“Jesus saith to him: ‘Put up again thy sword into its place: for all that take the sword shall perish with the sword.'”–Matthew 26:52

“There isn’t enough power in all Christendom to make that airplane what we want!”–Vice Admiral Thomas F. Connolly, discussing the F111B interceptor. 1968.

Nicholas Kristof wrote a very interesting column imagining a conversation between Jesus Christ and Speaker Paul Ryan. There will no doubt be controversy as to whether it is brilliant satire or blasphemy.

Kristof’s point is that Ryan is a hypocrite for professing to be a Christian and yet supporting a health care bill that would result in poor people losing health insurance coverage.

The theme is one that Democrats have hammered on for decades: how can the Republicans get such strong support from Christians, and vocally proclaim their own devout Christianity, while simultaneously pushing policies that appear to be in opposition to what Christ taught?

Not being a religious person, I don’t really consider myself qualified to get involved in this argument.  What I can do, though, is talk about the historical and philosophical background of this apparent hypocrisy.  As my readers know, I like to try to understand things in their historical context.

In this case, we are going to need some 2000 years of historical context to properly understand what’s going on here.

Buckle up.

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I was right there with you, watching that disaster unfold on the Rachel Maddow show last night. Not to brag, but I had a sneaking suspicion it wasn’t going to live up to the hype even before the show started:

In general, if something is truly-earth shattering news, they will tell you about it right away, not tease it out with a countdown clock. That’s why election night coverage isn’t: “You’ll be shocked when you see who won the Presidency! Details at 11.”

David Cay Johnston, the journalist who says he received the tax forms in the mail, allowed that it was possible that Trump himself might have leaked them. However, the fact that Trump has tweeted angrily about it afterwards has led people to think that he probably didn’t leak them after all:

People, in my opinion, are way too gullible.  The wording of Trump’s tweet is highly suspicious. For one thing, he phrases it in the form of a question–he doesn’t say it didn’t happen; he just asks if people believe it.

Now, I admit: I myself am a bit skeptical of Johnston’s story. He says he got a package in the mail that contained these tax returns.  Apparently, he doesn’t know who sent it to him or how they obtained it.  Which would raise questions as to its veracity, except that the White House almost immediately verified it last night!

Either Johnston is an idiot who didn’t think it was worth looking into why he got the President’s tax returns in the mail–very unlikely, since he’s a Pulitzer-winning journalist–or he’s lying to protect a source.

So, Trump (a) knew immediately that it really was his 2005 1040 form and (b) questioned Johnston’s story as to how he got it. This strongly suggests that Trump knows perfectly well how Johnston got it–which in turn suggests that some agent acting on orders from Trump gave it to him.

As Johnston himself admitted, the tax forms are actually favorable to Trump. They prove he did pay taxes for at least that one year, and show little evidence of nefarious dealings.

The end result is that Rachel Maddow got humiliated. (I’m sorry; I usually like Maddow’s work a lot, but she really screwed up here.) More importantly, though, Trump can now use this episode as an excuse to brush off all further questions about his taxes. Journalists won’t ask about it because they don’t want to screw up like Maddow did.

And what’s worse is that if anyone does somehow get hold of more of his taxes, people will be less inclined to pay attention to it. “It’s another publicity stunt,” they’ll say.

It’s true: I’ve always found the whole Trump-won’t-release-his-taxes story to be a bit overhyped. Yes, it was bad and a violation of historical precedent that he didn’t release them. But, on the list of “things that are bad and violate historical precedent” that Trump has done, it’s far from the worst.

And then there’s fact that there can’t be anything that damning in them.  They are taxes. They go to the Federal government. Logically, Trump is not going to put down anything illegal that he might be doing in his taxes.

As a thought experiment, let’s say the absolute worst conspiracy theories about Trump are true, and he’s actually colluding with the Russian government.  He’s not going to put that in his taxes.  There is no box that asks “Are you a spy for Russia?” on tax forms.

Furthermore, any circumstantial evidence that would suggest illegal activity by Trump, he would also not put in his taxes. If someone is already willing to commit crimes, he’s not going to hesitate to commit tax fraud to cover them up.

I’m not saying Trump has done any of this, but even if he has, there won’t be hard evidence of it in his taxes. At best, there might be circumstantial evidence, which Trump can dismiss with a simple “FAKE NEWS. Sad!” tweet.

About five years ago, I wrote about the conspiracy theories surrounding the death of Andrew Breitbart. At the time, various conservative groups were suggesting he’d been assassinated by the Obama administration.

Well, now there’s a new theory, promoted by former British MP Louise Mensch, that he was assassinated by the Russian government:

Here at Ruined Chapel, we love analyzing a good conspiracy theory–and if it involves politics, so much the better! So let’s think about this.

To begin, the facts of the case: Andrew Breitbart collapsed suddenly while walking home after dinner one night. His cause of death was listed as heart failure. There was no evidence of any suspicious drugs.

It is common knowledge that journalists in Russia get killed with unusual frequency and under mysterious circumstances, especially since the year 2000, when Vladimir Putin took power. It has not been proven that Putin has ordered or otherwise had foreknowledge of any of these deaths, but the pattern is suspicious.

People are quick to suspect Putin for a couple of reasons: First, it seems like the sort of thing a former KGB agent would do, and second, the Putin regime is generally hostile to the press.

It’s worth noting that most of the reporters dying suspiciously in Russia were undoubtedly murdered.  Aside from a few suspicious poisonings and plane crashes, in most cases, nobody questions that these journalists were deliberately killed by somebody; it’s just they can’t figure out who.

And that’s on Putin’s home turf.  If he can’t have people killed using untraceable methods in Russia, it seems like it would be even harder for him to do so in the United States.

Now, there’s another element to all of this that makes it even more interesting. Mensch also tweeted this:

Additionally, the Wikipedia page for Stephen Bannon states:

“In March 2012, after founder Andrew Breitbart‘s death, Bannon became executive chair of Breitbart News LLC, the parent company of Breitbart News. Under his leadership, Breitbart took a more alt-right and nationalistic approach toward its agenda.”

If you understand Vladimir Putin’s long-term goal to be dissolving the internationalist post-World War II geopolitical order and replacing it with a system of Great Powers acting in their own national interest, the rise of Bannon and his philosophy is clearly good news for him.

Just on the basic facts, it’s hard to argue this entire episode did not turn out splendidly for Putin. I mean, look at it:

  1. Upon Breitbart’s death, Bannon takes over his operation.
  2. Bannon uses his power  at the Breitbart site to promote nationalism and undercut Putin’s main opponent, then-President Barack Obama.
  3. Bannon later uses his site to promote the Presidential candidate most favorable to Putin, Donald Trump.
  4. Trump wins, in part due to major propaganda efforts by Putin and Breitbart, and then appoints Bannon to be an advisor in his administration.

It all went spectacularly well for Putin and Bannon. Since the death of Andrew Breitbart was the first domino that started this entire chain of events, you can see why, in retrospect, Putin would have had an incentive to cause it. The results benefited Putin in a big way.

However, as compelling of a story as that may be, I have a problem with it.  Mainly, it requires Putin to have almost supernatural gifts of foresight. And if he has that, he should be ruling the world already.

Who would have ever guessed that the head of a fringe conservative news site would be able to successfully get the ear of a reality TV star-turned-Presidential-candidate, who would go on to win the election, and then appoint said site head as an advisor? So many bizarre things had to happen for all this to work that it is hard to imagine anyone consciously planning it.

Given that, it would seem insane for Putin to have carried out a high-risk assassination operation against a relatively small-time political commentator in the United States. If it failed or was otherwise exposed, the backlash against Russia would have been enormous.

Remember, in 2012, the Republicans were generally anti-Putin. Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney said Russia was the United States’ “number one geopolitical foe”that year.  Can you imagine what the Republicans would have done in 2012 if they found out Russia killed one of their people? They would have been screaming that Obama was weak and campaigned on a very aggressive anti-Russia platform.

To me, that argues strongly against this idea.  The risk for Putin of assassinating Breitbart would have been too great–the fact that the reward would turn out to be so high would not have been knowable at the time.

I want to try to think about this logically, using a series of statements and inferences.

  1. There is reason to suspect that Wikileaks gets the information that they leak from Russian spies and/or sympathizers.
  2. Let us suppose that this is true. If that is the case,what does the fact that Wikileaks released all this information suggest?
  3. It would be reasonable to infer that Russian spies/sympathizers now have more access to government documents than they previously did.
  4. How could that ever happen? What could possibly have changed recently to allow pro- Russian forces greater access to previously-secure areas of the government?
  5. Absolutely nothing suggests itself.

Sorry.  This really went nowhere. I’m at a total dead end.

  • Purely as a piece of rhetoric, I liked his Inaugural Address more.  For one thing, it was shorter. In general, the fewer words you use to make your point, the better.
  • That said, the pundit class that this speech was clearly designed to impress obviously prefers long speeches that cover too many topics to have any punch to them.
  • I suspect Bannon wrote most of it.  It sounds like him.
  • I have never liked the “Free Trade / Fair Trade” line, which Democrats have often used in the past and which Trump used here. “Fair Trade” in this context is a meaningless phrase that can be used to justify virtually any tariff or other protectionist measure, whether warranted or not.
  • Of course, I’m sure it will play great with the “Reagan Democrats” (or now, I guess, “Trump Democrats”) who are the linchpin of his coalition.
  • It was woefully short on specifics, but no one expects that out of these anymore.  They are just glorified performances of political theater, and have been as long as I can remember. (And Trump excels at theater.)
  • I am not sure why the Press is so surprised by the style of the speech.  I guess they were expecting him to do his usual rambling and improvisational monologue.  I wasn’t expecting that. I was expecting more or less what we got.
  • Moreover, this is not the first time Trump has done something like this. He gave “normal” speeches both at the convention and in his victory speech on election night. Trump has never had an issue acting like a normal politician for brief periods of time–it’s just that he’s never sustained it. And there’s mounting evidence to suggest he doesn’t need to.

I thought Oliver Stone’s JFK would be the weirdest movie I ever saw about the Kennedy assassination, but Jackie has surpassed it.  I went to see it again, thinking I must have been mistaken in my first impression.  The film can’t possibly be as bizarre as I remember, I thought. I must have just misunderstood it.

I didn’t.

I did get a few lines of dialogue slightly wrong in my original review, but as it turned out, the lines were even stranger than I remembered.  In Jackie’s frenzied query about the caliber of the bullet, she not only says she thinks it’s a heavier round “like soldiers use”, but also like those used for deer hunting.

Also, her aide doesn’t say “build a fortress in Boston and disappear.” He says “Disappear. Build a fortress in Boston.” Not appreciably better.

I talked to someone else about this movie, trying to work out what it was all about. She had an interesting interpretation: that the Journalist and the Priest who Jackie talks to aren’t meant as literal characters but as representatives of Journalism and Religion.

This would explain why these characters don’t have names; they are just “the Journalist” and “the Priest”. It also explains why their dialogues with Jackie seem so surreal. The Journalist, in particular, is way too rude to her–I don’t think a journalist would speak like that to any interview subject, especially not the President’s widow. But if he’s representing Journalism in general, Jackie’s perception would be that Journalists are incredibly rude.

Interpreted this way, the dialogues aren’t two characters talking; they are philosophical exercises meant to examine Jackie’s relationship to the institutions of the Press and the Church. And by extension, it makes sense to guess that most of the rest of the movie is her interaction with another institution: the Government.

If you watch the movie this way, you get the sense that Jackie is extremely disenchanted with all three of these.  That’s sort of what I meant when I wrote the movie was subversive–major institutions appear useless or untrustworthy.

All that said, I’m still not convinced that this is the way to interpret the movie.  Besides which, I’ve never been a big fan of allegories, and this one–if indeed that is what it is–is still ham-handed.  A piece of drama must work first as drama, and only then can it have allegorical or symbolic meaning.  The dialogues in Jackie are not smooth dialogues, no matter how much philosophical depth they may have or aspire to have.

But I don’t want to just give a short-attention span dismissal and say, “Oh, the script is rotten. Sad!” Because while it gets almost all the micro-level details of dialogue wrong, there is one very macro-level idea that it gets right, and that is the use of images and symbols (e.g. JFK’s funeral procession) to create legacies, and to shape the perception of history.

A few other observations:

  • The soundtrack didn’t seem as bad this time, although I still thought it came in too loud at inappropriate times when silence would have been better.
  • The scene where the Priest sums up his reflections on Life and Death is very strong, largely because it is the late John Hurt delivering the lines.  Great actor. R.I.P.
  • I said this before, but it’s worth repeating: all the acting was great, which was especially impressive given the problems I’ve mentioned with the dialogue.
  • Have I mentioned I have some issues with the script?

Lastly, I don’t get why people are calling this a “biopic”.  It isn’t one. A biopic should give you a sense of who a person is, and how they evolve over time.  Jackie takes place over a very short time frame, and it deals with a woman’s reaction to a tragic and shocking crime that had few historical parallels. That’s fascinating subject matter, but it’s not a biopic because it really doesn’t give you a larger sense of who Jackie was or what her life was like.

I’m not complaining about that.  I think this was a far more innovative thing to do.  I’m just saying they shouldn’t be calling it a “biopic”.  It’s more of a historical drama, on the order of Julius Caesar.

That’s all for now.  I might write more later.  This movie has limitless potential for discussion.

Have you heard about “virtue signalling”? Among the nationalist political writers, it’s all the rage to deride liberal causes and activists by using this term.

Apparently, the use of the phrase was popularized by one James Bartholomew, in this article for The Spectator:

“Go to a branch of Whole Foods, the American-owned grocery shop, and you will see huge posters advertising Whole Foods, of course, but — more precisely — advertising how virtuous Whole Foods is. A big sign in the window shows a mother with a little child on her shoulders (aaaah!) and declares: ‘values matter.’

The poster goes on to assert: ‘We are part of a growing consciousness that is bigger than food — one that champions what’s good.’ This a particularly blatant example of the increasingly common phenomenon of what might be called ‘virtue signalling’ — indicating that you are kind, decent and virtuous.”

My take on this would be: “It’s a poster; what do you expect?” It’s propaganda (or “public relations”, if you prefer). But we’ll have it your way, Bartholomew.

The Wikipedia article on virtue signalling lists some other oft-cited examples of the phenomenon:

All of these things could also be described as public relations or publicity stunts.  The Ice Bucket Challenge did get a bit ridiculous as a way for do-gooders to establish their liberal bona fides. I mean, look at this guy:

But where did this term come from, anyway? Wikipedia explains:

“Signalling theory has been applied to human behavior. Costly religious rituals such as male circumcision, food and water deprivation, and snake handling look paradoxical in evolutionary terms. Devout religious beliefs wherein such traditions are practiced therefore appear maladaptive. Religion may have arisen to increase and maintain intragroup cooperation. All religions may involve costly and elaborate rituals, performed publicly, to demonstrate loyalty to the religious group. In this way, group members increase their allegiance to the group by signalling their investment in group interests. Such behavior is sometimes described as ‘virtue signalling’.”

This is an example of a phenomenon that often occurs in academic or bureaucratic writing: using overly-complicated language to describe a simple and straight-forward idea.

Demonstrating that one is part of a group is not an unusual or complex concept.  It is the basis for how organizations function. It’s an elementary part of social activity.

But by calling it “virtue signalling” and applying the phrase in such a way that it becomes a pejorative, it creates a whole new way to criticize commonplace behavior.

This manipulation of language to cast mundane things in a more sinister light is an age-old technique.  For example, in the marvelous book Strategy: A History, Sir Lawrence Freedman writes:

“The word plot also acquired negative connotations during the seventeenth century… Yet the etymology of plot resembles that of plan. Both originally referred to a flat area of ground, then to a drawing of an area of land or a building, then to a drawing to guide the construction of a building, and eventually to a set of measures adopted to accomplish something.”

“A set of measures adopted to accomplish something” has neither good nor bad connotations, but by using the word “plot”, one can make it sound inherently malevolent.

Something similar has happened with the use of “virtue signalling” to make routine statements or actions seem disingenuous or hypocritical.

I. Plot Synopsis

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Poster for “Jackie” (Via Wikipedia)

The movie Jackie is only partially about the title character, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. (Natalie Portman) Ironically, it is categorized as a historical biopic when in fact it is an exploration of public relations, image vs. reality in politics, and, in some ways, the nature of Truth itself.

That does not mean Mrs. Kennedy is not featured prominently–she is in nearly every scene, and often in extreme close-ups. Especially in the film’s opening half, we see her raw emotion in response to the assassination of her husband.

But as the film makes clear from the framing device–a reporter, (Billy Crudup) interviewing Mrs. Kennedy in the days after the assassination–it is focused on the role of media and appearance in politics, and ultimately in history. During the occasionally combative interview, she explains not only her emotional state, but also the ways in which she sought to shape the perception of her husband’s legacy.

This segues to flashbacks, first to a televised White House tour given by Mrs. Kennedy in which she discusses various historical Presidential artifacts which she has restored to the White House. This tour really did take place, and the filmmakers clearly went to some trouble to recreate it.

From here, the film next shows us the fateful trip to Dallas, and Mrs. Kennedy’s grief and horror in the aftermath. But even in these circumstances, political intrigue continues, as we see glimpses of the tension between Robert Kennedy and the newly sworn-in President Lyndon Johnson.

As Robert and Jackie ride with JFK’s coffin in Washington, she asks staff members if they know anything about Garfield or McKinley. They don’t. She then asks what they know about Lincoln, and they respond that he won the Civil War and freed the slaves. She then decides that she will model her husband’s funeral on Lincoln’s, to ensure his memory lives on as Lincoln’s did.

In one memorable sequence, we see her wandering the empty halls of the White House, listening to John Kennedy’s favorite record, the recording of Camelot, while drinking and taking pills as she is overwhelmed with grief.

Planning for the funeral continues, and Jackie makes clear her desire to have a long procession–a grand spectacle, that will capture the attention of the entire nation watching on television, and preserve Kennedy’s legacy. However, the Johnson administration is hesitant to do so, because of the security risk.

When Oswald is shot by Ruby, it confirms the risk to Mrs. Kennedy, and she decides not to have the procession on foot and go by motorcade instead. She shouts at Robert Kennedy in frustration, berating him (and by extension all politicians), for being unable to know what’s going on or keep anyone safe, despite all their power.

But later, as they are sitting in the empty White House, it is Robert’s turn to rage in frustration at the apparent wasted opportunity of his brother’s tragically ended administration. As she listens, Jackie makes up her mind that his death will not be in vain, and goes to Jack Valenti to tell him the procession will be on foot after all.

Valenti tells her that the problem is that foreign dignitaries–specifically, Charles de Gaulle–are afraid of the risk. Jackie replies that she wishes to let it be known that she will go on foot, but if de Gaulle wishes to ride “in an armored car, or a tank for that matter” she will understand, and pointedly adds that she is sure the national television audience will as well.

Bowing to this implied threat of public humiliation, they accede to Mrs. Kennedy’s wishes and proceed on foot.

Interspersed with all of this, in addition to her exchange with the reporter, are scenes of Jackie conversing with her Priest. (The late, great John Hurt). She is understandably having a crisis of faith, and pours her feelings out to him. He tries to console her, but in the end even he can give no satisfying answer to why God inflicts such suffering as has befallen Mrs. Kennedy and her family.

As their interview concludes, the reporter assures her that she has preserved Kennedy’s legacy as a great President. She tells him there’s one more thing, “more important than all the rest”, and relates the late President’s love of the musical Camelot, quoting the lines: “Don’t let it be forgot/That once there was a spot,/ For one brief, shining moment/That was known as Camelot.”

The film ends with this song playing over flashbacks of the White House tour and the Kennedys dancing together.

II. Review; Praise and Criticism

The film is very powerful, but also strangely disjointed. It can be hard to keep track of where action takes place even in the narrow time frame the film covers, so quick are the cuts to different moments.

Early on, there are many tight close ups on the face of the grieving widow, and long scenes of her cleaning the blood from her face and hair. These scenes are shocking, but seemed unrelated to the film’s larger theme.

The best scenes are those of the journalist interviewing Mrs. Kennedy. There is a tension between the two, who seem to strongly dislike one another, and Mrs. Kennedy’s harsh editing and commentary on what the reporter is and is not allowed to print starkly make the point about using the media to create a narrative–a point that seems especially relevant in light of recent political events.

In general, the acting is quite good. Peter Sarsgaard as Robert Kennedy is terrific, Hurt is very good, as he always was, and Billy Crudup is excellent as the journalist. The only actor who did not really seem right was John Carroll Lynch playing Lyndon Johnson, and this was not really an issue of his acting–which was quite fine–but simply his extreme non-resemblance to Johnson. There were times when I did not know who he was for parts of scenes.

This brings me to the star of the piece. Faithful readers know that Portman is my favorite actress, and it is because she is in this movie that I have followed it so closely.

Her performance is very good, and her Academy Award nomination is well-deserved. That said, all the talk that this is the greatest performance of her career is overblown–indeed, I would argue it is not even her greatest performance in a movie released in 2016. Her roles in Jane Got a Gun and A Tale of Love and Darkness (which Portman also directed) allow her far more range and depth.

There is however one very notable feature of her performance which, despite all the press about it, I have not seen mentioned in any reviews. That is the difference between how she plays Kennedy in the flashbacks and in the “present day” interview with the journalist.

In contrast to the panicked, grief-stricken widow of the immediate aftermath, in the interview scenes she seems about 20 years older, even though only a little time has elapsed. Her tongue is sharper and her attitude more bitter. The contrast is very noticeable, and quite effective at conveying the pain Jackie endured.

The single biggest problem with the film is its script. It is not uniformly bad–it is not even mostly bad–but when it is bad, it is absolutely dire. This might be worse than if it had been bad throughout, because it makes the really terrible lines stick out all the more.

At one point, someone advises Jackie to take her children, leave the White House quietly, and “build a fortress in Boston and disappear”.

Who the hell talks like that?

At another point, Robert Kennedy says that walking by the Lincoln bedroom reminds him that “one ordinary man signed an order that freed millions of people.” This is a rebuttal to Jackie saying it feels “peaceful”.

One scene was so bizarre I almost wonder if it really does have some basis in fact: aboard Air Force One, after the assassination, Jackie is asking about the bullet that killed her husband. “It didn’t sound like a .38” she says. “It sounded like a bigger–what do you call it?–caliber, like soldiers use.”

First of all, I find it hard to believe she would talk about the bullet. Second of all, I find it even harder to believe she would be able to tell if it was a .38 or not. And thirdly, if all that did happen, I think she wouldn’t then say “what do you call it” and be unsure of the word “caliber”.

Another example: when Jackie and Robert are walking through Arlington cemetery to select the grave site, Jackie is obviously having difficulty walking through the mud in her high heels. Robert asks her what’s wrong, and she says her shoes are getting stuck in the mud.

There’s no reason for her to say this.  It was clear enough to the viewer; so why include the line?

The Priest says lots of things that I highly doubt any Priest would ever say, least of all to the President’s widow. Even the scenes with the interviewer, strong as they are, have some ham-handed lines, such as when he awkwardly raises the subject of the White House tour film that introduces the flashback.

The musical score is just flat-out weird. It is primarily a growling, synthesized noise that is sometimes appropriately foreboding, but at other times is just annoying. Sometimes it overpowered scenes of the grieving Jackie in instances where silence would have been far more effective. (As if to drive this home, later in the movie many scenes have no soundtrack, and these are much better.)

The cinematography, on the other hand, is very good throughout. There are some beautiful shots of Washington D.C. and the White House interior, and the scenes at Arlington are appropriately grim. And best of all is a scene of Jackie and Robert talking about the funeral in the gloomy November twilight.  The scenery, make-up, costumes and acting all make it feel very real and immediate.

This all adds up to a wildly uneven picture.  Just when it gets good, some jarring line throws it off, and just as it seems about to run off the rails completely, the cinematography or acting grabs your attention again.

I would be tempted to say it’s a mess with great acting and cinematography.  If that were all there was to it, I could end the review now and just say, “See it if you are a Kennedy history buff or a Portman fan; otherwise, skip it.”

But that would ignore something.  Which brings me to the third and most complicated aspect of this thing…

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star_wars_phantom_menace_posterBefore we begin, let me first note that Cass Sunstein has written a very good article on this subject already, which you might want to check out before reading this post. Sunstein touches on a number of the same points as I do, and his article definitely influenced mine.  (Although, to be quite clear, I believed most of this before I ever read Sunstein.)

George Lucas repeatedly said one of the themes he wanted to explore in the prequels was how Republics become Dictatorships.  He drew parallels with the fall of the Roman Republic and the rise of Augustus, the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte to Emperor of France, and the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Nazi Germany.

Each of these historical episodes resembles the others, in that each involves the demise of a Republic and the concentration of State power in one individual. In the French and German cases, these republics had existed for only a short time, before which the government had been aristocratic. The Roman Republic, on the other hand, had existed for centuries.

In each case, power was given over to one person in response to some crisis.  The existing governmental structure that allowed for multiple people to have input was deemed inadequate to the task of responding to the problem.

And of course, in each case, the person chosen to wield the power had used clever, cunning and morally dubious means to reach the position he was in.

The Star Wars prequels depict this same pattern playing out in a cosmic fantasy setting.  In this respect, they are a bit like George Orwell’s Animal Farm–a political allegory masked in a fairy-tale setting.

In Episode I, the political thread of the story establishes that the Galactic Republic is unable to cope with an illegal blockade imposed by the Trade Federation on the planet Naboo. When Queen Amidala goes to Coruscant for help, Senator Palpatine tells her:

“The Republic is not what it once was. The Senate is full of greedy, squabbling delegates. There is no interest in the common good. There is no civility, only politics.”

This is one point that many people don’t appreciate about the prequels: the Republic really is weak. They are not capable of protecting their own citizens’ interests.  In this respect, the reasons for Palpatine’s rise are more understandable–the current government really was incapable of fulfilling its purpose.

Of course, Palpatine is the Augustus/Napoleon/Hitler figure in Lucas’s story, and so it’s also possible that (a) he is exaggerating the Republic’s weakness for his own gain and (b) the weakness is a result of some internal sabotage with which he himself is connected. Since he, as his alter-ego Darth Sidious, is originally responsible for the Federation blockade, it’s suggested that he might also be responsible for other problems in the Senate.

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Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) and Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid)

Nevertheless, the following Senate scene makes it clear that the current government can’t solve Amidala’s problem, and so she follows Palpatine’s suggestion to call for a vote of no confidence to remove the Chancellor.

Palpatine is then able to assume the rank of Chancellor. In Episode II, Palpatine is able to manipulate Jar Jar Binks into voting him emergency powers for a coming war. Of course, Palpatine himself (as Sidious) has again played both sides and created the entire situation that makes war necessary.

Finally, in Episode III, the war has dragged on and allowed Palpatine to remain in office and accrue more power.  The Jedi, finally becoming aware of his treachery, attempt to take action to preserve the institutions of the Republic, but fail. Palpatine then uses this moment of crisis to turn popular sentiment against the Jedi and establish the Galactic Empire, taking advantage of the now extremely militarized society he has created.

There’s a very ironic moment in the scene where Mace Windu is fighting Palpatine. Windu has him at sword point when Anakin, having been swayed to Palpatine’s side, arrives and says, “he must stand trial”.

This causes Windu to hesitate, because he knows Anakin is right.  Windu is there to save the Republic and its legal order, but cannot do so without himself violating the rule of law.  Paradoxically, Windu cannot fulfill his duty to the Republic without violating it.

Of course, Palpatine and Anakin take advantage of Windu’s momentary hesitation to kill him.

This speaks to another point that is often overlooked: the collapse of the Jedi Order is interwoven with that of the Republic.  Like the Republic, the story suggests there is rot at the core of the whole institution–witness how they violate their own traditions by training Anakin when he is “too old”, or Obi-Wan’s tolerance of Anakin’s marriage to Padmé, despite the Jedi Code demanding celibacy.

The underlying theme of the prequels is not merely that the Republic fell as a result of evil people like Palpatine, but also because of mistakes or corruption on the part of well-meaning people attempting to protect it.  Padmé, Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon Jinn, Yoda, Mace Windu–all make errors or lapses in judgment that contribute to the collapse.

Indeed, perhaps the most significant error all of them make is continuing to tolerate Anakin’s consistent rule-breaking.  Neither his wife nor the Jedi ever punish Anakin for his repeated wrongdoing.  Their misplaced forgiveness simply encourages Anakin to keep getting away with larger and larger crimes.

As a depiction of the process by which Republics become Dictatorships, the prequels are fairly successful: cunning and ambitious people take advantage of weak and crumbling institutions and take advantage or crises to seize power.

What significance does this have for the present-day United States? It is commonplace to compare the rise of Donald Trump to that of other dictators, and his language and methods are unmistakably authoritarian.

More significant even than Trump himself is the decline of U.S. institutions. I have written before about the century-long weakening of the U.S. Congress vs. the Executive branch. Beyond that, there is a general loss of faith in the Press and in Religious tradition.

Just as Palpatine’s plan would not have worked if he had not been able to take advantage of the crumbling Old Republic, the United States would not be vulnerable to authoritarianism if its institutions remained strong.

Why, then, don’t other people (besides me and Sunstein) look to the prequels as a relevant tale that captures the current zeitgeist?

I think to an extent it is because as works of drama, they are poor–Episode II in particular, which depicted the crucial political turning point, is something of a mess in regards to dramatic essentials like character and plot. While I’ve previously argued that Episode I is the best of all six original Star Wars films, even its compelling political plot was bogged down by pointless comic relief and a weak first act.

Another problem is that, as interesting as the political allegory is, it is scarcely related to the lighthearted, swashbuckling atmosphere of the first three films, Episodes IV, V and VI. The more complex motifs of the prequel trilogy flummoxed audiences.  (To extend the earlier analogy: it is as if one tried to market Animal Farm as a prequel to Charlotte’s Web.)

Finally, the spirit of the first three films–and the more recent, Disney-made knock-off–is much more optimistic and reassuring.  The light side, these films say, will ultimately triumph over the dark, and all will end happily.500x680_movie10postersstar_wars_episode_i_the_phantom_menace-us_teaser

The tone of the prequels, in contrast, is much grimmer.  Not only is Evil triumphant at the end of the trilogy, but there is a suggestion that the forces of Good enabled it, and by their own failings, rendered it possible. It’s a troubling notion–that perhaps goodness itself contains within it the seeds of its own destruction.

The reason for the unpopularity of the prequels may be linked to more than their flaws as pieces of narrative fiction–it may lie in their disturbing portrayal of human nature itself, and in our reactions to our own vulnerabilities.

I might even paraphrase another writer of dramatic works on politics and human nature, and say, “the fault is not in our Star Wars, but in ourselves.”

donald_trump_signs_orders_to_green-light_the_keystone_xl_and_dakota_access_pipelines_bannon_cropI wasn’t the only one to notice that Stephen Bannon is driving policy decisions in Trump’s administration. All the major news media has noticed that this week as well. And so they decided it’s time to find out some stuff about this Bannon guy.

I’ve read some of the articles, and I have to say, Bannon and I have some things in common.  We both are interested in making movies. We both study military history and strategy. We even seemingly have the same unorthodox theory of politics: globalism vs. nationalism. We just happen to be on opposite sides of that divide.

There are two competing narratives about Bannon. Some think he is a mastermind who brilliantly oversaw Trump’s stunning victory and now is laying the groundwork for a powerful, militaristic, authoritarian nationalism. Others view him as a washed-up hack writer who Trump has appointed to positions for which he is patently unqualified.

Bannon is clearly a slob in his personal appearance–even when he wears a suit and tie, he looks disheveled. But don’t let that fool you.  Bill Belichick is also known for dressing like a vagrant, and he is a strategic genius in his own field. Looks can be deceiving.

In fact, it wouldn’t shock me if Bannon does that on purpose: people underestimate him because he looks like a slovenly bum, thus giving him an advantage.

Bannon’s beliefs are reprehensible, and his personal conduct even more so, but I don’t doubt his skill as a strategist.  And unlike the President he advises, he does have a coherent political philosophy that guides his thinking.  Not “right” or “moral”, you understand, but coherent.

So keep an eye on him, is all I’m saying.