Thursday, June 14, 2018

Power As Arbitrary and Conventional

Following the sickening spectacle of President Trump in conflict with our closest allies, single-handedly undermining the western alliance that has been in place since the end of the Second World War, and then cozying up to the dictator of North Korea, arguably a monster on a par with Hitler and Stalin, albeit on a smaller scale, I was reminded of what was said about the Nazi concentration camps. 

It was not just that the Nazis were cruel and inhuman, or used a mechanism for committing genocide with a factory-like efficiency. It was also that survivors described how guards and officers meted out punishments and rewards with no particular rationale, no sense of what kind of behavior was approved or disapproved of. There was no sense to their actions, no way to make meaning out of the misery they inflicted, no inkling of order within the chaos. It was a deliberate policy of confusion, a method of effecting complete and utter desperation and despair.

In other words, their actions were arbitrary. They had no rationale. They appeared to be entirely random in how they approached acts of reward and punishment. This made their actions utterly unpredictable. And this served to make their power essentially absolute.

Rules of any sort function as constraints, limitations. Imposing rules on what can or cannot be done help to make actions relatively predictable, at least to reduce their unpredictability. For this reason, rules serve as a counter to power, a way of constraining and limiting the exercise of power. They are a grammar governing human behavior.

Considering Trump's recent actions, they appear to be almost entirely arbitrary. Treating Canada as an adversary. Doing a 180 from threatening North Korea with nuclear devastation to giving them an unequivocal win on the world stage in exchange for nothing concrete, not to mention the leap frog from South Korea's initiative to meet with the North Korean dictator to Trump completely bypassing our South Korean allies. Sure, we can find explanations here and there for these moves, pundits can rationalize them in both positive and negative terms, but the bottom line is that are essentially random, arbitrary, and unpredictable.

The unpredictable nature of Trump's actions are key here. Everyone is taken by surprise, even in taking into account that he is unconventional, narcissistic, and seeking to undo everything that his predecessor accomplished. Even knowing all that, everyone is always surprised by his actions. And this, more than anything, serves to demonstrate his power.

Being arbitrary, being unpredictable, shows that he is free from any rules or conventions, any constraints or limitations, on his power.






At this point, I want to go back to Hannah Arendt's arguments about power as it relates to violence. I wrote a series of blog posts about that topic back in 2011:  Violence and Technology, Violence and Power, Violence and Identity, and Violence and Unity. The key point that Arendt makes is that violence stands in polar opposition to power. That is, the presence of violence represents a lack or loss of power, an attempt to compensate for its absence. Power requires acquiescence, obedience, the absence of resistance, whether violent or not.

Power, therefore, is demonstrated by the absence of the use of force, by the absence of any need for enforcement. What this means is that power is symbolic rather than substantive. You could call it rhetorical, or ideological (although that tends to be poorly defined), but mainly it's that power is a form of symbolism. It's not simply that symbols, language, discourse, etc.,  reflect the power relationships that exist in society, as folks like Foucault maintain, but that power itself is a form of symbolic communication. Power exists in the relationship between symbol and referent, signifier and signified, or in general semantics terms, between map and territory, between word and what the word represents.

It is, of course, basic communication 101 that a symbol is arbitrary and convention. It is arbitrary because it bears no necessary relationship to what it represents. Saying the word "fire" out loud has no actual connection to the phenomenon of burning. This is in contrast to the presence of smoke, for example, which always is a product of burning. That's why shouting "fire!" in a crowded theater can be a false alarm, and why the same phenomenon can be represented by saying words like, "feu,""feuer,""fuego," "brand," "zjarr," "hixs,""ahi," "srefah," "kaji da,""may ba-giy," "unlilo," etc. The connection between smoke and fire is causal, and the connection between a picture of fire and the phenomenon of flame is one of resemblance. But the connection between the word "fire" and the phenomenon is purely conventional, purely based on the unspoken and largely unconscious agreement that the word will "stand for," "point to," in other words represent the actual phenomenon (or concept that in turn represents the phenomenon).

Symbols are characterized as arbitrary and conventional. Power in its purest sense is arbitrary in nature, being fundamentally divorced from force, and violence. Power therefore is a form of the symbolic. The existence and expression of power is based on the acceptance of everyone concerned, those who "have" power" and those who do not, those who "wield" power and those upon whom that "power" is directed and exerted, the dominant and the subordinate. Power, in other words, is a product of convention, is conventional in the sense that it depends upon its acceptance by everyone involved.






The symbolic interactionist and sociologist Hugh Dalziel Duncan argued that societies are held together by symbols, and that it is only when people stop believing in their shared symbolic environment, when they question and reject its conventional meanings, that societies go into decline, and disintegrate, whether by revolution or other means. Power is conventional, based on agreement, as well as arbitrary. That is why power can evaporate quite suddenly, shockingly so. Think of the downfall of many a dictator. Think of the sudden dissolution of the Soviet Union.

But convention is also a kind of constraint, and therefore places some form of limitation and constraint on power. What this means is that there is a kind of dynamic tension between the arbitrary character of symbols/power, and their conventional aspect. In the absence of conventions, meaning cannot be established, purposeful communication breaks down, legitimacy is lost, and power vanishes, replaced by violence.

Trump's main motivations seem to include the demonstration and exercise of power, and in flouting established conventions regarding presidential conduct, he has been trying to establish that he is not bound by rules and norms, by constraints and limitations, that he is able to wield power in ways that his predecessors could not, that his power is near absolute. This is consistent with him wielding power in ways that seem random and unpredictable. He has an intuitive sense of the symbolic nature of power, and is seeking to maximize his hold on it by amplifying its arbitrary nature.

The problem is that he appears to be ignorant of the fact that the arbitrary exists in dynamic tension with the conventional. Trump not only bulldozes through existing conventions, having razed them to the ground, he does not replace them with new conventions, and in all probability is incapable of doing so. After all, it takes a truly great leader, like Abraham Lincoln, or Franklin Delano Roosevelt, to accomplish that sort of thing.

It might be argued that the dynamic tension between the arbitrary and the conventional became unbalanced some time ago, leaning too far on the side of the conventional, and therefore biased toward stasis rather than change. But Trump, in shifting the balance in the other direction, threatens to go too far, and as conventions are eliminated, he moves closer and closer to destroying the symbolic order that keeps our society together. The result could be anarchy. Certainly, as the symbolic order is undermined, power will give way to violence.

Ironically, the very device that Trump uses to try to demonstrate his power may ultimately result in its evaporation. And as much as many of us would like to see that happen to Trump, I think we have to be aware that he may take our entire society with him on the way down.

Am I saying this purely to spread some doom and gloom all around? No, not really. Because if we understand what is going on, we can think of what we need to do. In this case, it is not enough to expect things to spring back to normal once Trump is gone. As much as the American experiment has proved to be resilient, permanent damage has been done, and this should not be, cannot be ignored.

Whoever follows Trump will have to pick up the pieces and put them back together again. Whoever follows him will have to re-establish conventions, not expect them to be restored on their own. Whoever follows him will need to establish new conventions as well, a tall order and an enormous opportunity. We will need someone on the order of a Lincoln or a Roosevelt at that time. For now, we can only pray that we get someone like that when the time comes. And that the time will come sooner, rather than later.


Tuesday, June 12, 2018

What is 'Medium' & Why is It the Message?

Back in April, I posted one of the outcomes of my visit to Saint Mary's College of California in March of last year: If Not A Then E (Studio Version), featuring a video that was produced there based on my PowerPoint presentation, with my recorded voiceover.

So, as part of my visit, which by the way was as a Roy E. and Patricia Disney Forum Fellow, I also delivered a public lecture, entitled "What We Mean By 'Medium' (And Why it is the Message)". It's similar to talks I've given before, and after, but the addition of PowerPoint makes a bit a different than some. And of course, there's also the introduction given by my good friend and fellow media ecologist, Ed Tywoniak, Professor of Communication at Saint Mary's. And a Q&A that followed, those are always unique forms of improvisation.

So anyway, for whatever it may be worth, here's the recording of my address, recorded in beautiful Moraga, California, on March 14th of 2017.





We also did an interview while I was out there, and maybe I'll share that as well in a future post. Maybe. We'll just have to see... 

Monday, June 4, 2018

The Prophet Einstein

So, it's about time I shared my op-ed which was published on March 9th in the Jewish Standard. This was one I had in mind to do for a long time now, and finally got around to do it. Significantly, and appropriately, it finally turned out that the timing was right. The title it was published under was, Seven Reasons Why Albert Einstein is a Prophet, and as you may recall, I have been willing to include Einstein within the field of media ecology, which is to say as a media ecologist, notably in my book Echoes and Reflections: On Media Ecology as a Field of Study.







Of course, that's a minor point here, my argument being more theological and philosophical. For what it's worth, here it is:



The number 139 is not one we are likely to pay attention to, so this anniversary may not get a great deal of attention. We tend to sit up and take notice when the anniversary is a multiple of 100, or 50, or 10, or even 5.


At the very least, we have a psychological bent toward even numbers, and 139 is decidedly odd. But if Einstein were still with us, he might point out that 139 is more than odd; that it is, in fact, a prime number, which makes it quite significant in its own right. He also no doubt would point to the arbitrary nature of anniversaries, and of calendars for that matter. Einstein’s date of birth on the Hebrew calendar was the 19th of Adar in the year 5639. This year, Adar 19 corresponded to March 6, last year it was March 17, next year is a leap year so it will be February 24 for Adar 1, and March 26 for Adar 2.

I suspect that the differences between the solar calendar of secular society and the lunar calendar of Jewish tradition had some influence on Einstein’s thinking. After all, when we say, for example, that Chanukah is coming late in a given year, it is just as true to say that Christmas and New Year’s are early. The experience of living with two so very different calendars could not help but point to the relativity of time.


And as we remember Einstein, we do so, along with the rest of the world, for his contributions to science, as the recipient of the 1921 Nobel Prize in physics, and the person named in 1999 as Time magazine’s Person of the Century. More than anyone else, Einstein was the person responsible for the paradigm shift in science that replaced Newton’s mechanistic view of the universe with a relativistic understanding of space and time.


And we also remember him as an especially noteworthy member of the Jewish people, one of our many gifts to the world, a prime example of what we sometimes refer to as yiddishe kop, intelligence born out of a tradition of literacy and learning, one in which teachers and sages are seen as heroic. And we may also recall that as a Jew, Einstein was forced to flee Nazi Germany as a refugee, and that he was a supporter of the Zionist movement and the State of Israel.


 






We do not remember Einstein in a religious context, however; he was not a rabbi or talmudic scholar or theologian. I want to suggest, however, that we should remember him as a prophet. Admittedly, in our tradition we consider the age of the prophets to have ended long ago, but we cannot rule out the possibility of modern prophets altogether. And while we would tend to be suspicious of anyone claiming to be a prophet today, Einstein never made any such claim, so he cannot be rejected as a false prophet.

But I do think a case can be made, and I hope you will consider the possibility as I put forth seven reasons for naming Albert Einstein as a modern-day prophet.







1. Einstein’s name has become synonymous with genius. We typically say that a given individual “is” a genius, but everyone who truly fits the description will more accurately refer to “a stroke of genius” in the sense of something coming from outside of themselves. The word “genius” originates from ancient Rome, and refers to a guiding spirit or deity, a supernatural source, like a guardian angel. (Prophets are the recipients of divine revelation, some form of communication, or we may call it inspiration, which literally means, “to breathe into,” which is how God brings Adam to life in the Book of Genesis.)






2. As a teenager, Einstein imagined himself chasing after a beam of light, which led to his understanding that light cannot be slowed or stopped, that the speed of light is constant, and that it is time, instead, that must vary. This thought experiment was the foundation that led to his special theory of relativity. Other thought experiments followed, notably the difference in what we  would observe when standing on a train vs. standing on a platform as bolts of lightning strike the train. (Prophets are known to receive revelation via visions, as in Jacob’s ladder, Joseph’s dreams, the chariot of fire that appeared to Elijah, and Ezekiel’s wheel within a wheel.)






 



3. One of Einstein’s most significant achievements was determining the nature of light as consisting of quanta, aka photons, and that light has a dual nature, as both waves and particles. Clearly, he had a unique relationship to the phenomenon of light. (Prophets are closely associated with light and enlightenment, Genesis famously says that light was the first of God’s creations, Moses has a halo when he descends from Mount Sinai after speaking to God face-to- face, a direct encounter with the divine countenance that we pray may shine upon us.)













4. Einstein gave us a new way of understanding the universe, of space and time as a single phenomenon, spacetime. (Prophets teach us about the nature of Creation to better understand the Creator, and our place in the world.)



 

5. Einstein invoked the philosophy of the Enlightenment founder Baruch Spinoza in explaining his own view of a pantheistic God. That is a view that traditionally has been seen as heretical, but is consistent with some approaches to Kabbalah, God as the Ein Sof, and certainly is acceptable within Reform Judaism. Above all, it is a view consistent with science; as Einstein famously remarked, “science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” His resistance to the uncertainty principle of quantum theory was famously expressed in the quote, “God does not play dice with the universe,” asserts that Creation is governed by laws that are rational and ultimately discernible, as well as based on an underlying monotheism, as God would have no one to play dice with. (Prophets often have been critics of established religious authority, in favor of a direct encounter with God via nature.)






6. Einstein spoke out for social justice. He did so on behalf of his own people, in opposition to Nazi Germany, and in favor of Zionism and the State of Israel, but also as a strong critic of racism and supporter of the civil rights movement in the United States. He also was quite critical of capitalism, arguing on behalf of socialism and advocating for a democratic world government and pacifism after the conclusion of World War II. (Social justice is one of the primary themes of the Prophets section of the Tanach.)





 
 



7. Einstein warned President Roosevelt of the danger of Nazi research into the development of the atomic bomb, leading to the Manhattan Project. He later became an outspoken critic of nuclear weapons. His warnings largely have fallen on deaf ears, at least as far as governments are concerned. In 1947, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists introduced the image of the Doomsday Clock, setting it to seven minutes before midnight. On January 25 of this year, the minute hand was moved up to two minutes before midnight, the closest it has ever been, mainly because of North Korea and our president’s threatening remarks, and not taking into account Putin’s recent statements about Russian nuclear missile capability, and his animated image of the bombardment of Florida. (The biblical prophets issued warnings about the destruction of Israel and Judea, and the name Jeremiah has become synonymous with pronouncements of doom.)




 





Einstein’s predictions in the realm of physics continue to be supported by astronomical observation and experimental evidence. Perhaps his predictions about society and politics ought to be taken seriously as well?

Why bother arguing for Einstein as a prophet?


Because American culture always has had a strain of anti-intellectualism, one that includes resistance to many aspects of science, notably Darwinian evolution.

Because climate change is at least as great a threat as nuclear war, and is being met with denial, dismissal, or disinterest from significant portions of the population, and all too many in leadership positions.

Because facts and logic are under assault by religious fundamentalists, cynical political opportunists, and corporate executives with eyes only for short term profits.

As Rabbi Barry L. Schwartz makes clear in his recently published book, Paths of the Prophets: The Ethics-Driven Life, our prophetic tradition is of vital importance, one that always has and always will be relevant for us.







 

Naming Albert Einstein a prophet should not detract from this tradition, but rather enhance it, by adding a dimension that we need now more than ever: the truth that ethics cannot be divorced from an understanding of the world, of reality, in all its complexity, and glory.


Wednesday, May 30, 2018

On the Role of Play for Learning & Language

So, how about another New York Society for General Semantics session? Sure, why not, you say, and I thank you for being so agreeable! This one took place on December 6th of 2017, and the result was a really interesting discussion, at least I think so.

Here's the description of the program:




 
Play, Learning, and Language

A Panel Discussion

General semantics has long been concerned with the uses, misuses, and abuses of language. As the primary form of human symbolic communication, language is a tool through which we learn about our environment, make sense of our surroundings, evaluate and act upon our world. Language is the foundation of human intelligence and time-binding, our capacity for learning, both individually and collectively.

The processes of learning and education are also among our most central concerns. Over the years, leading educationists such as Neil Postman, Ashley Montagu, and Jerome Bruner have been associated with general semantics. And that should come as no surprise since general semantics represents an educational movement in its own right, one devoted to incorporating the benefits of the scientific method to human relations, improving our methods of evaluation and understanding, and maximizing human potential.

Early in the 20th century, play was recognized as an important part of our learning processes, one that is closely connected to our capacity for symbol use, language learning, and cognitive and emotional development. The role of play and creativity in education has gained increasingly greater emphasis in recent decades, along with greater interest in the interactions and interdependencies among speech and language, literacy and media, and art and play, as they all relate to learning.

Our panelists discuss the relationships between play, learning, and language, and these related topics. It was a program that was most certainly elucidating and enlightening!

The participants on this program were:


Robert Albrecht, Professor of Media Arts at New Jersey City University, author of Mediating the Muse: A Communications Approach to Music, Media, and Cultural Change (2004), and a musician and songwriter, his two CDs are A Tale of Two Cities (2012), consisting of original songs about Jersey City and Hoboken, and Song of the Poet (2008), consisting of poems by Walt Whitman, Edgar Allen Poe, and others set to music. He is currently co-authoring a book tentatively entitled, The Arts as Pedagogy in the Age of Digital Technology: Teaching as a Creative Activity.

Margaret M. Cassidy, Professor and Chair of Communications at Adelphi University and Past President of the New York State Communication Association, author of BookEnds: The Changing Media Environment of American Classrooms (2004), and the recently published Children, Media, and American History: Printed Poison, Pernicious Stuff, and Other Terrible Temptations (2017).

Michael Plugh, Professor of Communication at Manhattan College, Immediate Past President of the New York State Communication Association, Internet Officer and Executive Board member of the Media Ecology Association, and member of the New York Society for General Semantics Board of Directors, currently researching innovative initiatives in schooling.

Oh, and the moderator was none other than yours truly. And here's the video:





I think this was one of my all time favorites NYSGS sessions! 




Saturday, April 14, 2018

Communication and Disruption

So, how about another post about one of our New York Society for General Semantics sessions from last year? Interested? Of course, you are!

This one is a little different from some of the others, as it involves one extended address, followed by a few shorter responses. And it features my colleague from Manhattan College and co-founder of the Media Ecology Association, as well as fellow trustee of the Institute of General Semantics, not to mention NYSGS board member, Thom Gencarelli.

I should also mention that Thom is a fellow past president of the New York State Communication Association, as well as the MEA, and this all starts with him being selected as a fellow Wilson  Fellow at NYSCA in 2016, which obligated him to deliver a Wilson Scholar Address at our last meeting, this past October. Which he did, and it was outstanding, which was why I asked him to give it again as part of a NYSGS program.

So, anyway, here's the write up for it:

Last year, Thom Gencarelli received NYSCA's John F. Wilson Fellow Award, based on his record of scholarship and service. Other scholars previously named as John F. Wilson Fellows include Neil Postman, Gary Gumpert, Dan Hahn, Deborah Borisoff, Susan Drucker, James W. Carey, Lance Strate, Susan B. Barnes, and Brian Cogan. In conjunction with his selection, he delivered this year's John F. Wilson Fellow Lecture on October 13th, at the 75th anniversary meeting of the New York State Communication Association:
"Dark Nets and Disruptive Practices"

All too often, people outside the academic discipline of communication and media studies consider what we do to be little more than a special interest, rather than the study of something that is central to, and one of the primary defining features of, the human experience. As a case in point, the Presidential election of 2016, the most disruptive event of all disruptive events in our contemporary experience in the U.S., can be explained from a media perspective, and an historical one at that. Beginning from Gutenberg’s invention of the mechanical, movable-type printing press and through our contemporary innovations in mobility, social media, and Tor, this presentation argues that all inventions and innovations in media are a disruption, and that the evolution of media by which the citizenry in a democratic society inform themselves can explain, in full, exactly what happened to us in 2016.

On November 3rd, Professor Gencarelli reprised his Wilson Lecture as the main event of our NYSGS program, and following the lecture, as an added bonus, additional reflections, comments, and responses were delivered by
MJ Robinson, Professor of New Media and Journalism and Media Studies, Bernard N. Stern Professor of Humor, and Graduate Deputy Chair for the Media Studies MS program in the Department of Television and Radio at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York;
Michael Plugh, Professor of Communication at Manhattan College, Immediate Past President of the New York State Communication Association, and Internet Officer and Executive Board member of the Media Ecology Association;
and Lance Strate, Professor of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University, Past President of the New York State Communication Association, Editor of Explorations in Media Ecology and Executive Board member of the Media Ecology Association, a member of the Board of Trustees of the Institute of General Semantics, and President of the New York Society for General Semantics.

Thom Gencarelli, Ph.D. (NYU, 1993) is Professor and the founding Chair of the Communication Department at Manhattan College in Riverdale, New York. He is a Past President of the New York State Communication Association, the Media Ecology Association, and New Jersey Communication Association (twice), and a member of the Board of Trustees of the Institute of General Semantics. He researches and writes about media literacy/media education, media ecology, and popular media and culture with an emphasis on popular music. He is co-editor (with Brian Cogan) of Baby Boomers and Popular Culture: An Inquiry into America’s Most Powerful Generation (ABC-Clio/ Praeger, 2014), and is currently at work on a book about language acquisition and cognitive development. Thom is also a songwriter, musician, and music producer, and has released two album-length works with his ensemble bluerace, World is Ready and Beautiful Sky. The group’s third, as yet untitled effort is due out in 2018.







It was a program that most certainly shed light on our contemporary semantic environment!


Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Jedi and the Jews

So, my January 12th op ed for the Jewish Standard was given the title, Jew vs. Jedi: “May the Schwartz Be With You”, and here it is for the first time on Blog Time Passing:


The Last Jedi is one of the best, if not the best, of the Star Wars cinematic series that first exploded onto theater screens in 1977. The film franchise, originated by George Lucas, was sold to the Walt Disney Company in 2012, and revitalized in 2015 by the first installment in the new trilogy, The Force Awakens, directed by J.J. Abrams.




Although it was a huge commercial success and generally well received, many fans were unhappy with the shift to a more progressive outlook in The Force Awakens, and expressed dissatisfaction with the casting, which deviated from the previous films, which were all but monopolized by white males. In this new trilogy, the lead heroic role of Rey is given to a young woman, while another main character is played by a young African-American man. Even when the sentiments expressed were not overtly racist and sexist, those undercurrents were apparent, especially given that the plot of The Force Awakens was quite consistent with the original Star Wars film.

Star Wars The Force Awakens cast Harrison Ford; Daisy Ridley; Bob Iger; J.J. Abrams; John Boyega; Lupita Nyong'o; Oscar Isaac



The Last Jedi, directed by Rian Johnson, extended the new sensibility by highlighting female leadership, including the late Carrie Fisher as the leader of the resistance and Laura Dern as a self-sacrificing admiral of their decimated fleet, while introducing a significant new character played by Kelly Marie Tran, the child of Vietnamese immigrants. Consistent with this move toward greater diversity in casting, the film also emphasized the progressive theme of breaking with the past.







Given the reactionary mentality of most disgruntled Star Wars fanatics, I was disturbed to read Liel Liebovitz’s December 18 piece in Tablet magazine, called “Reform Jediism.” Liebovitz explains his reaction to the film:
I felt a torrent of anger I haven’t known since gazing at the calamity that was Jar-Jar Binks. That’s because the movie, while otherwise engaging and enjoyable, introduced a radical new take on the Jedi religion. Call it Reform Jediism.

Anger is consistent with right-wing screeds against any form of liberal politics, but in this instance the target was Reform Judaism. As he puts it,
for American Jewish audiences… The Last Jedi can feel almost like a documentary, a sordid story about a small community eager to trade in the old and onerous traditions for the glittery and airy creed of universalist kumbaya that, like so much sound and fury, signifies nothing.

As a Reform Jew, I am deeply offended by Liebovitz’s disdain for those of us who practice a form of Judaism different from his own. And I have to wonder what it is about us that makes him so afraid. In the words of the Jedi master Yoda, who presumably represents Liebovitz’s idea of Orthodox Jediism, “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” Don’t we know this to be true? Isn’t our world big enough for different forms of Jewish worship, different modes of Jewish identity? Does he really want to open up an irrevocable schism in the Jewish population?




Responses from readers both sympathetic to his general outlook and supportive of the Reform movement have taken Liebovitz to task for misinterpreting the meaning of The Last Jedi, ignoring important details in the film or just getting them wrong, forcing facts to fit his views instead of vice versa. For my part, I find the entire conversation absurd. Its original sin is Liebovitz’s equating Jew and Jedi.

The Star Wars universe was created by George Lucas, who was raised a Methodist. The film’s underlying Christian sensibility is apparent in its emphasis on a savior figure. In the original trilogy, the messianic character is Luke (evoking the Gospels) Skywalker (paralleling walking on water). In the prequels, Anakin Skywalker is born via immaculate conception on the part of the Force and identified as the “chosen one” of prophecy, before falling from grace and becoming the equivalent of the Christian Satan, Darth Vader.




The Jedi are referred to as an “order” rather than a religion. Judaism does not have any orders, but there are many within the Catholic tradition (e.g., Jesuits, Dominicans), as well in as other forms of Christianity including the Methodists, and also within Buddhism, a major influence as well on Lucas and his creation. The Jedi Order is monastic. Worldly attachments—notably marriage—are forbidden; that’s a rule also associated with Christianity and Buddhism.

A fully trained Jedi is referred to as a knight, and Jedi knights are all but invincible warriors, in some ways modeled after Japanese samurai, but also after holy paladins, not unlike the Arthurian knights of the roundtable in search of the Holy Grail of Christian legend. Jedi also are much like priests, Christian or Shaolin, with a direct connection to the godlike Force, one that ordinary people lack. They are nothing like the great rabbis of Jewish tradition, learned sages who study and interpret our sacred texts.





The Christian sensibility of Star Wars is especially apparent in its valuation of redemption and forgiveness. At the end of the original trilogy, Luke is able to convince his father, Darth Vader, to turn on his master, the evil emperor. Luke insists that there still is good in Vader, and this final act allows Vader to die in a state of grace, and to appear in ghostly form alongside the good Jedi who have also left the earthly plane. But the fact remains that Vader was guilty of untold atrocities, including destroying an entire planet in the first Star Wars film.





In The Force Awakens, Kylo Ren is introduced as essentially worshipping Darth Vader as well as following the evil Supreme Leader of the First Order, and engages in acts of patricide and mass murder. In The Last Jedi, Rey tries to turn Ren away from the dark side, just as Luke did with Vader, saying that it’s not to late for him. The idea that you can be forgiven for all of your sins as long as you repent in the end has its origins in Christian theology, whereas in our tradition, as expounded by Maimonides, some sins are so heinous that no forgiveness or redemption is possible.

I don’t mean to imply that Star Wars is based only on Christian elements. Lucas weaved together a variety of influences, including Buddhism, Japanese samurai films, westerns, World War Two movies, old movie serials such as Flash Gordon, and Joseph Campbell’s notion of the hero’s journey (itself more consistent with Christianity than Judaism). What I want to emphasize is that Star Wars does not reflect Jewish sensibilities, and does not make for a good analogy with contemporary Jewish life.

We still can appreciate and enjoy the movies, which above all are entertaining. But we also ought to be aware of Lucas’s failings as a storyteller. His movies have been criticized for portraying democratic institutions as weak and ineffectual, supported only by the elitist Jedi. Only a few people exhibit the force sensitivity needed to become a Jedi, and that trait is inherited rather than acquired through hard work or ethical conduct.






Lucas drew on many stylistic elements from the World War II era, some in disturbing fashion. For example, the final scene of the first Star Wars movie is based on a scene from the Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will. Worse, in the prequel trilogy, Lucas drew on offensive ethnic stereotypes, trying to displace them onto alien beings. The character of Jar Jar Binks, whom Liebovitz and many other fans criticized for being too silly, was based on African-American Stepin Fetchit stereotypes, with a Jamaican/Rastafarian speech pattern. The leaders of the evil Trade Federation were based on East Asian “yellow peril” stereotypes. And the greedy slave owner Watto is hook-nosed and speaks with a Yiddish accent.








Liebovitz is wrong in thinking that the earlier Star Wars movies emphasized tradition. No, they were exercises in nostalgia, romanticized images of the past. And they are profoundly ahistorical, set “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.” The fairytale-like formula stands in stark contrast to the Jewish invention of historical narrative. The events that occur in the Star Wars universe have no connection to our world. How long ago did they happen? What is the connection between their time and ours? Are we the descendants of the human characters in these stories? Are they even human? For this reason, as well as the fact that there is no rationale given for the “futuristic” science and technology, purists argue that these stories are fantasy rather than science fiction.




As Jews, we believe in progress toward a better future as well as continuity with the past. The Star Wars universe is as disconnected from our tradition as it is from human history. We can enjoy the films as entertainment, certainly, and I would suggest that also we ought to applaud the more progressive approach associated with Abrams, Johnson, and Disney. As for a Jewish take on the franchise, I can think of none better than the 1987 Mel Brooks movie Spaceballs, which teaches us to live and let live and not take ourselves so seriously.





And so I say to Liebovitz and others like him, “May the Schwartz be with you!”

Thursday, April 5, 2018

If Not A Then E (Studio Version)

So previously here on Blog Time Passing I posted my 2013 Keynote Address to the Media Ecology Association, a version of a talk I had first given at an Institute of General Semantics symposium. If you somehow missed it, here's the link: My MEA Keynote (If Not A Then E).

That address, "If Not A, Then E," includes a creative use of PowerPoint, at least I think so, and in fact that was a key element of the talk. The recording of the keynote captures much of the visual presentation in the background, but not all of it. And the PowerPoint is the main point, visually speaking, you don't really need to look at me at all, you just need to hear me talk.

As a live event, that recording also includes my friend Thom Gencarelli introducing me, and the question and answer session that followed.

My friend Ed Tywoniak liked the address so much that he said he wanted to produce a video version. It took a few years to get around to it, but a little over a year ago, March of 2017, he had me over to his school, Saint Mary's College of California, as a Disney Forum Fellow (that's the Roy E. and Patricia Disney Forum), and one of the goals was to convert the PowerPoint to video, with me doing the voiceover.

There were some challenges in making the conversion. You would think it would be easy enough, but there tends to be a loss of visual definition or quality in making the transfer from PowerPoint to video. To avoid that, this version does not include some of the transitions which were part of the overall aesthetic of the presentation. Still and all, Ed's students, Ryan Moran and Sean Wagner, did an outstanding job in putting together the video, setting up the sound recording, and putting it all together. 

The end result comes in at 28 minutes, as there is no one introducing me as a speaker, and no Q&A session. And here it is:





I'll share some other videos that came out of my visit another time. For now, this is me, signing off, from here on E-world.