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Monday, August 01, 2022

Review: The World According to Star Wars

 I was looking over Cass Sustein's book at the library and to my surprised, one of his books was The World According to Star Wars. I wasn't myself a Star Wars fan, but I figured that what he had to say was interesting.

The book explores several different themes and interpretations of Star Wars, one of which was the relationship between fathers and sons. I didn't know much about George Lucas's personal history, so I was pleasantly surprised to read these words:

Lucas himself was able to reconcile with his father, though it took years for them to come back together. He packs a lot of pain and understanding into these words: “he lived to see me finally go from a worthless, as he would call ‘late bloomer’ to actually being successful. I gave him the one thing every parent wants: to have your kid be safe and able to take care of himself. That was all he really wanted, and that’s what he got.” It’s not irrelevant that after Return of the Jedi, Lucas abandoned Star Wars, and movie-making, for just one reason: he wanted to be a good father. He retired for two decades so that he could raise his children. Asked in 2015 what he wanted the first line of his obituary to say, he responded without the slightest hesitation: “I was a great dad.” (kindle loc 1326)

The book's probably at its best when it veers away from pop psychology when it dives into Sunstein's core research topics, such as nudges or information cascades. I enjoyed his explanation of why rebellions are always a surprise (which also explains the Trump movement). He also explores what it looks like in authoritarian countries like China:

 In the late 1980s, I was asked to teach a short course on American law in Beijing. (We didn’t discuss Star Wars, so far as I can remember. Recall that Star Wars was not shown in China until 2015.) As a final assignment, I asked my thirty students to write a short paper. Their task was to explore what the United States could learn from the Chinese legal system, or what China could learn from the U.S. legal system. They were free to pick one or the other. I much looked forward to seeing what they would come up with. To my utter amazement, almost everyone in the class refused to do the assignment! With embarrassment, one of them explained: “We are worried that what we write could get into the wrong hands.” By that, they meant to suggest that they could get in trouble with their own government. Of course they were loyal to their country. And in private, they were willing to raise some questions about what their government was doing (as well as about what the United States was doing)—but for fear of some kind of punishment, they were unwilling to put those questions in writing. Here’s the upshot, elaborated at length by the economist Timur Kuran in his terrific 1997 book, Private Truths, Public Lies: If people falsify their preferences and beliefs, rebellions will be difficult or perhaps impossible to predict. People might be satisfied with their government; they might dislike it, at least a little; or they might hate it. Because what people say does not match what they think, citizens will be in a situation of pluralistic ignorance: They will have no idea what their fellow citizens believe. But if some people (the Leias among them) start to express dissatisfaction and display a willingness to rebel, then others (the Lukes) might think that a rebellion could succeed, because a lot of people might be prepared to join it. If so, the world might turn upside down. (kindle loc 1763)

Unfortunately, Sustein's not a historian or an expert on China, so he doesn't go any further and explain why movements like the Tiananmen protests got squashed despite an information cascade.

I didn't exactly find the book a waste of time, but I'm guessing that unless you're a Star Wars fan, you're probably not going to find the book all that interesting. His other books are probably a more interesting read in terms of ideas.


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