, a dead cell phone battery, and she becomes an exile.

This situation is insane. The entire criteria around vetting is racist. A law which is only enforced against people of certain ethnic groups is a bigoted and unjust law. This kind of paranoia is not what makes America a great country. I refuse to believe that the spirit of The New Colossus is dead in this country. Some might have forgotten, but that poem is engraved on the Statue of Liberty, great symbol of our ideals.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
MOTHER OF EXILES. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The question was raised in that comment thread, of whether or not I would agree politically with J.R.R. Tolkien. This is impossible to answer definitively, but it doesn’t stop me from wondering. My absolute favorite parts of his writing do lead me to believe that Tolkien possessed compassion. This, more than any other trait, is essential to understanding those who are different from us. The line from Sam in The Return of the King (which I have in the past erroneously attributed to Faramir) gives some insight into Tolkien’s view of the dangers of tribalism, and the need to have compassion for those who seem alien to us.

It was Sam’s first view of a battle of Men against Men, and he did not like it much. He was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man’s name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace

It is difficult for me to read the above and not believe that Tolkien would have had sympathy for my wife’s situation. In any case, he is on the short list of heroes with which I would like to share a pint, and discuss these deeper issues of the world. Compassion, discussion, compromise, these are the tools of civilization. The ability to share a respectful discourse with even those who you vehemently oppose is the mark of wisdom, not weakness.

Issues like immigration are complex, everyone is not going to agree and there are legitimate concerns voiced by those who have an anti-immigration stance. Broad, clumsy and racists laws like the one we now have in Texas are not the solution. Civilized discussion with a goal of compromise and understanding – this is what we need. It’s a shame there doesn’t appear to be much of the Blood of Númenor left in our leaders to even desire such a compromise.

For those who have wondered where the bear was hiding, and what he was up to, now you have a bit more of my story. My wife and I will continue to fight for what we believe is right. It is difficult to be surrounded by such ugliness and not feel pessimistic at times. On some level, this article is an attempt to find hope when all around we see storm clouds.

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21 Responses to Tolkien, Politics, and Hobbies vs. “Real Life”

  1. Carlos says:

    Very nice. We’re living a terrible time. Not only in US.
    The “hate speach” will never win.
    Life is greater than hate.

  2. bduerksen30 says:

    I’m currently re-reading the Lord of the Rings, and just the other day ran across a passage that, like your attribution to sam, made me pause and reflect. As the Hobbits made their way East from The Shire, they encountered a band of elves who accompanied them for a day and a night. During their nighttime festivities Frodo talked to one of the Elves who, in response to Frodo remarking how he could never have expected to meet danger within the Shire he thought so secluded, said: “But it is not your own Shire…Others dwelt here before hobbits were; and others will dwell here again when hobbits are no more. The wide world is all about you; you can fence yourselves in, but you cannot for ever fence it out.” Pertinent, I think, in a time filled with talks of walls.

    • Beorn says:

      Thank you for sharing this! I almost chose that quote instead of the inner monologue from Sam, so I’m very pleased to hear that someone else was thinking of it as well. There is a sense of perspective that shines through in their response to Frodo that alludes to a deeper wisdom which Tolkien imbued upon them. Rather than see just the limited span of time in which the Shire has existed, they can see the broader historical context, where other creatures existed long before there were ever Hobbits in Middle-earth. This seems especially relevant to me living in Texas and knowing that not long ago the ground on which my house stands was part of Mexico. Before that, it was inhabited by the first people to ever step foot on North America. We are all just visitors here.

  3. Jim says:

    ❤ ❤ ❤ Love this piece of writing, and whilst sharing your pain is all i am able to do, we like Tolkien's Fellowship, must also look forward to a better time, when good sense, decency and human flourishing for ALL will prevail. Thank you for sharing.

  4. I wish you the very best in your personal challenges. It is never easy to “politicise” a hobby. We want to come together to share something we love & overlook differences as we all have that one thing in common. However when the causes of those differences are so abhorrent that is not really an option.

    I worry about the world now. The recent elections were a shock to me in my cocoon & revealed the divisions in my (British) society & the troubling rise of intolerance & the way these plebiscites have been taken to condone it.

    As to JRTT’s politics the BBC Radio 4 LotR adaptation put me off the stories for years. It really made me feel the books were harking to an idyllic English past somewhere between Jane Austen & PG Wodehouse where the common folk knew their place* & “good breeding” literally makes you a better person like the ubermensch Dunedain, to say nothing of the elves.

    Of course the protagonists (perhaps point of view characters is more apt, to use sexy new AGoT lingo) are all common hobbit folk except Frodo, a bucolic Bertie Wooster with no visible means of support. Sam is his Jeeves, the capable one who gets things done & who is loyal beyond reason. Sam’s servility was the most offensive part of the radio show to socialist 15 year old me.

    I think Tolkein was very much of his time & class &, as a cloistered Oxford don, that was about a century before when he actually lived.

    *which is “nowhere to be seen” in Austen’s books.

  5. Fouilloux says:

    Hi Dan!

    I do not know if this article will help you find hope, but it at least provides it to other. From Abroad (I am French), things in America are a bit scary, and many of us here know too well what this roads leads too. It is sad to see this in two country, France and America, which were both build thanks to immigration, that fear and hate of strangers is a groowing feeling. I am scared my country will follow the same path as the USA, but fear is not the solution. As you said, talking, listening, being open minded maybe is.

    I realise that it is rather bold to express political opinion nowadays, unless it is a far-right one. We, the people who do not believe in this way of seeing the world, maybe have been quiet for too long, maybe falsely believing that we had somewhat won the ideological battle, and that racism would slowly disappear. Well, recent events sadly shows we have not. But I believe it is our turn to raise our voice and say that this is not the world that we want.

    So, thank you Dan for being one of this voices. It feels good to know that other people on the other side of the ocean are also fighting the same battle. Transmit my respect to your wife and her father. If you ever comes back in france, you will have a place to stay in Lyon!

  6. Dear Mr. Bear,

    I just want to say thank you for sharing this. I’m more than aware of how life can get in the way of posting content out into a blog, especially when you wish for aspects of life to remain separate. I am thankful, however, that you shared this with us. Though I live far to the north in Maryland (though some northerners consider us southerners, lol) I often think about the state of things in my home state (I’m from San Antonio).

    While we don’t share some of the same issues, particularly due to our distance from the border, some of the opinions of those around me are regrettably the same. Somewhat worse, I feel, is that some of these negative opinions based on those “that are not like us” are reserved for whispers or when people are behind closed doors, out of ear-shot of those who might be offended. Here we deal with a huge demographical issue. If you are at all familiar with the state of Baltimore a year ago, I think you know exactly what I’m referring to. I won’t share the industry in which I work, but unfortunately where someone lives (in addition to other factors – which shouldn’t even be considered in this industry) often leads to discrimination. I don’t know what the coming years will do for issues like these throughout the country, but I hope it gets others to stand up and talk, and share their stories, and fight (even if it’s just through conversation) for what they believe to be right.

    I too would like to think Tolkien shared compassion. While we don’t know for sure where he stood politically (I wouldn’t be surprised if he shared some opinions of the time) I think it’s fair to say that he, for the most part, tried to see things from other’s perspectives, even if he didn’t necessarily agree. I think that’s the biggest thing. We aren’t all going to be from the same home, have the same beliefs, share the same religion, but just because we disagree doesn’t mean we can’t be friends, coworkers, or even just acquaintances. Diversity is what makes this world fascinating – and turning someone’s diverse background against them is just wrong.

    Anyway, I don’t want to get too wordy. It’s been quite the busy work day and if I don’t stop now I’m going to ramble.

    Again, thank you for sharing this. If you’re at Gen Con this year (I will be) would love to chat more about this!

    -Secondhand Took

    • Fouilloux says:

      Hi Mister Took!

      I find it interesting that for you, the whispers you describe are worse. I think I would prefer that rather than racism being displayed in plain sight. Because when it does, it means that the opinion feels legitimate and respectful, and that the people who displays it feel right in doing it. And I think that is when things start to get scary.

      Because if people do it behind closed door, it means that they are somewhat ashamed of that, and that they feel this opinion is not shared by the rest of the community.

      But I guess that on the other hand, it means people will be discriminated and you can do nothing about it because you can not prove it.


      • I can see both sides. I guess for one I just despise that two-faced mentality. And, like you mentioned at the end, if they’re vocal about it then you know who they are and can work towards changing that or flat out avoiding them. It stinks either way. I admit though, that it is scary when people DON’T see the problem of being so outward about it.

      • Fouilloux says:

        Yes, I agree with you.

  7. Bill Farnum says:

    I have enjoyed reading your blog for years now but I can’t stay silent when this door is opened. The problem I have with what you posted and what seems to be the case when I read this type of post is that you make zero distinction between immigration in general and illegal immigration. You act as if every person coming across the border is just like your wife and simply trying to escape some evil.

    I will give you some of my family history. My brother was a border patrol agent and my brother-in-law currently still serves as an agent on the Texas-Mexico border. And with the help of the partisan media the situation that reigned under the Obama administration was unacceptable. We have no idea who is crossing illegally into our borders because the vast majority are never found and the idea that we shouldn’t care who comes in is insane. The CBP agent killed in Texas several years ago could have been my sisters husband. Javier Vega was killed by two illegal immigrants. This is real life too.

    Who is it that gets to decide what laws we can disregard? Some day my Brother -in-law may have to pay the ultimate price for that decision.

    • Beorn says:

      Thanks for replying, Bill. It appears that you are reading some arguments into my article that I never made. The story I told was of my wife’s experience in this country. I would not presume to speak for all immigrants, I simply wanted to share one perspective, which I happen to know because I have witnessed much of it. As it is, I hesitated to even tell her story but I want her and those like her to have a voice. I want people to understand that there are *legal* immigrants who are treated with suspicion and disrespect. You ask about who decides which law we disregard, but I never advocated disregarding laws. On the contrary, I was pointing out that laws (like the one recently passed in Texas) which are only enforced for some people are unjust. If we are going to make people prove citizenship then all Americans should be subject to this law. Singling out people for selective enforcement based on the color of their skin or their accent is bigoted and unfair.

      I was telling my wife’s story, I would not presume that is the story of all immigrants. There is a difference, clearly, between those who immigrate through the legal means and those who do not. However, immigration is difficult and we cannot know the challenges that someone has overcome to make it to this country – her story is evidence of this. The poem at the foot of the statue of liberty is not some abstract whimsy, it is the story of most Americans. My family came here from Ireland several generations ago, we were not necessarily welcomed when we came and some people assumed that we were criminals or that we were here to steal other people’s jobs.

      The fact that we cannot know the story of an immigrant is why I urge that we have compassion before we judge people. Unfortunately, there are bad people in this world and they cause harm to others. It turns out that a lower percentage of immigrants are criminals than the media would have people believe. More troubling is the fact that people who want to judge immigrants often treat them all as though they are the same. Once people have the perception of immigrants as criminals and bad people, my wife has no chance at being treated fairly. I never argued that we should ignore laws, what I am saying is that we should treat all Americans equally – otherwise recent immigrants like my wife become second class citizens. That is not in the spirit of this country and we should aspire to transcend these kinds of tribal xenophobia.

      Immigration is a complex issue. I am not pretending to have a solution, but I am advocating that we show compassion to others rather than immediately assume the worst about them. Building walls is a literal example of trying to ignore the problem, of pretending that by making a big enough barrier between us and others will somehow make them go away. This issue is not simply going away. We need to have discussions, to find a way to make legal immigration easier and to check our own biases before we make faulty assumptions about an entire group of people. Remember that those same kind of assumptions about an entire group of people could be made about any group, including the ones that we belong to. It doesn’t feel good to be unfairly judged and we should remember that before we perpetrate that on others.

      I appreciate your feedback and that this is a complicated problem. Compassion and a desire for compromise seem like much more useful tools to solving complex issues like this than fear and mistrust. I shared my wife’s story to provide perspective so that hopefully people understand that not all immigrants are bad or need to be feared. I recognize that some people will disagree with me, but I believe that we can have constructive discussion in a public forum. News shows and political speeches use rhetorical tools to cast things in such extremes that it leaves little room for compromise. The only way to fight against this type of extremism is for people (especially those who disagree) to be willing to discuss the issues in a reasonable way. Fear and mistrust will not solve these problems, but it is possible that compassion will help to do so. Thanks for sharing your perspective.

  8. Brian Gregg says:

    Thanks for sharing your story. I resonate with much of what you wrote.

  9. Will Dennis says:

    i applaud your bravery for taking making this post and the courage it takes your wife and her family to keep striving in these difficult times. It shouldn’t be this way…as i people and a nation, we should be better than this. hopefully, profiles in courage like this will bring more understanding and open up some minds. clearly, more of them are closed than a lot of us ever suspected.

    thanks for posting this and being such a compassionate part of this community. Hold fast!

  10. Cassan says:

    I really like your blog. Now even more after reading this.

  11. nftpr says:

    Thank you for writing this, Dan. I’ve been a long-time enjoyer of your blog and I read this entry with a heavy heart. I am very appreciative that you are speaking up and sharing your family’s perspective. Compassion has somehow become a political issue, and it’s horrible that you are justified in having anxiety about sharing your experience. I find this game we love to be a haven from the “real life” stuff, and I am thankful to you and to the Grey Co. for improving my experience of this great game. I am in full agreement with your assessment of Tolkien’s world outlook, and that has been one of the guideposts for me in these difficult times. We must listen to one another, share our own experiences, and be willing to understand how the “Sarumans” of the world have come to be. Keep it up and thank you.

  12. Carlos José Matos says:

    Hi Beorn

    I’m sadden to read that this “hate-speech” is affecting your family.

    I’m not from USA but i do try to follow all that comes from this Trump election and administration.
    Although i believed that the hate speech was only coming from White House, seems that even at Statewise it has began to come up, which raises serious doubts if the American people (or their representatives) have trully learned something with History (speccially WWII and Hitler).

    Sadly this kind of populist speech is spreading around and France is also starting to appear to have fallen for it with Marine Le Pen… Other european countries are also at the verge of going to this…

    And despite many believe not, it will affect all world if not stopped. European Union will see it until the end of 2017…

    Just one simple doubt, in yout text you mentioned:

    “My wife is a permanent resident, but as a Mexican the process has been long and expensive. Talking to friends with spouses who immigrated from Europe, I am appalled. The process for a Mexican, without a criminal record and with job skills, is so much harder than for someone from Europe who is otherwise in a similar situation.”

    That, for me, as a person who deals daily with laws, shock me, because it is a clear discrimination due to nacionality.

    Dunno how is the current law, but couldn’t your wife apply for citizienship due to marry an US citizen? Wouldn’t it ease the situation or you believe that even then the police forces would only look to skin color and speech?

    Hope that this madness changes quickly and above all hope that you and your family are safe and don’t have to go through any kind of missunderstand that may lead to separation of a, i beleive, great family.

    From a big fan and Avid reader of your texts
    Carlos José Matos

    • Beorn says:

      Thanks for your comment, Carlos. Yes, my wife can apply for citizenship – a process which we have been worked through for the last couple of years. My point was that the process is different depending on country of origin. I am told that this is typical for immigration. People from some countries (e.g. Great Britain) will have a different experience than those coming from other countries (Mexico, Syria, etc.). I understand the fear of terror that leads to these policies, and fear is a very powerful motivator. My hope is that these comments help others to see that many of these immigrants have nothing to do with this terrorism and are simply looking for a safe place to live in peace.

      My wife and I may be traveling to Portugal soon. If you are interested in meeting up while we visit your fine country, let me know.


      • Carlos José Matos says:

        I would be very much interested in meeting up.

        But it will depend on what area of Portugal you are going to visit and when, due to my work.

        Carlos José Matos

  13. Manel says:

    This was a wonderful post. I am concerned too with the lack of compassion and empathy that we can see more and more often in politics around the world. Your quote from Sam was perfect to show that. Unfortunately, we people tend forget our mistakes and it lloks like we need to repeat them, over and over, before learning the lesson. Concerning the unfairness of certain laws, I couldn’t agree more with you. Regards from Catalonia.

  14. Gumshoe Drew says:

    Great, insightful post. Interesting that, in the Declaration of Independence, one of the vices attributed to King George was his taking actions to prevent immigration to the colonies. “He has endeavored to prevent the population of these states; for that purpose obstructing the laws for naturalization of foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migration hither, and raising the conditions of new appropriations of lands.”
    How times have changed.

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