Cass Sunstein spent the better part of three decades coming to prominence as one of the United States’ foremost legal scholars, teaching at the University Of Chicago. But in 2009, he was appointed to head the Obama administration’s White House Office Of Information And Regulatory Affairs, plunging him into the thorny world of Washington policymaking. He’s back in civilian life now, but among his prolific output, a new subject has captured his attention: Star Wars. He’s written a new book called The World According To Star Wars, in which he delves into a variety of issues, from how people understand the movies—both politically and philosophically—to George Lucas’ own mythmaking about his universe. The A.V. Club spoke to Sunstein about his love for a galaxy far, far away, the importance of Joseph Campbell in analyzing Lucas’ work, and why he considers Marvel’s Jessica Jones to be “fucking phenomenal.”
The A.V. Club: You say in the book that you weren’t a big Star Wars fan when you started the book, but you are one now. To get us started, why write a book about something that you don’t initially find interesting? What started you down this path?
Cass Sunstein: Well, I’ve liked Star Wars since the late ’70s. I liked it a lot. But I’m now over the moon about Star Wars, and I think a couple things happened. One is I started watching it with my 5-year-old son, not because I thought it was a good idea, but because a friend did. A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back—they hold up amazingly well, and the prequels are better than you remember. The stunning nature of the artistic achievement was kind of my first path in. The second was, I got so interested in how one person, George Lucas, how could he have created this world? Then I started to read as obsessively about Star Wars as I once did about Kant—and still do about behavioral economics and behavioral psychology.
I got into the genesis of Star Wars, and the tale seemed to me endlessly fascinating. First, because he had plans for it originally which were much simpler and very different from what he ended up doing. So, to see how he deepened the tale by drawing on myths and religions of many cultures and had these bursts of creative imagination that no one, even Lucas, could have foreseen before the fact. Then, a kind of lighting bolt went off in my own head thinking that’s exactly what law is like. That’s exactly like America. That’s what individual lives are like. There are bursts of things like Abraham Lincoln or Ronald Reagan or Franklin Delano Roosevelt or same-sex marriage that change very much what we thought we were all about. It has a kind of “I am your father” character, and that completely entranced me. The connection, first to law, then to America, then to individual lives—that seemed irresistible.
AVC: One of the first things you discuss is how no one saw the overwhelming massive success coming. You talk about factors like the first people who saw it really liking it, or others wanting to know what all the fuss is about. For you, what is the value of looking back and trying to account for such an unexpected cultural shift?
CS: Taylor Swift is a giant cultural figure today, and good for that. She’s fantastic. Donald Trump is almost certainly going to be the Republican nominee. Barack Obama is the president. Game Of Thrones is arguably the hottest thing on television. A lot of people are focused on climate change as a defining challenge of our time. A lot of people think it is a non-problem, at least in the United States. How did all that happen? The idea that it was fated that we would have an African-American named Barack Obama in the White House, that can’t be so. The idea that Taylor Swift would become the giant pop icon of 2015, 2016—she’s really good, but I don’t think it’s written in the stars. How do things, whether they are movies, or plays, Hamilton, or people, ideas—how do they become transformative or iconic? That is in some ways what the actual Star Wars saga gets at, with the tale of the rise and the fall of the empire and the rise and the fall of Republics.
It’s also the tale of Star Wars as a social phenomenon. On reflection, some things do super well because they hit with the time. Some things do super well because they are able to activate a kind of echo chamber or bandwagon or cascade—they didn’t particularly hit with the time. Some things are just too astonishingly good to not hit the top. Those three explanations, with respect to the Star Wars phenomenon, seem to me all to pass the plausibility test, and to explore them, with respect to Star Wars, I think casts light not just on the saga of our time, but also on everything about our culture. If you’re interested in pop culture, or if you’re interested in literature, or political science, or governance, even science as such, there are some puzzles here.
AVC: It’s interesting, the examples you give. Do you find that pop culture media is in general a transformative media, like Game Of Thrones? Or does it take something extremely culturally ingrained like Star Wars for you to pull it into the philosophical or political realm?
CS: I’ll tell you an explanation that I find commonly overrated and speculative in the extreme: the idea that things that succeed in popular culture do that because they hit the temper of the times. It’s very common to say that Star Wars in the late ’70s, that was kind of perfect for Cold War culture and the aftermath of Vietnam in the ’60s to have an upbeat, hopeful, cartoonish tale of a hero’s journey. I think those explanations are easy to offer and almost always wrong. If you take anything that succeeded, just imagine it succeeding 10 years before or 10 years after, you could almost always make, with the same plausibility, the “it fit the times” argument. If Star Wars had been released in the late ’60s, or late ’80s, or late ’90s, adjusting for technology, it fits spectacularly well. You could tell a just-so story. I think those explanations are typically overrated.
We often see a temper of the times connection, and it’s just like a fairy tale. It’s not true. So, those are the overrated ones. The underrated ones, which seem to me also intriguing, are that things that are really good frequently succeed because a bunch of people at a relevant time decided that they were really good and got very noisy. So, let’s take The Beatles. They exploded kind of for that reason. They are really good. But was it destiny that they would become the iconic ’60s rock group? I don’t think so. Star Wars is a little harder because it is so spectacular that maybe it’s in the category of destined to succeed, but there’s no question that early viewers—quite noisily—saying, “whoa,” was crucial to its success. That’s often true for political candidates, an idea, a book. You need the early people to say “whoa.”
AVC: You write that the prequels involve the study of the rise of tyranny and the fall of democracy, and that it’s only because of the ineffectiveness of the legislative body that Palpatine is able to rise to power. This is the kind of thing that would make somebody watching the current Congress very nervous, right? Is it fair to say you’re trying to point out that, from a certain point of view, the sky is always falling?
CS: The sky is always falling or the sky is always bright. In some ways, this is really morning in America and we don’t see it. People are living longer, the economy is doing pretty well. On the other hand, there are some ways of thinking in the current situation that make it look not so good, including our Star Wars prequels-like legislature, meaning they’re talking a lot, not doing a lot. So, you could often say things are terrible and that accounts for what happened, or things are really bright, and that accounts for what happened. Often, the real explanation for what happened is much more subtle and interesting and involves maybe small shocks or what a couple people did on a Wednesday morning that changed the arc of history.
AVC: The counterpoint to that would be the trend of increasing political polarization: It’s become so pronounced, even someone like Morris Fiorina—who wrote a book in 2011 about how it’s not an issue—has trouble still defending the idea that it’s no big deal. Polarization in Star Wars, as in life, can do very bad things. Right now, what is your response when people say, “But even in the long view, doesn’t right now seem a little destabilizing and problematic?”
CS: Okay, fair enough. What I’ve been emphasizing is small shocks, the role of serendipity. Some people start doing something, and then you get Apple or you get some burst of creative progress, scientific or artistic. Given the fact that we have as much fragmentation in our communications media, and given the incentives of people who are running for office, it is true that it’s very challenging to get a national legislature that’s able to do stuff. That’s completely fair. There are structural forces that can be obstacles or glide paths, and the fragmentation is a glide path toward like-minded people talking to each other a lot. That can be an obstacle to doing things in Congress, so that’s completely fair. I like to think that the prequels are a little bit about that, but even George Lucas is human. I don’t think he quite foresaw that.
AVC: That folds into your larger defense of the prequels, a cause that you’re passionate about in the book. You argue the commonplace view, of “original trilogy = good, prequels = bad,” is oversimplified. It’s almost part of what you’re talking about—this idea that we want to streamline narratives to retrofit the conclusions we come to.
CS: Yeah. I think it’s not politically correct to like the prequels. If you say you like the prequels in polite company, you kind of mark yourself as not quite right. There are a couple reasons I want to say some nice things about the prequels. One is that they are visually spectacular. The start of Attack Of The Clones is really tremendous. Many of the scenes in Attack Of The Clones are tremendous. I think that’s the most underrated of the seven. Revenge Of The Sith, that’s a good movie. Scenes in which Anakin turns to the dark side are both really good in themselves, and they eerily mirror what happened to Luke. That’s very cleverly done. I think there’s a lot to be said in favor of them.
And okay, they don’t have the kind of joyful giddiness of the original three. That’s fair. I think I want to say it a little bit with respect to George Lucas: Give the guy a break. You know? He took real risks in the prequels. He thought really hard. They’re very ambitious movies. If you watch the first one, The Phantom Menace, a little bit with the feel of being a kid, I can’t say it’s a great movie, but it has greatness in it. Again, Lucas did some amazing things visually.
AVC: You explore the way in which Lucas changed ideas as he went along, even though he simultaneously liked to build up this mythology that the final story was always the plan from the get-go. But the films do seem to be a product of their time, in that Lucas couldn’t help but be affected by looking at the world that he saw at that time.
CS: Right. I’m also a big Bob Dylan fan. The songs on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan—which is one of his best early albums—they grow out of some of his difficulties with Suze Rotolo, and “Hard Rain,” people say it had to do with the Cuban missile crisis—probably not. He denied it. I believe him, but it certainly had to do with the time. But the songs transcend the time and one kind of early-20s or late-teen difficulties with a girlfriend. I think that’s true both of the original trilogy and the prequels. You’re completely right that you can’t avoid being influenced by the time where you create. The original trilogy—Lucas has been very clear that’s influenced by Richard Nixon and the view that he was going for a third term. I don’t think there was ever any evidence of him going for a third term, but that haunted or influenced at least Lucas’ thinking about empires. I do think you’re right that they both have a connection with their time.
Probably, if we looked at Da Vinci or Michelangelo with care, we’d see a historical particularity that the work is not treated as having. It’s certainly true of Shakespeare. But when the thing is good—and I’m talking here about Dylan, and Lucas, and Shakespeare, and Michelangelo. I’m not sure whether they all belong in exactly the same sentence, but they’re all pretty good, and they transcend their particular decade’s concerns.
AVC: That’s what makes the chapter where you perform the 13 ways of looking at Star Wars experiment one of the best parts of the book. It seems like a direct challenge to what people always want to do, which is to claim a specific political or philosophical perspective for pop culture they love. And you make an even more explicit case against that kind of all-encompassing interpretation when you point out how this is what conspiracy theorists do: The idea that facts and reality almost never have a one-to-one correlation with a certain ideology is one of the dominant themes of the book.
CS: Yeah, completely. I’ve done some work on conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theorists are completely impressive dot-connectors, and the same is true of many Star Wars enthusiasts who say, you know, it’s really a tale of the need for order and the failure of the Jedi, or Jar Jar Binks was a Sith lord, and Lucas backed away at the end because no one liked the character. Great works—and I think Star Wars is a great work—are easily susceptible to multiple plausible interpretations. Some of them are pretty nutty, but the idea that we should see it as profoundly feminist, or as a deeply Christian tale, or as a Freudian exercise… I think all of those have some truth.
AVC: You point out from this that Star Wars doesn’t tell you what to think, that it invites speculation, but there is a sense in which that’s also a bit glib, right? Because it both does and doesn’t tell you what to think, in that there are certain ideas and actions the films come down pretty firmly against.
CS: Yeah. I think you’re right. Within limits, it doesn’t tell you what to think, but it’s certainly pro-freedom. Also… I think “forgiveness” isn’t quite the right word, but it’s interesting—Luke doesn’t even forgive Darth Vader. It’s deeper than that. He just loves Darth Vader. He loves his father. So, he doesn’t even get to forgiveness, which, for all the energy in the blasters, it has great soul behind it. It’s very gentle. Not earnest, boring gentle, I think, but pleasingly gentle.
AVC: You note that even though it’s very indebted to Joseph Campbell and adaptable to a multitude of religions, just as his work was, you see a specific Christian theme. You note redemption comes—and what you just sort of said, which is not quite forgiveness, but a form of forgiveness—via the necessity of love, attachment, and interpersonal bonds. Do you see that as part and parcel of the claim about forgiveness? That any sort of strong bond would require that ability on some level?
CS: So, I subscribe to the following reading: Star Wars is an essentially Christian tale. I think that’s correct for the reason you give. The greatest of these is love, and attachment is both a route to the dark side, but also to redemption. Anakin says, “You’ve saved me. You already have.” So, that’s pretty good, and it’s definitely Christian. It’s not narrowly Christian, in the sense that you don’t need to be [Christian] to feel the resonance of that, but the view that it’s a Christian tale, I think that’s accurate.
AVC: In the book, you say, “In general, human beings tend to believe what they want to believe and not to believe what they don’t want to be believe.” Is it fair to say that this is another central thesis of the book, that social dynamics, strong bonds, and emotional appeals guide most human behavior, for better and worse? It’s the idea that most of us are “Luke” types who need some sort of stronger motivation to act than our own opinions.
CS: It’s deeply human to do both the worst things and the best things because of your fear of loss. There are ways of putting our current discussion so it might seem a little clichéd, but the idea that fear of loss is a driver of some of history’s worst deeds and also its best… that isn’t in Joseph Campbell. The standard hero’s journey doesn’t place a spotlight on that. Faust seems to have exerted a big influence on Star Wars. You know, the “give up your soul for immortality” or something. But the twist is that what Anakin wants to do is to save his beloved, and in the end, he really wants to save his beloved again, meaning his beloved child.
The fear of loss is an engine of horrors, but also a source of the greatest forms of heroism. There’s not a lot of art that puts that in bold letters. It’s psychologically very interesting and acute, I think. That’s not the central reading, I think, of the New Testament. That’s something that Lucas hatched. Of course, every human being has some access to that thought, but it’s not that easy, offhand, to think of in, say, Shakespeare, or Milton, or other great literary figures to capture that theme. So, that’s pretty good. Hats off to Lucas.
AVC: And this carries over to the political domain as well. You include the quote from Martin Luther King Jr. about how we’re less prone to hate our enemies once we realize there’s good and bad in all of us. We’re at a political moment right now—as we often are during elections—where there’s a very large reactionary movement that seems to have little trouble hating its enemies, but also likely includes a lot of very devoted Star Wars fans. Is there a problem in most people not reading their art politically? I always think of Al Franken’s anecdote about meeting creationists who were big fans of Jurassic Park. Is there a similar issue here for you?
CS: Well, it’s a great question. We certainly have had in the 2016 campaign some Manichean politicians. I think Senator Sanders, whether you like him or not, is a Manichean person—you know, there’s the banks, and there’s the people. Donald Trump and Senator Cruz have occasional Manichean tendencies. Star Wars is pretty complicated on this because it does see a dark side and a light side. Its articulated framework is very Manichean, but in the end, there aren’t a lot of Sith. Just two, and even they can be reached.
I find my answer is, I worked in the White House for four years. I dealt with people with diverse political views. If you find people who are your political opponents, and talk to them for an hour, chances are you’re going to like them, and they’re not full of hate. I think it may be that the fans of your least-favorite political candidate, whoever it is, are much more likable and light-side types than you might think going in. One way to reach them is to talk about Star Wars.
AVC: Well, it’s also distrust of institutions in American culture, right? Mainstream media and moderates will be quick to call Trump supporters or Sanders supporters “fanatics,” and to some extent, distrust of institutions is seen as fanatical, more so than defense of institutions, even though anti-institutional politics comes out of our political tradition in America in a lot of ways.
CS: Right. I wouldn’t call Trump supporters or Sanders supporters fanatical. One thing, I would say they’re very discouraged with where things are. I don’t think in either case they’re fanatical. For the Sanders supporters, there’s a thought that the people who are well off are doing really great, and the system is systematically unfair, and that’s a very deeply felt and serious objection to the current situation. I think a lot of the Trump supporters think that the job situation is not good. The middle class is not doing well, and trade policy might have something to do with that, and so someone who is going to be fixated on those things, who has a business background, has some appeal.
That’s a completely legitimate motivation. I wouldn’t call them fanatical—I would call them deeply concerned with the direction of the country and not happy with anything that seems like incrementalism. I think you’re right that both of them are very distrustful of existing institutions. My own view is that institutions are a glory, and for all their imperfections, something really to be proud of. It is true that things can be a lot better than they are. It’s okay to emphasize that.
AVC: You use the word “fanatics” at one point in the book, just to illuminate how belief can propel ordinary people to do extraordinary things. The word has negative connotations, but as you point out, from one point of view, the rebellion is made up of fanatics.
CS: Yeah. So, the abolitionists could be understood as fanatics. They were completely focused on slavery and its horrors. That was good.
AVC: And there’s a correlation there to what Lucas says to Lawrence Kasdan about the idea of killing someone in Return Of The Jedi, which Kasdan wanted to do, and Lucas overruled him. Lucas said, “I don’t like that, and I don’t believe that.” Isn’t that sort of a succinct evocation of precisely the types of hardline political or philosophical differences that exist between us?
CS: Absolutely. What I like best about the “I don’t like that, I don’t believe that” is his clarity that the idea—that someone you love dies—if that can be prevented in art, let’s prevent it in art. I love that. I think that’s a moment when George Lucas defeats, through argument, one of the great screenwriters in American history, Lawrence Kasdan.
But you’re onto something which is deeper, which is your motivation often determines your beliefs. So, I’ve done a lot of work on this outside of Star Wars, on issues like climate change and same-sex marriage, where if you’re motivated to think something, chances are you’re going to think it even if the weight of the evidence isn’t quite there. And so it’s no surprise that people who object to the death penalty on pure moral grounds also think it has no deterrent effect, and people who like the death penalty on grounds of retribution tend to think it has deterrent effects. They like that, and they believe that. I think with climate change we’re seeing very much the same thing where those who deny climate change, they don’t like that, and they don’t believe it. Those who believe in climate change, as I do, I think it’s also fair to say that they are more receptive to confirming evidence than disconfirming evidence. They happen to be right, but their motivations are in play also.
AVC: You talk about the progression of the movies as episodes, a series of narrative choices constrained by what came before, which makes this great analogy for the constitution and judicial interpretation. In just a few pages, you make a pretty damning case against the idea of constitutional originalism as people like Antonin Scalia saw it. As a former adviser in the Obama administration, you obviously see the importance of narratives when shaping or proposing policy as you talk about in the book.
CS: What the president asked me to do was to act in a way that was consistent with a careful analysis of costs and benefits. That means that if you have a regulation that costs a lot of money and the benefits are modest, you probably shouldn’t do it unless the law requires it. If you have a regulation that’s going to save hundreds of thousands of lives annually and not cost very much, that sounds like a very good idea. My role in the government was not to think about narratives and consistency with narratives, but think of the human consequences of rules. If that’s something that was going to save a couple of hundred children a year from getting seriously sick, and the illness could be prevented at a low cost, that’s a good policy. If you had something that was basically symbolic and was going to hammer small business and not help anybody, that’s probably not a good one.
AVC: To return to what we began talking about, but in a different way, do you find that any story that adheres to Campbell’s monomyth in the way that Lucas’ did can offer a lot of the same lessons? Or is there something about Star Wars specifically? Is there something even better about it than other monomyth adaptations, like The Matrix for example?
CS: That’s a great question. My favorite current monomyth is Jessica Jones on Netflix. I think the technical word is, it’s fucking phenomenal. You could quote me… first time I will have been quoted using that word in print. What it does with the monomyth hasn’t really been done before. Taking this somewhat downtrodden, chastened, trying-to-get-by person, and putting her—which is not the usual monomyth hero, but in this case, her—at the center of a sordid place where she encounters her own kind of Darth Vader. That is Campbell’s monomyth made new. It’s great. It’s very different from Star Wars, which has a kind of joyful, giddy quality. Jessica Jones has a kind of “somber with smiles peeking out of darkness” quality.
The monomyth is an inexhaustible source of creative energy. What Lucas did, among other things, he gave it an all-American twist. It has a kind of Western whooping quality with this emphasis on freedom of choice and some of the other things we’ve talked about. He made it new and really different. I love The Matrix, especially the first one. It’s also a hero’s journey, no question about it. That first one, fantastic. But there are plenty that just aren’t so good. Some of the Hulk movies have been merely okay. I think the thing to do… there has to be some stab that makes it something we haven’t seen before. Jessica Jones really does that, and it has to be not just original, but—both, you have a kind of tingle of the familiar and a sense of, “Oh my God.” That’s what Jessica Jones does recently, and that’s what Lucas did spectacularly.
AVC: It’s that element of the new that pushes the monomyth forward in some way we haven’t seen before.
CS: Yeah. Now, there’s one thing I hope I didn’t downplay in the book, which I might have. The opening scene in A New Hope, when you see the huge ship, it goes on, and on, and on, and on, and on… that is like a joke of awesomeness. Do you remember that?
AVC: Of course.
CS: It actually is funny. “It’s still coming?” So, I remember—and I said I wasn’t a huge Star Wars fan—I remember that as if it was last minute. You can’t believe it. That has nothing to do with the monomyth, that’s the exuberance, the—I think I quote Lucas as saying, “The defining quality in my films is a kind of giddy exuberance.” He said he’s not at all like that as a person. There’s something giddy or exuberant about that ship. That’s not Campbell. For Jessica Jones, my current favorite, if you think of some of the very dark scenes between her and her nemesis, there’s something there. I’m not sure the right word for it, but that’s not Lucas’ imagination. That’s someone else’s.