Saturday, October 28, 2006

I Have a Bad Feeling About This

I recently read Star Wars on Trial, a book of essays prosecuting and defending the Star Wars series against a variety of purported charges.

The book has a companion forum, so I made the mistake of posting a few things there.

I say mistake because, frankly, the reading of the book and my brief time on the forum have made me feel very bad about David Brin, and have done little more than rouse my anger at those who take a sadistic pride in hating something that others love.

Here's a sampling of some of the posting there, including another exchange between me and Brin:

Me: Here’s my take: The Prosecution in Star Wars on Trial is itself guilty of most of the charges it levels against George Lucas.

“The politics of Star Wars are anti-democratic and elitist.” This charge is quite rich, given the instant and reflexive response of the Prosecution every time the Defense raises the issue of the mind-boggling numbers of peole who love these movies. Without exception, the Prosecution heaps scorn and derision upon any suggestion that popularity could be used as a barometer of the films’ worthiness as art. Now, as it happens, I’m in full agreement with the Prosecution’s low opinion of the moviegoing public’s ability to judge quality filmmaking. But unlike the Prosecution, I acknowledge that such an opinion is at its very core an elitist viewpoint.

“Star Wars portrays no admirable religious or ethical beliefs.” While claiming to want fiction and art that make for a better world, the Prosecution elects to be a prosecution - to dwell in an antiquated adversarial system where it is acceptable to consider only one side of an issue. To resolve disputes through uncompromising conflict and not open-minded dialogue. The defining characteristic of the adversarial judicial system is that it frees the prosecutors and defense attorneys from having to worry about the morality or immorality of their respective positions. This is the model that the Prosecution chooses in order to lead us forward into a bold new future?

“Star Wars has dumbed down the perception of SF in the popular imagination.” Merely by including this charge and the “pretends to be SF” charge, the Prosecution “dumbs down” the science of critical analysis. When has SF ever been perceived well in the popular imagination? And in its own case, the Prosecution proves that Star Wars absolutely does not pretend to be SF, by way of numerous and explicit quotes from George Lucas himself. By presenting such utter hokum as high-level thinking, the Prosecution reinforces in readers the idea that hating something makes you smart.

“Star Wars pretends to be SF, but is really fantasy.” The Prosecution, though, is fantasy masquerading as Reason. It engages in relentless cherrypicking of facts, and is willing to endlessly speculate beyond the facts when doing so appears to support its case - but never does it expend the energy to fire even a single neuron on speculation that explains or accounts for the perceived deficiencies of the films. As a case in point, the nearness of Bespin to Hoth is presented as evidence of Leia’s deficiencies in The Empire Strikes Back. A real leader, it is claimed, would be aware of all systems near the newly established base. But the assumption of “nearness” relies on a scientific interpretation of the size of the asteroid field and the maximum speed of the Millennium Falcon without hyperdrive. Only by assuming that TESB is science fiction, and not fantasy, can you claim that Bespin must be extremely close to Hoth. So by using this line of reasoning, the Prosecution is admitting that one or the other of these two charges is clearly false. Yet no such admission is overtly forthcoming, because central to the Prosecution’s case is the utter fantasy that one can make such contradictory claims in parallel without any need for reconciling them.

“Women in Star Wars are portrayed as fundamentally weak.” The Prosecution's attempts to prove this charge are based almost exclusively on stupid and weak actions by women in part 3 of each trilogy -- but since almost everyone in part 3 of each trilogy comes off weakly compared to parts 1 and 2, this amounts to asking for special treatment for the female characters. In the case of Leia, the accusation is particularly repellent. She is described as being politically marginalized, shown as less important to the rebellion than in the earlier films. But the person by whom she is “marginalized” is Mon Mothma - a woman! The prosecution so thoroughly devalues Mon Mothma’s role that it fails to even mention her.

“The plot holes and logical gaps in Star Wars make it ill-suited for an intelligent viewer.” If anything, the Prosecution is even more guilty of logical gaps than the Star Wars movies themselves. There are numerous gaffes of the most amateurish sort (like saying that Obi-wan gave Luke a green light saber in Episode IV), and when presented with a holistic explanation for the central theme of the series, the Prosecution writes it off by claiming that less than one percent seem to have gotten that explanation, without producing any statistical evidence for the “less than one percent” claim or explaining why the percentage of people “getting it” is germane in any way to the truth of the explanation. Note also that the wording of this charge is highly elitist, as it inherently makes a comment about the intelligence of everyone on the Defense side, while also suggesting that plot holes and logical gaps do not make something "ill-suited" to an unintelligent viewer.

Brin: David Brin speaketh!

Cool posting. I wish herbm had been on the defense team. Things would have been far more exciting thn simply watching the Defense backpedal from every charge. (e.g. embracing the sins of Yoda rather than denying them. Accepting that the nasty little oven mitt is evil... and saying so?)

Seriously, Herbm/s remarks, while well-spoke, boil down to: “How dare anybody have strong opiniosn or try to persuade lots of people to see things in new ways! “

Really, read his remarks over again. So I believe I have fresh insights to offer, and I put them on Salon (a few years ago). Whole bunches of people found the article interesting, INCLUDING thousands who agrees, disagreed and ye, had their perspectives changed.. Many wrote in clamoring for a full book. So many that BenBella pushed for one.

Ah, but writing that article and expressing a fesh point of view is now “elitist”! Suggesting that millions might want to step back and re-examine a myth is snobbery. Will you pardon me for saying hogwash?

Likewise herbm’s dismissal of the adversarial disputation process.

Oh, sure, it isn’t as sweet and communitarian as some touchy-feely hippe love-in. (I can talk that way because I WAS a hippie! Moreover, my opposition to right-wing monsters is no less strong than George Lucas’s -- see? We agree where it counts!) Still, those who deny that we are strongly competitive and adversarial beings often do so in the strongest, competitive, and adversarial way! Like herbm? Hm?

Like the black-white adversarial imagery in Star Wars? In which institutions of subtle negotiation are trashed and ridiculed while decent men and women have to choose between two stark groups of mutants?

In fact, all of our progress toward democracy and enlightenment has come from HARNESSING these competitive drives, rather than pretending to suppress them. The “trial” metaphor works! It gets it all on the table while rules prevent one side from bullying.

(For a rather intense look at how "truth" is determined in science, democracy, courts and markets, see the lead article in the American Bar Association's Journal on Dispute Resolution (Ohio State University), v.15, N.3, pp 597-618, Aug. 2000, "Disputation Arenas: Harnessing Conflict and Competition for Society's Benefit." or at:

Me: Thanks for taking the time to make such a long response without actually addressing any of the points in my post! (Okay, you did make some noise about the adversarial process, I'll grant you that.)

For someone who claims to dislike the construction of strawmen, you certainly do an awful lot of it yourself.

I'm all for strong opinions, and nothing in my posts suggests that I hold the expression of such to be elitist. It is either a misreading of my post or a mischaracterization of it to make that claim.

Similarly, I never accused you of "snobbery" because you want people to reexamine Star Wars. I accuse you of snobbery because your presumption is that most of those who love Star Wars have not already examined it in detail. There is an assumption in your case for the Prosecution that most people have not thought about these movies and, more importantly, that most people would agree with your side if they did bother to think about them. The former is probably an accurate assumption; it is the latter which demonstrates a generalized arrogance. But when we get to the subset of people who are interested enough in Star Wars to actually buy a book like Star Wars on Trial, both assumptions become offensive. It becomes insulting to assume that such a reader is an uncontemplative ruminant absorbing Jedi platitudes without thought.

The fact of the matter is, you steadfastly refuse to address the dramatic structure of this series and the message it conveys:

Episodes I - III show how both a religion and its parent civilization lose sight of their values and allow the ascendancy of tyranny.

Episodes IV - VI show how a person focused on the values of truth, loyalty, and forgiveness can achieve personal redemption for those around him, and how all of us can play a role in righting things which have gone off course.

I once challenged you in an email exchange to explain what was wrong with Luke Skywalker. These two trilogies, viewed in proper dramatic order, contrast Luke with Anakin, and show what it takes to be a true hero. If you are to show that Star Wars is valueless, I suggested to you, you must show how Luke's story, which provides the ultimate climax of the series when he throws down his lightsaber in a moment of pacifist self-sacrifice, is bad.

You failed to respond to me then. I wonder if you can do so now?

Of course, the ending of that last post is a bit unfair, since I did explicitly invite Brin to cut off the email exchange at any point that he tired of it. But honestly, I was so angry that he would say, "Cool posting," and then proceed to disparage me as trying to silence his point of view.

The guy just seems to willfully or perhaps subconsciously misinterpret everything he reads or sees if it is contrary to his own perspective.

Sunday, January 1, 2006

It's Not a Story the Jedi Would Have Told You

Here is a refreshingly engaging exchange I've had with author David Brin since emailing him a few days ago, for those who are interested.

HM: I recently caught up on your epic feud with the Star Wars universe, having read the first installment just after Episode I came out. I must say, the whole thing makes for compelling reading, even some of the comments from your blog readers.

Naturally, I felt a compulsion to email you a heartfelt defense of the saga, but I contemplated for a bit, and decided that such a missive would almost undoubtedly fail. Worse yet, if I somehow did manage to affect your thinking, it would rob you of something you clearly enjoy, i.e., hating the philosophy you see as explicit in Star Wars.

So I decided to write this letter of support instead. Please keep up your good work of writing thought-provoking material, even if I might not always agree with it.

p.s., Of course, I did write a blog entry on the subject as well. But I'll leave clicking over to it entirely up to you.
DB: Thanks for your kind words and insights. I find it genuinely moving when people write to me in the way you did. And yes, with criticism, too. I’d be a hypocrite otherwise, since I preach that criticism is the only known antidote to error.

By coincidence, there is now in pre-production a book called STAR WARS ON TRIAL that will take off from my older articles (revised) and offer several vigorous "defense attorneys" their time, too. Watch for it mid-06. It may be announced on my site.

Meanwhile, get the new King Kong book you see touted there!

Alas, the excuses for Lucas nearly all boil down to (1) "chill out, man, it's just a story." Which might fly if Lucas had not spent 30 years relentlessly touting the importance of its "message." and that he taught important Values.

The more recent excuse is that average people win the day (as I was the very first, ever, to point out). So Lucas meant to say that. But would he not have at least HINTED somewhere, that that was his message?

Given his myriad other plot goofs, this one just looks like another slip-up.

Finally, there's Yoda. The fact that 99% of SW fans just eat up the nasty little fascist. As so many adore today's new wave of crypto fascists, excusing secrecy in the name of urgency.

Sorry, this is all coming together, and it is right to at least stand up and point it out.

But have fun too!


With best wishes for a happy, successful 21st Century!

David Brin
HM:To clarify something: I pay no attention to anything Lucas says. I don't know if the man is an outright liar or if he simply can't remember things from one interview to the next, but there's never been any coherence to his explanations of his universe, and he actually seems rather bored when you see him discussing it. So I tend to be a textualist about the films. I really don't care what Lucas intends (or I care only a small amount).

The fact is, viewed as a text distinct from any avowed authorial intentions, these movies make exactly the point that you want them to make. Elitism is bad and leads to suffering; real heroism is about working to make sure that the right things happen. Any other interpretation turns the films into a jumble of mush without real meaning, whereas this interpetation is consistent with everything that happens in the six-movie arc.

I'm sure you as an author have had the experience of writing a story, and returning to it later to find that it means something different, or something more, than you originally intended. I think you'll find that the Star Wars films exhibit a surprising internal consistency if you view them while making the same assumption about Lucas.

My only comment about Yoda is that this is a guy who has direct sensory evidence that his religion is true. So it's difficult for us as empricists to get inside his head. But I think that his actions make a lot more sense if you keep in mind that there is no distinction between physics and metaphysics in his experience.

Happy New Year!


p.s. As I'm sure you're quite busy, feel free to break this discussion off at any time you feel other matters better deserve your attention.
DB: Thanks. good stuff. But even if we toss out authorial intent, you ignore several other levels. e.g. the LESSONS that millions take away. At most 0.0001% notice that Lando and the wookie are the only ones who matter.

At best that number notice that Yoda is a nasty, lying fool... or much, much worse (see the new book when it comes out.)

No, if I can increase the fraction who notice - and discuss - this stuff to .o1%, my carping will have mattered.

good luck & thrive db

HM:I don’t know . . . every Star Wars fan I know recognizes the importance of not just Lando and Chewbacca, but Wedge Antilles as well.

I really can’t buy into the notion that most people would watch Return of the Jedi, see Chewbacca and Han bring the shield generator down, see Lando and Wedge blow up the Death Star, see Lucas emphasize their role by showing them reuniting and embracing during the Endor celebration, and then conclude that the actions of ordinary people make no difference.

There’s also no way at all to conclude that Luke wins out through elite magical powers. His crucial act is the moment he throws away his light saber and refuses to fight. Anyone who can’t see the importance of Luke’s willingness to sacrifice himself is frankly pretty hopeless in my book. So if it really is only .0001% of people who recognize what’s plainly there to see, I think that’s more of a strike against the moviegoing audience than against the films.

(Note that I’m perfectly willing to concede that most people do not bother to think about these films. But what negative “lesson” are people really going to absorb and act upon when viewing movies so passively, so unconsciously? Surely, most of that 99.9999% don’t think there’s any relevance at all to a bunch of guys swinging laser swords. It’s just a diverting spectacle to them.)

I’ll be interested to see your interpretation of Yoda in the new book. My view is that since we know that Yoda can see the future, while never being told exactly what he does see, it’s hard to say whether his actions truly impede Luke’s journey toward redeeming his father, or whether they simply provide Luke the opportunity to make his own choice. Is Yoda a benighted religious zealot who tries to lead first Anakin and then Luke down a foolhardy path to moral stagnation? Or does he know almost from the start everything that's going to happen, forcing him to play the role he does as a sort of a pawn to his own precognition? Impossible to know for certain, it is. : )

Ultimately, what one can’t argue about is Luke’s vastly greater importance to the series as compared to Yoda’s, or Ben Kenobi’s. Luke is the hero. It is Luke who destroys the first Death Star, Luke who goes to save his friends on Bespin, Luke who refuses to join his father to overthrow the Emperor, Luke who is unwilling to suppress conscience for the sake of purpose, and who thereby redeems Darth Vader from the Dark Side. He’s an ordinary farm-boy with some extraordinary talents who prevails in the end because of his values, and there is no logical support whatsoever for saying that the values he exhibits are elitist.

Lucas can say that these six movies are about the fall and redemption of Darth Vader all he likes -- only a fool could watch them and hold Vader to be more important than Luke. If you want to show me what's wrong with Star Wars, you have to explain to me what, exactly, is wrong with Luke Skywalker. That's a lot taller order than enumerating the flaws of the Jedi.

I join you in hoping that the new book causes more viewers to really ponder these films. As I'm sure you can tell, I think there is a great deal beneath their surface.