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Stewart Hotston

Hope, Anger and Writing

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Memetic Defences (part 2)

Or how to tell a different story to build the world you want

Important point – if you’re interested in the strategies for making the world a better place, skip down to Article one and read from there.

Part one of this pair of essays was essentially the groundwork – laying out my thinking on memetic defences (and I swear that’s the last time I’ll use that phrase). I wanted to explore some of what we think we mean when we talk about open societies vs. closed and whether open societies are really as weak to malign influences as we can sometimes assume. The short answer is that we’re not and the virulent policing done by closed societies is really just a sign of how weak they are compared to open societies. It’s the difference between consent driven policing and marshal law.

This second part is concerned with taking our thinking forward and asking (and partially answering) one big question – how do we actively defend the features of open societies we are generally fond of? Not least, the openness, the honesty and the reflection I discussed in part 1?

I would like to say it’s all story – and if you know me in meatspace you’ve probably heard me say this a few times. Except I want to step away from that because I no longer believe it’s entirely true.

There are two enemies of the open society – the internal and the external. For example, we can easily identify Russia as an external existential threat to the European/Anglo-Saxon project of open societies. They have been busy poisoning and murdering their enemies in our territories and funding misinformation, lies and political operators driven only by their own benefit. And it works because the internal enemies of the open society are those who i) wish to make themselves invulnerable to the accountability built into open societies while ii) reaping their benefits. We can and should also identify other specific external national voices as opponents (rather than enemies) of the open society and they are inter alia China and certain theocracies in the Middle East. China is not an opponent in the same sense as Russia because their opposition comes from their own view of how the world should be constituted – which is deeply nationalistic and centred on the benefits of a close society – which is, by definition, against the promotion of open societies. Could they become antagonistic rather than expansionary? Of course, but we’re little different and hence I don’t see that as the same problem right now as I do the internal enemies of open societies we have here in the UK and the USA.

Our real enemies here are internal. I’d love it to be otherwise but I can’t see anyone really being as threatening to the idea of equality, openness, honesty and reflection as those who oppose from within the remit of the societies we live within.

What is my reasoning for this? We start with a government who is aping the populist, truth independent and deeply corrupt practices of self enrichment at the cost of all else we have seen promoted by the republican administration in the US. The Goodlaw Project’s identification of the misuse of public funds during COVID has been exhaustive and thorough and has revealed with startling clarity that a certain class of already very rich white publicly educated upper class English people has simply used a national crisis as an opportunity to make out like bandits and rob their constituents without even bothering to deny their actions. Furthermore we have literally seen (with the Priti Patel and Dominic Cummings fiascos) bald statements from senior government officials that the law only applies to others and exceptions should be made for them. This isn’t just an attack on truth, openness and reflection by stymieing its operation, it is a stab to its heart by simply ignoring it as something important.

Now, the point of this post was to talk about ways forward, not to lay out the crimes of dipshits who care nothing for their constituents but only for the people they serve.

So what do we do about this?

Well, it does start with story but it doesn’t end there. Everything is about the stories we tell ourselves. The stories we tell one another. A fantastic example is from Mark Carney’s Reith lectures this year where he reiterates research done by Michael Sandel and others around the effectiveness of penalties on bad behaviour. What they showed was what penalties act for some, particularly those with resources, not as a social stigma but as a form of permission to act badly. The most famous of these studies was one where a nursery found parents were coming late to pick up their children. They instituted a fine system but found MORE parents were coming late rather than fewer. It turned out the fines let parents feel ok about coming late because it acted not as a penalty but as a fee. Poor parents were penalised, rich parents felt they were getting an additional service.

It was better when people were told off and asked not to do it, when people were encouraged when they did the right thing and, most importantly, when other parents told latecomers they were in the wrong. I have seen this first hand and it guides certain small activities I always engage in. For instance, I always says thank you to people who are serving me in a shop. I always ask how they are and I have taken every opportunity to intervene when I see them being mistreated.

I always say thank you to people who stop for me as a pedestrian at a pelican crossing because I have seen enough instances of people not stopping to mean I want those who do stop to know it’s a good thing they’ve done (even if they’re just obeying the law).

I try, in my normal life, to normalise praise and encouragement for people who do what they should do (even if doing it is mandatory). Why? Because I want them to have the story that doing the right thing is praiseworthy.

Article one: we do not praise people enough. And we certainly don’t praise people enough for doing what they should be doing anyway. I have little evidence to say it works except, for instance, this: I run a lot. I say hello to everyone I meet. And now, people I pass on my regular runs say hello to me first. It’s a change of atmosphere. It is the same with walking the dog – my wife always says hello and we have discovered some lonely people who now stop to talk to us every time. This is simple community building but it’s much deeper than that. So. Normalise praising one another and praise one another for doing the right thing. If they say ‘I’m only doing what I should,’ then amazing, social norm achieved!

Article two: give air time to those who tell stories of the world the way you want it to be. Tell those stories yourself. Retell them to others. We give too much airtime to people who upset us – be they politicians, racists, TERFs or others. STOP IT. We should be aware of them but we should NOT be giving them airtime. We should, instead, be telling the stories of the good we see in the world, of the wonderful things we’ve seen happen and how we came across them. The more we nurture these good things the more they will grow and fill the airwaves. Sometimes, sure, we have to directly oppose those who would do us harm and I’m all for that, but that’s an endgame. For as much as possible we should be telling stories of blessing and encouragement to those around us. Ok, so here’s two examples. I’m a MASSIVE fan of both the new series of She Ra and of Star Trek Discovery. I’m a fan both because they’re brilliant pieces of fiction but also because they tell stories about a world which exemplifies the kind of values I want to see normalised where I live. It’s also an important strategy for ensuring the Overton window moves in the direction we want it to. Every time we highlight something bad rather than tell the story of something good we are actually doing the work of those who hate for them because exposure normalises.

Article three: there is no ‘winning’, there is only constant recreation of the culture we want to live in. Too often I grow tired of seeing ‘nothing change’ but the truth of the matter is, if I stop talking about the world I want to see, stop talking about the way I want it to be and stop acting to make it so, then it will change and not for the better because others are every bit as invested as I am in remaking the world in a way that suits them. The problem is they’re White supremacists, Indian Nationalists, German Fascists, TERFS, whatever. And this really comes to a deeper point – we need to normalise being politically active. I don’t just mean being a member of a political party – I mean being active in your community, being active in making your voice heard – whether that’s writing to your MP, joining committees at work, creating silly things like running clubs of movie nights or whatever it might be. We have seen in the post war dividend and the rise of corporate globalisation the downside that we’ve been alienated from our political lives. We have them but it works best for certain powerful vested interested if you and I don’t actually act as political beings – because it then leaves others unopposed. These days we tend to regard being political as a thing which we add on to who we are. Instead we should normalise the fact that all humans, all stories, all activity, is political in nature and act accordingly. It might seem tiring but it’s really only tiring when we try to add it on rather than letting it be part of who we are. If you have children and want them to have the best world possible? Then you need to be political and you need to help them understand that homo sapiens is a political animal, not a happiness seeking one.

Finally – Article four: Protect the stories you want to see triumph. Too often in my life I’ve seen ‘allies’ expect me to do the work, to fight the fight and allow them the space to say they’re on my side. That’s not enough. Not for me and certainly not to build a society which is open. Allies need to see themselves as more than people who are alongside those under fire. The apostle Paul writes something along the lines of ‘if you succeed I celebrate with you but if you fall I suffer with you.’ Excuse my paraphrasing for my own benefit. The point is this: we are all potentially allies to someone in need of our support and we need to normalise acting as if it was us being attacked directly. I’ve often seen the counter attack ‘I don’t see any X people saying this is a problem’ by racists, sexists, whatever. This is because they’re probably too tired, depressed or frightened to speak up. The fact Allies are fighting for them is exactly what these scum bags are afraid of. We need to normalise stepping in. We need to normalise making it a social problem when racists and sexists et al express their horrendous opinions. We should have zero tolerance. We are the good samaritan. I sometimes think people get tired of it but I’ve found a way to bypass that issue. When I see these events occur? I have nurtured a sense of ‘this is my space you’ve come to shit all over and I won’t have it.’ Righteous anger is a good thing where it’s put in the service of other people’s dignity.

I hope these ideas are of some use to you. I hope you see there is always hope even when our own governments are trying to strategise against us. Thank you for reading this and see you all soon.

Following this I think there’ll be a final essay on how we engage with those who differ from us – not on social media because there’s absolutely not point with the way it’s structured and with the incentives it provides – but in the flesh. Additionally, there’s no getting away from the fact that social inequality breeds social division and unravels social cohesion. There’s definitely more to say on this too because no matter how good a story is, if it’s moving in the opposite direction to people’s experience it runs the danger of losing its power to change the world.

The Sinking of Skywalker

This post contains ALL THE SPOILERS

DO NOT READ UNLESS YOU’VE SEEN THE FILM

So. I’ve seen it. I preface the below with the following disclaimer: it is just a film. It is entertainment and there are far more serious issues in the world, and in my country, right now.

However…it is also a presentation of how our culture sees itself. There’s reams of academic literature exploring how presentation of popular culture shows a mirror on the concerns and occupations of the people participating. And, in case the reaction to The Last Jedi hadn’t made you aware, Star Wars has become a battle ground between a certain class of those who think the world should serve them, reflect their preconceptions and prejudices and exclude those not like them and those who think, basically, the opposite.

I’m in the latter camp – I’m looking for representation. I’m looking for challenge, for change and for more than nostalgia for a type of society that has NEVER existed except in the myths told by the powerful to justify their actions.

Ok. If you’ve made it this far I’m ready to actually start. I’m going to list a few things I like about the film and then I’m going to really let go.

First. I like Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley. They are both fantastic in all three films. The commit to the material and both of them manage to deliver nuanced and emotional content. I could especially watch Driver all day long.

I also think John Boyega is great.

I think Chewie’s response to Leia’s death is the only really genuine emotional point in the film. Nothing else comes close.

And as ever, Hamill comes to the screen with an ironic but authentic presence. I feel like we truly missed a great actor of his generation. It helps that he appears to be a genuinely cracking human being as well.

The problems, for me, start with the opening crawl. The film simply announces the Emperor is back. No explanation. No sense of why or how anyone could have not foreseen this. No sense of being able to trace his signal back. Instead we have a preamble focussing on Kylo Ren rather than the heroes (and that’s a foreshadowing if ever there was one) who basically montages his way to secret hideout and then discovers all the secrets. I mean…really? And those secrets completely change everything he previously thought…well those convictions were easy to dismiss.

Then we have a completely pointless ‘spy’ narrative. It appears only to serve to establish there’s no time to save the galaxy from this unspecified threat (which by the way the spy can’t know about yet, since Ren himself also doesn’t know the details at this point). But hey, who needs continuity???

And here we see hyperspace travel, which has been clearly held up as taking hours, days or weeks across the entire canon now being completely discarded. (let’s not even talk about tie fighters which can hyperspace despite NEVER having been able to do this before).

By this point and I’ve already got questions…who saved Palpatine and took him half way across the galaxy to a safe space where snowflakes couldn’t get at him? Who fed him, watered him and doused him with anti-cancer drugs after they found him in a nuclear fusion reactor…?

How did his face not get BURNT OFF by the heat of an exploding nuclear reaction??? How did he create Snoke? We never find out. How did he become EVERY VOICE YOU’VE EVER HEARD?

I mean. Well I got nothing here. Because just then a thousand star destroyers rise up out of the mud…just like that. Who’s crewing them? Who’s feeding that crew? Who’s doing all of this???

It turns out Hux is the spy…the basic ruler of the first order. The chap who masterminded StarKiller base. Selling HIMSELF out. Why? Because like a five year old who’s had his candy taken away ‘I want the other kid to lose’. How this guy ever charmed his way to ruling a galaxy spanning super advanced nation of neo-nazis is anyone’s guess at this point. But it’s ok, because he has an ornate wooden walking stick in his quarters for the very day he gets shot in the leg…thank goodness. He obviously was a great Cub Scout.

So the resistance still has an unspecified number of ships (as does Ren, even after their disastrous losses in TLJ). So they just fly about wherever and whenever. The resistance generals leave the resistance behind instead of leading them and head off from one frolick to another without any clue what they’re doing excepting chasing down one macguffin after another. And it doesn’t matter when they get destroyed because it turns out there’s always another one. Oh, and I love that the Sith Wayfinder can be crushed by a human hand but can survive an inferno which melts a Tie Fighter…which was just so handily parked exactly where a random and ranging melee brawl happens to finish…

Ren gets his gang of Incels together and with a chimpanzee they spend an unnecessarily long time reforging his helmet. Indeed the chimpanzee probably has a more meaningful role than Rose, Finn’s love interest from TLJ and the moral heart of that film. But of course, certain white men hated her so she got sidelined and her emotional connection to the film severed. These Knights of Ren aren’t Sith, they aren’t jedi gone bad and don’t have anything to recommend them except old fashioned medieval melee weapons…which you can tell isn’t going to end well for them. And hey, it doesn’t, but who cares because by the end of the film they’ve done precisely NOTHING. Even Rey has to fight people with lasers…these guys have sharps…which are nasty except when pitted against LASERS! A pathetic waste.

So Rey’s been trained. Except she hasn’t passed some test we’re not really sure about because it’s not made clear. She’s almost all powerful and can teleport items across the entire galaxy. And she has powers other jedi considered rare (or were previously completely unseen). Now, I don’t object to this except they’re not consistent and only appear to get her out of being stuck. Like force memories (from Fallen Order). No prior use but all of a sudden she’s all about them.

And apparently her parents were important. Now this is where I really lose my shit. One of the things I loved about the Last Jedi was its message we are all capable of changing the world. That there is no divine right of kings, no special people who are special because of their blood, or their wealth or their parents. Instead we’re brought right back to, oh yes, the concept of there’s a specially powerful aristocracy and the rest of us should just shut up and listen and do what they say. And the entire argument between Sith and Jedi becomes an argument between two sides of the same group -those who are divinely chosen. It’s profoundly anti-democratic and deeply depressing that this is the message we’re choosing to privilege. It also suggest the nastiness of caste systems and is an argument that’s been used to justify slavery, racism, sexism and on and on across human history. You’d think we’d be able to jettison it – especially when TLJ did exactly that.

By the way…who’s flying the star destroyers? (I know, I’ve already asked but really, have you got an answer?)

Then there’s the fleet that arrives out of nowhere. It looks spectacular but…we’re told explicitly the hyperspace lanes are blocked…we’re also told no one came before. This is an important point. Except one ship disappears off and brings the entirety of the galaxy’s civilian population to fight the fascists (which is great btw!). How did they unblock the spacelanes? How did they convince people who, previously, had stayed the hell away? There’s no more hope now than earlier…so what changed their mind? Why weren’t the heroes doing this bit? Scouts could have been sent to…you know…SCOUT. The heroes and leaders could have been…oh, I don’t know…leading?

I feel sorry for Oscar Isaac. Poe is charming and dashing but clearly emotionally stunted because he learned this great lesson in TLJ and the immediately forgets it all over again and gets most of his mates killed doing exactly what he learned not to do the movie before.

By the way…when you need to insert into the script lines like ‘but that’s impossible’ not once but like three times? You’ve jumped the freaking shark, come back and given it a hotdog for being a good boy and then jumped it again and you’re so embarrassed by this you even confess it to the audience.

C3PO – I mean you sacrificed everything for this plot only to be brought back from the ‘dead’ just like that. Chewie…we thought you too were sacrificed to show Rey’s power and the conflict in her…only for you too to be still alive.

And Harrison Ford…I mean…were you a force ghost? An ordinary ghost? A memory? A hallucination? I mean…what? Was Ren actually mentally ill and the film simply crassly uses that to change Ren’s thinking?

Ren…you wanted to kill the old…and then you didn’t. For no reason except you discovered Rey was a Palpatine…which makes no sense. Much like the rest of the film, but hey. I like your character. I like your neo nazist portrayal, I like how it meant you could have been a proper bad guy. I hate how they made you back into a child doing someone else’s bidding. Oh, you have a plan? No you don’t because the PLOT says otherwise. What you have is a suddenly sexual crush on Rey who sees you like the boy next door and if only you become that boy next door you can be the good guy. After killing millions there’ll be no consequences for you and you’ll get the girl. Good old white boys will be boys after all.

And Poor Finn. You loved Rose. Or at least she loved you. But there’s no room for her anymore and even if you also love Poe, we can’t let that happen between two main characters can we??? Oh no, keep the gay stuff for two minor unnamed characters who get to kiss at the end. Argh! So Finn has no story. No arc. No meaning. Except hey, what’s this? Other POC who were stormtroopers too..probably slaves? yes, let’s not use that word but let’s heavily imply it. Then let’s only have relationships between people of the same colour – because white men complained about mixing of races on twitter. And let’s make this a slave rebellion on horses! Woo! Oh…wait. No. let’s not do that.

And, you know, after telling the audience for 8 films and an entire canon that it takes huge effort and a moon-sized base to create a planet destroying laser…let’s just tack one onto every spaceship the bad guys own…no need to supply chains, no need for ANY resources because we have the emperor in our back pocket and he can shoot lightening into space and only hit his enemies! In fact, who needs spaceships at all…apparently he doesn’t (he even says this) which dies beg the question…why have them at all you numbnutz?

And oh dear me…she did have important parents? And she’s not angry at them? And Palpatine didn’t have control over them? The emperor who says, at every fricking opportunity, this is just as I planned? Pretty poor planning/management skills there old Palps. You might need to watch a couple of TED talks mate, get a grip on family planning and strategic thinking.

It also entirely undermines Rey’s emotional journey – she’s no longer struggling with moral choices – she’s simply obeying her blood…more divine right moral absolution. It wasn’t me and even if it was, God said I could do it and who are you to question me?

I actually like the swapping of lightsabers. I liked the confrontation between Rey and Palpatine. I liked Chewie. I liked a whole bunch of moments in this mess. And it looked beautiful (although TFA and TLJ had more standout compositions) and the soundscape was great.

The film offers no reasons for many of the characters’ choices. No reason for Ren to change his mind, no reason for Lando to actually help, no reason for why Luke comes along and says ‘hey, all the stuff I learned in the last movie, when Yoda finished my training…it was all ponk. I was just wrong. Ignore me!’ No reason for Finn and Rose to not be together, no reason for why Poe was a spice smuggler or why he left, no reason offered for why Luke was looking for the Sith homeworld, no reason for why the rest of the galaxy decided now was the time to pitch up and help (when the enemy fleet is a hundred times bigger than the last time), no reason for Dominic Monaghan, no reason for why R2-D2 is almost entirely absent from the film.

BB8 is irrelevant and his hairdryer friend operates purely as a plot delivery mechanism.

I’d love to say this is lazy writing and some of it surely is. But I think it’s worse than that. I think it’s design by twitter and reddit. I think it’s design by reference to what the alt-right want in their films. Less non-whites, less mixed relationships, more white guys being the saviour, more white guys full stop. More mavericks, less cooperation and less community making the difference. I mean, it’s hard not to read into the people turning up to destroy the fleet as being anything other than a militia…so we have a defence of the 2nd amendment right there (another preoccupation of the alt-right checked off).

I apologise this is garbled. so a summary to finish.

  1. This film destroys all the good work of TLJ in taking Star Wars in new directions
  2. Even if you hate TLJ, it also completely ignores the universe set up over the last 40 years
  3. It has no character development worth a damn since there are no sacrifices by any major characters. Even Ren is redeemed and gets off without having to face the consequences of his actions.
  4. Who’s flying the frickin star destroyers???
  5. It makes the universe others have spent so long making feel real feel like a toybox with a kid simply saying ‘and then this happens and then this happens’. A crushing of the narrative rules.
  6. Characters are safe from harm because of plot armour. They’re also safe from thinking because of plot requirements.
  7. Worst of all, the above combines to make a chronically dull film which, although it’s clear it doesn’t like fascism, accommodates it in Kylo Ren and has no answers to the questions posed by evil. To be honest, it’s not even clear why Rey dies after her confrontation with Palpatine except it’s narratively expedient.

In the end it’s just a film. But my kids watch it and see the kind of world they think might be possible politically through stuff like this. To me its messages are retrograde and need to be rejected and to make it worse? It’s boring and meaningless with no consequences. It might be nostalgic crack for a certain demographic but the rest of us are left looking at it and shaking our heads as we move off to find content which actually interests and represents us

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