Peter Thiel is a piece of shit for so, so many reasons, including but not limited to creating a panopticon, killing Gawker, and possibly using the blood of the young in an effort to stave off the aging process.
His protégé Palmer Luckey is a different kind of piece of shit. Luckey was the founder of Oculus VR and later Anduril Industries and also the guy who was funding the (sigh) “meme factory” Nimble America, a group “focused on promoting the ideals of America First, Smart Trade, Legal Immigration, and Ethical Behavior.” There isn’t much evidence Nimble America did much other than buy a billboard calling Hillary Clinton “Too Big to Jail,” but it was part of the general shitbag soup of 4Chan and r/The_Donald during the 2016 election.
Perhaps least among their misdeeds but certainly on the list of them is that these fucking people decided to take words created by John Ronald Reuel Tolkien and use these words as the names of their companies which provide services to authoritarian government bodies.
Thiel’s horrifying surveillance tech company is called Palantir, which comes from, yes, the palantír we saw in the Lord of the Rings movies, the shiny orb that fucked up Pippin when he looked into it and saw Sauron.
I won’t bore you with the history of the palantíri (yeah I’m using the accent marks), as much as I would like to, but I will explain that these were extremely tricky objects to use even as intended, by very powerful Elves and Men with a bit of Elf in them. There were seven of them in Middle-earth, and they could be used to see different times and different places, and, most importantly, to communicate with each other.
Not to corrupt people’s minds. Not to spy on their fellow man. Not to use them as a panopticon to enable police states. To communicate over inconvenient distances. When Denethor, the Steward of Gondor in The Lord of the Rings, begins to use the palantír in his possession in a way that is closer to Thiel’s, it does not go well for him.
Thiel’s company’s name is not only a gross misuse of the word, it indicates that he may have read Tolkien’s work, but he sure as shit didn’t understand it. And yet Luckey’s is actually creepier, because it’s a misuse that I have long feared.
Luckey’s DoD-contract-seeking firm is called Anduril Industries. Its stated purpose, I shit you not, is to “invent and build technology to secure America and its interests.” If you were writing a description for an evil corporation in a television script, this would come back with a note of “Too vague.”
In The Lord of the Rings, Andúril is Aragorn’s sword, reforged from the shards of Narsil, the sword Aragorn’s ancestor used to cut the One Ring from Sauron’s hand. It’s an Elvish word that translates to “Flame of the West.”
If you have spent any time looking at YouTube of late, you have probably been shown a recommendation for some video or another wherein a bloated, talking corpse shouts about “protecting Western Civilization.” What these ghouls consider “Western Civilization” is often at odds with the actual elements of cultures in the Western hemisphere: pedophilic Greek philosophers, crucifixion, the Marquis de Sade, the Reign of Terror, Marxism, feminism, and even postmodernism are all things people like Jordan Peterson and Stefan Molyneaux (please don’t look him up) repudiate, yet all were born of the Western civilizations these people claim to be very interested in protecting. Hell, fascism itself came from “Western” civilization.
The point of creating this fictional, ideal “Western Civilization” is to use it as white supremacist training wheels. Depending on how far down the alt-right pipeline you are, you may or may not hear these charlatans explicitly associating “Western Civilization” with “white” civilization (whatever that means).
Maybe this is all a coincidence. Maybe Luckey is just a big Tolkien fan who, uh, certainly doesn’t frequent extremely toxic and racist forums and provide aid to supporters of fascists.
I don’t think it is a coincidence. I think Luckey sees himself and his ilk as defenders of this nonexistent “West” that they have fabricated, and I think he reads Tolkien as encouraging of this deranged worldview. Aragorn and the others are attempting to restore the glory of their Western civilizations, after all! Fending off attacks from the hordes of swarthy, monstrous, subhuman orcs and evil, brown-skinned Men from the South! Protecting the beautiful, extremely white people!
And my great fear is that this reading will begin to truly spread, if it hasn’t already, throughout the most toxic fringes at first and then into the mainstream right, poisoning the material forever.
Look, the works of Tolkien have some definitely dodgy race-stuff at play in them: it is Not Great that the evil Men of the South are swarthy-to-brown and the heroic Men of the West are all extremely white. The fair maidens are all extremely, uh, fair. The descriptions of the orcs are sometimes problematic. Tolkien was creating a mythos and a world based on Northern European languages and peoples while European imperialism was still very much A Thing. You can think critically about these elements of the story while also loving the story.
But the alt-right concept of “the West” is completely antithetical to Tolkien’s world. “The West,” for Tolkien, generally refers to the Undying Lands, the land of the “gods”* and the Very Special Elves who were allowed to live there, and also the dead ones who are hanging out with the guy in charge of the dead. (But not Men. Their spirits just, uh, go away, beyond the world somewhere, no one really knows where.) In fact, both Elves and Men came into the world in the far East of Middle-earth and gradually worked their way toward the West, closer to where the source of life and goodness in the world is, and away from the forces of totalitarian evil that pursued them. Tolkien took this concept of “the West” indicating the supernatural, the otherworld, the Land of the Happy Dead, from Celtic mythology—Irish and Welsh, in particular.
“Totalitarian evil”? Yes. The Lord of the Rings is an extremely obvious anti-imperialist,** anti-fascist, anti-totalitarian text. Sauron, the Big Bad, is totalitarian in his essence: capable only of ruling over thralls, that which he cannot conquer, he destroys. Morgoth, Sauron’s predecessor and an even bigger piece of fucking garbage, was precisely the same. Saruman, the wizard who starts out with good intentions and is corrupted by Sauron, has “a mind of metal and wheels,” and is an obvious caution against the very technology Thiel and Luckey create, in addition to being a eugenicist who creates super-orcs.*** Tolkien “cordially disliked” allegory, but these characters do not have to be allegorical for readers to see them as examples of How Not to Be.
There was no singular reason Tolkien created this world, but the one that has stuck with me for nearly two decades now is this: “I was from early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country: it had no stories of its own (bound up with its tongue and soil), not of the quality I sought, and found (as an ingredient) in legends of other lands…” he wrote in a letter explaining his whole thing. “Of course there was and is all the Arthurian world, but powerful as it is, it is imperfectly naturalized, associated with the soil of Britain but not with English.”
Language and land. Not skin color. Not the absurd, unscientific construct of “race.” Not even culture. He wanted to give the language and land he loved dearly the gift of a mythos worthy of its beauty, to add to that beauty with words from Quenya and Sindarin and Adûnaic and all the other tongues he created.
To see men like Luckey and Thiel—these fucking fascist enablers which is to say these fucking fascists—take those words and use them for what can only be described as evil is to know a strange kind of grief. Nothing on the grand scale, the scale required by being detained or deported by ICE (citizen or not). But the kind that nevertheless portends darker days ahead, a looming wave with a dark rider at its crest.
*Tolkien, a devout Catholic, was not big on calling them “gods.” The big powerful magic entities of this world were called the Valar, or Powers, and the lesser ones were called the Maiar, sort of on par with angels but far, far less dorky. These powers were all united under the direction of Eru, the creator of the world and runner of the show but one who doesn’t appear a whole lot in the stories.
**Aragorn’s long, long-ago ancestors the Númenoreans had been given an island in the middle of the sea to live on, as a reward for being helpful to the Valar in their war against Morgoth. After a thousand years of chilling, they decided to create an empire in Middle-Earth and became cruel and evil and slave-traffickers and eventually the Valar sunk the entire island, killing all of them except for the few families who had remained not shitty, from which Aragorn and his people in Middle-Earth were descended. Q.E.D.: imperialism = bad.
***Orcs themselves were created by Morgoth, by capturing Elves and twisting and corrupting them through decades of torture, because he could not himself create life, only mock it; the cruelest, most despicable of all Morgoth’s evil deeds.