Revenge of the Sith and Lucas' Moral Views

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Before I saw Revenge of the Sith, I gave some preliminary thoughts on some claims people had been throwing about uncarefully. If you haven't read that post, I suggest you read it and the comments before reading this one, because I'll be assuming some points that I spent time establishing there.

I'm interested in two questions. I addressed both of them in the first post, but now I've seen the movie. What do I say (now that I've seen the film) about the claims that the movie is a glaring slam against Bush? What do I say (again, now that I've seen it) about Lucas' portrayal of Jedi and Sith and Obi-Wan's statement about absolutes? The short answer is that I say basically the same thing. There are a few minor points that I'd adjust based on having seen it for myself, but the major issues are the same. If anything, the context confirms for me what I suspected about Obi-Wan's statement. It has nothing to do with relativism. As for Bush, I see almost nothing in the film that fits well with what someone who just wanted to slam Bush would have done.

I'll start with Bush. If I had wanted to make this film a criticism of the Bush Administration, I wouldn't have had Palpatine founding the Trade Federation and sending his apprentice to lead them for the mere purpose of having an enemy, an apprentice who was taken on purely for that purpose only to be disposed of when the time was right. What he did is far more inSidious than anything anyone even thinks about Bush (except maybe those in their own virtual reality who think Bush planned 9-11 deliberately).

At best, you can say the following. There are some absolutist libertarians who think any privilege we have is a civil right that trumps national security. Lucas seems to be worried about something those people are worried about with respect to the Patriot Act and other provisions designed to combat terrorism that end up not allowing people as many privileges. Some of those themes were already in this story, but he decided to make some of them more clear in the movie to serve as a warning in our current context, because he thought the general issues raised by it could speak into the sitution with Bush. That's the most you can claim, especially given the quotes from Lucas that the plot was planned out during the Nixon administration and the aftermath of Watergate. What people are claiming has seemed to me to be much stronger than that, and I just don't see it. There are far too many elements of Palpatine's conversion of the Republic to the Empire that aren't anything like Bush, his motives, his actions, or even most of the complaints against him.

That brings me to the "with me or against me" line. It's worth keeping in mind who says it. It's not Palpatine. It's Anakin. I knew that beforehand, but I didn't think about it until I actually heard him say it. If Palpatine is Bush, why is Anakin the one saying the supposed Bush quote and making it about himself rather than about the Sith or the Republic as an entity? Bush said that those who do not oppose the effort to root out international terorism and instead harbor terrorists are helping them out. What Anakin said amounts to the following. Anyone who is not for him in every sense, including the things he has been doing that are not just worrisome but downright evil, is against him as a person and therefore doesn't really care about him.

These just aren't even close to being about the same thing. If he had said that those who oppose his mission with the Trade Federation are helping the Trade Federation, that would be closer, though it's not even really close enough. To be more exact, he wouldn't have been going there to slaughter them in cold blood but to neutralize the threat in what one would hope wouldn't have to be so destructive a manner, keeping as many alive as possible. If it were parallel to Bush's statement, it wouldn't be about himself. It would be about the Trade Federation terrorists with respect to the Republic.

I think what Lucas is presenting Anakin becoming is a kind of black and white thinker. However, it's not the kind of black and white thinker some of Lucas' critics have assumed him to be talking about. It's not the denial of relativism. The Sith can't be about that. Palpatine uses relativistic arguments to win Anakin over. The black and white thinking he's exhibiting can't be opposed to that. What's fairly obvious from the context is that Anakin sees Obi-Wan trying to have it both ways. He wants to say he's Anakin's friend while opposing what Anakin does. He wants to say he cares about Anakin and wants the best for him, but he doesn't want to help Anakin achieve what he desires. He wants to say he respects Anakin's abilities as a Jedi but is aligned with those Jedi who won't give Anakin the title of Master. He wants to pretend everything is fine, but there he is coming off the ship once it's clear that Padme has turned against him. You can't pretend you're with me when your actions demonstrate how opposed to everything I'm doing.

In one sense Anakin is saying what people often say to Christians who view homosexuality as a corruption of the God-given gift of sexuality. Christians say they love the sinner but hate the sin. A more careful way to say what they mean is that they want the best for people who are gay but don't believe continuing in the gay lifestyle or affirming their homosexuality as good is really what's best for them. Most people who don't agree with this moral view will say that they show by their moral views that they don't really care about gay people. That's what Anakin is doing here. This sort of black and white thinking doesn't allow someone to care deeply about someone while opposing how they've been defining themselves and how they've been aligning themselves. It doesn't allow distinguishing between someone's being and value and someone's trajectory.

Anakin says to Obi-Wan that if he's going to oppose his trajectory, then he's opposing him. The Sith mentality is to link one's goal of achieving power and pursuing the passions with one's very identity. So when Obi-Wan says that only the Sith deal in absolutes, what do you think he's referring to? Even aside from my point (see the last post) that relativism and absolutism aren't opposites but on different axes, this interpretation of Obi-Wan makes no sense and reveals more about the interpreter and the interpreter's willingness to make anything be about their own issues.

Does it sound, given this context, as if Obi-Wan would be affirming moral relativism? Can the Jedi perspective even allow that with their absolute opposition to pursuing the passions and their absolute opposition to use of the dark side? Much more obvious given the placement of that line in the overall dialogue is that Obi-Wan says that only the Sith deal in that kind of absolute thinking, the kind of black and white thinking, that Anakin had just been engaging in. That wasn't an opposition to relativism, and it wasn't Kantian moral absolutism either, according to which something wrong is wrong no matter the context. It was this identification of those who oppose what he's doing as opposing him. It's simply not the case that there are absolute lines with respect to your attitude toward someone. You can be really committed to someone while criticizing them. The Jedi know that. The Sith won't tolerate such careful distinctions in moral evaluation.

So I stand by my claim that Obi-Wan was not affirming relativism in any sense but was simply expressing his view that the moral principles that apply in this case are more complicated than Anakin is willing to allow. That's consistent with denying relativism, as I'm sure Obi-Wan would do. It's consistent with affirming absolutism, in fact, though we know Obi-Wan is no absolutist given his later view that he thought his lie to Luke was morally justified. What's most important, though, is that it is not an expression of relativism. That's simply not what the immediate context should tell us the statement is about.

I encourage all those who have wanted to see it otherwise to think about your motivations. I don't know how many people this is true of, but it's easy to want to find your pet peeves among moral views of other people so you can then point out how wrong people are. I just hope that's not what's going on here, but the extremely common but mistaken interpretation that fits so little with the context needs some explanation. Part of that explanation is the poor job Christian apologists have done in distinguishing between different meta-ethical views, which has led so many Christians to think absolutism is the opposite of relativism. Part of it is that on an individual basis people might just have taken it out of context innocently because of their own context. It's certainly an awful lot of people to be all from just those two things.

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A couple quick links from A Physicist's Perspective on June 28, 2005 5:42 PM

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2 Comments

That's a really great analysis. As a deconstruction, it's completely convincing.

As a genuine account of the screenwriter's intentions, it's not very convincing. First, the exchange was completely out of place. It didn't fit the events or the rest of the dialog at all. Second, it uses a set of code words that are endemic among Bush haters. It was an exchange that was odd in context, but that any Kos, Atrios, or DU reader would instantly recognize as one of their canonical criticisms of Bush, given in the canonical language.

As Lucas is a member of the community who would understand the words in this way, it seems likely to me that they were intentional. But I wouldn't call it an attack on Bush so much as a cameo of a bit of political rhetoric that Lucas endorses.

I stand by my conviction that you have to be part of our particular political element to draw this connotation. It's not obvious from the film itself, and it fits well within the general context. Lucas has said that it's not about Bush. He is worried about authoritarianism, and he's crazy if he thinks anything going on in the U.S. is within light years of Palpatine, but if he wants to interpret what he wrote in a way so obviously removed from the actual movie he wrote, he just shows his inability to look at his own work honestly. It makes perfect sense as it stands without importing the political rhetoric of our own context into it. The only reason you don't think it fits is because you've been infected by this strange use of the term 'absolutes' that I've argued in both these posts is well outside the historical and contemporary philosophical usage.

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