Life is a journey. Let us meet at the intersection and share a story.
Author: Swarn Gill
I am a professor of the atmospheric sciences. I am biracial. I am Canadian. I feel grateful to be one of the lucky ones who had a good life thanks to hardworking parents and growing up in a part of the world that offered plenty of opportunities for livelihood and happiness. I want my writing to spread information, hope, smiles, and provoke thought.
you see me as logical
well all of it is true
I didn’t see you at first
the illusion was optical
a vision so mystical
it was damn near mythical
you may find it nonsensical
but I love that your whimsical
you’re atypical, a spectacle
it might seem rather radical
but I’d like to get physical
so learn some physics from me
as a man of science
don’t think it ironical
that I’d take you on Sabbatical
that I’d start waxing canonical
or start humming a canticle
not to be didactical
but you might be the pinnacle
of creation, I’m not cynical
or skeptical that you’re so
I find you just delectable
I’m not sure if it’s ethical
to offer a hypothetical
of what it might be like with me
you see my hands are quite magical
a kiss would be fantastical
I could make you feel electrical
my tongue can move vertical
sideways or concentrical
blood rushing through your ventricle
attention nearly medical
I like to get technical
and a little bit graphical
use oils that are topical
and explore you topographical
the hills and the valleys
and all that’s geographical
you see me as logical
well all of it is true
that’s why the only
is for me to be with you
I was thinking to myself that despotic governments in poor countries probably don’t care too much about an accurate census. Undercounting is to the advantage of those who need oppress, and strip of human dignity, and in extreme cases purge. You can’t trim your population by a few percent in a short period of time if you’re keeping track of your population count. People would notice.
It made me reflect on Trump’s desire to put a citizenship question on the census. Many illegal immigrants are too afraid to fill out a census anyway, this would ensure that none did. Why count them right? Trump and his party would like to think of them as thieves in the night, sneaking across the southern desert, looking to rob some rich Americans in their new life. Yet most of them came here legally, many were brought as children, many were born here and love and need their parents as much as you did. Most are doing jobs that you and I wouldn’t do, and if we would, we’d want a lot more money to do it. Whether one wants to be an absolutist about the rule of law, they count and are part of the fabric of our society. Whether it’s costly or beneficial, they are still human beings. I suspect if Republicans could see them that way, they wouldn’t be absolutists about immigration law.
But I imagine even in the best of times undercounting is always going to be the case. And I began to wonder ‘Who else aren’t we counting in our society?’
I just want everyone to know that you count. And then you tell it to other people who aren’t reading my blog. Which is quite a lot. But even those people count and they need to know too.
Recently a ridiculous graphic was going around showing how somebody could live on $2000 dollars a month, still save $100 a month and have a couple hundred dollars spending money too. Of course that person didn’t have children, most of the costs seemed to be typical of the 90s, and in order to clear $2000 dollars a month you still need to be making $13 or $14/hr which is nearly double the federal minimum wage. For those of you who don’t want to do the math, by saving $100, they could potentially get a year of college after 10 years of work. So, by 60 they could have their bachelor’s degree and maybe move up in the world.
If that sounds ludicrous, congratulations, you are a sane person. But more importantly that $100 (we could even bump it up to $200) a month savings isn’t going to just sit they’re happily waiting to be spent on something big in most cases. A capitalist society has many rags to riches stories, and while such stories typically rise to the forefront of the conversation, they are a vast minority. Why? Because they depend on luck. I think a capitalist society can be set up in a way to give more opportunities to people, but that’s not through an unrestrained free market. It requires a government that is actively restraining it.
What I really want to talk more about are the ways in which the society we live in is stacked against poor people. I find the GOP talking point that poor people are lazy to be one of the most insidious ever devised and one that causes not only continued financial misery for poor people, but also dehumanizes them, diminishing their human dignity and value.
When I was 20 I worked a summer job where I sold Cutco knives. I’ve met other people who did the same thing; lured in by the promise of $11/hr for summer work, only two find that this was $11 for a 1 hour demonstration and you had to go into people’s homes and try to sell them knives. I’m not a great salesman, because I hate dictating how people should spend their money. Nevertheless they were quality knives and I did okay. I was reminiscing about the job recently because I actually bought some Cutco knives off of eBay as I accidentally melted one of the handles off a knife I kept from sample set that I earned by selling enough knives. Anyway, I remembered how they taught us to explain that cheap knives might work great at first, but they dull or break quickly. So without buying good knives, over the course of some number of years you would actually lose money. The company was trying to justify why you would spend a lot of money (they were quite expensive, average $70 a knife in the early 90s) on a set of knives. Let’s take for granted that these are quality knives and that you would save money in the long run. I was smart enough back then to know that this wasn’t how the real world worked for many people. Putting $800 down for a set of knives, no matter how great, was not the kind of capital people had lying around just for knives. Interestingly the thing that broke me was when the mechanically cheery regional sales manager told me to target middle class people because they were likely to have more money saved up than upper middle-class people who were more likely to have been frivolous with their money and might have less saved up. So I was expected to take savings away from people who I felt could put their money to better use buying their kids new bikes for what amounted to only kitchen knives.
The knife example is like many things in our society: good quality things that last longer are the better option to buy if you want to save money in the long term. However, to get those savings you need to have money to begin with. I remember when I was a grad student, and had limited income when I was buying a blender; there were many cheap choices that seemed like a good deal. And they would often work great for a little while, but invariably break down after a year or two. Capitalism has done a great job of making these things at a cheaper and cheaper cost, but the trade off is durability. It’s a piece of equipment that works for a limited amount of time,because they know poor people have limited amounts of money and on any given month they can only afford a cheap blender; and in a year they will be able to afford another cheap blender.
There are many more examples like this. You can reduce energy costs in your home by getting solar paneling on your roof, but it is an expensive investment and the energy savings might only make up for the cost after 10 years. You can afford to do this only if you have a nice house and the capital to invest in the first place. Another caveat is that even if poor people did want to invest in a house, it is likely not one that is well built enough to invest in something like solar paneling.
Let’s go back to that budget I talked about at the beginning where somebody with $2000 a month is able to put away $100-200 a month in savings. People who are poor generally have:
Older and cheaper living accommodations
Cheaper or no health care, thus high co-pays and deductibles
All it takes is a broken water heater, fridge, or washing machine, a car breakdown or accident, or a medical emergency for all those savings to be wiped away. And these problems will occur more frequently as a result of what you can afford when you’re poor.
Let’s throw in some other important factors. In our society, nutritious food costs more and thus families with lower quality foods may suffer more health consequences adding to their medical costs. As the COVID situation is showing us, poor people don’t get to social distance and stay home from work easily. To survive they depend on their social network and this can lead to worse outcomes in terms of getting sick and missing more work and school. The way public school funding seems to work here is that property taxes are a large part of the funding. Poorer communities get less equipped schools, can’t afford to pay their teachers as much and thus have less teacher retention, with the most experienced teachers unlikely to stay.
Another thing people might not be aware of is that poorer communities also tend to be in more disaster prone areas. Consider living near a river. There are places that are less likely to flood and more likely to flood. But instead of just not letting people live in flood prone areas, developers build cheap housing there for people with less money. It’s relatively inexpensive to rebuild if the area gets wiped out and this keeps insurance costs down in riskier areas. Meanwhile, a poor home owner in a flood zone is less likely to be able to afford and purchase flood insurance. So as poor person you are also just more likely to have your life wiped out by a natural disaster. There are also many other factors that increases disaster risks for people in with lower socioeconomic standing.
It’s possible that a parent taught you a lot about cars and you know how to fix them yourself and spot a good used car. But that’s not everybody. It’s possible that you are great at sniffing out good deals for quality appliances, but that takes time: a luxury money also gets you. Getting a higher education can also be a great way to get you out of poverty. However, this is becoming increasingly unaffordable without taking on significant debt, which in turn keeps you in a state of perpetual struggle for at least a decade after you graduate. So maybe you get lucky and stay healthy, have few car issues, end up in a good school district, or are gifted genetically in some way that gives you an advantage. And of course there could be any number of issues that your parents have which might limit your ability to rise very much in life. A lot of people may be working hard, but only some will be able to rise out of poverty.
Capitalism doesn’t care if you put away money as long as you are buying something. In fact, it prefers you spend your money rather than save it. It makes much more money off people buying multiple cheap blenders than a good quality blender that lasts 10 years. In fact, it is in capitalism’s best interest to not make things last for anybody. It seems that as the middle class erodes we just have rich people who can buy new expensive items every couple years; not because they have to, but because they can change their aesthetic anytime they want. Meanwhile poor people are forced to repeatedly buy cheap goods they have to replace often just to have a functioning home or vehicle. Capitalism is also in general happier if you are sick more and need to buy pharmaceuticals instead of being able to have the leisure time to keep healthy, exercise, and buy nutritious foods.
The real insult is that this capitalist engine, working exactly as intended, accuses the very people it exploits of being lazy and stupid, performing worthless jobs that they should be thankful for because it is only by the grace of their corporate overlords that they haven’t already been replaced by machines. When workers start to demand enough money to get by on they get replaced by machines anyway because heaven forbid some CEO can’t afford to replace his 7th vehicle that year that’s parked unused at their 4th mansion most of the year. If you listen to conservatives a CEO is the hero in this story: he is better, smarter, and a harder worker, deserving of his riches, and possessing of a superior morality. Should they screw up on that front, however, that’s okay. They have friends in the corporate media, they can hire the best lawyers and pr firms, and escape with barely a dent in their fortune. And sure some small percentage fall from grace, and while many people will recognize such people as criminals, others will simply say “Well if he’s really guilty, he surely would be in jail”. Trump is a good example of how rich criminals support each other. Meanwhile poor people pay for even the most minor of crimes for a lifetime. Capitalism not only exploits poor people as workers, but also exploits them as consumers, all the while devaluing their very existence.
This system’s cracks are showing. It can’t sustain itself. Creating division among the population is its last-ditch effort to keep itself alive. And so far, it’s working. How much longer can it all go on?
When you go over to the “other side”, meaning Trump supporter central it’s eerie. I look at the conversations and it looks like a mirror image of the type of discussions I have. It isn’t full of anger or racist messages, but simply full of the same style of criticism, and sarcasm that one would see on my side. People are civil and casual as they discuss what they consider liberal/democratic points of view. I am not saying that I agree with what they are saying just that it’s like looking in on another world that’s just like ours, but more like the universe in the classic Star Trek episode Mirror, Mirror.
I find this alarming because it means we almost can’t be further apart if you watch the conversation happening on social media. I hope that social media isn’t a good representation, but if it is, I do understand why many worry about the breakdown in conversation in our society. Even more concerning is the fact that it is very much like looking into a world that is built on fictions. Once the fictions are accepted as true, the rest appears rational and logical. In this way it’s very much like religion in which the unknown premise, that there is a God, is accepted as true a priori and the rest follows.
As much as I pride myself on my analytical skills, knowledge of the scientific method, and ability to think logically, when you see millions of people operating on a totally different set of assumptions it does make you question your sanity. Because it is possible that me and my friends are the ones living in the delusion. So, who has the better grip on reality? Are there elements of truth in both worlds and that we really need to look at a composite of those worlds? Who is qualified to be an arbiter of this? Is there anybody we can trust or believe to look at both sides objectively and determine what is real?
I base much of my morality on the simple idea of cooperation. We are a social species; we bond with others through reciprocal altruism (i.e. the golden rule) and we survive better because we work together. Which side violates this more? The problem is a bit of a numbers game. We can easily see how in an 8-person rowing team, one person acting in discord is noticeable. We can that person is certainly not coordinating efforts with others. In a tribe of a few hundred, discord will also stand out likely from a survival standpoint. However, we are millions of people. We are in discord and this impacts how we function as a nation, but not as a species. A million racists can all work together to solve problems, grow food, and propagate the species just as well as a million people who oppose racism. And what about building bridges to the other side of the political aisle? Is there one side of the aisle who is better at doing that? Right now, I would argue that there isn’t. If kindness is what connects us to people, then we need a lot more kindness that what it seems like what is currently out there, from both sides of the political spectrum. Thus, at an evolutionary level we can determine truth, because the truth is both sides can survive. Perhaps one side is happier than the other, but survival doesn’t have to be happy.
In the end I must look at bigger concepts like empathy, compassion, and humility. None of these things necessarily make one universe more real than another, but they matter if we are going to someday be a unified human race working to improve the well-being of all life on this planet. If the other universe is the real one, it is one that separates people into groups, it is based in non-existent fears, categorizing and stereotyping groups, and limiting their rights. It seems to me that they are far too often making the mistake of believing their rights being limited when most of the time it’s just privileges being lost to those people who were previously oppressed and exploited. If I’m wrong and my reality is illusory, I feel like I’ve at least tried to:
see women as equals
see race as a social construct
appreciate science and how the best tool we have for knowing works
try and be mindful of the words we use and the jokes we make because being considerate of feelings are important
that learning and growing is important
to have a society where we take care of each other better
These values seem good to me. I can’t shake it. In my understanding of liberalism, that’s the philosophy I see shaping my political values. Conservatism, at least represented by society today does not demonstrate these values. While I do think it’s important to be cautious and measured in moving forward the very idea that things are great the way they are and never change is ludicrous to me. Change is inevitable. As a species we continue to learn to try to ensure the safety and health of more and more of our people. We’ve fought and died for it. With time I do believe we’ve done a better job of giving more people a chance to flourish and having more people live that would have died a 100 years ago or more. Our story is one of change.
Perhaps it is human nature for those who fear change to battle those who welcome it. I like to frame that struggle as the battle between comfort and risk. Both have their merits and perhaps arguing about it is the only way to reach a compromise, to find a way to move us forward where everybody gets to come along. It seems once again a numbers game. If we were our hunter-gatherer selves, we would all know each other and how many shades of difference in worldview could we have from one another. However, when you’re talking about billions of people the perspectives vary greatly. And even if some of those perspectives are based on fundamentally unsound principles, when it’s all you’ve known it’s hard to even know that the boundaries that shaped your life can be broken at all. But there is some element of truth in everybody’s story and we’ve really got to do a better job of preserving the essence of someone’s lived life that can instruct, that can be beautiful, and/or weep at the tragedy that unfolded on them.
In the end we live in a time of vast inequality with numbers of people living in abject poverty that we can’t even fathom. But every time we get a glimpse into that well of inequality we all know that there are some on this planet who have more wealth than they can possible spend, while children literally die of starvation. I’ve heard from economists who pay attention to history that capitalism helped raise people out of poverty. I’m not going to dispute that. However, at the risk of sounding cynical, I worry that even though less people (as a percentage of global population) live in abject poverty than in the past, our drive to give people the barest of wealth to get by is not because capitalism cares about people, but because capitalism realized that more people means more labor and more consumers. Capitalism was never an ethical system, it is an engine to generate wealth and nothing more. We better come up with answer to what all this wealth is for, because capitalism is moving on without human labor. Automation is coming. More wealth will be generated by corporations and the need for labor decreases. Eventually the system has to collapse in on itself because if people have nothing to do they will not have any money to buy things. The narcissism of greed is our real enemy. I think there are people on both sides of the aisle who feel they don’t have value and what they do has no value. The people with the money want you to believe that some other group is to blame. Some group who’s just trying to live their life and hope that things stay secure enough so they can raise a family and have a little fun along the way.
I’m trying to be my optimistic self during these times, but it’s a great challenge. I don’t know the answer to how we can come together, but I do know if we don’t start being a lot kinder to each other it’s never going to happen.
Right now my son is really into the Octonauts. If you don’t have children you might not be familiar with the show, but I’m comfortable in saying it might be one of the best cartoons ever made for kids. In the episode a team of animals in their underwater vessel help various sea creatures in the ocean and tell you interest facts about the featured creature for each episode.
I’ve always been fond of documentaries on ocean especially the deep sea ones with bio-luminescence. But it struck me as I watching an episode with my son last night that the ocean really is like an alien world. It’s not that we don’t have an impact on it, but for the most part other than the occasional visit, it’s simply a world in which we can’t exist in. It is a world that has those at the top of the food chain, and those at the bottom. It has death, pain, peace, flourishing, competition, love, etc. It is extremely diverse, and there is much intelligence to be found. It is every bit as vivacious as surface based life. As I watch and think about that world, I couldn’t help but think how there is nothing to judge. It is, and while things live and die, there is no question about about morality, deities, or oppression. It just is, and it’s beautiful. While I do not believe any single creature intends to live sustainably, the world in the oceans is as sustainable as it can be. Something we’ve yet to figure out. We as a species have flourished perhaps more than any other species, but at what cost?
When I think about how our actions have impacted this other world, how we’ve carelessly thrown trash into it and how climate change is influencing it, it seems more egregious than many of our other environmental crimes. In fact it seems that because we thought it was this other world with a massive amount of water we have reasoned that we could do anything we wanted to it, thinking that our activities could never have a great impact on anything so vast. This has of course turned out to be untrue. It is not our confession booth, a place to take all our sins away and absolve of us our hurt on the environment, but we have treated as such.
I’d like to believe the maker of the Octonauts just has such a passion for the ocean and just wanted to spread that appreciation to others. I think it does a great job of that. I get why people dedicate their lives to the study and preservation of these amazing ecosystems. We may never get off this planet and meet alien civilizations. The Ocean might be the best “alien” world we can visit. I hope we can keep it that way. It was here before us, and I hope that it will also be here long after us.
So why have we invested so much time and money into this movie series over the years? We can understand why kids love it and our nostalgia for it when we’re older. But let’s get down to the bare bones of it. There are really only three reasons why we watch these movies.
The first reason is light sabers. Light sabers are the coolest things ever. The light saber toys they have now are so far superior to what they used to be that it’s hard to not be a little jealous, but even those toys aren’t where I’d like them to be. Look, I don’t know how light which radiates away from a source forever and ever could be contained like that to only extend several feet, but this technology has to be figured out. I also don’t think it’s slicing through things that people like about light sabers. It is the humming sound they make whether in motion or not. The way they sound when they clash together. The fight choreography also improved vastly in the later movies. I am not certain if doing a big spin move is what you should be doing when someone else has a weapon aimed at you, but it all looked pretty awesome. I could watch light saber fights all day. I mean I think most people agree that Rogue One is the best Star Wars movie of the franchise. I think it was. But I haven’t watched it again. Why? Not enough light sabers.
This brings us to our next reason which is chase scenes. Lots of chase scenes in these movies. Whether by ship, by pods, by speeder, or by foot there a lot of chase scenes often at speeds that defy human reflexes but are a lot of fun. We all like chase scenes.
The main reason why Star Wars appeals to people, I believe, is because it is full of underdog situations. Almost every scene that isn’t a light saber battle is full of scenes in which the enemy vastly outnumbers the good guys. There is no scrape they are trying to get out in which the odds aren’t against them by and often by fairly substantial margins. Humans love to see good guys beating the odds. Hell, that’s even one of the more famous Han Solo lines when C3P0 is telling Han the odds and he says “Never tell me the odds!” This is sound advice throughout the 9 movies, where the odds would end up depressing people fairly substantially. Whether it’s 1000s of droids, legions of star destroyers, inexhaustible armies of storm troopers, or apparently untold amounts of Sith disciples spending a lot of time in the dark on Exegon, the odds are never in the favor of the good guys. But time and time again, the “let’s not hurt people” crowd comes out on top. Almost to the point of being kind of unrealistic. Nevertheless we love these situations.
But there are reasons that we should appreciate Star Wars even more for. While I liked that they brought in more human races into the last movies, I’m not sure it was entirely necessary. They had aliens and droids aplenty in the movies on both the good guys and bad guys side and race or language didn’t seem to play any sort of role. Whether a band in a bar, as co-pilot, as admiral (we love you Akbar and I can’t believe they killed you so unceremoniously!!), a helpful group of muppets, or an annoying sidekick, the fact that people look differently seems to be of no matter. All that matters is if they are good or bad. And I think that was pretty awesome.
The most important reason why we should love the movies is for what I think is some pretty positive feminism. First you got Queen Amidala. She’s smart, strong, and has genuine compassion and care for her people. Though she lived a short life, her last task was to make sure that her children were hidden and protected from their father. There are many strong women in the franchise, Jyn Erso, Rose Tico, Vice Admiral Hodo, and even Anakin’s mother seems like a very strong woman. And we can’t forget Rey, who I really enjoyed taking the lead in final 3 movies. What’s great is that they aren’t just there for love interests for male characters. They just kick ass.
But there is one woman, who I’ve saved until last. She deserves her own paragraph. As great as Amidala was, she is nothing compared to her daughter. Princess ”fucking” Leia. This woman is out there leading the rebels while in her early 20s while Obi Wan and Yoda are still in hiding. She is already infamous enough at that point to have got the Empire’s attention…and they have a whole galaxy to pay attention to. She gets captured by Vader herself and put in jail. She doesn’t take any shit from womanizer Han Solo, and basically forces him to become a better man if he wants any piece of her. She’s good with a blaster and becomes even stronger in the force than Luke. Now one could argue that compared to Luke she grew up with much more privilege and education. That may be a factor, but they take that away pretty quickly by blowing up the entire fucking planet she grew up on, included her parents. She just shakes it off and keeps fighting. And where is she at the beginning of Return of the Jedi? She’s a sex slave mole in the service of Jabba the Hut. Getting out of her conservative attire to suddenly wear a bikini and have a chain around her neck. She suffers grave humiliation for the cause. At this point you might be thinking, “oh this is just another movie degrading women”, but she ain’t no floosy. A whole bunch of fans might have found it sexy as hell, but she didn’t do it for cat calls, she did it to save someone she cares about and someone who is a leader to the rebel cause. It doesn’t take long before she’s got that chain around Jabba’s neck and is choking the life out of that fat, disgusting, keeping women in chains motherfucker. This is no delicate flower. She’s a leader, a fighter, a mother, and an inspiration to the entire rebel movement. Carrie Fisher really is the marvel of the Star Wars franchise in my opinion, and arguably the star of it over Mark Hamill.
If you can’t find any good reasons from all this to watch the movies, but want to feel knowledgeable about the movies, I’ll give you a quick rundown so you can still be part of Star Wars conversations:
Episode I: The Phantom Menace – Two overconfident Jedi pick up an annoying CGI physical comedy expert and then get stranded on Tatooine where they believe too strongly in destiny and end up bringing back a child who will eventually cause great death and destruction to many by insisting he be trained to use his off the charts skills. Dance party and award ceremony complete the movie.
Episode II: Attack of the Clones – Here we see why Yoda is a Jedi Master and get an explanation for why there is an endless supply of Storm Troopers. (Hint: unethical cloning). Amidala starts falling for Anakin now that his voice has deepened. Dialogue and acting are extra terrible in this movie.
Episode III: Revenge of the Sith – We are never told what the revenge is for here. To my knowledge the Jedi never tried to hunt down every last Sith and kill children in Sith kindergartens. Anyway Amidala misses her period and Anakin falls to the dark side. Gets his ass kicked by Obi Wan, but is saved by the Emperor sans arms and legs, and is made it to a mechanical juggernaut and transforming his voice into James Earl Jones.
Episode IV: A New Hope – The new hope is a whiny brat who complains about never having anything to do, and ends up going on a space adventure. In the end he rejects the technology that got him there to use the force to blow up a rather poorly designed planet destroying station. Award ceremony at the end.
Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back – Definitely the best of the 9 movies. The rebels are forced to abandon Antarctica. The first black guy is introduced to the films. Luke experiences the tutelage of a grammar impaired Jedi master on a swamp planet. At the end of the movie he gets a robot hand and develops daddy issues.
Episode VI: Return of the Jedi – It should be noted that Jedi is very singular here, despite the fact that Jedi can also mean multiple Jedi. It should have been called Return of A Jedi. Despite all the Imperial technology, they still get outwitted by a band of fuzzy muppets with rocks and sticks, and the better designed death star is still compromised by ineptitude. Luke believes in the good of his father and as he’s writing in electric shock therapy, dad throws the emperor down a long long way which leads to his demise. Dance party and celebratory ceremonies ensue.
Episode VII: The Force Awakens – Mysterious girl is mysteriously connected to brooding son of Han and Leia. Some Sith dude called Snokes comes from nowhere. Rebels are still in the same position they were at the end of Return of the Jedi. Everything from Episode IV pretty much happens again. Kylo Ren kills his dad just for believing in him and wanting him to be a better person. Award ceremony of course.
Episode VIII: The Last Jedi – Kylo Ren defeats Snokes to become the new head bad guy. Connection between Kylo and Rey grows. The out of nowhere Jedi power of astral projection saves the Rebels from being completely destroyed as there numbers unnecessarily dwindle from 200 to about 50.
Episode IX: Rise of Skywalker – Skywalker doesn’t really rise up here. Perhaps spiritually since they all die. We all had every reason to believe the Emperor was dead, but apparently they couldn’t think of a real new bad guy and the Emperor is still alive and has to be defeated once and for all. This also makes the celebrations in Return of the Jedi less meaningful. 😦 He has become even more decrepit and evil. Of course his penchant for trying to corrupt Skywalkers ends up being his downfall. The movie does have a dance party, but award ceremonies were not included in this one. I imagine they would have been impressive.
Look, these aren’t great movies. But they have their moments and there are very real reasons to get attached to them. You can still have fondness and feel a nostalgia for it while watching and enjoy them even while knowing they also kind of suck. May the midichlorians be with you!
Well the 9 part franchise has finally come to an end. There is probably no franchise so beloved that is actually fairly bad (on any criteria that defines a movie), with perhaps the exception of Arby’s. That’s right, I’m saying it. Star Wars are B movies. Now I’m not saying I don’t feel a certain degree of joy watching it, and there is nothing wrong with watching B movies, but from a storytelling and movie making perspective, it’s got a lot of problems.
Star Wars is the classic good vs. evil tale, but there is no complexity to it at all. Either you like freedom or you don’t. Either you want to hurt people and are evil, or you don’t want to hurt people and you’re good. If a planet isn’t a criminal run planet in chaos, your only other choice seems to be monarchical rule. A system of governance that opens itself up to despots and authoritarianism and thus we shouldn’t be surprised that good can turn to evil. Or you have totalitarian, theocratic, dictatorship. We are first led to believe that there is a senate that is representative of different worlds. This governing body seems to be totally without any governing powers. Nobody seems to have any political position. There is an argument over a trade blockade. Allowing commerce to proceed is fine, but it’s hardly a political ideology. I mean even as one planet we have far more competing ideologies than this entire galaxy seems to have. Once Palpatine takes over, he has no real manifesto. He’s just a bad dude who wants to hurt people. He wants to make people live in fear of the might and power he controls. This is cartoonish villainy which is why these movies are largely for children from about 8-14. The mildly comical antics definitely solidify the movies into that age range as well.
And what are the good guys really about? What do they really believe in? In their off time, most of the good guys seem to enjoy either informal dance parties, or award ceremonies. I would agree that societies should be free to have such things, but it’s hardly a meaningful ideological position. I imagine if the Empire wanted to have dance parties and award ceremonies that could do so as well, just about different things. What are they doing to ensure any kind of lasting peace? If there is one thing we’ve learned is that the dark side of the force is easier to fall into that a blindfolded man at the edge of the Grand Canyon.
One of biggest problems with the movies is how easily Anakin Skywalker falls to the dark side. Let’s review. We have this little kid, who initially Yoda doesn’t want to train. Why? Because he misses his mother. I mean he loves his mom and was taken away from her forever by these adults who can appear to do magic but still need to rely on this mechanical genius kid who helps them from being stranded on one of the myriad of desert planets that people for some reason live on. It seems pretty standard for a child to miss his mother. So Yoda’s powers of deduction here is hardly impressive. Then Yoda says he’s too old, we can’t indoctrinate him properly. Eventually he reluctantly agrees, the boy gets trained. Next we meet him as a 16 year old who is impatient and headstrong. Just like every other fucking teenager. Maybe it’s because we know what’s going to happen to Anakin that we feel dread, but he’s really just an obnoxious teenager played by a terrible actor. You almost can’t wait for the mask and James Earl Jones’ voice so you can be rid of Hayden Christiansen. But you get through episode II, still hoping that an epic struggle to remain good and loyal to the Jedi Order will happen.
But in Revenge of the Sith what happens? Despite the fact that he understands the Jedi governance structure from almost his entire young life he gets all upset that he isn’t asked to be on the Council. Even though the council head is fucking 700+ years old, somehow Anakin, in his early twenties gets a branch up his butt about not being voted in on the council. Meanwhile he’s making out with his former babysitter and Queen and has amazing powers to be a force of good. But it’s not enough. So what is the start of his descent into liking the feeling of his power? Well he goes to Tatooine to find his mother. He naturally is upset at her death, and when a powerful person gets upset, people die. But who dies? A bunch of slavers. This is the beginning of evil? I mean look, I think violence is a last resort, but how is killing a bunch of slavers really the lure of the dark side. And then who does he kill next? Count fucking Saruman. One of the evilest dudes in two movie franchises, but apparently that wasn’t good for his psyche. Even though Yoda or Obiwan would have done the same thing in combat.
Now he’s apparently evil, turns on the Jedi after this, and what’s his first target? A whole bunch of fucking kindergartners at the Jedi Academy. The poor kids don’t expect a thing. And why should they? He became evil faster than a bored worker at The Gap outlet store asking if you need help. All because in this universe despite the fact that they got lasers, can travel faster than light speed, sophisticated AI and massive language translation programs, but apparently forgot to research medicine to help pregnant women (fucking patriarchy!) and needs Palpatine’s tutelage to learn how to heal. Who knows why the good Jedi Order isn’t trying to learn this healing technique? I mean it seems like a pretty basic good guy Jedi power to have. And despite seemingly knowing nothing about obstetrics (did I say ‘fucking patriarchy!’ yet) they do have cloning technology. What Anakin, a cloned version of Queen Amydala isn’t good enough for you? You just had to kill a bunch of kids, because you thought this good person (who’s pro not hurting people) would be glad you killed a bunch of kids so you could learn the power to save her life. That’s a serious misunderstanding of what appears to be a fairly simple concept of goodness. So when Darth Vader chooses to turn on the emperor and save his son he remembers back to the good man he once was, he’s apparently about 7 years old. Because after that he’s pretty much a whiny dick.
But what I realized when watching Return of the Jedi recently that as flimsy as Anakin’s fall to the dark side is, the reasons for the main characters being good are equally flimsy. Luke gets the hots for the hologram of his sister and decides to find old Ben Kenobe. Han has the hots for Leia and decides to help the rebels and give up the rogue life. All the Jedi simply rely on religious dogma to carry them through to the next day as good guys. Obi Wan is just waiting for 20 or so years to turn into Alec Guiness before doing anything good at all. And Yoda spent the last two decades in a swamp licking his wounds. The fact that Luke is this rare 1 out of several billion people in the galaxy who thinks it would be a good idea to fight a fascist, authoritarian regime is astounding. Because let’s face it, the rebel alliance, despite having the whole galaxy to choose from can never seem to muster more than a couple hundred people to attack the empire. And that’s when they aren’t just letting a chunk of themselves get blown up so that Laura Dern can come out of nowhere and have some stoic music play before she rams her ship into the star destroyer. I mean here on Earth I could easily get a couple hundred people through Facebook to take up arms against some of the most ridiculous causes. But government tyranny? There are millions of gun owners in the U.S. itching for an excuse to fight against a tyrannical government. This whole galaxy far, far away seems to be completely hopeless unless about 200 people are in the middle of a fight first and then go “Hey look they’re doing it so I guess I’ll get off my ass an help.” So how those rebels have any hope at all is beyond me if they can only find a couple hundred people to join the cause.
And what about all the ghost Jedi sitting on their asses? Luke Skywalker can apparently raise an X-Wing out of the ocean as a ghost. Why wasn’t he just over on Exegon flinging heavy objects at the Sith instead of getting the people who could actually die do all the work? Obi Wan claimed he would become more powerful when he’s struck down. But apparently more powerful just means “voice in Luke’s head” and reminding Luke to “use the force” at the right time, and “Go to Dagobah”. Pretty sure you could have done that while alive Obi Wan. I have no idea why Darth Vader says in “Obi Wan” has taught you well. Obi Wan hasn’t done shit. As far as I can tell, other than a few words of advice as far as he got in the Jedi training with Obi Wan is to deflect a few lasers from a floating ball while blindfolded. That doesn’t make you ready to face Vader.
Finally, why is it that despite having droid technology the Empire has all the droids that would actually be useful against a military force, and the rebels seem to only have droids that access computer systems and can speak a lot of languages while moving very slowly from place to place. Literally there were so many jams that they could have gotten out of way faster had they had droids who weren’t slowly ambling over to them. Meanwhile when it comes to fighting droids the empire has legions of them. Does the state control the means of production? Are we talking about some Soviet Union-like Empire? Perhaps so. My point is some angry fighting droids could have been a real help for a cause that can only scrounge up a couple hundred people from an entire galaxy.
There are many common complaints I haven’t dealt with here. For instance many people say the writing is terrible in later movies. This is wrong. It’s all pretty bad. If you don’t think the writing in the original movies was bad it’s because you’re looking through it with a nostalgic lens. This isn’t rich writing with complex characters with a complex history, or complex relationships with each other.
Now if you’re a big Star Wars fan you are probably full of counterarguments, and I’m here to tell you they are all wrong, and if you want to tell me that if I really want to appreciate it all, I need to read some nerdy set of books, that is also wrong. Star Wars is a movie experience. Also you should really just read my next part about why Star Wars is good.
One thing that is fairly obvious among humans is that we don’t like uncertainty. To say that we don’t know something is to highlight ignorance. It’s the highest level of uncertainty we can reveal. Even us ego driven academics are often chided for weighing in on every issue, and it’s a stereotype that is not unfounded. But as every good teacher will tell you there is a lot of value of telling your students that you don’t know. Now maybe some students idolize your intellect and saying you don’t know might shatter the pedestal they put you on, but if they truly care about the pursuit of knowledge they should be lauding you for having the humility and honesty for saying “I don’t know”. No one can know everything, even in their own field. And it’s a moment to teach your students about how one goes about finding the answer to a particular question, and that you never really stop learning or being a student.
But how is it that we know things? We can know things through experience and through investigation. Some claim instinct or intuition is also a type of knowing. But is it, or just a reaction to a particular situation? Instincts can be certainly be wrong even if they are embedded into who we are as humans. But instinct or intuition can also be honed through experience. For instance, a doctor might have a hunch or intuition about what might be wrong with a patient. This isn’t some inborn knowledge. The doctor, as a 16-year-old, certainly wouldn’t be able to make the same guess than they might have after years of experience. Most things that we chalk up to instinct or intuition are based on experiences we have had, or perhaps read about. If, as a woman, you have intuition about a guy that he’s creepy or dangerous, it could be that you’re spot on. Given the litany of examples of violence and abuse of men towards women this wouldn’t be a surprising thing to fear. But whatever that feeling is, does it represent true facts about the universe? Not necessarily, because you could be wrong, but it’s part of our survival to play it safe, instead of taking chances, going against our intuition can be costly. Regardless of what you believe about instinct or intuition all ways of knowing are subject to our cognitive biases and thus investigative methods that attempt to remove biases have a higher probability of being right.
The one thing that I think religion and science have in common is that they are both representative of our desire to know things and our uncomfortability with uncertainty. There are always things we don’t know. Sometimes big things like why is there a universe at all? Or, how did life begin? Many of the questions we’ve had over the years have been explained by the supernatural, only to have that debunked through scientific investigation. Refusing to leave things unexplained we have, in human history, always had those who claimed magic is real and that supernatural forces act with intent. But can we call supernatural explanations an explanations? It answers what, and sometimes who and when, but rarely how and why. It also seems to me that such explanations never really factor into things we are closer to understanding. For instance, we still have questions about lightning, but this is something that we also understand a lot about. We don’t say, “Alright we don’t know exactly how charge separation happens in a cloud, so therefore God.” We have enough of a physical understanding of the situation to know there are some details we haven’t worked out, but that it’s an explainable, natural phenomena. In ancient China, well before we understood anything about lightning, people believed that lightning was caused by supernatural forces and it would strike down people who were disrespectful to their parents. It’s as good an “explanation” as anything when you know nothing perhaps, but that’s a big problem. Such explanations are a dime a dozen, you could say “No! Lightning strikes people who are dishonest with their spouses”, “It’s pixies in the clouds, angry at humans for taking their home to make their village”, “It’s punishment for an entire civilization for their sinful nature”, “It’s an electric elk called Simon”. Things that promote magic as real render the investigation of scientific laws and principles useless. What value would understanding these things if such rules are ignored by the supernatural and the whim of a believer? People often want answers so badly they don’t care about the process.
This is where science differs from religion. Science seeks to explain and is much more about the process of investigation than the answer. Obviously that is the endpoint of a particular question, but how you arrive at that destination is at least as important, if not more important than the destination itself. Science seeks to explain through premises that are verifiable and analyzing available data before arriving at a conclusion. This conclusion then must be reliable as a starting point for new questions to be answered successfully, and this conclusion must be reachable by others independently. And because we don’t always have or know what relevant data is to answer a particular question, we can’t guarantee that any conclusion is 100% right. We can only determine the most correct answer given a certain set of information.
People say that history is also a way to know what’s true, but such people who say that don’t truly understand what good historical scholarship involves, or the reliability of such conclusions. Historians know that any one source of historical knowledge can be biased, so the more data (sources) about a historical event the more sure the conclusion. But even then there still may be cultural bias, or differences in the way historical events were recorded at different times in our history. The lexicon of a particular language was less complex than now and thus we can sometimes only guess at the true meaning of a particular text. We can also support historical claims with archaeological evidence. Apologists that I’ve debated with love to cite the truth of a historical event in the Bible, but saying a historical event happened doesn’t mean the rest of a particular text is reliable. We can’t say that because City A existed as described in the Bible, thus the resurrection happened. This would be like saying well Mel Gibson’s movie Apocalypto must be all factual history because there was a tribe called the Incas. The Bible is a mixture of ordinary and extraordinary claims, and given that it was written by people who were aware of history and the norms of their time it would foolish to expect all of it to be fiction. Unless we have some unaltered video footage we still can’t know anything for sure. Video footage of Kennedy’s assassination tells us that he was assassinated and where the assassination took place. It doesn’t tell us who did it, or why? That had to be investigated and evidence collected. And despite the many conspiracy theories out there, the one thing that nobody says is that God sent down a bullet to kill Kennedy. The laws of physics were obeyed. Somebody fired a gun and that bullet traveled as it should towards its target.
The most important value perhaps of admitting “I don’t know” is that this means that it elicits curiosity and investigation. Having an answer, even if it cannot be tested, can often close off an avenue of investigation that might have otherwise been taken. If you ask me a question about the atmosphere and I give you an answer, you may simply believe me, based on my authority as an atmospheric science professor. If I’m right the fact that you don’t investigate for yourself costs you nothing. Yet if I think I know, or am afraid to look dumb and pretend to know my answer can prevent you from finding the actual answer, and now you may act on false information in the future. The reality is that there is too little time in our lives to investigate everything. Some things we do have to just believe. Having an answer is comforting. Believing in the supernatural can be comforting. That which is comforting doesn’t necessarily equate to truth, it is aesthetics. Aesthetics are important, but we shouldn’t expect everyone to share our aesthetic preferences.
Finally it is often the case that apologists will also use uncertainty as a means of positing that all answers are thus equally valid in the absence of evidence. Sometimes this is true, but certainly there are some explanations that have a higher probability of being true than others. If a tornado doesn’t hit your house one answer to why, could be that God spared your house. But this is highly improbable given how much the dynamics and the thermodynamics of the atmosphere influence storm motion. Provided we could get sufficient measurements of the atmosphere, we would have a better explanation as to why the storm took one path and not the other.
In cases where all answers might be equally valid, for which we have no evidence to support a particular assertion, there is an extremely large number of possibilities. For those who purports the logically flawed prime mover argument, even if it was a sound argument it says nothing about what might be the prime mover. Is it:
More than one
Computer programmer of a simulation
Flying Spaghetti Monster
God who is just really smart, but not omniscient
God who is powerful but not all powerful
God who is not timeless. Created the universe but then expired about 2 billion years ago.
A group of people from a parallel or previous universe who could do magic by writing things down. The act of writing on a page made it come true.
This list is possibly endless as we try to prescribe a nature to the supernatural. In fact the less evidence there is for an assertion the more possible answers we can provide. Not surprisingly we’ve had over 10,000 Gods in human history. My believing in one of these answers and writing it down in a book does not make an answer more true. Yet we are asked to simply accept specific extraordinary claims and reject others regularly by theist apologists.
The better, and more honest answer is, “I don’t know.” The more comfortable we can become with uncertainty, both individually and as a people, the more likely we are to grow. Not only is humility a virtue, but a methodological assessment of that which we have evidence for and what we don’t, can help us search for possible explanations that we might not have searched for because we believed we knew the answer.