Fantasy Trope: War against Evil, or War is Evil

The Trope: War Against Evil

A common fantasy trope is a great war of good versus evil, and we cheer the forces of good onward to victory over the forces of evil. In essence, war is neutral, non-moral, and the moral conflict is between those who fight for good and those who fight for evil. There are many versions of this trope, including the few powerful heroes against the armies of evil – very common in D&D and similar games, which is to say, about 95% of TRPGs played in hours.

Tolkien: War Is Evil

How do we know that Sauron is evil? It isn’t because he lives in a huge dark tower, actually. That is a means to an end. Same with the orcs – they are an expression of Sauron’s intent, not the culmination of it.

The reason we know that Sauron is evil is that he brings war. He is one of two things – quietly building strength in preparation for war, or waging war against any neighbors who won’t submit to his will. That is why he is evil.

Sauron becomes a caricature of himself, twisted and writhing with hatred, looming in his dark tower surrounded by sulfurous fumes and browbeaten slave-troops, because he is ceaselessly bringing war.

Sauron is Ronald Reagan. Sauron is George W Bush. Sauron is American foreign policy since the Second World War. Sauron is drone strikes. Sauron is the War on Terror. Sauron is the police. Sauron is the War on Drugs. Sauron is ICE.

When characters in Tolkien’s works are good and end up fighting evil, they are like Faramir – they do not love battle, but only what they fight to protect. And this is what we tell ourselves as Americans, but this is definitely not what our behavior shows. Minas Tirith guarded their eastern border for a couple thousand years without invading eastward at all. Left to their own devices, they would have stayed that way indefinitely, it seems. The Shire never expands. Nor do the towns of Breeland, nor the elves of Lothlorien. Fifty years pass and Erebor, Dale and Lake Town don’t send colonists east and south to conquer new lands.

Tolkien has a lot of issues, but the default setting of ‘good’ for him is peaceful stasis. War comes when Sauron, the expansionist, comes marching to someone’s door.

Is this a distinction without a difference? Maybe. But for me this makes a big difference – the presumption of war, versus the acknowledgement that war is always evil, and that perpetually bringing war to others is what makes one evil in the first place.

Galactic Civilization and ‘The Filter’ Fallacy

The Filter, in Brief

So, there is this idea of ‘The Filter’, the great divide that separates intelligent species from the galactic civilizations that are their supposed birthright. The reasoning goes as follows:

  • All intelligent species exist on the path to developing technology and culture that will enable them to expand to control their planet, and then solar system, and then multiple solar systems, and then spread throughout galaxy
  • Given the age of our own galaxy, we would expect other intelligent species to have evolved before humans, and to have already begun this colonization process
  • We don’t see any sign of them, and so there must be The Filter, the crisis that prevents intelligent species from moving along this inevitable staircase of development
  • So we wonder – is The Filter behind us, and we’re one of the few intelligent species to make it this far, or is The Filter ahead of us, and we’re doomed?

In thinking about what this Filter could be, one can come up with places it could occur starting all the way back with the origins of life:

  • It could be that it is very unlikely for life to begin at all, and so on planets in their star’s ‘Goldilocks zone’ we will only find various kinds of chemical soup
  • Maybe it is very unlikely for multicellular life to develop, and so that soup will just be filled with simple single-celled organisms
  • It could be very unlikely for intelligence to develop (this one is a hard sell for anyone who has looked at the intelligence of non-human animals)
  • Perhaps run-away feedback loops like climate chance prevent intelligent species from living long enough, or maintaining a civilization long enough, to colonize their solar system
    • Ditto with something like thermonuclear Armageddon, or AI deciding to kill us off, or nanotechnology turning us al into grey goo, etc.
  • Or a lack of any faster-than-light travel solution could make colonizing worlds beyond one’s homeworld economically impossible
  • Or maybe something crazy, like a FTL-capable civilization wipes out all competition, and they just haven’t decided we are a threat yet

Clearly there are a lot of other options, but those above are common.

Flawed Premise

The problem I see in this formulation immediately (and I’m far form alone, nor innovative in doing so) is that it is founded on the premise that all intelligent life will inevitably lead to something like our own technocratic, hierarchical and exploitative way of life. That is, we take the way we happen to live now as a cosmic given, and then reason from there.

That’s insane. That’s a failing grade on your term paper in Philosophy 101. That’s a huge argument build on a sample size of one, when we even have other intelligent species on Earth to look at for other examples. Why not argue that orca intelligence is inevitable, or cetacean intelligence, or chimpanzee intelligence, or the emergent intelligence of insect colonies? We’re not even the only intelligence here. We’re just the most disastrous for every other living thing.


Maybe there is no filter, and we are just caught in the throes of a suicidal trajectory because we are a particular kind of intelligent life in a particular situation. There’s no reason to assume that all life would be in a similar situation, much less to assume that all intelligent life would inexorably seek to exploit their entire planet, and then solar system, and then multiple solar systems.

Maybe as we find signs of life in other places, that life will be living in approximate balance with its ecosystems, like the various species of human did for hundreds of thousands of years before the last ten thousand or so. Maybe they will have developed means to detect us, and have meetings to decide what to do about this one rogue form of intelligent life out there that seems hell-bent on killing itself and everything around it. Can they somehow contain the damage we do? What do the thousands of other intelligent species on other worlds think?

The galaxy could be empty of star-spanning civilizations because of wisdom and no other reason. The “Filter” could exist only in our thinking about the nature of life, and intelligence, and civilization. It seems that we are catastrophically wrong about how to live on our own planet – it stands to reason that we would also be catastrophically wrong about how to live on multiple planets circling multiple stars as well.

Avatar: To Bend Another’s Spirit

In the era before the Avatar, we bent not the elements, but the energy within ourselves. To bend another’s energy, your own spirit must be unbendable or you will be corrupted and destroyed.

Above is the quote that the Lion Turtle says to Aang, preparing him for the final confrontation with Fire Lord Ozai, and it always makes me feel and think when I watch what is the best ending to a cartoon ever. I feel choked up, like something true and important is being revealed, and I think about civility, and social change, and compromise, and radicalism, and nonviolence, and disarmament.

In order to bend another’s energy, must our spirit remain unbendable? In the context of worldwide anti-racism protests and riots, what does it mean to bend or not? I think about two approaches to activism, one that is more concerned with purity, and says that there should not be any compromise, and another that is more concerned about civility perhaps, or pragmatism, that calls for the path forward being some middle ground of compromise.

I also think about progress, or especially the lack thereof when we look at race relations in the US. We are more segregated than during Jim Crow, and the police aren’t murdering (and harassing and abusing and framing) more African-Americans, we’re just catching them on camera. When I say “we”, I mean white people. A well-known gaming luminary recently commented on a Facebook thread that he supports the police the way the used to be, before they did all the awful things we see now. I responded that the police haven’t changed, we just have cameras in our pockets and the Internet. None of this would surprise us if we had been listening to people of color the whole time, but it takes protests in 50 states and 18 countries to listen to them now.

I realized that I don’t care what his reply is, I’m just so tired of this “The cops were always friendly in my all-white middle class neighborhood so what are you even talking about?” response.

But, again, who is best to bring about positive change? One who is unbending, uncompromising, or one who bends, and compromises?

The reality seems to be, right now, that evil is uncompromising. With corrupt police departments, there is no compromise. There is no compromise with Mitch McConnell as he stymies progress, halting hundreds of bills and working to stack Federal benches with regressives. There was no compromise on Merrick Garland’s nomination. Over and over, the people working to make the world worse every day show us that they will not compromise.

This is likely what has moved the center rightward in the US rightward for my entire life (40 years and counting)…

Coda: De-Fund the Police (or Abolish Them)

After I started writing this draft, protests broke out in 50 states and 18 other countries against police brutality. Again. After an unarmed African-American man was suffocated to death by a cop on camera. Again. So here we are. Again.

Only this time, the protests are more widespread than I remember in the past, and they do not seem to be losing momentum. I’m hearing more about de-funding the police, and even abolishing the police, than I ever have before. (For the record, I want to abolish police, but I’ll gladly accept radically de-funding them as a compromise).

This brings me right back to the ending of AtLA. The Fire Lord has demonstrated that he will never use his power for anything but evil. He has every chance to change his ways, reconsider, and so on. But he simply will not turn aside from evil. And so Aang has to deal with him – the previous incarnations tell him he must be decisive. Everything is pointing toward killing the Fire Lord.

But Aang disarms him. That is decisive, and it ends his capacity for evil (or at least dramatically reduces it). But in order to do that, in order to bend his spirit, his own spirit must be unbendable.

I end there. We must disarm the police, because they have demonstrated that they will never stop using their power for evil. They are using their power for evil this very moment, brutalizing unarmed protestors who are protesting their brutality. Posing for all-white photo-ops and screaming at the press for vilifying them as white supremacists. Shooting and beating and killing children and elders and everyone in between.

We must disarm them, and we must not bend.

Shut Up About the Need for the Church to Change…

…unless you are also bringing resources, actionable suggestions, and a willingness to work.

We Already Know

To all the think-piece writers and church strategists and consultants out there, please shut up about the need for the church to change unless you are here to help do the work. I feel like if I read one more self-absorbed armchair leader opining about the need for transformation while they themselves don’t even attend a church, much less have any helpful suggestions, I’m going to scream. If I had the time and energy to scream, which I don’t, because I work in the church in 2020.

Your blog post about the need for change was old and worn out 40 years ago when everyone was talking about the need for churches to change. We know. Most of us went to school for this stuff. We’ve read book after book, gone to classes, sought continuing education, listened to lectures and keynotes, on and on and on. We read about financing nonprofits and fundraising and transformational leadership and spiders and starfish and every other kind of nonsense. Shut up or step up.

Calling for Change without Working for Change is Cheap

You know what’s worse than nothing? Calling for change without being willing to work toward that change. Silence is literally preferable in every case. ‘Someone should do something about that’ is aggravating, passive-aggressive, and lazy. If you aren’t willing to help with the work, then you don’t have anything invested in it, and therefore your voice counts for nothing. You’re not even throwing peanuts from the cheap seats, you’re standing outside commenting on the show based on the title on the marquee.

Thoughts are cheap, and the thought that the church needs to radically adapt to a changing society and context is an old, third-hand thought.

We’re All Struggling

Part of this is that it’s just exhausting. Sometimes it hits me how much thought and effort and time and work I’ve put into working for change in the church, and if I look at my actual progress, I weep. To have someone standing on the sidelines pointing at the lack of progress like they’re Nostradamus just adds insult to injury.

Am I venting? Yes. Am I passive-aggressively commenting on articles I’ve read and thinkers I’m growing to kind of detest? Absolutely. But am I wrong?


COVID-19: Lessons Learned

I’m reflecting on what I think we can learn from this time of pandemic, social distancing, lock-down and quarantine.

Many Invisible People Are Essential

We love to talk about nurses and doctors as heroes, and they no doubt are. But so are the health aides and hospital custodians. So are the EMTs and lab technicians.

So are the cashiers and food handlers and truck drivers. So many previously invisible people are now the ones we depend on for our lives. Many working in healthcare, especially health aides, do not themselves have affordable healthcare. The cashier at the grocery checkout is risking their life for what falls far short of a living wage.

I hope that when we have these conversations again about universal healthcare and raising the minimum wage and even universal basic income, we remember the time when we depended for our lives and our loved ones lives on people we normally ignore without a second thought.

Many Visible People Are Unnecessary or Worse

So many large companies are going to distribute billions to stakeholders while laying off their work forces, or refusing to provide hazard pay and basic safety gear. There have been dozens of outbreaks literally caused by the greed of those in corner offices.

Many of Us Can Work from Home

So many chronically ill and handicapped people have been told they can’t do a certain job because the job can’t be done working from home. I have heard this story so many times, over and over. And yet it turns out that many of us can in fact work from home. Yes, it sucks sometimes. But it is definitely possible, and if someone spent more time learning how to work from home really well, they could do a great job in many situations without having to be able to come to the office.

Investor “Risk” Is A Lie

When someone makes an investment – say, in a rental property – it is said that they are taking on a financial risk, and because they are taking that risk, we do a lot of things to help them in a capitalist economy. We definitely favor the investor over the worker, the owner over the renter, and so on, time and time again. Businesses serve their investors, not their workers. It is far easier to evict a renter than to fight a landlord. And when push comes to shove it is clear that the investor is not the one who is risking at all. It is the worker, the renter, who is actually taking on all of the risk. Risk flows downstream, not up.

The landlord risks losing some income – the renter risks losing a home. The owner risks some income – the worker risks their livelihood, possibly their access to healthcare. Our economy values ownership over pretty much anything else. It is not the investor who risks, when the risk is real.

Nature Flourishes When Left Alone

So, it turns out there weren’t dolphins swimming in Venice’s canals – but there were fish, and it was possible to see the bottom for the first time in I don’t know how long. All around the world, air pollution is diminishing. People in India see the blue of the sky for the first time in a generation. Confused animals are wandering through cities, wondering where all the noisy primates go to.

Stories like the dolphins swimming in Venitian canals speak to a deeper desire in us, I hope, to see nature flourishing around us. Not to just drag ourselves through disposable lives, anesthetizing the pain of watching the world around us die however we can, but to live and see life around us and be happy about it. Can we do that? Maybe?

We Can Consume Less

My family is learning this on our individual level, and what some describe as “economic collapse” I can also describe as “slowing our hysterical plunge into ecocide.” The fact remains, if we all just sort of decide to, we can consume a lot less. We can eat out less and drive less and fly less and garden more and cook more and do more with the things we already have. COVID-19 has done what 50 years of environmentalism wasn’t able to accomplish. All it took was some existential fear, I guess. But I hope we learn from this, and come out of this pandemic time having gotten a taste for not ruining the world at breakneck speed.

Pay A Living Wage

Everyone deserves a living wage. Everyone. Don’t think so? Go to Hell.

When a crisis comes, we find out that some people are more essential than we thought. This will probably surprise us with each crisis that comes. So just to be safe, let’s pay everyone who works enough to live as a result of that work. That means food, shelter, education, healthcare, safety. Other countries do it. Why can’t we?

Universal Health Coverage

Everyone who thinks it’s OK to be too poor to go to the doctor needs to sit down and shut up, forever. Even if you are a selfish narcissist, you have to acknowledge that universal healthcare would be great for slowing down a pandemic and swiftly responding to it. Instead, we get to play the life-and-death guessing game of “We have nowhere near enough tests so we have no idea who is sick.” I hope we survive this fun game we’re playing, instead of caring for each other.

Ignore the President

Never, ever, ever, listen to Donald Trump. Don’t read his tweets. Don’t listen to his words. Don’t read the chyrons beneath his words. Don’t read his letters or go to his websites. Don’t read his name on the side of his ugly buildings.

The sounds that come out of his mouth and the sounds that come out of his anus are of equal value, and the right response to both is to gag, cover our noses and mouths, and leave as quickly as we can. Period. He is a vile, narcissistic, ignorant, inveterate liar. He will never not lie. He will never say a single wise, intelligent, or helpful thing. He never has in his entire adult life, and he never will.

Listen to Experts

Some smart people go to school to study One Thing very closely for years and years. When these smart people talk about their One Thing, sit down and listen. You can ignore their opinions on Other Things if you want, but not that One Thing, and definitely not when that One Thing means life or death for millions of human beings.

Anything else you’ve learned from your ‘rona time?