Thursday, May 19, 2005

The Politics of Sith

George Lucas may be a Marin County liberal who doesn't want the GOP to harsh his vibe, but his Revenge of the Sith is a godsend for libertarians. The Star Wars prequels have been more concerned with politics than psychology (unlike the original trilogy, which was rife with Jungian cliches). But the last of the prequels outstrips its predecessors by a mile, and may be Lucas's most political film to date.

Sith's central theme is the loss of liberty. It begins with a republic in crisis, beset by enemies on all sides and preoccupied with homeland (or rather, galactic) security. In an elaborate opening space battle, we find that the republic's leader, Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid, who seems to relish a particularly juicy slice of ham) has been kidnapped by rebel separatists. Of course, the title of "Chancellor" evokes Nazi Germany -- and it won't be the only time Lucas puts us in mind of that era. Soon it becomes clear to the Republic's fervent supporters that the Chancellor is a far greater threat to the republic than any band of rebels.

Of course, we know from the outset that the Republic is doomed: The only question is how hard it will fall. Like characters in a Greek tragedy, Lucas's sci-fi heroes struggle to forestall or defy fate, only to enmesh themselves in its sordid web. Even the powerful Jedi knights -- who display their own authoritarian tendencies -- hasten the Republic's demise, inadvertently playing into the Emperor's hands. Meanwhile, the "Phantom Menace" of tyranny drops his benign mask and becomes openly oppressive; few dare to object. In the film's most quotable line (and it's a beauty), senator Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman) quietly notes, "So this is how liberty dies -- with thunderous applause." A final lightsaber duel between the Chancellor and one of the last surviving Jedi knights demolishes the Imperial Senate chamber, which emblematizes the Republic's destruction as well as anything could.

Lucas doesn't shy away from the ugly fact that when liberty dies, so do people. In Sith, anyone who poses a threat to the new Emperor is ruthlessly slaughtered -- warriors, political opponents, even innocent children (in what may be the most disturbing scene of the entire Star Wars saga). The character of Anakin Skywalker undergoes an equally violent transformation: A warm-blooded human under the Republic, he becomes the asthmatic cyborg Darth Vader at the very moment when the Empire rises from democracy's ashes. For the scene in which Vader acquires his trademark black helmet, Lucas borrows heavily from the 1931 Frankenstein -- and again, the political context is obvious: This new Empire will usher in "an age of gods and monsters" (to quote James Whale's Bride of Frankenstein), where outmoded concepts like democracy and individualism have no place. The spectacle is both horrific and heartbreaking.

We see much more of the stormtroopers in Sith. In Attack of the Clones, these military men represented the ultimate authoritarian dream: A mass of utterly undifferentiated humans, all trained to march in lockstep and obey every order, who exist only to serve the almighty state. We learned in Clones that these troops have been genetically bred for obedience; there's no free thinking in the Chancellor's "Grand Army of the Republic." Now, at last, these clone warriors are known by their proper name -- inviting more comparisons to Nazis -- and like their historical forebears, they carry out their deadly orders without a moment's hesitation. (One wonders what these creatures do in their spare time, assuming they have any: Would they watch Imperial propaganda and believe every word of it? Sharpen up their combat skills and work out at the local gym? Sit in a cubicle and stare at the white walls?)

Sith has stirred up considerable controversy. American liberals tend to see the Emperor as a vicious but generally accurate caricature of George W. "Bush-Hitler." More hard-line leftists view the Emperor as a neocon guru (probably Jewish) like Paul Wolfowitz or Leo Strauss; they see the President more as Vader, who becomes a rank killer in his quest for unlimited power. (Given Lucas's conspiracy-theory mentality, I suspect he personally believes in some variation of the latter approach.) Conservatives -- the ones who haven't dismissed the film out of hand -- will find echoes in the film of Saddam Hussein's decades-long reign of terror, or of last week's massacres in Uzbekistan (which, like the atrocities in Sith, were allegedly perpetrated for the sake of "order and security"). Some might make subversive comparisons to Russia's own Vladimir Putin, and a few wags could even find a sly reference to power-hungry Democrats like John Kerry and Hillary Clinton. (You certainly don't see a plain-folks guy like Bush queening it up at the opera, the way Lucas's evil Emperor does.)

These varied interpretations suggest that Sith will resonate with audiences, regardless of their ideological affiliation, in a way that Lucas's other prequels don't. Perhaps this is because Sith taps into the mythological core of democracy, expressing basic principles of classical liberalism in parable form. It turns theoretical abstractions like "democracy" and "tyranny" into things you can feel in your gut, that can inspire loyalty or outrage, that stir up our most basic human passions. No other film I know does this quite so effectively, though Milos Foreman's anti-Communist satire Fireman's Ball comes close.

Yet every serious political reading of this film -- whether from the Left or the Right -- instantly assumes its basic premise that big-government tyranny is bad, and republican federalism is preferable. If audiences leave the cinema more suspicious of governmental intervention and more aware of the importance of individual liberty, this film will have made a valuable (if inadvertent) contribution to the larger cause of freedom and equality throughout the world. For limited-government conservatives in America, Sith could offer a golden opportunity to reach a young electorate trapped too long between big government on the Right, and even bigger government on the Left.

As Yoda might put it: A hopeful development, this is.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Marriage, One Year Old

Today marks the "paper anniversary" of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts. Indeed, in many respects these marriages are on paper only, since the federal government refuses to recognize them. (The state's married same-sex couples seem disinclined to challenge their unequal legal status, lest they bring down the wrath of the national GOP.) Although the majority of Massachusetts residents seem perfectly content to have Gays and Lesbians marrying and forming more stable households, twelve states in the rest of the country have passed laws and constitutional amendments over the past year against it. Some of them, like Nebraska's amendment and Virginia's "Marriage Affirmation Act," are so broadly worded that they might even deny same-sex couples the right to private contract. No other states have allowed Gay couples to wed outright, though there is some slight chance that they'll be permitted to marry in Washington state. Whatever the ultimate outcome of our struggle for equality may be, the momentum has been lost, at least for now.

I'm not surprised that so many heterosexuals oppose same-sex marriage, because I remember the fallout a few decades ago over interracial marriage. When I was growing up in the 1970s and '80s, most of my friends, White and Black, were opposed to it. If the will of the people (or rather, the will of these people) had prevailed, we would never have seen Loving vs. Virginia, the Supreme Court decision that allowed a White woman to marry the Black man she loved, and a Black man to marry the White woman he loved. My neighbors slowly changed their mind about interracial marriage when they began to meet these couples in their own lives. They learned that civilization was in no way threatened by the once-dreaded specter of "race mixing," and most of them came to accept marriage as a matter of personal choice -- except, of course, where homosexuality is concerned. Forty years from now, Virginians may wonder what the fuss over same-sex marriage was about, just as they currently wonder why Loving caused such a fracas back then. But I doubt they'll come around until after the fact.

What really surprises me is the extent to which Gays and Lesbians oppose same-sex marriage. Some fear that if this issue is decided in their favor, the neighbors will mount a campaign of physical violence against suspected homosexuals in the area. Some worry that judicial action to ensure our equality will prompt legislators to consider rash and unconstitutional measures. Some are afraid that Gays and Lesbians are moving too fast toward marriage, that we may not adjust to the radical changes legal marriage will surely bring to our own community (even though many of these changes would doubtless prove beneficial). These pragmatic worries I understand to some degree, though these days it seems as though every Gay-friendly ruling from the bench has our activist contingent running for cover.

I've also heard from within the Gay and Lesbian movement that we're not worthy of equal rights, including but not limited to same-sex marriage, because of faults and foibles within GLBT communities. They claim that as long as we tolerate racism, sexism, transphobia, lookism, ageism, etc., within our own ranks, we can't rightfully demand an equal shake from society as a whole. I'm not sure that we do tolerate such things in any official capacity. Our activist organizations seem far more hamstrung by political correctness than most, though of course the joy of PC is that the more "correct" you become, the more horrendously guilty you're made to feel. But even if Gays and Lesbians are prejudiced, that would hardly constitute sufficient cause to deny us legal equality. After all, even two white supremacists can get married, as long as one is a man, the other is a woman, and they aren't too closely related.

The reason Gay people give against same-sex marriage that really baffles me, though, is that marriage is such an inherently religious and/or heteronormative institution that Gay people can never hope to participate in it on equal terms. The "victim feminists" in the movement usually hold that marriage is inherently patriarchal and ought to be dismantled in favor of a more gender-equitable institution (though they seldom specify what that institution might be). The more sensible "civil unions for everyone" crowd simply believes that straight people should have their "marriage" and gay people should have a euphemistically named civil institution, something like "marriage lite." These arguments strike me as two sides of the same, ill-minted coin: that marriage must be either redefined or abolished for same-sex couples to have some stake in it.

Even in rural Virginia, where one might assume Gays and Lesbians are rare as hen's teeth, I meet plenty of same-sex couples who consider themselves "married." On every level but the legal one (which is to say, in every religious, personal, familial, and social respect), their relationships are the equal -- and sometimes the envy -- of their heterosexual friends'. Same-sex partners are doing "the marriage thing" with all the personal drawbacks, but none of the incentives, that a government-approved marriage entails. If states like Virginia think they can strengthen marriage by placing special opprobrium on a couple who consider themselves married in the eyes of God and man, they must believe the people in these partnerships are uncommonly brave, remarkably virtuous, or just plain stubborn. (To their eternal credit, they are frequently all of the above.)

Some same-sex marriage advocates propose a "separate-but-equal" measure of civil unions as a potential inroad for same-sex marriage down the line. The strategy doesn't seem to sway our opponents, and it seems vaguely distasteful to even its most vocal advocates. Couples in "civil unions" seldom use this term to refer to their own relationships. Instead, they state that they're "married," even though a same-sex couple in Vermont can't marry any more than one in Virginia can. Still, marriage means something to these individuals that a mere civil union does not. At the very least it implies that they can participate in the same rites of passage, the same longstanding social traditions, that heterosexuals have claimed for their birthright.

Though my politics may lean libertarian, I'm a conservative by temperament. I would rather participate in an already existing civil institution, instead of adopting some brand-new whatchamacallit cooked up by panicked legislatures to mollify an apprehensive public. Ultimately, I don't understand why so many of us in the Gay and Lesbian community want to change this generally functional tradition -- whether by dismantling it, by creating some "marriage lite" alternative, or by somehow claiming that loving couples aren't worthy to wed unless some special status attached to them.

Perhaps we no longer know what marriage is, or what it's for; perhaps we've failed to comprehend the history and significance of marriage in our own culture. But whatever the reason, many Gay and Lesbian people no longer seem interested in pursuing legal equality on the only terms possible.

Frankly, I don't get it.

Update (5/18): A loyal reader weighs in by noting that Loving v. Virginia wasn't a major goal -- or even a minor one -- of the civil-rights movement. Gays' fixation on this court decision as a civil-rights landmark, he adds, might even indicate a not-so-latent racism in our own community, because it would seem to suggest that white spouses are preferable to Black ones in the way that Brown v. Board suggested that white schools were preferable to Black ones. My reader adds that "Integration, when it happens, is always one-way." Ouch.

I'm not sure I can agree with the statement that Loving is racist, though I'll agree that it's often described in racist terms, as "the decision that allowed Black people to marry White people." Technically, the decision didn't permit anyone to do anything; it merely prohibited the state from intervening against interracial marriages. (The integration of the American family proceeded apace, and far from being "one-way," it occurred in every conceivable direction.) In retrospect, I think I should have been much clearer on that point. After Loving, the state could not object if a White man chose to marry a Black woman, an African-American groom opted for a Korean-American bride, or a Japanese-American bride chose to marry a Mexican-American groom. The individual counted; the race didn't matter.

Which may explain in part why marriage rights were never a major concern for the civil-rights movement. Civil- and human-rights agendas usually focus on collective concerns. For example, Bayard Rustin's 1964 March on Washington was convened to address what Rustin called "the economic subordination of the American Negro." (The acknowledged highlight of the march, King's "I Have a Dream" speech, was a visionary digression from its stated purpose.) Because the justice these movements promote is invariably of the "social" variety, they are ideologically ill-equipped to address issues where individual choice is paramount -- like, for instance, marriage. The result for the 1960s movement was a Faustian bargain: To demand governmental action that would improve the lot of "the Negro" en masse, one had to remain silent when the same government curtailed the free choices of individual citizens (whether or not those citizens were African-American). Since marriage was one of those individual choices, and since governmental restrictions on marriage affected relatively few people directly, the interests of those few individuals had to be sacrificed for a greater, common good.

Gay-rights organizations have had no choice but to deal with the marriage issue (though one often gets the impression they would prefer not to), yet their embrace of the "civil unions" panacea still shows the lingering influence of collectivism. True, a special status for same-sex couples would allow them to obtain some of the legal rights associated with marriage proper, and thus resolve most of the "social justice" issues in the battle for same-sex marriage. But it would not allow the individuals in these relationships to make a free choice within the same legal framework as everyone else. Instead of affirming individual liberty, civil unions confer differentiated status, and thereby serve as a reminder that our primary allegiance is to our group rather than to ourselves.

On the collective level, the "civil union" is a perfectly viable, even ideal solution to the marriage issue. At the individual level, it's deeply problematic, perhaps even degrading. Alas, our Gay-rights organizations seem as willing as their forebears to sacrifice the principle of individual choice to some perceived common good. Here's hoping that in our struggle for true equality -- very different in its particulars, yet remarkably similar in principle to those that came before -- our own Faustian bargain doesn't place us at a dead end.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Can you prove it didn't happen?

A Newsweek report, stating that American soldiers flushed copies of the Koran down a Guantanamo Bay toilet, has provoked riots throughout the Islamic world. Now Newsweek has admitted that they screwed the proverbial pooch.

You'd think the editors might have asked a brief question before they vetted this story -- like "What happens when you try to flush an entire book down the toilet?" Unless you want to clog up every sewer pipe, I wouldn't recommend it. To flush down even a tiny pamphlet, you'd have to rip it up page by page, then blast it through the pipes with the sort of water pressure usually reserved for a fire truck. Allah alone knows what you'd need to give the Big Swirlie to a major tome.

Naturally, since the report involves an allegation of torture, Andrew Sullivan has to weigh in. This isn't "dangerously close" to self-parody, gentle reader -- it's the real thing:

Maybe we will have some sort of resolution of this soon, but I doubt it. I reiterate what I wrote Saturday: "Even if this incident turns out to be false, our previous policies have made it perfectly plausible." That's the deeper issue here.

When a fake news report leads to deadly riots (not to mention potential attacks on coalition forces and terrorist reprisals in the US and Western Europe), you don't make like the Amazing Criswell and ask, "Can you prove it didn't happen?"

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