Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Listen, the spoilers are strong with this one, so if you haven’t seen the film and you keep reading anyway, well, you have your reward.

I don’t review films, not really, not often. Mostly I don’t care to, and when I do most of what I’d say has been said elsewhere and better.

But Star Wars is a little different, isn’t it? It’s more of a generational touchstone, a sort of culture-shaping thing that transcends its ambitions and obvious limitations to become this thing we all partake in. In one way or another.

I went to see it in IMAX 3D, and I have some thoughts.

IMAX 3D

I saw it in IMAX 3D because I had to. Not because I wanted to. I don’t like 3D except in rare cases where it’s used for a specific reason. This time was no exception.

But before going on about that, a little bit about the IMAX experience. It’s… okay I guess? The screen is a bit bigger and curved, the sound is a bit louder and they obviously invested a lot of money in subwoofer technology. But the experience ends up being just incrementally better than a regular cinema experience, especially if you’re going to a cineplex. I don’t think it’s worth the extra few dollars. The seats leaned back, so that was something, but if anything the seats felt narrower than normal theater seats: I’m a big dude and I felt wedged in there at points.

Now for 3D. When I got to a theater my brain expects to pan left and right to follow the action. When I have to pan left, right, forward, and backwards, I find this distracting. I don’t like having to constantly adjust my focus. Not to mention that with modern theaters, the resolution they’re capable of producing is absurd, and 3D makes everything look blurry to me. What’s the point of dim and blurry bits and pieces flying at my head?

Modern action filmmaking actually makes this a lot worse. The constant cutting, steadicam, and lack of visual coherence is bad enough on a 2D screen; on a 3D screen it’s unbearable.

The only thing I really liked about the whole IMAX presentation was assigned seating. Which leads me to…

Theatres

This is a big one for me. I don’t actually enjoy the theater experience. I mean, I like the screen and the sound, but I don’t like having to get there an undefined amount of time before the showing for the chance to get a seat in the “good seat zone” (aka center middle). Or worse, doing this with a group of people.

The crucial bit of technology to get me to the theater more is well within reach here. I could see the seating charts online when I did the IMAX purchasing. I knew where I was going to be sitting, and I knew we didn’t have to show up a half hour before the showing in order to get 2 seats together in a decent place.

If I can buy tickets online, know where I’m going to be sitting, print them out at home or show them my phone or whatever, show up, walk in, and watch the film, I’ll go to the theater more often. I know it. It takes away all the annoying “unknowns” of the situation.

I guess I understand why theatres don’t do this. They want to upsell to experiences where they do it, and the probably also think they’ll sell fewer tickets if you know you’re going to be sitting in the front row getting a crick in your neck. But there are plenty of people who still walk in and buy tickets not caring about that stuff, so don’t tell them where they’re going to be sitting. Just have the algorithm assign them next best seating. Or maybe have a section of the theatre (again, center middle) that are specifically reserved for people willing to pay an extra dollar to have assigned seating in a particular place and then have everyone go into overflow.

Anyways. If you were counting on a review of the actual film, sorry about all this theatre bullshit. Technical stuff like this matters to me sometimes more than the actual film (but only sometimes).

Technical Stuff About The Film

Okay, so before I get into what I thought about the film proper and what kind of job they did on the character and story and whatnot, let me get into some good and bad stuff about the film technically.

First off, there was almost no steadicam in the film that I remember being there. This is a good thing. It’s a part of what makes a Star Wars film feel like a Star Wars film: The technique in them has always been more stately and restrained than other more recent action films. I really appreciate that, and I hope that action movies as a whole knock it off will all the unsteady camera work. Part of the reason for this is that when the camera is “part” of the action it really breaks immersion for me. If I’m noticing things about what the camera is doing, if it really seems to have a personality, I can’t help remembering that yes, this is a camera, yes, this is a film. Not great.

The action itself was at once a lot more restrained than other action films, and a lot (a lot lot) more complex than the original Star Wars trilogy. When I say restrained, I’m thinking especially of Marvel movies where a lot of computer generated stuff is flying around and hitting a bunch of other computer generated stuff in a way that’s obviously artificial. The Avengers movies are particularly bad at this, as are any of the Thor setpieces in Asgard. Those action scenes feel meticulously designed and cold, almost built to be too much to handle. I don’t particularly like them. They make me feel removed from the film as an experience. They’re scenes to be marveled at (ha!) but not really grasped and felt. This doesn’t have to be bad: Mad Max: Fury Road did action setpieces on an extreme scale for extended periods of time. I’ve struggled to understand what the difference is between these two franchises, but I think it has something to with scale (Mad Max takes place on a much smaller scale, even when the action is intensely bonkers) and intelligibility (Mad Max makes a kind of visual sense that’s hard to explain; Marvel movies seem chaotic and random in comparison).

In any case, The Force Awakens is mostly fairly intelligible. There are some Tie Fighter vs X-Wing scenes that honestly lost me. Like, I understand what the intention of the scenes was, but especially at the end, right before the trench run… they mostly just left me thinking that yes, I had just seen a bunch of things happen, but no, I didn’t know exactly what. Maybe I was just tired. I’ll have to watch it again.

I don’t want to compare TFA to the prequel trilogy, but I do want to compare it to the original trilogy. Obviously the original trilogy was limited in its approach to space action by the technology of the time, but it was massively simpler. And it made more visual sense. I suppose it lost a sense of scale in not being able to really show a massive space battle in all its chaos, but I’m not sure that being able to show chaos is actually helpful the viewer.

But on balance TFA was very good in its action restraint.

One thing I really noticed was the pacing of the film. There’s not a lot of breathing room here. It’s a modern blockbuster after all, so there’s not much time devoted to just slowing down and taking a moment. This is mostly okay, and it lets the scenes that do breathe (like the introduction of Rey scavenging the bowels of a crashed and abandoned Imperial starship) really speak for themselves. And, frankly, this film was approaching too long as it is. So I understand the pacing. However I would have preferred some of the cuts to last a little bit longer. Like just a few seconds. I felt like the film cut away, especially from faces, a bit too soon. So maybe what I’m trying to say is I would have appreciated a film that kept a similar pace with fewer or less frequent cuts. The editing wasn’t terribly obvious, and definitely wasn’t the sort of stylized editing that draws attention to itself as technique, but it was often cut quicker than I would like. So I did notice it despite its lack of a particular flair.

The staging and locations were uniformly great, though two stick out as really top shelf: The desert planet at the beginning (more on that later) and the lighsabre battle in the snowy woods at the end. Almost every location was an archetype a la vintage Star Wars: Everything is either forbidding or lush. There’s no nondescript temperate planets here.

Characters

The new characters are just great. Just flat out great. Unlike Luke Skywalker, who I originally wanted to punch right in his whiny throat, none of the characters seemed out of place or annoying. They didn’t really need to be changed or redeemed in some way, they were just fully formed right from the start.

Rey is a treat, probably the breakout performance of the whole film. Finn is an unexpected twist, being a fully humanized Stormtrooper (even before he defects, he’s obviously stricken by what he’s seeing done and being asked to do). He does get a little mouthy and jokey as the film progresses, but again, more on that later. Poe is fantastic, though underused (how can you get someone as pure 100% good as Oscar Isaac and not use the crap out of him?). He’s constantly referred to as the best pilot in the whole wide universe, blah blah blah, but we get to see very little of him actually doing that. Of course the film is already jam packed without having to show, not tell us that he’s super duper pilot man, but this character is clearly set up to be important later on. I wish I would have seen just a bit more about him.

I have to say, I had some mixed feelings about Adam Driver as Kylo Ren going in. I’m a fan of Driver as an actor (he’s good in Girls, great in While We’re Young). But nothing about him really said “villain” to me. Until I saw TFA. I just bought it. I loved the character. The idea of a conflicted villain trying desperately to stifle his best impulses is a sly twist of the Force as it’s been revealed so far in the Star Wars universe.

Kylo is a clear inversion of the Luke trope, where Luke avoids killing his father by turning away from the dark side, Kylo does the opposite, killing his father (Han Solo just in case you weren’t paying attention) in order to fully turn toward the dark side. This sets up Kylo as effective antagonist to Luke, having walked the same path and chosen differently.

His bursts of uncontrolled anger, or him punching his own wound to (presumably) level up his dark side powers, all great touches. But allowing him to be wounded, to show his vulnerability, this is a great touch too. He obviously needs to finish his training to get on Vader’s level, formidable as he is.

I think Kylo has been set up to be irredeemable in a way Vader never was: Where Anakin was seduced and eventually taken over by the dark side, Kylo is chasing after the dark side. It’s his goal. It’s the thing that he wants, to finish what Vader started.

Interestingly enough, much like the original trilogy, there’s no mention of the Sith. So Kylo’s master may indeed be a Sith Lord, but we only hear him referred to as Snoke. Much like the Emperor was the Emperor, not Darth Whatever. I like this ambiguity; as the canon of Star Wars stuff got more granularly explained, it lost the magic you find in things that you can’t or don’t need to explain. Sith, Jedi, midichlorians, these things are all best left behind the veil and trotted out for novels and whatnot.

The standout character introduction though has to be BB-8. That thing is adorable! Say whatever you want about JJ Abrams, he has a knack for knowing what not to put in his movies. Jar Jar Binks this is not. The droid has real personality in way that even R2-D2 never had, as affectionate as we may feel for the older model droid.

So that’s the new characters. On to the old. I’ve been hearing rumblings around the web about some older characters looking older. Yeah, Leia and Han look worse for wear, but these actors are actually old now, you know? Even Mark Hamill (who looks very, very good in the movie compared to, oh, the last few years) looks worn out and trampled down. This is expected, I think, and if this seems weird to you, maybe stop pretending people don’t get old.

Han Solo is around for most the film until he dies. Ford puts in a pretty good performance, but honestly I could have done with him dying a little sooner. A lot of the screen time is sucked up by Han Solo, more than I think the character deserves. Yes, he’s a huge part of the charm of the originals, but I didn’t expect TFA to be quite the Han Solo show that it was.

He’s there, Carrie Fisher shows up being all generally and whatnot, and of course we see Mark Hamill at the end. They’re all fine, I guess, and I suppose there are some people who get misty eyed at seeing them again, but I could have done with seeing them a little less.

Before we get to story, I’d just like to say this: C-3PO can go ahead and fall into a volcano. I hated him in the original trilogy, I triple hated him in the prequels, and I hate him now for talking up valuable real estate that could be given to just about anything or anyone else.

Story and Miscellanea

So here’s the thing. Before I watched TFA, I was very familiar with JJ Abram’s work. He’s a good filmmaker, not great, but good, and very solidly good at that. He hasn’t made any real stinkers (I even liked Into Darkness). But where his real genius lies is his chameleon-like ability to imbibe the essence of a thing and then produce something that smells the same. None of his movies are original ideas, they’re all remakes or entries in series, and his strange proficiency with capturing the tone of a property makes him something of a reboot auteur. (Before you say anything about Super 8 being an original property, I’d like to point out that in Super 8 JJ captured and reproduced Spielberg; the movie might be original script but it is not by a long shot an original property.)

I used to think of the Star Trek reboot as a dry run for doing Star Wars. I don’t know if that was the intention at the time, but it just looked like the obvious next thing. And so here we are. When they announced Abrams was doing Star Wars I wasn’t surprised… but I was a little worried.

And my worries were borne out here. I said on Twitter before I went to see the film that I was afraid that TFA would be such a faithful reproduction that it would be old hat before I saw the film.

There’s nothing about the story that’s really hugely different from anything Star Wars has been before. There are some subtle twists and some things are certainly done a lot better, but it’s a beat-for-beat photocopy of Episode IV. Everything that Episode IV did, TFA does, just bigger. It starts on a desert planet like Tatooine… but worse. It has the Empire… but more Nazi-ish than the Empire. Our heroes get sucked into the Resistance which is just… the Rebel Alliance. There are space fights… but bigger. There’s a Death Star… that kills stars and planets and is as big as a planet. There’s a trench run to blow up the thing that makes the SuperDeathStar blow up. All the archetypes are there, all the plot points get hit.

Thing is, that’s kind of what we need. Star Wars is in need of a cathartic release, a reawakening if you will, to cleanse it from the stink of the prequels. If that means taking the original Star Wars movie an half-rebooting, half-remaking it, then so be it.

This film doesn’t have to be a great film, it just has to be a great Star Wars film, and in that I think it does the job really well. I enjoyed most of it, and I want to see where the next episode takes the universe. As long as the next film isn’t The Empire Strikes Back 2.0. I really want a Star Wars installment that takes the series and universe as a whole in an unexpected direction. I want not just to be given what I already know I want, but what I don’t know I want because I’ve never seen it before.

Antisemitism and the Church

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Antisemitism has always been a uniquely Christian problem. Our history of persecuting Jews long predates the creation of the Jewish state in Palestine, the root of so much anti-Jewish sentiment in the Muslim world today. That’s a whole other thing for a whole other time.

Antisemitism among Christians has systemic religious roots. It’s paradoxically a result of Christ’s passion and a radical indictment of our collective participation in and guilt for it.

The problem is the Church has often identified Jews as Christ-killers while denying our collective responsibility. We’ve forgotten that we also participate in Jesus’ death, not in some abstract he-bore-our-sins way but in a very direct, very active involvement in the sacrificial system that caused Jesus’ death in the first place.

We can’t deny that the passion was a good/bad thing. It brought about salvation for all but through a grisly process of injustice leading to the grave. The Jews and the Romans sacrifice Christ to keep the peace. After all is it not better for one man to die for the people than the whole nation perish? Pilate hand-waves away his complicity, but sacrifices Jesus anyway.

Jesus becomes the ultimate sacrifice to end sacrifice, doing what the sacrificial system and all proto-sacrificial systems could not do — instead of simply dying a victim, driven out of the camp and off a cliff, the sins of the people laid on him to break the cycle of retributive violence, he inverts the whole thing and rises again. He becomes not just another scapegoat, but a living, breathing victim, one that lays bare our crass self-interested perpetuation of a cycle of religious violence against the weak and disenfranchised, the foreigner and outcast. Jesus identifies with those who are most likely sacrificed to the mob by himself being sacrificed by the mob. And by identifying with Jesus, we identify with those likely to be sacrificed to the mob as well.

This is how we deconstruct the mob, how we break the cycle of religious violence, and why the scapegoating and persecution of Jews is such an endemic feature of Christian societies.

I think the problem is that we’ve embraced philosophies of Christ’s death that enable us to do this. Substitutionary atonement (not nearly as unanimous a theory as our modern fundamentalism would suggest) allows us to divorce the benefits of the cross from participation in it. We identify with Jesus in his death, but as the sacrifice, not as the mob. We have a third party for that — the Jews (and the Romans to a lesser extent). Even the disciples are complicit as they turn their backs on him and deny him for fear of dying with him.

Divorcing ourselves from our participation in the system of sacrifice that indicts us as well as the Jews allows us to do exactly what the death of Jesus was meant to prevent: Neurotically persecute the visible minority in our midst under obviously false pretenses.

There’s nothing wrong with identifying with Christ in his death and rising again, after all that’s what baptism is for, right? But it’s important to remember what Jesus death saves us from. And when we scapegoat and victimize and marginalize and persecute Jews, we are in practice identifying with Jesus’ killers. Not with Jesus. In these acts of communal violence against the visible outsider, we have perverted and inverted the meaning of the cross. We’ve absolutely failed to understand the meaning of the passion.

The thing to remember here is that the cycle of religious violence, of mobs rising up against the visible minority, of a burst of collective violence against a sacrificial victim that heaps our collective retributive violence on his or her head… this is the human condition. This our default setting. This is Sin with a capital S. This is what Jesus comes to end by exposing the cycle of religious violence for what it is.

It’s a hard lesson, one that we often fail to learn. Look at the US, a nominally Christian nation, turning against the sojourner or minority in its midst (the Muslim, the black person). It’s not a coincidence that these effects are most strong amongst fundamentalists who don’t understand their own symbols.

What’s odd is that fundamentalists in the US, which seems to have most of them, by and large almost reverence Jews and the Holy Land today. This is the result of some really oddball eschatology, not of really understanding what the cross is about and what it means to identify with and follow Christ. It almost feels like a kind of diagnostic over-reaction to the problem of antisemitism.

In any case it’s important for the church to come to grips with what it means to follow Christ. When we identify with him, we identify with his death. We remember that Jesus’ passion was an act of injustice, a grossly wrong and evil sacrifice of a victim who had done no wrong. We identify with his resurrection, an act of power over death that exposes the principalities and powers of this world, that exposes them and triumphs over their violent sacrificial systems by demythologizing them and laying their crassness bare. We no longer participate in systems of ritual purity designed to separate the sheep from the goats; we no longer say do not touch and do not eat and do not handle, because we are the goats.

We die with Christ to this elemental spiritual force of the world, how can we still participate in it? How can we neurotically scapegoat the Jew, the Muslim, the poor, the disenfranchised? How can we identify as Christ-killers, subject to the mythology of the sacrificial victim, purposely averting our eyes from the lies and false pretenses of our sacrificial system, when we have been raised with him?

All Lives Matter?

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“All Lives Matter” is a reaction to “Black Lives Matter” which is a reaction to police systematically murdering black people in the US and the judicial system largely turning a blind eye.

It’s one of those things that sounds right but means wrong, you know? Like when the government names a bill “The Freedom Protection Act” or something, you can assume it’s pretty much the opposite of that.

When you say that, it sounds like you mean that you care equally about all lives; how can anyone argue about that? But what you actually mean is you want to ignore the voices raised in protest. You want to silence them by co-opting their expression and turning it into a muzzle.

The problem is it’s really effective. And it’s seductive. Oh, so you care about black lives? Well, I (invariably a white person) care about ALL LIVES[1].

Thing is, you can’t look at language in a vacuum. Context matters. And context like white people at a rally beating a black man while chanting “All Lives Matter” matters. The action lays the truth bare.

I’ve talked about dogwhistles before, and “All Lives Matter” is rapidly becoming one for racists and people invested in the status quo.

It doesn’t mean anything about which lives matter at all. It doesn’t mean “yes, and…”.

It means “shut up”.

[1] – The society we live in gives lie to this: Non-male, non-white people are systematically oppressed. I mean, they’re not literally whipped and enslaved anymore but all kinds of avenues of advancement are denied them, consciously or not. And just because you think you’re not personally complicit in this doesn’t mean you’re not. Especially if you’re a Christian, this just isn’t tenable. God is a God who desires justice, who cares about widows and orphans. Christ himself, our primary means of identifying with God, is a victim. Identity with Jesus means identity with the oppressed and victimized, not denial about who the oppressed and victimized are.

Your sermon illustration is bad and you should feel bad

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This is Garfield.

It is a thing that exists, and continues to exist, in this world.

There is one thing I can assure you of, though: The people who like Garfield, the people who even think about Garfield are not long for this world. I give it another 10-20 years.

Anyone under 30 might enjoy Garfield from time to time, or as a parody of itself, or remixed into something else (like Garfield without Garfield). But we’ve moved on. Garfield is a thing for another generation.

So we can understand why it exists and even understand why it continues to exist, but it’s not for us, right?

That’s your sermon illustration… illustrated.

I recently started listening to a sermon from a church I was once a part of. Mostly out of curiosity, just to see how the preaching is going. The bad news there is I ragequit after two minutes. Because the sermon opened with a “funny” story, a joke really.

That’s a bit of extreme reaction without any context. But still, it’s what I feel when I have to sit through one in real life. I feel like walking out. Again, an extreme reaction, but it’s how I feel.

This might sound like a nitpick. It might be a nitpick. Or it might just be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, because generally the types of preachers who do this are preaching from some kind of 1990s preaching playbook that always, always makes them mediocre at their job.

I live in a world where things are signifiers. If I go to a website and it looks like the Space Jam website or something from Geocities, I don’t expect a quality experience. If I buy a book thas has a terrible cover, I don’t expect a good read.

You telegraph your intentions at the start of the things you do. Storefronts, cover, beginnings of sermons, you get the picture.

When you tell a cheesy, “funny” story to start your sermon, you’re diminishing your role as a preacher of truth, as a sayer of difficult things, as a messenger of God.

But not only do you insult yourself, you insult me. You assume that I have to be eased into whatever you’re saying with some kind of tangentially related mini-parable.

You don’t need to worry about that, man. I’m already at church. I’ve already bought the package deal, I’m probably there for the whole thing. If your hook is this thing you got from a book of stories to tell before a sermon or whatever, you’re already doing me a disservice. This isn’t to say preachers can’t be funny, some are very funny from time to time (bless your heart, Mark), but that has to be a natural thing, not a pre-packaged, scripted, safe-for-all-ages groanfest.

Maybe this makes me super-millenial or something, but I don’t need my funny bone greased up and massaged to transition me from the singing to the not singing, you know?

What would you think of a newspaper that put Garfield on it’s front page, above the headlines every single day? Would you take that seriously? I sure wouldn’t. Or if Google News was like… I know you came here to find out serious stuff about the world and whatever, but first have a GARFIELD to take a load off!

Axiomatic: Free Speech

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I’ve said before that modern skeptics are lazy and pointed in the wrong direction. I still believe that.

But there’s kind of larger point there. Humans are lazy and pointed in the wrong directions.

How often have you thought about free speech? If you’re like me and you frequent the places I frequent… once a week or so? I mean, it comes up all the time. Usually in some circumstance where that freedom is being abrogated somewhere in the world. There is (justifiably, I think) a real concern about freedom of speech and its defense.

Still, there’s a kind of defacto acceptance, especially with young, white, tech-literate males, that freedom of speech is a natural state, an unassailable good, something obvious (or as they say in the US, self-evident).

Is it?

I mean, there’s nothing particularly obvious about it. Like everything else, it’s just something people made up. It might be a hard-won evolution of centuries of experimenting with despots, but it’s not obvious.

There’s also an assumption that freedom of speech is binary. It isn’t that either. I mean, it’s not like you can say everything or nothing. Even in the US, the government will not protect dangerous speech (yelling “fire” in a crowded theater). How different is that from inciting violence against a particular race or gender via words?

Clearly, there’s a spectrum there. And yes, there’s an argument to made that offensive speech should be allowed (if not encouraged), but there’s also a strong opposing argument that allowing dangerously offensive speech to propagate by being spoken is something society simply should not accept.

Finally, there’s an assumption that freedom of speech applies in all domains, everywhere. Which is the most obviously wrong. Any freedom is context sensitive. The problem tends to be that people confuse the implementation with the philosophy. The implementation is that the government should regulate speech as little as possible; the philosophy tends to be expressed as “anyone, anything, anywhere”.

Then we whittle down who is anyone (Children? Genocidal Mass Murderers?), what is anything (Snuff porn? Obscenities? White power manifestos?), and what is anywhere (Work? School? A wedding?). And when the free speech advocate is done, we’re in the same place the “pure philosophy” view is meant to get around: Speech is messy, context is important, and there are some things which society as a whole has decided should not be tolerated.

Not servants, but sons

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The son comes back from squandering his portion of the estate on hookers and booze. He says to himself, There’s no way my father will take me back as a son, but perhaps he will take me back as a servant.

He’s wrong of course, and this is the Christian story’s difference. You aren’t asked to approach as a beggar, as a servant, but as a child.

The Spirit we receive does not make us slaves, but heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ. Or to put it another way, not servants, but sons.

The Deeper Magic

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When I was young, I read the Chronicles of Narnia again and again. Not as much as read Swiss Family Robinson. But a lot.

There’s this passage I really hate in The Lion The Witch And The Wardrobe, where Aslan has been brought back to life, having been ritually slaughtered by the White Witch. He explains why he’s alive. It goes a bit like this:

It means that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards.

Now, the lack of subtlety in the book aside (its intentions and allusions are written very much on its sleeve), this bit of text feels a bit like cheating. It feels like a deus ex machina, except instead of something semi-badass (the Eagles are coming!), it’s some yadda yadda. A bit of exposition to plaster over the why of it all.

I still kind of hate it.

But I also appreciate it. Not because of what it says on its face, but because (pardon the meta here) of the deeper magic it contains.

I think I’m the White Witch. But you don’t get off the hook: You’re the White Witch too.

The White Witch is someone who has glanced at something and accepted what she has found. She’s gotten the explanation she wants, and she’ll look no further. She finds the thing that lets her kill the lion but doesn’t find the next thing, the thing that lets the lion kill her.

The next thing is important.

I think a lot of thing have this deeper magic. I think we should keep digging. I think simple explanations are too easy, that there is more behind the curtain.

I think “thus far and no further” is never far enough.

Let’s talk about your meritocracy

So yeah, you want a meritocracy.

Presumably you think that you, or people like you who do the choosing, can do it on merit.

Okay.

Let’s pretend I don’t care about the particulars. Let’s keep this completely abstract (always a bad idea, but indulge me). Let’s say we don’t need to think about pesky things like history, context, or justice.

What is merit?

I mean, you need to know what merit is before you screw some ocracy onto it, right?

So what is it?

Welp, we’re done with the abstract. There’s no abstracting merit because merit is inherently context-sensitive. I mean, you can say a meritocracy is a system where the best person for the job gets it. But that just kicks that can further down the hall. What is “best”?

Again we have to step out of the abstract and into the concrete.

Which is hard, because fundamentally, you need to trust the people making the decisions to judge merit correctly, to identify what merit is and then figure out if a person has it or not.

Would you drive your car without insurance? Do you not check receipts after you purchase something to make sure everything’s okay? Do you leave your house unlocked at night while you sleep?

Of course you don’t. People will take advantage of you, or people will make mistakes. You’ll get screwed.

Yet somehow in abstract magical meritland, the people making the decisions will, what, cast off their humanity and become merit-judging robots?

Of course they won’t. And they don’t. In the places where meritocracies supposedly operate (I think, in particular, of Linux kernel development), mostly men with mostly a particular kind of personality have this quality of “merit”.

This diminishes the kind of work these places can do, by the way. Diversity of viewpoint isn’t a weakness. A monoculture of a particular kind of thought is a weakness, and this is what meritocracies foster. Because the people doing the choosing are human and humans are very bad judges of just about anything you can think of.

We build checks into our systems to help us be less us. We build safeguards, we try to rectify past mistakes, we try to slant “the system” away from treating badly the people it has treated badly for so long. We don’t live in a meritocracy because living in a meritocracy is brutality. It has to be, in this world, with these humans running things.

This brings up a lot of questions. Like, “So I should hire the person based on… what then?” Or, “How do we make decisions?”

The answer I have for that is largely unsatisfying to a particular type of person, because it’s kind of not really an answer. Because there’s no god-breathed book that fell out of the sky that tells us how to make political appointments or hire janitors. The answer is… we decide. We decide as a society how we make these decisions. We have quotas and non-discriminatory hiring practices for a reason. That reason is because… we decided that was a more just society.

Again, I know this will probably frustrate some of you. But that’s what a society is.

But all this abstract talk about meritocracy is fiddle-faddle. No one seriously thinks there should be a meritocracy (well, except for a few exceptionally out-to-lunch nerds). And for those who do believe in meritocracy, you better find a new word. Because…

Meritocracy is now a dogwhistle. The same way “family values” is a dogwhistle. It’s a way of communicating something in polite company, a sort of code, or camouflage. It wasn’t always this way, but among educated white men, meritocracy is a codeword in the same way “white genocide” is a code word for racists.

It’s way of seeming rational but actually being sexist and racist and generally just not a very good human being.

You say “meritocracy” but what you mean is that you are fundamentally offended by the idea of a woman or another race having priority over you. Even when the priority is hypothetical.

The reason this is sexist (mostly sexist) and/or racist is that you believe, if all things were put to rights, if everything were as it should be you would be the one being chosen. You will never explicitly say you’d be chosen because of your superiority (and the fact that you happen to be male, and white), but that’s what you truly believe. In your libertarian paradise, of course, of course you would be a Job Creator. You wouldn’t be oppressed, surely not!

The reality of your situation is that you’re probably right.

And that’s kind of sad.

If we didn’t push back against our human natures using crude tools like gender/race quotas, you’d probably come out ahead. I mean, why wouldn’t you? You always have. 1

And you just won’t acknowledge that the scales are tilted in your favour.

And that’s why meritocracy could never work. Because you will never be honest with yourself about the advantages you received, and neither will your boss, and your boss’s boss, or the CEO, or the President, or the Kind of the World. Unless they are forced to.

1. Before you start yelling at me that you-in-particular haven’t had much success, that you weren’t raised with gold dust sprinkled in your diapers, please consider that English is a fairly imprecise language: I mean you-as-a-group, not you-in-particular.

The Persecution-Industrial Complex

American Christianity (to paint with a wide brush, and I include Canadians in this category too) has a strange relationship with nuance.

Consider persecution.

Scripture says that Christ’s followers will be persecuted. If you’re a “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” type, this is sort of a problem. Isn’t it? When you live a nation founded on Christian principles (which I won’t dispute; it was birthed out of the Enlightenment, which you don’t really get to understand except as an extension of Christian thought), where the vast majority identify as Christian, it’s hard to imagine why you’d be persecuted.

A slightly more nuanced reading would seek to understand the context into which “you will be persecuted” was written, but suppose for a moment you don’t care about that, and you just want carte blanche to be a Bible Believing Christian who takes all the stuff at face value.

Then it’s a problem. A big problem.

There’s lots of persecution in the world. There are lots of places in the world where being a Christian can get you killed. This is terrible. The world is full of injustice and wrongdoing still, and there’s not a whole lot we can do about it.

The problem is when you start using persecution as evidence of faith. That logic train is easy.

Sometimes I think you’d have to be a crazy person to think that there’s any real systemic persecution in the USA and Canada. Yet there are all kinds of evangelical Christians who truly believe that the persecution has begun. Or if it hasn’t begun, we’re just on the cusp of Christian churches being burned down and Christians being forced to convert to… something. Liberalism? I dunno.

Despite evangelicals being a vastly powerful group with their own political party and lobby groups and mountains of cash, the church seems beset upon on all sides. And there’s a cottage industry of authors and (lately, unfortunately, and just barely) filmmakers who peddle this message to make a quick buck.

It’s bonkers.

But you understand why this has to be, right? It’s the equivalent of First World Problems. Once your basic needs have been met, as they have in the West, twice over, the animal part of your brain doesn’t shut off the predator/problem-seeking part of your brain. That’s all still in there. And so, when you lose your remote, or the internet goes down, or your dishsoap no longer contains phosphorous, or you can’t find the right craft beer, or your car doesn’t connect to Bluetooth quite quickly enough, you bitch and moan like someone just added an extra 10 pounds to your daily cotton quota.

Exacerbating that, American Christians also have the Bible saying that they should be persecuted! So we get out our first-world-problems magnifying glass, tape over the logo with persecution-finder and scour the land for injustices that must surely be happening at the hands of those (invisible, imaginary) oppressors of the Church. With typical conspiracy-enthusiast enthusiasm, when we don’t find much we take that as evidence that the devil is doing just a devilishly good job at hiding it from us.

Along comes some thrice-married county clerk deciding to take a stand for the sanctity of marriage. At last our martyr has arrived!

The persecution-industrial complex kicks into high gear, a temple is erected (complete with an altar to the media), and the money changers assemble at the gates. Out roll the vans with the signs and all around the country our megachurches denounce, and our political candidates froth, and our news channel rages. The persecution has finally and truly begun! The end is near! We’re good Christians, look how we’re being persecuted!

The 0.9% of Americans who identify as Muslims, and who can actually claim to be systemically persecuted there, must think American Christians are absolutely insane.