May the Fourth

I was probably the last person in my high school to see Star Wars for the first time.  Indeed, it is rather astonishing that it took me (or anyone) until high school to enter into George Lucas’s fantastical world of Jedis and Ewoks—a land nearly every late-20th century American kid had absorbed long before he encounters the equally vexing worlds of biology and long division.

Admitting my Star Wars ignorance to a friend at the time, I received a cheeky tongue-lashing from his mother in an adjacent room:  “You haven’t seen Star Wars?  Are you an American or not?”

Today, May 4, is Star Wars Day, so established because it allows people to walk around saying, “May the fourth be with you!”

On this most sacred occasion, we might reflect upon what a dying breed cultural landmarks such as Star Wars have become in the world we now inhabit, and whether it bodes well or ill for the nation at large.

The point about the fourth of May being Star Wars Day is not that everyone thinks the pun is particularly funny, which they most certainly do not.  The point, rather, is that everyone recognizes the pun without it having to be explained to them.

Star Wars is simply a fact of American life, as surely as The Wizard of Oz was a generation before and Titanic a generation after.  They serve as universal reference points—enduring moments in American culture that bind the country together.

By no means is one required to enjoy these films—let alone to possess encyclopedic knowledge of their every nuance—but if one manages not even to be aware of them, well, that is when one becomes suspect.

Nowadays, however, this dynamic is very seldom the case.

The 21st century United States is so decentralized—such a jumble of disparate creations catering to a seemingly infinite spectrum of tastes—that the idea of collective, shared experiences has progressively fallen by the wayside, and is in very real danger of going extinct entirely.

With the singular, pronounced exception of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter—a British-based, rather than American-based, phenomenon—how many works of popular art can be said to have infected every last corner of American society?

When James Cameron’s Avatar landed in movie theaters in late 2009, Roger Ebert remarked that it was “one of those films you feel you must see to keep up with the conversation.”  Can we say with any certainty that such a momentous event has occurred since then, in movies or anywhere else?

(Sure, one can depend upon the periodic Internet “meme” to go “viral,” but these are ephemeral and can easily be ignored until they die down.)

Taking this trend to be both true and irreversible, and laying most of the blame on the proliferation of the Internet (that most durable of culprits), we are left only to wonder about the consequences.

Take, as an example, the most widely-read book in the history of the world, the Bible.  Christopher Hitchens, second to none in his hostility toward organized religion, lamented the general decline of Biblical literacy in the English-speaking world, warning that without it, one will not understand key references and allusions in the works of Shakespeare and countless other societal tent poles, and will effectively be robbed of a proper education.

(Perhaps a more troubling matter, which Hitchens also addressed, is how few of today’s young folks bother with Shakespeare at all.)

Indeed, the significance of Harry Potter (and Star Wars and all the rest) is to have created an entire world and an entire language for us all to draw from, in order to make our lives and conversation more enlivening and worthwhile.  What a pity for our world to be reduced to a billion individual lexicons, any one of which only a select few of us can understand.

This is, in its way, a consequence of multiculturalism, which the United States so often claims as amongst its proudest characteristics.  America is now a place where not everyone feels compelled to understand ”may the fourth be with you,” or to inquire why they might want to “follow the yellow brick road.”

If this is a sign that our country continues to evolve away from its cultural roots, shifting its identity from a select handful of traits to a million points of light, let us acknowledge it as the simultaneously hopeful and lamentable development that it is:  Lamentable for the common language that we shall lose; hopeful for the uncommon people and ideas that we shall gain.

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