Sunday, March 25, 2018

Choosing Hope


Today I did something I haven't done in many years: I saw a movie for the third time in less than four months. The movie was Star Wars: The Last Jedi. I saw it in a tiny second-run theater in Boise because there just weren't any first-run movies left in town that my son and I were both interested in seeing, and we needed to fill a few hours while my grandbaby napped after entertaining us for most of the afternoon.

The first time I saw this movie, I wasn't completely sold on it. I'd not liked the first installment of this trilogy, which felt abbreviated, unnecessary, and a real downer to me, as the grand victory of Return of the Jedi turned out to be hollow and temporary, with a resurgent empire not just overthrowing, but destroying the galactic republic. And this second movie certainly takes the depressing direction of its predecessor to a new level: by the end of this installment, the resistance has been reduced to a few dozen people, all of whom can fit on the Millennium Falcon. Adding to the sadness is the passing of Luke Skywalker, who sacrifices himself for that handful of rebels; coupled with the knowledge that there will be no Leia in the final chapter, as Carrie Fisher died soon after the making of this one.

And yet, as I walked out of my third viewing of the film, I felt buoyed by what I'd just experienced. To understand why, this film has to be put in its sitz im leben (a theological term for the cultural context out of which a scriptural text or doctrine emerges): our nation is in crisis. Ten years ago, we felt a new hope as a young, principled, inspiring African-American became President, bringing with him a supermajority of Democrats in the Senate to match the majority in the House. Finally, it seemed, we could get on with the business of making America truly great, a nation that practiced what it preached, that emulated the more humane approach of its European allies in building a safety net for its most needy citizens, that advocated for human rights in international relations while expanding them at home. For eight years, our President was a wise, cautious, decent human being.

All of which is an excellent disproof of the "Great Man" theory of history.

For while the President and his Congressional allies worked to expand health care, to close down the Guantanamo prison camp, to extend a hand of peace to former enemies, the Right began to rebuild. The reasonable-appearing doctrines of the neo-cons had been relegated to the ash heap, and many of the more moderate Republican members of Congress had lost elections to moderate Democrats. One might think a chastened party would look for redemption in a shift leftward, but that was not to be the case. Instead, the most rabid elements of the party began to make alliances with reactionary and bigoted elements of American society who would have been deemed far too radioactive by previous incarnations of the Grand Old Party. A constant barrage of misinformation was coupled with the utter refusal of the Republican party to cooperate in any way with President Obama's policies. Over time, the Democratic majority eroded, losing first the House, then the Senate, until finally the only way Obama could effect change was through executive orders. Even so, the candidacy of Donald Trump seemed to guarantee an extension of Obama's progressive agenda into a new Democratic administration.

But Hillary Clinton lost that election, and for those of us who had hoped to see America embracing the greatness of its beautiful diversity, who had dreamed of a nation that could finally be the shining city on a hill emptily preached by Ronald Reagan, it was as if the Galactic Republic had just been obliterated by a new Death Star.

In the Fourteen months since Trump was inaugurated, we've experienced a rolling crisis that has exhausted me of all the punditry I once enjoyed so much. This abomination of a President's narcissistic domination of the media has left me stuttering, unable to choose a direction in which to point my keyboard. I start writing about an issue that matters deeply to me (most recently, the Parkland, Florida, shooting), only to find my attention seized by resignations and firings in the White House, by former mistresses of the President telling their stories, by petty Twitter bullying committed by the Chief Executive of the United States, and on and on it goes. It has become so hard to find a footing in the deluge of Presidential effluent that I've taken weeks off from writing about anything.

That's the state of things as I've been seeing it for months, and it's why I've written so little in this space. But then, along came hope from a quarter I never expected: teenagers standing up to the man who put the bully in the pulpit, to his cronies in the NRA, and to all his minions on Capitol Hill. Yesterday hundreds of thousands of them marched across the United States, crying out against the nation's insane obsession with guns and the dithering of politicians in the pocket of an organization whose goal appears to be arming every American to the teeth with weapons that probably should not be in the hands of even soldiers. Most of these young people can't vote--yet. But they will be voting soon, if not in 2018, definitely in 2020; and so will their parents. I'm not just saying they'll be of voting age: unlike most previous generations of teenagers, these kids are highly motivated. And they're angry. They're tired of the caviling and protestations of politicians whose hopes and prayers at the latest massacre do nothing to prevent the next one, tired of belonging to a majority of Americans whose safety is continually put at risk by the minority that clings to its weapons, tired of being belittled by gun-loving adults who refuse to take a young person seriously, and that anger will be translated into votes.

Yesterday they marched, and they made me both proud and hopeful. And then The Last Jedi gave me a frame of reference for those feelings, and did it with panache.

At the heart of the movie is the bitterness of a man whose dream of restoring the Jedi knights to their previous role as defenders of the Republic has been dashed by the betrayal of his most promising student: his nephew Ben Solo who, corrupted by the dark side influence of Supreme Leader Snoke, has slaughtered all his fellow students. Luke retreats to a far corner of the galaxy to nurse his grief. When Rey, a young woman with astonishing gifts, comes to him for training and help, he rejects her, telling her the Jedi are through. Much happens after that rejection. In the end, Luke changes his mind, and his intervention gives the few remaining rebels time to escape.

It's a thrilling, moving story, with far deeper messages than most installments of this franchise have been able to encompass. What works the best for me is the sense of the passing of the torch as the generation who last defeated the Empire realize their time is past. If there is to be another restoration of democracy, it falls to the young to accomplish it, to those who only know of the feats of Luke, Han, Leia, and Chewbacca as legends. Sure, Luke could duke it out with Snoke, but as it turns out, he's not even the true villain. Even as he spouts evil banalities that would be right at home in a Trump tweet, his disciple, Kilo Ren, is plotting his demise. His halved corpse is still smoldering when Ren steps into the power vacuum; and it is he who Luke deals a moral defeat, just as Obi-Wan Kenobi once sacrificed his own life to Darth Vader to ensure the escape of young Luke. It falls, again, to a younger generation to defeat the Empire.

That is why, after a year and a half of topping my Facebook profile with a picture of an upside-down flag symbolizing the republic in distress, I have today replaced it with a picture of myself, taken just a few hours ago by my daughter. I have had enough of obsessing over the attention-demanding vortex of the Oval Office, though that in itself would not be cause enough to take down that flag. No, there's something much more important that I have realized, a New Hope as it were, born of the great things I see happening all around me. This nation, I now see, will soon experience a new birth of liberty, and government of the people, by the people, for the people will once more rule this nation. It will be there courtesy of a new generation of Americans, a generation who cannot understand why their grandparents are so afraid of diversity, who take for granted the proposition that all people are created equal, and who believe the work of government should be, as the preamble of the Constitution has always proclaimed, promoting the general welfare of all Americans.

I'm not saying this old Jedi is ready to hang up his light saber. But I am happy to set it aside for now, sit back, and watch what amazing things this millennial generation can accomplish.

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