on byzantines, Uber, The Last Jedi, and gender politics

A while ago I created a video illustrating the evolution of Roman infantry down the centuries. I thought it would just be a fun, nerdy little thing. But now the comments section is a nationalist warzone, with accusations such as – I kid you not – Greek scum, filthy German, and Turkophile being slung back and forth, based on such things as who does and doesn’t count as Roman, and whether or not the word Byzantine is an objective term or a filthy, Latin slur. It took very little for the nationalists to get them set off; I’m guessing they’re just so full to bursting with ethnocentric, self-righteous indignation, so spoiling for a fight to show that their race (whatever the hell that means) is the best, and why it should stop being persecuted, that they’ll see this struggle in any damn thing they come across.

Just this afternoon I took a cab home. I was jolted from my inane tile-swapping game by a thunderous car honk followed by the cab lurching to the right – some asshole in a blue sports car behind us had jumped out of the lane, nearly killed us in the process, sped ahead, and re-entered the lane, all in under two seconds. The cabbie started cussing out the sports car driver’s mother’s genitalia, then graduated to wishing him (and her) dead, then – very abruptly – stating that of course, of course, he said, this guy is an Uber driver (the bastards), since they’re the crooks, and we cabbies are the good guys (his words exactly). And then somehow this Uber driver morphed into a communist agent, and suddenly we were talking about how awful the commies are, how they love it when the people are disunited because that’s precisely how they keep their power. Which is… true enough, but of course had very little bearing on what had just happened. It took very little for this cabbie to get set off; I’m guessing he was so fed up with Uber drivers stealing his business, and the reds in Beijing giving him grief, that he saw their villainy in any damn thing he came across.

Just the other day I watched The Last Jedi. I didn’t go in with high hopes; over the years I’ve become perhaps a bit of a political reactionary, and as a result I did not enjoy The Force Awakens. It was just how the good guys were a black man and a white girl led by an old lady and counselled by a wise, female, talking orange, while the bad guys were all pasty evil white men – it felt so contrived and preachy. And lo and behold Jedi featured hot-headed, cowardly, and mulish men being proven wrong by wiser females, and good guys with all-female leadership and loads of ethnic minorities and aliens fighting a bunch of Space Nazis led by a bunch of evil, pasty white men (and one shiny woman). And one of the key messages echoed in the film was let it die, something new has to be born – a rather hamfisted metaphor for the rebooting of the Star Wars saga, but surely also (given all the heavily-politicised imagery in the rest of the film) a call for the dawning of a new, female future, where the pasty white men of the First Order patriarchy are relegated to the dustbin of History. Now of course this felt very much like my biases run amok. It took very little for me to get set off; I’m guessing I’m just so reactionary and paranoid, so fearful of feminism, that I saw this bogeyman in any damn thing I come across.

But then there came the reviews for Jedi. I had already been wrestling with these doubts about how warranted (or demented) my political fears were, when I read reviews describing how Jedi outlined that treating females with respect should be easy because it in fact is; and that Jedi is a good riposte to mansplaining since it puts in their place hot-headed men who don’t listen to wise women. Looking back I felt a bit more justified in my mixed feelings about the film – I had in fact felt quite… ambushed. I’d just wanted to see a silly film about laser fights and spaceships; instead I was treated to a highly proselytistic piece about gender and minority politics. In the end it wasn’t just me – reviewers and pundits were praising Jedi precisely for what I had found distasteful about it. Was the film actually supposed to be about gender politics? I don’t know. But it took very little for the identity politicians to get set off; I’m guessing they’re so exultant in the fact that the future – no matter how long it takes – is female and minority, that they saw this triumph in any damn thing they came across.

I honestly don’t know what to make of all this. We all see what we want to see, it seems. Some of it demented and thoroughly unjustified; some of it… less so? I have highly intelligent friends and peers who would not agree at all with my conclusions about Jedi. Are they right? Am I right? Am I some kind of voice in the desert? Or am I, as one reviewer claimed, part of the ‘calcified corner of [Star Wars] fandom’? Am I the lisping, pathetic General Hux, a sad reactionary who fears the future? Is the future female, a process both morally right and inevitable? Is it just morally right? Just inevitable?

Or is this all just a little goddamn silly?

I don’t know.

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