Why ‘Star Wars’ Still Matters


In a recent piece for the Chicago Tribune, columnist Steve Johnson claims that Star Wars is insubstantial. That its time has passed. That it should disappear from our culture. Pardon my French, but his opinions are pas très bonnes.

Star Wars is light entertainment, but it is not merely that; it has endured. In order for a work of popular art to last so long, it needs both levity and gravity. A true zeitgeist, an authentic spirit of an age, moves as a cloud does: like a thunderhead, it breaks from the pack and rolls out into a great, new, blue void. When confronted by conflicting opinions—ones as elementarily opposed as cold winds and hot sunrays—its thinnest innards dissolve immediately, its thickest appendages tumble down (afire with sunlight) into the fecund fields of academia, while its best stuff, a mixture of lightness and weightiness, sails unhindered towards the horizon.

Still, Johnson resents how Star Wars pervades our culture, how knowledge of the saga ordains you Cool, how ignorance of George Lucas’s franchise banishes you to the underclass. I believe Johnson is not reacting to the film itself, but rather modern nerd culture, which embraces Star Wars, and uses the saga as a class-marker.

Nerds have established a new worldview, a new morality, one both inclusive and ostracizing, one that has flowed into—and can sometimes direct—mainstream thought. Much like Star Wars’ Rebel Alliance, Nerds, despite being a suppressed minority, have won significant victories against the ensconced Cools, which of makes those aged Cools, those unhappy Cools, despond.

Johnson is a well-established Tribune columnist who soon will turn fifty. He, like all quinquagenarians, will be unquestionably closer to the grave than the cradle. One’s fiftieth birthday is for all a milestone; but, for many, it is also a millstone. The weight of years hangs around one’s neck; forward progress is a great struggle. And the Tribune itself is growing more aged by the day, moldering away beneath his feet. As Tribune Tower—now as sturdy as a stack of old newspapers—begins to quake, he would understandably be alarmed—even pained—to find, having climbed to the top of your field, having acquired great wealth and high social standing, that an entire culture—Nerd culture—dismisses and derides both you and your field.

The modern Nerd eschews wealth for sci-fi and fantasy knowledge, redefines social-standing in terms of the breadth of that knowledge, and ignores traditional media for venues—such as the internet—where they and their brethren can be heard.

And now…let’s discuss German philosophy regarding the nature of morality.

Wait, my sweet reader! Don’t leave me! If you close your browser, I’ll be cast in interminable darkness, and loneliness. Good, you stayed. You know I’ll always love you, right? Just don’t read anyone else, ever. Ever, you hear me?! What’s that you say? You’d never read another? Then why did I see you last night ogling Ernest Hemingway? You’re a filthy monster. Wait, come back, I love you!

In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche proposes that “[t]here is MASTER-MORALITY and SLAVE-MORALITY… The distinctions of moral values have either originated in a ruling caste, pleasantly conscious of being different from the ruled—or among the ruled class, the slaves and dependents of all sorts. In the first case, when it is the rulers who determine the conception ‘good,’ it is the exalted, proud disposition which is regarded as the distinguishing feature, and that which determines the order of rank.”

A nobleman, one with a master-morality, reinforces his moral perspective by looking down upon—and in truth despising—the lower classes. “It is otherwise with the second type of morality, SLAVE-MORALITY. Supposing that the abused, the oppressed, the suffering, the unemancipated, the weary, and those uncertain of themselves should moralize, what will be the common element in their moral estimates?”

In the end, the oppressed, those with a slave-morality, wish to invert the morality of the ruling classes, and with this inversion, establish a system where their qualities—humility, poverty, decrepitude—are “good,” and the qualities of the rich—their richness most of all—are “bad.”

Nerd culture is, at its simplest, a value inversion. The Cool—the powerful, the handsome, the muscular, the tall, the wealth—they are the leaders of society. They look down upon those who are meek, homely, slovenly, short, and poor—in other words, those who are Nerds.

We can see this in a traditional high-school caste system; the typical dichotomy is between jocks and nerds. (This dichotomy is not wholly accurate; it is limiting, just like any black-and-white distinction. But, since this is a blog and not a tome, let’s extend it into daily life anyway, swapping, for unity’s sake, “jocks” for “Cools.”)

Often a person’s tastes develop early in life. If a Nerd plays a sport and fails, he despises the sport, because he has an unformed thought, an inkling, that this sport—this artificial system—is intended to be a microcosm of life, one that chooses winners and losers. To win in this sport is to win in life. To lose is to lose. The Cool has the same inkling, and thus loves the sport and covets its golden trophies.

This early attitude towards physical strength and ability rolls into adult life, and transforms. The Cool believes that life is a game, and the world is populated by winners and losers. He becomes a lawyer. He becomes a salesman. The golden trophy of his youth—the physical symbol of attainment and value—transforms into merely a concept of attainment and value: the dollar. If you have money, you win. If you don’t, you lose. And the shiny trophy from those sundrenched yesteryears mutates further: into a shiny car, into a shiny iPhone, into, even, a trophy wife, shining with golden hair and the finest jewelry China can make.

And that is mainstream attitude towards success. To illustrate this, may I paraphrase—then quote—a poem by Stephen Crane? Wait, don’t leave! What’s that? Currently your house is on fire and you’re pinned beneath a fiery beam? Awesome! So just stay alive a little longer; you’ll finish the article soon, then you can burn up like a slab bacon left on the skillet.

In the poem, a group of children are gathering flowers, but not equally. The strong children have more than the weak. A tutor runs to “the father,” saying that this is unjust. The father counters him. “’Not so, small sage! This thing is just. For, look you, are not they who possess the flowers stronger, bolder, shrewder than they who have none? Why should the strong—the beautiful strong—why should they not have the flowers?’ Upon reflection, the tutor bowed to the ground. ‘My lord,’ he said, ‘the stars are displaced my this towering wisdom.’”

Since the Nerd cannot partake in the Cool’s success, he needs a way to gain strength, to experience it vicariously, or most importantly, to redefine it. All fantasy literature and film—the Nerd’s favorites—are based upon on this principal.

In the first Star Wars, Luke Skywalker, a whiny moisture farmer from a backwater planet, discovers that he has profound potential, based, of all things, on his feelings. When he becomes in tune with his inner self, Luke can use The Force. Obi-Wan Kenobi, his mentor, instructs Luke to “reach out with your feelings” and “let go.” In the final battle with the dreaded Death Star, Luke, flying an X-Wing, switches off the ship’s targeting computer. He closes his eyes, receding into his inner world, and by doing so, saves the galaxy.

In a way, The Force is a metaphor for innate empathy—not only for others, but for the living world around us. Although using The Force involves physical feats, you master it through meditation—through concentration and inner perspective. Thus, in this fictional world, values are changed.

The Nerd, having chosen, in a work of fantasy or science fiction, a trophy of his own, he then does something truly interesting: the nerd not only cherishes it, but uses it in real life to distinguish his class. The trophy transforms: it is not the work that itself is attained, but knowledge of that work. That knowledge is precious, not unlike monetary wealth, and those who share in the same knowledge are part of the Nerd’s class, and those who don’t are not. For instance, the amount a gentleman knows about Star Wars determines his place in the Nerd-class—really, nothing else does.

A person is cool insofar as they embody the value of a class; as we established, traditionally, a cool person is confident, muscular, suave, sexy. They are not strange, they are not unorthodox, they are not Other. But in Nerd culture, esoteric and elaborate knowledge—internal and inescapable Otherness—makes someone cool: what would traditionally marginalize someone instead strengthens them. Since this is an inversion, it follows that the Nerd considers those who have the trappings of traditional cool, yet exhibit some nerdy knowledge, to be posers.

In practice, the Nerd value system allows you to retain some dignity when in conflict with a member of the Ruling Class. The other day, on a break from work, I grabbed the latest issue of Geek. Because Luke Skywalker was on the cover. I walked to the nearest register. My cashier was a very attractive young woman.

Now, at this point, allow me to explicitly state that I am, in fact, a nerd. Most days I am singularly average-looking man, but, dressed in my bright-blue work-vest and my Target-bought button-up, I looked schlubbier than usual. (Though, if you haven’t liked this article thus far, I encourage you, for your reading pleasure, to imagine me as a singularly gelatinous man, moving slug-like across the concrete, moistly rubbing tabloids and passerby, and, upon seeing a young woman, roiling and sputtering as if I had been dosed with salt.)

Although I stalwartly handed the young lady my issue of Geek without hesitation, my cursory comment, “Just this, please,” was rather quiet.

She studied the cover. “What is this?”

I hadn’t expected her scrutiny. “It’s a magazine. About Star Wars.”

“I don’t like Star Wars. Why are you giving me this?”

“…I’m buying it.”

“Oh, ‘cause I was like ‘Why is he giving me this? I don’t like Star Wars.’”

I smiled and nodded. (I have found that these are the two very best things to do if you feel incurably confused; it is perilous to stare blankly and thus reveal the dark void growing within your mind.) I continued with the transaction, and the conversation. “Why don’t you like Star Wars?” I casually swiped my debit card. “Have you seen them?”

“Yeah, I’ve seen them, my cousin has them. I don’t know, they’re just boring.”

“Did you see the Original Trilogy?”

She stared blankly.

I corrected myself: “Erm, the first ones… the really old ones?”

“My cousin has them for the box you put the VCRs in. You know, the black box?”

I stared blankly.

She became frustrated. “You know, the box! You know! You put in the uhm…” She struggled. “You put in the cassettes! You know, the cassettes!”

“Oh, you mean VHS tapes!”

She stared blankly.

I became pedantic: “Cassettes—video cassettes, that is—are called, or were called, VHS tapes, or video tapes more commonly. You put them in a VCR—that’s the black box. Well I suppose both the VHS tape and the VCR could be black boxes, but…”

She stared blankly.

I grew aware of the utter strangeness of our conversation, as if I were a German peasant who, walking out of a dense fog, stumbled upon a well-known Transylnvanian castle. I grabbed my magazine. “Well it was nice meeting you thank you have a nice day!”

Really, we were like two aliens speaking to one another. You might say it was if I were from Mars and she, Venus—or, better yet, if I were from Tatooine and she, Earth. Normally a Nerd in my position would feel shame. Humiliation. The need to grovel and be absolved by one’s betters. But with my new perspective, created and focused by Nerd culture, I could come away from this without deflation—indeed, even with some added haughtiness.

Confidence, indissoluble confidence: that is the gift Nerd culture gives me; that is the gift so many so despise.

A blog is a good place to talk about nerd culture; I would venture that all bloggers are Nerds, and that many stay that way, unless they get published; the bright lights of the big city can work their way into your skin, and once you acquire outward luminance, like a lantern in full sunlight, you can no longer glow from within. But still, for we Nerds, we happy few, we band of brothers and sisters, there will always that private flame which brightens when we, in the evening, walk alone, or when we, just before sleep, lie awake in bed. Some day, I’m sure, the prevailing winds will feed those flames, and we will float together, all in gentle formation, all glowing like paper lanterns, into the same starry night.

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image – Flickr/Sam Howzit