Everything is Counterfactual

Changes to Splash Mountain reveal how a Disney-loving southern boy came to have false memories of his childhood

Yesterday, Disney announced that they were going to re-theme the Splash Mountain ride to The Princess and the Frog instead of Song of the South. Nobody can honestly claim that the announcement is all that surprising, but to hear it in 2020 still makes me profoundly sad.

To be clear: it’s undeniably a positive move in the long run. The Princess and the Frog is an excellent movie that pays homage to the entire history of Disney animation. It’s better representation for a ton of children who haven’t seen enough characters like them. It’s better business for Disney to have marketing tie-ins with a property they can actually continue selling. If I were any other adult Disney fan, I’d only have two complaints: First, that the movie, and the character of Tiana in particular, could be better served by a new dedicated attraction instead of a re-skin of an existing one. (But it sounds like this is set after the movie, which is a good sign that it’ll be more a continuation of the characters, like Mission Breakout, and less a pleasant-but-decade-too-late retelling of the story, like Voyage of the Little Mermaid). My second complaint is that I don’t really like any of the songs from the movie. Even the strongest, “Dig a Little Deeper,” is nowhere near the memorable classics that “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah” and “How Do You Do?” are.

But this post isn’t me writing as an adult Disney fan. This is me writing as a guy who grew up in Georgia in the early 1970s, and who has a ton of early-childhood memories associated with the animated sections of Song of the South. Those characters are my earliest memories of Disney movies. (Along with the Chip and Dale or Humphrey Bear shorts that were shown at Fort Wilderness). The beginning of “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah,” with Uncle Remus walking through a field that turns into a cartoon, birds flying all around him, Mr Bluebird landing on his shoulder, was the quintessential Disney image for my childhood. (At least until The Rescuers and Pete’s Dragon came along). And those memories are all tangled together with my “sense memories” of the Tales from the Okefenokee ride at Six Flags over Georgia — I don’t actually remember specifics except for a scary dark drop, and a character warning “Don’t go into the swamp!”

Because it reminds me so much of my early childhood, it can’t not remind me of my mother. When I was young and she was mock-scolding me or my brother, she’d imitate Brer Bear saying “I’m gonna knock your head clean off!” When I was a little older, she taught me about Joel Chandler Harris and The Wren’s Nest, since she was so interested in the history of Georgia and Atlanta in particular. It always comes across as condescending to say that “things were simpler then,” but I can honestly say that in the 80s, I never got any sense of “appropriation.” It just felt like an attempt to preserve the folklore of my home state.

So for years, riding Splash Mountain has brought back very special and very specific memories. It felt as if they’d already found a way to save just the good parts and present it divorced from anything negative. The thought of having to get rid of Brer Bear and Brer Rabbit and the singing possums feels like having to destroy part of my childhood.

Good riddance to Song of the South, though. We shouldn’t entertain the idea that it’s ever been a good movie. No doubt the message boards are already full of people making the predictably tired complaints — “it’s political correctness gone mad!” ad nauseam. But the movie on the whole is not a cherished classic, and it’s definitely not a new phenomenon to recognize that. Even in the 40s, people recognized it was, to put it mildly, “problematic.”

But I do have to wonder how many people have strong opinions of it despite never having seen it, or based on faulty memories of it. Even my own memories of it were selective. It’s been unavailable for so long that the first time I saw it as an adult was around 2000, and even then only as a bootleg recorded from a Japanese laser disc. It was almost nothing like I remembered it. For one thing, I’d forgotten almost all of the live action parts, which actually make up the majority of the movie. And I must’ve forgotten how much I disliked the main character, because I felt an instant, almost irrational hatred of him and his little velvet suit and with its lace collar and his tendency to cry about absolutely everything. Even as a somewhat delicate and precious white boy myself, I must’ve been able to recognize him as the personification of white male fragility.

I’ve seen people describe Song of the South as “shockingly” racist, but I’d disagree — I reserve that for stuff like the crows in Dumbo, or the maid in Tom & Jerry cartoons, or all the cringingly awful moments in Warner Bros and Disney shorts where a character converts to blackface after an explosion. Song of the South’s “tar baby” would qualify, which is why it was replaced in the Splash Mountain ride with Brer Rabbit getting caught in honey from a bee’s nest. (I’d personally never heard that used as a slur, so I imagine it was already outdated by the 1970s). And Brer Fox’s voice work could be interpreted as a racist caricature in the 21st century, but unlike some of the most egregious examples in the history of animation, it sounds to me more like a genuine attempt to capture a dialect.

But if it were just individual cases of insensitivity, or dated references, or tone-deaf attempts at “humor,” those could’ve been explained a way with a disclaimer, and the movie could’ve been kept in the library. The problem with Song of the South is that it’s not so blatantly, overtly racist. Instead, it’s inherently, inescapably rooted in white supremacy. It presents a fantasy version of the Reconstruction in which slavery seems to have been nothing more than a bureaucratic oversight — and now that it’s been fixed, everybody has gone back to their pre-war roles in which black people and white people all happily work together, all for the benefit of white people. That can’t be dismissed away as a relic of the past, since it’s a lie we’re still being sold, almost eighty years later. We’re still saddled with this idea that we should close our eyes and wish for a “post-racial” society, and that’s all that’s required to make everybody free and equal. “I don’t see race.” “All lives matter.”

The other big lie of Song of the South is that the fantasy world it presents is the essence of “The South.” It’s all white plantation houses with all white people in elaborate suits and dresses lounging around complaining about the heat, while poor but honest, magical black people use their gifts of storytelling to make white people feel better. Americans have had centuries to come up with an image to represent the south, and over and over and over again, they’ve chosen one rooted in segregation and treason. For my entire life, I’ve seen people trying to present tortured justifications for the Confederate flag or Confederate memorials as if they were symbols of our “heritage” instead of symbols of racism. Of course it’s bullshit, but I can’t put the blame entirely on them — for generations, they’ve been told that this shallow, segregated fantasy was their entire identity.

I’m part of a generation of southern white men who were born over a century after the Civil War, but we’ve still spent our entire lives being saddled with a white-washed, propagandized version of it as our only “legacy.” Lately I’ve been seeing odious videos on YouTube from New Yorker-turned-country-boy-impressionist John Schneider, talking about filming The Dukes of Hazzard (in my hometown!) while just asking some casual questions to give you something to think about, like was the show really all that racist? Did people intend it to be racist in the late 1970s to make a shamefully faux-populist TV show about a car with the Confederate Flag painted on the top and named after a Confederate general? And while he’s at it, what is all this “division” getting us, anyway? Aren’t things just fine without a bunch of rabble-rousers stirring them up? I’d bet that Schneider’s main incentive these days is to help pay off his alimony, but the sentiment is the same today as it was in 2000, as it was in the 1970s, as it was in the 1950s, as it was in the 1930s, as it was in the 1900s, as it was in the 1880s — to keep the right kind of white people in power, by convincing other white people that racism and rebellion are the bedrock of their culture. We can mock the people getting upset at seeing Confederate statues torn down, and many of them are stubborn fools if not outright racists. But they’ve also spent their entire lives being lied to, told that the only connection they have to a larger history is one failed insurrection.

And even though southerners have been practicing racism for so long that they’ve gotten to be experts at it, it’s by no means a purely southern phenomenon, even though it’s the one that’s sold as an essential part of their identity. I’ve said before that I grew up trying to get rid of my accent and any affiliation with being a “redneck,” and then as an adult moved to Marin County, the most segregated place I’d seen in my entire lifetime. In fact, I’d say that the newly-energized civil rights movement of the past 5-10 years has been the result of America spending a century and a half telling themselves that their problems with racism were all safely sequestered in one corner of the country. After all, Song of the South wasn’t intended to play just in the southeast, and The Dukes of Hazzard wasn’t only a hit in Georgia. Tell people that systemic racism is a uniquely southern thing, and they can “not my problem” it out of existence, convincing themselves that all the incidents they see across the country are weird one-off aberrations, instead of signs of a deeper problem.

The Princess and the Frog is, obviously, another fantasy presenting a “South” that never actually existed. But it’s the kind of fantasy that I’d rather see being perpetuated for another century or two. It’s got actual magical black people, and it has wealthy whites and working-class blacks living together in harmony, and it’s likely taken all kinds of liberties with actual religions with its mishmash of generalized Disney-esque magic and voodoo. But much like the real New Orleans, there’s more a sense of a mixture of races, cultures, and religions, instead of a fixed and segregated social structure. One of the most subtly clever things about the movie is that it takes a very European fairy tale and “appropriates” it for Disney’s first African-American princess story. It’s a synthesis of all its disparate influences, which builds on its past, instead of being beholden to it.

So it’s ultimately a positive move, especially since as an attraction re-design, it’s being creatively led by black women. If we want to believe that we are getting better painfully slowly, instead of just repeating the same cycles over and over again, that’s a sign of progress. Kids being able to see themselves represented in movies and being inspired to make more stories to share with an even wider audience. No doubt there are plenty of cynical dismissals of it as nothing more than “optics” or public relations, but that’s missing the point entirely — when the issue is so closely tied to our perceptions of ourselves and each other, and what we’re all capable of, then showing audiences the right images is crucial. When the problem is representation and visibility, “optics” are important.

In any other year, I’d probably be better able to be excited about it and look forward to the changes. But this is 2020, a year filled with death and loss. It’s hard not to think of it in terms of loss. So many happy memories of my childhood, my formative Disney experiences, my mother’s love of history. Even a vague sense of southern identity that wasn’t completely ruined by the Confederacy. But ultimately, none of that is real — I shouldn’t overstate my love of Song of the South, since I never really liked the bulk of the movie and only actually remembered the “good parts.” There were plenty of Disney movies I liked better, and the source material was already a white man’s interpretation of African American folklore for white audiences. My mother’s interest in history was more about Native Americans, the founding of Savannah, and the histories of Atlanta and my hometown than some simplistic Gone With the Wind-inspired fantasy version. And my pleasant associations with the south aren’t the kind that can be co-opted and ruined by white supremacists: good food, cicadas, hot and humid summers with amazing clouds, people being polite to each other. In every case, the reality is so much more interesting than the over-simplified version.

Splash Mountain exposes the limitations of “The Disney Version,” trying to the best parts of something out of its original context and presenting a sanitized, family-friendly interpretation of it. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with that — I don’t need The Little Mermaid to learn her lesson, and having been to the real Venice just made me better appreciate the one in Epcot. But whenever you remove the context and try to keep just the good parts, there’s always the risk that you’re left with something hollow. Like a ride from the 1980s based on a movie from the 1940s based on the works of a writer in the 1880s re-interpreting stories from the early 1800s. The core of the original stories, and especially the people telling them, was completely lost. The Princess and the Frog is a much more solid foundation for people to be building memories on.

Disney Blasphemy Featuring IPCOT

Second-guessing some truths that Disney fans hold to be self-evident.

This month I’m encouraging people to donate to and/or get involved with Black Girls CODE, an organization in the Bay Area working to encourage girls of color to become innovators and leaders in STEM fields.

I have to admit I can’t spend very much time on Disney parks-related forums or — even worse — Twitter, because I just don’t have the patience for it. I get all kinds of anxiety when I see adults screaming at each other over which is the most magical novelty popcorn bucket, or starting discussion threads to ask whether the parks are an insultingly hollow shadow of what they used to be, or if they’re just a disgraceful insult to everything that Walt stood for.

And it’s a shame, too, because I have irrationally strong opinions about the parks. If it sounds like I’m mocking the kind of person who goes online to scream about the evils of FastPass, I’m not, because I am that kind of person — we just differ in magnitude. They all seem to be operating at around 15, whereas I’m usually around 11 or 12.

But there are some things that all Disney fans, no matter how obsessive, can agree on… or can we?! There are some ideas that I’ve seen for years treated as just common knowledge among fans, but I disagree with, because I am a rebel and an iconoclast.

Horizons was just okay.

Yeah, I’m coming out guns blazing. Horizons is widely considered to be the best of original EPCOT Center, a masterpiece of “old-school” Imagineering, and the soul of Epcot’s Future World. I definitely don’t think it’s bad, but I’ve never understood the reverence for this attraction over, say, Journey Into Imagination or World of Motion, both of which blew my mind as a teenager.

As someone who went to EPCOT Center quite a few times in the early years, my main memory of Horizons was that it was never open. There seemed to be a ton of preview buzz around it, and it had the coolest park icon and a neat-looking building, so I was pretty excited. The “space” ending film is iconic, and I seem to remember seeing it before I was actually able to go on the ride, so I was already hyped for a senses-shattering simulator experience that probably wasn’t even possible in 1983. But I feel like at least a few years passed before I was finally at the park when it was open and not down for refurbishment.

I have to think that part of the reason I was underwhelmed by the attraction is because it always felt like a survey course in “Intro to Epcot Center Future World 101,” instead of a deep dive. I felt like I’d already seen everything from the ride, in one form or another, in Carousel of Progress, If You Had Wings, World of Motion, Listen to the Land, The Living Seas, Spaceship Earth, and Journey Into Imagination. It was like trying to get excited about the greatest hits album when you’re already at the concert.

The Adventurer’s Club was only really fun for people who love improv.

The Adventurer’s Club was another one of those things that I got hyped about for years before actually seeing it. My family weren’t enthusiastic about bars or nightclubs, so it wasn’t even really an option for me until I went back to Disney World as an adult, by myself. By that point, I believe I’d already heard rumors that it would be closing within a few years, so I went two nights in a row to make sure I got the full effect.

In terms of decoration and theming, it was outstanding, of course. You could try to describe it as “kind of like Trader Sam’s, if it were extended across multiple floors and multiple rooms and actually had enough seating,” which sounds perfect. And the idea of characters walking through the space, interacting with guests; and a drunken, possibly insane old adventurer puppet acting as host of the evening and leading everyone in a toast; and a room full of masks that talk to you and tell stories — it’s all wonderful in theory. But in practice, I’ve got to say that it was corny AF.

It’s here that I should talk about something that’s been a problem for me for as long as I’ve been going to Disney parks, which is literally my entire life. And that’s Improv People. I know many, many great people who love improv and find real joy in watching and/or performing it, and it genuinely makes me happy to see them enjoy it. But in general, people who love improv just cannot understand that not everyone enjoys improv. For some of us, it’s like torture.

When I’m in the audience and a joke bombs, it almost causes me physical pain. I can’t stand those moments of dead time and the look of manic desperation in a performer’s face when they’re trying to come up with the next thing to say. Even when it’s going well, I have the feeling of being trapped in a car going 150 miles an hour and knowing that it could crash and burn at any moment. If I could try to describe what watching, listening to, or ::shudder:: performing improv feels like to me: imagine you’re standing naked on a stage, with your arms tied behind your back, and a spotlight is shining directly on you. Right behind you, someone is standing with his mouth just a couple of inches away from your neck, and you can feel his hot, damp breath on the skin on the back of your neck and behind your ear, as he exhales, “hh-h-h-he-heh-heh-help me.”

People who work in themed entertainment and “immersive theater” tend to be unable to accept that not everyone loves improv as much as they do, so I tend to be put in situations where I’m dragged screaming out of my comfort zone. The Star Wars hotel has me torn between my lifelong love of Star Wars and my intense anxiety at the thought of being trapped in a two-day-long non-stop immersive theater performance. With the Adventurer’s Club, a can’t-fail theme and setting that might as well have been designed specifically for me, still weren’t quite enough to compensate for being surrounded by people who at any moment could assault me with family-friendly “yes, and…”s.

Also, the drinks weren’t any good.

The Grand Fiesta Tour is a criminally underrated delight.

When the Mexico pavilion opened at Epcot, there was a boat ride called El Rio del Tiempo. It used a lot of the same tricks of other modestly-budgeted rides of the time, and it was perfectly pleasant even if you weren’t quite sure whether the market vendor scene was really racist but suspected that it probably was.

With the Grand Fiesta Tour overhaul, it was improved ten thousand times. It added characters and music from The Three Caballeros, which is a no-brainer, and updated all the gags to feature Donald Duck instead of real human Mexican actors and dancers. Somehow, that makes it both more contemporary and also timeless.

I haven’t actually ever heard complaints about replacing the original — which is surprising, since every time they replace an original ride, they get complaints, even with a ride that no one actually liked unironically, like Maelstrom. But there’s rarely a wait for it, and people for the most part call it “cute” instead of acknowledging that it’s a must-see at Epcot.

I would rather ride a Guardians of the Galaxy roller coaster than an hour-long advertisement for fossil fuels.

When Disney at the D23 Expo last year announced that there was going to be a massive overhaul of Epcot’s Future World, my reaction was that I was surprised I wasn’t more upset about it. I’m as eager to throw a tantrum about Disney ruining my childhood as the next guy, but in this case the changes for Future World were at least 10 years overdue.

The big complaints I’ve seen are people calling it “IPCot,” for basing everything on Disney-owned intellectual property, instead of basing everything on original characters and concepts.

I want to be more sympathetic here, because most of my favorite Disney attractions are originals — Space Mountain, The Haunted Mansion, Expedition Everest, most of the original Future World. When Epcot first opened, Imagineering was pretty adamant about distinguishing it from the Magic Kingdom, which meant no attractions based on Disney movies and none of the familiar characters in the park. You eventually got Figment from Journey Into Imagination as your cartoon mascot, and you had to be satisfied with that.

Except guests weren’t really satisfied with that, and Epcot developed a reputation for being boring “edutainment” instead of a fun theme park. Even as someone who loved the original Epcot, I think fans (and some Imagineers) can be a little too precious about the “purity” of the experience; I don’t think it’s particularly shallow or dumbing things down if someone on their vacation would rather ride roller coasters than pay to hear corporations talking about the wonders of industrial agriculture or our not-at-all-worrisome dependence on fossil fuels.

Now, I’ve softened on this one a little bit. At first, I assumed that people complaining about trading corporate sponsorships for Moana and Guardians of the Galaxy themed attractions were just being unrealistically nostalgic. But I did see a friend explain his take: as a lover of World’s Fairs, he appreciated that Epcot uniquely had the feeling of a permanent World’s Fair. Part of that is the optimism of corporations working in the public interest; the presentations weren’t just crass advertisements, but sincere excitement over the things that could be made possible. I do like that idea, and I have to concede that these changes will leave Epcot feeling less like a unique place, and more like, say, California Adventure. Not so much of an overarching theme anymore, except “Disney also owns all of these properties, too.”

But I’m not completely sold on it. As a teenage insomniac who never missed Late Night, I idolized David Letterman. And I took his anti-corporate stick-it-to-The-Man schtick to heart (even though in retrospect, it’s almost offensively phony and insincere). So I think that the rotating screen display of the original Universe of Energy pre-show was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen, and the dinosaur section was such a fantastic homage to/extension of classic Disney and the Disneyland railroad, and the Ellen’s Energy Adventure version is still one of the cleverest and most charming ways of presenting educational material that I’ve ever seen. But it’s still an Exxon ad. Even with the best of intentions, Disney presenting pavilions dedicated to promoting Nestle, Kraft, General Electric, or Exxon in 2020 would just come across as really tone deaf.

Also, I think the Mission Breakout overhaul of the Tower of Terror in California Adventure is phenomenal. The original ride at Hollywood Studios is one of my favorite things that Disney’s ever done, so I’ll be complaining if they ever mess with that one. But the California redo is better in every possible way (except for the outside of the building, which is still weird). It’s relentlessly fun, a perfect use of the ride tech — since it was never really a “free fall” ride, this has it hover up and down at each scene — and feels like it should’ve been this way all along. Plus the details around the queue are fantastic, and the character shows with Peter Quill and Gamorra leading dance-offs outside the ride are fantastic. So Disney knows how to make Guardians of the Galaxy attractions, and a show-heavy spinning coaster can’t not be fun.

Besides, the lines are going to be so long after the parks open back up and the ride opens, it’ll be a few years before any of us get a chance to ride it anyway.

Epcot embracing its theme parkness isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I would like to see Journey Into Imagination redone in the spirit of the original. But Disney’s had a pretty strong run of movies for several years now, with more hits than misses. If it became a Zootopia pavilion or something, it’d be disappointing but still far from the worst thing to happen to that attraction.

Galaxy’s Edge is the right way to do Star Wars in a theme park

This isn’t that controversial, really, since people liked Galaxy’s Edge, and Rise of the Resistance seems to be universally loved. (Early noise about Galaxy’s Edge being a “failure” seems to be a combination of clickbait wanting Disney to fail, and judging it in comparison to unrealistically high expectations). There are two pretty consistent criticisms I’ve heard:

First, that there aren’t enough droids and aliens wandering around. I agree with that. It’s all done so well that it’s actually jarring to be reminded of what’s missing. It’s noticeable that the droids and ships are trapped behind fences. It seems like there need to be aliens in the cantina. Especially considering how the land is practically “defined” not by its rides but by the walk-around interactions, it seems like an especially good investment here than it would be elsewhere.

The second criticism I hear often is that they should’ve set the land during the time period of the original trilogy, and on a familiar planet like Tatooine. I don’t agree with that at all. I mean, if I were just being consistent, I’d say that Imagineering shouldn’t be so precious with its “world-building;” just like people in Epcot and Animal Kingdom wanted to see Mickey Mouse, people in Star Wars Land want to buy T-shirts that say “Star Wars” on them. But I honestly believe that this is one of the rare cases where the “normal people won’t notice it” level of detail is actually noticeable in the end product.

Star Wars hasn’t been a sustained hit over 50 years; it’s been a cycle of six or seven years of intense popularity followed by long stretches of not many people caring. The fandom is all over the place — the animated series, video games, comics, novels all have their own super-fans. Any attempt to recreate a fan-favorite location is automatically going to miss the mark for a ton of people, and it’s inevitably going to feel like trying to hit a moving target.

Creating a new location, and having it reference the existing ones, give it a much longer life and just make the universe feel like it has more potential. I can remember being a Star Wars-obsessed teenager watching Return of the Jedi the first time in 1983, and when the opening crawl said that they were going back to Tatooine and to the Death Star, it felt like such a cop-out. A galaxy that seemed infinitely expansive with limitless potential for stories now seemed comically tiny and unimaginative.

For me, “Batuu” has just the right amount of familiar details, while still feeling like it’s a new place where new stories can happen. It doesn’t need to look like Mos Espa, it just needs to look like Star Wars. That has a ton more potential, because it establishes that Star Wars isn’t any one particular existing “thing;” it’s more a style. I may not be able to define exactly what makes something “Star Wars,” but I know it when I see it.

ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter was irredeemably awful.

It was mean-spirited, humorless, and like so much of the 1990s, it was a desperate attempt to be “edgy” and “extreme.” It was completely tone deaf for the Magic Kingdom, and the attempt to “soften” it from being too scary just made it an attraction that was too scary and had a crappy, nasty opening that fried a cute animatronic for laughs. (Muppetvision 3D showed the right way to do that gag, several times over). It’s well known that it was originally intended to be an Alien-themed attraction, but it completely ignored that Alien had an actual hero in the form of Ripley. So it ended up just nihilistic and pointless.

Those were dark days, when Disney was trying to play to the lowest common denominator, making fun of the simplest and most obvious criticisms of Disney to make it seem like they were in on the joke. It seems like those days are gone, but I guess as the theme park industry stays competitive, there’s always the risk of falling back into bad habits. I hope Disney keeps thinking of sincerity, happiness, and a childish belief in “magic” as assets of the brand, instead of a liability.

Hail to the Chaff

It’s no exaggeration to say that Trump is a genuine threat to American democracy. But I think a lot of us are responding in the worst possible ways.

I recommend supporting Stacey Abrams’s Fair Fight organization, which is working to ensure “free, fair, and secure elections.”

I also recommend listening to the Majority 54 podcast hosted by Jason Kander, which is devoted to this topic and ways we can effectively engage with politics like responsible cooperative adults.

For as long as I knew her to be vocal about politics, my mother was a steadfast, Rachel Maddow-watching Democrat. Even as the rest of the state shifted from blue to red — or, if you include Atlanta, purple — she remained convinced that the Republicans were on the wrong side of most issues. And she was definitely not a fan, to put it mildly, of the fetid sack of garbage currently calling himself president of the United States. (My words, not hers).

But she was also adamant about one thing, which was that she refused to let someone that awful get in the way of what was important.

And that’s the idea I’ve been trying to keep forefront in my mind. As we see “politics” get more and more divisive; pundits continue to spew increasingly indecent nonsense; common-sense issues of basic human decency continue to be treated as if they were somehow controversial; online discourse filled with nonsensical noise and blatant lies; and political “leaders” continue to show themselves to be belligerent, shameless, and classless; it’s difficult not to feel like the country has been overrun with millions of degenerate people, every one of them complicit in selfishness and evil.

But I try to always ask myself: who’s profiting from my feeling isolated and angry? When I see people who’ve been treated far worse than I have still able to spread a message of unity and hope, what right do I have to feel despair? And ultimately: why would I allow people for whom I have absolutely no respect get in the way of my relationships with the people that I do respect?

It’s a quandary that a lot of people have been wrestling with over the last three years: the man who’s acting as president just straight-up sucks. It’s no secret. There’s no denying it. So how could so many people vote for him?

I mean, let’s just agree to stop humoring the idea that there’s still any question of whether he’s racist, misogynist trash. We knew he was in the 1980s. We knew it in 2015. It’s not as if there were any mystery before the election, so acting as if his behavior in office has been surprising is insultingly disingenuous. And now, any accusation of “he’s gone too far this time!” is nothing but performative nonsense, since he’d already done a dozen inexcusable things that should’ve made him unelectable long before he even became the nominee. It’s hard to believe that anyone is still wasting our time denying that he’s racist, considering he started his political “career” by accusing the first black President of not being born in the US. Nobody should act like we didn’t know he was trash, especially since he was caught on a live mic during a presidential campaign, bragging about sexual assault.

Still, people have spent the past three years trying furiously to normalize it. We’ve all heard various attempts to offer a rational explanation for something that should never have happened. For a while after the election, the media tried to convince us of the “economic anxiety” story — we were sold an image of strong, hard-working Americans in coal mining towns and farm towns throughout the heartland, who’d all spent years being ignored by Clinton-era elitist Democrats. The only problem was that these stories just didn’t hold up to the facts. The actual demographics of Republican voters didn’t have much in common in terms of economics, but a lot in common in terms of race. But it’s not tactful to just admit that millions of people voted for a racist piece of shit to be president of the United States, so we’ve been expected to pretend that it’s all reasonable and normal.

In the 10,000 years since January 2017, it’s been a never-ending cycle of the White House doing the stupidest, most corrupt, most irresponsible thing; pundits and Russian troll farms making increasingly batshit claims to defend it; news channels pushing click-baiting video clips with their pundit delivering some devastating take-down of someone who should never have been given a national audience in the first place; late night shows building a new industry of comedy-outrage, asking “can you believe what he did this time?!” as if any of us are still capable of surprise at this point; and the rest of us left wondering what happened to all the sane grown-ups in the country. And in my case, wanting to get some kind of justification from his enablers to explain why they chose to put us through all this.

But they just shake their heads and lament that “we’re more divided than ever,” even though they’re the ones who voted for someone who led racist pep rallies chanting about building a wall.

This week, after seeing the colossal, inexcusable failure of this despotic clown car of an “administration” in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and then the police brutality protests — protests not just in all 50 states but around the world — I think I’ve finally got a theory: this whole time, I’ve had it backwards. They don’t enable him; he enables them.

In case that seems shallow for a life-changing epiphany, hear me out. I feel like a lot of the assumptions I’ve been making over the past four years have been exactly backwards.

What prompted my “wait a minute… we’re in The Bad Place!” moment was seeing that in the middle of this complete vacuum of leadership during multiple crises, he’d ordered peaceful protestors to be tear gassed so he could stand in front of a church and wave a Bible around in front of a bunch of cameras. I was livid. Almost without thinking, I found myself back on Facebook, posting a link to it with my thoughts. I wanted to ask “can you believe this?!” I wanted to find someone who’d voted for him, and I wanted to rub their nose in this. After all, this had to be the turning point! How could anyone possibly see this and endorse it? How can anyone support this blasphemous perversion of everything Christ taught and still call themselves a Christian?

Keep in mind that this was after I’d already pledged about a dozen times over the years to stop giving him any attention. Stop fanning the flames and instead, help starve them of oxygen. Instead of indulging in more performative outrage, concentrate on doing something that will actually make a difference. I don’t know if the blatant pandering worked on his “base,” since even though I keep hearing about his “base,” I haven’t actually seen them in person. I have no idea how many of them there actually are. The only thing I know for sure is that it worked on one person: the guy who got so angry that he went on Facebook to complain about it.

I could’ve acknowledged that we’re at what feels like an unprecedented turning point in America, in which we finally recognize our responsibility to each other and begin making actual changes to dismantle centuries-old systems of white supremacy and unjust law enforcement. Instead, I chose to complain about the one person in the country least capable of and least willing to actually make a difference. As he threatened to send the military to attack American citizens, then ran to his bunker to hide, it was clear to everyone that there’s a leadership vacuum at the federal level. But really, it’s not simply a vacuum, but a black hole. It destroys everything it can, absorbing everyone’s hate and outrage and despair.

Now, people have been warning us constantly about the “distractions” of this administration. But it’s always taken a form like “While all of you were distracted by some outrageously offensive thing, what was really happening was some sinister new policy.” There are a few problems with that:

  1. It’s pompous and condescending. It’s almost as infantilizing as when liberals suggest that Trump voters were “tricked” into voting for a con artist. No, most of them were adults who knew what they were doing, and they should take responsibility for it.
  2. It ignores the fact that we can be upset about multiple things at once. A real President is more about policy but sets the tone for public discourse. So when this asshole goes around spreading conspiracy theories, making up stupid and/or racist nicknames for his opponents, and lying on the public record, that’s actually harmful and shouldn’t be dismissed as pure spectacle.
  3. It assumes an agenda that is far too competent to come out of this administration. Sometimes people talk as if Trump is secretly a mastermind for absorbing the attention of the media, but I’ve seen zero evidence that he has any actual skill or talent at anything at all.

Attributing any conscious motivation to Trump’s outrage-absorbing properties is a bit like, well, attributing a motivation to a virus. I’ve seen the suggestion that since Trump is too incompetent to be an actual leader, he’s more of a puppet figurehead for some Cheney-esque shadow government. Except puppet Presidents are supposed to be charming and not so blatantly awful; even George W Bush understood how to be civil. And puppet Presidents aren’t supposed to throw so many people under the bus before they’ve had the opportunity to profit from their corruption — poor James Mattis had to be complicit in the evil of this administration for three whole years, and now he’s got nothing to show for it except multiple book deals. If Trump were a construct of the right wing, he seems less like a puppet and more like ED-209.

As far as I can tell, no one actually likes Trump, and it’s mutual. Nobody supports his ideology because there really isn’t one other than trying to destroy as much of the progress of the Obama administration as possible. I suspect that the chaos is the whole point. Selfish and evil people can keep taking advantage of the system to do whatever they want to do, and as long as Trump is absorbing all of the attention and the outrage, they don’t have to worry about trying to keep it secret.

That’s what’s happening on a grand scale, and I think it’s happening on a personal scale as well: Somebody’s frustrated that people keep yelling at her for saying the wrong thing? Trump gives her a pass to complain about “political correctness.” Somebody’s frustrated that they pay taxes and never see visible results, and then they hear about bureaucratic waste? Trump gives them an excuse to assume that all taxes are wasteful, and so it’s not selfish to want to pay less. Somebody’s frustrated that politicians never seem to get anything done? Trump gives him an excuse to say the whole system is corrupt, so it’s not lazy to just throw up your hands, call yourself a “realist,” and say that nobody else genuinely wants to fix the system, either.

So when I start to wonder, “how could so many millions of people support Trump?” I have to remind myself “they don’t.” From what I’ve seen — and I’ll admit I could just have an extremely skewed and sheltered impression, but I doubt it’s that far off — very few real people are actually cheering on or even defending this guy. I don’t see millions of Americans rallying around a trusted leader; I see a bunch of people using a loud, attention-grabbing asshole as their own Portrait of Dorian Gray. He absorbs their flaws, so they don’t have to confront them. He’s not just the president for white supremacists and self-interested multi-millionaires; he’s also the president for the type of people who said just between you and me, don’t you think the Obamas seem a little preachy and full of themselves?

Maybe that’s an even more cynical take on the state of America, but it actually gives me a bit of optimism. For one thing, because it’s the first explanation that makes any sense to me. I tend to assume the best of people, but even so I think I can recognize the difference (eventually) between sincerely good people and rotten people who are just putting up appearances. And it’s never made sense to see people — who I know are good people — choose to support putting children in cages, or mocking disabled people, or disparaging women, or undermining the free press, or any of the other 10,000 inexcusable things this jackass and the rest of the national Republican party have done. I’m not going to be so condescending to say that they were “duped,” but I do believe that they mistakenly thought they were choosing the lesser of two evils and never believed that it could get that bad.

In other words: I can’t even imagine being a responsible adult in 2016 and choosing to vote for Trump. But what I can imagine is a couple decades without seeing much change in local politics despite Democrats or Republicans being in charge, or all the promises of “Hope” at the beginning of the Obama campaign turn into years of impasse and obstruction, and being convinced that federal politics just don’t matter all that much. And if the counter-argument is my liberal relative posting photos on Facebook comparing Trump to Hitler, I’m probably not going to be swayed by that. (Even if this is one of the rare cases where Godwin’s Law isn’t actually that much of an exaggeration).

The other reason it gives me hope is because I can see parallels in my own behavior. I’m so often tempted to use “Trump supporter” as a litmus test because it’s just simpler, faster, and easier than the alternative, which is waiting for them to actually cut through all the qualifiers and excuses and “I don’t defend Trump, but…”s and “I’m not racist, but…”s and actually explain their views. There are so many people who are just making noise, arguing nonsense as if it were a rational position, refusing to argue in good faith, and just wearing us down until we’re too exhausted to care anymore. We may think that it’s easy to spot troll posts or propaganda — and it often is — but it doesn’t need to be convincing on its own. It just needs to be loud and pervasive enough to wear us all down and make it difficult to distinguish signal from noise. So I want to have a shorthand to use, so I’m not caught wasting my time trying to engage with someone who just wants to waste my time.

If I can say “you might not be racist, but you’re complicit in racism,” and use that as grounds to cut somebody off, it’s a real time- and energy-saver. And to be clear: that is absolutely, 100%, a valid stance for some people to take. We’ve seen repeatedly how systemic racism is about more than just the overt white supremacists, but is perpetuated by people who prioritize their own needs and their own comfort over social justice. But we’ve also seen how social media — and especially attempts at activism via social media — will repeatedly show us the violent, unrepentant white supremacist, and the clueless or careless person caught saying something inappropriate in public, and present them to us as equivalent. Some people are just trash, and there’s no point wasting our time on them. But most people are pretty complex and generally try to do the right thing but inevitably screw it up sometimes. For whatever reason, social media hates that kind of ambiguity, and needs to have a shocking exposé that proves somebody was a latent asshole this entire time, we just knew it. Everybody’s got to draw their own lines, and I don’t know what the answer is. But I’m positive that false equivalencies and “cancel culture” isn’t it.

I should be clear that I’m not in any way trying to undermine or belittle the damage the Trump administration has caused to the country. To be clear: this has been, objectively, a disaster. And I genuinely believe that Trump being re-elected would mean an end to American democracy as I understand it — that’s not exaggeration. Even if you don’t include the lives unnecessarily lost to a disease they initially dismissed as “no worse than the flu” although they had ample proof otherwise; even if you don’t include the environmental protections that have been arbitrarily and vindictively rolled back; even if you don’t include all the civil liberties and basic human rights violations committed against immigrants; even if you don’t include the blatant attempts to undermine the free press and replace it with state-run media; Trump’s actions would be inexcusable. If only for the degree to which they’ve lowered our public discourse, destroyed our trust in each other, and degraded our belief in America. You don’t have to be one of those pretentious historians who describes American democracy as an “experiment” to recognize that this is a violation of the ideals we’re supposed to stand for.

I should also be 100% clear that I’m in no way suggesting that we excuse, forgive, or ignore casual racism or continue to treat it as inevitable. Anyone who was disgusted by the murder of George Floyd, or Ahmaud Arbery, or Trayvon Martin, should be forced to acknowledge that these aren’t just one-off events, but the inevitable result of centuries of white people treating black people as “less than” or even “other,” and slowly building systems into our society to reinforce that. I’ve no doubt that at least 90% of the people responding with “All Lives Matter” aren’t saying it in good faith, but instead are using it as a time-wasting deflection. Still, I’m sure that there are people who do genuinely believe that we’re close to living in a “post-racial” society, because they’re not forced to confront it every day. That should be something we can fix. We should all be forced to acknowledge that we’re not one community yet — we can be, but we will never be until we make a real effort to overhaul the thousands of ways our community works to make sure that non-whites are at a disadvantage.

So my goal isn’t really to excuse, explain, or forgive Trump supporters at all. Because that’s really not my job. If people were actually gung-ho about voting for this fool, there’s not much we can do about that now. Let other people decide for themselves how they feel about 2016, and let’s devote our energy to moving forward and figuring out what we can do now to actually fix things.

I don’t know what the answer is — but I can link to smarter people than me who are trying to make things better. And the first step is to reject any notion of despair, laziness, or division. Don’t act like good people are outnumbered in the US. Trump was already lying about how much support he had on inauguration day. We have been shown over and over that both US political parties and foreign “agitators” have been creating loads of fake online accounts to make it seem like offensive, nonsensical ideas have more support than they actually do. We’ve seen that he was impeached, and is only still in office because of 50 self-interested senators, few of whom would even make a statement defending him. We’ve seen that there is no genuine loyalty among Trump and the people he enables, and they turn on each other and abandon each other the moment it’s politically convenient. We’ve seen Trump get increasingly hysterical, spreading increasingly outlandish bullshit via platforms owned by white billionaires who profit from the controversy — these are not the actions of a party that’s “winning” and has genuine grassroots support.

The thing to remember is that Trump not only lost the popular vote in the 2016 election, he lost by a lot. Greater than the populations of Wyoming and Vermont combined. By almost as much as the entire population of the United States when the electoral college was introduced. And not only did he lose, he came in third. Second place went to Hilary Clinton. First place was a tie between apathy and complacency.

We’ve already seen that Americans — especially white Americans — put too much emphasis on “we’ve elected a black President!” as proof that we’d moved into a new post-racial age. Now we’re seeing some Americans insist that it was all a lie, and that we’re no better now than we were before the Civil Rights Act. Obviously, neither of these are true. Even after three and a half years of an incompetent racist president, things are better now than they were 50 years ago. Better than even 20 years ago. It’s inexcusable how slowly we’re advancing, but we are advancing. Just like voting for Obama didn’t fix everything — ask all the gay couples who had to wait for his opinions on marriage equality to “evolve” — voting out Trump isn’t going to fix everything, either. It’s an essential first step for us to survive at all, but it’s still just the barest minimum a responsible human being can do.

Biden was my second-to-last choice for President, but he doesn’t have to be President just for me, but for about 330 million other people too. Of the 10,000 things that make the Trump “administration” illegitimate, one of the most damning is one of the least directly harmful: he doesn’t have any sense of obligation to serve anyone who doesn’t keep him in power. Even Republicans should recognize that that’s not how America is supposed to work. A system where Democrats get their own private President for 8 years and then Republicans get theirs for 8 years is not sustainable and is definitely not progress. It’s been disheartening to see so many people who are ostensibly progressive talk as if any dissent were betrayal. As if reducing the needs of 330 million people down to a choice between two candidates were ever going to be anything other than a compromise.

It’s understandable that in an increasingly noisy environment, where malicious actors are spouting extremist nonsense that no decent human could actually agree with, that we’re all wary of sacrificing our integrity. Few of us want to be unwittingly helping perpetuate a system that periodically promises progress and then does nothing. But I feel like healthy skepticism often gets corrupted and turns into apathy — where someone actually believes that the whole system is corrupt, and the people trying to do good are just as bad as the people openly abusing and exploiting the system — or it turns into its own kind of absolutist self-righteousness — where someone actually believes that dissent and compromise are the enemies of progress, instead of the tools of progress. When I heard that Pete Buttigieg was running for President, I expected that a well-educated gay Christian from the midwest would meet with a lot of resistance. What I didn’t expect was that the most virulent attacks on him would come from people claiming to be Bernie Sanders supporters.

There’s a meme going around that says, paraphrased, that we can have political disagreements about things like tax rates, zoning, appropriations for schools; but not about questions like “are gay people human beings?” and “are Nazis bad?” and “are black people bad?” It seems straightforward enough, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve spread it or similar in the past. But if you think about it for a minute, it’s not really saying that much — all you’ve done is pledged to reframe the way you treat other people around the most extremist, and likely most deliberately divisive, way to describe important issues. I’m a strong believer that the easier it is to say something, the less valuable it is to say it. So if you find yourself arguing for a statement that should be trivially true, you should consider whether that’s actually the argument that’s being made. It doesn’t do much good to yell “racism is bad!” to someone who doesn’t believe they’re being racist.

With so much noise and so many people acting in bad faith, it’s especially worthwhile for us to take a minute before we respond to anything we see. Are we responding to a real person, or are we being fooled by a troll and just adding more noise to the conversation? Are we responding to actually share some information or shut down something genuinely harmful, or are we just trying to get in a sick burn of a takedown? And most importantly: is the person actually saying what I’m accusing them of saying, or have we just both reduced each other’s viewpoints to the most absurdist and extremist shorthand? Are we actually making progress, or are we just playing into a long-running attempt to keep us focused on all the things that divide us, instead of all the things that bring us together?

There’s a reason I started this post the way I did. Back at the beginning of the year, I realized that we’re in the world for way too short a time to be wasting any of that time on the things and people that don’t matter. And I realize I keep letting my perception of what matters get skewed by spending too much time in an environment filled with performative, divisive noise. At a minimum, I need to pledge — hopefully for the last time, until it’s time to help drum up the vote in October — to stop giving any attention to Trump. We need to be listening to competent people with actual answers, and a genuine desire to help us get through this pandemic and work towards real social justice, and any time spent being angry at an idiot is just a waste of time. And after that, I need to remember that disagreements aren’t just unavoidable, but necessary for a democracy to function. Instead of concentrating on our differences for the sake of preserving my imagined “integrity,” I need to concentrate more on the things that we all have in common. There are a lot of people who want to tear everything down and keep everything for themselves, but there are a lot more of us who genuinely want to make things better, and simply disagree on how to do it.

Old Man Yells at Cloud Services

Social media was a mistake.

Actual interactive World Wide Web hyperlinks to some organizations that I think deserve our support:
NAACP Legal Defense Fund: https://www.naacpldf.org
The Obama Foundation: https://www.obama.org/get-involved/
Campaign Zero: https://www.joincampaignzero.org

As I get closer to 50 (and look closer to 60), I find myself getting more and more annoyed when I see the internet blatantly going off in a direction that I did not intend or anticipate. It was bad enough to see the disgrace of a UI that was the Snappitychats, but it fills me with genuine anxiety when I see it spilling into things that are actually important.

To skip the preamble: Instagram is not a good channel for important information. For what it’s worth, I don’t think Twitter and Facebook are, either, but I can at least recognize how stubborn people make it work. The problem with Instagram isn’t just that I think it’s a frivolous app used mainly for selfies and casual snapshots — and to be clear, I’m speaking as someone who is straight-up addicted to Instagram and got irrationally depressed when I had to go without it — it’s that it’s designed to be a bad platform for anything other than snapshots.

Facebook keeps introducing stuff — like “stories” and live video — intended to turn Instagram more into Facebook, and each one has its own bunch of baggage and interface paradigms it brings with it. But surprisingly, most of the core “features” of Instagram have been allowed to remain. Those features are the ones that make the platform unique among the major social media platforms:

  1. You can’t share just text, there must be a photo.
  2. You can’t share someone else’s content, the equivalent of a “retweet” (except in Stories, or with a third-party app).
  3. Except for the one link in your profile, which isn’t intended to change that often, you can’t share links except as text. Even if you do share a link as text, the reader has to copy it and then paste it into a separate web browser to follow it, which makes it deliberately inconvenient.
  4. You can link to other users’ accounts, but only the account itself and not an individual post.
  5. You can also link to hashtags, which can be almost any arbitrary string of text and which is inherently decentralized, meaning that it can’t be owned or controlled by any one user.

The reason this is at all relevant right now: on Monday night and early Tuesday of this week, there was a meme for Instagram users to post nothing but a black square to our feeds for all of Tuesday. The idea, as I understood it, was aimed mainly at those of us who aren’t black and aren’t subject to discrimination and police brutality, to show solidarity with people leading the Black Lives Matter movement and protests. We were being silent to keep from dominating the conversation. We were paying respect instead of filling our feeds with frivolous, mundane stuff as if everything were normal.

People immediately started complaining about that, because it’s the internet. It was dismissed as a meaningless gesture — which, I mean, no shit it was just a gesture. It’s Instagram. There were complaints that we had a responsibility not to be silent, but to “amplify black voices” on a platform that specifically discourages sharing other people’s content. One celebrity posted a wall of text with a self-import lecture to be mindful of how we use our “internet real estate.” Some “influencers” were deluged with comments scolding them for not speaking up quickly enough, or speaking up at all — people who make make-up and recipe videos either have a sacred responsibility to disseminate information that is literally everywhere else; or they should never mention the real world at all, or it’s insincere virtue signaling. Tons of people insisted on posting lengthy rebuttals to “All Lives Matter,” over and over again, as if there were anyone left in June 2020 who was still saying “All Lives Matter” in good faith, instead of as justification for selfishness, or deliberately wasting people’s time. It all turned into a huge jumble of noise, assigning far too much importance to a platform that simply cannot be and should not be mistaken for an effective a tool for activism.

Most obviously damning, in my opinion, was the outpouring of comments — and think pieces on various websites — scolding people for posting a black square with the “blacklivesmatter” hashtag. They said it was blacking out an important movement. People following the hashtag to try and find out more information were instead just seeing a screen full of black squares, as if the movement were being silenced or censored. I started to see some people suggesting that it was intentionally redacting crucial information that people needed to see in a crisis — I saw one screenshot of an uncredited tweet suggesting something about AT&T being behind it, at which point I decided it was long past my bedtime and I should just turn the phone off.

And that’s the reason that I think this is more than just an annoyance or an unfortunate internet flare-up, but something that actually makes me very nervous: if a platform for information is so fragile that a bunch of well-meaning people can block out an important movement, then you’re using the wrong platform. If it’s that susceptible to being overtaken by well-meaning people, then what defense do you have against malicious people trying to exploit it?

There are a lot of things that I despise about Twitter, but it’s easy to see why it’s so tempting to think of it as a good platform. Unfortunately, almost all of the things that might make it useful are also what make it horrible: it’s immediate, which means that you get news as it’s happening! Which means it hasn’t been verified or placed into any meaningful context. It’s open to everyone, which means that there are no corporate or political gatekeeprs! Which also means that there are no fact-checkers or people ensuring that posters are acting in good faith, or are even real people. It’s brief, which means you get just the important information, without excessive editorializing! But you get no nuance or balance; it has to be the most polarized take possible. And people still insist on making these excruciating “We need to talk about… 1/10,000” threads to try and weasel around the limit.

There are even more limitations on Instagram, and in my opinion it becomes jarring when they’re abused. If you post a wall of text as an image, it’s inert and deprived of any context — I can’t copy or paste it, and I can’t conveniently get to the surrounding text or the larger work. It also becomes uneditable; I kept seeing entreaties to donate to the Minnesota Freedom Fund long after they’d already started asking people to stop giving to them and instead donate to other causes. If you just post a copy of someone else’s image, even if you credit them (and people are rarely credited), then I have to go through their feed and find the relevant image to see what they said about it. If you post a bunch of URLs, I have to enter them manually, which not only makes the process prone to typos, but just adds a bit of resistance that’s not necessary. And again, the Minnesota Freedom Fund reported false accounts posing as them, but off by a few letters.

And then I see people posting screenshots of Tweets to Instagram, combining the worst aspects of each platform while removing any of their advantages, and I’m all like what the hell, man?! We’re trying to build a society here.

And all those problems are assuming that you’re working with the best intentions. With especially sensitive topics like civil rights violations, police brutality, and a political party that is actively trying to suppress dissent, it makes it even more important to take the time to properly vet images, video, and claims that are being made.

Over the past few days, I’ve seen the expected assortment of hoaxes, and mis-captioned, mis-credited, mis-leading, or dated images and video. But disturbingly, there was also plenty of lazy vigilante BS, posted by people who should know better. Pictures were being posted of supposed agitators along with identifying information, with absolutely no citation or vetting — just the claim that it must be real, because it was taken by “someone at the scene,” and verified by “other accounts,” even though these platforms by design allow for one person to be behind multiple accounts and use a false identity to post. That anonymity is fine when all you’re doing is posting snapshots; but if you’re using that to dox someone or indirectly get them fired or worse, then that’s just plain mob mentality.

There were, by multiple accounts, agitators at several large protests who were deliberately provoking violence and looting, almost certainly with the goal of discrediting public perception of the protests. That seems to make it more important to present an accurate version of what’s actually taking place at the protests, instead of rushing to be the first one. If you can’t verify where a video is coming from or who created it, and you can’t find any other protestor videos corroborating it (when these protests are being exhaustively recorded on protestors’ phones), then you should be treating it as unreliable, and asking yourself if you’re doing more harm than good by sharing it.

I would bet that everyone reading this has been fooled by a scam on social media before. I know the person writing it has. Luckily, it’s most often harmless, even though it’s being used increasingly to sow division and fear, to make us believe that the people we disagree with are people we hate. But when the subject gets more important, our skepticism and restraint should increase. Instead, the desire for immediate information and the satisfaction of having quick answers makes our skepticism and restraint decrease.

I’m sympathetic to anyone else who’s also feeling helpless and wanting to make a difference. I think in addition to voting, and donating time or money as we can afford it, we have a basic responsibility for what we’re putting out into the world. It should be fair and accurate, and not just “first.” Any source of information that’s so easily manipulated and so poor at providing context or identifying sources, can’t be considered completely reliable.

Or in other words: instead of freaking out about the use of hashtags or whether or not token gestures are appropriate during a crisis, I’d suggest we all take a deep breath, count to 10, and direct people to platforms that are better suited to serious topics.

Do or do not; there is #nohomo

More spaceships and laser swords, less snogging.

Whenever Star Wars comes into contact with the internet, dumb things happen. One of the most annoyingly dumb things recently has been the insistence that the new sequel trilogy is a perfect stage for better LGBTQ representation, but Disney overlords have kept it from happening.

The kiss between two women at the end of Rise of Skywalker is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it example of tokenism, they claim, kept short so it could pander to liberals but still be easily cut for less gay-friendly foreign markets. And of course the characters of Finn and Poe were obviously well-suited to be a couple, until skittish Disney execs insisted that they each be paired off with hetero romantic interests.

As a red-blooded American white male gay nerd, I’m calling that a bunch of nonsense.

Of course I’d prefer it if a company as large as Disney would choose to stand its ground. Release the movie with its completely innocuous kiss between two women, and let the market decide. (Retaining the arbitrary and unearned kiss between the trilogy’s hero and villain is a lot more offensive, anyway). But then they’d get accused of cultural insensitivity, so I guess there’s not one easy solution. At least the Huckabee family has to see it and get angry about it, so that makes me happy to think about.

But as for making it a more significant beat in the story, my question would be: why? What do you hope to get out of it? These aren’t stories that do a great job with romance in any case; the most successful one in the entire series is still insufferably corny in places. If it’s just a question of representation — which is absolutely important — then I think showing two secondary characters kiss during a happy moment is a great way to handle it.

When I was growing up watching these movies, I would’ve been happy to see any acknowledgement that other gay people exist, and that they don’t need to be primarily defined by or driven by their sexuality. In a series that doesn’t tend to focus on the personal lives of any of its secondary characters, devoting more time to those characters’ relationship would inevitably feel shoehorned.

The one that I feel a lot more strongly about is the business about Finn and Poe. With that, I can’t be as sympathetic to the call for representation, because I think it’s actually a huge and disappointing step backwards. In modern American entertainment, it’s getting increasingly common to see representation of two men in a romantic relationship. What’s still disappointingly rare, though, is to see two men in a supportive, affectionate relationship that isn’t romantic or sexual.

I’m sure that the people pushing for a Finn & Poe romance (including Oscar Isaac himself) believe they’re pushing for open-mindedness, but I think it just reinforces the kind of toxic masculinity we’re already overwhelmed with. It sets a limit on how much two men can show they care about each other before it turns gay. They hug, they’re concerned about each other, they even share clothes — now let’s see them kiss!

Believe me, nobody wants to see Oscar Isaac kissing another dude more than I do, but I think the better and more valuable representation — which could impact more of the audience than just the people who identify as gay — is to show men being caring and supportive of each other without having to be romantically linked. If for no other reason than it reminds all the guys in the audience who don’t identify as gay or bisexual that being affectionate isn’t a threat to their sexuality or their masculinity.

Now, the obvious issue with The Rise of Skywalker in particular is that they introduced Zorii Bliss as a character whose presence in the movie is at least 75% to give Poe Dameron somebody to mack on. I think they handled it well for the most part, seeing as how she’s portrayed as a bad-ass who’s able to show she cares about someone while still not being just a sexual object. And it gave the movie one of its best moments, when Poe turns on the full smolder, and she shoots him down immediately. But there’s no denying that it’s hella heteronormative.

Since that whole character relationship was already loaded down with the kind of corny, when-do-I-get-that-kiss “romance” that already exists in Star Wars, I say the “best” LGBTQ representation would have been to have Zorii Bliss open the helmet and reveal another man. (Like, say, me. I’ll do it. Just call me). It would’ve felt every bit as shoehorned in, but it would’ve at least been somewhat novel.

But let background characters stay in the background, and let Finn and Poe just be friends. It’s not progress to push for gay characters at the expense of telling men that they can’t be straight and give another guy a hug.

The Rise of Skywalker: The Last Gatekeeper

It’s partly true. Some of it.

This post is full of spoilers for The Rise of Skywalker.

While I was psyching myself up for seeing The Rise of Skywalker, I said I was bracing myself for either the rush of The Force Awakens or the disappointment of The Last Jedi. As it turns out, I didn’t really feel either.

I definitely felt none of the exhilaration of the first movie. The Force Awakens felt like the gasp of new life after someone plunged a shot of adrenaline into the heart of the franchise — (Note: I don’t know if that is actually a thing outside of Pulp Fiction. Please consult your doctor) — but this story was full of bad decisions that they couldn’t just lightspeed-skip over (like, say, an over-long discussion of thermal oscillators or a weird repetition of “kanjiclub”).

At the same time, even as I was shaking my head and mouthing the word “no” over and over, I didn’t feel the miserable deflation I did while watching the bad decisions play out in The Last Jedi. I’ve grown into a begrudging acceptance of that movie — and honestly, it’s a more ambitious and more daring movie than The Rise of Skywalker — but watching it felt like the cold touch of a Dementor was draining me of my renewed enthusiasm for Star Wars.

I think ultimately, JJ Abrams is too talented a filmmaker to make something I can’t enjoy in the moment. I’m hesitant to assign authorship to something as complex as a feature film — especially a blockbuster with as many invested parties as this one — to one person, but the constant through every JJ Abrams project I’ve seen is that they’re all full of charm, momentum, and seemingly boundless potential. Beautiful, charismatic people exchanging snappy dialogue while doing intriguing things. The stories rarely end on a satisfying note, though: starting with the mindset that the story can go anywhere and literally anything could happen means that all that potential energy gets used up quickly. Once it’s run out, the end result tends to either evaporate into meaninglessness, or land with a baffling thud.

Maybe it’s appropriate that watching The Rise of Skywalker felt to me like watching The Return of the Jedi. I left that movie feeling like they’d taken something great and somehow made it silly, overwrought, and nonsensical, to the point of making me wonder whether I’d “grown out” of the franchise altogether. But then I remembered how rad the speeder bikes were!

The Rise of Skywalker is like that, multiplied by ten. I started Return of the Jedi disappointed that they’d only made two movies and were already repeating themselves with Tatooine and another Death Star; this movie brings back a dead villain with no explanation, and then he also has 1000 Death Stars!

To be clear: I’m still 100% on board with the idea of bringing back the Emperor. He’s a great, over-the-top bad guy who could’ve served as the source of all evil across all nine movies. And I still think it could’ve worked, had it been made the driving force of the plot of the last movie, built up to a climactic reveal and final showdown, and tied into all of the events that led up to it. But here, it was introduced in the first line of the opening crawl. And of all the hundreds of questions that could come from that reveal, the least interesting one to explore was “Okay, how do we get there?” But that’s what they chose to focus on.

It’s so bafflingly arbitrary that it retroactively makes the rest of the final trilogy seem smaller and sillier. I’d been able to justify the First Order and Supreme Leader Snoke as building on the idea that The Return of the Jedi was a conclusive happy ending for the galaxy. I thought that The Last Jedi gave it weight by asserting that restoring the Old Republic without fixing its problems would just cause the cycle to continue indefinitely. Now, suddenly re-introducing Palpatine with little convincing explanation just makes it seem like they simply didn’t think you could tell a Star Wars story without bringing back the Empire and the Emperor. (I want to be charitable and use the common defense of repetition in the Star Wars movies by saying “it rhymes,” but there’s a part of me that only thinks this rhymes with “schmack of schmimagination.”)

I was left wondering whether the stable boy shown at the end of The Last Jedi now has to be revealed to be a long-lost grandson of Obi-Wan or something. Most disappointing is that Rey’s story has been robbed of all its potential energy built into the last two movies: the focus shifted from “who are you?” entirely to “who were your grandparents and the long line of now-dead heroes who are entirely responsible for your importance in this story?”

Ever since The Last Jedi came out, people have been calling it a case of filmmakers petulantly refusing to “yes, and…” each other. I never bought it, before. Despite my problems with the movie, The Last Jedi didn’t feel like it was arbitrarily throwing away ideas built up in The Force Awakens, so much as turning the story in a new direction to give a counterpoint to the previous two trilogies. But many of the changes in The Rise of Skywalker feel so arbitrary, even petty, that it just makes it feel like watching a bunch of preposterously rich people fighting over a box of Star Wars toys and refusing to share.

The Hollywood Reporter has an interview with co-writer Chris Terrio that makes me think it maybe wasn’t as clear-cut or arbitrary. (Or petty). Perhaps the major problems that I had with the story weren’t ones of intent, but of execution. They were trying to build on ideas from The Last Jedi, for the most part. But it sounds as if they had a very narrow interpretation of what The Last Jedi was trying to say, felt an obligation to honor a bunch of other people’s interpretation of the franchise (including George Lucas), and then had to deal with the thousands of things that always happen over the course of making any blockbuster, especially such a high-profile one that has to act as the conclusion of nine movies.

The biggest difference between my experience watching The Return of the Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker is that this time, I knew that Star Wars isn’t over. There’s no sense that it’s time for me to put away childish things, since I’ve got a huge media company pumping out millions of dollars worth of more stuff or me to enjoy at a steady clip.

If you’d told me that my favorite interpretation of Star Wars would be by the guy who was largely responsible for Swingers, I — well, to be honest, I probably would’ve said, “yeah, that checks out.” But it’s still great to see that Disney seems to have taken the best part of the MCU model — giving creators who grew up loving the material the chance and the resources to realize their own interpretation of it —and applied it to Star Wars. I don’t love the extended comedy beat at the beginning of the last episode of The Mandalorian, for instance, but I do love that it was instantly recognizable as Taika Waititi’s unique contribution.

That allows me to focus on The Rise of Skywalker’s speeder bike moments, the parts that it does well:

  • It was great that they put so much focus on having all the main characters going on an adventure together.
  • Although the story felt overstuffed with characters, I did like that their presence was kept character-driven — hinting at a stormtrooper revolt with Jannah, and the scoundrel-with-a-heart-of-gold story for Zorii Bliss, to emphasize the idea of “regular people” across the galaxy all standing up to the new Empire.
  • I loved the propulsive energy of the first act that kept things moving (even if I felt they were chasing after the wrong things).
  • I still love the inherent charisma of Daisy Ridley, who manages to make an unwaveringly good character still seem interesting and relatable.
  • I loved the scene with Han Solo and the clever repeat of “I know.”
  • I appreciated that they kept at least a trace of the “democratization of the Force” idea alive, with Finn’s growing awareness that he’s Force-sensitive.
  • I loved Adam Driver’s performance after his transformation back to Ben Solo — after two and a half movies with not much to work with other than “really intense,” he made that character so appealing, with relatively limited screen time and just an “ouch” and a perfectly-delivered, Han Solo-esque shrug.
  • And I loved that they did build on the idea of a unique connection between Rey and Ben, incorporating it into two key moments in the plot. It was a great counterpoint to the iconic moment in The Force Awakens in which she takes the light saber from him, to see her give it back.

Ultimately, I just can’t see the point in getting too upset about the disappointing parts of a movie that was this entertaining. That doesn’t mean I’ve “outgrown” Star Wars, or that I need to retroactively dismiss or downplay its importance to me — I’m still one of the guys who got engaged in Galaxy’s Edge this year, and I’m still considering the feasibility of having a wedding ceremony inside the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon. It just means we no longer have to settle for what one person’s interpretation of what Star Wars “is.”

While we’ve spent the last decade or so besieged by reboots and re-interpretations and re-imaginings, it’s often seemed like we’re in a cultural death spiral: everyone lacks imagination or ambition, and they’d rather play to nostalgia instead of creating something new. But there’s something uniquely wonderful about the thrill I felt seeing The Force Awakens, or even seeing The Mandalorian deliver a live-action version of a forgotten toy. Dismissing it as nothing more than nostalgia makes it sound completely selfish, instead of acknowledging that it’s more like a shared cultural moment. They’re not simply showing me the things that I used to love; they’re acknowledging “I understand why you love this, because I grew up loving it, too.”

There’s value in telling stories in these shared universes. And of course, there’s nothing stopping creators from using the money and/or industry clout from these shared universes and applying them to make their own original murder mysteries. I can put references to Harry Potter and Pulp Fiction into my opinions about a Star Wars movie, and we all get it because they’re all cultural touchstones that we share. Not narrow-minded fandoms that we’ve got exclusive ownership over. Take the parts of it that you love, don’t get too upset over the parts you don’t, and go on to enjoy — or make — new stories.

Back in middle school, I heard that Star Wars was planned as an epic trilogy of trilogies, and I tried to imagine all the different ways that such a long, huge story could play out. Now, though, limiting it to only nine stories seems remarkably unambitious.

A New Hope, or, We Would Like to See the Baby

Ending a week of Star Wars obsession by acknowledging that everything is going to be fine.

If there is one through-line to this week’s of posts, it’d be “Man, that guy sure does like to ramble on about Star Wars, doesn’t he?” But the second idea is that Star Wars has gotten huge, even by its own standards.

There’s just more Star Wars than there ever has been before, across the movies, toys, comics, books, TV series, and now theme parks. That means that it’s gotten way too big for any narrow definition for what it is or what feels “right” in an adaptation. People bring their own nostalgia and associations to it, have different ideas of what fits in with the tone, and have different ideas of what they want from it.

On the one hand, it means that it’s ridiculous for anyone to appoint themselves gatekeepers. I’m reluctant to put too much thought into the “anti-SJW” nonsense that surrounded The Last Jedi and the like, because I suspect much of it was manufactured controversy that just handed a microphone to a bunch of embittered, miserable people that’d be better off ignored. But it’s also a good reminder for all of us to be less possessive of it.

I was listening to the ForceCenter podcast talk about their hopes for the new movie, and their discussion put the whole thing into a good perspective: the growth of the franchise, especially with the potential for Disney+ series, doesn’t “dilute” the story, but expands it.

No part of it, even the main-line movies, has to be the definitive take on Star Wars, and if we don’t like one part, there’s a dozen more takes that we might like. I’m due to see The Rise of Skywalker tonight, and I’ve been bracing myself for either the rush of The Force Awakens or the (initial, at least) disappointment of The Last Jedi. But no matter what I end up thinking of it, I love The Mandalorian.

Every episode of that series has landed for me, not in spite of the simplicity of its storytelling but because of it. To me, it feels definitively, quintessentially, Star Wars, even though it’s slightly different in tone and scope from anything that’s come before. If somebody doesn’t like it, they don’t have to just wallow in their (horribly misguided) misery, but can find something else. There’s going to be at least one more TV series, and who knows how many movies.

The model of having a trilogy of mainline movies with “A Star Wars story” one-offs doesn’t seem to have worked like they wanted, so they’re not bound to that model. They’re not necessarily bound to the Marvel Cinematic Universe model, either. It seems like the only two overriding requirements are: 1) Does the Lucasfilm story group approve of it? and 2) Can Disney make money off of it?

They’ve already shown a commitment to letting creators bring their own voice to the material, which in my mind is still the key to the MCU’s success, more than any release schedule of solo movies + Avengers blockbusters. As long as it lets Jon Favreau bring his take on the material (like the MCU did with Iron Man, now that I think of it), I’m all in.

I still hope I enjoy The Rise of Skywalker, of course, but I don’t have to. For the first time in 40 years, I can go to a Star Wars movie reassured that even if I don’t like it, I can see a great TV show next week and ride a great theme park ride next month.

I’m trying to choose which cheesy reference to end on, and I decided on: Star Wars has become more powerful than I could possibly have imagined.

One Thing I Already Love About Rise of the Resistance

I have opinions about a ride I haven’t even been on yet.

To keep my Star Wars streak alive, I’m going to write about a new attraction in Galaxy’s Edge that I haven’t even been to yet. The Rise of the Resistance ride/attraction opened in Walt Disney World at the beginning of December, and it’s scheduled to open in Disneyland in mid-January 2020.

I’ve been seeing and hearing about this ride for years, getting the slow drip of information that Disney’s been releasing to keep everybody hyped for a time when their friends would arrive to find the new land fully operational. But I pledged to keep my knowledge to a high-level overview, so I’d have an idea of the overall beats but would remain unspoiled for all the details.

That pledge lasted for about 30 seconds once I learned that ride-through videos were available on YouTube. The first video made my soul ache. All I could do was lay my head on my desk and moan that I wouldn’t be able to ride it right now. At this point, I admit I might have overdone it. I caught myself at the end of a ride-through video, mouthing along with the characters’ final dialogue, like I do in the Haunted Mansion. (Silently, because I’m not a monster).

I’ve no doubt that seeing it in person will have an impact that videos can’t fully convey, but it’d still be good to keep myself from getting over-familiar. This post does have spoilers for Rise of the Resistance, so please don’t read it if you want to remain completely surprised.

From what I’ve seen, Rise of the Resistance is kind of “Imagineering’s Greatest Hits.” It looks as if they’ve taken some of the best gags, effects, storytelling techniques, and ride vehicle systems from all of their most successful attractions, then compiled them all to tell a new-sequel Star Wars story. My favorite thing I’ve seen is an example of that.

In the Tower of Terror ride — both the Walt Disney World original and the version that was in California Adventure — they do a masterful job of building anticipation for when the drop is about to happen. The original is still my favorite (and still one of my favorite things that Disney’s ever done), because it has that extended sequence of moving out into darkness, then seeing the star field converge into a point that becomes opening elevator doors.

But both versions have a gag where you see a window at the end of a corridor, and then the window shatters and drops. No matter how many times you ride, it gets a gut reaction, as you’re positive that the drop is going to happen right then.

At the end of Rise of the Resistance, your vehicle moves into an escape pod, and you can see other escape pods suspended beneath the Star Destroyer. Across the way, one of the claws holding the pods opens, and you see the pod suddenly drop away from the ship and fall towards the planet. And then, you’re left hanging for a few seconds, waiting for the drop that is about to come….

I love it because it proves that Imagineering didn’t just make a great ride with Tower of Terror, but that they understood exactly why it stood out from being just another drop ride. I think Disney is prone to overstate the role of “story” in their attractions in public-facing material, but the Tower of Terror rides are proof of how much of what defines a great Disney ride comes down not to ride technology but to techniques of storytelling. Place-setting, sound effects, music, pacing, and anticipation.

Seeing all the ride technology working in conjunction in Rise of the Resistance has my super-hyped for it as a theme park ride. Seeing one of my favorite moments in Tower of Terror echoed in the new attraction has me hyped for it as a new Disney experience. I’ve heard several people call the ride “next level” or describe it as the start of a new age of Disney attractions. I’m glad to see that it wasn’t just a case of adopting a new ride system (all our rides are variations on Soarin’ Over California now!), but that it’s a synthesis of all the things they’ve been excelling at for decades.

But Not For Me

Thoughts on living in a world where both The Force Awakens and Rogue One exist, and each has huge fans.

I might as well make this week all Star Wars, all the time, since it’s impossible to navigate the internet without seeing someone’s opinion of the new movie or the new TV show blasted in my face. A headline from Forbes in my RSS feed reads “The Rise of Skywalker Is The Worst Star Wars Movie Ever,” and it delights me to see Comic Book Guy getting work again. Plus thinking about spaceships and Force powers is more fun than thinking about any of the other stressors that adults are supposed to think about.

It’s an odd time to be an obsessive Star Wars fan. It’s not a case of being surprised by how big it’s gotten — anyone who was alive between 1977 and 1983 has seen first-hand how it got preposterously huge almost immediately — but in the ways that it’s gotten so big. It’s not just that it’s a huge cultural phenomenon that appeals to millions of people, but that it has to appeal to millions of people who don’t all want the same things from it.

The feeling is similar to that of seeing the long list of Kickstarter backers rolling in the credits of the Netflix Mystery Science Theater 3000 reboot: the realization that this thing I’d always felt a personal connection with wasn’t actually targeted specifically at me.

Which sounds like the typical problem of a white middle-aged American man having to grapple with the idea that for the first time in his life, he has to come into contact with things that aren’t made specifically for him. And no doubt that’s a big part of it for me. But there’s a less selfish aspect to it, that’s tied into how I think about art and entertainment in general.

I’ve always thought that the main overriding goal of analyzing a piece of art was to evaluate its success based not just on what I want to get out of it, but based on how well it achieves what it sets out to do. I don’t believe it’s possible to get a truly objective review of anything, but I do think that we should at least be able to distinguish between things that work or don’t work for us, and things that succeed or fail at doing what they wanted to accomplish.

I always think back to a review of The Empire Strikes Back that I read in Starlog magazine, not long after the movie was released. Starlog was a niche magazine aimed directly at a particular kind of genre nerd, and the reviewer prefaced his article by saying that he knew that Star Wars was already a phenomenon, the movie was widely beloved, and he was offering his opinions to an audience that didn’t want to hear criticism of it. Even back then, before the internet and arguments about “SJWs” and who shot first, everybody understood that Star Wars attracted a passionate and not-always-socially-well-adjusted fandom.

But this review was formative for me as a nine- or ten-year-old, because it was the first time I’d seen a review of anything that I didn’t immediately classify as either dismissible trash, or an expression of joy and hype from someone who loved this stuff as much as I do. Honestly, it’s probably the first time it even occurred to me that you could examine Star Wars critically.

The key thing that stuck out to me was that the reviewer brought up points that hadn’t occurred to me while watching the movie six times in theaters, but were still valid criticisms. The space slug couldn’t exist because there was nothing in an asteroid field for it to eat, and the Millennium Falcon would take years to travel from one star system to another if it had a broken hyperdrive. Both are true, but they ultimately don’t matter, because the movies aren’t science fiction and don’t try to be.

But the reviewer also says that Yoda shouldn’t have pulled Luke’s X-Wing out of the swamp, because the entire purpose of the training wasn’t to teach Luke that the Force was powerful, but that he could be powerful. That’s a criticism that has always stuck with me, because it’s not based on sci-fi but on story. It’s evident that this was a moment that was intended for spectacle but doesn’t make sense in terms of character development.

Reading that review, and recognizing the distinction between science fiction and story, shaped how I think about every piece of art or entertainment worth thinking about. It’s also why I reject the typical line — Star Wars is for children, and we should put aside childish things — that’s been used as either a blanket defense or a lazy dismissal all the way back to 1977. It’s no doubt intended as a blistering take-down of adults like me, accusing us of refusing to engage with material that’s intellectually or artistically challenging, but in reality, it’s not just snobbish but stupid. It shows a refusal or inability to engage with a piece of art according to its own mission statement, instead of the viewer’s own biases. Which is something I’ve been able to do since I was 9. Suck on that, New Yorker.

That all was thrown into disarray when I saw The Force Awakens and then Rogue One. With The Force Awakens, I realized that it’s completely impossible for me to see it objectively. I’ve heard the criticisms of it, and I have several criticisms of my own, but they’re all but completely irrelevant. It’s not just that I disagree with the opinion that it’s just a retread of the original trilogy; I don’t care about that opinion at all. My enjoyment of that movie still bypasses any rational thought and goes directly to the portion of my brain that loves Star Wars.

Rogue One is the opposite. I still have criticisms of that movie that I think are objectively valid in terms of cinema and storytelling, but in the end my main complaint is that I just don’t think it’s what Star Wars is “about.”

At the same time, there are thousands of people who think Rogue One is exactly what Star Wars is about, and it’s everything they could want from a Star Wars movie. For me to point out all the ways I think it’s off tone is as irrelevant to them as it would be to point out to me that having a bunch of costumed adults standing around a screen talking about a “thermal oscillator” is clumsy and silly exposition.

So it’s distinctly odd cognitive dissonance to see a film that slavishly — and near-perfectly! — re-creates the exact look of the original Star Wars, right down to the sideburns, and still have to acknowledge that it just wasn’t made for me.

I’ve already written about going to Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland, seeing myself surrounded by so many other middle-aged bearded nerds, and the sense of camaraderie that comes from knowing that at last I’m among My People. But there’s also the realization that many of the people there have an intensely personal connection to Star Wars (and Disneyland, for that matter) like I do, but are expecting to get something entirely different from what I’d recognize as being definitively Star Wars.

As someone who considers art and art interpretation as being fundamentally about communication, it’s kind of unsettling and isolating. I’ve long been able to recognize that even if something doesn’t appeal to me, I can at least engage with it based on what it’s trying to do. But what if I don’t understand what it’s trying to do?

I guess basically what I’m saying is that even if The Rise of Skywalker turns out to be a disappointment, we’ll still have The Mandalorian.

This is not going to go the way I think

Part 2 of jumping on the hype train for The Rise of Skywalker, with my list of things I want to see in the final movie.

Like Charlie Brown getting himself psyched to finally kick that football, I’m letting myself get fully immersed in the hype around The Rise of Skywalker. This series has broken my heart many times, but my last post was about the realization that even my least favorite movies in the series have still somehow fit together to have an overarching theme.

Over the past 40 years, there’ve been a lot of attempts to dismiss Star Wars as simplistic nonsense that’s just for children, and just as many if not more attempts to frame it as my generation’s modern mythology. I think the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. If they can stick the landing, I think the Skywalker Saga can be seen as a complete story that’s still a straightforward case of Good vs Evil — since straightforward stories need not be simple-minded — but with a through-line that reminds us we’re responsible for choosing our own path.

So here’s what I want to see happen in the conclusion of the series, based on the previous movies and what we’ve seen in the trailers. I’m less interested in predicting what’s actually going to happen, because I’m bad at that, and because I still want the finale to surprise me.

Answer the right questions about Rey
Hey, remember back in 1980 when Darth Vader said he was Luke Skywalker’s father, and it was such a climactic moment that wowed everyone in the theater? Don’t you wish these movies would spend the next several decades just delivering that same moment over and over again? Well, you’re not alone, since apparently a lot of people believe the most important question to be answered in the finale is who are Rey’s parents? (Even according to Disney’s own marketing). And a lot of these people simultaneously complain that the new trilogy is too much of a rehash of the original movies, so whatever.

We already got an answer to this question in The Last Jedi, and it was the right answer for Rey’s character and for the series as a whole. There’s this pervasive idea that this is one of the things that was introduced in The Force Awakens and unceremoniously thrown out in The Last Jedi, and that it’ll be retconned now that JJ’s taken back over and can say that Kylo Ren was lying, and Rey is actually a secret Kenobi child or Ben Solo’s sister. Or whatever.

But The Force Awakens was already suggesting that the key question isn’t “who are Rey’s parents?” but “who is Rey?” The first line of the first teaser trailer had Maz Kanata’s voice-over asking, “Who are you?” Rey responds “I’m no one.” The new trailer has Rey saying “People keep telling me they know me, but no one does.” (But it also talks about “destiny,” so who knows?)

In my opinion, this is the one thing that will determine how well the new trilogy completes the story of the entire series. It goes all the way back to the Jedi calling Anakin “the chosen one,” through Yoda saying “wars do not make one great,” to Ben Solo spending the last two movies trying to shed his lineage and the role pre-determined for him before he was even born. It has to say that what makes Rey a hero isn’t her parents or even her Force powers, but the choices she makes.

But still, don’t leave that thread hanging
I think the question of who exactly Rey’s parents are is only important to writing a good Wookieepedia entry, instead of writing a good story. But since she’s spent so much time being driven by the question, it’d be satisfying to get some kind of closure on it.

The practical problem has always been that a reveal of any known character would immediately make that character irredeemably awful. Because whoever it was, they abandoned her to a horrible life in a horrible place. The re-introduction of the Emperor is intriguing, because he’s already an irredeemably awful character.

My bet is that she’s the result of a cloning experiment that Palpatine started when the Empire was still active. That fits in with her starting on the planet with all the other wreckage from the Empire. It also fits in with her “vision” in The Last Jedi, of an infinite line of herself stretching forwards and backwards.

It also allows for some version of her (maybe the “dark” version from the trailer?) to exist during the original trilogy. Which I think is intriguing, because it could re-cast one of Yoda’s lines from The Empire Strikes Back. When Obi-Wan says “That boy is our last hope,” and Yoda says, “No, there is another,” maybe he was talking about not Leia like we’ve all assumed since 1980, but Rey.

Stop trying to make Snoke happen
Another pervasive (and unwarranted) complaint is that The Force Awakens set up Supreme Leader Snoke as this sinister mastermind behind all of the machinations of the First Order that would drive the story of the new trilogy, but then The Last Jedi abruptly got rid of him before he could serve his story purpose.

But I say that that was his story purpose: to set up a dynamic just like the one between Vader and Palpatine in the original trilogy, and then have these new characters choosing to break the cycle.

He was never an interesting villain, and he was never going to be anything other than a less inspired stand-in for Palpatine, like Dash Rendar was for Han Solo. It’s much stronger for the villain in the final trilogy to be someone who stretched all the way back to the prequels.

Make “Skywalker” the new “Jedi”
There are a lot of fan theories about what the title The Rise of Skywalker actually means. My favorite is that it no longer refers to a family name, but becomes a title. Either for Rey herself, or for a whole new class of Force-user who has learned to balance both the light and dark sides.

One of the most insightful parts of that “Movies with Mikey” defense of The Last Jedi is pointing out the common link of Obi-Wan, Yoda, and then Luke all experiencing a catastrophic failure and then exiling themselves away from the rest of the galaxy. It implies that the millennia-old Jedi Order was based on a kind of purity test. Luke was the first person (that we’ve seen in the main continuity) to break that cycle by insisting that Anakin could still be redeemed even after falling to the dark side. But then he didn’t give himself the same benefit of the doubt, choosing to punish himself with exile after his failure with Ben.

Asking for a real gray area feels off tone with the Star Wars universe. I still think that Star Wars is about good guys and bad guys, and it stumbles whenever it tries to get into true moral ambiguity, as opposed to Han Solo-style good guys who sometimes make bad decisions. (That’s why I’m not expecting much from a Cassian Andor series, and I think the character of Doctor Aphra from the comics is just intolerably awful). But I think there’s room for the Star Wars series to have a similar lesson to Inside Out: acknowledging that negative emotions are just a part of us, and it’s not only unrealistic but actually unhealthy to try and keep them suppressed all the time.

By that measure, Luke would be not just the last Jedi but the first Skywalker. He recognized that the dark side and the light side can exist in the same person. And both Rey and Kylo Ren have exhibited more Force power than we’ve seen in the series so far; maybe their power comes from not having to block off a part of themselves, like all the Jedi and Sith have had to do in the past. The stories have frequently talked about “balance in the Force;” maybe that balance was always meant to exist within each person.

Remember that C-3P0 and R2-D2 are the constants of the series
One of the best concepts from A New Hope that fell by the wayside as the series went on is the idea of an epic galactic story that’s told from the perspective of two of its “lowliest” characters. They’ve still appeared in all the movies, but they’ve moved from being close to the audience to being secondary or even tertiary characters as the epic galactic story took all the focus.

Based on the trailer, it looks like C-3P0 is going to play some kind of significant role in the new movie. I’m hoping that it goes all the way back to the prequels, and makes use of the shoehorned coincidence that had him built by Darth Vader.

But ever since they introduced BB-8, he’s been the Cousin Oliver of the series, while R2 is treated like Bobby and Cindy Brady. (If Cindy Brady had put herself into a coma waiting for Johnny Bravo to return from his self-imposed exile). I’m hoping that R2 gets brought back into the story, and ideally, that the entire series ends with the two of them just like it started.

Have a bunch of people riding space horses on the outside of a Star Destroyer
Because why not? It’s the last movie, what else are they going to do?