Blog

Make Politics Boring Again: The Case for Normalcy

[Note: This is twelve percent of an idea. It’s barely even a concept.]

Over the past quarter-century, American politics and our shared national life have slowly but surely descended into derangement. From President Bill Clinton’s impeachment over sexual misbehavior and the Iraq war to chronic government shutdowns and the election of a semi-literate carnival barker in 2016, this decline has only accelerated over time. Safeguards and firebreaks against the absurd and inane in politics and society alike have been dismantled, our national circuit-breakers damaged seemingly beyond repair. 

The politicization of nearly everything in national life stands as both cause and consequence of our collective flight from reason. Politics saturates our collective experience as a nation in unhealthy ways. Political polarization likewise serves as the fuel for its own fire, feeding itself as it continuously expands and consumes whatever crosses its path. Taken together, these abstract phenomena have hit critical mass and started a self-sustaining chain reaction that can only hasten our own national self-immolation.

Indeed, politics itself threatens to swallow us all whole. The great American berserk has finally spun out of control, and the gradual-then-sudden transformation of politics into a constant and ever-present life-or-death struggle bears much of the blame. We’ve made politics a way of life, imposing upon ourselves rigid and dogmatic ways of thinking that flatten out our own national, social, and personal lives. Without so much as a second thought, we’ve excised wider and richer notions of life and experience from our public and our private consciences. We now increasingly define ourselves by and through our politics, when in reality no single facet of our lives can possibly hope to do so.

The coronavirus crisis, however, offers a stark reminder of what truly matters in politics: competence and a concern for the common good. We’re seeing all too clearly the disastrous consequences of our abnormal national obsession with politics and its deleterious place in our public life. Counterintuitively, this crisis shows us that politics must be made normal again – not a dominant or decisive part of our national or personal lives. Politics as a way of life has failed, but politics as a mechanism for substantive change can be made to work once again.

That can’t be done without understanding our present abnormalcy. To start with, our politics has assumed increasingly existential stakes over the last twenty-five years. Indeed, every successive national election has come to be characterized as the most important of our lives. Wittingly or not, we’ve cultivated a pervasive sense of existential dread in our politics that drains us as individuals and exhausts us as a society. This chronic state of constant agitation and anxiety achieves little and costs much: we reduce ourselves from individuals with a variety of views and interests to two-dimensional caricatures. Our thinking about society and conceptions about our shared national life have become narrow, cramped, and mean-spirited. In amplifying the stakes involved in politics beyond all reason, moreover, we encourage extreme stances and excuse unethical behavior. As a result, government no longer functions adequately and cannot serve its primary purpose: solving collective action problems with an eye to the common good, determining what we owe one another as fellow citizens, and resolving disagreements about those subjects – or at least constructively suspending them – without recourse to violence.

As a society and as individuals, we’ve invested far too much of ourselves in politics. In seeking meaning and salvation in politics, we’ve paradoxically made politics progressively more trivial. We’ve allowed our baser instincts and impulses to permeate and corrupt our public life, making it more squalid and sordid than absolutely necessary. By making politics a way of life, in short, we’ve burdened politics itself with far more significance than it can possibly sustain and caused the hard work of actual government for which it exists to grind to a screeching halt.

Politics is at its core a profession, not a way of life – and we’ve confused the two at our personal and collective peril. As a profession, politics is no more or less honorable than any other. But as a way of life, it becomes non-negotiable and intolerant; political disagreement becomes one of the deepest personal attacks an individual can face in life. This phenomenon isn’t exactly new: a century ago, the great sociologist Max Weber distinguished between those who primarily lived “for” politics and those who mainly lived “off” politics. In the latter camp, we find professional politicians and party functionaries who make politics their career and source of income. In the former camp, however, we find individuals who involve themselves in politics because they need their lives to “meaning in the service of a ‘cause.’”

Weber presciently and accurately described the motivations of many who take part in democratic politics today, both in the United States and elsewhere. But he didn’t establish that it’s actually possible for individuals to find meaning in politics, in part because he didn’t set out to make that argument. In his own roundabout way and in his own historical context, however, Weber himself understood that politics as a way of life did not offer the route to personal or collective salvation that many of its adherents think possible. When we try to make politics a way of life that defines who we are as individuals, we lose sight of the fact that we bring our own principles and values to politics rather than the other way around. Politics itself cannot bear the weight of the search for meaning that so many place on it today and throughout history.

It’s therefore incumbent on those of us who have made politics and policy our profession to do our part to make politics normal again, undertaking as best we can to ensure that politics returns to its proper role as a pedestrian but effective means of addressing collective problems. Ordinary citizens in a democracy shouldn’t have to obsess over politics the way we do, much less see it as a field of existential battle that’s joined every single day. More importantly, we all have interests and pursuits into which politics cannot and should not infiltrate or impose itself upon. A relentless and dogmatic drive to freight even the most quotidian affairs of our lives with political portent leaves us blind to the more profound joys and sorrows inherent in our shared human experience.

That’s not at all to downplay or gainsay the importance of participation in public life and politics. Indeed, involvement in civic affairs remains a duty for those of us so inclined to see it as such. The ancient Stoics, for instance, held that involvement in public life constituted a central commitment of their philosophy. But as the Roman statesman and Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote in his treatise On Leisure, such participation can be limited by an an individual’s own capacity to contribute to public life and the general moral health of the body politic. Equally significant, Seneca offers a more expansive and magnanimous conception of public service as making oneself “useful to others” – including, if all else fails, to oneself. 

Above all, then, politics needs to be conducted in accordance with its proper worth: an important part of social and national life, but not an individual or collective obsession that devours all before it. Even for those of us liable to view political involvement as a duty, it’s far from a categorial moral imperative that supersedes all other responsibilities or preferences at all times. And as Seneca reminds us, there are other ways to meet one’s duties and participate in public life that don’t necessarily involve electoral or formal politics.

We need instead to aim for normalcy in politics even as we approach public policy with ambition and vision. To do otherwise would be to accede to a quite frankly totalitarian demand for an absolute individual moral commitment to politics that’s repressive, alienating, and enervating. The constant mobilization such a mindset requires corrodes the very social bonds necessary for a society to function, and leaves us all exhausted in the end. Indeed, when we infuse everything with politics, politics itself loses meaning and becomes incapable of performing its own basic purpose

Beyond the myriad fixes our national institutions desperately need, we can all take a number individual steps to help make politics boring once again. First and foremost, we must revive the lost art of persuasion – political and otherwise. At heart, this means recognizing our own fallibility and the chance that we might be wrong when we seek to change minds. It also entails an acceptance of disagreement when argument fails to immediately sway our interlocutors. Simply proclaiming our own moral superiority and attacking all those who disagree even in the slightest degree as beyond the pale persuades no one and further rends the already frayed fabric of our national life.

We ought to instead pursue a sort of minimalist agreement in our political debates. The overall aim of our arguments should be to win support for concrete political action and policies, not induce the sort of religious conversion best experienced on the road to Damascus. That requires a willingness to listen to those we hope to persuade, accept the possibility that we may well fail, and assume the risk that we ourselves may change our own minds or modify our own opinions, at least in part. There’s no guarantee we’ll succeed in our efforts to convince others to support our preferred policies or take the sort of political action we seek, but we’re certain to fail if we don’t even make the attempt in good faith.

Moreover, we should do our best to find inspiration in normalcy. That doesn’t mean giving up on big ideas or ambitious projects when it comes to politics and policy. But it does require a strong focus on practicality, in terms of both garnering the necessary political support for a specific policy and then successfully executing it. Often enough, these two elements work together strongly: to secure sufficient political backing for a particular policy proposal, potential supporters need to believe that the project in question can actually be carried out. It follows that we ought to build the broadest political coalitions possible in pursuit of our policy goals – to include even those with whom we might otherwise disagree. That in turn calls on on us to forsake grandiose notions of “revolution” and avoid arrogantly alienating potential partners with our own rhetoric and conduct.

But that attitude only works if we approach politics in right measure. We must neither exaggerate nor underestimate the significance of politics in the wider scheme of things, recognizing it as just one among many important parts of life – not see it lurking everywhere we look. Those of us involved in politics and policy should let people live their lives, to say nothing of living our own lives outside our professional work. Right now, however, we’re drowning in politics because we don’t put it in proper perspective. We fail to realize that politics cannot substitute for what’s truly essential in life: our personal relationships, our philosophical commitments, and the like.

Finally, we shouldn’t ask politics to solve problems that it can’t due to its very nature answer. Politics does indeed need a moral and philosophical dimension; as President Franklin D. Roosevelt recognized, citizens should remain “conscious of their individual stake in the preservation of democratic life in America” and do their best to help build a society worth living in. But politics cannot provide either individual or collective meaning in and of itself, much less salvation. Instead, politics should focus on its strong suit: advancing the common good in practical and concrete ways. There will of course be constant debate about what that itself entails, but this forthright exchange of views cannot and should not allow itself to succumb to the temptations of bad faith so prevalent in our contemporary public discourse. We must accordingly resist demands to concentrate our energies on a single original sin that political evangelists of various stripes insist explains everything – all the more so when these proselytizers condemn us as wicked for failing to do so.

More than anything else, perhaps, we should understand that the end is not nigh. Our monomaniacal collective focus on politics as a way of life causes us to see even the smallest political stakes as existential. A sense of politics as a life-or-death enterprise prevents us from even hoping to achieve our concrete policy goals. We must instead cultivate a politics of normalcy – not the complacent normalcy preached decades ago, but a boring yet bold commitment to advancing our political views and policy objectives in correct proportion to their worth in our personal and social lives. As important as it can be, there’s more – much more – to life than politics and public policy. If we’re ever going to make our society one worth living in, we must get a grip on ourselves and restore politics to its proper place in our national life.

Failure Is Not An Option: Crisis Lessons From Apollo 13

Bill Paxton, Tom Hanks, and Kevin Bacon star in Apollo 13 (1995).

Last week marked the fiftieth anniversary of the flight of Apollo 13, inspiring me and countless others to revisit the mission itself as well as the 1995 film Apollo 13. The movie helped inspire my abiding interest in space exploration, and it’s darkly serendipitous that this anniversary happened to coincide with an ongoing national crisis of extraordinary magnitude. Americans today confront both a pandemic viral outbreak and an economic collapse unseen since the Great Depression at the same time they’ve been saddled with the most incompetent and mean-spirited political leadership in the nation’s history. 

The contrast with the crisis leadership dramatized so effectively in Apollo 13 could not be more stark. So it’s well worth reflecting on what we can learn about coping with and handling exceptional situations and acute crises from this film. Though Apollo 13 is of course a fictionalized account of the mission, Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell (portrayed by Tom Hanks in the movie) and co-author Jeffrey Kluger both vouch for the general accuracy of the narrative presented by director Ron Howard.

Indeed, the high stakes and time constraints involved make lessons derived from the film all the more worth our while today. Like the proverbial diamond formed under heat and compression, Apollo 13 tautly illustrates the ways in which the stresses and strains of acute crises can bring out the best in us. It also shows we need skilled, driven, and above all competent leadership to obtain that level of performance in high-pressure situations – all qualities in short supply these days.

In that spirit, here are five crisis lessons from Apollo 13.

1. “Let’s look at this thing from a standpoint of status. What have we got on the spacecraft that’s good?” 

In extreme and fast-moving situations – not to mention everyday setbacks – it’s easy and understandable to focus on what’s gone wrong above all else. It’s therefore crucial to accurately assess what strengths and capabilities remain available to confront a given crisis – or recover in its aftermath. That’s what Flight Director Gene Kranz (portrayed by Ed Harris) does when he asks one of his flight controllers to evaluate what systems on Apollo 13’s command and service module still work after an oxygen tank explodes and cripples the spacecraft. This mentality proves indispensable when both the crew and and Mission Control quickly determine that the lunar module can be used as a lifeboat, keeping Lovell and fellow astronauts Fred Haise and Jack Swigert (played by Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon, respectively) alive.

Right now, things in the United States seem especially broken. Medical equipment including ventilators and masks remains insufficient to cope with the numbers of people stricken with coronavirus, due in no small part to President Trump’s indolence and incompetence. Likewise, national testing for the virus remains well behind other advanced economies despite the administration’s promises. Moreover, the relief package intended to help businesses and citizens weather the economic fallout of the pandemic appears to be inadequate to the task at hand. But as inept as virtually all our institutions look at the moment, it’s important to remain mindful of that the nation retains strengths as well – and focus on those that can help ups recover when the immediate crisis passes.

2. “Let’s stay cool, people… I want everybody to alert your support teams. Wake up anybody you need, get them in here. Let’s work the problem, people. Let’s not make things worse by guessing.”

In time-critical situations, it’s vital to keep calm and avoid panic by focusing on the actual problem at hand and learning what’s needed to fix it. What’s more, it’s imperative to get a handle on the challenge before attempting to fix it, lest needless and possibly fatal mistakes get made instead. That’s what Kranz tells his flight controllers after they confirm Apollo 13 is venting oxygen from one of its damaged tanks. 

Working the problem also entails calling in as many relevant and knowledgable people as possible to help out. Kranz doesn’t hesitate to tell his Mission Control team to roust other flight controllers; indeed, it’s pretty much the first action he takes once the magnitude of Apollo 13’s predicament becomes clear. Later, Kranz tells his flight controllers and engineers “to find every engineer who designed every switch, every circuit, every transistor, and every light bulb that’s up there. Then I want you to talk to the guy on the assembly line who actually built the thing.” That’s likely a rhetorical flourish, but there’s no reason not to reach out to or consult with anyone who might be able to assist in a crisis scenario – all available hands should be on deck.

We’re only beginning to get a handle on the coronavirus and what will be needed to return society to something resembling normal. Thanks to its novelty, scientific and medical research on the virus remains provisional at best. Social distancing seems to work as a way to drive down infection rates and minimize stresses on national health care systems, at least in the short term. But a coronavirus vaccine seems unlikely to be fielded until next year. Though it’s also still far from clear just how deep the economic damage will run, the International Monetary Fund predicts the world economy will face its worst year since the Great Depression. 

Our political leadership, on the other hand, obviously does not want to grasp the scope or nature of the coronavirus problem – nor does it want to bring as many knowledgeable and relevant people as possible on board to work the problem. President Trump repeatedly downplayed the threat, asserting the virus would “miraculously” disappear, erroneously comparing it to the seasonal flu, or calling it a hoax perpetrated by his partisan rivals. Trump has also flirted with firing Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, and appointed unqualified cronies – including his daughter – to the council charged with recommending when to lift the coronavirus lockdown.

3. “All right, there’s a thousand things that have to happen in order. We are on number eight. You’re talking about number six hundred and ninety-two.”

When lunar module pilot Jack Swigert expresses his concern that Mission Control hasn’t come up with a re-entry plan to his fellow crew members, mission commander Jim Lovell warns him that he’s well ahead himself. Over the course of the conversation, tempers flare and Lovell raises his voice to tell his crew that they’re “not going to go bouncing off the walls for ten minutes, because we’re just going to end up back here with the same problems!” Lovell understands that it’s best to work and solve problems as they arise in a crisis. There’s no reason to worry prematurely and unnecessarily about issues that will inevitably arise in due course. It’s accordingly important to stay in the moment and focus on the immense challenges at hand.

Possessing the attention span of a toddler at best, President Trump seems constitutionally incapable of focusing on the tasks before him – whatever they may be. There’s nonetheless a certain consistency in Trump’s unfounded eagerness to reopen the country’s economy. First, he wanted to lift public health restrictions by April 12 – Easter Sunday. More recently (and perhaps upon seeing his sagging poll numbers), he’s targeted May 1 as the next date he’d like to lift lockdowns across the nation.  Trump’s even attacked responsible state governors for maintaining public health restrictions in order to manage the pandemic, once again singling out his partisan rivals. But there’s no short-circuiting the hard work and patience necessary to bring the coronavirus under a modicum of control.

4. “We’ve got to find a way to make this fit into the hole for this using nothing but that.”

As Apollo 13 returns home, flight controllers at Mission Control realize that toxic levels of carbon dioxide will soon start building up in the lunar module as the its cylindrical CO2 filters reach capacity. Since the command module’s carbon dioxide scrubbers are cubical and therefore won’t fit into slots for the lunar module’s filters, Kranz advises his team to “invent a way to put a square peg in a round hole – rapidly.” Using only materials available on the spacecraft itself, NASA engineers hurriedly improvise a solution that brings CO2 levels down and saves the crew from asphyxiation. In more general terms, they used what was available to them at a given moment – even it it wasn’t designed for the the task in question.

Here again, President Trump lends us an example of what not to do in a crisis. He failed to use major tools available to the federal government – the Defense Production Act among them – until too late in the day. By contrast, ordinary citizens have risen to the occasion, sewing homemade face masks and donating protective gear to local hospitals and other medical facilities. Likewise, small businesses like distilleries and craft breweries have switched production from alcoholic drinks to hand sanitizer. It’s not hard to imagine how the nation could be galvanized into action with competent political leadership.

5. “With all due respect sir, I believe this is going to be our finest hour.”

Before the command module Odyssey re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere, Kranz overhears a NASA big-wig brooding that Apollo 13 could become “the worst disaster NASA has ever experienced.” Kranz responds by taking responsibility for the outcome of the mission, even though it’s unsure. This self-confidence amidst uncertainty echoes the idea put forward by Admiral James Stockdale, the highest-ranking American pilot taken prisoner during the Vietnam War, that it’s vital not to “confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” 

In blunt contrast, President Trump has pointedly refused to fulfill his duties as the nation’s chief executive, let alone take responsibility for his own decisions. “I don’t take responsibility at all,” he responded when queried about his administration’s laggard coronavirus testing program. Though unsurprising, this failure to take responsibility is all the more galling with the revelation that his administration starved a pandemic early-warning program to budgetary death in September 2019.

“Gentlemen, it’s been a privilege flying with you.”

Just before re-entry, the veteran astronaut Lovell conveys his respect for his fellow crew members by giving them the highest praise possible. Though a deluge of crises prevented him from walking on the Moon, Lovell still considers it a privilege to have flown with Haise and Swigert in such desperate circumstances. That’s not surprising, considering how severe crises like Apollo 13 can bring out our best and most capable selves.

Apollo 13 provides us object lessons in crisis leadership, from both Gene Kranz at Mission Control and Jim Lovell aboard the crippled spacecraft. Above all else, Apollo 13 lets us know that when all’s said and done we should be able to say that it was a privilege to handle a particular crisis or other similar extreme circumstances with a certain cohort. We may not be able to control the outcomes of such crises, but we can control our responses to and handling of them.

Indeed, crises are pressure cookers that test and reveal our characters as individuals, organizations, and societies. Despite bright spots among ordinary Americans, civil society, and state governments, it’s hard to say much of anything positive about our national response to the current coronavirus crisis. As a nation, we need to recapture and imbibe the spirit of Apollo 13 – both the actual mission and the film – if we’re to lift ourselves out of our dismal current national predicament.

On Star Wars and the Moral Decay of the Jedi Order

“Let me level with you: you might not think of yourself as a Jedi, but you act like one – or at least how I want them to be.”

  • Rafa Martez to Ahsoka Tano, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, “Together Again”

I’m not the biggest fan of Star Wars.

Don’t get me wrong – I like it well enough. The original film trilogy had its compelling moments, even if it never resonated as strongly with me as it obviously did with others. So did an ineptly-told prequel trilogy, though more as an unintentionally absurd masterpiece than anything else – and especially in comparison to the bland and uninspired sequel trilogy that mercifully drew to a close last December. Despite all the attention George Lucas and others devoted to constructing a detailed Star Wars mythos, I’ve never really felt the films lived up to the narrative potential inherent inherent in the fictional universe.

But while were all mesmerized by a lackluster sequel trilogy, Star Wars slowly and stealthily began to fulfill its potential in television shows like The Clone Wars and The Mandalorian. When judged by quality, over the past decade Star Wars has become much more successful on television than in its original cinematic medium. It’s only when the Star Wars mythos moves our of its own shadow that it’s found sufficient room to grow and evolve in compelling ways.Indeed, shows like The Clone Wars and The Mandalorian have added much-needed emotional and moral depth to a fictional universe previously guided by a quite frankly baffling ethical framework.

There’s much to criticize in the Star Wars canon as it exists – starting with the quite frankly reactionary ethos that emerges in the very first film. Too often, the main cinematic entries in the series embrace mysticism and irrationality as unalloyed goods. “Let go your conscious self and act on instinct,” the aged Jedi master Obi-Wan Kenobi advises his young charge Luke Skywalker halfway through the original film. Characters good and evil alike are constantly advised to use or search their feelings throughout the series, not to think or reason for themselves. This mishmash of mysticism reflects the fact that Star Wars is at its heart an indulgent romantic fantasy more than anything else. 

For me, at least, the fundamental appeal of Star Wars lies in our captivation with the Jedi Order as a noble cadre of warrior-monks who adhere to a strict moral code that governs their individual conduct. “For over a thousand generations,” Obi-Wan tells us in the original film, “the Jedi Knights were the guardians of peace and justice in the old Republic.” In truth, the Jedi resemble nothing so much as the romanticized impressions of the Knights Templar and Japan’s medieval samurai that still inhabit our modern popular imagination. It’s no surprise, for instance, that legendary Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa and his samurai epics exerted a strong and clear influence on Lucas and almost certainly the idea of the Jedi.

Likewise, the Knights Templar of medieval Europe and what the historian Christopher Tyerman calls their “combination of charitable purpose, religious discipline, and armed violence” provide another recognizable historical analogue for the Jedi Order. When we first learn the basics of the Jedi Order from Obi-Wan in A New Hope, for instance, he calls attention to the ideals and commitments that supposedly set Jedi Knights apart – and his remark that he and Anakin Skywalker went off to fight in “some damn fool idealistic crusade” all but gives the parallel away.

In the end, however, it’s the moral decay at the heart of the Jedi Order that makes Star Wars intriguing. Audiences see a chasm open up between the romantic ideals we project onto the Jedi and the fictional reality of what stares back at us from our screens. It’s hard to say that this message was intentional on the part of the creatives behind the films; the main lesson Lucas appears to want his audiences to draw from the fall of the Jedi Order seems to be that power inevitably leads to a blinding hubris.

But throughout the series – and especially in the prequels and The Clone Wars – we see obvious flaws in the Jedi Order and its members. It’s not simply a matter of hubris or even hypocrisy, as Luke Skywalker insists in The Last Jedi. The rot goes much deeper: the Jedi Order may proclaim certain ideals and values, but it lacks the conviction and sense of purpose necessary to live up to them. As its noble guiding philosophy wastes away into a set of empty platitudes, the Order ultimately collapses under the weight of its own moral decay. Almost in spite of itself, Star Wars manages to raise basic questions surrounding our own philosophical commitments and the failure of institutions to measure up to their own declared creeds.

It’s these questions that make Star Wars more than an indulgent fantasy of space knights with laser swords facing down the almost-cartoonish forces of evil. They’re most clearly visible  when looking through the eyes of Ahsoka Tano, one-time apprentice of Anakin Skywalker and a central character in The Clone Wars computer-animated television series. Ahsoka is the prism through which viewers can grasp the fundamental flaws – as well as the elemental appeal – of the Jedi Order. Better still, her character and The Clone Wars as a whole do much to rectify the baffling morality of the Star Wars universe, in which genocidaires like Darth Vader and Kylo Ren find easy moral redemption in their final acts after lifetimes spent drenching the galaxy in blood.

Ahsoka’s story exposes the gap between the idea of what she – and we – believes the Jedi stand for and the reality of the Jedi Order as an institution, drawing out the contradiction between the Order’s stated principles and its uninspiring reality to its fullest. She helps us look beneath the gleaming, entrancing surface mythology of the Jedi and tackle the fundamental human questions at stake in the Star Wars universe as a whole: how to reconcile a person’s own dedication to a certain philosophy of life when the institutions meant to uphold it fails to do so? How do you hold to that commitment even in dark times?

Over the course of the initial five seasons of The Clone Wars, we see Ahsoka grow from an inexperienced young apprentice to a mature and capable Jedi warrior. She comes of age and takes command of dangerous missions on her own, from advising guerrilla groups to training Jedi younglings. Though she develops a steadily more complex outlook on life, Ahsoka maintains the fundamental decency and compassion at the core of her character. Unlike the Order itself, Ahsoka’s a true believer in the Jedi ethos: as she herself puts it in the last episode of the show’s original run, “The values of the Jedi are sacred to me.”

In other words, we see Ahsoka as the very model of a chivalrous Jedi Knight. Despite her dedication to the ideals of the Jedi, however, the Order abandons Ahsoka when she’s framed for a crime she didn’t commit. When she’s exonerated, a less-than-apologetic Order invites her back in – but she refuses and leaves of her own volition, contrary to the pleading of her old master. Ahsoka’s departure provokes severe doubts about the Jedi Order: if they manage to convince an inherently good person like Ahsoka that she has no place with them, what good are the Jedi themselves?

After walking away from the Order, Ahsoka becomes a masterless Jedi akin to many of the ronin characters played by Toshiro Mifune in Kurosawa’s samurai epics. In a recent arc in the ongoing revival of The Clone Wars, she tries to hide her past as a Jedibut no matter how hard she tries she cannot escape her own character and sense of self. “In my life, when you find people who need your help, you help them – no matter what,” she responds when asked why she’s helping a pair of down-on-their-luck sisters from the lower levels of the capital planet of Coruscant. “I guess it’s just who I am.” 

Later on in the chronology of the Star Wars universe, Ahsoka reappears in the now-concluded Star Wars: Rebels as a spymaster for the incipient rebellion against the Galactic Empire. Assisting a newly-formed rebel cell, she comes face-to-face with Darth Vader – and her duel with her former master possesses far more emotional resonance than any similar confrontation in the entire Star Wars saga. Haunted by the lingering feeling that she abandoned Anakin right before he needed her, Ahsoka vows not to leave Vader even as their surroundings collapse around them while they fight. 

This conflict between Ahsoka’s own notions of what a Jedi Knight should be and the reality of what the Jedi Order is in reality reflects a more universal tension between the duties required in maintaining to an individual’s own ethical commitments while remaining part of well-meaning but rudderless institutions. Cynicism provides an would provide an easy out for Ahsoka, as it does for so many in the real world. But in the fictional universe of Star Wars, Ahsoka remains true to her own moral code and the ideal of a Jedi Knight embedded both in her own mind and ours. Unlike her former master Anakin Skywalker, she doesn’t “see through the lies of the Jedi” or adopt a jaundiced and suspicious sense of morality after her own experiences – though she recognizes the Jedi Order as a failed institution when she asserts, “I am no Jedi.”

It’s no exaggeration to say that Ahsoka’s journey adds moral weight and emotional depth to a story told half-heartedly and ineptly by the prequels. Her story subverts the distorted ethical calculus of the Star Wars films and replaces it with its own, more nuanced sense of morality. Unlike the convoluted and baffling ethics of the film trilogies, Ahsoka confronts thorny moral dilemmas and works them out in humane and compassionate – if not always successful – ways. Jedi or not, she adheres to her own moral principles and ethical commitments no matter her circumstance. In that respect, Ahsoka Tano is the one true hero that can be found in the entire fictional universe of Star Wars.

Nonetheless, she’s got some stiff competition from the titular protagonist of The Mandalorian – though that should come as no surprise since both shows share essentially the same creative DNA. The surface similarities between the Jedi and the Mandalorians are striking: both involve societies of lone warriors guided by a strict code that governs an individual member’s actions. But the title character isn’t simply a mercenary gunslinger with a heart of gold; his decision to rescue the adorable Baby Yoda from the clutches of shadowy and nefarious elements springs directly from personal commitments that go beyond the Mandalorian Way.

There’s much more to be said about The Mandalorian, starting with obviously strong influence of Westerns on its aesthetic. But most of all, The Clone Wars and The Mandalorian serve notice that it’s still possible to tell compelling human stories in the fictional Star Wars universe. To do so, however, these shows have had to leave well behind the overly indulgent romanticism, reactionary ethos, and inept storytelling that weighed down the three main film trilogies and the overall mythos. 

Taken together, both showstake the core universal appeal of the fictional universe and open it it up for dissection. Ahsoka’s narrative exposes the failings of the Jedi Order without succumbing to the sort of easy cynicism audiences might understandably expect. Amidst the moral decay of the Jedi Order, her refusal to become unmoored from these philosophical commitments stands out. She lives up to the ideal image of a Jedi Knight we’ve all built in our own minds, that of a warrior-monk dedicated to a moral code that guides her actions. 

When institutions and individuals detach their stated values and purpose from their words and actions, they enter a spiral of moral decay that’s very difficult to arrest. That’s the warning Star Wars delivers to us, almost despite itself. It’s not necessarily an obvious point, much less an explicit or intended one. But it’s a message that comes across clearly through the character of Ahsoka Tano and her path through the Star Wars mythos. She reminds us that even when we become disillusioned, it’s best to keep faith with ourselves and our principles. After all, what’s truly up to us are our own judgments and act or not to act – and that’s all that really matters in the end.

On Social Distancing and Loneliness

“It follows that the good of a rational being must be fellowship with others; for it has long been proved that we were born for fellowship.”

  • Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 5.16

Fears abound that the current coronavirus pandemic will spawn a second, equally insidious epidemic of loneliness as we all lock down and practice social distancing to slow the rapid spread of the virus across the country and in our communities. Indeed, public health experts raised alarms about what they saw as the deeply harmful individual health consequences of increasing loneliness in the United States and other industrial democracies well before the coronavirus outbreak. Once social distancing became the main defense against the virus, a number of voices raised concern about the loneliness this necessary practice would inflict on an already isolated society.

I can only speak for myself, but I can’t say I’ve felt particularly lonely in the week and a half or so I’ve been practicing social distancing. We shouldn’t discount or downplay the feelings of loneliness this measure may prompt in others, and I know from personal experience how difficult social isolation can be. Human beings are social creatures, and so it’s hard to be physically disconnected from others. Phone calls, text conversations, and Zoom sessions can’t make up for face-to-face interactions or physical contact. Nonetheless, they’re still a form of human connection and shouldn’t be given short shrift – especially now. 

Above all, though, it’s vital to remember that we’re distancing ourselves out of concern for one another. For my own part, I feel more grateful for my relationships and more aware of their importance in my life as a result of the solitude imposed by social distancing. That can be meaningful consolation when we feel alone as a result of our voluntary isolation from others, and it’s a way of thinking about our predicament that’s worth exploring further.

We can start with some philosophical building blocks, most notably the ancient Stoic ideas that all things are interwoven and that we should always act in ways that contribute to the common good. The philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius expressed these concepts a number of times in his private philosophical journal, known to us today as the Meditations.  He took pains to remind himself, for instance, that “a human being is formed by nature to benefit others, and, when he has performed some benevolent action or accomplished anything else that contributes to the common good, he has done what he was constituted for, and has what is properly his.” (9.42)

Likewise, Marcus conveyed the interconnectedness of human society in simple analogy: “What brings no benefit to the hive brings none to the bee.” (6.54) In other words, individuals only benefit when society does well and vice versa. These two ideas connect with a third concept that also originates with the Stoics: the “the view from above.” Marcus regularly practiced this philosophical exercise, which involves pulling back from our immediate concerns to remember that we live for a short while on a tiny speck amidst a vast ocean of stars and galaxies. The retired NASA astronaut Scott Kelly put forward a version of the view from above in his recent how-to piece on how he coped with social isolation during his year-long stint on the International Space Station:

Seen from space, the Earth has no borders. The spread of the coronavirus is showing us that what we share is much more powerful than what keeps us apart, for better or for worse. All people are inescapably interconnected, and the more we can come together to solve our problems, the better off we will all be.

These philosophical tools can prove invaluable in combatting the loneliness all of us will undoubtedly feel at some point during our practice of social distancing. We should think about why we’re engaging in social distancing first place – and it’s not because of the coronavirus itself or even the incompetence of political leaders at home and abroad in handling this public health crisis. Rather, we’re isolating ourselves for the sake of our friends and family, acquaintances and co-workers, fellow citizens and strangers around the world. We’re doing so in order to slow the spread of this terrible pandemic, reduce its scope, and save lives of the people we care about and those we may never meet. 

Also consider how lonely we could be even before we began to engage in social distancing. Remember how worried many of our public health officials and experts were about a loneliness epidemic even before the coronavirus pandemic took hold. Recall how isolated we can feel as parts of crowds, and how anonymous we can feel in larger groups.

Contemplate as well that we all need intimacy and deep connections with other human beings, regardless of whether we’re distancing ourselves from others as the result of a pandemic or we’re going about our normal lives as we would have just several weeks ago. Give thought to how we can achieve intimacy at a distance, whether with friends and family or even people past and present we’ll only know through writing or music. It may not be the kind of intimacy we want and ultimately need, but it can tide us through as we isolate ourselves for the common good. Focus on how disconnected we could be from others under normal circumstances, and think about how often we took our relationships for granted. 

Reflect, moreover, on how doctors, nurses, and others on the frontlines of the pandemic are performing their own duties heroically at great risk to their own lives. Think of those among us who will be stricken with the virus itself, as well as those working and exposing themselves to it in order to keep the rest of us supplied with food, drink, and medicine. In such a serious state of affairs, social distancing is the least the rest of of us can do to help.

Finally, let this consolation serve as preparation to practice social distancing for the duration. We must not delude ourselves into believing that we can resume normal life by Easter, and we should recognize that we’ll likely be called on to do our part much longer than we’d prefer.  Social distancing can leave us either isolated and lonely – or it can make us grateful for the connections and relationships we do have, especially now as we work to maintain them while keeping our distance from one another for the sake of the common good.

Ultimately, we can all make a difference in the campaign against the coronavirus if we do our part – and we may find that we come away from this crisis with a renewed sense of gratitude for the relationships with the people we care about, the knowledge that we can endure much more than we previously imagined, and a heightened appreciation for the common good of our fellow men and women.

“How to Be a Bad Emperor”: A Guide to Anti-Leadership

Review: How to Be a Bad Emperor: An Ancient Guide to Truly Terrible Leaders by Suetonius (Selected, Translated, and Introduced by Josiah Osgood)

For what can anyone expect from someone he has trained in wickedness? A villainous heart does not show obedience for long, and the scale of its crimes does not depend on the orders it is given.”

  • Seneca, On Mercy, 1.26.1

Stupidity has a knack of getting its way; as we should see if we were not always so much wrapped up in ourselves.”

  • Albert Camus, The Plague

From the very first paragraph, it’s impossible to ignore the eerie and disconcerting parallels between some of ancient Rome’s most notorious emperors and President Donald Trump that can be found in How to Be a Bad Emperor: An Ancient Guide to Truly Terrible Leaders. Drawn from the ancient historian Suetonius’s masterwork Lives of the Caesars and translated by Georgetown classics scholar Josiah Osgood, this latest in a series of fresh translations of ancient Greek and Roman works on politics and philosophy never explicitly draws out similarities between these ancient tyrants and their modern doppelgänger. But this uncanny symmetry remains clear, making a persuasive – and petrifying – case that while the times may change, awful political leadership remains timeless.

It’s a hard lesson, and one humanity seems forced to endure time and again. We learn with difficulty that an amalgam of incompetence, malevolence, and egotism in our political leaders sends our societies careening toward catastrophe. Yet time marches on, and these lessons fade from our collective memory. As a result, societies repeatedly find themselves at the mercy of charlatans and misanthropes who cannot even begin to contemplate the public good or consider anything beyond their own egos. Osgood’s selections from Suetonius therefore perform a salutary task, reminding us that dreadful political leadership both remains inescapable and invariably proves disastrous. 

These ancient reminders start with Julius Caesar, the otherwise impressive military commander  who proved too arrogant for his own good. According to Suetonius, Caesar held himself high above those who considered themselves his equal – or at least felt they weren’t as far down Rome’s political and social pecking order as Caesar apparently did. This hubris would prove Caesar’s nemesis, blinding him to those conspiring to assassinate him. Ultimately, Suetonius tells us, Caesar “allowed honors to be awarded to him that were too great for any human being… Indeed, there were no honors he did not receive, or bestow, as he liked.”

Caesar’s pride and vanity may have led to his own murder, but his faults would come to pale in comparison with those of his successors. Midway through his more than two-decade reign as Rome’s second full-fledged emperor, Tiberius retreated from the capitol and relocated more or less permanently to the resort island of Capri. Ensconced there, Suetonius recounts, Tiberius “gave up his concern for public affairs.” He failed to appoint replacements for a wide variety of public positions, up to and including provincial governors for vital imperial territories like Spain and Syria. Enemies nibbled away at Rome’s frontiers, leading Suetonius to charge the “dishonor to the empire was as great as the danger.”

Though modern historians discount the tales told by Suetonius of Tiberius’s sexual debauchery – “Roman history is full of salacious rumors, and we should be skeptical,” the historian Barry Strauss cautioned in his own recent group biography Ten Caesars – his brutality toward his imagined enemies remains largely uncontested. Tiberius earned this reputation with his proclivity for treason trials against those among the Roman elite who criticized him, as well as repression of average Romans over quotidian offenses like changing one’s clothes near a statue of the Augustus. As Suetonius remarks, “To go through all his acts of cruelty one by one would be tedious… Every crime was considered a capital one, even if it consisted of a few innocent words.”

Nor did Tiberius leave behind much of a legacy in stone or marble. “He spent little and was tightfisted,” Suetonius says. “As emperor, he did not build any structures of splendor.” Tiberius did not shower the Roman military or the Roman people with much generosity, even in times of hardship. Suetonius also alleges that Rome’s provinces failed to receive much financial support from their emperor, though he does make an exception for recovery efforts that followed an earthquake in the eastern part of the empire.

But the torpor of Tiberius couldn’t compete with the paranoid and cruel megalomania of his immediate successor, Caligula. This emperor’s behavior as emperor certainly accords with what Suetonius says he told his grandmother: “I can do whatever I want to whomever I want.” Caligula executed family members, relatives, and friends on a whim, “suddenly and unexpectedly” killing his adoptive brother when he confused the brother’s cough medicine for a poison antidote and forcing his father-in-law to commit suicide after he failed to join Caligula on a stormy ocean voyage out of concern for seasickness. No sector of Roman society was spared Caligula’s callous brutality, Suetonius writes; he treated them all “with similar arrogance and violence” for trivial reasons like “being critical of his games.” When notified that he had punished the wrong person due to what Suetonius tells us is a confusion over names, Caligula claimed that the unintended victim “deserved it just as much.”

Caligula’s narcissism and contempt for humanity knew few if any bounds. “I wish the Roman People had a single neck!” he shouted because crowds backed a racing team other than the one he favored. “Over and over,” Suetonius tells us, “he wished for military massacres, famine, plague, fires, or a major earthquake” in order to be able to demonstrate his own greatness. He repeatedly made clear that he could execute random individuals and close relatives whenever he felt like it, telling consuls at a dinner party “that with a single nod I could immediately have both of you executed.” “In short,” Suetonius observes, “no matter how bad a man’s circumstances or low his fortune, Caligula still begrudged him whatever advantages he did enjoy.”

Suetonius does give us an explanation for Caligula’s self-indulgence and cruelty: “overwhelming confidence and, on the other hand, excessive fear.”  The emperor claimed to have no use for the gods, the ancient historian says, but scurried underneath his bed at “the smallest burst of thunder and clap of lightning.” It shouldn’t be surprising that this combustible cocktail of deep insecurity and grandiosity produced such a vicious and volatile personality. Eventually Caligula went too far, insulting a senior officer in the Praetorian Guard and leading members of that elite unit to assassinate him.

Just thirteen years after Caligula’s death, however, the emperor Nero would mount an impressive challenge to his standing as Rome’s worst leader. Under the influence of advisors like the philosopher Seneca and Praetorian Guard commander Burrus, Nero’s early reign showed promise. But just five years in, Nero murdered his mother and began a full-blown descent into tyranny and self-absorption.

Above all, Nero saw himself as an entertainer and an artist. He took up singing, playing the lyre, and driving chariots, moving up previously scheduled games so he could perform in Rome. When Nero later took his talents to Greece, “it was not permitted to leave the theater, even in an emergency. And so some women, it is said, gave birth during his shows.” Suetonius needed just one line to sum up Nero’s extraordinary narcissism: “To many men he offered friendship, or declared an enmity, based on how much, or how little, they praised him.”

“After putting up with an emperor like this for fourteen years,” Suetonius soberly concludes, “the world finally abandoned him.” Even when top Roman military commanders revolted against his rule, Nero remained focused on his own idle pursuits. Upon hearing the news of the rebellion, for instance, the emperor “immediately made his way to the gymnasium and became deeply engrossed in watching the athletes compete.” It took eight days to wrench any sort of orders or instructions from Nero, and Suetonius informs us that even as he faced this crisis “nothing pained him so much as being criticized as a bad lyre-player or being called Ahenobarbus instead of Nero.” 

Even with his throne on the line, Nero could not muster a serious effort to fight his rebellious generals. Rather than concern himself with military preparations, Nero “took most care in choosing carts to carry organs for the theater and in giving the concubines he was bringing with him masculine haircuts.” Oblivious as he was as his regime came crashing down around him, Nero eventually read the writing on the wall and considered his options as Rome’s elites turned on him en masse. After much hesitation, the self-obsessed and theatrical emperor talked himself into taking his own life rather than be captured by his myriad enemies.

In their broad strokes as well as their details, these selections from Suetonius ought to sound disturbing to our modern ears. It’s paradoxically both shocking and unsurprising that humanity hasn’t learned all that much from its experiences with atrocious political leadership over the last two thousand years. Over and over again, societies around the world discover that, as Osgood puts it, “the acquisition of power may not so much corrupt, as the old adage has it, allow our own worst qualities to slide out and harm us.” The megalomania, egoism, and reckless cruelty of such rulers ultimately lead to disastrous consequences for themselves personally and the societies they profess to govern.

Indeed, the trademarks of appalling political leadership Suetonius first identified two millennia ago may well have reached their apotheosis in President Donald Trump. To be sure, there have been some stiff contenders for the title over the decades and centuries since Nero’s death. Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and his brutal if somewhat ramshackle Fascist regime certainly made a strong showing in the early twentieth century. But Trump’s conduct in the world’s most powerful office leaves the impression that he’s taken Rome’s worst leaders as his principal political role models.

It’s not as if the United States hasn’t had its fair share of poor political leadership. Both James Buchanan nor Herbert Hoover proved wholly inadequate to the severe national crises they faced, leaving their exceptional successors Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt to pick up the pieces of their broken societies and rebuild them. Some presidents like George W. Bush were simply inept when it came to the formulation and execution of public policy, while others like Warren G. Harding and Richard Nixon mired themselves in scandal and corruption.

With his melange of vainglorious incompetence and indolence at a time of acute national crisis, however, Trump has managed to outpace his predecessors by a considerable distance. Like Tiberius, Trump spent an inordinate amount of time at his own Mar-a-Lago resort in South Florida before it was shuttered due to the coronavirus pandemic. Nor will Trump leave behind any “structures of splendor,” despite early promises of substantial infrastructure spending and an “infrastructure week” that’s lasted for nearly three years.

But it’s Trump’s petty cruelty, overweening self-absorption, and obsession with his own image that places him in the company of Caligula and Nero. Like these two terrible leaders, Trump’s narcissism and insecurity function to conceal a weak and unstable personality that has no business anywhere near the reins of power. Trump’s public rallies and adolescent name-calling on Twitter lend credence to repeated claims by those in close working proximity to him – both political allies and opponents – that his personality most closely resembles that of a petulant toddler. Indeed, political scientist Dan Drezner identifies Trump’s temper tantrums, short attention span, and poor impulse control as three of the president’s core personality traits.

Abundant evidence supports the contention that Trump seems to have taken leadership lessons from Rome’s worst emperors, from his insistence that Article II of the U.S. Constitution allows him “to do whatever I want” to his repeated and preposterous claims that no other president has been treated “so unfairly”not even Lincoln. It’s clear Trump thinks about little else than how events affect his public image and media coverage. During a recent press conference on the coronavirus crisis, for instance, Trump lashed out at a reporter who asked what words of reassurance he’d offer to frightened Americans in this time of national distress. 

Indeed, the coronavirus pandemic illustrates just how disastrous an abysmal political leader like Trump inevitably proves to be at times of crisis. Oblivious to any concerns outside his own ego, Trump repeatedly and consistently underplayed the danger at hand. As the coronavirus began to radiate out from China at the start of 2020, he quickly characterized it as a partisan political hoax. Trump’s own White House “struggled to get him to take the virus seriously” as it rapidly became a global public health threat. In an early telephone call with Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, for instance, Trump abruptly switched subjects from the virus to vaping. When Centers for Disease Control senior director Dr. Nancy Messonnier publicly stated in late February that the virus would continue to spread, moreover, Trump complained to Azar that she had spooked the stock markets. 

As a result of Trump’s narcissism and idleness, the United States government finds itself ill-prepared and struggling to effectively respond to the worst national crisis in recent memory. Even with cities and states across the country locking down and the nation’s heath care system under unprecedented strain, Trump refuses to use executive authority to produce the medical equipment needed to protect America’s doctors and save lives. Instead, Trump categorically rejected any responsibility whatsoever for his administration’s failed response and attempted to shift the blame to his predecessor. Public officials feel they must flatter Trump live on television to keep him on task and his temper down. Thanks to Donald Trump’s utterly appalling political leadership, tens of thousands of Americans – if not more – will likely die while the overall economy will likely suffer its worst collapse since the Great Depression.

The Romans who endured Caligula and Nero were lucky by comparison. Neither bad emperor had to confront the sort of crisis that later emperors like Marcus Aurelius would face later or that the United States faces today. Given the striking similarities between terrible political leaders both ancient and modern, it’s not hard to conclude that atrocious political leadership is just part and parcel of the human condition. Truly awful leaders recur again and again throughout history, and we’d be delusional to think we can somehow immunize ourselves against another Nero or another Trump in the future.

That’s not a call for fatalism or defeatism, however. In previous national crises, Americans got lucky with leaders like Lincoln and Roosevelt. Rome did have an emperor like Marcus to deal with a series of near-simultaneous disasters that included internal rebellion, frontier wars, and the spread of a devastating plague throughout the empire. It may be too soon to do a full and complete accounting of the the Trump administration’s debacles, but it’s clear that the moral failings of terrible leaders often return to haunt them personally – but not before their appalling leadership leads their societies to catastrophe.

Making a Difference Again – First Impressions of Star Trek: Picard

“Let me tell you something: don’t. Don’t let them promote you. Don’t let them transfer you. Don’t let them do anything that takes you off the bridge of that ship because while you’re there… You can make a difference.”

Ever since I caught my first episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation over twenty-five years ago, I’ve been a huge Star Trek fanatic. Through thirteen films and seven television series, the show has displayed a faith in humanity and optimism in our prospects that’s conspicuous by its absence in a popular culture soaked with irony and cynicism. Indeed, most other familiar science fiction franchises like Terminator, Blade Runner, and Battlestar Galactica veer toward the dark and ominous in both atmosphere and substance. These dystopian worlds tell us not just that humanity can’t get things right or make progress, but that we’re bound to actively make matters worse if not destroy ourselves and the things that matter most to us in the process.

In this dismal milieu, though, Star Trek’s perpetual optimism andenduring faith in humanity stands apart. This hopeful outlook shines through most clearly in The Next Generation, my favorite among all the series produced to date. That’s in large part due to the character of Captain Jean-Luc Picard, played with aplomb by Patrick Stewart for over three decades. Picard’s nigh-impregnable moral core and ability to express it with remarkable and forceful eloquence grounds The Next Generation’s belief in humanity’s capacity to change for the better.  

So I’m very much sympathetic to complaints and criticisms that the show’s latest iteration, Star Trek: Picard, falls short of the idealism that’s driven Star Trek for more than five decades. As critic Devin Faraci puts it, “it’s become clear that the people running Star Trekthese days want it to be cool” rather than “corny as hell” – and that that desire undermines Star Trek’s core ethos. Beyond question, there’s a real aesthetic dissonance between Picard and its 24th century predecessors. On certain points of style like fashion, for instance, Picard feels more in line with contemporary sensibilities than the admittedly “weird” things we saw on The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager. More important, however, is that Picard takes place in a Federation that’s failed in spectacular ways to live up to the ideals articulated by Captain Picard himself during the halcyon days of The Next Generation.

But that’s precisely why I find Picard so captivating. It’s hardly a groundbreaking observation to note that Star Trek has always crafted its interstellar morality plays in ways that reflect and refract current events and contemporary conditions. The original series, for instance, featured an episode that illustrated the madness of racial prejudice, while The Next Generation demonstrated that historical enemies could become present-day friends by placing a Klingon character on the bridge of the Enterprise and made the Klingon Empire one of the Federation’s closest allies. In “Duet,” Deep Space Nine shows the futility of holding on to hatred and the necessity of forgiveness for even the most heinous crimes.

The list of episodes and storylines could go on and on, but it’s important to recognize that these themes remain nested within Star Trek’s broader optimism about humanity and its future. Appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, Star Trek: Picard falls directly in line with this tradition. If Picard feels less utopian than its direct predecessors, that’s due to the timely nature of the narrative it tells and the profound questions it sets out to explore. Namely, what do we do when the we’ve failed, the world is broken, and nothing seems to matter any more? What happens when things fall apart in spite of best efforts?

These are the kinds of existential questions Jean-Luc Picard confronts in his eponymous series. When we first come across him again, it’s apparent that Picard isn’t the same confident captain of the starship Enterprise we last saw at the end of 2002’s Star Trek: Nemesis. This Picard has been puttering away in self-imposed exile on his family’s ancestral vineyards for nearly a decade and a half, writing books of history and tending to the vines with help from a pair of former Romulan intelligence operatives Laris and Zhaban (played by Orla Brady and Jamie McShane, respectively) as well as a pitbull terrier named Number One (portrayed by a rescue called Dinero).

The reason for Picard’s retreat soon becomes clear: Starfleet and the Federation have fallen far from the high ideals of The Next Generation era. Asked in an interview with a Federation news media network why he left Starfleet, Picard first quietly and then angrily responds, “Because it was no longer Starfleet!” Indeed, Picard resigned in protest when the Federation failed to live up to its own ideals and canceled the mission he commanded to rescue hundreds of millions of Romulans from an interstellar natural disaster [1]. Haunted by the most profound personal failure of his career and disillusioned with the institutions to which he had dedicated his life, Picard withdrew to his family’s vineyards and walled himself off from a society that, in his view, betrayed its own fundamental principles.

The fallen Federation we glimpse in Picard nowhere near as as bleak as the dystopia depicted, say, Logan. Most importantly, neither the Federation nor Starfleet have crossed the thin and invisible line into permanent dysfunction and despair. By comparison with other fictional worlds, moreover, the Federation remains a fundamentally optimistic place in possession of more or less functional institutions. Paradoxically, however, it’s on this very account that the Federation of Picard feels much more real and visceral than the relentlessly grim and hopeless fictional universes that tend to occupy wide swathes of our popular culture. Given the high esteem in which both Picard and the Star Trek fans held Starfleet and the Federation throughout The Next Generation era, even minor shortcomings in these previously respected institutions lend Picard and its main themes a moral gravity that’s not truly possible in otherwise comparable narrative contexts. When Starfleet abandons Picard’s mission to save the Romulans, for instance, it’s impossible for us to disagree with his lament that he “never dreamed that Starfleet would give in to intolerance and fear.”

Making matters worse for Picard, the rhetorical brilliance and moral force so often on display in The Next Generation failed him at the worst possible time. Hundreds of millions of lives perished as a result, driving Picard into a paralyzing and isolating spiral of self-doubt and second-guessing. Just before his volatile interview halfway through the first episode, his Romulan caretakers take pains to remind Picard of his own character and history. “After so long, sometimes I worry you have forgotten what you did, who you are,” Laris instructs him.  “We have not.” Zhaban provides more friendly counsel: “Be the captain they remember.” 

As Laris and Zhaban insist, Jean-Luc Picard proves one of the best characters available to explore these themes of personal disillusionment and failure. Throwing an individual with such high moral and ethical standards back into a world that has let those standards down in spectacular ways makes for compelling and engrossing drama. What’s more, having Picard navigate this disenchanted environment without the same respect he once commanded – witness the dressing down the head of Starfleet Command gives him when he requests reinstatement – only reinforces the existential questions Picard raises.

Indeed, the first four episodes of Picard go a long way toward providing answers to these questions. In the premiere, it’s Picard’s encounter with Dahj Asha (played by Isa Briones) that spurs him back into action. He quickly discovers that Dahj is the synthetic daughter of the late Commander Data, the android officer and friend who sacrificed himself to save Picard at the end of Nemesis.

Dahj’s own ensuing death at the hands of a secret Romulan death squad propels Picard forward, forcing him to conclude that he still has a moral obligation to act. “She came here to find safety,” he tells Laris and Zhaban. “She deserved better from me. I owe it to her to find out who killed her and why.” When Laris assures him that he asks to much of himself, Picard retorts that “sitting here, all these years” on his family’s vineyards while “nursing his offended dignity” and “writing books of history people prefer to forget,” he “never asked anything of myself at all. I haven’t been living. I’ve been waiting to die.”

This brief dialogue serves as the moral fulcrum for Picard the decorated but disillusioned former Starfleet captain. But it also serves as a manifesto, a clear statement of purpose for Star Trek: Picard the television series. Picard comes to realize that it’s his duty to take action and make a difference as best he can – even if he’s unable to fix everything or even anything that’s wrong with the universe. He understands that his principles don’t allow him to mark time until his inevitable demise, and that they require him to make a difference in whatever small way he can. This rekindled sense of moral purpose Picard balances against and ultimately wins out over his disillusionment and disaffection with Starfleet.

In due course, Picard learns that the particular method involved in creating Dahj also birthed a twin sister, Soji. Intent on protecting Soji from her sister’s fate, he assembles a crew far removed from his old Enterprise comrades and sets out on a rough-and-ready rescue mission. Intriguingly, Picard goes from trying – and failing – to save hundreds of millions of lives on his final Starfleet assignment to trying to save just one life with a small crew of unusual rogues and flotsam. This turn of events echoes a remark Picard made to Data in an episode of The Next Generation: “You’re a culture of one, which is no less valid than a culture of one billion.” One life or a billion; Picard advises us it doesn’t matter how much of a difference we make as long as we do our best to make a difference.

As much as anything else, though, Picard’s process of personal and moral rediscovery reflects Star Trek’s long-standing view on the central value and importance of human connection. It’s Picard’s relationship to Data that catapults him into action, motivating him to seek out and protect Dahj and, later, Soji. As he tells Dahj, “If you are who I think you are, you dear to me in ways that you can’t understand.” In this way, Picard maintains Star Trek’s traditional faith in humanity. It doesn’t do so via abstract and flawed institutions like Starfleet or the Federation, but instead finds grounds for hope in individuals like Picard and the personal relationships he’s forged. What really matters in a world that falls well short of our highest ideals, Picard tells us, are our moral obligations to ourselves and others – especially those we care about.

Without doubt, Star Trek: Picard leaves plenty of room for criticism – much of it justified. Nor is it difficult to understand why the show might prove divisive among long-time Star Trek fans. But the Starfleet without illusions itdepicts betrays neither Star Trek as a whole nor The Next Generation and Jean-Luc Picard in particular. Indeed, Picard carries on the show’s best thematic traditions, dealing with contemporary issues and grappling with the difficult moral questions that lay at the heart of the human condition. It’s hard to believe otherwise after watching Picard tear down a “Romulans Only” sign at a bar and trample on it despite the rather obvious personal danger involved. 

Ultimately, the strengths of Star Trek: Picard far outweigh whatever weaknesses and deficiencies die-hard fans and casual viewers alike point out. Wherever the rest of the series may go – and I’m eager to find out – Picard has already proven itself to be a worthy addition to the Star Trek canon.


[1]  This mission aimed to relocate some 900 million Romulans – the Federation’s oldest enemy – before their home system’s sun unexpectedly went supernova, an event that served as the catalyst for the trilogy of alternate timeline Star Trek films that began in 2009 and starred Chris Pine as Captain Kirk. Starfleet called off the mission after an apparent uprising by synthetic workers helping build the rescue fleet at the Utopia Planitia shipyards on Mars left tens of thousands dead and prompted Federation member worlds to talk of secession rather than continue to rescue operation. As with many things Star Trek, it’s complicated. 

Ad Astra: An Ambitious, Flawed Epic

Image result for ad astra"

Review: 

Ad Astra dir. James Gray (2019)

“To see the earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold – brothers who know now they truly are brothers.”

Things haven’t exactly panned out the way MacLeish predicted. There’s no doubt that the Apollo voyages to the Moon still inspire awe and wonder in people around the world. These expeditions allowed humanity to reflect on its place in the cosmos in ways it could only imagine before. But even if his hopeful prophecy of universal planetary brotherhood failed to materialize in Apollo’s wake, MacLeish at least deserves credit for surfacing the profound existential questions that space exploration provokes and engaging in the sort of serious intellectual reflection these questions demand.

So it is with Ad Astra, an impressive yet flawed epic that wrestles with these big ideas and themes but can’t quite do them full justice in the end. The filmfollows astronaut Roy McBride (played by Brad Pitt) on his journey across the Solar System to retrieve his father from an ill-fated mission to Neptune that’s believed responsible for a series of energy surges that could end all life as we know it. A cold and austere aesthetic undergirds and reinforces the film’s central motifs, as does the Heart of Darkness-style narrative that structures it. But if Ad Astra  ultimately falls just short of what it hopes to achieve, it should not be criticized harshly. Instead, the film should be praised for its ambition and willingness to grapple with enduring and consequential questions.

That ambition starts with the film’s Heart of Darkness narrative structure, laid out early on in the briefing McBride receives from his military superiors at U.S. Space Command. Soon enough, he’s on board a commercial rocket to the Moon to begin his highly-classified mission. Like the Joseph Conrad’s Marlow in Heart of Darkness and Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard in Apocalypse Now, McBride must undertake a grueling and increasingly dark physical and moral journey to the end of civilization and beyond. But where Marlow and Willard went upriver in colonial Africa and Vietnam, respectively, McBride travels beyond human settlements on the Moon and Mars to the outer reaches of the Solar System. In all three odysseys, moreover, the main characters seek out a revered and respected figure gone mad: the deranged colonial official Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, the decorated Special Forces Colonel Walter Kurtz famously incarnated by Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now, and the legendary astronaut Clifford McBride – Roy’s father, portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones – in Ad Astra.

Beyond the shift in setting to outer space, this father-son dynamic represents Ad Astra’s largest and possibly most intriguing deviation from the Heart of Darkness narrative. After an initial viewing, however, it’s unclear what this particular wrinkle adds thematically, and at times it feels somewhat superfluous given other themes the film works to develop. On a surface level, the film appears to slot this relationship into a well-worn stock narrative of paternal abandonment. Indeed, McBride’s father left his son behind and departed on his ill-fated deep space mission to search for extraterrestrial life some 29 years prior to the start of the film. He later admits, “I don’t want to be my dad.”

It’d be a mistake to view the film’s treatment of this father-son relationship through this rather superficial lens, however. On the contrary, the relationship between McBride and his father drives the action in Ad Astra in ways that prove crucial to the movie’s narrative and wider themes while only landing glancing blows at traditional themes of fatherly neglect. These family ties set the final act of the film into motion, in which McBride defies orders to stay on Mars, hijacks the ship sent to kill his wayward father, and heads out to Neptune for the film’s emotional and thematic climax.

But the father-son relationship also grounds and propels McBride’s own substantial character evolution over the course of the film. When we first meet McBride, he’s remarkably alienated from himself and the rest of humanity. Via voice-over – one of the film’s central narrative conceits and a nod to Apocalypse Now – he tells the us that he’s “been trained to compartmentalize” and it “seems to me that’s how I approach my life.” McBride has clear difficulties relating to other people; he reviews a video message from his estranged wife Eve (played by Liv Tyler), who informs him that “I feel like I’m looking for you all the time trying to connect to you, be close to you and it fucking sucks.”

That’s where McBride stands at the start of the film, and he maintains this isolation from humanity as he travels to the Moon for the first stage of his journey. “All the hopes we ever had for space travel, covered up by drink stands and t-shirt vendors,” he states as he arrives at a lunar colony bedecked with neon advertisements, “Just a re-creation of what we’re running from on Earth.” “Here we go again. Fighting over resources,” he remarks as a running firefight with lunar pirates in the no-man’s-land between the colony and a Space Command base on the far side of the Moon begins.

The further McBride voyages out from Earth, though, the more he sheds this cynicism and grows closer to humanity as a whole. A classified video asserting his father intentionally disabled his ship’s communications leaves him wondering whether what his father discovered broke him or whether he was always broken. After a botched rescue mission that leaves the commander of the spacecraft taking him to Mars dead, McBride sees the same anger and pain he saw in his father in himself and observes that “it keeps me walled off… walled off from relationships and opening myself up and, you know, really caring for someone.” But he admits that doesn’t yet know how to surmount this obstacle.

This moral and philosophical journey accelerates when McBride finds himself traveling alone to Neptune after inadvertently killing the crew of the spacecraft he surreptitiously attempts to board on Mars. In a log entry made en route, McBride admits the “zero-g and the extended duration of the journey is affecting me both physically and mentally. I am alone. Something I always believed I preferred… But I confess it’s wearing on me.” 

Then McBride reaches Neptune and his father’s derelict spacecraft. He boards it, making his way through corridors haunted by flickering lights and floating corpses before confronting his disturbed father. Totally detached from humanity and consumed with his quest to find intelligent life among the stars, McBride’s father flatly states that he never truly cared about McBride, his mother, or anything else back on Earth – or humanity’s “small ideas.” Obsessed with proving that humanity isn’t alone in the universe and unwilling to accept that the data his mission collected proves otherwise, McBride’s father cannot see the reality that what he has been looking for was staring him in the face his whole life.

It’s in this final act that Ad Astra’s weightiest theme fully surfaces: the search for extraterrestrial intelligence and humanity’s place in the universe. This momentous theme comes into focus only erratically and infrequently before it emerges in full force at the film’s climax. Through briefings and video messages, for instance, we’re occasionally told that McBride’s father led an ill-fated mission to scan nearby star systems for signs of intelligent life. Still, it’s admirable that Ad Astra raises these far-reaching ideas as strongly as it does in the end.

Indeed, the realization that humanity must rely on itself in a cold and indifferent universe consummates McBride’s own character evolution. Where his father seeks an escape from humanity in his monomaniacal search for intelligent life elsewhere in the galaxy and mourns his inability to find it, McBride himself grasps the harsh reality of humanity’s ultimate cosmic loneliness. In response to his father’s insistence his son can’t let him fail, McBride tells him he didn’t fail: “Now we know. We’re all we’ve got.”

McBride’s moral and philosophical progress over the course of his journey deeper into space and further away from humanity subtly subverts the traditional Heart of Darkness narrative. Where he starts supremely cynical about humanity and its ability to change its ways for the better, McBride slowly develops a faith in humanity despite the darkness that washes over his voyage. Paradoxically, this budding belief grows in no small part because of the solitude he endures, conveying to him in no uncertain terms the necessity of basic human connection that he previously felt he didn’t need. His encounter and confrontation with his father, isolated and disconnected from humanity, only confirms McBride in his new perspective. As he puts it, his father “could only see what was not there – and missed what was right in front of him.” 

In the end, McBride’s ordeal forces him to rediscover humanity. He quite literally lets his father go after doing his best to bring him back to Earth, leaving him spinning off alone into the vastness of space before riding a nuclear shockwave home. In the film’s final scene, McBride reconnects with his estranged wife and delivers a voiceover monologue (framed as an input to the automated psychological tests that recur throughout) that summarizes his new frame of mind:

I’m steady, calm. I slept well, no bad dreams. I am active and engaged. I am aware of my surroundings and those in my immediate sphere. I’m attentive. I am focused on the essential, to the exclusion of all else. I’m unsure of the future, but I’m not concerned. I will rely on those closest to me, and I will share their burdens – as they share mine. I will live, and love.

In its own flawed and frustrating but compelling way, Ad Astra tells us that we’re all we’ve got – and that that’s more than enough.

Reflections on Taylor Swift, or the Pop Star as Philosopher

Photo credit: Gareth Cattermole/TAS18/Getty Images

“I’ll tell you the truth but never goodbye”

Taylor Swift may well be the last legitimate rock star America ever sees. 

That’s not just a matter of album sales or hit singles, though it did take just one week for her new record Lover to become the best-selling album of 2019. Nor is it simply a question of sold-out concerts, though her 2018 stadium tour became the highest-grossing U.S. tour on record – a title previously held by the likes of the Rolling Stones. Then there’s Lover Fest, a pair of two-day music festivals she plans to play next summer in Los Angeles and Boston. It’s a testament to her place in the pantheon of popular music that Swift is one of the few contemporary musical artists or acts that could pull off this remarkable set of feats.

To be sure, Swift isn’t the only rock star on the scene today – but she’ll almost certainly be the last artist to achieve the sort of widespread societal recognition inherent in the term itself. That’s in no small part due to the fact that Swift rose to prominence in the last days before social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter demolished any remaining semblance of shared experience in American society. When Swift released her breakthrough second album Fearless in 2008, Facebook had around 145 million users and Twitter users tweeted some 300,000 times per day. By the time she released her third album, Speak Now, in 2010, Facebook’s users more than trebled to 608 million and tweets per day reached around 35 million.

Social media platforms cannot be held only or solely responsible for wider trends that predated their rise. Instead, they merely accelerated a process of wider societal fragmentation and cultural decoherence already well under way at the time these platforms emerged. But as the linguist and social commentator John McWhorter put it, in roughly 2008 and 2009 the likes of Facebook and Twitter “revolutionized the American conversation about, well, everything.” Though others like social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and technologist Tobias Rose-Stockwell argue these seismic shifts occurred a couple of years later, there’s little doubt that social media platforms wrought havoc on our national life and helped snuff out the possibility of a common national culture moving forward.

The music industry proved no exception, but Swift didn’t just luckily stumble upon on the last moments before social media devoured society whole. Her body of work displays a level of consistent quality and quantity that parallels that of the golden age of rock in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Then, god-like bands like the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin strung together a series of masterpiece albums like Sticky Fingers and Physical Graffiti over a number of years. Prince was perhaps the last artist to pull off such a run, releasing nine albums from his 1979 self-titled record to 1988’s Lovesexy. Likewise, Swift has recorded and released quality albums almost every two years since her own self-titled debut in 2006, only allowing an extra year to pass between 2014’s 1989 and 2017’s reputation despite the demands of massive global concert tours.

That’s the why. The real reason Swift has become the last of the dying breed of rock stars is that she cultivates a real sense of intimacy with her listeners. In part that’s because at her core she’s a singer-songwriter in the tradition of Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, and, in more recent decades, Sarah McLachlan and the Lilith Fair crowd of the 1990s. By her own account, Swift is a “confessional songwriter” and her latest album as “very, very autobiographical” with “moments of extreme catchiness and moments of extreme personal confession.” As she told the audience at her NPR Tiny Desk concert in October 2019, “songwriting is really just like a cathartic, therapeutic thing for me.”

Strip everything else away from her music, and that’s who she is and what she does – and it’s a large part of why she’s earned her place in the pantheon of popular music. It comes through clear in whatever genre she’s writing in: country, pop, and even the electro-detour of reputation. Her songs simply work in ways that are increasingly rare, and do so on their own merits. As she herself remarked in a recent interview with Rolling Stone, “Singing about something helps you to express it in a way that feels more accurate. You cannot, no matter what, put words in a quote and have it move someone the same way as if you heard those words with the perfect sonic representation of that feeling.”

In her songs, Swift bares her vulnerabilities and insecurities to her listeners and invites them to share their own vulnerabilities and insecurities with her. This intimacy can be called contrived or affected, but that’s the opposite of the truth. It may be intimacy at a distance, but it’s a legitimate and very real intimacy nonetheless. Through her own emotional sincerity, Swift allows her listeners to open themselves up emotionally in a culture made callous by unbridled irony and cynicism. She gives her listeners license to feel and express their deepest fears and hopes in ways that would otherwise leave them exposed to ridicule or worse in everyday life. More than anything else, it’s this very real human connection that bonds Swift and her fans.

Swift forges these bonds through the way she tackles universal themes and subjects that strike at the heart of the human condition. She possesses the rare ability to translate her own personal experiences of longing, heartbreak, and self-doubt into a universal idiom that speaks to fundamental human needs for intimacy and connection amidst the often painful struggles inherent in life. As Swift herself put it when discussing the title track from Lover at her Tiny Desk concert, “in life you accumulate scars, you accumulate hurt, you accumulate moments of, you know, learning and disappointment and struggle and all that, and if someone’s going to take your hand, they’d better take your hand scars and all.”

It’s this gift that drives her popularity and staying power, pushing her work beyond the ephemeral and all but guaranteeing her a long career. Her most recent album, Lover, testifies to this singular skill and puts it on full display. The album is also a perfect distillation of the themes and questions Swift has contemplated over the course of her career. Swift understands that we all long for intimacy, we all suffer heartbreak, and we all fall short of our own ideals far more often than we’d like to admit. Lover succeeds in plumbing the depths of these universal human experiences while carrying forward many of the thematic through lines that Swift has explored over the course of her career.

That’s apparent in the introductory note she penned for the album. It’s something of a manifesto for the album itself, her music in general, and her relationship with her listeners. This statement reveals an artist fully aware of what she aims to achieve and why she aims to achieve it.

It’s worth quoting it at length:

In life, we grow up and we encounter the nuanced complexities of trying to figure out who to be, how to act, or how to be happy. Like invisible smoke in the room, we wonder what kind of anxiety pushes you forward and what kind ruins your ability to find joy in your life. We constantly question our choices, our surroundings, and we beat ourselves up for our mistakes. All the while, we crave romance. We long for those rare, enchanting moments when things just fall into place. Above all else, we really, really want our lives to be filled with love.

She continues, advising and encouraging her listeners:

I’ve decided that in this life, I want to be defined by the things I love – not the things I hate, the things I’m afraid of, or the things that haunt me in the middle of the night. Those things may be my struggles, but they’re not my identity. I wish the same for you. May your struggles become inaudible background noise behind the loud, clear voices of those who love and appreciate you. Turn those voices up in the mix in your head. May you take notice of the things in your life that are nice and make you feel safe and maybe even find wonderment in them. May you write down your feelings and reflect on them years later, only to learn that all the trials and tribulations you thought might kill you… didn’t. I hope that someday you forget that pain ever existed. I hope that if there is a lover in your life, it’s someone who deserves you. If that’s the case, I hope you treat them with care.

These messages and themes may seem simple, but in reality they convey a remarkably astute assessment of the human condition and the shared hopes, desires, and anxieties that constitute it. They strike at the most important and profound questions many of us face in life, and address some of the most intense and meaningful experiences many of us will ever have. For Swift herself, these messages ultimately constitute a clear sense of artistic purpose that comes through forcefully on Lover.

That starts with the title track. As a song about the most basic and intimate of human connections, “Lover” sets the tone for the entire album. To all appearances, the song hits a series of happy notes about a serious romantic relationship. But it’s also shot through with self-doubt and uncertainty, as the chorus indicates: “Can I go where you go?/Can we always be this close?” Though the listener presumes the answer of Swift’s object of affection will invariably be yes, the song itself provides no assurances. Swift puts herself in a position of extreme emotional vulnerability, declaring her own feelings about “this magnetic force of a man” with no guarantee her romantic partner will reciprocate in any way. Swift herself explained that she “wanted the chorus [of ‘Lover’] to be these, like, really simple existential questions that we ask ourselves when we’re in love. ‘Can I go where you go?’ is such a heavy thing to ask somebody. ‘Can we always be this close?’ has so much fear in it – but so does love.”

This awareness of an inherent connection between love and fear as well as the knowledge of the ever-present risk of emotional hurt haunts Lover. Indeed, Swift repeatedly exposes her own self-doubts and anxieties throughout the album and invites her listeners to conclude that the pursuit of genuine human connection and intimacy requires facing one’s own fears and insecurities directly.“I love you, ain’t that the worst thing you ever heard?” she asks a new romantic partner on “Cruel Summer,” for instance. With 80s-style synthesizers and a persistent beat propelling her forward on “The Archer,” Swift wonders, “Who could ever leave me, darling…/But who could stay?” Even when relationships are going strong in songs like “Cornelia Street,” Swift hopes she’ll never lose her partner and that their relationship will never end. If it does, she says, the reminders of heartbreak will prove so intense – it’d be “the kind of heartbreak time could never mend”- that she’d “never walk Cornelia Street again.” Then there’s the brutal, uncertain, and protracted emotional process involved in the end of a relationship described by Swift on the aptly-titled “Death by a Thousand Cuts.” All this on a record she rightly considers “a very, very happy, romantic album.”

Above all else, though, Lover reflects Swift’s growing maturity and self-assurance. As she put it when describing the title track, “When young adults go from living in their family to then combining their life with someone else, that’s actually like the most profound thing.” On the ethereal sonic landscape of “Afterglow,” for instance, she takes responsibility for the fiery end of a relationship and regrets hurting her partner in the process: 

Why’d I have to break what I love so much? 

It’s on your face

And I’m to blame

I need to say

Hey, it’s all me, in my head

I’m the one who burned us down

But it’s not what I meant

Sorry that I hurt you

Likewise, on “I Forgot That You Existed” Swift champions moving on from difficult emotional situations and cultivating a healthy sense of equanimity toward life’s struggles. The right attitude to develop toward those who wrong you, she advises, “isn’t love it isn’t hate/It’s just indifference.” Moreover, Swift lets her listeners know there’s a certain joy – a sentiment expressed elsewhere on songs like “I Think He Knows” – that comes from moving past whatever trials and tribulations we might experience, even if these conflicts won’t ever see any satisfactory resolution. Indeed, Swift later proclaims her own version of amor fati (“love of fate”) on “Paper Rings”: “Honey without all the exes, fights, and flaws/We wouldn’t be standing here so tall.”

But Swift’s thematic apotheosis comes on Lover’s final track, “Daylight.” Even more than the title track, this elegant song captures the spirit of the album itself and provides a stellar summation of Swift’s own artistic ambitions. In “Daylight,” she comes to terms with her own flaws and mistakes, discovers the sort of the intimacy we all seek, and steps into the future with an assurance and confidence born of experience. “There are so many lines that I’ve crossed unforgiven,” she admits; “I wounded the good and I trusted the wicked/Clearing the air, I breathed in the smoke.” She expand on this acknowledgment of personal mistakes and missteps in her Rolling Stone interview, saying that it bothers her “looking back at life and realizing that no matter what, you screw things up. Sometimes there are people that were in your life and they’re not anymore — and there’s nothing you can do about it. You can’t fix it, you can’t change it.”

If she’s made the litany of mistakes she lists in the first two verses, however, Swift has forgiven herself and moved on: “Threw out our cloaks and our daggers because it’s morning now/It’s brighter now.” Self-acceptance allows her to cast aside her illusions of what she once thought about love as well as her own self-doubt that she’d ever find the intimacy she seeks. “I once believed love would be black and white/But it’s golden/Like daylight,” she sings. Swift has finally  made the genuine human connection she’s yearned for, and no longer wants to look at or think about anything or anyone else. Our past and our pain don’t define us, Swift counsels. But to truly move forward with our lives and achieve the sort of intimacy she’s discovered and that we all seek, “You gotta step into the daylight/And let it go/Just let it go.” 

So much more could be said about Lover, enough to launch a million think-pieces and academic papers. Swift’s view of romance as a religion in songs like “False God,” for instance, or the recurrence of the color blue in songs like “Cruel Summer,” “Miss Americana and the Heartbreak Prince,” “Paper Rings,” and “Afterglow” provide fertile ground for even deeper exploration. At its core, however, Lover remains an earnest meditation on universal themes of love, human connection, intimacy, desire, vulnerability, happiness, and maturity – subjects that define much of the human condition itself. That this sort of contemplation can occur in the context of a best-selling pop album testifies to Swift’s talents as a songwriter and ambitions as an artist.

Ultimately, though, Swift’s music in general and Lover in particular serve as a reminder of the things that truly matter in life: the genuine, intimate connections we make with our fellow human beings. Swift prompts us to focus on the people and things we love, and to devote our time and energy to them rather than our mistakes, our pain, or our anxieties. We can do that best when we accept ourselves and let go of the hurt and fears that hold us back. 

As Swift herself reminds us with her parting words, “You are what you love.”

Reflections on the 50th Anniversary of Apollo 11

On two sweltering summer nights last July, an estimated half a million people gathered on the National Mall to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing with a spectacular multimedia presentation involving a life-sized Saturn V rocket projected on the Washington Monument’s east side. I was one of those tens of thousands who assembled on the Mall on the night of July 19 to catch the second of three showings. Even though the sun had slipped below the horizon some two hours prior to the 10:30PM showing, my fellow congregants and I were still drenched with sweat from the still-high heat and oppressive humidity. These stifling conditions didn’t deter any of us from showing up to witness a unique, likely once-in-a-lifetime experience.

The day of the actual anniversary, July 20, proved equally suffocating weather-wise. But it still didn’t stop me and others from attending festivities on the Mall or waiting in line to get into the National Air and Space Museum for a night of celebrations amidst the relics of the space age. As the exact moment of when humanity took its first steps on another world approached, people thronged the museum’s central Milestones of Flight Hall. A collection of balloons strung together to resemble a Moon boot hung from the ceiling, slowly descending to the floor in sync with Neil Armstrong’s first small step onto the grey powder of the Sea of Tranquility.

It’d be a mistake to see these celebrations as just a commemoration of a single and singular historical event. They were that, but they were also something more: the sort of shared, inspirational experience that’s uncommon in this day and age. These festivities didn’t just mark the precise time and date that the first humans walked on the Moon, they testified to the fact that the Apollo Moon landings still fire America’s national imagination – and humanity’s as well. Indeed, crowds for the Washington Monument show were triple what the organizers at the National Air and Space Museum expected despite heat warnings from the National Weather Service. This tremendous public response testifies the fact that Apollo no longer exists merely as history; it has slipped into the rarefied air of myth and legend.

Why?

Much of it has to do with the passage of time. As technology advanced and slide rules gave way to smartphones and artificial intelligence, Apollo became all the more impressive an achievement. In recent years and decades, moreover, we’ve become accustomed – or inured – to holding powerful computers in the palms of our hands. Ordinary household computers, for instance, can now easily simulate the once cutting-edge operations performed by Apollo Guidance Computer.

NASA engineers, administrators, and astronauts made Apollo happen without the sort of technology we take for granted today. Without Apollo, however, information technology systems – in particular, the transition from computers relying on vacuum tubes to those running on much faster and more compact integrated circuits – may not have developed at the speed or scale it did. As a matter of fact, demand from Apollo accounted for around 60 percent of all integrated circuits made in the United States from 1962 to 1967. Thanks in large part to Apollo, the price of semiconductor chips fell from $1,000 a piece at the start of the 1960s to just $15 per chip by the time Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins blasted off for the Moon at the end of the decade.

Over the decades, moreover, various myths and legends accreted accreted around Apollo and the early American space program in general. Regardless of their veracity – and I once witnessed John Glenn vigorously defend the honor of his fellow Mercury astronauts against their portrayal by Tom Wolfe – books like The Right Stuff and films like Apollo 13 built a popular mythology that surrounds NASA and the early American space program to this day. The fact that phrases like “the right stuff” and “Houston, we have a problem” have slipped into our national vernacular attests to this legendary status. Even fictional presentations like The Martian do their fair share to contribute to this mythology; what else is The Martian but Apollo 13 on Mars?

More fundamentally, though, the accretion of legends around Apollo tells us that we haven’t done anything nearly as impressive either as a nation or a species since. For all their practical benefits, the technological achievements of the post-Apollo decades ring hollow by comparison. Smartphones and social media, ever-greater computing power and the Internet have all proven useful economically if not necessarily advantageous to society as a whole. These technologies do not provoke the same sense of wonder that even images beamed down the International Space Station still do, and any appreciation of wider societal progress we may have derived from these technologies gets lost amidst the gnawing suspicion they have done more harm than good. 

If the passage of time gives us a deeper perspective on Apollo, Apollo itself continues to give us all a new perspective on our own home planet and humanity’s place in the cosmos. This shift in perspective resembles nothing so much has the ancient Greek and Roman philosophical exercises christened “the view from above” by the French scholar Pierre Hadot in more recent times. The ancient Stoic philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius, for one used the view from above repeatedly in his Meditations, at one point reminding himself that“the Earth in its entirety is merely a point in space, and how small is this corner of it in which we have our dwelling” (4.3).

Marcus and other ancient philosophical practitioners used the view from above to take a cosmic perspective and reflect on the ultimate transience and impermanence of all things – including their own lives. While they had to rely on their own imaginations to contemplate this perspective, however, Apollo provided humanity writ large with a similar perspective on our place in the universe. Images like Earthrise (shot by the crew of Apollo 8) and the Blue Marble (captured by Apollo 17) remain as breathtaking as the days they were taken in 1968 and 1972. Once presented with the sight of a fragile blue orb hanging in the vastness and vacuum of space by Apollo, it became impossible for humanity to look at our home the same way we once did.

The fact that actual human beings traveled to and set foot on another world added even more to this perspective shift. From the Pale Blue Dot portrait of Earth taken by Voyager 1 some four billion miles away to the stunning panoramas routinely relayed down by the Hubble Space Telescope, our robotic explorers have certainly given us their own set of awe-inspiring images,. Impressive as these images are, however, these robotic explorers and orbiting observatories that take them cannot imbue their images with the same sense of shared experience that astronauts – fellow human beings, for all their flaws and limitations – can. Apollo 11 command module pilot Michael Collins described leaving Earth orbit, for instance, as “a totally different sensation than being in the race track of an earth orbit. I am conscious of the distance this time, not speed, and distance away from home” (p. 380). It’s hard for a robot, however well-programmed, to convey that impression back to those of us back home on Earth.

It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that Apollo was as much a massive, publicly-funded philosophical exercise as anything else. But it was the active involvement of human beings that transformed this already-impressive feat of science and technology into a Promethean achievement worthy of legend. Apollo showed America at its very best, and expanded our horizons as both a nation and as a species. The fact that Apollo realized our national and human aspirations in such a spectacular way is a major reason why it remains lodged in our national consciousness to this day.

On a darker and more ominous note, however, Apollo’s mythological status reflects a deepening disillusionment with the digital revolution it helped spark. There’s no doubt that information technology has advanced by leaps and bounds in the five decades since Apollo 11 touched down on the lunar surface. Yet that same explosive growth of information technology and computer networks in recent years and decades hasn’t yielded the same sort of intangible societal benefits or new perspectives on humanity’s place in the universe that Apollo did. While Apollo still fires our imaginations, we’ve come to surmise that our contemporary digital era has merely made our lives more convenient at too high a cost. 

Indeed, most of us benefit far more from information technology in our everyday lives than we did from sending astronauts to the Moon in the 1960s. Though the Internet as we know it barely existed a quarter century ago and smartphones have only been around less than half as long, our society has grown so dependent on these technologies that it’s hard to imagine our daily existence without them and the services they provide. But as convenient as they’ve made our lives, information technology and computer networks have also conjured up a pervasive atmosphere of perpetual anxiety, interpersonal distrust, and foreboding about the future that narrows our national horizons and eats away at the basic fabric of our society like an acid. In the end, it’s hard to escape the suspicion that the digital revolution has served to fuel our worst impulses and instincts rather than aiding the better angels of our nature.

That’s certainly the fear that’s been expressed in popular culture, where an ambience of pessimism and cynicism has shadowed information technology and computer networks for decades. The contrast between Star Trek’s relentless confidence in the future – or even the more tempered optimism of the Mass Effect video game series – and the digital despair of countless cyber-dystopias ranging from Snow Crash to The Matrix, for instance, could not be more stark. A general sense of digital dread permeates the popular culture of the digital era, made worse by repeated and often overwrought alarms raised by the likes of Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates, and Elon Musk about the allegedly existential threat posed by the ultimate digital technology: artificial intelligence.

AI fear-mongering aside, perhaps the real reason Apollo still looms so large today is that it was a public achievement all Americans had a part in. Where information technology and computer networks increasingly compartmentalize society and stoke division, everyone could partake in a great national and human adventure to land astronauts on the Moon. The irony here is that billionaire tech giants like Musk and Jeff Bezos eagerly claim the mantle of Apollo for their own private fantasies of space colonization despite the fact that (excellent PR notwithstanding) they do not come anywhere close to constituting the sort of grand public enterprise that Apollo did – and still does, even in the ever more fragmented society in which we all live.

That’s the ultimate reason why Apollo has become a myth and legend today; in a very real sense, Apollo took us all to the Moon. Apollo not only served to measure the best of America’s own national energies and skills, it shifted humanity’s overall perspective on itself and its place in the cosmos. It represented the triumph of national imagination and purpose toward an end that benefited not just the United States, but humanity as a whole. In this day and age, however, it seems impossible to many of us that the United States or the world write large could even do such a thing. So with each passing year, Apollo becomes more and more a myth and legend: a story we tell ourselves of what we could once do but no longer can.

Apollo’s Lasting Legacies

Review: 

American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race by Douglas Brinkley

Apollo 11 dir. Todd Douglas Miller (2019)

First Man dir. Damien Chazelle (2018)

Fifty years ago this summer, humanity left its first footprints on another world when American astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin gently climbed down the ladder of the lunar module Eagle and stepped onto the surface of the Moon. Beyond the stalwart efforts of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, NASA-sponsored events at other science and technology museum across the country, and an upcoming three-part PBS documentary, this momentous milestone approaches with little official fanfare. But the Apollo moonshot and what the historian Douglas Brinkley aptly terms the “great space race” remain indelible cultural touchstones for Americans and, indeed, many around the world.

Brinkley himself has become part of the unofficial public commemoration of Apollo 11 that’s steadily picked up steam over the past year. This output not only includes his new book, American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race, but also the films First Man, director Damien Chazelle’s dramatization of Neil Armstrong’s journey from X-15 test pilot to first man on the Moon, and Apollo 11, a breathtaking documentary of the mission pulled together by director Todd Douglas Miller from footage left neglected for decades in the National Archives.

It’s no coincidence that both First Man and Apollo 11 close with President Kennedy’s stirring September 1962 case for Apollo made at Rice University in Houston – and it’s President Kennedy’s space policy that American Moonshot explores. Though it doesn’t reach the same heights as Brinkley’s accounts of the conservationist policies of Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt (The Wilderness Warrior and Rightful Heritage, respectively), American Moonshot effectively argues for Kennedy’s personal importance in the politics and policies that set America on a course for the Moon in the early 1960s. Kennedy’s extraordinary competitive streak and faith in the fundamental tenets of mid-twentieth century liberalism – as Brinkley puts it, “America, the richest nation, doing big projects well” – drove his early and enthusiastic support for America’s space program in general and Apollo in particular.

But as Brinkley makes clear, the spirit of Apollo didn’t simply consist of high-flown rhetoric. The actual moonshot required a marshaling of national resources and purpose on a scale the likes of which have not been seen since. President Kennedy didn’t conjure Apollo into existence through sheer will; after all, he told NASA administrator James Webb in November 1962 that he was “not that interested in space” for its own sake. Instead, Kennedy saw space exploration both as a critical component of his own liberal nationalist vision and a central front in the Cold War with the Soviet Union. 

Indeed, national prestige – as refracted through both America’s own domestic politics and its geopolitical competition with the Soviet Union – laid squarely at the heart of Kennedy’s initial and ongoing support for Apollo. As Brinkley notes, “Kennedy was a prestige maven when it came to space-related issues… Refusing to be first in space, JFK would say, telegraphed the wrong signals to Third World countries debating the political virtues of democracy over communism.” Or as Kennedy himself put it on that sweltering September day at Rice in 1962, Apollo would “serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

Yet Brinkley only partially manages to capture the grandeur of Apollo and the “great space race.” Nor does he entirely fulfill the book’s promise to situate Apollo in the sweep of mid-twentieth century American liberalism, despite tantalizing morsels and passing references scattered throughout. Brinkley leaves intriguing lines of thought unexplored, failing to dilate on the idea that both Kennedy and his successor Lyndon Johnson saw the space race with the Soviet Union as both “a challenge to the American democratic way of life” and a “dare to rise to greatness.”

Here, Brinkley misses an opportunity to more clearly show that today’s progressives need not fear constructive forms of nationalism. Indeed, it’s the under-developed subtext of American Moonshot that the nationalist impetus can harnessed and embraced to achieve liberal ends. In other words, today’s liberals and progressives could and should take take a page from JFK’s book and recognize the vital role that large, impressive, and ambitious national projects like Apollo can play in lifting national morale and cultivating a sense of collective national purpose. It’s no accident, as Brinkley himself notes in his preface, that the very neologism “moonshot” has been applied far and wide to such projects ever since the Apollo era. 

To truly capture the awesome nature of Apollo, however, we have to turn to cinema – especially Todd Douglas Miller’s thrilling documentary Apollo 11. Miller’s cinematic tour-de-force combines digitally-restored footage originally filmed for a long-forgotten NASA-sponsored documentary released in the early 1970s with contemporary 1969 audio, much of it consisting of transmissions between the astronauts aboard Apollo 11 and Mission Control in Houston laboriously synced up with the film. Television newsman Walter Cronkite’s broadcast updates on Apollo 11’s progress provide a brilliant substitute for the traditional voiceover narrative found in documentary films.

This minimalist approach works wonders, letting events speak for themselves and bringing those of us born after Apollo as close as we can get to actually experiencing events as they happened. But perhaps more importantly, Apollo 11 manages to place its subject in its proper, awe-inspiring context in ways that the written word simply cannot convey. Video collages, for instance, give brief glimpses into the lives as astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins as they suit up for their epochal voyage – creating a sense of personal and historical perspective in just a few short minutes.

Alternately pulsating and ethereal, Matt Morton’s score – performed entirely on instruments and equipment available in 1969 – adds power and tension to the film’s most important scenes. Countdown to launch concludes with a pulsing heartbeat just as the Saturn V’s massive F-1 main engines ignite to lift the gargantuan rocket off the pad. Thunderous strikes of piano keys accompany liftoff and the successive shedding of rocket stages as Apollo 11 claws itself into orbit. Strings meld with electronic beats ratchet up the tension as Neil Armstrong brings the lunar module Eagle in for a safe landing on the Moon despite constant alarms, ever-decreasing fuel, and a forbidding lunar terrain.

Miller even manages to effectively convey the massive scope of the national effort that sent astronauts from the Earth to the Moon. Shots of the army of workers that made Apollo 11 possible are spliced into the mission’s final television broadcast, with Armstrong offering “special thanks to all those Americans who built those spacecraft, who did the construction, design, the tests, and put their heart and all their abilities into those craft.” It’s supremely fitting, then, that the credits of Apollo 11 close with a dedication“to the thousands of NASA staff, contractors, and volunteers of Project Apollo.”

By contrast, Damien Chazelle’s First Man only rarely manages to capture the same sort of spark. Where the stark presentation of Apollo 11 allows the epochal journey to speak for itself, a similarly austere approach falls flat with this Neil Armstrong biopic. That’s not to say First Man fails altogether: the action sequences – the opening X-15 flight, the hair-raising end-over-end tumble of Gemini VIII, and the launch of Apollo 11 – all thrill. Justin Hurwitz’s score provides a suitable backdrop to momentous events. Perhaps most importantly, Chazelle’s gives a gorgeous depiction of Eagle’s landing and Armstrong’s first steps on the Moon. But it’s not clear that the film itself truly earns these moments, and in the end they pale in comparison to the reality conveyed by Apollo 11

First Man’s biggest flaw is its cold depiction of its subject, Neil Armstrong. Here the film’s spartan aesthetic works against it: while it purports to be a character study of the first human to set foot on another world, it’s hard to figure out what makes that character tick. It’s clear that Ryan Gosling’s Armstrong is deeply introverted – the line he delivers about standing alone in his backyard if he wanted to talk to somebody about the death of a fellow astronaut resonated strongly with this introvert – but Gosling’s strong performance notwithstanding it’s unclear how or why that made him the astronaut or person he was. 

That may simply be due to the nature of the man himself. Notoriously and understandably averse to talking about himself, Armstrong often felt more comfortable talking about the engineering problems involved in landing on the Moon or flying the X-15 than about what either of those experiences was like. But as any introvert would tell you, there are depths that can still be plumbed. In the end, First Man sells Armstrong short even as it shows that Apollo can still inspire wonder even in somewhat lackluster fictionalized accounts.

If anything, however, the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 11 should be an occasion for all Americans – and progressives in particular – to reflect on what a constructive nationalism can accomplish when harnessed to liberal ends. Apollo remains a symbol of the America mid-twentieth century liberals like President Kennedy wanted to create, the sort of nation they wanted America to be. They only partially succeeded in that task, but Apollo still instills a sense of collective accomplishment and pride in what America can do when it works together under inspiring political leadership. Even at our current national nadir, Apollo reminds Americans that we once did great things – and can do so again in the future.