EvilDoers & DoGooders 1: Star Wars

This foreword is a warning… My second blog is longer and less topical than a blog ought be, but at least I deal neatly with the entire concept of Good & Evil 😉

Years ago, I mentioned Star Wars to my young nephews and niece and was shocked that they’d never heard of the most famous movie series of my youth. Feeling that they needed to be exposed to this, just for basic cultural literacy (and also since I wanted to see it again), I rented these movies which I had so loved as a kid. (This was before the second trilogy in the increasingly baroque series.) In watching the movies with them, they lost a lot of their luster. I began to realize how much cultural conditioning really was going on. Among other issues, the main thing that struck me was the Good Versus Evil core: “Never down the dark path go, lest forever must ye there walk” or some such pearl of nonsense. This is nothing new to Star Wars, of course, and is even heralded by some folk as part of the series’ allegedly deep and Joseph Campbell-endorsed mythology. (Watch the Bill Moyers interviews with Campbell about Star Wars in the myth videos and see the extremely qualified endorsements he actually offers.) Anyway, what I came to realize in watching this film for the umpteenth time is just how completely this idea of an ultimate, definable Good and an ultimate, definable Evil lies at the core of our entire society (in the U.S., at least). Thinking it over, I saw how ludicrous this concept is. And, specifically–as one of the U.S.’s many invasions was underway–I realized how it allows us (in the U.S., among other places) to go into war so easily and whole-heartedly. First, moral dualism is at our culture’s core–in case you need convincing… Besides the obsessive-compulsive/mixed message view of ultimate moral dualism in the judeao-christian-islamic tradition (is the devil god’s evil-twin or just a disgruntled angel), there are less convoluted theologies delivered in society’s real temples. In hushed cineplexes across the planet, just about every action movie ever made replicates this myth of an epic battle between nice and nasty, fair and foul, before our suspension-of-disbelieving eyes. This is also true for most tv shows, books, stories, and other films as well; although often in a background form for the second big myth of modernity: romantic love. Then, there’s the ubiquitous political, religious, cultural rhetoric with the same message of good (us) in deadly contest with evil (them). And finally, among other examples, even the definition of sanity: telling good from evil, or in its less ultimate form, right from wrong. Second, the concept of Good V. Evil is stupid… If fundy christians would ever read a znet blog, they might exclaim at my admission of the ultimate sin: “You mean you’re a moral relativist?!” Maybe I’ll give a view on the term “fundamentalist” some other time, but it seems worth mentioning that christians who would be deadset against “relativism” are apparently so illiterate they can’t get the concept of Christ’s central, “golden rule” — a simple non-specific instruction which is completely relative to personal outlook and judgement. I can (and will, if called upon) defend that, and want to affirm that I try to work for what I think is a greater good, but I come here to bury moral absolutism, not praise my relativism. Okay, so let’s define it… Define the words Good and Evil, and make the comparisons–in absolute terms. Certainly, we can ascribe attributes: kind versus mean, generous versus greedy, and so on. But, this seems pretty relative to me. First, can’t people range all the way along the kindness scale, from Mr. Rogers through the coldly neutral Hal in 2001 to The Grinch or even the hideaous Gingritch? Second, what of context? Should someone be super-kind to the concentration camp commandante, making him hum a little tune and feel good on his way to turn on the gas, or maybe a bit of tough love might be better there? Which is the real kindness? And if someone is ultimately generous with a stranger, giving away the last scraps of bread for her starving family, that might make a good parable, but is it “Good”? Try again to define, in a non-relative way, Good & Evil. Try harder. Remember, your sanity is on the line… Be specific. Okay, I might offer that my mom is good–specifically. And, this guy I knew–a lying, intelligence faking lieutenant commander I worked for in the navy–was bad. Specifically. But are they really both acceptable examples of absolutes? Well, not really. Even my former navy boss probably liked kittens or something. So, maybe we can look it up in some philosophy books or something. Well, outside of the self-proclaimed, self-evidenced truth of religious texts, all honest explorations into defining good and evil that I’ve seen tend to wander off into exploring the many different possible perspectives (relative) and at best end up with some attempt to perform cartesian calculations as to whether a proposed specific action might be better for the larger number of people or not. But, even here, what if there’s a scenario where it is better for the planet that something be done that is not better for the larger number of people? I’m not saying all environmental concerns would trump things that benefit humans, certainly not, but again, context comes into play. Third, the idea of ultimate Good & Evil is dangerous… Back to Star Wars, the good guys kill dozens of people in fairly close combat. (Happily, they don’t register as people because they’re wearing masks as part of their uniforms). Then, at the end, twice in fact, the good guys blow up a death star (and death star daycare, presumably), killing thousands to the roar of self-triumphal cheers. Now all of the dead folk were aligned with the Dark Side of the force, which makes Obi-wan happy. But more specifically, they were trying to pre-emptively kill the good guys, which makes this a case of “just war” that I can also (relatively) justify. The problem is that this depiction of the “bad guys” about to be killed, like almost every other depiction of antagonists in popular culture, shows them as practically inhuman and certainly never having an on-screen or textually described moment of doing something kind, funny (except darkly funny), or endearing. That reality–which has to exist, of course–is totally suppressed and, hence, we’re allowed to enter into the fantasy of an ultimate evil deserving nothing less than total annihilation. So, do tens of thousands films, tv shows, books, stories, and other such cultural artifacts affect our general worldview? Surprisingly, even some progressives would say, “Hogwash, we’re too smart for that.” I say it all implies or implants a base view of the world, that says something like, “Onward christian soldier! Fight the good fight, the good war, the war on poverty, the war on crime, the war on the energy crisis, the war on drugs, the war on terror, and so on until we’re all at war with everything. If the Evildoers are elsewhere and we’re at war with them, then we are, ipso facto, DoGooders.” And that is perhaps the biggest problem as a society that we have. P.S. I’m thinking I have more to say in the EvilDoers and DoGooders and that this will be my own little series. Feel free to comment, please…

Leave a comment