Friday, February 23, 2018

The Deputy Who Didn't Shoot

People, including the President of the United States, are heaping scorn and shame on the Broward County Deputy who was assigned to protect Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, but who did not go into the building to confront the Parkland shooter. He has lost his job. He will probably never live this down, and may never get over his guilt. I don't particularly admire him, but we should not pretend for a second that he is the reason that lives were lost. I might hope and wish he'd gone into that building, but his behavior was completely normal. He's not the first school-protection officer to behave in exactly the same way.

First, let's deal with a simple fact. He was outgunned. The shooter's AR-15 was superior to the deputy's sidearm in nearly every way. It's easier to aim, it has a longer effective range, it's more powerful, and it can fire many more bullets before reloading. The 19-year-old misfit had the law enforcement officer badly outgunned, because that's the country we have decided to live in.

The AR-15's superior firepower makes it more dangerous in the shooter's relatively untrained hands than the deputy's pistol was in his trained hand. The kid had enough firepower to kill the deputy before the deputy could get close enough to return effective fire, and the shooter had enough rounds in the magazine that he didn't need to be an especially good shot. He could just keep shooting. In a straight-up firefight, the expected outcome is that the shooter with the AR-15 kills the deputy with the handgun, not the other way around.

We shouldn't assume that the deputy would have stopped or killed the Parkland shooter if he'd gone in. In fact, he was much more likely to have been killed by the shooter. The deputy would have needed to get some kind of tactical advantage on the shooter, by for example finding a way to get close to him and then shoot behind cover. But entering the building would probably have put him at a tactical disadvantage. He was much more likely to find himself in a position where the shooter had the drop on him, or was firing from behind cover, or both. The deputy had almost certainly undergone active-shooter training which made clear to him exactly how dangerous going into a building after a shooter is.

This is what the old assault-weapons ban was about: about not having the cops outgunned by criminals, or by random kids. But we have decided that the Second Amendment requires us to live in a world where nearly everyone has access to pretty serious firepower. The country where teenagers outgun the cops is exactly what the NRA has been lobbying for, has been demanding, for decades now.

The Broward County Sheriff has also announced from now on school-protection officers will have, well, AR-15s. But that's not a good solution; upping the firepower in an arms race just increases the risk all around. And it's too late now. The shooting is over, and the deputy only had the weapon he had.

Now, does part of my heart wish that the deputy had heroically gone into that building anyway, knowing he was more likely to be killed than the save anybody? Do I wish he'd tried? Sure. Especially when I compare his position to the unarmed teachers who had to sacrifice themselves inside. But we're asking for extraordinary heroism here, even for futile self-sacrifice.

If your position is that the deputy should have gone in and died trying even if it was hopeless, that he had a duty to get killed, that's a position. But admit that's what you're saying. 

Instead of blaming the deputy for not risking his life against the odds, we should ask why he was put in that position at all. We have created, and accepted, a system where the deputy is more likely to be killed himself than to stop the killing. Let's not talk about what he did or didn't do without keeping that in mind.

There was also an armed county deputy at the Columbine shooting. He didn't go into the building either. So what the Broward deputy did is not unexpected; it's what happened before. The deputy at Columbine High did manage to exchange some fire with one of the shooters in the parking lot, but when the killers went into the building he did not follow. Later, he and the same shooter exchanged some more fire through a window, without any real result. You will sometimes find people on the internet looking for evidence of "good guys with guns" point to the Columbine officer and say that it would have been worse without him, but there's no evidence of that. The Columbine shooters managed to kill 13 victims anyway. It's not clear the deputy even managed to slow them down much.

The officer at Columbine waited outside the building until backup arrived. That was not cowardice on his part. It was what he had been trained to do. He did not enter Columbine High, where he was more likely to become a victim than to save one. In fact, a number of other deputies and officers showed up and all remained outside the building, focused on evacuating fleeing students and sometimes providing covering fire for them. They shot back at the killers when the killers shot out windows, but they didn't enter the school. Eventually a SWAT team arrived, a force strong enough to overwhelm the shooters, and that SWAT team went into the building, at which point the Columbine shooters killed themselves.

The Broward County Sheriff has said unequivocally that his deputy should have gone “in. Addressed the killer. Killed the killer." The last part is wishful: just because Sheriff Israel would want his deputy to succeed in killing the shooter, that doesn't mean that it would have happened. You can expect your deputy to try. You cannot mandate that he succeed. And Sheriff Israel has to know that his deputy was more likely to be killed by the killer. Even I know that.

As for demanding that the deputy enter the building and engage the shooter, that may be an expectation. But it may be a retroactive expectation. I am not at all sure how the deputy was trained. Taking a defensive position and waiting for backup may, in fact, be what the deputy had been told to do in this situation. Deciding after the fact that he should have done something else is, well, too late. Maybe Broward County deputies are trained to rush into dangerous situations without backup if the situation seems bad enough. I have known cops who rushed into homes before backup could arrive because they thought a situation, such as a domestic dispute, was getting too dangerous too fast. (To be fair, those cops weren't rushing into buildings where there was gunfire.) But neither would I be surprised if standard Broward County training turns out to dictate exactly what the deputy ended up doing.

And, for what it's worth, we have been training a whole generation of cops, across the United States, to be very risk-averse, with training that heavily emphasizes the danger they're in. One of the reasons we've had so many police shootings of non-dangerous civilians is that the cops' training has made them intolerant of even very minor risk, and encouraged them to use deadly force in self-defense even against things that later turn out to have been phantom threats. Those civilians got killed because cops are now trained to approach every tactical situation from a place of fear. They have fear of their lives drilled into them as part of their training. It shouldn't be a surprise that a deputy whose training likely emphasized mortal fear didn't rush to face a genuine threat to his life.

cross-posted from Dagblog; comments welcome there, not here

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

For Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin was my hero. Urusla K. Le Guin is my hero still. She is gone from this world, and only her words are left to us. Those words are marvels.

I remember driving to a college interview with a copy of The Dispossessed on the passenger seat beside me, in case I arrived too early. My first computer password, at the beginning of college, was an anagram of her name. I remember reading The Dispossessed again when I moved to California, to console myself to the strangeness of the new planet where I found myself. And The Dispossessed is on my bedside table again, tonight.

For the last two falls I have been teaching my graduate students The Left Hand of Darkness. Last fall, I realized their edition had a typo, a crucial, meaning-changing typo, on the novel's last page. I went through my house looking for other editions to compare. It turns out I had five.

I have blogged in the past about the debts I owe to Le Guin as a writer, and those debts have only matured as I have:

I no longer know how many times I have read The Language of the Night.  [I]t was my first example of how to write an essay about a piece of fiction. More importantly, it was my first model of an essayist's prose, and I could not have had a better. Le Guin's prose, lucid and evocative, as clear and as complex as running water, still gives me my sense of what a paragraph or a sentence ought to be.

[snip]

I was all too slow to be aware of it, but this is the truth: I am trying to write like Ursula K. Le Guin. I am always trying to write like Ursula K. Le Guin. This is no less so because I do it without thinking of it; it is only more so. .... She is the essayist I wanted to be when I grew up, and she is the stylist whom I, having grown up, would like to be. ... In the middle of my life, better late than never, I am obliged and honored to acknowledge her as my master.

She was a late bloomer, who published her first novel the year she turned 37, and her first undeniable masterpiece, The Left Hand, the year she turned forty. That has always been a lesson to me.

She was an American Taoist, a real one, in a country where many who profess Taoism are deceiving themselves. She had no space for self-deception; the Tao, after all, is about dispensing with illusions. Her perspective was unblinking and undeceived, looking straight at truths most shy from. Many would call such a perspective cold but, precisely because she was so free of illusions, her viewpoint was astonishing warm. She wrote fantasy, but never trafficked in or tolerated the everyday lies and fantasies that our society breathes. Her novels took you to another planet, where you found yourself facing the truths of human nature that you shied away from every day.

She was fearless. She could not be intimidated. And her craft was profound.

I am thinking of her husband tonight, Charles, to whom she was married for decades, and who clearly served as helpmeet to her in a way that men of his generation expected of their wives and not themselves. Le Guin wrote, again and again, of deep monogamous bonds, the pairing for life, in a way that has to be, in part, a profound tribute to her own partner.

I would take, gladly, another year or two or five of her words, of whatever she was able and willing to share. But she had already written her last novel, and knew it. When she no longer had the physical stamina to write a novel, she faced that truth. Her accomplishment is complete tonight. She has already achieved more than anyone could ask.

Ursula Le Guin did not believe in heaven. She found the idea of an afterlife suspect. So all that remains of her tonight are her words. They will always be there if you want them. Let me say what a comfort they can be.

cross-posted from Dagblog, where all comments are welcome

Sunday, January 21, 2018

The Art of No Deal

As everyone has already noticed, a president who boasts about his deal-making skills, author of The Art of the Deal, has been unable to strike a deal to keep his own government funded. Worse, he actually blew up a deal in the making, and now negotiations from the White House side seem to have all but stopped. This is because the word "deal" doesn't mean what Donald Trump thinks it means. He doesn't want a deal. He wants a "win," which he defines as the other side losing. And that makes deal-making impossible.

Now, all the blame does not fall on Trump. We have years of legislative brinksmanship and hostage-taking to thank for this, all of it pioneered by the Republicans in Congress with their government shutdowns and debt-ceiling hijinks. McConnell and Ryan bear heavy loads of blame, as do the House Freedom Caucus, who often defy their own leadership, and the so-called "Hastert Rule" which allows Republican hard-liners to keep popular bills off the House floor. And White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, who is supposed to be keeping chaos at bay, seems to have actually been sowing chaos.

But Trump has also messed this up, torpedoing deals in progress. The infamous "shithole" meeting wasn't just a moment where the President singled out black-skinned immigrants as undesirable. It's also a meeting where the President unilaterally destroyed a bipartisan immigration deal that would have moved the funding bill forward. The White House has been disputing the particular foul word the President used, but not his refusal to accept African and Haitian immigrants or his sudden decision to rip up a deal that was close to being made.

If you want to know why the government shut down, that meeting is the key. The President of the United States ripped up a deal and offered nothing in its place. That's when the wheels came off.

John Kelly is also to blame for sabotaging that deal. Senators Graham and Durbin were scheduled for a meeting with the President about the deal they'd been working out, and walked into a room unexpectedly filled with anti-immigration figures who had no real reason to be there, like Tom Cotton. That only happens if the Chief of Staff permits it, or causes it.

None of this should be a surprise. Trump's business career is littered with examples of him changing deals or tearing them up after the fact. Think of the many building contractors he's stiffed, waiting until they'd done the contracted work and then not living up to his half of the contract. And think of his multiple bankruptcies, in which he borrowed vast sums of money, didn't pay it back, and then tried to renegotiate his debts so that he wouldn't have to pay in full. (Now, bankruptcies happen and we have bankruptcy laws for a reason, but the sheer number of Trump's is revealing.) This is why Trump hasn't actually put up a building in a couple of decades, as opposed to entering agreements to put his name on buildings other people create; Trump can't get the funding for his own building projects, because he's known for not sticking to his deals.

The many stories about stiffing contractors suggests that Trump doesn't see business in the both-sides-win, let's-get-to-yes way that most successful businessmen and dealmakers do. He sees business as a zero-sum, I win-you-lose proposition about dominating the other party and making them accept his terms. That is much closer to the mindset of swindlers and racketeers, ho look to extract everything they can without contributing anything to the deal. It's pretty clear that Trump sees business as about beating the other guy. But that mindset encourages people not to deal with you. In fact, it makes it irrational to deal with you. Why give concessions to someone who won't give any back?

This mindset is also clear from the way Trump talks about virtually every treaty or trade agreement the United States has, complaining that they are "terrible deals" and talking about blowing them up. He doesn't think about what America gets back from those deals. He just threatens to blow them up, hoping to extract extra concessions without giving up anything in exchange. No foreign government is actually going to do that, of course. But Trump's whole career has been about trying to get something for nothing.

Trump the deal-breaker has been on display for the last week. First he blows up the close-to-finished deal that Durbin and Graham were trying to finalize. Then, in the opposite of normal negotiating behavior, he kept demanding more and more without giving anything in return.

The way it's supposed to work when you get close to a deal is that each side trades a little bit more until they have a bargain. It's what you do when you buy a house, or a used car. And usually what you do in that situation is offer small concessions in order to get other concessions back. You do the sidewalk repairs the city inspector wants and I'll throw you some money toward closing costs. You  come up a little on price and I'll throw in the washer and dryer. What you never do is increase your demands when you're close to a deal. If we're five hundred bucks apart on price, I don't suddenly increase my ask by another thousand dollars. I don't suddenly demand that you pay my closing costs AND throw in your washer and dryer. Of course not. But Trump does.

There was a deal in process and, two days before the deadline, Trump blew it up, apparently expecting to get more. That wasn't just moving the goalposts. It was increasing the ask. The Democrats were willing to trade some things in order to keep 800,000 kids from being deported, including other immigration concessions. Then Trump said that wasn't enough, and essentially that he wanted Dem votes to avoid a shutdown without giving them anything on the Dreamers. Oddly, the Democrats were not eager to go along with a deal where they were getting less.

Trump even threatened to reduce his offer even more, tweeting his opinion that CHIP should be taken out of the bill. Fortunately, that did not happen. But it sure would not have helped. Then Trump spends ninety minutes personally negotiating with Chuck Schumer and got an offer of funding for his ridiculous border wall in exchange for not deporting the Dreamers. Then John Kelly calls Schumer to retract the offer. This is not getting to yes. This is actively, doggedly, moving toward no at every opportunity.

Now the Republicans say they refuse to negotiate about the Dreamers at all until the Dems cave on the continuing resolution. So they're saying the Democrats have to give concessions before even asking for things. Demanding the other side cave is not negotiation.

I have no idea how long this shutdown lasts. It could be over Monday afternoon. It could stretch into February. It may end in a compromise. It may end with the Democrats caving. It may end with the Republicans melting down. I really don't know, and I'd be a fool to make a prediction. But there are two real possibilities that should go into the mix.

It would not surprise me if Senate and House eventually make a deal without Trump and send it to him to sign. He isn't helping negotiations. They might hash this through without him.

It would also not surprise me if Trump increases his demands at some point, either demanding more concessions from the Democrats or taking back part of the offer already on the table. That would be a mistake, but it would be one of Trump's favorite kinds of mistake.

cross-posted from Dagblog; all comments welcome there, rather than here




Monday, January 01, 2018

Your Public Domain Report for 2018

Hey gang! It's time for Public Domain Day again, where we list all of the music, film, books, and other pieces of art leaving copyright today. And here's that list again, just like last year:

Nothing. Nothing at all.

Happy New Year.

Although the Framers of the Constitution only gave Congress power to grant copyrights and patents "for a limited time," repeated extensions have made sure that nothing has entered the public domain in the United States since January 1, 1979. Today makes nearly forty years since that happened.

Copyright in this country had a 28-year maximum back during the George Washington administration. By the 20th century that had become a very reasonable 6 years. Then the 1976 Copyright Act and the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act  ensured that big media company's like Disney and Sony got to keep their intellectual property out of the public domain forever.

The big news is that the public domain clock is due to unfreeze in exactly one year, on January 1, 2019, unless Congress extends copyright terms again. Left to their own devices, Congress will certainly do that. But they haven't written that law yet, and there's time to lobby. Call your senators and representatives this year, and tell them not to extend copyright any more.

In the meantime, as every year, I have to write a post about what would be entering public domain today. What are we missing?

If Not for the Digital Millennium Copyright Act:

Today is the day Casablanca should enter the public domain. Actually, under the law when it was made, it should have become public domain in 1999. The 1976 extension delayed that until today, but that apparently was still not enough. We'll always have Paris, if by "always" we mean "never."

This is also the day the public would get the rights to Bambi, Flying Tigers with John Wayne, Now, Voyager, The Palm Beach Story, Across the Pacific, Andy Hardy's Double Life, The Courtship of Andy Hardy, noir classic The Glass Key and horror favorite Cat People, musical For Me and My Gal, In Which We Serve, the original live-action The Jungle BookMrs. Miniver, Orson Welles's Magnificent Ambersons, Lon Chaney in The Mummy's Tomb, My Sister Eileen, My Favorite Blonde, The Pride of the Yankees, The Road to Morocco, Saboteur, The Talk of the Town, This Gun's for Hire, To Be or Not to Be, Tortilla Flat, Woman of the Year with Tracy and Hepburn, and James Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy. Ronald Reagan's finest work as an actor, Kings Row, would become public domain today. So would George Gershwin's classic Christmas musical Holiday Inn (which I will spend part of this New Year's Day watching, as usual), and all the songs in it, including "White Christmas."

Unlike the last few New Year's Days, today would not see many major cartoon characters enter the public domain, mostly because those classic characters would be in the public domain already. The big exception is Tweety Bird. Thought you say a puddy tat? Not for another twenty years.

Most of the great Golden Age comic-book heroes would also be in the public domain already, but today they would be joined by various classic sidekicks (like Wonder Woman's pal Etta Candy, villains (such as Two-Face and Shade), and minor colleagues: Guardian, Metallo, Mr. Terrific,  Kid Eternity, Mary Marvel, Robotman, and Wildcat.

But on the science fiction front, Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics would become free to use today.

In literature, Albert Camus's The Stranger should become public domain today, as should his Myth of Sisyphus. C.S. Lewis also has a fiction/non-fiction double-header, with his Preface to Paradise Lost and his classic Screwtape Letters. Raymond Chandler's The High Window and Ellery Queen's Calamity Town should leave copyright today. So should Heinlein's Beyond This Horizon, Steinbeck's The Moon is Down, O'Neill's A Touch of the Poet  and Jean Anouilh's Antigone. We could also look forward to Eliot's Little Gidding, Wallace Stevens's Parts of the World, and Langston Hughes's Shakespeare in Harlem.

In the world of music, "White Christmas" is the big headline. But Duke Ellington classics "C-Jam Blues" and "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" would enter public domain, too, as would Cole Porter's "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To." Other ontributions to the great American songbook by Johhny Mercer, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Frank Loesser, Johnny Mercer, Jerome Kern, Mack Gordon, and Johnny Burke would become free for all to use. And there would be plenty of classical music, too: Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man and works by Britten, Barber, Schoenberg, Kachuturian, and those crazy Russians Stravinsky, Shostakovich, and Prokofiev.

Not the richest year overall, since most of the West was pretty busy doing other things in 1942, but still a pretty respectable haul. Still, we'll have to wait until 2038 for those works, and longer if Congress passes another extension in the next 12 months.

If not for the 1976 Copyright Act:

A mother lode of classic movies were scheduled to enter public domain today, under the law at the time they were made: West Side Story, Breakfast at Tiffany's, La Dolce Vita, Judgement at Nuremberg, The Children's Hour, Last Year at Marienbad and The Hustler. Copyright was also originally set to expire on One Hundred and One Dalmatians, The Absent-Minded Professor, The Guns of Navarone, Elvis Presley in Blue Hawaii, Splendor in the Grass, The Parent Trap, Babes in Toyland, Divorce Italian Style, El Cid with Charlton Heston, Five Minutes to Live, Flower Drum Song, Gidget Goes Hawaiian, King of Kings, The Misfits, Mysterious Island, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, Raisin in the Sun, Town Without Pity, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, and last but not least, Kurosawa's Yojimbo.

Joseph Heller's classic novel Catch-22 should enter public domain today, as should fiction by
Kurt Vonnegut, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Agatha Christie, Stanislaw Lem, J.G. Ballard, Patricia Highsmith, Poul Anderson, Brian Aldiss, Margaret Lawrence, H.P. Lovecraft, August Derleth, Theodore Sturgeon, Iris Murdoch, Evelyn Waugh, and Harold Robbins. Let's not forget Walker Percy's The Moviegoer, Muriel Spark's Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul's A House for Mister Biswas, John Le Carre's fiction debut A Call for the Dead, and, oh yes, J.D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey.

James and the Giant Peach should enter public domain today, but what would happen if a beloved children's story became public domain? So should Beckett's Happy Days, Genet's The Screens, and Tennessee Williams's Night of the Iguana. And let's not leave out three important and influential non-fiction works: Fanon's Wretched of the Earth, Marshall McLuhan's Gutenberg Galaxy, and Janes Jacobs's classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

It should be a great year music, with tunes by Sinatra, Elvis, Judy Collins, John Coltrane, Chuck Berry, Judy Garland, Roy Orbison, Dizzy Gillespie, Johnny Cash, Count Basie, Sun Ra (and his Arkestra), Patsy Cline, Rachmaninoff, Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, Johnny Mercer, Henry Mancini, and Willie Nelson becoming publicly available. 

But all of those works will stay firmly in the hands of Sony, Disney, Time Warner, etc., until at least 2057. Someone needs another 39 years of royalties from Moon River, apparently.

What will become public a year from today:

But let's keep our eye on the prize. The current law is not changed (and you should expect Congress and the lobbying industry to try), works first publishes in 1923 will become public domain in the US next January 1. The public-domain clock, which has been stuck in place since January 1, 1979, is set to come unstuck. (Yes, this means that everything published in 1922 is public domain but nothing published in 1923 is, and it has been that way for 39 years now.)

If we can keep the lobbyists at bay, Robert Frost's "Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening," the one that ends "And miles to go before I sleep," will leave copyright next New Year's Day. So will Wallace Stevens's "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" and "Emperor of Ice-Cream." Likewise, Yeats's collection The Cat and the Moon, and various poems by Cummings, Djuna Barnes, St. Vincent Millay, Edward Arlington Robinson, Vachel Lindsay, and William Carlos Williams.

Jean Toomer's Cane is due to become public, and Hemingway's first chapbook Three Stories and Ten Poems. Willa Cather's A Lost Lady; Tarzan and the Golden Lion; Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet; Brecht's In the Jungle of Cities; Agatha Christie's Murder on the Links. Works by Joseph Conrad, H.G. Wells, P.G. Wodehouse, D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Jean Cocteau. Beloved Czech classic the Good Soldier Svejk. Classic silent films by Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, and Charlie Chaplin. Works that are classic, and already almost a century old; works that are forgotten, but cannot be republished and rediscovered because it's been so long that the copyright owners can no longer be found and so there's an, ahem, Catch-22: you can't republish the work without paying for permission, but you can't find the person you need to pay.

We can begin a return to copyright sanity in one short year, if we just keep our lawmakers from being crazy.

Whose woods these are I think I know: 
They'll likely keep them private, though.

cross-posted from Dagblog (all comments welcome there, not here)

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Never Trust an Action Hero: Star Wars' Lost Politics

Star Wars: The Last Jedi has hit the cineplex and begun raking in the customary astronomical profits. But the film has some angry detractors among hard-core Star Wars fans (a minority, I think, but a loud one) who complain bitterly that The Last Jedi is unfaithful to the Star Wars tradition. I'm not going to talk about the new movie here, and I'm going to do my best to delete discussion of it in comments (no spoilers!) for at least the next week. But I'd like to talk about the old Star Wars movies, the originals and the prequels, and the ambiguity that George Lucas tried, but failed, to give them.

The original 1977 Star Wars movie, the one now retroactively called "A New Hope," is filled with references to earlier film classics and it ends with a big one. The final sequence, in which Princess Leia hands out medals in a big military assembly, is a very clear reference to Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, the most visually-powerful Nazi propaganda film of all time. This is widely known, but poorly explained. Everyone agrees that this is a Triumph of the Will homage; very few people can persuasively explain why.

I think the best explanation is that this was George Lucas's failed attempt to add some moral complexity. After spending the whole movie very obviously associating the Empire with the Nazis (calling them "Stormtroopers" is not subtle), Lucas turns at the end and codes the Rebels as Nazis too. Whoa! Maybe I need to rethink things! Now, that move certainly does not work as intended, and basically never has. An audience of eight-year-olds is never going to catch the Leni Riefenstahl reference. Most people watching a summer popcorn movie aren't. And even if you do notice it, it doesn't work. The movie that comes before that scene is too joyful, too seductive, and too simple-hearted for that sudden moral twist to work. By the time you get to the end of the original Star Wars, everyone wants the good guys to be good and the bad guys to be bad, period. No arty little film-school reference, coming from left field with no preparation, is going to derail the audience at that point. No way.

Lucas seemed to give up trying to cast doubt on his good guys' politics through the next two sequels. But he went back at it hard during the prequel trilogy, which is filled with moments where the heroes mess up catastrophically. The prequel trilogy is three movies about people losing their democracy. They start with a Republic and blow it. And, over and over, it's the good guys, the Jedi and their allies, actively blowing it. There's no moral equivalence; Palpatine and his flunkies are clearly evil. But time and again we have scenes that are pretty clearly meant to inspire moral confusion. Yoda introduces the Stormtroopers for the first time. Jar Jar, who is an idiot but a good-hearted idiot, votes Palpatine into power. These are meant to be moments where the audience steps back and says, "Whoa! The good guys did what now?" Those emotional beats don't land, any more than the Triumph of the Will reference landed in the original movie. Audience members don't respond the way Lucas seems to be asking them to. Maybe it's that the prequels are actually more ambitious, morally and artistically, than Lucas could execute. (To say they're ambitious is not to say they're good: many bad movies are the burning wrecks of ambitions that were beyond their makers' skill.) Maybe Lucas would have been able to pull it off earlier, but had lost a step. Or maybe this would have always been beyond his grasp as a story-teller, because getting across moral complexity has never been his thing. He certainly didn't pull it off. But equally certainly, he tried.

The message that George Lucas has repeatedly tried and failed to get across in his Star Wars movies can be boiled down to: never trust an action hero. If you are looking for rational democratic governance, a bunch of impulsive, shoot-from the hip adventurers are really not your guys. They're just not wired that way. And this is a fair point. The Jedi are not the same as the Empire or the Sith or, God forbid, the Nazis, but you can see why the Sith view the Jedi as such a valuable recruiting pool. The prequels very deliberately shows the good guys' action-hero impulses being played, repeatedly, by Palpatine's manipulations. But they're vulnerable to those manipulations because their heroic instincts are naturally a little un-democratic. That's not my spin. That's the plot of Episodes II and III.

Action-adventure stories like Star Wars naturally have a little bit of authoritarian bias built into their DNA, whatever their superficial politics. Or, to put it another way, these stories have a natural authoritarian lean that a storyteller has to work around. Remember, a lot of these basic stories come from monarchical societies. Celebrating a class of armed overlords is the natural groove path.

Part of this is that adventure stories mostly solve problems through violence. The good guys are never going to spend a Star Wars movie registering voters or hammering out a legislative compromise. Their basic approaches to problem-solving are 1) shoot it, 2) blow it up, and 3) cut it in half with a sword. And people enjoy that more than a story about committee work. (Our girl Senator Amidala gets fed up with the whole being-a-Senator thing and flies off to kick some ass, leaving the trusty and reliable Jar Jar with her vote. How's that work out?) Now, democracies do sometimes have to use military force, and most good adventure stories pay at least lip service to democracy and freedom. "Beating People Up for Freedom" is the unofficial Jedi motto. But that adventure story structure also lends itself easily, even naturally, to politics that glorify violence and believe in imposing control from above by force.

But more importantly, good adventure stories focus on a small group of individuals, and on things that a few individuals can do in a story. Star Wars makes a lot of World War II references, but it's not really set up for D-Day; a vast battle where every individual only makes a small contribution isn't really how these movies work. It's always going to be about a few central characters taking decisive action. And that makes for good storytelling. But if you don't watch it, that can quickly devolve into a narrative where a few Special Shiny Important People make all the decisions for everyone else. In fact, it's hard to raise the stakes of the story without doing that. Things go Game of Thrones so fast you might not notice.

Look: at the end of Star Wars, Luke Skywalker is a promising young pilot who manages to score a decisive hit in a key battle. By the end of Return of the Jedi, the question of whether anybody in the galaxy ever gets to vote hinges on how Luke Skywalker happens to work out his feelings. The superficial question "Should the galaxy be ruled by one man's decisions, or by the people themselves?" stealthily changes to "Which one man should make decisions for the rest of the galaxy?" Sure, the happy ending is foreordained, so we don't really worry that people are going to stay under the Empire's thumb. But we're spent the last few hundred years in the real world working to reach a point where a couple of super-elite individuals get to decide everyone else's destiny. Maybe we shouldn't be leaving these decisions up to a Skywalker. And in fact, the three prequel movies are about the folly of letting a Skywalker make these political decisions. Anakin Skywalker working out his feelings is the original problem.

But don't take it from me. Take it from Yoda, who more than once during the prequels makes it very clear how badly he and his associates have failed. The never-trust-an-action-hero idea is not mine; it really does belong to George Lucas. He's just never managed to sell it.

 cross-posted from Dagblog (all comments welcome there, not here)