The turn of a friendly Card

I really like a lot of Orson Scott Card's books. Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead remain firmly on my list of Best Science Fiction Novels Ever Written, and Card's "Hot Sleep" stories and novellas (eventually gathered up into The Worthing Saga) were very formative for my own adolescent musings about the value of suffering, the nature of freedom, and the like. But things like this -- Card's review of the new Star Wars film -- really help to convince me that he's completely gone off the deep end, especially when read alongside of the increasingly bizarre novels he's turning out these days. It seems that Card has decided to use his popularity among science fiction aficionados to evangelize for a particular and peculiar form of Christianity, even and perhaps especially when that evangelism requires him to trash other popular works. Often on very silly grounds.

Where to begin to rebut Card's inaccuracies? Well, for one thing, he suggests that Star Wars is "manichaean…evil is simply another way of using the Force. Only not as nice." There are two problems here: first, as Dan Nexon already pointed out over on his blog, the essence of a Manichaean position is that good and evil are distinct substances with distinct essences. The orthodox Christian position that opposes this, most commonly associated with Augustine of Hippo (who, unlike any of us, actually was a follower of Mani for a portion of his life), is that evil is not a positive substance, but simply a privation or corruption of good. Hence evil beings are fallen or sinful as opposed to simply and intrinsically evil, and as such can be redeemed…which is the plot of both Star Wars and of the New Testament. Evil and good being linked, connected, interwoven such that people can be tempted by evil even when trying to do good: such things cannot happen in a Manichaean universe where good is good, evil is evil, and never the twain shall meet.

Second, if there's a Manichaean in Card's piece, it's Card himself, inasmuch as he keeps insisting on an absolute difference between good and evil, and keeps looking for the kind of clearly-defined clash that would allow him to comfortably stand on the side of Right. Such populist Manichaeanism might be thought of as the peculiar heresy of (much of) the Christian religious right, much as populist Arianism is the peculiar heresy of (much of) the Christian religious left. [Arianism was the belief that the Son, Jesus Christ, was lesser than the Father rather than being co-equal with the Father in substance; in practice, this meant that Arians held that Jesus Christ was a divinely inspired human being rather than being himself divine. Many left-leaning Christian churches these days make a similar (heretical) mistake, essentially relating to Jesus Christ as a good man with good things to say, kind of like Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. Regardless of the fact that this is a theological heresy, it is the common currency of many "liberal Christians," informing their daily practices in profound ways.] Manichaeanism is the popular heresy that informs many conservative Christians' daily practices, and leads to an abandonment of humility before God in favor of a rather smug sense of being In The Right and thus empowered to vanquish Evil.

In effect: there's Good, there's Evil, and we aren't the latter, which makes us the former. Oh, and God is on our side, and will eventually vanquish the servants of Evil, or at least make sure that they get what's coming to them, as their immortal souls burn in Hell. Regardless of its theological status as a Christian heresy, such popular dualism makes up the common currency of a lot of everyday conservative Christianity. As Nietzsche pointed out in The Genealogy of Morals, this idea of a war between equally-matched good and evil forces provided those who couldn't take revenge on their foes in real life to content themselves with the knowledge that they would be avenged in the afterlife. It's Christianity without forgiveness and redemption, in which the believer arrogates to her- or himself the authority to determine the final disposition of immortal souls -- something Card, not surprisingly, does when he questions Anakin's redemption and appearance with Yoda and Obi-Wan at the end of Return of the Jedi. We know the Good, this popular Manichaeanism declares, and we reject the Evil; we are pure, they are fallen, we are saved, they are damned.

This is precisely the error that the Jedi make throughout the first three Star Wars films -- the error that leads to their downfall.

Card, like a number of commentators, seems to have missed the fact that the six-part Star Wars saga is not about good Jedi vs. evil Sith, but about a decaying Jedi order that is swept away by the (admittedly, evil) Sith. Yes, some Jedi say that they are "good," but since when do we regard lines spoken by a character to be the author's point? If the author is present in the text, she or he is present in the whole course of events that make up the plot, and we have to take that into account. Regarding something that one Jedi says to be the point of the saga would be like misreading the comments of the Athenian representative during the Melian dialogue ("the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must") as though those comments represented Thucydides' whole argument, which would be a major mistake. And when that Jedi is Anakin Skywalker, who is being seduced by the Dark Side of the Force throughout many of the films, we have to take the declaration with an even bigger grain of salt.

Let's look at this a bit more closely. The Jedi order as it is portrayed in the prequel trilogy (Episodes I, II, and III) has all the characteristics of a mature, complacent bureaucracy that has virtually eliminated mystery in favor of administration. Originally established to study the Great Mystery that is the Force, the Jedi by the time we meet them in The Phantom Menace have been reduced to doing a few simple techno-magic tricks as instruments of the Chancellor of the Republic; they also have a clear internal hierarchy and a rigid Code to which adherents have to conform. Non-conformists like Qui-Gon Jinn aren't on the Council precisely because they won't conform, and it's no accident that Qui-Gon finds the boy Anakin and starts to appreciate what he represents -- unlike most of the other Jedi, Qui-Gon is still open to wonder and awe (even if that wonder is sometimes expressed in the techno-instrumentalist language of "midi-chloroian counts" and the like). The other Jedi can't place Anakin in their worldview very easily, since he doesn't fit the system (too old, too passionate, too powerful). We are not looking at a Jedi order at its height, but a Jedi order that is stultified and narrow -- and one that has virtually absented itself from the world, cloistering itself away from politics and ordinary people in a vain effort to keep itself pure from the temptations of the Dark Side.

And what are those temptations? The Sith and the Jedi differ largely in that the Sith embrace the struggle for ever greater power as a necessary component of political action, while the Jedi as portrayed in the prequels have somehow managed to delude themselves (at least organizationally, if not in every specific individual instance) into thinking that power struggles can be avoided by a monastic withdrawal from the world. Where the Sith and the Jedi do not differ is in their insistence that their actions are ultimately justified by a higher transcendental principle; the Jedi have their Code, and the Sith have their endless quest to prolong life (whether their own, or the lives of others). And it is this essential point of similarity that makes individual Jedi, like Anakin, corruptible: Palpatine is able to skillfully play on Anakin's desires and goals by promising him the power that he thinks he needs in order to achieve those goals, and once one starts down the path of acquiring more and more power the means to the goal becomes a goal in itself. [There's a very clever visual reference near the end of Revenge of the Sith before Anakin and Obi-Wan fight; the camera does a close-up on Anakin's face, but uses the extreme depth-of-field camera technique most famously used by Orson Welles in Citizen Kane to keep both Anakin and Obi-Wan (who is standing in the background) in focus simultaneously; Citizen Kane is, of course, a film about precisely this kind of corruption of a young idealist who becomes so wrapped up in the process of acquiring power that he forgets his original aims.]

Card is quite mistaken when he equates Palpatine's line "Good is a point of view" with Obi-Wan's later insistence that "only a Sith deals in absolutes." Palpatine's line plays on Anakin's idealism and helps to turn him to the position that anything is justified in pursuit of Anakin's selfless, idealistic goal of saving Padmé's life -- power is required for that end, as it is for the ending of the war and the bringing of peace and security, and Palpatine is offering Anakin a means to achieve those goals which purports to be much more effective than anything that the Jedi are offering him. If Anakin didn't already deal in absolutes, then Palpatine's offer wouldn't be so tempting, as the means offered would have to be weighed on their merits instead of being ultimately justified by the goodness of the goal towards which they point and the purity of the motives with which the wielder deploys them. The Dark Side of the Force is the temptation to believe that one's means are ultimately justified, that one is ultimately good and pure and right, regardless of what one does. (Sith don't appear to believe themselves evil; Anakin believes he is advancing the causes of peace and security, and Palpatine seems mostly concerned with prolonging life -- mainly his own, but still, he's not a pulp fiction villain who appears to love evil for its own sake. This is further evidence of how little Star Wars is Manichaean, since no one really thinks of themselves as "evil.")

Obi-Wan's declaration is the last best defense against this kind of Dark Side corruption, a defense that unfortunately the Jedi order didn't and couldn't accept. After all, when the Jedi do decide to re-enter the world and try to affect political change, the best they can come up with is "kill Palpatine and take over the Republic." Which would be in many ways just as bad as the Empire, featuring the same absolutist logic and the same smug purity displayed by the Sith.

I could go on. I probably will at some later point. But for now I think I've said enough. Although Card is correct that the Jedi order as seen in the prequels is not a model worth emulating, he seems to entirely miss that the whole point of the Star Wars saga is to show that the old model of being a Jedi wasn't up to the challenge of the Sith, and that something new was required. That new thing, I think, was faith: Luke, not being constrained by the old bureaucratic manner of training and thus lacking the smug confidence of the old Jedi, is able to prevail over the Sith by paradoxically refusing to eliminate them himself and leaving the ultimate disposition of things in the hands of the Force. The message of Star Wars is not "be a Jedi according to the old model." The message is "avoid the Dark Side temptation of thinking that you are pure and holy and justified; do not place overmuch confidence in your knowledge and your ethics and your traditions; have faith, like Luke did, and let the Force work as it will."

All of which sounds intimately Christian to me. I have no idea what Card's been smoking.

[Posted with ecto]

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