Saturday, December 24, 2016

A sort of political movie review: Star Wars: Rogue One

A few days ago, I had an opportunity to see a movie and I took it. As a busy dad of two small kids and working full time, getting out to a movie is tough unless I want to be a night owl. For Christmas, my employer bought a theater room full of tickets and sent my team to the movies. I've done this before and saw Batman vs Superman, which I enjoyed. This time it's Star Wars: Rogue One. I enjoyed that movie so much, that I thought I'd offer a sort of political review of that movie.

As I've mentioned before, I've been reading a couple of books that have changed the way I look at pop culture, perhaps irreversibly. Two books written by Ross W. Greene, PhD, have completely changed my outlook on human behavior and pop culture. The first is The Explosive Child and the second is Raising Human Beings. Both are exceptional in their presentation of the subject matter and both provide practical guidance for raising human beings and living life. Adoption of the practices described in those books entails more than learning a method for raising children, it is a lifestyle change.

I'm still on the second pass of Raising Human Beings, a book devoted to doffing the reward/punishment pedagogy of child rearing to adopt a proactive, collaborative approach to raising kids. Instead of spanking, extortion, yelling, screaming, grounding and a wide assortment of "incentives", including gold stars, time with electronics and sweet treats, we can take a different approach. We can set expectations for our kids and work with them to help them meet our expectations. We make the assumption that they want to do better and that motivation is not an issue. The only issue we're concerned with is whether or not they have the skills they need to comply with our expectations as parents.

It's Christmas Eve as I publish this and I recall that even Santa Claus has been invoked to coerce kids into better behavior. The song, "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town", uses Santa Claus to extort good behavior from kids. I sang that song with mixed feelings in school with other kids in our auditorium, even though that was supposed to be a "fun" song. Here are a couple of verses to give you an idea of what I'm talking about:

You better watch out
You better not cry
Better not pout
I'm telling you why
Santa Claus is coming to town

He's making a list
And checking it twice;
He's gonna find out
Who's naughty or nice
Santa Claus is coming to town

The song tells us that Santa knows when we're sleeping and when we're awake. He knows enough to know which houses to skip on Christmas Eve. The implication is that children should behave during the winter when they have to stay in the house, or there won't be any gifts for Christmas.

Raising Human Beings teaches us that instead of whipping out punishment for failure to comply, we talk with our kids to find out why they cannot meet our expectations and collaborate with them to solve the problems that get in their way to success. That's our job as parents and I think that's our job as humans. Like I said, that's a lifestyle change that I believe will help us treat each other with respect and dignity. Even between adults.

I know, you're wondering about the movie. After reading those books, I found myself wrestling with questions about the plot while watching Star Wars: Rogue One. I considered the characters and their motives and alternative paths to resolve the conflict between the Empire and the Rebel Alliance. Don't worry, there are no spoilers here.

First, I have to say that I enjoyed the entire movie. I enjoyed the characters, the robots and graphics. Everything went together well and the plot moves well, too. It is well written and I laughed out loud because the robot in this movie reminded me so much of C3PO. For me the highlight of the movie was seeing Donny Yen (Internet Movie Database). Some of you might remember him from the Ip Man movies. In this movie, he's funny, fast and smart. If you've seen him before, you may find some delight in seeing him again in this movie.

As I watched Rogue One, I was recalling all of the other Star Wars movies I've seen. It finally dawned on me that I have almost no idea what they're fighting over. What does the Rebel Alliance want? What does the Empire want? I did some research and as far as I can tell, this entire struggle is over trade. I found a Wikipedia article on the subject of Star Wars and here is an excerpt of the description of Episode I: The Phantom Menace:
About 32 years before the beginning of the Galactic Civil War, the corrupt Trade Federation sets a blockade of battleships around the planet Naboo. The Sith Lord Darth Sidious had secretly planned the blockade to give his alter ego, Senator Palpatine, a pretense to overthrow and replace the Supreme Chancellor of the Galactic Republic.
It looks like the spark of the struggle is a trade blockade setup as a pretense for a power grab. Sounds familiar, huh? And notice that The Empire has an enormous military infrastructure and it hasn't stopped building yet. So I have to wonder about Senator Palpatine. Just how much power does he want? Does he have a family? Kids? Does he even know when he has enough power to stop? Will he ever get to a point where he sits in his chair at home (if he has one), looking at the horizon as two suns set and asks, "Pfffft! What's the point?"

If this struggle is about trade, then The Empire is using force to enter into trade agreements on their own terms. That sure sounds familiar. The United States is like that. Bases all over the world, "free trade" agreements with every country that will buckle, and all of the agreements are negotiated on terms that are decidedly favorable to the United States.

Then I looked at the stormtroopers. The way they talked, they have a remarkably human nature to their voices. I have to wonder, don't those guys have families? Where do they live? Do they really believe in what they are fighting for, or are they just mercenaries? Could they be under mind control from the guys at the top? Are they even conscious?

Then there is the Force. "May the Force be with you." There is the Dark Side and there is everyone else. The Empire is on the Dark Side. It is all about rule by fear of punishment and lust for reward. There is judgment and severe punishment for failure, but no inquiry as to why someone fails. There is no assistance from the guys at the top to fix the problems that get in the way of the subordinates when they fail to meet expectations.

When I see Darth Vader closing the windpipes on one of his subordinates with the Force, as in the first movie, I now see someone who thinks that motivation is an issue. Every character in the movie wants to do well, they want to meet expectations. But when they fail, they failed in a contest of skill and luck. If the other guys have better skills and they defeat you, Vader lacks the compassion to help you. He makes no inquiry to find the problems and fix them, other than by force.

I notice also, that the good guys don't wear masks that hide their eyes. The bad guys, for the most part, are completely covered in body armor. The bad guys at the top are always scheming against each other and the Rebel Alliance. The good guys show their faces, they help each other and have each other's back. The Empire practices competition in the extreme. The Rebel Alliance practices cooperation and compassion with everyone except for the enemy.

The Dark Side never negotiates. The Dark Side operates on the threat of force at all times. The Empire has enough power that it does not need to negotiate in good faith. The Dark Side does not question failure, it only expects success and punishes failure rather than collaborating to solve the problems that get in the way of meeting expectations.

This is what I mean when I say that the book, Raising Human Beings has changed my outlook so much. Instead of accepting the plot of the movie at face value, I deconstruct the plots in movies for more favorable outcomes. As all the Star Wars movies show, just plowing through conflict with force is very expensive and very time consuming. A little tact and compassion goes a long way to smoothing things out.

The antagonist of the Star Wars story line, Darth Vader, imposes his will upon others and does so by force, open, implied and applied. Children, adolescents and young adults all enjoy the movie and get the message that it's not right to impose your will upon others and that fighting back is justified when someone tries to impose their will upon you.

Star Wars, in a sense is a cultural irony. Parents eager to raise children "the right way", the way they have been taught by their parents, have been using force in the form of extortion, open threats and/or implied threats to coerce children into complying with their expectations, however reasonable they might be, regardless of whether or not their kids have the skills to do what they ask. This is not a case of bad parenting, but rather, uninformed solutions to problems that kids experience everyday.

No one is guilty or wrong. Just a bit confused. I don't even believe in evil as a concept, for it is born out of religion. Evil is a supernatural explanation for challenging behavior in both children and adults. In my mind, there is no good and evil. There is only confused (what we call evil), and less confused (good).

The way Vader treats his subordinates implies that everyone who fails is guilty of not being motivated to succeed, even when it seems abundantly clear that they are motivated. Whether or not someone has the skills to comply with his expectations is never questioned because the entire focus of Vader is not skills, it is ulterior motives for failure to comply. He represents the ultimate alias for the authority figure in the lives of millions of children and adult children.

The message of the movie is to fight back and protest when confronted with an authority figure. The assumption is that the authority figure cannot comprehend the suffering of his adversaries, therefore, the only reasonable response is to fight. But Star Wars raises some interesting questions. If it is wrong for Darth Vader to impose his will upon others, why is it OK for parents to impose their will upon kids. In a political context, it is reasonable to ask, why is it OK for American government to ignore the needs of the middle class while catering to the wealthy?

Star Wars is not just science fiction. It is an allegory for what America has become and will continue to be until we decide to be the change we want to see. The Empire is a totalitarian regime, no doubt. America is not a totalitarian state, and I hope we can keep it from becoming one. But The Empire is analogous to the oligarchy we have here in the United States. The Rebel Alliance is analogous to the middle class struggling to sustain themselves and to restore their ability to influence the government for the benefit of everyone, not just the 1%.

To live together in harmony requires skills. Such skills include recognizing challenging behavior when it happens and to conduct a non-confrontational inquiry into why it happens. Additional skills include being proactive in addressing challenging behavior because in most cases, it's predictable. And finally, we need to develop the skill of collaborating with people who exhibit challenging behavior to find out the cause and come up with a solution for it, together. The behavior is the signal not the problem. This isn't just for kids. It's also for adults.

Rogue One is a great movie. But, like much of popular culture, it pretends that injustice comes from someone else, outside of us. It perpetuates acceptance of the wartime economy that powers the United States with "free trade" and cheap foreign goods. It also perpetuates the myth that with enough force any problem can be solved with an adversary.

I believe that as a family and a nation of families, we can do better.
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