Arrested Development

When I was a kid, the original Star Wars trilogy seemed to correspond to my own moral development, at least up until The Return of the Jedi. Star Wars, the first of the three was a classic good vs. evil morality /adventure tale- perfect for my own understanding of the world at the time. The world was simple, clear cut. There were good guys and bad guys, and the best one could hope for was to end up one of the key players on the side of the good guys. The sheer nobodyness of the main characters- Luke was just some kid living on a desert planet, Han and Chewy like futuristic truck drivers, the lowly droids a couple of clowns, contrasted with the sheer scale of what they were up against was democratizing- you couldn’t just be one of the good guys- you could be ONE of the good guys.

The Empire Strikes Back, for my money by far the best of the 3, was released in 1980.  The movie itself introduced elements of mysticism and mythology in its plot line, and also an element of moral ambiguity. Vader, we find out, is Luke’s father- the lines between good guy and bad guy had been slightly smudged.

But if things in the movies were getting morally complicated, things in the real world took on a surreal good vs. evil dichotomy.  It is impossible for me to explain to someone who was not of a certain age during this period of time- and was a boy- how the flare up of the Cold War that took place during this time colored the imagination.  This was the period of Regan’s Evil Empire Speech, and his SDI, aptly panned the Star Wars initiative.

Hollywood and the culture were amplifying the political reality to infuse the world, at least for a particular breed of media-tuned young boys, with an air of looming showdown and apocalypse.  Adults, should have known better, but as a kid I was too busy preparing myself for a hero’s role in a real life version of Red Dawn , amassing troops on my Risk board, listening to jets fly overhead at night thinking “this is it!” and begging my parents to see the horror show of The Day Afterwhich had they let me might have scared me straight.

By the time we get to the Return of the Jedi, the ambiguity is gone. The bad guy is converted, the good guys win, the Evil Empire is defeated. The progress towards adulthood, with the exception of sexy Leia, has stopped. Adults it seems never grow beyond the realm of fairy-tales. Even if, in the real world, such fairy-tales never make sense.

Whether Regan’s aggressive policy towards the Soviet Union precipitated the collapse of  the Eastern Bloc is an interesting historical question, and one in which I have an open mind. The fact of the matter remains that the outcome was not the matter of some “force” of good working for the survival of the human race and freedom, but a piece of extremely good luck. Barring any such force, he might just as likely have gotten us all blown up.

Perhaps the only time this good vs. evil rhetoric made sense was when the Allies battled against the Nazis. But even then, the Allies managed to cross over to the “dark side”, or at the very least, gave the conflict a shade of grey, when they began deliberately killing civilians from the air, and brought Stalin, Hitler’s doppelganger, into the lighter side of the force.

As an adult, the dangers of this arrested development and simplified moral imagination were brought home to me with the disaster of the Second Iraq war.  Adults holding to a vision of  the universe as a drama of good against evil not only made stupid policy mistakes, but also fell into the most grotesquely immoral behavior on a individual level.

Unfortunately, the 9-11 wars, from where I sit, have not proven to be a painful initiation to adulthood, but another version of the Return of the Jedi.  Both the right, and the left,  continue to paint one another as not just misguided, but demonic as the country drifts towards oblivion.

All this got me wondering where this whole good vs. evil fairy tale that is so dangerous, and politically crippling given our destructive capacities, and need for cooperation on enormously complex problems, actually originated.

Some might blame the heritage of a particular aspect of the Abrahamic religions, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.  For my part, I go a little further back, and blame a bewildered searching prophet who lived on the steppes of Central Asia around 1200 B.C.E.  I blame Zarathustra….