Have you ever had the experience of blurting out a secret shame and then discovering that other people shared your secret? None of them were willing to talk about it either, and you all thought you were alone. But it's not true. It turns out you have friends after all.

No, I'm not confessing to being a Justin Bieber fan. But I do think that Return of the Jedi is the best of the six Star Wars movies. Yesterday I tweeted this, and the torrent of abuse was immediate.  @AdamSerwer: "This is crazy. Empire is the best by leaps and bounds, even the Vader/Luke fight is better." @drgrist: "The world demands a @kdrum post justifying his absurd ranking of Return of the Jedi above Empire." @jbouie: "Empire is unquestionably the best film. Really, ROTJ? No way. No how." @ChrisWKelly: "For me, 'Jedi' was so awful that it kept me from even bothering with the prequels."

But I wasn't completely alone. "Are we tweeting about how Return of the Jedi is our favorite star wars movie?" asked @kombiz warily. "I agree, didn't know i could say it publicly."

Well, you can! Just because everyone has been telling you for years that The Empire Strikes Back was the best of the original trilogy doesn't mean you have to keep quiet and knuckle under to the mob. That's what Goebbels counted on, right? So say it proudly: Return of the Jedi is the best of the six Star Wars movies! Come out of the closet!

And now, in the spirit of all those counterintuitive essays that Slate is so famous for, here's why. But first, a bit of throat clearing. In any trilogy, the first and last episodes have a built-in advantage. The first episode gets to introduce the setting and it gets to introduce all the characters and all the themes. Learning about the Force for the first time is just unbeatable. And the last episode gets to wrap everything up. If you do a good job of it, that's unbeatable too. The middle piece, though, can be a real slog. We already know all the characters and we're not going to get a resolution. Just lots of exposition.

So the middle part is really hard. To borrow a phrase, it has a very high degree of difficulty. And if you count that, maybe Empire was a better movie than the others. We got a great new character in Yoda and a great new theme in the Luke/Vader relationship. Given the hurdles it had to overcome, it was a helluva good film.

But resolving an epic tale satisfyingly is pretty hard too, and on an absolute scale I still think Jedi is underrated. So now, with my throat clearing out of the way, let's dive right in and address the elephant in the film: Ewoks. You hate them. I hate them. Everyone hates them. But don't let that blind you. The truth is that there's less of them than you think. There are, basically, two extended Ewok sequences. The first, when the Ewoks capture Luke and Han, is inexcusable. I won't even try. But it's only ten minutes of a two-hour movie. The second sequence is the battle for the shield generator station, and in that one the Ewoks really don't matter. It's a set-piece fight, and the Ewoks are just the extras — small, furry extras, but still extras. Ignore them. If someone recut the film to excise most of the first, infuriating Ewok sequence, I honestly think a lot of people would see the rest of it in a whole different light.

So the Ewoks aren't enough to ruin the film. But what makes it great? For starters, there's the start. The introductory sequence where Darth Vader pays a visit to the new Death Star is riveting, and its closing line — "The emperor is not as forgiving as I am" — pitch-perfect and perfectly delivered by James Earl Jones — is one of the best of the entire trilogy. What a way to pull you in!

And then there's the extended opening sequence on Tatooine. This is just great filmmaking. It's fast-paced, it advances multiple story elements effortlessly, it provides plenty of surprises, and it does a superb job of showing off Luke's maturing talents. Anyone who isn't fully engaged in this film after its first half hour has no business being in the theater in the first place.

And there's more. Visually, Jedi is far and away the best of the Star Wars movies. Face it: Hoth and Dagobah and the Cloud City were kind of meh, visually. And in movies like this, that matters. But Jedi has stunning visuals everywhere. It might not be easy to remember at this late date, for example, but the speeder chase on the forest moon was pretty spectacular in 1983. Hell, it's not bad now. The Death Star is gorgeous, and the emperor's throne room is a masterpiece of lighting and set design. The night sequences in the tree city are beautiful. The whole movie is a visual feast.

The arc of the story is completely engaging too. There's the Luke story, the Han/Leia story, and, of course, the Darth Vader story. There are a hundred ways any of these could have been fucked up (cf. the entire prequel trilogy), but they weren't. Take the treetop scene between Luke, Leia, and Han. This had to happen. We all knew it was going to happen. Any false notes would have wrecked it, but there weren't any false notes. Mark Hamill, granted, is not filmdom's finest actor, but even so the whole sequence plays out fluidly and convincingly. When Luke tells Leia she's his sister, what should she say? The answer is: "I know. Somehow I've always known." And that's exactly right. Once she's said it, you know it's the only thing she could have said.

And then, finally, there's the finale. For all its Saturday matinee melodrama — and this is, after all, Star Wars' heritage — the confrontation between Luke, Vader, and the emperor in the emperor's throne room is, by a mile, the best extended sequence in any of the movies. The dialog is terrific, the pacing is near-perfect, the visuals are spectacular, and the final metamorphosis of both Luke and Vader — which, again, is really hard to pull off credibly and could have been fucked up in a hundred different ways — was instead pulled off flawlessly. And then, in a mirror image of the movie's start — a terrific short opening scene followed by a longer introductory sequence — the long final sequence in the throne room is capped off by a shorter final scene on the hangar deck between Luke and Vader. This was a genuinely poignant scene. Even the music was perfect.

And so many great lines in this movie! "This bounty hunter is my kind of scum: fearless and inventive." "So what I told you was true... from a certain point of view." "If you will not turn to the Dark Side... then perhaps she will." "You were right. You were right about me. Tell your sister... you were right." "Now witness the firepower of this fully ARMED and OPERATIONAL battle station!" "Many Bothans died to bring us this information." "Strong am I with the Force, but not that strong." "You want this, don't you?" "Now you will pay the price for your lack of vision." "Your overconfidence is your weakness....Your faith in your friends is yours."

All you have to do is watch Revenge of the Sith to understand just how ineptly a heroic space opera based on elemental clashes can be wrapped up. It's no mean feat to resolve a story like this in both a narratively convincing and emotionally compelling way, but Return of the Jedi does it, and does it without stinting on the action and without letting the wheels and pulleys show. This is much, much harder than it looks

So put aside your hate! (Of Ewoks.) Instead, do this. Relax. Empty your mind of all Ewok thoughts. Then watch the movie again. At about 1:07, click ahead three chapters. That's it. Aside from that one ten-minute sequence, the Ewoks are just furry extras, not nearly as annoying as you remember them. And while the first two parts of the original trilogy are great on their own merits, the remaining 117 minutes of Jedi — its visuals, its pacing, its character development, its resolution of all the trilogy's main themes — make it the best and most satisfying of the bunch.

Ed Kilgore comments on a New York Times piece highlighting Mitt Romney's willingness to do and say anything to win the Republican nomination:

If that's true, then Romney's efforts to pretend he's the "true conservative" in the campaign have been something of a waste of time. All he really needs to do is to prove he has absolutely no conscience or inhibitions about negative campaigning. Because that's what "base" activists want more than anything else, even more than victory: a holy war against Barack Obama to articulate their visceral hatred of the incumbent, with which they hope to infect persuadable voters. Mitt's well on his way to passing that most crucial test.

Well....maybe. There's no question that if/when Romney wins the nomination, everything will soon be forgiven and the base will rally around him as their sole salvation from another four years of Obama. The same thing is happening on the left, as Obama talks tougher and tosses out base catnip like phone calls to Sandra Fluke in order to win back the affection of his erstwhile admirers from 2008. Still, I suspect that Romney really does have a long-term problem here. Sound and fury aside, I think the lefty base is actually more willing to accept compromise in their leaders than the right-wing base is. These folks really do want a true believer, and if you aren't one it demonstrates a serious moral deficiency, not just an unfortunate weakness. Weakness can be accepted if push comes to shove; moral failure can't be.

So it's a problem for Mitt. Maybe it's a small one: only two or three percent of the Republican base. But in a close race, that could be a lot.

From Mitt Romney, missing out on his chance to use Rush Limbaugh's "slut" remarks as his very own Sister Souljah moment:

I'll just say this, which is it’s not the language I would have used.

And even that was only after dodging reporters all day before finally deciding he could risk expressing even this measured-to-the-nano-hair level of disapproval.

By the way: at the risk of belaboring the obvious, the problem here isn't really Rush Limbaugh. His schtick is to say outrageous stuff and then watch as liberals get into a lather over it. He's done it before, he'll do it again.

The real problem is that Rush is speaking for a big pool of people who agree with him. We're all acting as though we're shocked that the "religious freedom" argument was just a facade for a seething hostility toward contraceptives themselves, but what's to be shocked about? Rush knows his audience well, and for most of them insurance coverage of contraceptives has always been a sideshow. That's clear enough already if you're plugged into the email chains and church newsletters that form the backbone of social conservatism, and all Rush has done is drag it out from this netherworld and shine a national spotlight on their real concern: that unmarried women are having sex at all, and that easy access to contraceptives expresses a tacit endorsement of it. They really do disapprove of the pill and the free-love generation it ushered in, and they disapprove of the fact that modern society forces them all to pretend that this is OK. Because they don't think it's OK. They're afraid of it. They think it's bad for public morals, they think it leads to a breakdown of order, and they think it should be condemned. Maybe the hypocrisy of times past was nothing to be proud of, but it's still better than the chaos and self-indulgence of the if-it-feels-good-do-it generation.

I know we all know this. But sometimes it seems like we forget. The issue here isn't really Rush, it's public opinion. There's a big chunk of it that's still offended by the sexual revolution, and we either have to persuade them otherwise or else just steamroll them because we're in the majority. There's really no other option. There never has been. Rush is just a distraction.

I fell down on the catblogging front this week, so today's pictures are last-minute snaps. On the bright side, this means you're getting a near-real time view of what the cats are up to right now. Which is: pretty much the same as always. Enjoy.

Responding to my post this morning about gasoline prices, several people have asked why I didn't say anything about the weakness of the dollar as a possible culprit. Answer: because the dollar isn't especially weak right now, and in any case, the value of the dollar has only a slight effect on the global price of oil. Obviously a weak dollar makes all imports more expensive, so it does play a role in domestic prices, but as you can see from the chart below — where the dollar value is inverted and rescaled to show the relationship more clearly — the strength of the dollar has very little relationship to the price of oil. In 2007-08, the price of oil spiked from $60 to $140 while the dollar weakened only slightly. The recent spike began in November, while the dollar was strengthening. After that the dollar weakened a bit, then strengthened last month. It's just not a big factor here.

As you probably already know, Rush Limbaugh plumbed some new depths of loathsomeness a couple of days ago when he claimed that Sandra Fluke, a Georgetown student who's testified in favor of mandated contraceptive coverage in healthcare plans, was a slut:

What does it say....that she essentially says that she must be paid to have sex? What does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She's having so much sex, she can't afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex. What does that make us? The pimps.

Tod Kelly mulls over the larger meaning of this:

In the late 90s through the early and mid 00s, the GOP found that it could increase both number of voters and voter passion by aligning itself with a media machine that was initially created to build ratings from shock value....The GOP found, much to its delight, that by using the segment of the media that it controlled, it could continually rally its base and win elections without dealing with the traditional difficulties of having to sell superior policy proposals....In a world as hard and difficult as politics, the GOP found a way to make everything easy.

But, as Terry Pratchett has oft said, the problem with the easy way is that eventually it makes everything so damn hard.

The media business model the Right chose to embrace was based on the shock-radio model. An inherent flaw with this type of model is that while it leads to quick ratings and advertising profits, it it can be difficult to sustain. If you spend one week calling the President a liar and an idiot, it’s not going to be long before calling him a lying idiot isn’t really all that shocking. You have to continually push just a little bit more as you go, or risk being irrelevant in the shock-media world.

....Somewhere along the line, however, this model has to break down — partly because you eventually reach a ceiling where the base that believes the ever-increasingly shocking claims is small enough to make the party you’re backing politically irrelevant, and partly because to those that aren’t part of the machine or the base you begin to look increasingly out of touch. Birtherism is a fairly good example of this ceiling being reached, as are the Death Panels and Obama/Hitler youth programs. Unfortunately for the Right, however, once you tie yourself and your success so inexorably to the machine it becomes almost impossible to untangle yourself from it.

Question #1 of the day: Is this true? Is the right being hurt by its media machine these days? Question #2: Are liberals in danger of going down the same road?

This morning's topic was why gasoline prices have been rising. Today, the Washington Post essays a vastly more important topic: who are we blaming for rising gasoline prices? Here's the answer in colorful bar chart form:

What to think of this? The primary correct answer is "supply and demand," which isn't on the list, and the secondary correct answer is tension in the Middle East, which garners 11% of the answers. "Other mentions" gets the most votes, but just what are these other things that people are blaming? The answer, it turns out, is: government, speculators, Congress, gas guzzlers, rising global demand, George Bush (!), the economy, OPEC, greed, Democrats, Republicans, and (my favorite) everybody/everything.

If you put the answers in a different set of buckets, it looks something like this:

  • 31% — The government in one way or another
  • 19% — Greedy corporate gits in one form or another
  • 11% — Tension in the Middle East
  • 10% — Supply and demand in one way or another
  • 10% — Something else
  • 24% — Don't know

(Don't blame me that this adds up to 105%. Apparently some people gave more than one answer.)

Ezra Klein thinks this poll demonstrates an improvement of sorts, since 28% of Americans blamed Bush for rising gas prices after Katrina but only 18% are blaming Obama for the current rise. Maybe. But if I had to guess, I'd put this down to two things. First, Obama is just more popular than Bush was at the time. Everyone hated him after Katrina. Second, we've had a bunch of these price gyrations since 2005 and the public is getting used to them. It's harder to blame the president when this stuff happens every year or so no matter who's in office.

As for myself, I don't know. On the bright side, only 1% of Americans blame environmental restrictions on domestic drilling, despite a full-bore Republican campaign to convince them otherwise, so that's nice. On the other hand, I'd sure like to see a lot more people blaming supply and demand. Maybe 10% isn't bad, all things considered, but I was ve-r-r-r-r-y generous about what I put in that bucket. The vast majority of Americans still have no clue what's driving all this.

Domestic politics has absorbed most of my attention lately, so this came as more of a surprise to me than it probably should have:

Hours before dawn Thursday, Afghan assailants, including a man hired to teach Afghan soldiers to read, shot and killed two U.S. troops and wounded a third, Afghan and American officials said. The soldiers slain at the base in Kandahar province were the fifth and sixth U.S. military personnel to die in a span of eight days at the hands of Afghans they had worked alongside. With these latest killings, the proportion of NATO overall military fatalities caused by such "insider" shootings this year stood at nearly one in five.

There are more details later in the story, and then this:

The deaths come against a backdrop of deepening mutual mistrust between many Afghans and their Western counterparts after riots tore through the country last week over what officials said was the inadvertent burning of copies of the Koran at a U.S.-run military base....Publicly, U.S. officials have painted the Koran incident as a setback, but scarcely one that could shatter longtime bonds. They point out that the rioters made up only a tiny fraction of the Afghan population, and assert that it was a situation in which the Taliban and other Islamist militants seized an opportunity to both whip up and blend into the crowds.

But that's the whole point. Of course this is a case of the Taliban taking advantage of an incident to demagogue the U.S. presence and whip local crowds into a frenzy. Pretty obviously, though, this is the situation we're in. Our presence, for a variety of reasons,1 is unpopular enough that the Taliban can easily take advantage of small incidents like this. And they will. There will always be provocations of one kind or another. It's inevitable when you've got a hundred thousand troops who are spread out over a big, unfamiliar country and constantly under extreme stress.

Today's incident was an accidental Koran burning. Tomorrow's incident will be something else. And the next day it will be something different still. But they all point in the same direction: counterinsurgency had its chance, and it's just not going to work in Afghanistan. It's time to wish the Afghans godspeed and let them have their country back.

1For example, the fact that our military operations routinely kill and maim Afghan children and other civilians. It's not deliberate, but that doesn't matter. We still do it.

Noam Scheiber says that deep in his heart, President Obama doesn't just want to let the Bush tax cuts for the rich expire, he wants to let all of the Bush tax cuts expire:

In the fall of 2009, Obama’s chief congressional lobbyist, Phil Schiliro, touted a clever idea for dealing with the tax cuts: introduce a bill that would extend the middle-class cuts for two years while allowing the upper-income portions to expire. After two years, the middle-class cuts would also expire unless Congress paid for them with off-setting savings or tax increases.

Schiliro figured that, if the bill passed, the whole mess of tax cuts was likely to disappear when all was said and done....At first, Schiliro’s plan went nowhere—in truth it was as much a stunt as a serious proposal. But Schiliro had an important ally: Peter Orszag, the president’s budget director....By November 2009, Orszag had become so fond of the idea that he insisted on presenting it to the president in the Oval Office. Orszag’s fellow wonks were cool to the plan, having heard him and Schiliro sing its praises repeatedly. But the administration’s chief wonk—Barack Obama—was intrigued.

I would be delighted if this were true, but this reporting seems really, really thin to me. I mean, what's the evidence here? In a single meeting over a year ago, budget hawk Peter Orszag presented an idea and Obama....listened. That's it. Scheiber says Obama was "intrigued," but the plan never went anywhere, and Orszag, of course, is no longer part of the administration. It's never come up again, and Obama has apparently never so much as mentioned it since November 2009.

"What is clear," says Scheiber, "is that, having been tempted to end all of the Bush tax cuts in 2009, the president would only find the idea more attractive were he to win a second term." But no: that's not clear at all. Obama wouldn't have to worry about reelection, but every single Democratic member of Congress still would, so the political calculus really wouldn't change much at all.

This is making a mountain out of a molehill. Staffers have ideas all the time. Sometimes they get a chance to present them to the president. The president usually listens politely, rather than screaming at them never to mention it again. That's all that seems to have happened here.

Which is too bad. Ditching the entire set of Bush tax cuts really is the only way we'll ever get the long-term deficit under control. If I had my way, we'd phase out the whole mess, maybe by thirds starting in 2013. But I'll bet the president doesn't agree, more's the pity.

President Obama sat down with the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg to talk about Iran and nukes in a more sustained way than I've ever seen before. Here's a snippet:

GOLDBERG: Go back to this language, 'All options on the table.'....The impression we get is that the Israeli government thinks this is a vague expression that's been used for so many years. Is there some ramping-up of the rhetoric you're going to give them?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I think the Israeli people understand it, I think the American people understand it, and I think the Iranians understand it....I think that the Israeli government recognizes that, as president of the United States, I don't bluff. I also don't, as a matter of sound policy, go around advertising exactly what our intentions are. But I think both the Iranian and the Israeli governments recognize that when the United States says it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, we mean what we say. Let describe very specifically why this is important to us.

In addition to the profound threat that it poses to Israel....it is almost certain that other players in the region would feel it necessary to get their own nuclear weapons. So now you have the prospect of a nuclear arms race in the most volatile region in the world, one that is rife with unstable governments and sectarian tensions. And it would also provide Iran the additional capability to sponsor and protect its proxies in carrying out terrorist attacks, because they are less fearful of retaliation.

....GOLDBERG: Do you see accidental nuclear escalation as an issue?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Absolutely. Look, the fact is, I don't think any of it would be accidental. I think it would be very intentional. If Iran gets a nuclear weapon, I won't name the countries, but there are probably four or five countries in the Middle East who say, "We are going to start a program, and we will have nuclear weapons." And at that point, the prospect for miscalculation in a region that has that many tensions and fissures is profound. You essentially then duplicate the challenges of India and Pakistan fivefold or tenfold.

....GOLDBERG: ....There have been disagreements between Israel and the U.S. before, but this is coming to a head about what the Israelis see as an existential issue. The question is: In your mind, have you brought arguments to Netanyahu that have so far worked out well?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: ....One of the things that I like to remind them of is that every single commitment I have made to the state of Israel and its security, I have kept. I mean, part of your -- not to put words in your mouth -- but part of the underlying question is: Why is it that despite me never failing to support Israel on every single problem that they've had over the last three years, that there are still questions about that?

In four words, Obama says the U.S. approach toward the Middle East is: "We've got Israel's back." And he's obviously pretty pissed off over the political footsie with Republicans that Benjamin Netanyahu has been playing. Obama may have Israel's back, but it looks like his upcoming visit with Netanyahu will be, in the usual diplo-speak, "frank and productive."