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“What’s the matter with the place?” said Merry …
“We grows a lot of food, but we don’t rightly know what becomes of it. It’s all these ‘gatherers’ and ‘sharers,’ I reckon. Going round counting and measuring and taking off to storage. They do more gathering than sharing, and we never see most of the stuff again.” (Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings,” Part III, Chapter 8, “The Scouring of the Shire”)
Back in July 2011, the GOP’s 2008 nominee for president, John McCain, took on conservatives reluctant to raise the national debt ceiling, calling them “tea party hobbits.” “If they reject the House Republican plan,” he asserted, “they will help re-elect President Obama.” As things turned out, of course, John Boehner and his minions in the House’s GOP leadership did their part as loyal toadies of the elitist faction. They ramrodded through approval of the debt-ceiling increase. More than that, they accepted a deal that handed Obama the power to raise the debt ceiling unilaterally, subject to an unlikely override vote by the Congress.
The U.S. Constitution (Amendment 14, Section 4) says that “the validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law … shall not be questioned.” So this deal effectively handed Obama the initiative on revenue-raising matters. This violates the constitutional provision (Article I, Section 7) that clearly reserves the initiative on revenue-raising measures to the U.S. House of Representatives. The founders included this provision because the House is the branch of Congress most strictly tied, by frequent election, to the will of the people at the grass roots. (Now there’s talk of altogether eliminating the legislative branch’s role in debt-ceiling increases. This will hand Obama the unchallenged power to raise revenue at his own discretion, incurring more debt, and clear the way for him to establish openly dictatorial rule.)
And thanks, among other things, to conservative disaffection with the GOP due to all such fiscal treachery, Obama was re-elected.
This whole sequence of events came to mind recently when my son Andrew and I went to see Peter Jackson’s latest Tolkien-rooted film masterpiece, “The Hobbit.” When I think about McCain’s sneering reference to the unassuming inhabitants of the Shire, it further confirms my decision in 2008 to leave the GOP rather than support the lie that he somehow represented a conservative alternative to Obama. I wonder if people such as McCain like or even bother to think about Tolkien’s famous morality tale. If and when they do, I bet it never occurs to them that the trilogy’s title doesn’t refer, by the end, to the Dark Lord, Sauron. It refers to the surprising Hobbits, Bilbo and Frodo, whose conscious lack of vain ambition for power (even under the pretense of “doing good”) made them the only ones to whom the fate of the ring of power could be safely entrusted.
Obviously Tolkien deeply understood and appreciated what the self-worshipping elitists of our day either can’t or won’t acknowledge. When they wrote the Constitution, America’s founders decided to make the multitude of decent, ordinary folks the arbiters of the sovereign power of government in the United States. This wasn’t just some Machiavellian ploy, intended to pacify the masses by getting them to validate, with the appearance of consent, their servitude to this or that elitist gang. Rather it came from a wise insight into the natural limits of ordinary human ambition. People prone to cultivate the decent contentment they can secure through lives focused on hearth and home may entertain themselves with alluring tales of vainglorious ambition. But for the most part they are less prone to mistake such tales of power for anything like real happiness. When push comes to shove, they would rather let the dark fires of vaulting ambition burn out in their souls than let the cold, loveless darkness those fires illuminate consume the luminescent truth of goodness, loyalty and friendship that gives life its intrinsic dignity.
Seen in this way, the American dream since the founding was Tolkien’s morality tale acted out on the stage of human history. Maybe that’s why America’s folklore heroes were born of the family life of farmers, cowherds and day laborers striving to make good. Like Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, they weren’t incapable of noble deeds and kingly virtues, but they came upon these aspects of themselves almost by accident (the way courage, loyalty or other virtues emerge from the story in the really good American Westerns). Their greatness was something that just happened, while they were busy caring for the little things God especially enjoys.
Somehow, because of the greatness such caring made possible, the people of the United States came to be the surprising focal point of all the powerful counsels of the earth. On that account the ones among us who all along have entertained the fancy that they were and are the leaven that accounts for the nation’s rise are making their bid to steal the show. They are ruthlessly determined to upstage the unassuming folks whose middling decency has been the trunk that carried America’s thriving leaves and branches toward the heights.
Of course, since they took the stage, the house lights have grown dimmer, intermittently going out. The spirit of optimism and hope that filled the theatre of America’ life has turned to fear and a preoccupation with evil. Once, America’s people lived exuberantly, though death was everywhere a real possibility. Now we’re to be treated as “wee, slick, cowering, timorous beasties.” Even the questionable shadow of a fabricated fiscal cliff is enough to terrify us. So Boehner, McCain and the rest of them surmise.
But perhaps it may be said of America’s middling, decent folk what Gandalf said of Bilbo: “There’s a lot more in him than you guess, and a deal more than he has any idea about himself.” Perhaps, in what seems the hour of Sauron’s triumph in America, we will discover, as so many of our forebears did, that the little things you are willing to do with no ambition but to keep good faith intact, prepare you to do greater things than vainly great ambition ever dreams of. With that in mind, we “tea party hobbits” may yet have it in us to do a little Shire scouring ourselves, in the year ahead.