THE debate after the San Bernardino, Calif., terrorist attacks couldn’t have done a better job illustrating just how divided the American people actually are.
Many reacted as if having fewer guns was the obvious response of all reasonable people; others genuinely thought this was crazytown, and that the obvious solution is more guns.
This kind of disagreement is now all too familiar in other areas of public debate. Whether the issue is race, abortion, marriage, health care, immigration or gender, the fundamental assumptions we bring to the table are so different that we might as well be speaking different languages.
And, in some sense, we are.
In the world of academic ethics, we spend a lot of time thinking about the implications of the disintegration of not only our political culture, but of any common moral language or ideas we could use to have genuine engagement. More and more ethicists are even challenging the basis of fundamental ideas such as the equal dignity of all humans. Professor Ruth Macklin of the Einstein College of Medicine, for instance, famously argued that “dignity is a useless concept.”
We used to have a common set of theological ideas on which to draw, but our growing commitment to freedom of religion and a secular public sphere has meant such appeals today have little force. Claims that, say, all of us are created equal by God — or that we have a special duty to the stranger and the poor — have no special authority. We used to be able to appeal to the words and ideas of our founding fathers, but in an era of sensitivity to race, gender and colonialism, these are also anything but authoritative.
We seem to be running out of resources here.
But in just a few days, huge swaths of our culture will drop everything and watch “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” Many will do so multiple times. The trailer has more than 70 million hits on YouTube. Ticket presales are ridiculous, and many (including even Steven Spielberg) predict it will be the biggest movie of all time.
One of the main reasons so many think “Star Wars” will break all the records is because it manages to bring together an unbelievable number of people — whatever their race, whatever their gender, whatever their politics and whatever their age. Think about how many sets of grandparents, parents and children, for instance, will find time over the holidays to see this movie together.
George Lucas’ goal in making “Star Wars” was a self-conscious attempt to appeal to primordial stories and images and ideas, and his great triumph was the successful creation of a new kind of mythology. His success is now even more important as one our last remaining resources for meaningful ideas that can transcend our deep divisions.
“Star Wars” fans of all kinds can agree with Yoda that, “Luminous beings are we — not this crude matter!” We can agree with his teaching that power should be used for “knowledge and defense — never for attack.” And we can see that Yoda himself exemplifies his own claim we ought not to judge people by their size.
As a ridiculous fan myself, I join many others in having been taught many other things by “Star Wars.” About the interconnectedness and power of all living things. About the dignity of all people regardless of alien origin. About the capacity of orphaned farm boys to save the universe. About the possibility of redemption for even the most evil of people.
I also learned that Empires are bad.
But “The Force Awakens” has enough pressure on it to both satisfy hard-core “Star Wars” fans and be the biggest movie of all time. Can we really expect it to also be a unifying force in the face of a disintegrating culture?
This may seem like a tall order, but the advantage “Star Wars” has going for it is that it has already managed to pull this off. It has already captured the cultural imaginations of baby boomers, Generation X and millennials. It has already spoken deep truths to liberals, conservatives and everyone in between. It has already formed the moral sense of people of every race, language and way of life.
Given that director J.J. Abrams has committed to the genre, stories and approach of the original three movies, there is reason to be hopeful. Americans might not be able to agree on what Christmas means in our culture, but we can agree on what movie to see during the Christmas season.
Let’s see what we might learn from this common cultural experience. The Force may still be with us.