Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Jonah Goldberg makes me defend late-period BSG. Damn him!

But seriously, folks, I know that you put up with a fair amount of my BSG bashing and I've been on something of a TV-blogging kick recently. But stick with me, this is good stuff. (And given the combination of Jonah Goldberg and later BSG, I'm sure Bill Simmon is laughing somewhere.)

In the course of reading a post about BSG, I came across a link to what appears to be a relatively recent article by Jonah Goldberg (about whose book I once wrote a quick one-act play) about Battlestar Galactica. His thesis seems to be (naturally) that left-wing politics destroyed the show. The article is rather long-winded but is worth reading in full, if for nothing else, to read a novel interpretation on why Battlestar Galactica went awry in its later years. I feel I'd like to respond.

Goldberg's argument, when the padding is removed, boils down to this: the New Caprica arc at the beginning of season three of Battlestar Galactica ended a delicate political balance on the show in favor of liberal sloganeering on Iraq. Some brief excerpts:
The truth is that the audience was never given a remotely decipherable, never mind plausible, explanation for this radically bizarre and nonsensical turn of events. Rather, it was simply asserted in a hodgepodge of babbling dialogue. Almost immediately, the show’s protagonists are transformed into “insurgents” who have little or no compunction about becoming suicide bombers. [...]

Most egregiously, the human suicide bombers are not young men brainwashed in a madrassa and promised eternal life with 72 virgins, nor are they threatened with the murder of their families—the tactics used by jihadists to create their human bombs. Rather, they are decent, calm, and composed men and women fighting in a noble cause. Taken seriously, this romanticization of suicide bombers and “insurgency” has a cascade of revolting implications. The insurgency in Iraq was not an authentic resistance like the Warsaw Ghetto uprising or De Gaulle’s Free French forces. The ranks of terrorists in Iraq were overwhelmingly made up of Baathist remnants of the Hussein regime and al-Qaeda interlopers with their own imperialist ambitions for a worldwide umma. [...]

Thus, a show marked by gritty realism about how a decent but flawed civilization modeled on our own tries to cling to its decency while fighting an existential war against an implacable enemy veered wildly off course. The humans were no longer analogized to Americans; rather Americans were analogized to genocidal occupiers. In other words, we are no longer the inspiration for the futuristic Israelites trying to survive. We are now the Nazis.
Goldberg makes more points--I will merely address these ones, as I think they provide the bulk of his argument at its strongest. Leaving aside the puzzling remark that the Iraqi insurgents weren't "authentic"--infusing that word with a moral dimension is unnecessary, "freedom fighters" is a term that already exists--Goldberg has a fair point when he notes some of the sudden changes that had to be made for the New Caprica arc, which was sufficiently dramatic and interesting from a character perspective that it convinced most fans to go along with what turned out to be a very silly premise. Of course, it doesn't take 72 virgins to make a person want to kill themselves for a cause--Buddhist monks sometimes do it for free--but it is true that the Colonials were supposed to be stand-ins for us, and the thought of suicide bombings appalls most Americans. Goldberg, however, neglected to remember a scene between Baltar and Roslin in which Baltar pressures Roslin to say she agrees with these sorts of tactics and Roslin demurs. The suicide bomber (there was only one) was, as I recall, a depressed man who had just lost his wife and volunteered for the job. The man who encourages him to do this, Tigh, is portrayed as a madman who completely cracked after losing an eye during a cylon interrogation. The act itself is depicted directly, brutally, and unromantically. All of this doesn't add up to a glorification of suicide bombing, so much as an examination of the circumstances that lead to it, and whether it's an acceptable way to fight. The show makes no argument that it is proper, and such a reading is only possible if one ignores a number of inconvenient outlying details.

Similarly, Goldberg's point that the New Caprica arc changed the show's metaphor from Colonials-as-Americans to Cylons-as-Americans strikes me not only as wrong, but as fundamentally missing the point of the latter seasons of BSG (which, to be perfectly fair, isn't the hardest thing to do in the world). The Colonials-as-Americans parallels are too easy to exaggerate. Obviously, America has not been taken over by al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden has not seized power. The parallels aren't direct. But saying that the Cylons' purpose here was merely to satirize the Iraq War is not correct. One of the major goals of the series' final two seasons is to humanize the Cylons. In the first two seasons, we see relatively few portrayals of Cylons, and most are malevolent. The second two seasons show that the Cylons are misunderstood--that their society is immature and prone to terrifying acts of violence (such as the one that began the show), but as the show progresses, it tracks the spiritual and political fractures that shatter the Cylons, and we see Cylons go beyond their programming and begin to have the same sorts of debates, scruples, and desires as humans do. Now, one could argue that the show didn't entirely succeed at this goal--I'll be the first to admit that these humanistic themes were never handled as gracefully as possible, and the increasing focus on faith proved to be a blunder as Ron Moore knows little about it--but it was what the show was trying to do. Adama's opening question of the series is, "Is humanity worth saving?" It remains an open question. But with the Cylons, the question goes from, "How do we kill them?" to "How can we live with them and understand them?" Because they must. They don't have a choice, the cycle must be broken. It is entirely unsurprising that Goldberg didn't like this turn of events and pines for the days when Cylons were faceless bad guys that Starbuck would shoot up before coming back, drinking a beer and punching Tigh in the face. Personally, I felt that having the Cylons turn out to be functionally the same as humans was not the best plot twist, especially after a whole season of playing "Guess the Cylons". But the reason Goldberg hates this progression so much is not because he thinks the show lost creative energy so much as that he doesn't want to believe that the internal politics of the Muslim world are, in fact, complicated and often misunderstood, and that a final resolution with Muslims is not going to involve guns and bombs but rather forgiveness, awareness, and acceptance. We must do this. We don't have a choice. There isn't another Earth, we're easily outnumbered and Westerners and Eastern Muslims must find some way of living together. Goldberg sees the world as black and white--bad vs. good. He thought the moral universe of BSG was structured in the same way. Only the latter two seasons showed that it wasn't, however imperfectly executed the entire business was. In fact, the show was never structured that way, but Goldberg wasn't able to pick up on that until the show got too strident in referencing the Iraq War. His sharpness as a cultural critic leaves much to be desired.

The funny thing is that Goldberg is right about the general timeline of BSG's decline but wrong entirely about the reasons. Galactica was a truly phenomenal show for the miniseries and roughly one and a half seasons after that. It asked big, serious, deceptively simple questions, like, "Can democracy exist during wartime?" and, "How can we fight against an enemy that doesn't value human life?" and, "Is torture wrong?" and so on. These were questions [with the proper substitutions, of course] that we were all asking ourselves when BSG first came on television, and the show resonated with a lot of people as a result of its political acuity. During the first 1.5 seasons, the show examined each of these questions (and many others) at some length until everything came to a head with the Pegasus episodes. In those episodes, our heroes on the Galactica encounter a ship that has made the complete opposite choices as Galactica--one that gladly practices torture, that has ended any political rule and is solely a military operation that decides to sink to the level of what they're fighting. It turns out that these ideas--ones with which Goldberg sympathizes, from what I've read--turn out to be completely disastrous. The proper frame for viewing these episodes is essentially that Admiral Cain is Dick Cheney--younger and more attractive, but she basically sees things the same way as our former vice president. The shows depicted the Bush-Cheney worldview stretched to its maximal extreme, and the results were absolutely horrifying. The pivotal subplot involved a Cylon woman named Gina who had been brutally tortured and gang-raped by the Pegasus crew with full consent of the command authority. It was decided that Gina was not a person and had no rights--a bit of an exaggeration of the Bush Administration's philosophy on this, but not much of one. The end result was that the Pegasus crew was made up of snarling psychotics and what few decent people remained (e.g. Cain's XO) were too terrified to speak out against the evil on the Pegasus. What's more, the episode didn't resort to cheap shots. It made Cain smart, tough, and determined--uncharismatic, unable to see the big picture, yes, but she was the kind of leader that Bush seemed to want to be and that Cheney was. And the episode showed, poignantly, exactly how it all happened. As it turned out, Gina was guilty and had committed a very evil act that got hundreds of people on Pegasus killed. Later in the show's chronology, she committed another evil act that killed thousands more innocent people. She was a true terrorist, one who was absolute in her convictions and finally became a suicide bomber. But the episode poignantly showed how easily corruptible people are, and how easily evil can ride in on the heels of good intentions. The show merely illustrated how the same evil that drove the Cylons to eradicate humanity is also in the comparatively "good" humans, and that good people can be driven to do evil things for reasons that are entirely laudable. In the end, Gina wasn't successful in her sabotage mission. But she was able to wreck the moral compass of the Pegasus crew, as Admiral Cain committed slow suicide by seeking to wreak impossible vengeance on the Cylons against impossible odds. None of this is difficult to intend or obsure in any way, it's actually basic Christian thought on good and evil, consistent from Augustine to Niebuhr, and it's one of the rare times the show deployed any sort of religious idea without botching it thoroughly.

To me, it was the best thing the show ever did, and it more or less closed out the great political questions the show asked. BSG began faltering nearly immediately afterward, trying to refocus from being a political/military show into being a sociological/faith/prophecy/whodunit/??? show, and it never quite reached its full potential after that. But Goldberg doesn't mention Pegasus at all in his argument. To miss the political themes' development and conclusion with Pegasus strikes me as fundamentally not understanding what the show tried to do, and while he is right that, "After the Iraq story line, Battlestar Galactica deteriorated rapidly over the course of its final two seasons. The plot shift led the show’s writers and producers into a bizarre and meandering world of visiting angels, pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo, and deus-ex-machina literary devices," he cannot even begin to connect the dots as to why the show was successful and why its later seasons were rather insipid. The show's grace notes were the most political and arguably the most "liberal", though even from the beginning the show's moral universe was complex, not all Cylons were evil, not all humans were good, etc. The colonials were always America and the Cylons represented--to an extent--the Muslim threat. But the show's ultimate message was that neither side owned a monopoly on good or evil, that the Cylons were hardly bloodthirsty savages (well, not all of them, anyway), and that peoples can mature, change, and find common ground. This should all be bleedingly obvious to anyone regardless of their politics, but it isn't obvious to Mr. Goldberg. The disposition of his worldview makes it impossible for him to actually appreciate Battlestar Galactica, and his lack of curiosity evidently keeps him from even considering alternate interpretations for the show's meaning. In the end, I just feel sorry for the guy. He's going to live his entire life missing so much because everything has to get fed through the political outrage machine. Sometimes, it's better to listen, to learn, to be quiet, and to reflect.

The Man, The Myth, The Bio

East Bay, California, United States
Problem: I have lots of opinions on politics and culture that I need to vent. If I do not do this I will wind up muttering to myself, and that's only like one or two steps away from being a hobo. Solution: I write two blogs. A political blog that has some evident sympathies (pro-Obama, mostly liberal though I dissent on some issues, like guns and trade) and a culture blog that does, well, cultural essays in a more long-form manner. My particular thing is taking overrated things (movies, mostly, but other things too) down a peg and putting underrated things up a peg. I'm sort of the court of last resort, and I tend to focus on more obscure cultural phenomena.