I don't know David Brin. We have never corresponded, although I did send him a short E-mail just to see whether he would respond. He didn't. So, this is merely a criticism of his article on the Internet, rather than what I might legitimately call "hate mail". It is on my "hate mail" page simply because I don't know where else I would put something like this, and I just felt like venting.
Who is he? He is the science fiction writer who authored "The Postman", which was made into a spectacularly unsuccessful Kevin Costner movie. The article he wrote was an extremely bizarre piece of work entitled "Star Wars despots vs Star Trek populists", in which he essentially argued that the Jedi Knights of the Star Wars universe embody an anti-democracy, elitist viewpoint in which genetically superior supermen are destined to rule the universe. He contrasted this with Star Trek by gushing over Trek's populist, pro-democracy messages in which innate, genetically inherited strengths and weaknesses are irrelevant, and he made it quite obvious that he has some sort of personal axe to grind wth George Lucas. The text of his message can be found here. Have a look- do you think he makes some good points? Frankly, if you do, then you must not know much about Star Wars. Let us examine some of his more contentious claims.
One of his opening claims is that Star Wars contains the following laundry list of messages:
- Elites have an inherent right to arbitrary rule; common citizens needn't be consulted. They may only choose which elite to follow.
- "Good" elites should act on their subjective whims, without evidence, argument or accountability.
- Any amount of sin can be forgiven if you are important enough.
- True leaders are born. It's genetic. The right to rule is inherited.
- Justified human emotions can turn a good person evil.
When I looked at this, I was somewhat offended that someone would actually be trying to paint Star Wars as some sort of threat to democracy (can he really be serious? Is he descended from McCarthy?), and I was simultaneously amused that an award-winning science fiction author might actually be incapable of understanding a storyline that was designed so that eight year old children could grasp it.
You see, he seems to believe that the Jedi Knights are bad because they rule the Star Wars galaxy, they are elites, and they are not elected to their position. It is a birthright, so they hark back to the bad old days of feudalism, monarchies, empires, etc. But he forgot one little detail: Jedi Knights do not rule the Star Wars galaxy! He wrote this nonsense after watching TPM- did he actually fail to notice that the government of the Old Republic was a democratic body, complete with a senate, and a democratically elected Chancellor? Did he fail to notice that the Jedi Knights are the instruments of government policy rather than the authors of that policy? Did he have popcorn stuck in his ears when Qui-Gon solemnly warned Anakin that "it will be a hard life"? Jedi Knights serve the people, rather than ruling them. Millions of people worldwide have seen the Star Wars films, and easily grasped this fact, but David Brin is apparently not one of them. Perhaps he was distracted by his efforts to write another bomb for Kevin Costner.
What else does he have to say? Read on- as he continues to write, it becomes clear that he is either deliberately misrepresenting the Star Wars universe to advance his agenda, or his intelligence is actually so low that he cannot pick up obvious plot points like "Empire is bad" or "Supreme Chancellor is not a Jedi". He goes on to criticize mythologies in general, since they usually revolve around kings and demigods.
Alas, Campbell only highlighted positive traits, completely ignoring a much darker side -- such as how easily this standard fable-template was co-opted by kings, priests and tyrants, extolling the all-importance of elites who tower over common women and men. Or the implication that we must always adhere to variations on a single story, a single theme, repeating the same prescribed plot outline over and over again. Those who praise Joseph Campbell seem to perceive this uniformity as cause for rejoicing -- but it isn't. Playing a large part in the tragic miring of our spirit, demigod myths helped reinforce sameness and changelessness or millennia, transfixing people in nearly every culture, from Gilgamesh all the way to comic book super heroes.
Interesting. He seems to believe that Joseph Campbell (who collaborated with George Lucas to create the mythical universe of Star Wars) is propagating an unadulterated duplicate of the ancient demigod myths of primitive cultures. But he fails to notice that Lucas and Campbell updated and revised those myths substantially: the Jedi Knights of the Star Wars universe see themselves as servants of mankind, not rulers. Many of the critical plot developments of the Star Wars movies were driven by ordinary humans. It seems that Brin was so wrapped up in the similarities to timeless myths that he simply assumed that Star Wars was a precise duplicate of those myths, rather than being loosely based on them. Maybe he should try actually watching the Star Wars films.
It is essential to understand the radical departure taken by genuine science fiction, which comes from a diametrically opposite literary tradition -- a new kind of storytelling that often rebels against those very same archetypes Campbell venerated. An upstart belief in progress, egalitarianism, positive-sum games -- and the slim but real possibility of decent human institutions.
He goes on to make an even more bizarre claim: that "genuine" science fiction is distinguished from other forms of fiction by virtue of its adherence to populist messages. I don't know of anyone else who believes that science fiction is distinguished from other forms of fiction exclusively by the presence of populist messages, but I suppose this claim shouldn't be surprising, considering the source. "The Postman" contains no futuristic premises, no futuristic technology, no futuristic settings, or futuristic cultures. It is merely another post-apocalyptic American jingoism story but David Brin calls himself a science fiction writer, so why not redefine science fiction to include "The Postman" and exclude "Star Wars"? That sort of carefully redrawn delineation must make Brin feel really good- sort of like an elitist :)
By contrast, the oppressed "rebels" in "Star Wars" have no recourse in law or markets or science or democracy. They can only choose sides in a civil war between two wings of the same genetically superior royal family. They may not meddle or criticize. As Homeric spear-carriers, it's not their job.
More of his ignorant mis-reading of the Star Wars universe. Emperor Palpatine destroyed a democratic government system (the Old Republic) in favour of his dictatorship. Obviously, the rebels would have put a democratically elected government (probably called "The New Republic", or "The Republic") back in place after defeating him (and in fact, if you read any of the post-ROTJ novels, that is precisely what happens). But why worry about that? He's on a roll, because once he has decided that the goal of the Rebels is to put Leia on the throne as the new dictator, then he can continue with his unreasoning jihad against Star Wars.
Did anyone in the entire world besides David Brin think that the Rebels intended to install Luke or Leia as a new dictator after deposing Palpatine? It is frankly mind-boggling that he would come to this conclusion after watching the original Star Wars trilogy, and even more mind-boggling that he would maintain this delusion after seeing TPM, in which the democratic government of the Old Republic was very thoroughly portrayed.
In teaching us how to distinguish good from evil, Lucas prescribes judging by looks: Villains wear Nazi helmets. They hiss and leer, or have red-glowing eyes, like in a Ralph Bakshi cartoon. On the other hand, "Star Trek" tales often warn against judging a book by its cover -- a message you'll also find in the films of Steven Spielberg, whose spunky everyman characters delight in reversing expectations and asking irksome questions.
Perhaps he failed to notice that one of the principal heroes of the Star Wars trilogy was a snarling, seven foot tall wildebeast. In fact, all of the truly bizarre-looking aliens were on the Rebel side. In contrast, the Empire was very conformist, restricting itself almost completely to humans (sort of like the Federation Starfleet, in Star Trek). But again, he has a laundry list of criticisms about Star Wars, and he has to step through them one by one, even if there is no evidence in the films to support his claims. As for Star Trek warning against judging a book by its cover, I would say that this was true for TOS (coincidentally, the only Star Trek series which I like without reservation). But in the era of TNG, different races have uniform characteristics- you can judge a Klingon by his cover (he will be violent and ill-tempered). You can judge a Romulan by his cover (he will be duplicitous and deceitful). You can judge a Ferengi by his cover (he will be greedy and manipulative). He is completely ignoring the actual contents of Star Wars and Star Trek, in favour of some kind of modified version of Star Wars and Star Trek that he apparently carries around in his head. Unfortunately for him, the rest of us can't see that version of Star Wars and Star Trek- we can only see the version on the movie screens and television sets of the world. That version is substantially different from the version he describes.
Above all, "Star Trek" generally depicts heroes who are only about 10 times as brilliant, noble and heroic as a normal person, prevailing through cooperation and wit, rather than because of some inherited godlike transcendent greatness. Characters who do achieve godlike powers are subjected to ruthless scrutiny. In other words, "Trek" is a prototypically American dream, entranced by notions of human improvement and a progress that lifts all. Gene Roddenberry's vision loves heroes, but it breaks away from the elitist tradition of princes and wizards who rule by divine or mystical right. By contrast, these are the only heroes in the "Star Wars" universe.
Really! The "only heroes in the Star Wars universe" are demigods, in the form of Jedi Knights? How could David Brin have possibly watched the entire classic Star Wars trilogy without noticing such pivotal characters as Han Solo, Wedge Antilles, and Lando Calrissian? Did he notice that without Han Solo's change of heart, Luke Skywalker would have died a flaming death at the hands of his father, and the Rebellion would have been crushed? Did he notice that Wedge Antilles and Lando Calrissian destroyed the second Death Star? Was he sleeping when Lando Calrissian saved the day for Leia (and in the end analysis, the entire Rebellion) when he decided to defy Vader and the Empire by helping Leia and Chewbacca escape, to save Luke? Was he suffering from temporary blindness when Sabé saved the day by distracting the Neimoidian Viceroy long enough for Queen Amidala to seize control of the throneroom? Did he notice that the Viceroy was the most critical target of the entire operation, yet no Jedi or Force child prodigies took part in his capture? Maybe he's just so completely committed to his jihad against Star Wars that he doesn't feel he needs to observe trivialities like the truth.
As for Star Trek embodying "the American Dream", there are people in this world who live outside America. In fact, 95% of the people in this world live outside America, and contrary to popular American belief, we are not necessarily dying to emigrate. Star Wars is designed to have a universal appeal, while Star Trek is designed to promote West Coast American left-wing liberal socialist viewpoints to the world. Many see the universality of Star Wars as a strength- David Brin sees it as a weakness. But then again, he had previously stated his bizarre belief that American jingoism is a mandatory component of all "genuine" science fiction, so I suppose we shouldn't expect any better. For what it's worth, even if you do subscribe to his jingoist viewpoint, you should probably be aware that in several of its primary aspects, Star Trek is highly unAmerican:
Socialism and Freedom: There are no independent corporations in Star Trek. They have all been nationalized, like some great futuristic Marxist-Leninist Utopia. No one can become wealthy in Star Trek- everyone has the same standard of living. This is socialism, not capitalism, and the hard reality is that capitalism is an inevitable side-effect of personal freedom. Conversely, socialism requires heavy government control and limited personal freedom.
The American Dream: Get real, Dave: the American Dream isn't anything as lofty as "bettering ourselves and humanity", as Picard put it. No, the real American Dream (the one gleaming in the hearts of hard-working immigrants as they struggle to climb the ladder of success) is about one thing: getting rich. Don't recoil at this politically incorrect notion- we all know it's true. But there is nothing wrong with this- the pursuit of wealth and luxury has driven most of the technological advancement of the past half-century. It isn't a bad thing unless people become so obsessed with it that they hurt other people. But if we remove the possibility of becoming rich, then we kill the American Dream.
Freedom of choice: In Star Wars, there are numerous manufacturers of products- corporations compete with one another to produce blaster rifles, starships, and all manner of goods. In ANH, Luke Skywalker laments the poor demand for his landspeeder ever since a superior competing model came out. But in Star Trek? To paraphrase Henry Ford, you can have any colour you want, so long as it's beige. There is no competition for government contracts- no choices offered to consumers. If they want choice, they had better leave the Federation entirely, and shop at Ferenginar.
He then goes on to attack George Lucas personally:
Lucas defends his elitist view, telling the New York Times, "That's sort of why I say a benevolent despot is the ideal ruler. He can actually get things done. The idea that power corrupts is very true and it's a big human who can get past that."
If David Brin would accuse George Lucas of elitism and despotism for making an off-handed pie in the sky comment about how a benevolent despot would be the ideal ruler, then how would he react to the following quote? "Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide." Do you know who said that? John Adams, second president of the United States and one of the American Founding Fathers. Surely John Adams could not be seriously accused of anti-democratic views, yet there it is! So what's wrong?
The answer is simple. Criticism is healthy. Warning about potential pitfalls and dangers is healthy. In fact, both are absolutely necessary for a democracy to function properly. John Adams understood this, but David Brin apparently does not. He treats democracy as an object of mindless advocacy rather than a political model with strengths and weaknesses. As heretical as it may sound, democracy is not perfect; it needs constant work, public awareness, and principled leaders in order to work. It may be better than some of the known alternatives, but that doesn't mean that it's beyond criticism or that people shouldn't be allowed to talk about flaws in its operation. Nothing should ever be treated as beyond criticism, unless you've decided to take the attitude that political systems should be treated as quasi-religious dogma.
The perfection and immunity from criticism of American-style democracy is a theme that David Brin harps on throughout the rest of his article. He repeatedly explains that George Lucas' political viewpoints are not just different- they are wrong, and dangerous, and should be boycotted (whatever happened to a little American concept called "freedom of expression", Mr. Brin?). Frankly, I see nothing wrong with George Lucas' statement. A benevolent despot would be an ideal ruler. The only problem is that there is no such thing as a benevolent despot- the concept is wishful thinking.
David Brin is clearly no better at understanding quotes than he is at understanding movies. George Lucas says that a benevolent despot would be an ideal ruler, but that isn't what David Brin hears; in Brin's mind, he hears George making a blanket statement that dictatorships are an ideal form of government. George is making a pie-in-the-sky, "wouldn't it be nice" kind of statement, and Brin interprets it as "let's scrap democracy and start a dictatorship".
I'm starting to wonder if one of George's kids made fun of one of Brin's kids, for him to be carrying around so much hostility that he would misrepresent both the words and movies of George Lucas in his defamatory attack. Some have E-mailed to suggest that Mr. Brin is simply jealous of George Lucas' enormous financial success with the Star Wars series, and that he feels George's talent didn't merit his rewards. If that's the case, then he simply needs to grow up. George knew what the public wanted, while the self-professed "populist" David Brin's popularity is still confined to a very small segment of the population. All of which leads me to wonder: who's the real populist, Mr. Brin?
Think he's gone overboard yet? He's not quite done.
Thus few protest the apotheosis of Darth Vader -- nee Anakin Skywalker -- in "Return of the Jedi."
To put it in perspective, let's imagine that the United States and its allies managed to capture Adolf Hitler at the end of the Second World War, putting him on trial for war crimes. The prosecution spends months listing all the horrors done at his behest. Then it is the turn of Hitler's defense attorney, who rises and utters just one sentence:
"But, your honors ... Adolf did save the life of his own son!"
Gasp! The prosecutors blanch in chagrin. "We didn't know that! Of course all charges should be dismissed at once!"
The allies then throw a big parade for Hitler, down the avenues of Nuremberg.
It may sound silly, but that's exactly the lesson taught by "Return of the Jedi," wherein Darth Vader is forgiven all his sins, because he saved the life of his own son.
Only a lunatic or a blind, deaf mute would watch Return of the Jedi and interpret it thusly. Who ever said that Vader was forgiven for his sins and made a hero of the New Republic? Did we see anyone besides Luke standing at Vader's lonely funeral pyre? I didn't. You didn't. Apparently, David Brin did. Did we see anyone besides Luke showing any sympathy whatsoever toward Vader? I didn't. You didn't. Apparently, David Brin did. Let's get the facts straight: Vader's own son seemed to forgive him, but no one else did.
As for Vader's status as a Hitler-like monster, David Brin apparently missed the following facts:
Vader was not personally responsible for Alderaan. The Death Star was commanded by Grand Moff Tarkin, not Darth Vader. Vader had no more personal responsibility for Alderaan than did any of the other million-plus Imperial soldiers aboard the Death Star. He neither gave the order or pulled the trigger.
Vader was not the ruler of the Empire. Emperor Palpatine was the ruler of the Empire, and "executive responsibility" falls upon him, not Vader. BTW, Mr. Brin, if you rewatch ROTJ, you might notice that Vader killed the Emperor.
The opening crawl of ANH states quite clearly that the galaxy is in a state of "CIVIL WAR". The destruction of a helpless civilian target in time of war is arguably heinous, but to be brutally blunt, it's been done before, by Americans. In fact, America is the only nation on Earth that has ever used nuclear weapons against civilians, not once, but twice! But a man like Brin, who's apparently given to mindless American jingoism, is not likely to notice the irony in an American painting the use of weapons of mass destruction in wartime as an act of unfettered evil.
Vader killed many people, including many of his own officers as well as his mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi. Obviously, he's not Gandhi. But comparing him to Hitler is excessive. Hitler is best compared to the Emperor, not Vader. Does Brin even recognize the distinction between the Emperor and Vader? They were two separate people- they cannot be treated as one person.
A final note on this subject: Vader was not forgiven for his sins- he died for his sins, but in a nod to the Christian concept of redemption through acceptance of Christ (which I've never personally understood but which is very popular in America), Vader achieves redemption through acceptance of his own good side. In any case, regardless of whether you believe in it, spiritual redemption is not equivalent to a legal pardon- you can be spiritually redeemed but still be sentenced to death by the corporeal government that collects your taxes. Does David Brin think that Vader should have been shown suffering in Hell after his death? He paid the price for his crimes, by sacrificing his own life to topple the despot that he helped rise to power. What's the problem?
But wait- is Mr. "I think that all science fiction should be mandated to promote my political ideas" done yet? Nope- he hasn't attacked Yoda yet. But give him time ...
You already know what I think of what came next. But worshipping Darth Vader only scratches the surface. The biggest moral flaw in the "Star Wars" universe is one point that Lucas stresses over and over again, through the voice of his all-wise guru character, Yoda.
Let's see if I get this right. Fear makes you angry and anger makes you evil, right?
Wrong. If he watched TPM (or even the old classic trilogy) he would see that hate makes you evil. Yoda's exact words are: "Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering!" Vader also mentions hatred to Luke, in ROTJ. No one in his right mind would seriously argue against the notion that hatred is inherently evil. Small wonder then, that Mr. David Brin chose to "forget" that Yoda mentioned hate, because a good memory would decapitate his crusade against the things he thinks George Lucas is saying in his films. Just like he conveniently "forgot" that the Jedi Knights are civil servants rather than rulers, or that non-Jedi heroes like Han Solo, Wedge Antilles, Chewbacca, Lando Calrissian etc. existed. With a memory like that, it's a wonder that he remembers to pee before he goes to bed at night.
But then, in "Return of the Jedi," Lucas takes this basic wisdom and perverts it, saying -- "If you get angry -- even at injustice and murder -- it will automatically and immediately transform you into an unalloyedly evil person!
No, this isn't what Lucas is saying at all. By now, I am getting tired of David Brin's lies. They aren't misconceptions or weak arguments- they are outright lies. Are you getting tired of them too? He is now saying that the instant you feel anger, you become "an unalloyedly evil person" according to ROTJ. Funny thing though- Luke became angry in Return of the Jedi, nearly striking down his father, but he didn't become "unalloyedly evil". In TPM, Obi-Wan Kenobi is clearly seething with anger when he attacks Darth Maul- he didn't become "unalloyedly evil." Again, I must ask- did he watch the same films that we did?
"Star Wars" belongs to our dark past. A long, tyrannical epoch of fear, illogic, despotism and demagoguery that our ancestors struggled desperately to overcome, and that we are at last starting to emerge from, aided by the scientific and egalitarian spirit that Lucas openly despises. A spirit we must encourage in our children, if they are to have any chance at all.
Now he's just getting back on his high horse about the pro-despotism messages that he thinks he sees in Star Wars. More harping on a lie which hatched from his incredible claim that the Jedi Knights are rulers. They are not. The only Force user who became a galactic ruler was the Emperor, and I'll let everyone in on a little secret that seems to have eluded the Great Science Fiction Writer David Brin: The Emperor was one of the bad guys. The first time I showed Star Wars to my little three year old son, he instinctively understood that the Empire was being obviously portrayed as the bad guys. I find it amazing that my three year old son could grasp something that seems to be beyond the comprehension of an adult science fiction writer like David Brin.
Star Wars does not present Emperor Palpatine, or his system of government, in a good light! It does not present his Empire as a superior alternative to democracy! Doesn't everyone realize this without having to see it spelled out in front of them? To be fair, I think that everyone does realize this. Everyone except for David Brin.
At this point, I have grown seriously fatigued with Brin's repetitive, ignorant, and deceptive arguments. Thankfully, he's almost done. But of course, someone who has this much preachiness in them would never be able to end an article without an outstanding example of pomposity. Let's see if David Brin can resist:
I don't expect to win this argument any time soon. As Joseph Campbell rightly pointed out, the ways of our ancestors tug at the soul with a resonance many find romantically appealing, even irresistible. Some cannot put the fairy tale down and move on to more mature fare. Not yet at least. Ah well.
But over the long haul, history is on my side. Because the course of human destiny won't be defined in the past. It will be decided in our future.
That's my bailiwick, though it truly belongs to all of you. To all of us.
The future is where our posterity will thrive.
I guess not. He seems to think that "history is on my side." Is it really? The Roman Empire endured for 1300 years. The Chinese dynasties endured for thousands of years. The world's most venerable democracy is only a couple of hundred years old- history's verdict isn't in yet. And even if we ignore the entire democracy vs despot issue (which has nothing to do with the pro-democracy Star Wars universe anyway), history certainly is not kind to those who deceive in order to promote their views- an ignominious group to which David Brin clearly belongs. Does he have anything else to say? How about "our future. That's my bailiwick, though it truly belongs to all of you. To all of us." Pretty good Bill Clinton-style 2-second sound-bite, Dave! Have you got any more nuggets of fortune-cookie wisdom to dispense from your cache of self-important one-liners? Hmmm, let's see how he ends his article: "The future is where our posterity will thrive." Ahh, an excellent combination of self-aggrandizement and pomposity. If those things were valued, then David Brin would be a rich man indeed.
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