29 March 2008

Against War

I just finished reading an article in the April 2008 issue of The Progressive about the Winter Soldier event that took place from March 13-16. It was a gathering of Iraqi and Afghan War vets who testified to the atrocities committed on a daily basis by US forces in those two "countries."

Haven't heard of it? No wonder. With the exception of Amy Goodman's Democracy Now and a few other anti-war outlets, the left-leaning, America-hating mainstream media didn't devote one printed word or televised minute to it. And how could they? It would have given the lie to how much better things are becoming in Iraq and Afghanistan, and (God forbid) might have forced us to take a look at the consequences of our actions.

The quote that stays with me and represents everything that's wrong with our occupation and (more broadly) the militarization of our society is an unnamed sergeant's rallying cry to his troops: "I hope I get to kill me a haji today. I hope I get to shoot somebody today."

What kind of society thinks it's a "good thing" to brainwash a bunch of 20-something kids with this kind of evil?

Which is why, at the risk of bringing down the wrath of her copyright lawyers, I'm going to reprint here Ursula Le Guin's translation of the Tao Te Ching's 31st chapter, Against War:

Even the best weapon
is an unhappy tool,
hateful to living things.
So the follower of the Way
stays away from it.

Weapons are unhappy tools,
not chosen by thoughtful people,
to be used only when there is no choice,
and with a calm, still mind,
without enjoyment.
To enjoy using weapons
is to enjoy killing people,
and to enjoy killing people
is to lose your share in the common good.

It is right that the murder of many people
be mourned and lamented.
It is right that a victor in war
be received with funeral ceremonies.

It's this that should be pounded into the impressionable heads of every recruit inducted into our armed forces.

If anyone is interested in learning more about the Winter Soldier event, I daresay you can find it at The Progressive's site,, or the Iraq Vets Against the War site at

19 March 2008

My Very Own Star Wars Saga

I’m of that generation that saw the original Star Wars when it came out in 1977. My parents were divorced, and every two weeks or so our father would take my siblings and me for the weekend. Often we would see a movie, and I can remember having to actually stand in line to get seats (an unheard of phenomenon at the time, at least in my experience).

But it was worth it – at least in the eyes of a 10-year-old. At the time, Star Wars was on the cutting edge of special effects technology; it pushed the envelope about as far as it could go. On top of that, the story worked because it simply transposed the “damsel-in-distress/young-hero/evil-wizard” myth into a science-fiction setting. Yes, the dialog was cartoonish (at best), the acting generally sub-par (with some notable exceptions), but only the seriously deluded sat down expecting Citizen Kane.

Five years passed and The Empire Strikes Back comes out. By this time, the now familiar Hollywood-hype machine was evolving and there was a huge and annoying marketing campaign behind this one so that everyone knew they were going to see a “phenomenon.” Despite that, it wasn’t bad (we’ll get into my rewrite below). Five years after that, we got The Return of the Jedi. Trends only hinted at in #2 showed up openly (one word – ewoks!) and spoiled complete enjoyment. But the emperor was pretty evil, Vader was redeemed and “freedom” was restored to the Galaxy so one sucked in his gut, gritted his teeth and stuck it out.

Ten years passed – more? I don’t remember when The Phantom Menace first appeared. At any rate, we now were promised the back story to the rise of the Empire and the fall of Anakin Skywalker. Instead we got crap (to be generous). I torture myself occasionally by going back to rewatch these clunkers to see if there’re any redeeming qualities but it’s hard to find any. I recently checked out my library’s copy of Revenge of the Sith and there are only 2 good lines from the entire movie: Padmé’s comment about the end of the Republic as the Senate proclaims Palpatine emperor to thunderous applause, and Obi-wan’s comment to Anakin as they are poised to fight that only the Sith deal in absolutes.

What makes it so frustrating is that the Star Wars Saga really could have been good. It wouldn’t have taken a Shakespearean or Wellesian genius, just someone who gave a damn about what they were doing – me for instance.

What follows is Star Wars as I would have told it. Some will find it compelling, some will find it blasphemous, most will probably not really care all that much and wonder why I have so much free time on my hands to worry about these things.

Star Wars: A New Hope
There’s really not much I would change in the first movie. As I hinted above, this self-contained little story worked on most levels: You have the princess in distress. You have a blond/blue-eyed young hero (which, in hindsight, did hint at a colonial-era racism that came out more fully in the Jar-Jar Binks and Trade Federation characters). You have an evil sorceror. You have the good mentor sorceror. You have the rogue with a heart of gold. And you have an epic battle where good conquers evil.

If Lucas had stopped there, Star Wars would have earned an honorable place on any SF fan’s video shelf.

What would I have changed? Two things that wouldn’t change the story significantly but would make it more believable for me.

Well, first off, I’d change the age of the old Republic. You’ll remember that Obi-wan commented that for a “1,000 generations” the Jedi protected the Republic, which (assuming a generation is about 25 years) translates to 25,000 years – about 5 times as long as recorded human history; and there’s no human institution that’s lasted a tenth as long. The time scale is simply too large for the historian in me to be comfortable with so I would slash it by a factor of 10; i.e., the old Republic lasted about 2,500 years. Still a very long time but believable (Egypt and China both lasted 3,000+ years, and China is still going strong [I know there is still a country called Egypt but the civilization of the Pharaohs came to an end with Rome; arguably there has been no break in Chinese civilization since the Zhou]).

The other thing I would modify is the final battle scene. I understand that in 1977 special-effects technology probably wasn’t capable of showing it but we needed to see far more TIE and rebel fighters in the space battles. As my father pointed out when we first saw Star Wars, the space battles were essentially WW2-era dog fights, which would mean that (like modern navies) the capital ships would be carriers. I imagine that outside of its primary weapon, the Death Star was mostly bays for carriers and their fighter wings. Both the rebels and the Empire should have had hundreds of fighters, not the 30 that the rebels threw against the Death Star.

Oh, well. Maybe in a generation when they do the remake.

Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
As far as the basic plot line goes, there’s not much to change here. I’ve got no problem with Vader being Luke’s and Leia’s father or the Yoda subplot (though I’ll have problems with him later). The problem with a sequel is that we now have to define what the Force is and the rules that govern its use; otherwise, it becomes a deus ex machina invoked simply to let the hero do something heroic or the villain to do something dastardly. This becomes particularly critical in the later films when we have to explain how Palpatine manages to hide his true nature from the entire Jedi Council when they live only a few blocks down the street (so to speak).

I’m going to go through the changes I would make point by point now, starting with (naturally enough) the beginning:

Hoth: What is the nature of the rebel base on Hoth? If it’s to replace the main base on Yavin then the rebels abandon it pretty cavalierly in the face of Imperial attack. Obviously, it can’t be; it’s just another refuge that (unfortunately) the Empire has smoked out. I’d make that a bit clearer in the course of the narrative.

Actually, I’d probably move them off the planet entirely. A world covered entirely in ice? Where’s the flora necessary to produce oxygen? Why go to the trouble of settling it? It seems a space station would be just as easy (or hard) to man.

And Vader immediately knows that Hoth is where Luke is. I’m willing to consider a link because they’re father and son but why can’t he sense Luke on Tatooine, or Leia when she’s standing right in front of him?

It’s unsatisfactory but perhaps we can postulate that Vader’s mind is deceiving him, or at least that part that still yearns to return to the Lightside of the Force. Or he does sense Luke but has plans to utilize him to bring down the Emperor (as he reveals in the final duel when he asks Luke to join him).

The Imperial invasion force: Get rid of the walkers. As one scene in the movie makes clear, they’re far too vulnerable (I’m referring to the scene where a speeder wraps cable around a walker’s legs and brings it down). For God’s sake, they have anti-gravity technology – use it. (This weakness becomes even more egregious in Return.)

And just what did the shield generators shield? The Empire lands its troops without opposition, and a few shots from a walker’s turbo-lasers blow them up. Why couldn’t a star destroyer drop a few bombs on the site and do the same thing?

The only way to resolve this is to have the shields overwhelmed by an epic space battle, after which Imperial troops would land and we could have another battle scene. Or, the shields never came on-line; the Empire found the base before the rebels were fully prepared. The former would also solve the problem of the rather wimpy “blockade” put up by the Imperial fleet: Rebel ships are able to escape because the fleet has suffered so many casualties there are holes in the blockade. In the latter case, the ineffectiveness of the blockade might be explained by a paucity of ships.

Luke’s escape to Dagobah is fine yet I wonder why his ship has to crash land; in Return it lands without any apparent difficulty. Oh, of course! We have to see how powerful the Force is when Yoda raises it from the swamp. Weak but justifiable if we establish that he was “clipped” while escaping and he lost control of the X-wing.

Han’s and Leia’s escape is a bit more problematic since it’s so illogical. I understand that we’re talking science-fiction fantasy here and strict adherence to the latest discoveries in physics is not to be expected but some proportion must be maintained – it’s simply impossible for the Millennium Falcon to reach another star system without faster-than-light capability. And then there’s the asteroid field, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

Alternate escape: The Falcon lifts off from Hoth and manages to enter hyperspace. It’s already been established that Han and Chewie had been repairing a lot of the Falcon’s systems, and obviously the hyperdrive was amongst them so it will not be stretching credulity too much to posit that it breaks down and the Falcon is forced to drop out, in this case in the Anoad system. Unfortunately, the Empire has sent out a number of ships along the vectors the rebels were using to escape and some have reached the Anoad system and detect the Falcon and give chase.

No asteroid belt operates along the lines of the one the Falcon finds itself in – none. And I refuse to suspend belief so far. Rather, let’s suggest that the Anoad system contains a highly active cloud similar to the Mutara Nebula from The Wrath of Khan; it screws up scanners, renders deflectors useless, maybe it deflects turbo-lasers except at extremely close ranges, and if you’re moving too fast and hit a particularly dense/excitable patch you blow up. Enough obstruction so that the Falcon and her pursuers can bob and weave all they want, and the Imperial captains are understandably worried about pursuing Han et al. into it.

This also solves one of the more annoying things about the Falcon’s eventual escape that has always bothered me – Just how stupid are Imperial captains? The Falcon swoops over the bridge of Needa’s star destroyer and just disappears, and no one can figure out what he’s done? Consider that in order to pull off what he does, Han has to stop the Falcon on a dime and then “quietly” latch onto the hull of the destroyer. Again a suspension of belief I am unwilling to contemplate. However, if the cloud messes things up as badly as I’ve postulated then the Falcon could hide in the murk and sidle up to the ship; when it ejects its trash, Han joins the effluent and “drifts away with the rest of the garbage,” as Leia puts it.

From this point forward, the rest of the movie works for me.

Though let me take a moment here before moving on to movie #3 to say that the whole treatment of the Light and Dark sides of the Force leaves much to be desired. It seems to me that Yoda and Obi-wan should have been guiding Luke in how to control his emotions, not counseling him to deny them. Particularly Yoda. You’d think that the whole Anakin experience (not to mention 900 years of life among humans) would have clued him in yet he persists in lamely telling Luke to give up his “hate” and “anger.” Unlikely considering his youth and heritage, and implausible considering he’s already gone through this with Luke’s father.

Star Wars: Return of the Jedi
Again the basic plot worked for me but there were a few things that need to be changed.

Number one is Jabba the Hutt and the annoying trend of sticking in aliens just to stick in aliens. In the original novelization and the first remastering (when DVDs were still a gleam in the industry’s eye), Jabba was human and he should remain so, not something that looks like an ambulatory turd. The Hutts then become something like the Mafia – “Jabba the Mafioso.” It’s obvious from the first movie that the Empire is primarily human (viz., the reaction of the detention officer to Chewbacca). The old Republic would have been similarly constituted (perhaps that was one of the causes that brought it down – xenophobia).

And we can get rid of the Rancor, too. A pointless waste of narrative time.

It means we have to get rid of the opening scene where the droids first approach Jabba. They can accompany Luke. When he’s overpowered and captured, Jabba simply seizes them as booty.

I also have a problem with Jabba’s treatment of Han. Han had to dump a cargo because he was boarded. Naturally, Jabba would want to recoup his losses and Jabba’s a businessman and Han had the means to pay him back with interest. What “example” is Jabba trying to make? Don’t dump cargo even if you’re boarded, arrested and possibly executed? And if you do dump the cargo and can pay me back, I’m still going to freeze you in carbonite and make a trophy wall out of you?

Not only is Jabba out the original price of the cargo, but he’s also out XX thousands of credits to pay Boba Fett. What kind of criminal mastermind is this?

Solution: Luke et al. intercept Fett as he’s turning Solo over to Jabba, which gives us an excuse for another special-effects-heavy battle scene.

We now skip to the approach to Endor.

Ewoks suck! They should never have been conceived much less developed and added to this movie. Cut them out entirely.

It makes far more sense to have the Bothans live on Endor (that’s how they’re in a position to get the info on the new Death Star). And, as I’m being very sparing in my inclusion of aliens, I’d make them human. (Or we could go back to the original conception and put the Death Star in orbit around the Wookie homeworld, but I like my Bothan idea.) We’d also give them technology that would conceivably be effective against the Empire. Really – if a native population got too restive do you really believe the Empire would balk at dropping a few bombs from orbit, perhaps even sterilizing the planet if it got too “uppity”? (viz. Alderaan)

With the Ewoks gone, the movie can move forward without too much interference from me. I would point out that the final scenes in the remastered version showing the celebrating populations across the Empire is ludicrous – just how did anyone off of Endor find out about the Emperor’s death so quickly? And would the Imperial garrisons have stood down so docilely? Why? Except for those worlds already in the Rebel Alliance, what world was prepared for post-Imperial rule? Why wouldn’t the Grand Moffs have held on to power? All questions that have been addressed with varying (sometimes wildly varying) degrees of skill in the dozens of novelizations that have been churned out by 20th Century Fox (or Lucasfilm, or whoever owns the rights) over the years.

Essentially, the first three movies were good enough. I think that the latter two suffered from people who were more concerned with marketing than with storytelling (including, unforgivably, Lucas himself) but the momentum of A New Hope carried us fans to a successful conclusion.

Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones (?), Revenge of the Sith
Was it Attack of the Clones? These prequels were so forgettable I can’t even remember their titles.

Unfortunately, the prequels moved beyond epic fantasy into the realm of Greek tragedy. It wasn’t a clear-cut battle of Good vs. Evil but of a conflicted hero with a tragic flaw who, like Samson, brings down the temple on everyone’s head. George Lucas wasn’t up to the task.

I put all three prequels together here because they all have to be trashed, and the story completely rewritten. In fact, the only decent lines from any of the three were the two mentioned above – Padmé’s comment at Palpatine’s acclamation and Obi-wan’s when he begins to duel with Anakin. I’d strive to keep those in any remake.

What’s critical to making this story compelling (since we already know the ending) is the arc of Anakin’s fall. How does an idealistic, essentially “good” boy become the genocidal sociopath Darth Vader? The secondary theme (and parallel to the main one) is how does an idealistic, essentially “good” polity become the genocidal sociopath Empire?

Let’s start with background:

The Old Republic:
Where did the Republic come from? Twenty-five hundred years ago, the Republic arose from a group of (largely) human worlds, perhaps in response to political and economic chaos brought on by unrestricted competition for colonies and resources. It doesn’t matter so much except that the obsessive pedant in me wants to nail these details down.

Supreme authority came to rest in the Senate. Who made up the Senate? Probably not a question critical to our story so I won’t get into it but positing one senator for each world quickly becomes a problem beyond a thousand senators or so (the Roman Republic at its decadent height never had more than about 900 senators). The full Republican Senate probably never had more than 600 members, who were supplied by smaller, regional bodies and so on successively down to individual worlds.

By its third millennium of existence, the Republic was a sclerotic dinosaur threatened by factionalism, xenophobia, political malaise, and external challenges from other polities and developing nonhuman cultures.

The Jedi/the Sith:
Around the same time as the Republic was organized a new religion began to make itself known among these human worlds whose most advanced adherents claimed to have the ability to manipulate the fundamental energy fields that held the universe together – The Force. Over time, two broad “creeds” emerged. The Jedi focused on disciplining human emotions and exercising The Force for the benefit of all; the Sith focused on personal development and exercising The Force for the benefit of the Force adept alone. Jedi saints tended to be Jesus and Buddha figures; Sith adepts tended to be Genghis Khans or Hitlers. Of course, particularly in these early centuries, there were any number of individual schools within both philosophies. The Jedi were constantly arguing about what “benefit to all” meant in terms of human action; and the Sith were not all megalomaniacal tyrants. And then there were cultures (mainly nonhuman) who explored completely different paths to Force mastery.

Unfortunately, at some point, the Jedi succumbed to a reforming movement that suppressed the other schools and became a sort of Catholic Church – the Jedi Council. It also suppressed the Sith schools, wiping out the more moderate ones and radicalizing the remnants so that by the time of the Clone Wars the Sith left represented only the worst instincts of the human animal. This Jedi Council represented those schools most active in human affairs so it became natural that they would become the “guardians” of the Republic, and sow the seeds of their own destruction. (It’s not unreasonable to suppose that one of the factors that caused such unrest in the late Republic was Jedi arrogance.)

The appearance of Anakin Skywalker, potentially the most powerful Jedi Master in history, must have terrified the Council. Yoda and Mace Windu would do anything to control such a “wild card.” They were probably glad that Qui-gon Jin died because it meant they could put Anakin in Obi-wan’s hands – inexperienced and open to their suggestions in training the boy.

The Clone Wars:
As a historian by training, I know that many of the most transformative events in history start from very mundane beginnings – like a trade dispute – but, really! We’re talking epic fantasy here. Would the Iliad have the same cachet if Homer had opened with “Sing, O Muse, of the dispute over trade routes between Troy and the Achaian cities”? Probably not.

One of the problems besetting the late Republic was the increasing polarization between those who freely used clones and those who opposed it – the “slavery” of its time. Naboo (whose name we’ll have to change) petitions the Senate for admission but is opposed by the Trade Federation (pro-clones) because of its strong anti-clone position, which will tip power balances in the Senate. Like Lincoln’s election in 1860, it’s the final straw for the pro-clone Senators and leads to civil war (joined by other factions in the Republic, including many alien worlds who feel like second-class citizens in the human-majority Senate).

It’s Palpatine’s opportunity to depose the ineffective Chancellor Valorum and assume mastery of the Senate, and (under the guise of saving the Republic) beginning to amass the power he needs to proclaim the Empire. The Jedi Council, anti-clone, supports the Chancellor even though they can sense that he is in some way a Force locus. In their arrogance they believe they can control him whatever his plans.

Anakin’s Story:
Qui-gon Jin and Obi-wan Kenobi are leading the ambassadorial delegation attempting to prevent the Trade Federation from installing a pro-clone regime on Naboo when Palpatine (in his guise as Darth Sidious – another name we need to work on) sets in motion the events that will result in the Clone Wars. We can retain some of the first prequel’s plot elements such as their rescue of Queen Padmé and fleeing the planet with her.

We can also retain their forced landing on Tatooine with a damaged ship.

What we can’t keep is Jar-Jar Binks. He joins the Ewoks in that limbo where all really, really bad ideas should go. Do we need “comic relief”? Probably not. If we want to lighten the mood a bit, we can develop an easy-going, bantering relationship between Qui-gon and Obi-wan (Qui-gon is the world-weary Athos vs. Obi-wan’s eager young D’Artagnan).

Anakin is also not the result of a “virgin birth.” He’s the most powerful Force locus Qui-gon’s ever seen but he’s not the son of God. He’s a potential champion of the Jedi but a messiah only in the Jewish sense of an earthly prophet-king.

Nor should we have C3PO and R2D2 make any appearances at this point. They’re characters from the first three movies. We can establish that Anakin is a good tinkerer and pilot in other ways.

And, since we’re on the subject of droids, we should dispense with the whole droid army “thing.” Both sides use human/organic soldiers and there’s plenty of blood – it’s war, you know. (Watching the prequels, I felt I was watching G.I. Joe, the ‘80s era cartoons, where tanks blew up, airplanes blew up, helicopters blew up, buildings blew up; but humans always walked away without getting even shrapnel wounds. Or an episode of The A-Team, for that matter.)

Anakin and his mother can remain slaves (probably debt slaves, considering Tatooine’s culture – and to the Hutt’s crime syndicate, no less) but why would Qui-gon be constrained by the planet’s toleration of slavery? There’s no reason to suppose that he would feel any qualms about abducting the boy at the very least, though he may plan it to minimize bloodshed. On the other hand, he would feel qualms about stealing a functioning hyperdrive. Which means, though I’m reluctant to follow the plot too closely here, we do need something along the lines of the pod race to explain how he acquires it. Of course, Padmé could order Qui-gon to steal ship and boy, justifying it by need and promising to compensate the shipowner for his loss (though not the slaveowner, of course).

Anakin should also be older. Mid-teens; definitely no older than Luke was when his adventures began – it makes his attraction to Padmé a bit less attractive to the child-pornographers amongst us.

In the escape, Anakin’s mother dies (and, no, her name will not remain Schmee), and Anakin discovers that the Force is not all powerful and can’t always save the ones he loves. (Though having been brutalized his whole life as a slave, one could argue that he really doesn’t need any more events to add to his angers and hatreds.)

They eventually reach Coruscant, where Padmé presents her case to Palpatine and the Senate. Palpatine manipulates things to give him emergency powers (a la Hitler’s Enabling Act or Bush’s PATRIOT Act) and the war begins.

Meanwhile, the Jedi Council succumbs to its own fears (though Yoda and Mace rationalize them) to ensure that Anakin remains firmly under control.

The second act becomes then a bridge showing Anakin and his growing frustrations with the Council’s manipulations, his inability to make things “right,” his growing attraction to Padmé (who remains Queen-in-Exile – perhaps that could be the denouement of the second movie: the Republic’s forces free Naboo under Obi-wan/Anakin’s leadership), and Palpatine’s manipulation of Anakin’s feelings to bring him under his control (or destroy him).

The third act brings a culmination to both story arcs – Anakin’s fall and the Republic’s. Palpatine brings the sides to a Pyrrhic battle, which destroys many of the leaders in both factions. He convinces Anakin of the Council’s perfidy and that the Jedi need to be eliminated and Anakin goes about doing it.

Obi-wan’s final battle with Anakin ends with Skywalker being mortally wounded but Obi-wan can’t bring himself to deal the final blow so he flees with the pregnant Padmé and the newly acclaimed Emperor salvages what he can of the wreckage. It’s not unreasonable to suppose that the Emperor subtly manipulated both Obi-wan and Anakin so that the latter would lose since, whole, Anakin would be too much of a threat to Palpatine. (In fact, I really like that angle.)

Padmé should survive the birth of Luke and Leia if only because Leia can remember her (established in Return). Luke is hidden with his uncle’s family on Tatooine (Owen has managed to escape the debt slavery that overtook Anakin’s parents) and Obi-wan hides among the planet’s outcasts so he can keep an eye on things. Leia (along with her mother) is hidden with the family of one of the Jedi Council’s biggest supporters in the Senate, Bail Organa of Alderaan.

Palpatine consolidates his rule and aims to bring the entire Galaxy under his control.

Yoda broods on Dagobah, hidden by the Darkside locus on the planet and maintaining infrequent contact with Kenobi.

The newly christened Darth Vader attempts to recover his old mastery of the Force, hampered as he is by being “more machine than man.”

And the Rebel Alliance is born. Ironically made up of those in the Senate who want to restore the Republic and the surviving rebels of the Clone Wars.

I haven’t attempted to write the screenplays for the prequels. What I hoped to do here is show just how easy it could have been to create something worth watching if the people who were writing the screenplays cared about it.

10 March 2008

John McCain is no hero

I always get a little queasy when people talk about "heroes." Usually they're referring to people who are aiding and abetting the corporate, short-term interests of so-called US foreign policy; often people whose claim to "heroism" is shooting or bombing civilian populations.

So you can understand that I avoid watching the fawning media when they attempt to cover John McCain.

John McCain is no hero. He spent his Vietnam career bombing civilians, and the Vietnamese (quite understandably) tried to stop him. Do his actions justify how he was treated by the Vietnamese? No, of course not. But that's not the question, is it? His actions prior to his incarceration and torture are in question and they were criminal -- he willfully aided state terrorism, i.e., bombing civilian populations in contravention of all the "laws" of war.

And 40 years later he certainly is showing no signs of "heroism":

  1. He caved on opposing torture because it wasn't popular with the vicious fanatics who make up the Republican base.
  2. He's frantically kissing the butts of the evangelical "rightwing nuts" (viz., John Hagee) while hypocritically condemning Obama for the unsolicited endorsement of Louis Farrakhan.
I'm having nightmares of a President McCain; of another four years of the Bush-Cheney bullshit that has driven this country to disaster.

I have no illusions that a Democratic president is going to do much that is different from a McCain presidency but there's at least a chance that we can make some progress toward getting out of the Iraq debacle, tragedy (dare I say shoah?) if we can organize enough grassroots pressure.

Experience is bunk

Stanley Kutler has a good response to the mantra of "experience" on (

Essentially, it's not "experience" that counts, it's how a person responds to crisis. Lincoln was a manic/depressive with no "experience" yet he saved the Union; Hoover was widely acknowledged as "experienced" yet he couldn't address the Depression; FDR had little more "experience" than Obama yet he defeated fascism.

08 March 2008

Book review: Discovering God

I just finished Rodney Stark's Discovering God. A wide ranging work that attempts to explain the emergence of "revealed" and/or "moralistic" religions beginning in the Axial Age of the 6th and 7th centuries BC, when many of the great religious figures and movements arose.

I really enjoyed his earlier book, On the Rise of Christianity, where he applied sociological techniques to explain the appeal and success of Christianity. Above and beyond that, his description of life in an ancient city (in this case Antioch) was breathtaking and horrifying. It's amazing the conditions in which human beings will consent to live.

Lately, alas, his books have tended to be Christian apologias that detract from the force of his objective arguments regarding why religions appeal to people and how they effect conversion, diluting the power of his insights.

This is true of the last third or so of Discovering God. The first two-thirds, where he deals with non-Christian/non-Islamic religions, argues persuasively for his theory that a "free market" of religious ideas creates a population that is more intensely religious and committed to "discovering God," however that concept may be defined since many East Asian traditions can dispense with god figures entirely, and that such situations occurred during the Axial Age, under Roman rule before Constantine, and in America. The last hundred pages of the book, focusing on Christ and Mohammad, clearly show his pro-Christian bias and are the weakest part of the book. In the conclusion, he drops all pretense of neutrality and asserts that what he's been chronicling is a "discovery" of God, not an "evolution" of the concept of deity. He even has the gall to dismiss all East Asian religions because they don't "reveal" god, and Islam is inferior because it's a regression from the Christian advances made in understanding God.

I'm with Stark when he argues that the concepts of "sin" and "salvation" successfully helped instill a superior form of social control during a violent era in world history (Karen Armstrong makes much the same argument in The Great Transformation, highly recommended) . I also agree that these concepts arose on the peripheries of the ancient civilizations (Egypt and Sumer) because all transformative movements start at the margins, in relatively "chaotic" environments. He makes the point nicely when he writes: "[b]ecause these once-great civilizations [Egypt and Sumer] took no part in this historical turning point, `we are infinitely closer [culturally and religiously] to the Chinese and Indians' than to Egyptians and Mesopotamian..." (p. 389)

On the other hand, Stark's cavalier dismissal of the Buddha's, Laozi's and Confucius' spiritual insights two pages later is insulting and uncalled for. Simply because Gautama, the Old Master and Master Kung may have dismissed the questions Stark considers important and appropriate doesn't render them irrelevant.

In the introduction, Stark says that his argument can be used by believers and nonbelievers alike since it "works" whether God actually exists and humans are simply discovering his nature or whether the idea of "God" is a human attempt to make sense of our world. This pretense is dropped when he argues that only a religion that can claim to be "inspired" has any claim to legitimacy. Thus, "truer" religions must satisfy three criteria:

  1. They must be revelations
  2. They must be logically compatible
  3. They must be progressively complex

As to the first, there is no need for a conscious divinity to construct a morality. It appears to help immensely in getting people to accept it (after all, it's easier to believe "God" has more insight into what constitutes moral behavior than Joe Schmo, your neighbor) but from my perspective that's about all it does. My attraction to the more intellectually rigorous forms of Buddhism (i.e., Zen) arises from that severance of dependence upon an external source to enforce "right action."

The second criterion simply baffles me. If religions arise in response to perceived spiritual needs that are not being satisfied (which is what Stark argues for earlier in the book), then whether God or gods is invoked is irrelevant. Monotheism may ultimately be the most logical/rational explanation of any divine existence/plan for the universe but why is the "golden rule" any less legitimate if promulgated by an Olympian Council, Taoist Immortals, the Son of God or Islamic mullahs?

The third criterion also seems nonsensical. Islam may have begun as a relatively uncomplex revelation geared to the understanding of Bedouin tribesmen but many, many imams and philosophers have elaborated upon it in the interim. And the same is true of Christianity. The early Church Fathers turned somersaults developing Christian theology from the sketchy sayings of the Jewish carpenter. The first three centuries of the Christian era were a "Wild West" of competing and increasingly complex theologies. Even after it became Rome's state religion, the educated elites continued to dispute (viz., the controversy over "homoousias" vs. "homoiousias").

And, let's face it, only a small minority of any religious faith really get deeply involved in such disputes (at least on their merits, plenty can be convinced to spill blood if their leaders tell them to). Which is not to detract from the worth of nonacademic/nonelite spirituality -- just that it's not as well thought out and coherent as your typical Jesuit's or imam's or lama's. (Actually, one of Stark's strengths is his insistence that humans have always been intensely spiritual; it's just that, for much of history, that religious fervor has been private and unrecorded.)

Stark goes off the deep end starting on p. 394, where he asserts, with no proof (of course, since it's a matter of faith) that "Christianity epitomizes revealed religion and offers a substantially more complex and nuanced vision of God...." He condemns Islam for its support of theocracies, repression of innovation, and belief in an ultimately irrational and unpredictable God. Examples with which Christianity also abounds. But the faults he lays at Islam's feet seem to be endemic to the "human condition." Anytime a faith, or a polity or a corporation gets a monopoly or near-monopoly it then goes about stifling the competition. Democracy developed in the West despite Christianity, not because of it; we have the utterly pagan Athenians to thank for the seeds that eventually grew into the Western democracies.

As an afterthought (or so it seems to this reader), Stark tacks on a final argument for the existence of God by invoking the specious arguments of the Intelligent Design movement, whose theories about the irreducible complexity of organisms like the eye or wings have been demolished time after time in the scientific literature.

In sum, Dr. Stark reaches some very convincing insights in the development and propagation of religious ideas but his otherwise worthy effort is undermined by his obvious bias toward Christianity as the definitive answer to man's search for meaning in the universe.