What is rebellion for?

How do you get demographics that normally skew toward the Democrats and toward progressive values to buy into Tea Party ideology? Give them a hero who is pithy and dashing whose inner morality is equaled only by his hatred of authority. How do you get the Tea Party to condemn it outright? Set the story in space.

I am kidding, of course, but the best jokes all contain a kernel of truth. Roguish characters, presented as flippant and charismatic, come off well in all sorts of adventure tales, but particularly science fiction and fantasy. Many of these stories also capitalize on the story of a rebellion. But what is the goal of these rebellions? Usually the goal is to replace the extant state with a more liberal, more generous, and less bureaucratic society, although the final goal is practically impossible. I would suggest, though, that there is at least one example of this sort of story where the goal of the rebellion is presented not as the replacement of the government, but by its elimination and that this goal is shortsighted and naive.

Perhaps this realization is an argument against watching these shows while teaching students about Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, but I also found this it frustrating for my own enjoyment of the show.

The core story in Star Wars is that one of the Senators perverted the traditional and eternal Republic, corrupted the state religion, and ruled roughly the same territory with an iron fist. He is resisted by a small cadre of Senators and Knights and is eventually overthrown by Maximus Luke Skywalker. Eventually the Rebellion is able to restore a new Republic based on the traditional mores and with the support of the knight-priests who are a force for good in the galaxy. It is cliche to point out the ironies of Star Wars. There are shirts that claim “I had friends on that Death Star. It has been pointed out that the fundamental a small rebellion against a legitimate government funded by old money and with the aid of a robed desert mystic espousing an ancient religion targets government installations.[1] In response to a Wired symposium about the Battle of Hoth Timothy Burke offered the Longue Duree of the Galactic Empire, saying that the Rebellion (and thus focus on Hoth) is treated as a “priviliged mode of dissent” during the empire and suggesting that there would have been nothing remarkable about Hoth except for the charisma of the participants to set it off from other comparable events.[2] For the moment, though, leave aside the Roman parallels, the derivative story, and that books set in the Star Wars universe frequently grapple with many of these issues.

One constant element in Star Wars is that the protagonists do not want to eliminate government. They want to restore the government of yesteryear, which means taking out the guy in charge and whatever government employees continue to support him.[3] The Old Republic is a galactic confederacy, though. There is an elected Senate and a leader of the senate, but, until the rise of Palpatine, there is only a limited executive and basically no military, while sovereign members have their own armed forces that can be used for more than just self defense.[4] The changes made by Palpatine and the threat of a not-yet-defeated Empire mean that the New Republic is closer to an actual Republic than was the old. There is a stronger executive branch and the fleet of the Rebellion remains a standing military force. For the good guys to win in this fantasy they must recreate the government. A government with a standing army (the apparatus of tyranny), a government for the people, and to protect the people from each other and from threats abroad, but a government nonetheless.

Now flash to Joss Whedon’s Firefly. Malcolm Reynolds is your captain. He protects his crew and is an honest businessman. He salvages abandoned goods, is a smuggler, and will kill people, but, while illegal, these actions are not against his personal code of ethics. Mal was a Browncoat, a soldier who fought for the Independence movement against the Alliance, an exploitative, totalitarian bureaucratic and military establishment. From his point of view, the Alliance crushes the individual and tries to bend the population of the galaxy to civilization. Mal and his fellow Browncoats were defeated and he goes further out to the fringes of the settled world so that he can be free of the government. In the original pilot Mal goes so far as to state: “that’s what governments are for… get in a man’s way.”

One trope of the space shows and movies, much like it is in the Western genre, is to explore what happens to people beyond the reach of central governments or when governments collapse, or what happens when a central government encroaches upon anarchy muted by inchoate forms of society. In Deadwood there is interest in joining the United States. Dune has a galactic kingdom where the government rules by restricting access to resources, balancing out competing interests, and an elite Janissary force. Star Trek has multiple galactic entities with different levels of bellicosity and cooperation. Ender’s Game has military cooperation among humans to destroy an alien race that once threatened Earth. Old Man’s War has genetically modified soldiers to protect space colonies that alleviate the population stresses in third world areas of Earth. But one constant is that there is some necessity for government.

In Firefly, though, there is government. There are both local and central governments, but governments are universally described as a hindrance to ordinary people. Mal’s worldview is that everyone would be a lot better off without government. An inner morality, or people with an inner morality and guns, will ensure that the galaxy will be a place of opportunity for everyone. Except that the majority of people Mal interacts with have guns, but they do not have the same inner morality he does. His quick wits and true aim ensure that he is able to dispatch malignants and protect his crew, as well as being able to limit the conflicts of interest between individual crew members, but the general populace is not so fortunate.

The crew of Serenity accept Mal as their employer and passengers respect him as the captain. The crew and the passengers work together to survive [5] and Mal’s sovereignty is certainly more benevolent and human than is the bureaucracy of the Alliance. But, if civilization crushes the identity of an individual, liberty constantly threatens to kill him.[6] Most people are not the hero. Most people need the protection offered by civilization.

I like Mal and I enjoy the show. My issue is this: the government supplies necessary goods and creates the very terra-formed worlds on which people live. The galaxy the show is set in has both extreme, subhuman anarchy (Reavers) and more limited human corruption sprung up from violence, hardship, greed, ambition, avarice, etc, but the leader of the heroes, himself both a present and past holder of command positions, detests government. The Alliance does not come across well in the show, but the proposed solution is an extension of anarchy rather than the reform the government.[7] The Alliance has its issues, but even in the show it is presented as having benefits, whatever Mal might say.

Fiction in general and science fiction and fantasy stories in particular allow people to vicariously live out otherwise impossible fantasies of all sorts. Sexual and violent fantasies may be lived out in a safe environment [8] and, likewise, rebellious fantasies can be lived out in a safe place. The curious thing to me is that most of these instances presuppose that the rebellious fantasy is meant to improve government, to fix what is wrong with the state. Firefly, at least in the show, seems to be the exception. In this instance there is rebellion because all government is irredeemably bad.

[1] Against a dictator who had been granted extraordinary powers in a time of crisis. He never relinquished them, but, technically, they were bestowed upon him by the legitimate government. We as an audience know that he manufactures the crisis and goes on to commit plenty of other atrocities, but, if I remember correctly, the given reason for the Jedi attacking him is that he is a Sith and therefore evil. If one does not subscribe to polarities of human alignment as posited in fantasy and role-playing tropes, then the Jedi were way out of line and Palpy was justified in banning them. Killing the kids was stepping over the line, but that hasn’t stopped the US drone program from doing the same. The big difference there is that I don’t think Joe Biden is trained for that sort of job.

[2] Be that as it may, charisma of the participants will get them into the movies and the history books alike.

[3] Plus collateral damage, but working for an evil guy makes one complicit.

[4] The workings of government oversight, travel, and intragalactic relations seem more reasonably fleshed out in both Star Trek and Dune. Of course, I was never a trekkie and some of the coherence of Dune is in its very limited scope in the early books.

[5] Mal and the crew also see an uptick in random bullet wounds after getting a doctor. Perhaps safety makes them reckless, perhaps there is a sloppy-yet-all-powerful narrator.

[6] Another trope is that there must be danger and an absence of laws for a person to reach his or her full potential. But another precondition also exists–the natural ability of that individual. Even then, the absence of law is an opportunity to excel, not a surety. Further, it is the except that a hero is capable of exceling without doing so at the expense of others, [6a] as happens in The Name of the Wind as far as the story has progressed, although we know that Kvothe feels that his actions caused suffering for everyone. Even in The Hobbit, Bilbo the burglar benefits at the expense of Gollum/Smeagol, a character who is not per se evil. Strong personal morality helps and it is necessary that the ambitions of the exceptional hero be personal: get home, remedy a specific injustice, or combat true evil. [6b] When the exceptional character extends those ambitions or even has to expand the scope to remedy injustice, he becomes a Mr. Kurtz or a Paul Atreides. His personal capabilities, whether intentional or not, result in his oppression of others.

[6a] The others here being defined as bystanders or otherwise innocent people, not jerks, punks, or people are trying to put down the common man.

[6b] True evil, of the sort that appears in stories that are in some way descended Christian of Gnostic (etc. etc.) concepts about the perfect goodness above and the perfect badness below, or vice versa that construct the realm of human existence a middle arena, a locus of competition between the two extremes. True evil, irredeemable evil exists in these setups because creatures (only rarely human) actually manifest themselves in the existence. People toss the concept of evil about in reference to humans in order to explain all sorts of “evil” (vicious, cruel, malicious) or “sinful” actions. On one hand, some of these labels are borne of constructed moralities, on the other, “evil” may be the product of upbringing, abuse, mental or chemical imbalances. The case can be made that a Sauron or Balrog is evil by nature, not by choice and therefore people who have mental imbalance or are the product of abuse are not excused for not having control over their evil, but this, too, is a constructed morality. It is more accurate to suggest that actions, not people, are evil.

[7] Until, arguably, Serenity.

[8] The debate about video games such as Grand Theft Auto causing rape and violence notwithstanding. There probably is some link between the two, particularly for people who already have some other issues, while the majority of people can play violent video games without lashing out at the people around them. Now, if it is possible to link the popularity of violent video games, violent movies and tv shows, the large numbers of guns as part of a “violent American culture,” then you might be on to something.

Debating Hobbes

One of my favorite pedagogical tools in discussion section is the debate, if for no other reason than turning the class into some form of competition gets the students riled up. Students are to take the information they got in the lecture and what they picked up in the readings and form an argument in defense of an assigned topic. Their judges are their peers; in preparation for the debate I usually ask for three volunteers for the judges and then divide up the rest of the class. After I give the topic to the two debate teams and while the teams are coming up with their arguments, I tell the judges that they should come up with lists of arguments they might expect to hear from each side. After the presentations, I take the judges into the hall to get their ruling and inform them that they should explain the rationale behind their decisions.

The first debate I had the students do a few semesters ago was between big business and labor unions during the Gilded Age (History 1200 US History Since the 1865). Their readings for the week had consisted of a series of newspaper articles about the Pullman Strikes, some from pro-labor and some from pro-business sources. I instructed the students to try to ground their arguments in the articles at hand, but also to draw out arguments from the lecture. It might not have been politically correct, but a student (almost inevitably) from the side of big business to inform the laborers that they are replaceable because there are immigrants who will do the job cheaper gets one of the points across rather well.

Since that week I haven’t had as much success finding the right combination of lecture material, divisive issue, and sources that lend themselves to debating. This past week, while trying to explain the key point of, among other documents, Leviathan of Thomas Hobbes, I came across one.

I tinkered with this structure between each class, but the basic idea was this:

1. Instead of a panel of judges, there was one judge.
2. The groups had to debate three issues and had a chance to rebut in each debate. First: are all humans equal and are there benefits to inequality? Second: Hobbes says that life is nasty brutish and short, is he right? Third: you must pick one form of absolutism: patriarchy or matriarchy.
3. The judge makes a ruling after each debate and the side that lost gets to choose the side they defend next. Unlike other debates, the judge is under no obligation to explain his or her decision (I did ask that he or she came up with their list of arguments as part of class participation).
4. At the conclusion of the last debate, I turned the tables on the judge and asked the students if they thought that they had been judged fairly. When they usually said no, at least not on the issue of Patriarchy v. Matriarchy, I had the judge repeat to the students what I had said in the initial briefing, that the judge was not obliged to be fair.

I structured this entire process around the students debating these issues in the modern world deliberately, particularly the one about life being nasty, brutish, and short. With political philosophers it made more sense to explain the inherent ideas in a world that the students understood without needing to be lectured to fill in inevitable gaps in their knowledge. Yes, they should know some information, but with someone like Hobbes, I prefer to give the kernel of the idea and then have them come up with modern comparanda. Moreover, after I pointed out the meta-structure to the exercise I worked them through some of their own logic from both sides of the debate. The idea that life is pretty good for a lot of people, there are civil rights, more gender equality than ever before and drew out that, while it is possible to take issue with Hobbes’ claims on a number of levels, many of these issues of equality that are taken for granted are (or were) realized only through the involvement of a strong central government. I.e. Hobbes’ Leviathan (let alone Plato’s philosopher-king) does serve a role of protecting people.

Did they all come away from understanding Hobbes and patriarchy? No, probably not. But this was as close to one hundred percent participation as I have ever gotten in a class discussion and I expect that more students will remember this piece of Hobbesian thought than otherwise would have. That is good enough for me.

August Reading Recap

Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino
A series of conversations between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo. For the most part, Invisible Cities is Marco Polo describing to the Khan the peculiarities of the cities he saw on his journeys; much of the rest is the Khan taking the reigns of the imaginary descriptions. Thematically the book examines cities (both form and function), communication across language, and Truth in the sense of whether there is a Form behind everything to which specifics must be added or whether every possibility exists in the universal city from which particulars are removed to form the specific city. It is possible to structurally chart the individual stories within the book and it is possible to just read each individual story for the imaginative descriptions of the cities, many of which are wonderful little vignettes, but I had trouble tying the two together. As has my experience with most post-modern literature, my inability to reconcile the form and the content leaves me with a bitter taste in my mouth. Invisible Cities is still worth reading, it just was not among my favorites–which was a recurring theme for my August reading.

The Castle , Franz Kafka
A book that is not likely to rise on my list of favorite books, this statement should not diminish the brilliance of The Castle. Kafka’s incomplete novel is an excruciating tour de force about bureaucracy. Halfway through the book it seemed to me that Kafka was playing a relentless,vicious joke on the reader and the fact that the book just trails off instills in this reader a sense of the eternality of bureaucracy more effectively than any actual conclusion could. The story was effective, but it was almost too effective and I have decided that, at least in the near future, I will only read Kafka’s shorter works.

The Quiet American, Graham Greene
Set in French Indochina, The Quiet American is the story of Thomas Fowler, a British journalist who is covering the war between Vietnamese nationalists and the French and an American, Alden Pyle, who is working against Communist influence in Vietnam. The novel is decidedly anti-war, and, while interesting, all of the featured characters had enough odious characteristics that I never really connected with any of them and therefore didn’t like the book as much as I expected.

Tyrant Banderas, Ramon del Valle-Inclan
Another book that I expected to like more than I did, Tyrant Banderas, is one of the first novels about tyranny in Latin America (originally published in 1929). The introduction to the book indicates that it is a rarely translated book, in part because del Valle-Inclan included multiple dialects of written Spanish that are hard to duplicate in English. Perhaps as a result of these dialect issues, there were certain spots of the translation that were just strange English, particularly with types of dialogue that may have been faithful to the Spanish but awkward (at best) English–what appeared to be the type of idiomatic exclamation that just aren’t used in even a facsimile of dialogue. That said, like other stories of Latin America, there were excellent descriptions of tyranny, colonialism, and some unforgettable descriptions of characters. Tyrant Banderas was probably my favorite book among those I read this month, but more in the sense that I was glad to have read it than in that I adored the book.

Future reading: I just finished a David Foster Wallace short story collection and am reading The Rebel by Albert Camus next.