Finally Saw Last Jedi

 

Ok, I finally got see the new Star Wars movie, The Last Jedi, this past weekend. What follows will be filled with spoilers; so, if you have not yet seen the movie, stop here, and do not read further. Here’s an image of Ewoks to remind you of your youth.

(image taken from one of the Star Trek movies, I think…doesn’t look like Star Wars!)

So, I’m guessing you either saw the movie or don’t care about spoilers. What did I think of it? Ummm…I thought it was mediocre as a film. The pacing was off; there were ridiculous timing issues; the central premise was kind of weird for a Star Wars movie…basically the whole thing is one long chase scene, with some people leaving it to go try to solve the problem. Meh.

However, I can see why some people loved this movie. What I don’t really understand is why some people hate it. I don’t understand the controversy around it. Since I thought it was mediocre, I can obviously understand that not everyone loved it. But hate? I don’t get it. Let me start, though, with why I understand the love.

Some of the fight scenes in this movie are pretty amazing. The opening sequence draws you in real fast, and I’ll agree with Kevin Smith in saying that the move that Poe makes in that X-Wing is brand new to the franchise and really, really cool. The sacrifice of the bomber to get the job done? Good stuff. The physics of it all? Pretty much nonsense, but these are fantasy films, not sci-fi. I can get past that. Thrilling opening.

Kylo Ren’s battle with Rey was great, too, especially the way that Kylo kills his master, hiding his true intentions somehow along the way. Oh, and that sacrifice Admiral Holdo makes by lightspeeding into the bad guys? Loved it, even if it does mess with some of the established physics once again. I don’t care about that. I thought it was a great sacrifice. I kind of wish it had been Leia instead, though. I really liked Holdo in the short time we get to see her, and knowing that Carrie Fisher has sadly passed away means that they will need to find a way to sacrifice Leia anyway. This could have been pretty meaningful, and Laura Dern could have taken over as the head of the resistance. After all, Poe would be a terrible choice!

That brings me to his character. I liked his arc. I think the exchanges between Poe and Holdo are part of the controversy, which I’ll get to in a moment, but I found this story compelling. Poe is a hotshot pilot, used to solving problems by shooting at them. He’s willing to give his life to help the rebellion, and unfortunately, he extends that recklessness to those under his command. That’s not good, and the movie does a good job of showing him learn this lesson. Sometimes, you have to live to fight another day, or the whole cause is lost. By the end, he learns this. He also learns about chain of command.

Now, this is one of the parts that annoys me about the movie. I liked Poe in the Force Awakens. We are meant to like him, and the writers know that. They used that to set us up a bit to be on his side in the conflict with Holdo. That’s fine. It sets up a twist of sorts (though not a huge one…Holdo is an admiral, a hero of the rebellion; of course she had a plan other than just dying eventually). But the trick is a bit forced (no pun). It would have taken her only a moment to tell him the plan. She doesn’t have to do so, of course. She’s in charge. But when she finally does, later in the movie, he agrees with it immediately. He could have helped her with morale on the ship, if she had taken a few seconds to explain what they were doing. And it’s not like she’s too busy to do that. Again, she doesn’t have to do it. I just don’t understand why she didn’t.

But this leads to the bigger issue. He mutinies against her! He sends people off, against orders. His plan ends up ruining everything, and even leading to the Empi…urrrr…First Order….finding out about the cloaked ships! Basically, he blundered big time. Leia even has to come and take him out. Ok….but then, once it’s all done, both Leia and Holdo agree that Poe is still a great guy. He’s just such a scamp!

Ummmm…what??? No way! No way, no way, no way, no way! This guy ignored direct orders, got people killed, nearly leading to the complete destruction of the rebellion. And he’s still basically second in command after all that? Nope! That’s just dumb.

Ok, that’s covered all the non force people, I think! So, what about the last Jedi thing? Well, as you know, Luke is not the last Jedi. Well, in a way he is. But Rey is, too, or something. This is fine. Jettison the Jedi order. It was pretty terrible anyway. Bunch of rogue vigilantes with powers that somehow magically enforce law throughout the galaxy, with a license to kill (or cut off arms). How many people have suffered because of the Jedi fighting the Sith? Lots! Just end the cycle of violence already.

I think Luke’s death was handled pretty well, though I think it would have been better if we learned that in fact Kylo Ren had killed him on that fateful night after all, and all this time, his force ghost had remained to resolve some unfinished business. But whatever. Luke learns that violence is not the solution to the problem, and he fades away.

This gets me to the controversial part. From what I can gather, there are two main sources of criticism for this movie, and I don’t really get either one.

The first source is something about women in control and Poe being a fool, and blah feminism or some such nonsense. This one is stupid. I had heard that some alt-right people didn’t like the new movie, and my wife and I tried to figure out why. There were no obvious social justice issues being portrayed in the movie. Yes, the admiral was a woman, but that was true in Return of the Jedi, and Leia is obviously a high ranking person in the rebellion. Putting Poe in his place isn’t new to the series, really, and I think it was well done.

The second one is about Luke, I think. Some people didn’t like this portrayal of Luke Skywalker. I disagree. I think this was a very likely arc to his story. Luke was a whiny fool in the first two Star Wars movies. He was absolutely annoying. He didn’t listen to anyone, and he always rushed into danger without thinking. In Return of the Jedi, he seemed to be progressing, maturing even. However, it’s really not a complete transition. Even in the opening saving Han Solo scenes, where he comes across as self-assured, he has moments of violence and apparent joy in killing others. Granted, they are bad people, but it’s still violence. At the end of the movie, Palpatine wants Luke to give into this anger and kill his own father, and Luke almost does. His anger erupts from him, and even though he does finally get it back under his control (to his credit!), it was there.

Now, let’s take this character a couple of decades later. He’s rebuilt the Jedi order, and he’s training young Jedi in the ways of the force. But he senses the potential for darkness in young Ben Solo. Remember that same potential was in Luke. It’s in Rey. It seems to be in every powerful Jedi. It’s a path that could be taken by any Jedi. That’s what makes the dark side so dangerous, and it only takes a split second bad choice to fall into the trap.

The movie shows Luke almost fall, again, as he considers ending his nephew’s life simply to avoid the risk of him turning to the dark side. Ultimately, he claims he wouldn’t have done it, but from Ben’s perspective? He saw his master about to kill him with a lightsaber, and he defended himself. Nothing Luke could have said after that would have changed that perception. Luke almost did it, and next time he might go through with it.

Thus Kylo Ren is born, a reluctant (rather emo) teenager who was betrayed by a family member who had authority over him. That would mess anyone up, bad. And it changed Luke too. He knows it was his fault, and he seems to decide that the only way to win this game of Light vs. Dark is not to play the game. He withdraws from the force, reluctant to keep making the same mistakes over and over. In the end, he turns back to it one last time in order to save the rebellion. This costs him his life, ultimately, but it keeps hope alive.

I love this, I have to say, and I don’t get the hate for it. I think it’s a brilliant end to the Luke story. He takes a path very similar to his own father. We see a cycle here, and we see that the person who can best break this cycle is someone who is not caught up in it at all- Rey. She is the real hope for the future of Jedi, and mainly because she is free of all of this historical nonsense. Her background as a random nobody makes her the ideal choice to form a new order, or even to reject the idea of a galactic vigilante police force altogether!

We’ll see what happens next. But what I hope is that the next Star Wars movie tells a NEW story already. The Force Awakens felt like a remake of a New Hope, and The Last Jedi feels like Empire Strikes Back. Yes, some of the plot points are inverted in order to shake up our preconceptions, and that’s fine. But I don’t want to see any more damn Death Stars or barely surviving groups of ragtag individuals who now have to rebuild from scratch…again.

Seriously? Just LISTEN Already and Quit Acting Shocked!

(Content Warning—going to talk about some of the issues of people abusing power, especially by victimizing women and marginalized groups.)

Over the last couple of weeks, all sorts of stories have been breaking about women, minorities, trans persons, and other vulnerable groups being harassed by people in power. I’m going to go ahead and echo a much more popular writer, Harris O’Malley, who goes by “Dr. Nerdlove” and spends most of his online energy helping socially awkward people understand relationships better. Marginalized voices have been screaming that they are being exploited, and they are being ignored. You want to do some good in the world? Start by listening to the people who are being victimized.

No, don’t talk over them. Don’t what-about them. Don’t accuse them of exaggerating. LISTEN.

Hear what they are saying. Do you want more evidence before you condemn someone for something that is likely to destroy that person’s life? I get that. Really, I do. False accusations can do real harm; but they are also pretty rare. You know why? Because being assaulted or harassed or even belittled is not something people brag about in most cases. In fact, they usually don’t want anyone to know. It’s a demeaning experience, and reliving it can be almost as awful as the incident itself.

Add to that the fact that if you make such allegations, you can be blacklisted from a whole community, including the one that involves your career. If you are the sole voice, you will be ignored; only once you are joined by a growing chorus of people, with the same story repeated over and over, will the public finally listen.

Then, once the person admits what he has done (it’s almost always a white guy, at least in the U.S., despite the fact I linked to the Cosby scandal above), many people will focus on the lack of criticism toward the attacker. This is what is happening with the current admission of Harvey Weinstein. Weinstein has been accused for years of harassing younger women who were eager to break into the Hollywood industry. His admission takes the usual form of “It’s not all true” combined with “I need help” that is meant to be more of an apologetic defense than a real statement of guilt. It’s disgusting on its own.

However, that’s when the cries of “What does Hillary Clinton have to say about this??” arise. Yes, that’s from FoxNews, but here’s CNN’s version. You see, what’s important here is not that a media mogul abused his power and harmed who knows how many women. What’s important is how OTHER women and minorities respond to this. Let’s be clear. Clinton, because of her past associations with Weinstein (he was a major campaign contributor) can’t win here. This is just another way to attack someone who is no longer even in the political spotlight. It’s a retroactive ‘told ya so’ from people who don’t really care about Weinstein’s victims at all.

(Edit: Since I published this, Clinton DID speak out and condemn Weinstein. The comments on social media confirmed what I suspected. Those calling on her to speak called her a hypocrite for condemning this when (according to them) she stood by her own husband during a scandal. In other words, she had no way to satisfy critics. Still, I’m glad she spoke out and condemned Weinstein.)

Again, they aren’t listening. They are using the moment to talk about something else.

In the same way, Buzzfeed’s recent reveal that (again, shockingly) Breitbart and its then-lackey, Milo Yiannopoulos, had ties to White Nationalist groups underplayed the ways in which Yiannopoulous and others have attacked women online, generating hate mobs that were meant to chase people out of the video game industry, for example.

Once again, many already knew this, and shouted it over and over and over. Nobody listened.

These misuses of power are all over our society, and the victims have been asking for help. If you didn’t hear them, it’s because you weren’t listening. It’s time that we all (myself included) do a MUCH better job.

Will Distrust of Colleges Increase Our Economic and Political Divide?

(photo courtesy of Nathaniel Givens…I think)

Since the 2016 Election, a lot of effort has been devoted to understanding why different groups voted the way they did and what it says about our society. That analysis is interesting, but incredibly complex, since so many factors play a part in why someone votes a particular way. For example, the key Midwest states that helped swing the election could have been decided based on a desire to bring back coal jobs, a general distrust of Clinton, or resentment that Obama didn’t do enough to address their concerns. Who knows?

What we can see is growing social divide in how people view themselves and the respective parties. This effect, known as polarization, can lead to extreme positions, which aren’t always good for making sound decisions. Polarization is created when a group of like-minded people find themselves isolated from external positions and drive the members of the group into a more extreme version of the mindset that caused them to enter the group in the first place. For example, if you took a room full of new mothers, some of whom believe that breast feeding is the best way to nurture a baby and others of whom believe using formula is fine, and separated them into groups based on their viewpoints, you would find the members of each group will push the group as a whole to more vehement versions of the initial viewpoints.

 

I want to focus on a particular version of this polarization that is manifesting in the U.S. right now, based on political affiliation. According to a recent survey, people who self-identify as Republicans are becoming more and more convinced that colleges and universities are having a negative effect on the country. Here is the chart of this shift:

Note the years. Up until late 2015, Republicans saw colleges as mostly a positive in American life. They were more suspicious (as a group) than Democrats, but seemed to acknowledge that higher education was a good thing, overall. A vocal minority, of course, has accused colleges of liberal indoctrination for at least as long as talk radio has been a thing, but only in the last couple of years has this mistrust surged.

What has changed? I’m not sure, and I’m guessing there are lots of theories. While there is some evidence that conservatives in the U.S. (again, not all, but a certain strain…this is the last time I’ll qualify this, but assume it in other cases) have intentionally undermined the very notion of science for largely political reasons. There is also a tendency to associate higher education with elitism, an idea that was certainly in play during President George W. Bush’s terms. Again, though, the chart above shows a dramatic shift in recent years; so we need to look at something more recent.

Perhaps it’s the Climate Change Denialist movement, which has presented science as a monolithic, agenda-based movement that is somehow involved in a vast conspiracy to kill coal jobs (for reasons unknown….big money from somewhere is the usual claim). Scientists are associated with universities, and so universities are bad? Or maybe it’s the fact that professors lean to the left, despite the fact that there is little evidence that this results in indoctrinating students. Still, even the perception could be the problem here.

Ultimately, the reasons don’t matter, because the view is what is important. The U.S. has a growing inequality problem. Wages have been in stagnation since the 1980s, though this story is a bit complicated. What is less in doubt is that there is an economic divide between rich and poor that is not improving. What we also know is that while college is no longer a guarantee of a well-paying, fulfilling job, it is still most often a necessary step to receiving such a job. Put in logic terms, it is necessary, but not sufficient for getting a job for the average person.

If Republican parents discourage their children from going to college in fear of some sort of liberal indoctrination, this will be a huge detriment to those children. I do not mean to suggest that college is a panacea for society’s ills. I could write a series of articles on problems with Higher Education and the ways in which it needs reform. However, it is still the best way to get ahead in life, especially if you come from a lower class background. That degree opens doors for you.

Many of the states that tend to vote Republican are among the lowest in the country in terms of education levels, quality of education, and percentage of higher education. A sharp rise in skepticism toward education will only exacerbate this issue, creating a deeper divide in the political tribalism that exists in the U.S.

So, how do we avoid this? I’m not sure. The best way, ironically, would be through education! Unfortunately, the current President does not seem to value universal education policies. The appointment of Betsy Devos doesn’t help. Her policies in Michigan were disastrous for the lower classes, and really the state in general. She is a proponent of privatizing colleges and universities, and even K-12 schooling, which tends to favor the wealthy who can afford the fees associated with privatization.

I would usually say that parents should encourage their children to get a college degree. Mine certainly did, and I was raised in a family where a secondary education was pretty much assumed. But if the only parents doing this are liberal parents, we will end up with a country in which conservatives are less educated and perhaps continue to resent those who are more educated. That’s not a good recipe for working together in the future.

Unfortunately, this article is based mostly on pointing out the potential for future problems in this area. If I had better solutions, I would offer them. If you have some, I’d like to hear them!

The Importance of Travel

When I was around 12 years old, I was given an opportunity to travel to Europe as part of a trip sponsored by my school. I was taking French at the time, and it seemed like it could be fun. Unfortunately, there were some terrorist activities around that time, and I got scared and didn’t want to go anymore. While I travelled a great deal in the U.S., I would not leave the country until nearly 30 years later. In hindsight, I regret this. Traveling outside of one’s own country is essential for understanding the world. It broadens the mind, increases overall empathy, and enforces one’s own identity, while simultaneously offering perspective, both historic and geographic.

I will soon be going back to Italy, a country that became one of my favorite places almost as soon as I arrived. Walking through the winding streets of Florence (Firenze in Italian) takes you back in time to a world where art was less utilitarian and more grandiose. You get a sense of the awe that the artists felt towards the universe and our place within it. Also, like many other European cities, Florence has the ability to leave you dumbstruck as you turn around a corner and suddenly come face to face with one of humankind’s greatest creations.

My first full experience of this in Italy was coming upon The Duomo (Santa Maria del Fiore). I’d seen it in pictures; I’d climbed it in a video game (Assassin’s Creed 2). Coming face to face with such a monument, however, is an entirely different experience. It reminds me of a concept I first encountered through the aesthetic musings of Immanuel Kant, a philosopher more famous for his views on ethics than art. Kant describes the feeling that he calls ‘the sublime’. While hard to summarize in a blog post, the basic idea is this: sometimes we experience the vastness of the universe and the insignificance of ourselves within it. At the same time, we can derive a kind of comfort from feeling safe while in the presence of something truly awesome (I mean that in the original sense of the term—something that leaves us speechless and unable to fully communicate our experience). The Duomo does that to me. As I stand before it, I understand the significance of a word like ‘magnificent’, which etymologically means ‘a great making’. Humans built this edifice. Someone conceived it part of this structure, and someone built it. It inspired others to do great things, and now it is inspiring me.

These moments dissolve us into the universal, allowing us to transcend our individual lives and become one with humanity itself. Time ceases to stream; the moment stretches into infinity.

Put simply, you almost never experience this in your home city, regardless of where you were raised. I grew up in Hunstville, Alabama. It is the home of the Space and Rocket Center, a museum dedicated to U.S. space exploration. As you drive past it, you can see a Saturn V rocket, one of the greatest accomplishments of the 20th Century. Visitors are often fascinated by this scene, but I grew up with it. The main affect it has on me is to remind me that I’m back home, but it’s certainly not the transcendent feeling I get with The Duomo or the Pantheon or any other number of famous monuments or works of art.

Only through travel can we have these moments. And it doesn’t end with the monuments. When you visit a country where people speak a different language and live very different lives, you begin to see how petty most of your concerns are. The world becomes both much larger and much smaller at the same time. You recognize a vast variety of different cultures, values, and priorities, but at the same time you realize that many of them exist only hours apart from each other. Europe is particularly good for this experience, since we tend to think of England, France, Italy, Germany, etc. as different worlds. Yet, they sit right next to each other, in areas about the size of U.S. states.

I believe that everyone should experience this at least once in life, but ideally more than that. We should all be given the time and opportunity to experience different cultures. Once there, take a moment to immerse yourself in a different point of view. Don’t be an American in another country, forcing it to accede to your demands. Be a guest, ready to be accepted into another person’s home.

If you take this attitude, you will find yourself welcome practically anywhere. When we visited France, we had been told that the French people are not particularly accommodating. They do not like when you try to speak their language, and they are quick to dismiss Americans in particular. That was not my experience at all! The French people were very friendly to us, and most were very patient with my terrible accent and sparse vocabulary when trying to speak their language.

Granted, Italy offers a whole different level of hospitality. At our first stop to eat in Florence, the waiter called me ‘Generalissimo’ and my partner ‘Principessa’. I was the general, and she was my princess. It was cute, friendly, practically flirtatious, and very welcoming. There was nothing condescending about it. When we visited another restaurant, we were asked to become members of the club. After filling out the paperwork, our hostess said (in Italian, which my partner translated) “This is now your home, too!”

Such experiences remind us that we part of a huge world, but one united by common needs and values. You cannot gain this knowledge through reading, or watching videos of people in other places, or even from reading this blog. You have to go to these places and have them become a part of your phenomenological being. They will then live in you and you will live in them for the rest of your life.

So, the next time, you are given an opportunity to travel abroud, whether you are 12, 42, or 72, take it. Do not wait. Take it, and when the next opportunity arrives, take it again. As the famous essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson notes, “Life only avails, not the having lived.” Travel is life, so go live already!