On the Value of Human Connection: A Review of Seneca and Sandel

The Restoration of Nero and Seneca by Eduardo Barrón - Museo Nacional del  Prado
Nero and Seneca by Eduardo Barrón (Credit: Museo del Prado)


On Benefits by Lucius Annaeus Seneca (trans. Miriam Griffin and Brad Inwood)

What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets by Michael Sandel

When the ancient Roman philosopher and statesman Seneca set out to write his various works of philosophy, it’s unlikely that he could have even imagined the world as it would be two millennia hence. But as an astute observer of the human condition, Seneca probably could have predicted that we’d be dealing with many of the same enduring facets of human nature that he saw in his day and age. That’s readily apparent when reading Seneca’s treatise On Benefits alongside the contemporary academic philosopher Michael Sandel’s recent book What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets

Despite myriad differences in time and place, both philosophers stress the paramount value of basic human connection for both individuals and society writ large. They both make strong cases that transactional ways of thinking about life corrupt and corrode these connections in ways that eat away at the foundations of shared social life. When transactional and pecuniary mindsets take hold, they argue, we cannot build the sort of intimate personal relationships we crave as individuals or forge the social bonds necessary to pursue the common good. Taken together, these two philosophers remind us that precious little good comes our way when we know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

In his aptly-titled critique, Sandel offers the persuasive and damning argument that we’ve let market and financial thinking crowd out our individual and collective senses moral reasoning. He describes it as a form of pervasive moral corruption that defines our age and leaves us unable to talk meaningfully about the things that truly matter in life. As Sandel makes clear, notions of the common good and other values that money can’t buy persist despite the omnipresence of transactional and financial considerations across society. Through a number of intriguing and compelling examples – the story of a Swiss village that voted against hosting a nuclear waste site when offered financial inducements stands out – he shows how the actions of actual human beings in the real world confound the confident predictions of market theorists. 

This forceful broadside is principally valuable for its clear and convincing moral argument against the intrusion of market logic and financial incentives into every nook and cranny of our personal and public lives. But Sandel sticks mainly to criticism, more concerned with putting market thinking in its proper place and shaking us out of our intellectual complacency than anything else. The case for the common good is present, but Sandel makes it only indirectly and in relief. It’s largely eclipsed by his acute critique of market logic, and in that sense Sandel ironically winds up recapitulating his own case.

Still, Sandel does put his finger directly one of the major challenges of our time. His line of reasoning obliges us to recognize that there are, in fact, things that money can’t – and shouldn’t – buy. As he points out, most if not all of the things that truly matter in life derive their value from the meaning they hold for us and the relationships they embody rather than the price that can be put on them. Intimate relationships with other people – whether friends or romantic partners – rely on beliefs, ideas, and attitudes that can’t be reduced to the transactional logic of the marketplace. “A hired friend,” Sandel notes, “is not the same as a real one.” 

Diagnosing this challenge amounts to a service in and of itself. Sandel opens the door to a wider discussion and lays out the stakes in a clear and concise fashion. But he doesn’t presume to engage in that discussion here, and we have to look elsewhere to find fuller exploration of the ideas he articulates so well.

Fortunately, we have Seneca and his treatise On Benefits to help us dig deeper. For Seneca, benefits represent more than a simple exchange of gifts or favors; they offer crucial insights into human nature. Properly understood, benefits reveal the indispensable role of basic human connection plays in our individual and social lives. Indeed, these connections all but comprise the cement that holds society together. It’s no surprise, then, that Seneca considers “our ignorance of how to give and receive benefits” to be the most harmful of the “wide range of mistakes made by those who live recklessly and without reflection.”

Like Sandel, Seneca harshly criticizes transactional attitudes toward life and human relationships. “No one records benefits in an account book,” he writes, “and then, like a greedy collection agent, demands payment at a set day and time.” According to Seneca, this perspective views benefits as mere loans to be called in when needed or deemed appropriate. It sees human relationships as commodities to be bartered for social advancement, a way to climb the next rung on a social or professional ladder. At best, however, this back-scratching attitude profoundly misconstrues the true nature of benefits. As Seneca reminds us, “The most important things in life cannot be repaid.”

But Seneca is more intent on establishing a full and deep account of the nature and purpose of benefits; his philosophical enterprise goes well beyond Sandel’s in scope and ambition. So what counts as a benefit in Seneca’s eyes? For him, many things define a benefit – none of them material. It “is not the gold, the silver, or any of the other things which are thought to be most important; rather, the benefit is the intention of the giver.” They’re more than that, however: benefits are “a correct deed” that “no violence can nullify,” “a well-intentioned action that confers joy and in so doing derives joy,” and “something to be chosen for its own sake,” among other things.

By Seneca’s lights, then, benefits only occur when they are conceived, given, and received in the right spirit. They embody relationships between individuals, and transcend whatever material form they may take. We bestow benefits when we give to others willingly and with good intentions, seeking nothing but good intentions in return. When recipients accept what they’re given “with a kindly attitude,” they have repaid us and vice versa. It is not simply the exchange itself but the nature of the connection that’s forged between individuals that makes a benefit. In other words, the benefit itself resides in the meanings we confer on it through our intentions in both giving and receiving.

It’s for this reason that Seneca considers benefits to be indispensable to social life. Through “the supreme delight of merely doing good,” the giving and receiving of benefits fosters the individual and civic virtues that make society possible. A transactional approach to life dominated by self-seeking and ingratitude, Seneca tells us, “dissolves and disrupts” the essential human connections and relationships that allow for even a modicum of a shared social life. “Only one thing,” he writes, “protects our lives and fortifies them against sudden attacks: the exchange of benefits.”

That’s because without benefits and the social solidarity they promote – what Seneca terms “fellowship” – individuals would be left to fend for themselves in a brutal and hostile world. Bound together in fellowship by benefits, however, humanity can fend off disease, old age, and other vagaries of fortune. “Remove fellowship,” Seneca warns, “and you will destroy the unity of mankind on which our life depends.” When we transform benefits into commodities, we don’t just spoil the inherent value of the benefits themselves and demean the human connections they express – we sever the social ties that bind us all together.

There’s much more philosophical ground to cover in On Benefits, but the core of Seneca’s argument rests on the supreme value of human connection in our individual and social lives. Benefits, as Seneca understands them, amount to the most visible – and therefore most important – manifestation of these relationships. Moreover, they’re a potent reminder of our shared humanity. Without an accurate appraisal of their significance to society at large, we devalue benefits and the connections they represent at our own individual and collective peril. Put simply, our shared social life cannot exist in the absence of benefits.

It’s a thesis that’s very much in accord with the more narrow arguments made by Sandel in What Money Can’t Buy. Indeed, Sandel echoes Seneca’s emphasis on the proper understanding of gifts in romantic relationships and friendships. He writes that giving gifts to a romantic partner or friend “engages and connects with the recipient, in a way that reflects a certain intimacy.” Like Seneca, Sandel worries that the intrusion of transactional market logic into parts of life it does not belong erodes our ability to “share in a common life” and come to mutual agreement as to what constitutes the common good.

The fact that Sandel can express many of the same concerns Seneca did two millennia ago testifies to the persistence of basic aspects of human nature across space and time. Most notably, for both philosophers basic human connections assume vital importance. That’s largely implicit in Sandel, though occasionally explicit and often present as a background assumption. It’s shot through On Benefits and, for that matter, the rest of Seneca’s body of philosophical work. After all, humanity’s social nature (along with our capacity for reason) remains a central tenet of the Stoic philosophy Seneca practiced. 

But Seneca and, to a lesser extent, Sandel both also speak to humanity’s constant struggle against our own worst instincts and intentions – in particular our misguided tendency to reduce life to material transactions and financial incentives. Seneca, for one, isn’t surprised by this propensity to succumb to such erroneous impressions; as he notes toward the end of On Benefits, ingratitude “is so commonplace that even those who complain about it fall prey to it.” That’s no excuse for failing to bestow benefits, however. “Let us give,” Seneca advises, “even if many of our gifts are in vain.”

In the end, both Seneca and Sandel remind us individuals and societies require more than material incentives and financial logic to succeed. They both call us to think more clearly and carefully about the what really matters in life: our connections and relationships with our fellow human beings.

“Our Coming-of-Age Has Come and Gone”: A Review of Taylor Swift’s “folklore”

(Credit: Beth Garrabrant)

With her atmospheric and impressionistic new record folklore, Taylor Swift hasn’t just made another in a string of superlative albums – she’s created nothing less than a modern masterpiece. It’s an album I’ve been hoping she’d make, one that puts her singular skills as a singer-songwriter on full display. Her unique ability to forge a sense of intimacy and emotional connection with her listers has always been her strong suit; strip away everything else and it’s the fundamental reason why she’s the last true rock star we’re likely to ever see. But with folklore, Swift has managed a unique artistic achievement that ought to cement her place in the storied pantheon of American popular music.

At turns delicate, vulnerable, and pensive, folklore provides an intriguing contrast to last year’s propulsive Lover. Where that excellent album represented a driven and urgent statement of artistic purpose, folklore amounts to an introspective odyssey through many of Swift’s abiding creative concerns and inspirations. As she herself wrote in her introductory note, the album comprises “a collection of songs and stories that flowed like a stream of consciousness.” Swift’s sharp lyrics and affecting vocals dance across a sparse and ethereal sonic landscape, words and music each elegantly complementing one other throughout the album. Reprising and extending a number of its predecessor’s themes, folklore at times proves more emotionally powerful than any of her previous work.

On folklore, Swift tells us that wisdom and maturity cannot be earned without the hurt and heartache that comes with life. These torments are universal, an intrinsic part of the human condition that we can’t escape – but as Swift understands, we can learn much about ourselves from these ordeals and move forward with our lives more than a little wiser for the wear. She repeatedly calls upon evocative imagery of physical scars, wounds, and bleeding to press home her case with the sort of conviction that only personal experience can provide. But Swift doesn’t lament the countless scars she’s picked up over the years; indeed, she welcomes them. If there’s any one overriding idea lurking in folklore, it’s amor fati – the love of fate, a philosophical notion that first surfaced on Lover and which she brings it very much to the surface on folklore.

That’s apparent with the album’s opening track, the aptly-titled “the 1.” Almost immediately, Swift makes clear that she’s approaching her past relationships with maturity and equanimity. She says she’s “doing good” and has “been saying ‘yes’ instead of ‘no,’” reflecting on a failed relationship without bitterness or remorse. Despite looking back now and musing that “it would have been fun if this romance had lasted, Swift knows digging up the past does no good. But she’s accepted the end of her relationship and learned from the experience, acknowledging that “if you never bleed you’re never going to grow/And it’s alright now.” At its core, it’s a speculative reflection from a woman who appreciates what she’s received from a relationship now past – scars and all.

Indeed, vivid lyrics involving scars, wounds, and bleeding mark a number of folklore’s songs. “You drew scars around my stars/But now I’m bleeding,” Swift’s protagonist tells her youthful love on “cardigan.” She acknowledges feeling “like an open wound” when out at a party after wrecking her relationship on “this is me trying,” while on “hoax” she reminds her “faithless love” that he “knew it still hurts underneath my scars/From when they pulled me apart.” But it’d be a mistake to assume this imagery amounts to a simple metaphor for emotional pain. For Swift, the scars we collect teach us hard lessons about life and help make us who we are. It’s an idea that features prominently on Lover’s title track, and Swift explores it far more fully here on folklore.

Swift also builds her introspective frame of mind through the dreamy soundscapes that accompany her contemplative lyrics. On “mirrorball,” for instance, wispy guitar chords reinforce Swift’s lyrical meditation on the need for personal intimacy amidst the wages of celebrity – especially officious demands that she reflect certain views back at her listeners and critics. While she’ll “show you every version of yourself tonight” and will “change everything about me to fit in,” Swift longs for privacy with the object of her affection. When she’s finally alone, Swift tells him, she can be found “Spinning in my highest heels, love/Shining just for you.” It’s a true measure of Swift’s skill as a songwriter that she can translate her own extremely idiosyncratic encounters with the madness of celebrity into a words that speak to the all-too-common social pressures we all face to conform – not to mention the privacy and intimacy we all seek for ourselves, away from the clamor of the crowd. 

Likewise, Swift’s haunting vocals on “this is me trying” echo her lyrical acceptance of personal responsibility and a faltering attempt to repair a broken relationship. Returning to themes broached on songs like “Afterglow” and “Daylight” from Lover, she acknowledges her own shortcomings while recounting her own struggle to change for the better. “They told me all of my cages were mental/So I got wasted like all my potential,” Swift admits. But she’s now “Pouring my heart out to a stranger” rather than sabotaging herself with alcohol “At least I’m trying,” Swift confesses – and that’s all any of us can do, even if like her we maybe “don’t know quite what to say.”

Swift’s raw and fragile vocals on songs like “seven” amplify her stellar songwriting and lend folklore an exquisite emotional vulnerability. “Are there still beautiful things?” she plaintively wonders, reminiscing about her promise to love a childhood friend “to the Moon and to Saturn.” Elegant guitar and piano work enhances the beautiful pastoral imagery painted by Swift’s graceful lyrics, gently guiding us through a bittersweet recollection of youth and a friend whose face she can no longer recall. But it’s enough for her that this memory and the emotions it conjures up will be “passed down like folk songs” through the ages.

Then there’s what Swift calls her “teenage love triangle” trilogy, consisting of the songs “cardigan,” “august,” and “betty.” Swift manages to pack a lot into roughly thirteen minutes of music, providing a complex and nuanced take on the follies of youth as told through divergent accounts of a doomed summer affair and its aftermath. Teenagers may not be quite so idiotic as we think, but they’re still prone to the dumb mistakes and false hopes she tenderly describes from the other woman’s perspective in “august.” 

In an attempt to apologize and win back his significant other, the cheating boyfriend James earnestly explains on “betty” that “I’m only seventeen, I don’t know anything.” It’s not so much that young people frequently make stupid choices, Swift implies, so much as they’re bound to screw up – often spectacularly. As she noted in a recent interview, they need to bleed in order to learn, grow, and mature,: “I think we all have these situations in our lives where we learn to really, really give a heartfelt apology for the first time. Everybody makes mistakes, everybody really messes up sometimes.”

But it’s “invisible string” that’s without doubt folklore’s finest track – and quite possibly the single best song Swift has they written. It’s both something of a spiritual sequel to “Lover” and as sublime an expression of amor fati as we’re likely to hear. Swift somehow proves more than able to distill a number of her animating passions – intimacy, vulnerability, and maturity, among others – into a watercolor daydream four minutes and thirteen seconds long. Above all, though, it’s an affecting love letter to fate and everything it brings.

That’s evident from the buoyant guitar picking that opens the song. Swift begins painting with a technicolor palette, moving from greens and teals to blues to golds as she follows the thread of her fate as it leads to the present. Fate’s companion time assumes various guises throughout the song, at once “curious,” “mystical,” and “wondrous.” It gave Swift “no compasses, gave me no signs” and insisted on “Cutting me open, then healing me fine.” But time also “Gave me the blues and then purple-pink skies/And it’s cool/Baby, with me.” For all that fate and time put her through, Swift remains profoundly grateful that they led her to where she is today: “Hell was the journey but it brought me heaven.”

But fate didn’t just lead Swift to her current relationship. It protected and matured her along the way, pulling her “Out of all the wrong arms,” encasing “all of my past mistakes in barbed wire,” and putting “Chains around my demons/Wool to brave the seasons.” Moreover, Swift no longer has any time for resentments and has grown out of immature feuds. In the past, she acknowledges, “Cold was the steel of my axe to grind/For the boys who broke my heart” – but “Now I send their babies presents.” After stepping into the daylight on the final track of Lover, on “invisible string” Swift is able to more clearly see the “single thread that, for better or worse, ties you to your fate.”

If “invisible string” ranks as folklore’s stand-out track, it’s “epiphany” that strikes the deepest emotional chords. A slow, swelling organ gives way to Swift’s diaphanous vocals as she relates the story of her grandfather hitting the beaches of Guadalcanal as a marine in 1942. With the next verse, Swift’s lyrics establish a compelling correspondence between service on the frontlines of World War II and medical workers on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic today. Both situations exact costly emotional tolls: “And some things you just can’t speak about.” It’s an effective and moving juxtaposition, one that gives voice to the extreme stresses and raw emotions inherent in confronting our own mortality under desperate circumstances – and how we seek some sort of escape, however brief, “To make some sense of what you’ve seen.”

Two more brooding tracks round out folklore, peace” and “hoax.” On the former, Swift’s long-standing sense of insecurity resurfaces to haunt her once again.  Over an insistent electronic pulse, her quavering vocals let her romantic partner know that she’s “a fire and I’ll keep your brittle heart warm/If your cascade, ocean wave blues come.” But while Swift would “give you my sunshine, give you my best,” she’s well aware of what she brings to a relationship – the bad as well as the good. She can’t honestly promise the object of her affection a peaceful or quiet life since “the rain is always gonna come if you’re standin’ with me.” It’s a song that attests to the mature themes Swift dives into on both Lover and folklore.

Swift’s lyrical skills shine on “hoax,” where the song’s upbeat, tinkling piano riff provides a stark contrast to her melancholy verses. “Don’t want no other shade of blue but you,” she ruefully acknowledges. “No other sadness in the world would do.” Her erstwhile significant other knows she still feels the sting of her past emotional wounds, “But what you did was just as dark.” No matter how painful or difficult it may be, however, Swift recognizes that this relationship simply can’t continue and admits defeat in her effort to maintain it:

My only one

My kingdom come undone

My broken drum

You have beaten my heart

But that’s just part and parcel of Swift’s overall message on folklore. However much we want to escape from the hurt and sadness life throws our way, we can’t avoid it. But if we endure it to the best of our abilities, we’ll find ourselves wiser and stronger for the experience. We can even learn to love our fate, since for better or worse it brings us to wherever we happen to wind up at any particular moment. It’s hard for me personally to listen to folklore – and “invisible string” in particular – without recalling the aphorism attributed to the early Greek founders of the Stoic school of philosophy about a dog leashed to a cart: our canine companion can either struggle in vain against the direction of the cart or happily follow its course. That’s how these philosophers conveyed the notion of amor fati, the thread that runs through folklore as a whole and ties it together. 

With folklore, Swift has both pulled together an introspective classic and firmly secured her place as an artist and songwriter of the highest rank. She’s managed both feats by relying once again on her unsurpassed abilities as a singer-songwriter to create an impressionistic and ethereal record that builds on and expands many of the issues and questions explored on Lover and, indeed, throughout her career. Swift plumbs the depths of universal themes inherent in the human condition on the album: acceptance, maturity, and fate. Ultimately, folklore stands on its own a brilliant record that demands close and mindful listening.

As she often does, Swift reminds us to attend to what really matters in life – and accept the scars and wounds we’ll inevitably pick up along the way. That’s something we ought to remain mindful of as we endure the omni-crisis of 2020, a rolling and kaleidoscopic disaster that shows no sign of letting up anytime soon. At very least, Swift tells us, we have to try. After all, if we never bleed we’ll never truly live.

The Unappreciated Genius of Neil Armstrong: A Review of James Hansen’s “First Man”

Credit: NASA


First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong by James R. Hansen

Before filmmaker Todd Douglas Miller called attention to it in his superlative 2019 documentary Apollo 11, few people had probably seen one of the few photos taken of Neil Armstrong on the Moon. A tuft of hair sticking out of his Snoopy cap, a beaming Armstrong looks euphoric in the photograph shot by fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin just after the pair returned to the lunar module Eagle at the end of their moon walk. The almost giddy awe apparent in Armstrong’s eyes and grin stands in contrast to the reserved public persona Armstrong cultivated both before and after Apollo 11’s historic journey.

More than anything else, though that single photo captures both the enigma and the genius of Neil Armstrong – though historian James Hansen’s detailed authorized biography First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong certainly comes close. Brimming with prolific quotations from his own correspondence with Armstrong, his family, and his NASA colleagues, it’s as close to an autobiography of Armstrong as we’ll ever get – assuming Armstrong didn’t leave an unpublished manuscript stashed somewhere among his personal effects. Though occasionally weighed down by workmanlike prose and a dutiful obligation to transcribe the details of official reports almost verbatim, First Man makes it clear that Armstrong’s laconic professionalism made him the right choice to be the first human to set foot on the Moon.

As Hansen makes clear, Armstrong’s reticence was simply part and parcel of his personality from an early age. From siblings and high school classmates to NASA colleagues and superiors, those in Armstrong’s orbit invariably describe him as preternaturally calm and deliberate in his thinking and actions. Both his brother and a high school friend, for instance, observed that Neil only engaged in activities “on his terms.” Armstrong’s NASA colleagues would later use similar language to describe him, with Apollo 8 commander Frank Borman contending that Neil’s quiet and conscientious nature meant that “when he said something, it was worth listening to.” Likewise, Buzz Aldrin called Armstrong “certainly reserved, deep, and thoughtful. He would not utter things that would have the potential of being challenged later because of their spontaneity.” Apollo-era flight director Gene Kranz was more straightforward: “He had the commander mentality.”

Critics then and now mistakenly took Armstrong’s reserve as a sort of aloof detachment at best and an engineer’s blockheaded unwillingness to contemplate the meaning of humanity’s first voyage to another world at worst. But it was that very sense of equanimity that enabled Armstrong to keep cool under pressure throughout his career as a test pilot and astronaut. It allowed him to keep Apollo 11 in perspective, seeing it mainly as a job to be done rather than dwelling on the epochal nature of the mission. From a technical perspective, these qualities made Armstrong an excellent choice to command Apollo 11. For all its literary shortcomings, Hansen’s detailed account demystifies what’s become an easily misunderstood core aspect of Armstrong’s personality.

But the real insight from Hansen’s biography rests in how Armstrong’s innate reserve made him the right man to take humanity’s first step on another world. Indeed, NASA leadership recognized that Armstrong’s “soft-spoken” character mattered more than his technical skill as a pilot when it came to making the decision of whether he or the Aldrin – who, according to flight director Chris Kraft, “desperately wanted the honor and wasn’t quiet in letting it be known” – would be the first astronaut on the lunar surface. However, even these wider considerations don’t adequately capture what made Armstrong the right person to be the first man on the Moon.

Thanks to Armstrong’s unwillingness to delve into the meaning and import of his own mission, we’ve all been able to fill in the canvas of Apollo with our own interpretations of this stupendous event. As frustrating as it’s been to journalists and writers then and since, Armstrong’s steadfast reticence has meant that discerning the meaning of Apollo became truly shared enterprise in the years and decades that followed that one small step of July 20, 1969. Those of us lucky enough to witness Apollo 11’s fiftieth anniversary celebrations on the National Mall last year can testify to the ways in which American society and humanity as a whole have collectively discussed and deliberated about the meaning and significance of our first journey beyond our home planet. 

That’s not to say that Armstrong was a cipher – far from it. As Apollo 11 command module pilot Michael Collins recalled, Armstrong was not so much unable to reveal his innermost thoughts to others as he was generally unwilling. Armstrong’s own personal take on the meaning and import of Apollo materialized only rarely; during a pre-launch press conference, for instance, he “tentatively” (in Hansen’s words) suggested that humanity was going to the Moon “because it’s in the nature of the human being to face challenges. It’s by the nature of his deep inner soul. We’re required to do these things just as salmon swim upstream.” That answer may not have satisfied the skepticism of the novelist Norman Mailer, reporting on the mission for Life magazine, but it provides an intriguing humanistic context for Armstrong’s now-immortal first words on the lunar surface: “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” 

Despite the faint intimations of humanism implied by this memorable expression – though Armstrong claims not to have given his statement much thought before setting down on the Sea of Tranquility – the first human to set foot on another celestial body refused to impose his own understanding of this epochal event on the world or the future. It was left up to us to determine the meaning of it all, with Armstrong merely providing us with the opportunity to do so. Though Hansen puts all these pieces of the puzzle on the table, he never really puts them together. He only weakly gives a sense that they constitute parts of a bigger picture, but the fact that Hansen collected them all in one place remains a significant achievement. In the end, though, it’s clear from Hansen’s account that NASA chose the right astronaut for the job.

Hansen understandably devotes nearly all of his narrative – some ninety percent – to Armstrong’s life up to his departure from the astronaut corps in the early summer of 1970. Armstrong himself briefly held a position as the NASA official in charge of advanced aeronautical research and development before leaving government altogether in 1971. He then took up a professorship at the University of Cincinnati for the rest of the 1970s before serving on government commissions (like the investigation into the space shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986) and corporate boards until officially retiring the early 2000s.

Reading Hansen’s brief sketch of his post-lunar life, however, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Armstrong had some difficulty adjusting to life after the Moon. After all, just what does the first man on the Moon do with the rest of his life? While Buzz Aldrin’s public struggle with alcoholism and depression began shortly after he and his two fellow astronauts exited their post-mission quarantine in Houston, Armstrong appears to have faced his own mild form of existential drift in the years and decades that followed his return to Earth. That sense of restlessness comes across in Hansen’s account of the end of his marriage to his first wife Janet in the late 1980s, when Armstrong grew indecisive about his own substantial time commitments – and failed to make enough time to sustain their own relationship.

Indeed, of the three Apollo 11 astronauts Michael Collins seems to have had the best post-mission experience. After briefly serving as assistant secretary of state for public affairs, Collins became the first director of the National Air and Space Museum and presided over its opening in 1976. His memoir Carrying the Fire stands as perhaps the best – and certainly most literary – account of what it was like to be an astronaut during the early days of human spaceflight.

That obviously does nothing to detract from Armstrong’s storied career or his dual achievement of being the first person to set foot on the Moon and, consciously or not, allowing us to discover the meaning of that one small step for ourselves. Armstrong’s refusal to impose his own interpretation on the events of Apollo 11 then or later stands in stark contrast to the incessant demands for didactic, black-and-white interpretations that we constantly hear today. Saturated in social media, it seems as if we want to be spoon-fed superficial explanations of the happenings that swirl around us as quickly as possible. 

With his own innate quiet reserve, however, Neil Armstrong gives us a different model to follow. We’d do well to emulate his considered reticence and refuse to indulge in the sort of simplistic moralism about current affairs that marks so much of our day-to-day lives. More importantly, in so doing we’ll give ourselves the time and space needed to come to shared and individual senses of meaning about events we encounter. In the end, Armstrong’s example reminds us that calm deliberation can take us far – even all the way to the Moon.

The Rolling Stones and the Wages of Boredom

We live in an unprecedented season of boredom

Not the familiar kind of ennui we all find ourselves experiencing from time to time, but a sort of existential tedium that’s been imposed upon us by the need to contain the ravages of a deadly virus. It’s not that there aren’t ways to endow this tedium with a sense of purpose, but as a society we’ve failed to avail ourselves of any of them – a failing magnified by our inability to cope constructively with the devastating social and economic consequences of the pandemic. While that’s due mainly to a disastrous absence of political leadership of any kind at the highest level, we each bear our own share of responsibility for slipping so unthinkingly into the deep and pervasive collective malaise that’s filled the ensuing void. 

Strangely enough, the soundtrack most relevant to our stay-at-home monotony was written and recorded some five decades ago by the Rolling Stones. Listening to the Stones at this particular moment of shared boredom, it’s not hard to pick up on the overwhelming sense of anomie and listlessness that courses through much of the band’s work. It’s this undercurrent of aimless anxiety that provided the Stones with their creative animus – and what makes the music they made at the height of their powers in the 1960s and 1970s so apropos in our own era of ennui. 

This motivating torpor comes through loud and clear on the band’s first major success, the appropriately titled “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” The distorted fuzz of Keith Richards’ languid opening riff provides a fitting prelude to the myriad frustrations with the modern world listed by Mick Jagger. Fueled by the maddeningly contradictory messages he hears from consumer advertisers and an exasperating inability to satiate his sexual desire, Jagger’s central compliant revolves around a state of existential ennui that feels uncannily parallel to that resulting from our own coronavirus confinement. Same goes for “Get Off My Cloud,” another early-era Stones classic in which Jagger describes living in an apartment “on the ninety-ninth floor of my block” and sits “at home looking out the window/Imagining the world has stopped.”

But the band’s animating tedium only truly comes to a head with its seminal 1968 album Beggars Banquet. There, the Stones give full license to the underlying boredom that drives their music. That starts with “Sympathy for the Devil,” where the Stones explore the depravity that results from eternal indolence. It’s as if the sophisticated Satan crafted by the Stones has nothing better to do with his time than cause trouble across human history. For him, this death and destruction amounts to a mere game – though one whose true nature eludes his human audience. An aura of decadent menace surrounds the devil as he demands “some courtesy, some sympathy, and some taste” should the listener ever encounter him. “Use all your well-learned politesse,” he warns, “or I’ll lay your soul to waste.”

Going deeper into the album, the band’s general malaise becomes even more apparent. “No Expectations” and “Dear Doctor” deliver a slow, lazy laments, while on “Jigsaw Puzzle” Jagger “waits so patiently/Lying on the floor.” He’s “just trying to do my jigsaw puzzle/Before it rains anymore.” But it’s on the relatively up-tempo “Street Fighting Man” where the Stones best express their restless boredom. Ostensibly a paean to violent political revolution, the song amounts to an outpouring of aimless frustration when there aren’t any better ways to spend one’s time. (Indeed, boredom often leads to risky and self-destructive behavior.) The narrator claims he personifies disturbance and will “shout and scream, I’ll kill the King I’ll rail at all his servants.” In the end, though, street fighting is nothing more than a release of pent-up energy – in “sleepy London town,” after all, there’s no other way to alleviate boredom “except to sing for a rock and roll band.”

From there on out, it’s only a question of how far the Stones can be driven in their quest to take the edge off their collective listlessness. That’s apparent on songs like “Stray Cat Blues,” an encomium to morally dubious sexual desire on Beggars Banquet, and “Midnight Rambler,” a first person blues narrative about a serial killer on the prowl from Let It Bleed. This ennui-driven exploration of the darker reaches of the human condition probably hits its apotheosis with “Brown Sugar,” the sublime opening track on the Stones’ 1971 masterpiece Sticky Fingers. 

It’s clear in retrospect that the band’s malaise had nowhere more extreme to take them after this depraved triumph, but their languid restlessness still marks the rest of Sticky Fingers. “Did you ever wake up to find,” Jagger wonders on “Sway,” “A day that broke up your mind/Destroyed your notion of circular time?” Likewise, “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” exudes agitated ennui from its nasty opening chords through Jagger’s snarling delivery to the concluding jam session between Richards and then-Stones guitarist Mick Taylor. “Dead Flowers,” the album’s penultimate track, makes explicit at least one of the wages of terminal boredom: the desperate stupor of heroin abuse.

Indolence continued to fuel the Stones creatively well into the 1970s. On the opening track of 1972’s Exile On Main Street, for instance, Jagger confesses “the sunshine bores the daylights out of me.” The disco-inflected hit “Miss You” from 1978’s Some Girls alludes to the anxious tedium involved in “hanging on the phone” and “sleeping all alone” while waiting for the call of an erstwhile lover; several songs on 1980’s Emotional Rescue hit similar themes as well. Despite the band’s own licentious lifestyle at the time, there’s a certain theatricality behind their musical decadence. Dissolute aspects of their own personal lives aside, it’s as if the Stones suggest that we shouldn’t take them too seriously.

Two of the band’s most well-known songs suggest that’s the case – and provide rays of light amidst the boredom-generated doom and gloom that characterizes much of their work. Perhaps the Stones’ best song, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” reassures us that after all our trials and tribulations – including a “spike right through my head” – “it’s all right now, in fact it’s a gas.” More to the point, “It’s Only Rock ‘N Roll (But I Like It)” gives the game away: for the Stones (or Jagger at least), rock and roll can’t solve our existential problems – but it is an exceptionally enjoyable way to fill our time and dispel our boredom, if only temporarily.

That’s why the sonic landscape the Stones created five decades ago is so appropriate for our own day and age. With an endless and aimless lockdown nurturing ennui on a massive scale, perhaps it’s only fitting that a band so fueled by the need to relieve its own boredom gives us our most relevant soundtrack. Indeed, the Stones captured the zeitgeist with their most recent single, “Living in a Ghost Town” – and showed how their enduring preoccupation with existential indolence and what to do with it remain potent today. 

But as much as the Stones once pushed the boundaries of good taste and cultivated a well-earned reputation for raising hell while plumbing the depths of debauchery with their music, they also leave us with good reason for optimism. We may be confined to home indefinitely and bored to tears, but it’s all right: we’ve got rock and roll, and it’s a gas, gas, gas.

Two Roads to the Same Destination: The Rise of Gated Community Politics on Both Left and Right

We live in the age of gated community politics.

This form of politics rests on the idea that the United States and individual American citizens can sequester themselves from the world and each other. It exemplifies a particular sort of moral and political isolationism, an abdication of solidarity with and our obligations to our fellow citizens and humanity as a whole. Whether expressed in a right-wing idiom or a left-wing one, gated community politics both reflects and stimulates the collapse of social trust that’s needed to create and sustain stable and successful societies. Gated community politics  denies the possibility of a shared national life, thriving on and amplifying solipsism while dissolving the bonds that link fellow citizens to one another and the world at large.

Both variants of gated community politics are founded on fundamentally misguided understandings of human nature. That’s most obvious with the right-wing version promoted by President Trump, based as it is on excessive pessimism about human nature and the need to build literal walls to cut ourselves off from others. But it’s equally present on the progressive left in the guise of romantic and utopian beliefs about human nature that find substantive expression in calls for foreign policy “restraint” and, more recently, abolish or defund the police at home. Together, privileged left-wing idealism and entrenched far-right pessimism aid and abet one another, each in their own way stimulating and encouraging the gated community mentality that distorts the way we think about politics and society.

Whatever fine distinctions can be drawn between these two ways of thinking about human nature, in the final analysis they’re two roads to the same destination: the gated political community, isolated from one’s fellow citizens and the rest of humanity. Along the way, these two caricatures of human nature flatten our thinking about our shared human experience and leave us unequipped to deal with the complex, messy realities of politics and human life. No matter our starting point, when we adopt either of these misconceived notions of human nature we’re almost certain to wend our way to the gated political community.

It’s easy to recognize the gated community mentality on the right, particularly in the form of President Trump’s “America First” foreign policy and his repeated pledges to build a literal wall on the border with Mexico. An excessive pessimism about human nature undergirds the right-wing school of gated community politics. It sees humanity as inherently egocentric and misanthropic, with every person and every nation out to take advantage of everyone else. We must therefore shape our own behavior accordingly, building walls to keep others out and arming ourselves to the teeth to keep them away. What’s more, we must do our utmost to take advantage of others before they take advantage of us first.

President Trump’s unfulfilled promise to build a wall on the border with Mexico easily stands as the most obvious and concrete manifestation of right-wing gated community politics. In its attempt to keep undesirables out of the country, the wall both literally and symbolically aims to turn the United States into a gated community. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a better synecdoche for the gated community worldview than President Trump’s “impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful, southern border wall.”

Appeals Court Rejects Trump's Diversion of Military Funds for ...
Credit: Doug Mills, New York Times

But the gated community mentality is far more important as the engine that drives President Trump’s “America First” approach to foreign policy, an attitude that sees the nations of the world as always and everywhere trying to exploit of the United States. In this view, alliances become protection rackets and international trade a matter of exploitation rather than instruments of shared security and mutual prosperity. Witness President Trump’s recent complaint that the “European Union has ripped this country off so much” when it comes to trade, for instance, or his repeated insistence that allies in Europe and Asia pay for American military protection.

In terms of policy, “America First” relies almost solely on coercion. Throwing up tariff barriers and threatening to withdraw from alliances unless other member nations pony up protection money only reflects the narrow-minded, self-serving, and ultimately fearful impulses that lay at heart of the gated community politics on the right. At best, this form of politics cultivates a sense of aggrieved indifference toward the rest of the world. It dissolves any sense of international solidarity among like-minded nations, and reduces the United States to a bystander on the world stage. In consequence, it constitutes both a moral and practical evasion of the complex and difficult realities of international politics. More than anything else, though, the practice of right-wing gated community politics amounts to a self-fulfilling prophecy of the highest – and worst – order by acting as if the world really operates in the way President Trump and his fellow-travelers believe it does.

If President Trump actively aims to remake the nation as a gated community, his professed opponents on the progressive left seem happy to reach the same destination – albeit by a different path. Cloaked in idealistic rhetoric, progressive gated community politics are no less destructive than its right-wing mirror image of the bonds of solidarity on which society depends. Nor is it any less founded on fundamentally misguided notions of human nature than its counterpart on the right. 

Indeed, progressive gated community politics rests on romantic and utopian ideas surrounding human nature. Believing humanity to be intrinsically innocent but corrupted by a base and sinful society, at the end of the day progressive gated community politics yields a blithe and privileged anarchism that frequently finds adherents among the relatively well-off upper-middle-classes of society. With a healthy dose of condescending solipsism, this mentality asserts that the American society and the United States constitute the main root of all that’s wrong with the world in some way, shape, or form. As a result, society itself – and “primacy” and “liberal hegemony” in the foreign policy context – must somehow be “dismantled” or otherwise destroyed to clear the way for the progressive utopia that will inevitably and ineluctably emerge from the ruins.

Ultimately, however, this worldview amounts to a counterfeit altruism that can only be offered by those who have the means to exempt themselves from its consequences. It’s no exaggeration to say that this atavistic mode of progressive politics fosters the very conditions that lead to the demand for gated communities in the first place. The emergence of the progressive gated community mentality marks an enormous regression in supposedly left-wing political thinking, a renunciation of the ideals of solidarity and shared citizenship in the name of an allegedly higher morality.

This moral and political isolationism can be found first and foremost in the foreign policy doctrines that fall under the rubric of “restraint.” Advocates of “restraint” assume that a wholesale American retreat from the world will lead to an improvement in the existing state of international affairs. Presuming the exercise of American military power to be the root of all international problems, advocates of “restraint” assume that the removal of said military power can only have salutary consequences for global security and stability. Leaving our erstwhile allies in Europe and Asia to fend for themselves against regional powers like Russia and China will therefore cause few if any problems, allowing the United States to focus more intently on its own domestic problems and inaugurate a new age of global cooperation on problems like climate change. Dismantle “liberal hegemony,” in other words, and the world will see something close to an Edenic efflorescence of peace and security.

But while advocates of “restraint” clothe themselves in righteous rhetoric and take a very different rhetorical path than that taken President Trump and “America First,” their preferred foreign policy approach winds up in the very same gated community. In both cases, America finds itself isolated and alone in the world after it severs the moral and political bonds that attach it to its friends and allies around the globe. Presenting themselves as mere realists, advocates of “restraint” foster a gated community mentality on the left that’s strikingly similar to its counterpart on the right. This gated community may appear more welcoming, but it nonetheless remains walled off and separate from the rest of the world in its own pernicious way.

On the domestic front, notions of foreign policy “restraint” find an uncanny analogue in newly-fashionable calls to defund – or even abolish – local police forces. Even more than advocates of “restraint,” progressives aiming to starve law enforcement of resources exemplify the romantic and utopian assumptions about human nature that animate the gated community mentality on the left. This worldview takes for granted the notion that the state and society themselves constitute the major source of societal dysfunction and, more crucially, that the diminution of public authority does not and cannot logically entail a rejection of the ideals shared citizenship and solidarity necessary for a diverse and variegated society to function even at a most basic level.

Progressive ideologues on the Minneapolis City Council, for instance, voted to abolish the metropolitan police department – but provided three members of the council with private security details in the weeks surrounding the vote that followed the apparent murder of an unarmed man at the hands of the police. The head of the city council has even argued the desire for basic public protection against crimes like armed robbery “comes from a place of privilege.” Likewise, the progressive residents of one Minneapolis neighborhood have found themselves contending with growing public disorder – but refuse to call the police or cooperate with prosecutors on ideological grounds, even when compelled to turn over the keys to their cars at gunpoint. Meanwhile, gun violence on the North Side of Minneapolis continues to take its toll, with over a hundred people shot and eight killed since Memorial Day. Residents of this less well-off neighborhood can catalogue their fair share of problems and issues with the police, but look askance at calls by local progressive ideologues to defund or abolish law enforcement.

From the Balkans in the 1990s to Iraq and Syria in the 2000s and 2010s, the world has seen this movie before and it doesn’t end well. In the absence of a legitimate public authority able to enforce the law and provide a modicum of security, people will seek safety in the confines of narrower and narrower social units based on allegedly primordial identity markers. Those with means to afford private security will avail themselves of it, withdrawing from society and into their own heavily-policed gated communities. Nor does community security provided by one’s neighbors – an alternative offered by more radical police abolitionists – avoid the gated community problem, and indeed may make matters worse. As the philosopher Michael Walzer notes, this sort of “neighborly surveillance” has its own long and sordid history from Calvinist Geneva and Puritan England to Revolutionary France and Maoist China. 

A provincial governor in Heilongjiang has his hair brutally shaved and is forced to bow for hours after being accused of bearing a resemblance to Mao Zedong.
Credit: © Li Zhensheng/Contact Press Images

Above all else, though, progressive gated community politics stands as a repudiation of solidarity with one’s fellow citizens and, indeed, the rest of humanity. Its practitioners amputate these indispensable common bonds and fail to envisage – much less consider – the predictable consequences involved. In the pursuit of an idyllic illusion, they unwittingly propose to slip back into circumstances uncomfortably akin a Hobbesian state of nature. Though it may start from vastly different and much more idealistic (though no less misguided) suppositions about human nature than its right-wing equivalent, progressive gated community politics merely charts a different path to the same destination.

So how can we escape the politics of the gated community?

We can start by recognizing the practical implications inherent in both progressive and right-wing manifestations of gated community politics. Both reassure us that we’ll reap nothing but benefits when we cut ourselves off from our fellow citizens and loosen our ties to the rest of humanity. In reality, these forms of politics do nothing so much as dissolve the bonds of solidarity and shatter the individual public-spiritedness so vital and necessary to functioning societies. They constitute a retreat into moral and political isolationism, and an abdication of responsibility and concern for one another as citizens and human beings. In its progressive incarnation especially, gated community politics results in both an ethical and physical withdrawal from society by those who can afford their own protection. As the great labor and civil rights leader Bayard Rustin put it in the late 1960s, left-wing “pseudo-revolutionaries” who advocate utopian political romanticism but “can retreat into their universities and suburbs” when faced with the practical consequences of their worldview “deserve special condemnation.”

More importantly, we can reject the fundamentally misguided beliefs about human nature posited by proponents of gated community politics on both left and right. Neither the excessive pessimism of the gated community right nor the romantic utopianism of the gated community left evince much (if any) contact with living, breathing human beings in all their complexity and contradiction. Nor do they reveal much real regard for actually existing people. A certain solipsism prevails in gated community politics on both ends of the political spectrum, as if the world does not exist outside the mental constructs about human nature they’ve built for themselves. Indeed, these erroneous understandings of human nature serve only to flatten the human experience, reducing it to caricatures that invariably lead to either self-fulfilling prophecies or perverse outcomes. The end result of the gated community mentality across political and ideological lines is an inability – or an outright refusal – to think about complicated moral, political, and policy questions that by their very nature can’t be forced into the procrustean bed of ideology.

To truly escape from the prison of gated community politics, though we need more balanced and refined beliefs about human nature. These ideas would acknowledge the positives and negatives of human nature in concert, considering its strengths together with its weaknesses. As a matter of fact, philosophical and religious traditions have been conceiving and elaborating such ideas throughout human history. The ancient Stoics, for instance, developed a subtle and sophisticated view of human nature that involved the use of reason on behalf of the common good of both the particular society in which we happen to live as well as humanity as a whole. But they also understood that it’s foolish to expect no one to ever do wrong or wrongdoers of any and every stripe not to exist; indeed, the Stoic philosopher-statesmen Seneca and Marcus Aurelius took pains to remind themselves and their literary interlocutors to anticipate encountering such mistaken and misguided people in daily life. This ancient school of philosophical thought offered a nuanced and reflective account of human nature that aimed to delineate it, detail its requirements, and, perhaps most importantly, why we so often fail to live up to it.

Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius, Capitoline Museums, Rome (2019). Credit: Peter Juul

Other philosophical and religious traditions can offer similar accounts of human nature. Though Thomas Hobbes, for instance, remains best known for his deeply pessimistic speculative description of the state of nature, he also contended that humanity could emancipate and protect itself from this dire predicament by delegating authority to a overwhelmingly powerful sovereign state. But the specifics of these ideas about human nature remain less important than the fact that it’s possible to have fully developed philosophical or religious understandings of human nature without resorting to the distorted and simplistic views that undergird the gated community mentality. We’d all be better served by adopting the richer accounts of human nature these ways of thinking offer.

The task before us today, however, mostly involves holding the line against the moral and political isolationism offered by gated community politics across the political spectrum. It’s a difficult assignment, but looking forward it will prove vital to maintain the bonds of common humanity and shared citizenship necessary for any society to function – and function well. These bonds are under active assault from both right and left: the former holds an extremely pessimistic view of human nature that denies such bonds exist outside an exceedingly narrow confines, while the latter advances romantic and utopian notions that only serve to dissolve these bonds. In the end, they’re merely different roads to the same destination: the gated community.

But we can still turn back the tide of gated community politics if we reject the misguided and false understandings of human nature on which it relies. Instead, we can and should adopt and put forward more balanced ideas about human nature that strengthen the bonds of solidarity that unite us with our fellow citizens and humanity writ large. If we shed the moral and political isolationism at its root, then perhaps we can reject the temptations of gated community politics wherever they may emerge.

Records You Should Listen To: “Emotional Rescue” by the Rolling Stones

The Rolling Stones - Emotional Rescue [Remastered] - Music

[The second in an occasional series.]

From 1968 to 1972, the Rolling Stones assembled perhaps the most remarkable run of albums in popular music history: Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile on Main Street. Just one of these spectacular records would have been the climax of any band’s career, but Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and company reeled off a four consecutive masterpieces over the same number of years. Alongside singles like “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Honky Tonk Women,” these records showcase the Stones at their creative peak – and set an unrealistic standard for all the band’s subsequent work.

Only from such heights could solid outings like 1973’s Goat’s Head Soup and 1974’s It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll come to be seen as disappointments. But the Stones mounted a three-album renaissance at the end of the 1970s, starting with Some Girls in 1978 and concluding with Tattoo You, the band’s last truly impressive studio album, in 1981. Released 1980, Emotional Rescue often winds up a neglected chapter in the Stones’ last artistic gasp – but it’s a record that deserves more than a footnote in the history of the legendary rock band.

Not that the Rolling Stones have failed to make compelling music since. They’ve produced a number of catchy singles, from “Love Is Strong” and “You Got Me Rocking” in the mid-1990s to “Doom and Gloom” in the early 2010s. Blue and Lonesome, the Stones’ worthy 2016 tribute to the blues genre that first inspired its members all those decades ago, likewise stands out as a fitting capstone to the band’s enormous body of work. For the most part, though, since the early 1980s the Rolling Stones have amounted to the world’s greatest touring band more than a living musical force. In retrospect, Emotional Rescue can be viewed as the second-to-last major creative statement of a career that’s now spanned almost six decades .

The album itself picks up right where Some Girls left off with “Dance (Pt. 1),” a song with an underlying groove and beat reminds listeners of the preceding record’s “Miss You.” Jagger exhorts the band to “get up, get out, get into something new.” But the Stones clearly have no interest in or intention of doing so on Emotional Rescue; they’ll just continue doing what they do best. Richards and Ronnie Wood – who joined the band as its second guitarist in the mid-1970s – provide excellent guitar work, weaving together solos, riffs, and chords effortlessly.

It’s also clear from the start that Emotional Rescue is a summer album, intended for listening during the long, hot, and sticky days from early June to late August. Richards fires off a blistering solo on the aptly-titled “Summer Romance,” while Jagger’s vocals come to the fore on the plaintive, Caribbean-inflected blues number “Send It To Me.” “Let Me Go” is a pleasant enough break-up song, with Jagger listing the ways in which he’s tried to ditch a lover, including: “The bell has rung and I call time.” On “Indian Girl,” fine acoustic work from Richards and Wood backs up Jagger’s languid lament that “life just goes on and on gettin’ harder and harder.” 

From the very moment they burst into public consciousness, the Stones have been driven by a decadent cocktail of ennui and sexual desire. That unstable compound seeps back to the surface on “Where The Boys Go,” where a bored Jagger tells potential female companions that he’s exhausted potential alternatives – playing football, watching television, and drinking to excess – and now embarks on a quest for “a little piece of ass” to divert himself. After all,“where the girls are now” is “where the boys all go.”

The record deftly segues into the desperation blues of “Down In The Hole,” where Jagger aggressively queries whether money actually buys anything of real value. It can’t keep a person from falling “down in the gutter,” reduced to bumming for cigarettes and nylons. Down in the hole, there’s “no escape from trouble” and “nowhere to go.” Richards and Wood knit blues licks together while Sugar Blue plays a mournful harmonica, lending the song an added touch of melancholy.

With a crash of cymbals and a steady bass groove, Emotional Rescue shifts tone with the upbeat title track. Jagger’s falsetto furnishes the song with its distinctive quality as he insists he’ll ride to the rescue of a lover attached to an unworthy partner as her “knight in shining armor” – and on a “fine Arab charger” no less. Sultry saxophone work by long-time Stones saxophonist Bobby Keys rounds out the song.

The Stones return to their central animating concerns with “She’s So Cold,” a tale of unrequited lust expressed with volatile imagery. Jagger fully identifies with his own desire, describing himself as “the burning bush, the burning fire” before outright declaring “I’m the bleeding volcano.” By contrast, the object of his attraction remains “so cold, cold, cold like an ice cream cone” and a tombstone – so much so that Jagger comes to believe she was “was born in an Arctic zone.” A saxophone siren blares midway through the song, layering urgency over the deceptively relaxed guitars of Richards and Wood. Emotional Rescue then closes with “All About You,” a slow dirge to a failed relationship featuring Richards on vocals. 

Why give Emotional Rescue a listen? As a record, it’s a straightforward document of the quintessential rock band refusing to enter the twilight of its career with anything less than a roar. Sandwiched in the Stones’ late 1970s renaissance between Some Girls and Tattoo You, Emotional Rescue deserves a wider hearing from the band’s generations of devoted followers and more general rock aficionados alike. 

Lost in Space: The Squandered Potential of Netflix’s “Space Force”

Steve Carell's 'Space Force' Teaser Trailer Released – Variety

Though the show serves itself up a rich array of satirical targets and boasts a wealth of talent, Space Force never quite reaches orbit. At best, it’s a light-hearted and mildly entertaining diversion from our current national travails. But though Space Force never quite succeeds as a comedy and proves too gentle to serve as real satire, the show nonetheless possesses enough daft charm to endear itself to viewers in its own peculiar way.

Space Force certainly identifies the right satirical targets, President Donald Trump first and foremost among them. Viewers can catch glimpses of a thinly-veiled stand-in for Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, for instance, while a character clearly based on Elon Musk and Elizabeth Holmes takes central stage in an late-season episode. But Space Force fails to draw much if any blood. It gives its only decent scratch to the likes of Musk and Holmes when their analogue’s traveling publicist explains that if just one of their promised gadgets works no one will remember their repeated and frequent failures.

That goes double for the more generic archetypes Space Force attempts to lampoon. Self-absorbed social media consultant F. Tony Scarapiducci – likely a riff on the name of short-lived Trump communications director Anthony Scaramucci – represents the greatest missed opportunity, drawn too broadly by actor Ben Schwartz to effectively ridicule this particular pseudo-profession. Likewise, the transparent Russia spy who appears early on amounts to a caricature before he fades away in later episodes. Perhaps the closest Space Force comes to effectively here involves one lowly grunt’s attempt to impress the daughter of Space Force commander Gen. Mark Naird (portrayed by Steve Carell) by rattling off a spate of conspiracy theories he’s read online.

Despite its generally inert satirical execution, however, Space Force still contains some bright spots. It’s imbued with an occasional but all-too-infrequent sense of the bizarre that includes a farcical attempt to order a space chimp to repair a just-launched Space Force satellite that’s been disabled by the Chinese. As the always-exasperated and constantly put-upon Space Force chief scientist Dr. Adrian Mallory, moreover, John Malkovich chews scenery with remarkable aplomb. Mallory himself provides a bit of light satire of performative activism when he threatens to immolate himself in protest of a decision to go to war with China on the Moon but then backs away, saying he’s “proven what I wanted to prove.”

Strangely enough, though, it’s Space Force’s intermittent sincerity that becomes its most engaging feature. From the very first episode, Naird places a premium on people as Space Force’s critical element – and not in the human capital argot of business consultants and economists. Pressed to justify Space Force’s budget under hostile congressional questioning, for instance, Naird explains that, in his experience, “money doesn’t matter, people matter.” In the specific case of the Space Force, he contents, those people put their lives at risk “in the pursuit of science to solve our many problems.” Ironically enough, Naird and Mallory do a better job justifying the fictional Space Force than the Trump administration has managed to do in reality.

But there’s the rub: Space Force takes far too many liberties with reality and does so in ways that reinforce popular misperceptions about America’s space program. To start with, the basic premise of the show seems to rest on the assumption that Space Force has absorbed NASA and the rest of America’s civil space program. Referencing the Trump administration’s stated (if unrealistic) goal to return astronauts to the Moon by 2024, moreover, the fictional Space Force is tasked with putting “boots on the Moon” in a similar timeframe. These deviations from reality would make sense if Space Force were a sharper satire, poking holes in the very concept of a space force as put forward by President Trump – or presenting the bland and boring reality of the actual Space Force that belies the image both Trump and the show itself have concocted. 

As it is, however, Space Force leaves viewers with fantastical notions of both America’s overall space program and, perhaps more importantly, what human spaceflight takes. At the climax of the series, the Chinese land taikonauts on the Moon and claim the Sea of Tranquility – the site of the Apollo 11 landing – for Beijing. Naird orders a crash program that sees untrained Space Force personnel almost immediately rocketing to the Moon, as if landing humans on the lunar surface were simply a matter of choice rather than one of hard work, intense planning, and lengthy preparation. By its final episode, Space Force winds up debasing the fine rhetoric it put in Naird’s mouth early on.

There’s more to like and dislike about Space Force. Naird’s single-parent relationship with his daughter Erin (played by Diana Silvers), for instance, weaves another strand of earnestness into the show. But it’s undermined by the bizarre decision to include Naird’s incarcerated wife (portrayed by Lisa Kudrow) in the story. It’s unclear at best what purpose her character serves, beyond giving the show’s writers license to make some stale jokes. 

In the end, Space Force squanders its satirical potential. Though the show picks the right targets, it pulls its punches far too often and lets its quarries off with a slap on the wrist. The show’s winning if largely occasional sincerity amounts to a double-edged sword, working against its satirical possibilities at the same time paints sympathetic portraits of a number of its lead characters. John Malkovich’s exquisite exasperation notwithstanding, Space Force gives its inherently absurd premise a gentle ribbing rather than the good-natured pounding it deserves.

Records You Should Listen To: “Parade” by Prince and the Revolution

[The first in what I hope will be an occasional series.]

In 1986, Prince released Parade: Music From the Motion Picture Under the Cherry Moon. It would prove to be Prince’s last full album the Revolution, the band that backed him at his artistic peak in the mid-1980s. Situated chronologically between masterpieces 1999 and Purple Rain on the one hand and Sign O’ The Times on the other, Parade is an unjustly overlooked gem from Prince’s most fertile creative period.

Parade isn’t just dwarfed by these widely recognized classics, however. It’s also overshadowed by the colorful psychedelia of 1985’s Around the World in a Day, a record that expanded the Prince mythos with “Paisley Park”and gave us the undeniable “Raspberry Beret.” In addition, it certainly didn’t help that Parade had the bad luck to be associated with an unmitigated cinematic disaster that’s more recognizable today as a source for GIFs than its plot or its soundtrack.

To the extent that anyone other than die-hard Prince fans remains aware of Parade today, it’s as the album that includes the superlative single “Kiss.” But Parade – especially the album’s excellent second side – is more than just “Kiss.” In order to capture the sonic subtleties Prince employs with great effect on Parade, it’s necessary to listen actively and attentively to the record as a whole. Indeed, it’s easy to dismiss this album if a you’re not paying attention as you listen. But the music’s well worth the effort involved.

Beyond “Kiss,” Parade contains a number of standout if lesser-known Prince tracks: “Girls and Boys,” for instance, displays Prince’s fondness for lyrics that juxtapose love and lust as horns, guitars, and vocals work together to create a whimsical melody. He closes out the record’s first side with “Venus de Milo,” a dreamy jazz-inflected instrumental driven largely by piano, flutes, and muted horns. It’s a short, slow interlude that eases the listener into the album’s superior second side.

That side starts with a bang: “Mountains” opens with a strong and incessant beat that forms the song’s backbone. A cascade of percussion quickly brings us to a keyboard and guitar riff that fills the space between the beats and drives the song forward. Prince’s falsetto enters to relate the psychedelic story of a lover from “a land called Fantasy” who’s convinced “that another mountain” will appear and “sea would one day overflow with all your tears” whenever “somebody broke your heart.” But rest assured, Prince says: “it’s only mountains and the sea.” The Revolution plays together seamlessly, as evidenced by the song’s breakdown where Prince strips the song down to guitars and drums.

Then there’s “Kiss” – and the song’s introductory guitar riff and opening grunt tells us all we need to know about where it’s going. Here again, Prince’s falsetto works wonders as he expresses his desire to please his lover over a propulsive groove that amounts to funk at its finest. The breakdown brings the song’s infectious guitar strumming back to the fore before transitioning to the twangy, minimalist solo that leads to the back end of the song.

Anotherloverholenyohead” picks up with a brief guitar solo; pianos and a steady beat then join in to create the song’s crunchy main chord. Prince aggressively begs his now-former lover to return to him, reminding her that they “were inseparable” and that he “gave you all of my time.” His lover says she’s had enough, but Prince warns her that she needs “another lover like you need a hole in your head.” After all, she knows “there ain’t no other/That can do the duty in your bed.” Throughout, the Revolution’s female members – keyboardist Lisa Coleman, guitarist Wendy Melvoin, and Prince’s then-girlfriend Susannah Melvoin – provide strong backing vocals that nicely complement Prince’s desperate romantic pleas.

Parade concludes with the quiet and delicate “Sometimes It Snows In April,” a mournful meditation on the untimely loss of a close friend. The song’s sparse arrangement consists of a piano, acoustic guitar, and vocals, complemented with a muted horn in the introduction. It’s a slow and introspective number in which Prince reminds himself to “always cry for love, never cry for pain” and that “love, it isn’t love until it’s passed.” Though the subject matter veers toward melancholy, the main guitar and piano through-lines consistently lilt upward and lend the song a bittersweet mood.

Why give Parade a listen? As a record, it’s a complex and often whimsical document of a musical artist at the height of his creative powers. If you’ve already heard it casually and dismissed it as one of Prince’s lesser efforts, Parade certainly deserves a second, closer, and more attentive hearing. Ultimately, Parade is a fine record in its own right – but it’s also an album that makes the already colossal achievements of 1999, Purple Rain, and Sign O’ The Times loom all the larger in the pantheon of American popular music.

Revenge of the Normie Democrat

[This piece was first published on my friend and colleague Ruy Teixeira’s Facebook account. I’m posting it here in order to show the links and references.]

To hear it from political pundits and commentators, in their 2020 presidential primaries the Democratic Party dodged the bullet that felled their Republican counterparts in 2016. Former Vice President Joe Biden emerged victorious amidst a crowded field, vindicating the Democratic establishment against insurgent populists like Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren. By contrast, horrified Republican elites could do little to stop their radicalized primary voters from handing their party’s presidential nomination to Donald Trump four years ago.

But this narrative both misleads and obscures: Biden’s sudden and swift political resurrection amounted to a revolt of the Democratic rank-and-file against a strident and loud progressive elite. In an inversion of the 2016 Republican primary, Democratic primary voters prevented a hostile takeover of their party by a well-heeled ideological vanguard class with whom they fundamentally disagreed on matters of both style and substance. Call it the revenge of the normie Democrats against the avant-garde progressive Twitterati.

It’s important to distinguish between a Democratic establishment still trusted by normie votes and a progressive elite that exerts influence in political discourse vastly disproportionate to their actual public support. The former consists of Democratic elected officials like former President Barack Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in addition to the proverbial party hacks. More than anything else, these elected officials and party functionaries have to win competitive elections and manage fractious political coalitions in order to deliver practical results for their constituents and the public as a whole.

In contrast, the progressive elite consists of professional activists, opinion page writers, and influential academics and think-tankers – many of whom will populate a potential Democratic presidential administration. This elite also includes ideologically-driven elected officials like Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez who represent safe state or districts and probably won’t face competitive elections against Republican opponents any time soon. Backed by wealthy donors and philanthropic foundations, this network of progressive elites loudly dominated political discourse on social media as they sought to shift the Democratic Party toward the rarefied worldview prevalent within elite institutions outside the party – and all against the apparent will of regular Democratic voters.

Democratic candidates and center-left institutions that underestimate the centrality of normies to American politics do so at their own peril. Average voters with largely conventional social and political attitudes represent the core constituency for any center-left political coalition that hopes to win elections and govern in the United States. If the Democratic Party and the American center-left more broadly hope for future success, they must stop catering to noisy activists and funders who insist on receiving gestures that only undermine their political prospects. They must instead cultivate the quiet army of normie voters that powered Biden’s primary victory – and could lift Democrats to victory in November and beyond.

Unfortunately, many leading progressive lights have been captured by this loud, influential, but ultimately unrepresentative class of elite activists and wealthy donors. This class has pulled center-left politics apart from two directions: the identity politics of the “woke” left and the democratic socialism concentrated around the camp of Sen. Bernie Sanders. Highly-educated elite progressives ensconced in the upper echelons of the media, academia, and well-endowed foundations constitute the primary source of support for the woke left. Their influence could be seen quite clearly in Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign, which became an unwitting parody of woke politics over the course of the primary season. Other candidates like Sens. Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, and Kristen Gillibrand also believed a rhetorical embrace of woke identity politics would deliver them the nomination, only to all drop out of the race before the first primary votes could even be cast.

Likewise, Sanders’s surprisingly vigorous 2016 primary challenge and consistently strong polling ahead of the 2020 primaries led many progressive elites to overestimate the wider appeal of his vague brand of democratic socialism to average Democratic primary voters. Propounded by a number of veteran left-wing activists and fueled by the Sanders campaign, democratic socialists positioned themselves as the inevitable wave of the progressive political future. Thanks in no small part to the highly visible and clamorous contingent of dyspeptic professional activists in its ranks, however, democratic socialism never won over a majority -or even a strong enough plurality – of the Democratic primary electorate.

In short, neither of the most vocal ideological factions in contemporary progressive politics proved popular among actually existing Democratic voters. Former Vice President Joe Biden won the Democratic nomination largely thanks to the strength of his support among black voters, for instance, while Sanders failed to expand his own coalition in a meaningful way. Worse, they may likely be actively harmful to Democratic prospects in November by pressuring Biden to engage in costly political posturing that drives away normie voters. As commentator Josh Barro has pointed out, candidates and institutions have adopted “a wide variety of fundamentally non-policy positions on the culture that annoy the crap out of people” in order to placate internally powerful activist and donor classes.

The drawbacks of this approach are legion. It’s disastrous politically, alienating Democrats from their own voters and heavily circumscribing their attempts to build a wider political coalition. Moreover, it destroys the sense of common national purpose that the center-left must cultivate if it’s to achieve its policy goals. Allowing progressive politics to be dictated by these unrepresentative factions may serve the interests of professional activists and donors, but it does not serve the interests of the Democratic Party, its electoral coalition, or the nation as a whole. Above all, it’s left Democrats and the center-left bereft of compelling narratives of their own and estranged from their bedrock base of normie voters.

In the 2020 primaries, however, the normies struck back by propelling a somnolent Biden campaign to a string of decisive victories and the Democratic nomination. They also revealed just how unmoored progressive elites had become from their own voters over the past five years. Progressives not only badly misinterpreted the 2016 primary results, they stuck with this faulty interpretation in the face of evidence to the contrary. They ignored the normie revolt of the 2018 mid-term elections, where mainstream center-left candidates supported by the party establishment won highly contested races for Congress while those backed by progressive ideologues lost. An excessive focus by the political media on newly-crowned progressive stars like Reps. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Ayanna Pressley crowded out sober analysis of the actual election results. As a consequence, many progressive elites and prospective presidential candidates alike failed to perceive the rise of an emerging normie majority in American politics.

Indeed, many 2020 Democratic presidential candidates assumed that pursuing the agendas set forth by the woke left and democratic socialists would win them the nomination. This assumption proved false, with Sanders cornering the market on the factional left-wing vote and campaigns that espoused woke rhetoric falling flat among their own supposed constituencies. By contrast, Biden won the support of moderate Democrats and black voters by significant margins, ran competitively with Sanders among Hispanics and Latinos in states like Arizona, and displayed strength in formerly Republican suburbs notwithstanding his strong center-left policy platform. He even managed to bring college-educated and non-college-educated white voters together in his coalition. Along with the 2018 mid-term results, the 2020 presidential primaries ought to put to bed any notions that elections can be won through appeals to woke identity politics or left-wing political purism.

Thanks in no small part to their own primary voters, then, Democrats possess a rare opportunity to build an enduring center-left coalition in 2020 – but only if they embrace the normie politics that animates many of their core supporters. The last several election cycles reveal much about the politics of the emerging normie majority.

Though they may be anathema to the woke left and democratic socialists alike, the politics of the emerging normie majority aren’t difficult to comprehend. To start, normies aren’t besotted with the avant-garde theories of race, gender, or other identity categories peddled by progressive activists and promoted by foundations. Their culturally moderate politics leads normies to accept gay marriage, for instance, while simultaneously holding deep reservations about the excesses of contemporary transgender activism. Normies remain open to ambitious economic programs like adding a public option to Obamacare and substantial investments in national infrastructure, but tend to view expansive progressive left proposals like the Green New Deal and Medicare for All as flights of political fancyAmbivalent internationalists, normies don’t favor disengagement from global politics but remain cautious when it comes to foreign policy. Above all, normies seek a semblance of normalcy in national life that only a competent government and stable political leadership can deliver.

To fully take advantage of this golden opportunity to cement a coalition founded on this emerging normie majority, Democrats and the center-left need to stop being bullied by the demands of the progressive professional activist and some donor classes. Better yet, they should keep the political and electoral strength of these classes in perspective and embrace the normie politics of core Democratic constituencies. That starts with the recognition that activists and donors aim to advance their own points of view and preferred policies rather than build a broader center-left coalition that can win elections. It’s better to take heat from such groups for failing to send the proper signals than to drive away the normie voters that decided the 2018 mid-terms and 2020 primaries.

Make no mistake, Democrats must win over normie voters to defeat President Trump in the upcoming presidential election. White working-class voters, for instance, will still comprise around two-fifths of the national electorate – and even marginal shifts in favor of Democrats among these voters would doom Trump in critical states like Pennsylvania and Michigan. Moreover, black and Hispanic voters tend to be more moderate in their political and social attitudesthan the elite progressives who populate activist groups and philanthropic foundations. If there’s any lesson to be learned from the 2020 primary season, it’s that talk of “intersectionality,” “democratic socialism,” and other fashionable concepts failed to mobilize any voting bloc other than highly-educated progressives.

Despite their repeated failures, however, professional activists and donors will still retain the power and influence they have accumulated over the past several years. An emerging normie majority will only coalesce if the center-left stays in touch with political reality and turns back these corrosive and schismatic forces. Democrats must be willing to send positive signals to normies at the risk of bringing the wrath of activists down upon them. More than anything else, the center-left must recognize and accept the reality and electoral power of normie voters – and harness it for constructive ends.

An Astonishing Achievement: The Final Episodes of The Clone Wars

It’s no exaggeration to say that the last four episodes of Star Wars: The Clone Wars represent the best Star Wars we’ve seen since 1983 – if not the single finest hour of Star Wars ever produced. These final episodes combine stunning action sequences and lightsaber acrobatics with the sort of character drama and emotional intensity never before seen in the Star Wars fictional universe. Taken together, these episodes rank with Star Trek: The Next Generation’s superb televised conclusion “All Good Things…” as among the best series finales broadcast.  But perhaps most importantly, The Clone Wars lead character Ahsoka Tano takes her rightful place as the greatest hero in the Star Wars mythos.

Over the course of just over an hour or so, these last episodes of The Clone Wars deliver an emotional gut-punch unlike anything else Star Wars has given us. These episodes are emotionally intense and even brutal at times, thanks first and foremost to the web of personal relationships we’ve seen Ahsoka develop with Anakin Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and clone captain Rex over the course of the show. We’re reminded of the strength of Ahsoka’s bonds in the first two episodes of this last narrative arc, only to see these ties unravel in heartbreaking ways in the last two episodes as a result of events portrayed in Revenge of the Sith.

Indeed, themes of loyalty and friendship established in early episodes make later developments all the more heart-wrenching. Anakin reminds Ahsoka early on that loyalty “means everything to the clones,” for instance, and brushes off her thanks for his support in a tense discussion with Obi-Wan with the response that “that’s what friends are for.” It’s ironic that Anakin first articulates these themes; after all, it’s his turn against the Jedi Order in Revenge of the Sith that puts his friend and former apprentice’s life in mortal danger. For their part, moreover, the clones themselves repay Ahsoka’s own loyalty by betraying her and the rest of the Jedi thanks to the activation of their secret programming.

Ahsoka’s strong relationship with Rex drives the action in the final two episodes – and likely saves her life. Early on in the third episode, we’re treated to a poignant existential conversation between Ahsoka and Rex in which she tells the clone leader that she couldn’t have asked for a better friend. Moments later, Rex is called away to receive orders to betray the Jedi and kill Ahsoka. But his deep ties with Ahsoka cause Rex to hesitate and gives her a fighting chance at survival. Ahsoka later takes a series of exceptional risks to save Rex, taking him hostage and removing the inhibitor chip in his head. Later on, she abandons an opportunity to escape their burning star destroyer in order to prevent their former comrades from overrunning Rex’s position.

There’s much more that’s heartbreaking in these final episodes, starting with Ahsoka’s relationship with her friend and former Jedi master Anakin Skywalker. In a rush to liberate the planet Mandalore and capture the villainous Darth Maul – still alive despite his bisection at the hands of Obi-Wan at the climax of The Phantom Menace (it’s complicated) – Ahsoka and Anakin can’t find the time to catch up personally after some time apart. Ahsoka further forgoes chances to relay messages to Anakin, judging the moment inauspicious. Ahsoka’s faith in her former master when Maul accurately predicts Anakin’s impeding fall to the dark side lends these final episodes of The Clone Wars an emotional weight that the prequels palpably lacked. All these beats add up to a moving final narrative that’s suffused with the sort of pathos rarely present in Star Wars.

More than anything else, though, this final narrative arc succeeds thanks to Ahsoka herself. Her basic humanity and decency come to the fore as her defining character traits, and she proves herself a Jedi Knight par excellence despite leaving the Order of her own volition. She tells Anakin and Obi-Wan that average people have lost faith in the Jedi thanks to the Order’s myopic proclivity to play galactic politics – and that she had too “until I was reminded what Order means to the people who truly need us.” Moreover, it’s clear that Ahsoka sees the looming end of the war as an opportunity to re-join the Order: when she contacts the Jedi Council after taking down Maul, she say’s she’s done her duty as a citizen and not as a Jedi – at least “not yet.” Ahsoka’s complex views on the Jedi Order become clear in her subsequent reflective conversation with Rex: “As a Jedi, we were trained to be keepers of the peace, not soldiers. But all I’ve been since I was a Padawan is a soldier.” 

But it’s in her relationship with the clones that Ahsoka’s humanity shines most brightly. She treats them with the same sort of empathy The Clone Wars itself managed over the course of the series. When she encounters a dying clone trooper on Mandalore, for instance, she holds his hand and consoles him before he dies of his wounds. Ahsoka refuses to abandon Rex even after his programming activates, leading to a brief but affecting scene in which she replies from behind that she’s “right here” when Rex demands to know her location. What’s more, Ahsoka refuses to kill the clones that have been trying to kill her – even when a de-programmed Rex tells her there’s no other way. Finally, in what’s perhaps the most emotionally brutal scene in the whole Star Wars series, Ahsoka silently looks out over the graves of the clone troopers she and Rex fought alongside and then buried in the wake of their betrayal.

In the end, it’s her fundamental humanity that allows Ahsoka to stay true to her own moral code and ethical commitments. This sense of basic decency suffuses her own ideas of what a Jedi Knight and the Jedi Order should be, and guides her actions throughout The Clone Wars – and nowhere more so than in these final episodes. It’s what makes Ahsoka one of the great characters in the entire Star Wars mythos and earns her a prominent place the much wider pantheon of science-fiction heroes. Ahsoka may well have been the first female Jedi to wield a lightsaber, but that’s not why she’s the most compelling protagonist Star Wars has yet produced.

Nor is it hard to understand why The Clone Wars succeeded where the prequels failed: it possessed well-developed characters with close relationships that demanded emotional investment from the audience. But that The Clone Wars succeeded is all the more perplexing given the strong involvement of George Lucas himself in both enterprises. For instance, The Clone Wars portrays Anakin Skywalker as a fully-developed and competent character as opposed to the moody teenager and sullen young adult of Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. Indeed, there’s far more emotion and character in this final arc of The Clone Wars alone than in the rest of the Star Wars saga combined.

Paradoxically, though, The Clone Wars relies on the prequels for much of its emotional impact even as it transcends them. As an audience, we know what’s coming in these final episodes: the fall of the Jedi Order and the rise of Darth Vader. But we’ve also seen relationships between Ahsoka, Anakin, and the clones grow and mature over the course of The Clone Wars in ways that make the largely unseen events of Revenge of the Sith more tragic. Kevin Kiner’s orchestral score also works wonders here, effectively integrating musical cues and movements from John Williams’ Revenge of the Sith score with more ominous and ambient electronic sounds to create a sense of foreboding across these last four episodes. 

In contrast to the prequels, The Clone Wars establishes real and high emotional stakes for the audience and the characters themselves. These stakes imbue this final narrative arc with an emotional weight and resonance that’s absent from the prequels, and what’s more The Clone Wars earns these stakes in ways the prequels never did. Thanks to the relationships we’ve seen Ahsoka forge with Anakins and the clones over the course of the series, for instance, Ahsoka’s battle against the turncoat clones and her interactions with Anakin pack a far stronger emotional punch than the climactic duel between Anakin and Obi-Wan in Revenge of the Sith or the confrontation between Obi-Wan and Vader in the original film

Indeed, the final shot of the series encapsulates this earned emotional resonance: Darth Vader and an army of Imperial stormtroopers come across the site where Ahsoka and Rex buried their former comrades in arms. Vader picks up and ignites Ahsoka’s lightsaber, the very lightsaber he kept and repaired for her after she left the Jedi Order. It’s a silent scene, and rightly so – it successfully relies on our the audience’s awareness of the ties that once bound Anakin Skywalker and Ahsoka Tano together to produce the sort of pathos that’s nonexistent in the prequels. Ultimately, it’s the absence of real emotional stakes that transformed those films from the grand tragedy Lucas envisioned into fodder for humorous memes.

The Clone Wars doesn’t redeem the prequels, however; the show stands on its own and ought to receive praise in its own right. These last four episodes gave the series the spectacular and satisfying conclusion it deserved. Though the show’s end closes Ahsoka’s remarkable narrative for now, both she and The Clone Wars as a whole demonstrate just how good Star Wars can be when it hits its marks. I’m personally eager to see more of Ahsoka’s story – what was she up to between her final scene in The Clone Wars and her first appearance in Star Wars: Rebels? What did she do after Rebels? – but that I understand that Ahsoka will only appear again if the Star Wars gods allow it.

But even if we never see Ahsoka again, The Clone Wars has provided a fitting and rewarding send-off to the best Star Wars character we’ve seen.