The wisdom of Isaac Asimov

Something different this morning.  Offered without comment for your appreciation and reflection, the ageless wisdom of Isaac Asimov.  Hat tip to my friend Tadd.

“When I read about the way in which library funds are being cut and cut, I can only think that American society has found one more way to destroy itself.”

“To surrender to ignorance and call it God has always been premature, and it remains premature today.”

“Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

And he was a Star Trek fan too.

Give me Maher!

With the recent political swing to the right in Toronto, first with Rob Ford, then with the Conservative GTA wins in the federal election, you’d think there wouldn’t be much of an appetite for Bill Maher’s brand of comedy in Hogtown.  But a packed Massey Hall couldn’t get enough of him last Saturday night.  For 90 minutes the master of taking the piss out of the American right-wing was slicing and dicing the likes of Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin and Rick Santorum, to a crowd that thankfully doesn’t have to face the prospect of a ballot with any of those names on it, but was still informed enough to understand just how deserving of mockery those targets are.  (Curious how Rick Mercer might have done with a set on Stephen Harper and Rob Ford in Texas – I’m guessing crickets, and that’s nothing against Mercer.)  To any regular viewer of HBO’s Real Time, some of the wisecracks were familiar.  But Maher delivers them with such verve you can laugh at them again and feel like it’s the first time.  It’s all still hilarious, and ever so true.

Those of a certain political inclination inclined to dismiss Bill Maher as a “loony leftie” miss the point.  His politics, and by extension his comedy, isn’t about left and right, it’s about intelligent and stupid.  Maher is, like Aaron Sorkin in many ways, if not an idealist, then at least someone who prefers to be led by smart and curious people and has no patience for the kind of false populism that celebrates the mediocre and the small-minded.  Religion is a particular bugbear for him – among the best jokes of the night was a bit about how the West has learned to ignore its religious leaders (in contrast to fundamentalist regimes abroad) and a prediction that the Pope will one day be nothing more than a  float robotically blessing the onlookers in the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade.  For Maher, looking to the imaginary guy in the sky for answers is the refuge of the foolish, and he saves his most bitter disdain for scheming politicians like Rick Perry who prey on that naivete to win votes.  I don’t suspect Bill Maher would have as much of a problem with the likes of Perry and Bachmann if they didn’t parade their faith around like a political prop.  It’s when faith is used in lieu of reasoned arguments that gets Maher’s hackles up.  These aren’t the William F. Buckleys of decades past laying out their case in thought-out paragraphs spiced with Latin.  Today it’s Southern-accented fire and brimstone and the all-consuming, earth-ending threat of gay marriage.

The conservative comedian Dennis Miller, for all his verbal calisthenics and classical references, these days comes off only as sad and angry – not in the rebellious sense, but more in the mold of that kid at the party who was only invited because his mom pulled some strings.  Miller’s repertoire has become a tired litany of ramblings about Joe Biden’s hair and Nancy Pelosi’s makeup – he’s mainly upset because his team didn’t win.  Bill Maher, on the other hand, remains fresh and inspired because he doesn’t really care which team wins – he just wants both teams to be better.  His targets are anyone he sees to be dragging the whole cause down:  a refrain repeated often during the show, with a hand covering his face was “I’m embarrassed for my country.”  He isn’t afraid to take shots at President Obama either, bemoaning what he sees as a pattern of capitulation to the Tea Party extremists in Congress who are determined to see him fail.  But what bothers Maher most is what he sees as America’s hypocrisy-fueled descent into idiocracy; an electorate swayed by celebrity into voting against their own interests time and again, and a political movement that claims to be for the common man but is in fact backed by billionaires and underpinned with a very real, very ugly swath of racism.  The fact that he’s out there making jokes about it, even to a foreign audience, suggests that he thinks there is still hope – if the good people can find their feet and their guts and start taking the power back.

You might miss that message amidst all the laughs, and the occasional side ventures into the never-ending mine of the perplexity that is male-female relations.  But Bill Maher knows that the best way to serve up wisdom is with a smile.  You come out of his show with your sides hurting and your mind thinking.  Maybe the way we beat these guys is to make them ridiculous.  It’s certainly a lot more fun than hate.

Ontario Election 2011: Lies, damn lies and statistics

As printed on the Speak Your Mind section of the Toronto Star’s website this morning and reprinted by their kind permission.

The redoubtable Homer Simpson put it best: “You can use statistics to prove anything.  Fourfty percent of all people know that.”

Three weeks into the provincial election and it’s all about the polls. Tim Hudak was up, then it was Dalton McGuinty, then Hudak again, now more or less a statistical tie with Andrea Horwath and the NDP biting at both parties’ heels. Pollsters are even attacking each other over accusations of fudging results to fit editorial opinion. Because there doesn’t seem to be much of a story otherwise.

The degree to which polls have come to drive our national narrative is disappointing but not surprising. Governing is not sexy, so instead the media prints the tale of the tape – columnists fill their required inches analyzing and debating how each mistimed message or on-camera gaffe might shave a few tenths of a percentage point off the support of a random sample of less than a thousand people, plus or minus three or four nineteen times out of twenty. Levels of relative political strength are gauged like box scores and each small aberration is a front page headline. When we start talking about our government in sports metaphors, when it’s no longer about who we are as Canadians or where we’re going as a country, it becomes all about our guys beating your guys. No one is emotionally invested in anything beyond the win. Small wonder then when, consequently, political discourse devolves into hooliganism and necktie-wearing adversaries trash-talking each other like louts in nacho cheese-stained jerseys soaked on their fifth Labatt’s Blue late in the third period. Even the Prime Minister talks about achieving a Conservative “hat trick” if Tim Hudak becomes Premier.

Except in the case of this election, it’s not even like watching the Leafs battle the Canadiens. It’s more like a cricket test match between Argentina and Cameroon.

Drive down New Street in Burlington and you’d barely know an election was happening. A handful of signs each for Karmel Sakran and Jane McKenna, on the lawns of the same diehards who brandish them in every election. Maybe one or two signs for Peggy Russell, but they’re as elusive as four-leaf clovers. “Conservative Corner,” otherwise known as Appleby & Fairview, is lined with blue McKenna placards, just as it was for Conservative MP Mike Wallace in the federal contest back in May. But that’s about it.

We’ve become disengaged because we’ve lost touch with what government is supposed to be – a group of committed citizens working to better the lives of their fellows who have entrusted them with the mantle of leadership. We’ve come to think of government in terms only of the race, of the never-ending popularity contest where every minor shift in the prevailing winds moves forests worth of newsprint. Government has been reduced to a matter of numbers; our “leaders,” glorified bean-counters who usually can’t even count. Who governs us is apparently as of little consequence to the grand scheme as last week’s Jays game. If Tim Hudak becomes Premier it won’t be because he has articulated a compelling vision for the future of Ontario, it will simply be because more of his fans made it to the ballot box on October 6th than did Dalton McGuinty’s.

After your team loses, you curse the ref, shrug your shoulders, sleep off the Blue and forget about it within a few hours. Your government will be with you for the next four years, making crucial decisions that will impact your life beyond that four-year mandate. We owe it to ourselves to ensure that government is more than just a series of tax reforms and malaise about how we can’t really do anything because we won’t even try.

And 100% of the people should know that.

Ontario Election 2011: The dance of the angry grandpa

As published this morning on the Speak Your Mind section of the Toronto Star website and reprinted by their kind permission.

There’s an old saying that a week is a lifetime in politics.  Seven days in a campaign can change everything.

At the start of this campaign a week ago, fortune was smiling on Tim Hudak and the Conservatives.  Rob Ford was in charge in Toronto; Stephen Harper had his majority in Ottawa.  Bad press, an unpopular tax and general voter ennui were threatening to end Dalton McGuinty’s tenure as Premier of Ontario and propel the recession-weary province into the willing arms of a receptive Team Blue.  All Hudak had to do was keep his head down, carry out a tight campaign and stroll into his accolades.

But then a week went by.

To be fair, there have been cracks in the Hudak machine for some time now.  The extreme right flank of his party, emboldened by the blue tide washing over the GTA in recent elections, have begun airing, quite boldly, some of their less palatable points of view.  Old standard-bearers like longtime MPP Norm Sterling have been brushed aside for being not conservative enough.  It’s been too much for the Red Tory faction of the provincial party, with former leaders Ernie Eves and John Tory slamming the shenanigans publicly and loudly.  This week, Hudak himself walked into a big brick wall by denouncing the Liberals’ plan to offer tax credits for businesses who hire skilled new Canadians as a scheme to give jobs to “foreign workers.”  Wouldn’t you know it, little old Burlington got our name into the game when PC candidate Jane McKenna uttered this gem while trying to articulate her opposition as well:  “When did we become for immigrants?”

That sound you heard was a lot of jaws crashing to the floor.

I’ll give McKenna the benefit of the doubt here and assume that this was just a case of an inexperienced campaigner going up on her talking points.  She has since issued an apology, emphasizing that her statement did not reflect the official position of her party.  But it’s certainly not the kind of momentum Hudak needs at this point.

Campaigns are won and lost based on narratives.  After the first week, the narrative for the Ontario Progressive Conservatives is coalescing into that of the angry grandpa yelling at the kids to get off his lawn.  Which is great if you want to sew up the angry grandpa vote, and there are certainly a lot of those – but not enough to win government, particularly if you end up unwittingly motivating the “gentle grandma” vote to come out in droves instead.  Additionally, the Tories’ campaign plan to emphasize Dalton McGuinty’s record on taxes – usually a winning issue for any conservative campaign – has hit a bump in the shape of Randy Hillier’s outstanding debt to the Canada Revenue Agency.  While this will probably endear Hillier further to his supporters, it doesn’t help sway moderate voters who do pay their taxes on time and don’t enjoy the idea of a tax dodger winding up as Minister of Finance.

For McGuinty’s part, he must certainly be happy with the Harris-Decima poll published mid-week that had the Liberals at 41% support and comfortably in the lead over the Tories for the first time in many months.  While it was only one poll, and should be viewed critically given the small sample of only 650 voters, it was good for a few days of positive coverage.  McGuinty’s visit to Burlington this past Thursday afternoon to support Karmel Sakran, so early in the campaign, suggests that he believes this riding is poachable.  After this past week, it does feel like the momentum is back on the Liberal side.

But let’s talk again in seven days and see where we’re at then.  Because a week can be a lifetime in… well, you know the drill.

Ontario Election 2011: In service of our better angels

This post appeared on the Speak Your Mind site of the Toronto Star (http://speakyourmind.thestar.com) yesterday.  Reprinted here by their kind permission since, technically, they own it.

Democracy is a pain.

Let’s begin by being honest with ourselves. To our detriment, Canadians look forward to elections with the same enthusiasm as they do a visit to the proctologist. They’d rather listen to Snooki whine about The Situation than suffer through another campaign commercial. And the people of Ontario are headed to the ballot box for the third time in less than a year.

But as any decent proctologist would insist, regular checkups are good for you. That pain is a minor inconvenience in exchange for a healthy government.

As the writ drops, we look to the next several weeks with both hope and cynicism – hope that the campaign will be a shot of democratic adrenaline, with compelling candidates, engaged voters and a substantive debate leading to a bold vision of the magnificent places this province can go with the best people leading it; and cynical expectation that events will devolve into the usual baseless accusations, sound bites repeated mindlessly and a pox on all houses as we shrug, pick the least of the worst and slouch back to our lives.

Burlington is not on anyone’s list of ridings to watch this election. Provincially, it’s been Conservative blue since before many of its eligible voters were born. Yet there are a few hints that it may turn out to be a true battleground this time – a chance to see real democratic engagement, rather than a slow, dispirited march towards an inevitable outcome.

Incumbent Tory MPP Joyce Savoline isn’t running again. For the first time in decades, the three main party candidates vying for the Burlington seat are all newcomers. The Liberals, who have not held this seat since the 1940’s, have nominated lawyer Karmel Sakran to carry their banner. Oddly, the nomination contest for the Conservatives unfolded like a season of Survivor, with one candidate after another dropping out of the race for what could have been, given Burlington voting habits, essentially a guaranteed job as MPP. Local entrepreneur Jane McKenna, the last woman standing, has the advantage of the PC brand but is coming off a fifth-place finish in the 2010 municipal election for the Ward 1 Council seat. NDP candidate Peggy Russell, a former school board trustee, will be looking to harness some Jack Layton magic after her own unsuccessful attempt to capture the Ward 5 Council seat last year.

The last three elections have seen the Conservative candidate come out on top by less than 2,000 votes. Savoline’s 41% of the vote in 2007 was the worst showing by a Tory in Burlington in years, but she still managed to eke out a win – and that was at a time when Premier Dalton McGuinty was far more popular than he is now. McKenna’s poor results in 2010 suggest that her campaigning skills might need some polishing, but there’s a huge difference between running on your own and running as a major-party candidate. Unless Tim Hudak’s campaign implodes it would be fair to say the race is hers to lose. McKenna’s greatest advantage is that sleepy Burlington doesn’t like change, and that its voters seem programmed to back Team Blue. Having said that, Sakran has an impressive CV, and with an inexperienced opponent and barring significant vote-splitting with the NDP, he has the best chance for a Liberal upset in decades.

But ultimately, that is just inside baseball. What will make the difference in this riding and in this election, is leadership – and not of the chest-thumping chickenhawk variety. True leadership is the gravitas of statesmen that comes only with experience, curiosity, humility, and the capacity to embrace and learn from one’s failings. It is the confidence in the nobility and decency of the people, and the genuine desire to do the very best for them. To appeal to their better angels; to unite them in a real society that celebrates our achievements and leaves no one behind. That’s what the people of Ontario should want. No matter who we support, that’s what we should all be voting for.

So let us take our medicine and embrace that cumbersome pain known as democracy. The reward – shaping our future – will far outweigh the cost.

The Winter of Discontent – West Wing Season 5

As I’ve mentioned before, we spent the summer rewatching The West Wing from start to finish.  That marathon ended a few weeks ago and I’ve been neglectful about sharing further thoughts on this epic journey of television drama.  It seems appropriate then to return to the subject on the 45th anniversary of the debut of another classic NBC program some of you may be familiar with – Star Trek.  There is even a touch of synergy to the two in that the only appearance on TWW by a regular member of a Star Trek series cast in fact took place in Season 5.  Think about that for a moment (no running to Wikipedia to check) and I’ll reveal it at the end.

John Wells is no slouch, but even he had to be scratching his head as to how to resolve the conundrum Aaron Sorkin left him in the fourth-season finale, Twenty-Five.  Zoey Bartlet was a hostage to terrorists, President Bartlet had stepped aside and conservative Republican Speaker Glen Allen Walken was now Acting President.  I can picture Wells nursing a scotch, staring at a blank screen with a cursor blinking and hurling a stream of profanity at it.  Equally disorienting is the experience of watching the fifth-season premiere, 7A WF 83429.  The teaser begins with whip-pans, quick cuts, distorted sounds and images (such visual trickery becoming the trademark of director Alex Graves) and the audience desperate for a glimpse of the friends they’ve missed since the end of season 4.  When you do see them finally, they are disheveled, in darkness, as lost as we are without the familiarity of Aaron Sorkin’s keyboard behind the scenes.  Wells did the best he could, and the episode does have some beautiful moments – the ending montage set to Lisa Gerrard’s “Sanvean” in particular – but things just aren’t right.  I said earlier today that watching the post-Sorkin West Wing is like going back to your favorite restaurant, saying hello to your favorite waitress, settling into your usual table, reaching for the menu and finding out they’ve changed chefs.

It’s tough to say for certain, but Sorkin seemed to take great care in ensuring that characters behaved consistently from one episode to the next.  You get the sense in many of the season 5 stories that characters who would habitually go left were being wrenched right (no political pun intended) to serve the demands of the plot.  Would the Leo McGarry who saved Josh Lyman from being fired in the pilot and told him “as long as I’ve got a job, you’ve got a job” in Season 2’s Noel really strip Josh of his legislative portfolio and cut him out of the loop as he did in the three-episode arc that followed Constituency of One?  Would Leo really be willing to walk from Jed’s side to defend some other guy – supposedly his real best friend, whom we’ve never seen or heard about before – in An Khe?  Would the Bartlet administration, who had shown such hope and confidence in NASA in Galileo really become utterly disdainful of them in The Warfare of Genghis Khan?  And how in the name of all that is holy did Congressman Robert Royce of Pennsylvania from Season 3 suddenly become Senate Majority Leader in Jefferson Lives?  (I blame a casting mishap on that one – I’m guessing that the “Majority Leader” character was written with no one in mind, H. Richard Greene was cast before anyone remembered he’d already played this other role, and the character was then named Royce in a bit of retroactive continuity.)  Still, this lack of internal consistency in Season 5, an unfortunate side effect of a dozen writers working on it instead of only one, only adds to the discomfort we feel in watching it.  These people don’t feel like our friends anymore.  They’ve changed, man.

Ultimately, Season 5 was when The West Wing went from masterpiece to just a pretty good show.  And yet there was one standout gem of an episode that just for its 43 minutes made one hope that the magic could be recaptured.  I’m referring of course, to the fake documentary episode Access.  JUST KIDDING!  Heavens no.  That well-meaning misfire is best left forgotten.  I’m referring to Debora Cahn’s award-winning The Supremes.  The elderly liberal Chief Justice is ailing, a young conservative judge on the Supreme Court has died, and the White House is besieged on all sides as they attempt to choose a replacement who can survive the Senate confirmation process.  In what had to have been one of the most expensive guest casts for a single episode of television in history, Glenn Close, William Fichtner, Mitchell Ryan, Milo O’Shea and Star Trek: Voyager‘s Doctor, Robert Picardo, all lend their dramatic talents to what turns out to be a funny, erudite, wholly implausible but inspiring and thoroughly entertaining romp – ending with a scene of standing ovation that we want to join in with.  While the nitpicker in me bemoans the absence of even a mention of Season 1’s Justice Mendoza (with all those other guest stars they surely couldn’t afford Edward James Olmos as well), the episode is a little helping of vindication for those of us who stayed with The West Wing, lending some hope that all was indeed not lost.  Those beloved characters felt like our friends again.

Ironically, Season 5 would be the last time The West Wing would operate as originally intended.  Season 6, which I’ll get into at another time, saw old friends change jobs, new characters enter the picture and the thrust of the show become not the administration of President Bartlet but the race to replace him – with several episodes in the latter half of the season taking place not anywhere near the White House.  For me, the final word on Season 5 – and there could be more, but I’m trying to keep it under 1000 words – is best paraphrased from Toby’s pronouncement on Bartlet’s new Vice-President, Bob Russell.  It wasn’t the best, it wasn’t the worst, it was just what we were stuck with.

Phase Two

On this, the first day of school, I find myself in reflective mode.  It’s been about a month and a half since I started composing these missives and firing them off into the void of cyberspace as though I were Carl Sagan at Arecibo blasting radio-encoded ones and zeroes at neighboring stars, hoping for a reply.  I daresay my luck has been a little better than Carl’s.  This has been a great experience.  While we’re not changing the world or really doing anything of great cosmic significance, it’s wonderful to see your comments and know that you’re enjoying reading my fractured takes on life – to any writer, that’s the proverbial manna from heaven.

Tomorrow, we’re kicking it up a notch.  I hinted at this a few days ago on Twitter but now the curtain lifts and all shall be revealed.  I’ve been lucky enough to have been chosen by The Toronto Star as one of their “Speak Your Mind” Community Bloggers for the 2011 provincial election.  I’ll be offering commentary specifically on the race to succeed Joyce Savoline as MPP for Burlington.  This is the first race in quite a while where there is no incumbent and while Burlington is traditionally a safe Conservative seat, the local PC riding had some bumps choosing a candidate and as a result, this year all bets are off.  It’s gonna be a lot of fun covering this race and I hope you’ll enjoy reading my updates.  It won’t be all politics all the time of course, I’ll still have lots to say about what’s going on in the rest of the world and plenty of West Wing references for the new readers who found their way here thanks to the awesome Rob Lowe.

In this day and age, writing about politics is difficult without veering over the line into cruel snark.  I have my own beliefs and my own thoughts on the outcome I’d like to see, but I intend to write as fairly and as balanced as I can (unlike a certain U.S. “news” network).  What I want to see is candidates talking up to us, not down; raising the debate, not driving it into the sewer with canned sound-bite, sarcastic answers to complex questions.  I want to see this election as a contest of and for smart people.  If I think someone’s crossed the line, if I think they are trying to cruise into office on a tide of smears, no matter which party they’re in, I’m gonna call them on it.  Above all else, I will remain true to the three principles I outlined in my very first post – humanity, heart and hope.  Our politicians are only partly to blame for the state of the public’s apathy towards government today.  As writers who want to get them engaged again, we have to give them a reason to tune in other than scandals and shouting.  That’s my plan and I’m looking forward to the challenge.  Hope you are too.

Allons-y!

Running, the cruelest of mistresses

What ever should one do when one is awoken by a persnickety feline at quarter after six on a Sunday morning and the wife remains sound asleep?  If one has consumed a bountiful meal of cheese, bread, pasta, chocolate, beer, wine and cake the previous evening, why, the obvious solution is to go for a run.  Sounds a delightful idea, doesn’t it?  To be out in the freshness of a quiet morning, with nothing but nature to accompany you – saturating your lungs with clean, cool air, making your heart race as you pound one sneakered foot in front of the other, feeling the burn in your leg muscles and filling your mind with thoughts of health and renewed energy and vitality.  A veritable paradise.

Except that I hate running.  Hate it hate it hate it.  Loathe it beyond all rational means.  Hold contempt for it equal to that of say, brussel sprouts, Kate Hudson movies and Republicans (okay, maybe that’s too much hyperbole.)  And for some reason I keep doing it.  You read about people who are morbidly obese, recovering drug addicts, cancer survivors or what have you who experience almost religious epiphanies when they first strap on a pair of Nikes and preach at length about the joy of running and how it’s changed their lives.  I’ve been running irregularly for about four years now and I’m still waiting for that lightbulb.  I think about that when I’m panting along, the sweat is pouring off my brow like Niagara-freaking-Falls and my legs are ten seconds from collapsing into piles of jelly.  When am I going to have that moment?  When am I going to start to actually like this?

I don’t think it’s a question of would I like it if it were easier.  Writing can be excruciatingly painful and we’re still going steady after 30 years.  But my ongoing courtship with running feels a bit like picking up a gorgeous woman who is the picture of physical perfection and finding out after dating her for a little while that though the sex might be great, you have absolutely nothing to talk about.  Maybe for some people that’s enough.  I want more.  I want to fall in love with running.  I want to smother it with affection and feel the exhilaration of its caresses as we tear up the road together.  I would love to look back on my life from years ahead and know that I was able to run at least one marathon, once – if nothing else, getting in shape enough to successfully complete a marathon will probably mean looking back on it from the age of 95 rather than 65.  Selfish reason?  Perhaps, but I don’t think I know of anyone who runs for the altruistic aspect of it.

I was in a public relations class once and the ice-breaker exercise on the first day involved figuring out what comic character best represented us.  I was completely stuck for an answer on that one.  When I mentioned it to my wife later that day, she immediately had an answer – Garfield.  Which I suppose is pretty accurate.  I do love sleeping and lasagna and have been known to cough up the occasional furball.  I certainly couldn’t have said The Flash.  But I keep hoping that this is going to be the day.  As I don the dry-fit shirt and the shorts and lace up the cross-trainers, I say this is it.  This will be the day that I’m going to be bounding along with a spring in my step and a song in my heart and everything is going to click.  At that moment I will truly become a runner, and my path will lead me to heretofore unimagined heights of fitness, stamina and confidence.  I’ll be one of those guys with those inspirational stories of salvation through exercise.

But then the alarm goes off, and I snuggle into my comfy pillow and mutter to myself, “I hate Mondays.”

So be it… Jedi.

Although giddy for the release of brand new, high-definition Blu-Ray versions of their favourite films, Star Wars fans were mostly horrified this week to learn that the Jedi Master of the saga of a galaxy far, far away, the relentless tinkerer George Lucas, had ordered some additional digital changes to his babies – the most egregious of which was the dubbing of additional dialogue for Darth Vader during the climactic sequence in Return of the Jedi where he sacrifices himself to save his son.  Where Darth had originally done the deed in silence, he now screams “No.  Nooooo!!!!” as he picks up the evil Emperor and hurls him to his doom.  No less a luminary than actor (and Star Trek star) Simon Pegg took to Twitter to denounce this latest re-edit, and the Internet nearly melted down from the resulting collective fanboy freak-out.  For Wars-ies still miffed by Greedo firing first in the 1997 Special Edition re-cut of A New Hope and the overall existence of Jar Jar Binks, it was one CGI tweak over the line.  With the backlash to the Special Edition changes and the general disappointment in the prequel trilogy still fresh in his mind, it’s a little puzzling why George Lucas would want to go back to that same poisoned well.  Surely the thought of being digitally burned in effigy across millions of chat boards can’t be a comforting thought to anyone, no matter how many billions of dollars they sleep on at night.  But it’s difficult for fans or anyone who’s even aware of the Star Wars phenomenon to remember that Lucas sees Star Wars uniquely and in a different way than anyone else.

Star Wars was made in an era before home video, when special effects could be just okay since they were only designed to be seen once quickly in the theatre, rather than pored over, rewound and scrutinized again on an endless loop – when the audience was meant to be so engrossed in the story they didn’t have time to notice the strings on the spaceship.  We know it as we first saw it, and to us, it was and always has been perfect.  When Lucas looks at it, he remembers only the pain of making it:  the threats from nervous studio executives, the embarrassment of the actors not understanding his dialogue, the frustration of the camera crew and their British union rules, the disappointment of the effects guys wasting money on useless shots, the overall feeling that he was ruining his career.  With that baggage, he hasn’t become emotionally attached to every nuanced moment or every cadence in a bit player’s delivery of their only line of dialogue that has managed to entrench itself in popular culture.  It is his creation, and he sees it with the eye not of a kid playing make-believe lightsaber, but of a craftsman where every compromised choice made under pressure of deadline and lack of resources sticks out like a hangnail on an otherwise relatively satisfactory manicure.  Lucas himself has said that “works of art are never completed, they’re only abandoned.”  It’s the same feeling that for those of us who are aspiring writers leads us to tweak endlessly, thinking that every nip and tuck of text brings us inexorably closer to that critical moment when the manuscript will be “ready” – an undefined day that lingers in an unreachable fog.

In the decades since the first Star Wars, we have entered an era where art has become communal – a shared experience where millions of others can take art, bend it, shape it, smash it to bits and reassemble the pieces, with varying degrees of skill and success.  Aside from the many mainstream Hollywood homages to and ripoffs of Star Wars, there is a Library of Congress’ worth of amateur art and fiction out there that draws inspiration from Lucas’ universe.  Indeed, whatever you are into, chances are someone who didn’t originate it and has no connection with those who did has either written about it, made a video about it, performed a song about it, drawn a picture of it or, eye-rollingly, made porn of it (see “Rule 34 of the Internet”).  We live under the impression that once art has been released, it belongs to everyone.  It is the hope of every artist, no matter how hipster they claim to be, that what they have created will be embraced by a large following.  It truly is a cry into the night hoping for a reply.  The ultimate measure of success then is to affix oneself into the zeitgeist as Lucas has done.  Star Wars has grown beyond him and become a force – pardon the pun – unto itself.  Much as the people of a country react poorly to proposed changes to their centuries-old constitutions, voices rise in anger – mostly in the form of Internet chatter – when George wants to smooth out what he sees as the rough edges in his work.  It doesn’t matter if we think it’s perfect.  He doesn’t, and no amount of anonymous name-calling will change his mind.  As much as we might hate him for “Jedi Rocks” or blinking Ewoks or Hayden Christensen’s ghost, if it were our creation, our universe, we’d reserve the right to do the same and we’d be frustrated by strangers getting sentimental and enraged about what we see as our flaws and personal failings in our work.  Whatever one may think of the methods or the results, George Lucas is always trying to improve his art, and there’s something noble in him not being willing to think something is just good enough.

Having said all that, I liked it better when Vader chucked the Emperor over the edge in absolute silence.  But that’s just me.