What "Star Wars" can teach my son about life

Classic films from George Lucas and Steven Spielberg aren't just holiday staples, they're lessons on modern America

Published January 3, 2011 8:01PM (EST)

Darth Vader
Darth Vader

Even in as chaotic and random a world as we live in now, Americans have come to rely on a few rock-solid inevitabilities during the Christmas/New Years season. We know jingle-bell muzak will fill our department stores. We know Fox News will provide breathless dispatches from the frontlines of the War on Christmas. We can bank on Dick Clark (with an assist from Ryan Seacrest) counting down the seconds as the ball drops in Times Square. And, even more so than at any other time of year, we can count on the cable rerun-o-sphere teleporting us back to the child-focused Spielberg-Lucas productions of our youth.

Yes, in this wintery season of merriment, a jaunt from SpikeTV to the USA Network, to the Turner constellation to the premium channels is all but guaranteed to take you from a mountainous Nepal to the Oregon coast to the alien-invaded California suburbs to a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. In that way, Spielberg and Lucas have become our new Frank Capras -- their work is as ubiquitous this time of year as "It's a Wonderful Life."

Because my son, Isaac, was born a month ago, I was fully housebound this holiday-season, which meant I had a lot of time on the couch to both immerse myself in this Spielberg-Lucas Matrix and wonder what my little boy will think about their work he reaches the age in which my wife lets me expose him to it. When I force him to watch, say, "The Goonies," will he see the film as I saw old reruns of "I Love Lucy" when I was a kid -- i.e. as ancient, boring and cheesy relics? Or will Isaac see it as a timeless classic, as I saw it when they first came out? I used to think he would see the Spielberg-Lucas products as the former because, hell, despite Industrial Light & Magic's best efforts, the Death Star and the "E.T." spaceship still look a little too "Buck Rogers in the 25th Century-ish" to hide their outdatedness from the uber-discerning CGI generation.

But now, I'm not so sure. After a week of diligent study, I think Isaac might come to see the fantastical Spielberg-Lucas oeuvre as a brutally honest guide to real life -- a guide that will debunk some of the myths he'll inevitably learn when he starts consuming mass media and begins his formal education in a few short years. In fact, after a week of near-constant immersion in the Spielberg-Lucas catalog, I've come to see the two writer/directors' treasures as so subtly prescient that I'm now planning to deliberately use their masterpieces as a curriculum. Indeed, I defy you to come up with a single better teaching tool that both speaks to young children and delivers honest, hard-knocks lessons about the inherently flawed world our kids are entering.

Work -- we all eventually emerge from childhood and head into its unavoidable grips. Grade school teaches kids to look forward to this purgatorial fate, giving them so many idealistic fallacies about fairness, respect and rewarded labor. But, as all of us eventually find out, most of that isn't true. The average workplace isn't fair, respectful or rewarding -- and preparing a kid for that crushing reality ain't easy for mom and dad. But where parents may fail, a Sith succeeds.

Wherever you stand in the debate about what the Empire metaphorically represents -- a huge corporation, your faceless county government, the vast military-industrial complex -- it's undoubtedly the kind of place in which many of us now toil: namely, inside a bureaucracy that has lots of worker-bee drones and a very clear management hierarchy. In the age of mass layoffs, de-unionization, the shredding of labor regulations, and a general desperation to hold onto a job, the "Star Wars" trilogy -- and specifically, senior corporate executive Darth Vader -- prepares kids for how that modern workplace operates.

The original "Star Wars," for example, warns children of the perils of aspiring eager-beaver middle management. Specifically, it warns kids not to try to show up anyone higher on the executive food chain in front of the boss, for fear of being publicly humiliated -- or choked to death -- at the staff meeting.

"The Empire Strikes Back" goes a step farther, rather explicitly highlighting the fact that the good old days of heartfelt pink slips and sensitive firing procedures have been replaced by much more caustic and impersonal tactics. When, for instance, Vader terminates Admiral Ozzel for coming out of light speed too fast, he doesn't soften the blow with a "thanks for your service" and a let-him-down-easy severance package -- he pulverizes his trachea via videophone while simultaneously talking to Captain Piett, who is forced to enjoy his promotion in the shadow of Ozzel's writhing body.

Later, when Captain Needa apologizes for losing Han Solo in a meteor field, Vader fires him with a one-liner that suggests the boss-man actually takes sick pleasure in laying employees off.

In a world of unforgiving superiors who will enjoy firing the next generation of employees in an email cc'd to those employees' lower-paid replacements, it's as powerful a lesson in today's corporate culture as any scene kids might see in "Office Space" or "Up In the Air."

Of course, by the end of "Empire," young kids will probably be wondering exactly why the workplace operates like this. Fair question, I'll say to my son Isaac. But that's right about when one of the first scenes of "Return of the Jedi" should clear up the confusion. Darth, remember, begins the movie by visiting the still-under-construction Death Star II to put his staff "back on schedule."

When the foreman tells him they are working "as fast as they can" and that higher-ups are "asking the impossible," Darth alludes to his fear-based management style, first saying "perhaps I can find new ways to motivate" the staff (wink, wink) and then telling his underling that the even less "forgiving" CEO Emperor is coming for a visit. The reaction from the workforce? Suddenly, nothing is "impossible." Suddenly, there's a commitment by workers to "double our efforts" -- ostensibly with no extra pay or benefits, only out of intense fear of losing their jobs, with extreme prejudice.

"Why does the workplace operate like this?" I'll rhetorically ask Isaac. Because fear works when workplace protections no longer exist (and I think it's fair to assume that Vader's Imperial employees are not unionized). We can prove this to kids with Labor Department stats showing workers' wages declining at the same time worker productivity has increased. Or, we can show him the "Star Wars" trilogy. I'm guessing the latter, replete with super-sweet laser guns and awesome spaceships and cute Ewoks, will probably be more effective.

At some point, Isaac will run into history lessons that glorify the most anti-union titans of America's business class. History books, after all, teem with paeans to the Rockefellers and the Carnegies and Mellons - and relatively little mention of the great unwashed. Indeed, in a Wal-Mart-loving nation where 20,000 workers are fired each year for even considering trying to form a union, very few of our elementary history books bother to include the positive societal contributions of blue-collar solidarity.

Luckily, the comic-book-emulating "Raiders of the Lost Ark" doesn't suffer from such omission. Spielberg makes sure it gives the film's adolescent audience Toht, a mid-level Nazi bureaucrat whose performance in a Nepalese pub is a veritable seminar in how buttoned-up no-nonsense executives successfully manage today's blue-collar workforces - and how occasional acts of working-class solidarity under fiery duress can nonetheless succeed. Recall that upon entering the bar, Toht barks commands that are followed by his hired Nepalese hands with military precision. He remains calm as violent chaos on the shop-room floor ensues. And when one of his workers momentarily struggles to follow the order to subdue Dr. Jones, Toht is unflappable in his goal-oriented focus on the task at hand. "Shoot zem, shoot zem both," he says, trying to cut his losses by ordering the worker and the target eliminated. Behold the embodiment of today's "it's not personal, it's business" mentality.

But that's when an unexpected burst of solidarity saves the day. Facing imminent death at the hands of Toht's "all business" attitude, the Nazi's Nepalese subcontractor and Dr. Jones suddenly stop fighting with each other over a pistol and together turn the weapon on management. Moral of the story for kids? Management will sacrifice you at a moment's notice and for any reason, even if you are their trusted employee. But fighting through adversity, rejecting the boss's efforts to pit you against one another, and mustering class solidarity can occasionally help you live another day. It's Join or Die, baby!

In their civics class, kids will almost definitely be told about the virtues of our Fourth Amendment -- the one that's supposed to protect their privacy. Most likely, though, they won't be told about stuff that has destroyed those sacred safeguards -- stuff like the Patriot Act, warrantless wiretapping, Facebook cyber-tracking, and the like. To prevent kids from being confused by this paradoxical conflict between constitutional principle and the real world practices of the National Security State, Spielberg gives them "E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial," whose most frightening scene tells us how little privacy they can expect. After extensively surveilling Elliot's family (ostensibly without warrant) via kidnapper van, the faceless government lunges into his home zombie-style -- arms rigidly extended, fists tearing through walls/windows, and no warrant in sight, even as Elliot's mom shrieks that "This is my home!" Welcome, kids, to 21st century "privacy" -- expect nothing but a space-suit-clad federal agent at your door.

Civics class lessons about the Fourth Amendment may also leave children confused about basic civil liberties as they relate to contemporary police powers. Does my son Isaac have protection against "unreasonable searches and seizures?" Does he have the "right to remain silent" and will he be afforded a presumption of innocence until proved guilty? Anyone who has ever interacted with the police during the War on Terrorism knows the answer is not very clear. And thanks to "Star Wars," those, ahem, nuances can be explained in terms kids are able to understand.

For instance, in the trilogy's very first scene, the Imperial police have pulled over a vehicle they believe is carrying illegal contraband.

Yet, rather than responsibly inform the suspects of their intergalactic Miranda rights, the police treat the driver like so many drivers today: he is subjected to fairly blatant police brutality (OK, he's choked to death) as the on-scene commander gives the order to tear the vehicle apart. This same police squad goes on to then trample the most rudimentary Geneva convention safeguards, first siccing a syringe-wielding orb on a female prisoner (Princess Leia), and then strapping a male detainee (Han Solo) onto a waterboard-like table for a full-on torture session -- or, as they call it today, "enhanced interrogation." Again, welcome kids, to 21st century "civil liberties."

Many elementary schools are named after politicians or political elites (Presidents, senators, Cabinet secretaries, ambassadors, benefactors, etc.). Even if your kid's school isn't so named, his/her classroom will likely be festooned with glamorized pictures of political elites -- people like Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, to name a few. This can naturally lead kids to wrongly assume that politicians are honest, venerable individuals. But thank god -- thank god that even before they gave us Senator Palpatine, Lucas and Spielberg provided Chattar Lal, Walter Donovan and Lando Calrissian to rid the next generation of such grossly naive misperceptions about today's political class.

Lal, you'll recall, is the public face of Pankot Palace, serving as the Maharajah's Prime Minister in "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom." With the eloquence of Bill Clinton, the intellectualism of Barack Obama and the aristocratic pedigree of George H.W. Bush, he is a politician's politician -- well-dressed, charming and debonair. But behind closed doors, he's also shown to be what most politicians really are: a blood-thirsty human-sacrificing thug (or, in this case, Thuggee).

If Lal is the politicians' politician, Walter Donovan is recognizable in "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" as the wealthy, politically-connected businessman-benefactor who defines 21st century politics. But whereas so much of today's culture still deceptively presents these individuals as benevolent noblesse-oblige elites, Donovan shows kids their true colors. Beneath the warm smile and refined etiquette is your standard Manhattan/D.C. greedhead, willing to sell out his country (even during a time of war!) in hot pursuit of his holy grail.

Finally, there's Lando Calrissian, who gives kids a good lesson in the hard scrabble real politik of urban affairs. As the administrator of Cloud City, Calrissian is a backslapping palm-pressing ham -- everything kids might think of when they think of their own wide-grinning Big City Mayor.

But like any Daley or Giuliani, there's almost always cold-blooded calculation beneath the cheery facade. Calrissian, kids soon see, is happy to freeze his friends in carbonite and ship them off to the Imperial henchmen if it means protecting his city, and more importantly, his own ass. "I've got my own problems," Mayor Calrissian says, reminding our youth of how politicians really work. All local politics is that self-interested and cruel -- even in the galaxy's heavenly mining colonies.

At some point, my son Isaac and children his age are going to want to know about the economy and the tough times of their youth. And at some point, they'll probably hear about the housing crisis from some TV charlatan who tells them that it wasn't really about big megabanks and shady schemes -- it was really all about poor, lazy selfish minorities who were irresponsible and therefore deserved to be thrown out of their homes. But by the time they hear that factually unsubstantiated tripe, we should make sure our kids have already seen "The Goonies."

The premise of the Spielberg story is the tale of the class war that undergirds today's Great Recession: Basically, super-rich country-club types like Elgin and Troy Perkins schemed to make as much money as they could off of unsuspecting middle-class white suburbanites like the Walshes. If that meant financing the fat-cats' new golf courses on the profits and land of foreclosed homes in Middle America enclaves like Astoria, well, that's what they did -- consequences be damned.

The problem, of course, is the movie's ending. To fight their side of the class war, the Goonie kids throw a hail mary pass with their quest to find magical pirate-ship treasure.

Understandably, the generation that grew up with the movie reached for a similarly fantastical scheme to obtain a similar booty so as to fight off the same kind bank foreclosures from today's Perkinses. It wasn't called booty -- it was called endless refinancing. In the film, sure, they find the treasure -- in real life, though, most of us didn't.

But that doesn't undermine the overall value of "The Goonies" message. In the Great Recession, there are the super-rich and the rest of us. Blaming the latter on behalf of the former is as ridiculous and hard-hearted as rooting for the Perkinses in their battle against the Goonies. Making sure kids see the movie is a step toward making sure they get their economic history right.

To be sure, the Spielberg-Lucas oeuvre isn't a perfect truth-teller -- it certainly gives kids a good many canards on its own. Yoda, for example, is a Force-enhanced megaphone for an American Dream triumphalism ("Do or do not -- there is no try," "that is why you fail") that has proved resoundingly wrong in the modern age of crushing inequality. The last few scenes of "Raiders of the Lost Ark "are fit for fringe Tea Party propaganda, brazenly depicting the U.S. government as a conspiracy of dunces whose primary goal is to warehouse human history's most sacred artifacts for the purposes of military exploitation. Shotgun-wielding FBI agents chasing the kids in "E.T." present the police in hysterically paranoid terms. And "Star Wars" code-naming the fat slobby guy "Porkins" -- well, that doesn't exactly tell kids like Isaac to be nice to the unfortunately overweight among us.

But, again, is this any worse than the canards he'll learn from the news media? And is it less nuanced than what he'll get from his first history books? Hardly -- and at least Speilberg and Lucas make it fun, right?

In that way, Isaac may get his dreams and fantasies in school and from cable news, but I'm going to make sure he gets at least some of his reality from Hollywood. I suggest every '80s-kid-turned-parent do the same next Christmas.

By David Sirota

David Sirota is a senior writer for the International Business Times and the best-selling author of the books "Hostile Takeover," "The Uprising" and "Back to Our Future." E-mail him at ds@davidsirota.com, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at www.davidsirota.com.

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