16 thoughts on “Zocalo: Spoiler-free Discussion of “Phoenix Rising””

    1. I don’t think teeps from most alien races would have been allowed to join Byron’s group. Imagine the recruitment sessions:

      Minbari: I’m an oppressed telepath and want to join your group.
      Byron: No hair, pastel colors? Next!

      Drazi: I’m an oppressed telepath and…
      Byron cuts them off: Next!

      Byron: NEXT!

      Centauri: I’m a telepath and I want to join.
      Byron: Welcome. Ours is a simple life, without modern technology such as hairspray, clothes irons, or fabric brightening powders.
      Centauri: You are not touching the look!
      (Storms off)

        1. Those Who Remember Byron believe that the hair is the expression of the inner soul, and thus must be free to flow without being constrained into rigid forms or being cut short.

          Oh yeah, poor Lyta. We’ve never seen her dressed up socially like Ivanova or Delenn, but she got to wear green and/or glossy black. In this episode she shows her commitment by dressing like a low budget Goth.

  1. I really like our hosts’ point that this episode, and the hints about a Telepath War in general, has generally been about telepaths fighting telepaths. It’s easy to assume it’s just teeps versus normals, but the sides aren’t nearly that clear.

    And that’s just preamble to point out that a big reason why Byron failed is that he’s just as much a racist as Bester. (I know, a couple weeks ago in the spoiler thread we discussed how it’s not exactly “racist,” but I still can’t think of a better word.) Which is obvious in retrospect once we know Byron’s history as a Psi Cop.

    As a certain inquisitor might have pointed out, Byron’s motives were never pure. He wasn’t building a community, he was building a cult from the same authoritarian influences as the Psi Corps itself. He wasn’t arguing for freedom, he was seeking isolation and hate (mistaken for mere escape from the Corps). His message of nonviolence was just a means to an end, an attempt to distinguish themselves from the Corps but never actually rejecting the philosophy of the Corps.

    His followers were dominated by his personality and whims, and so when some of those followers were away from his influence, they quickly abandoned nonviolence but retained the anti-normal attitudes that both Byron and the Corps shared.

    1. I’m a bit more generous to Byron — he’s incoherent and has conflicting impulses, I think. On the one hand, he wants to be normal; on the other, he clings to the notion of telepath superiority (perhaps defensively because he wants to be normal).

      I think he does want freedom in the real sense — his ideal separatist society would not be oppressive. But he is not able to imagine that freedom would mean people disagreeing with Byron; his views seem self-evidently and obviously correct to him, and he has the charisma that allows him to create a situation in which his followers seem to agree, and so he is quite blindsided when it turns out that they don’t all actually agree.

      But total agreement that he still accepts Bester’s framework: conflict between mundanes and telepaths is inevitable. Byron’s solution is nicer (and it’s always worth remembering that his fear of normal humans is not insane: we’ve seen Edgars). Instead of one side ruling over the other, they go their separate ways and live in peace. But the assumption is still that there is no way for the two to co-exist within the same space. Byron shares that assumption not only with Bester, but with Edgars, and it puts him on the opposite side from the side that B5 generally endorses, that of co-operation between groups within society and between different peoples.

      However, I think “hate” is too strong a word for this. Byron resents normals for what they’ve done to telepaths, he fears them, he thinks that he is superior to them, and he is jealous of them for being normal. But he is capable of generosity to them. Consider The Only Good Scene In A View From The Gallery, in which Byron gets nothing for granting Bo’s wish and receives genuine gratitude.

      I’d contrast G’Kar in S1, who really does hate Centauri and who, when asked by Morden what he wants, longs for their extermination. I don’t think that’s Byron.

      1. You’re right, I don’t think he was consciously retaining all the attitude from his Psi Corps days, but the end result is the same.

        I’m not sure if it’s completely consistent in the show, but I think there’s one simple test: for any given character (mainly telepaths), do they use the term “normals” or “mundanes”? The latter term is much more pejorative and probably indicates their attitudes towards coexistence.

        1. Also there’s a difference between Byron before and after the revelation about the origin of telepaths. Byron really wants to blame the Vorlons, but can’t. So he’s transferring his anger onto people who don’t really deserve it, and has to convince his followers of this sudden change. Hence some exaggeration?

          1. I think that’s a very good point. We’re seeing Byron in the immediate aftermath of a revelation that has up-ended his world, and it’s not a point in time at which you’d really expect to see a moderate Byron, or the best Byron.

            As has come up on these threads before, if you want to criticize Sheridan, it’s for keeping the Vorlon role in the creation of telepaths a secret. I don’t think the show has really criticized him for it, though. In fact, it doesn’t really address it at all as a decision that anyone makes. It’s just assumed that it is a secret until Byron finds out.

            I think there’s probably some connection there to B5’s tense (at best) relationship with academics. As I’ve noted before, it’s a little odd that the station in S1 doesn’t draw xenologists ( or whatever one calls the equivalent of anthropologists for alien species) like flies (and that their professional expertise is not viewed as relevant to the job that the station is supposedly doing in S1), that the disappearance of B4 attracts no attention from physicists, etc.

            (Translate this into Star Trek – not more “realistic” but very different in its attitudes in this area – and this becomes obvious.)

            It means that there is no character whose worldview would lead them to argue strenuously the position that it is just wrong to keep knowledge like this secret. (Maybe Franklin.) So it can sort of be swept under the carpet that it is far from obvious that it should be.

            You can make arguments in favor of keeping it secret – it’s not that it can’t be justified in story terms – but the show never actually makes those arguments, or treats it as a question that might provoke disagreement.

      2. “But he is not able to imagine that freedom would mean people disagreeing with Byron; his views seem self-evidently and obviously correct to him”

        Another thing he has in common with Bester.

        There’s something very Platonic about Bester’s views in this episode. Plato believed that people are naturally motivated to do good, and that evil comes from ignorance (e.g., a murderer commits his crime because he thinks that it will benefit him). Those who do wrong are mistaken, and need to be taught what is truly good, with the result being benefit to both the community and the offender (since living a good life benefits the one living it, and evil is inherently self-destructive). Only those who are incorrigible are to be exiled or killed, and that is only because they have shown their unteachableness and are tragically a lost cause.

        In the same way, Bester sees his perspective as unquestionably true, and “blips” as tragically mistaken. Their error hurts themselves as much as it hurts The Corps, so in the long term it is to the blip’s advantage to be re-educated by whatever means are needed, even if those means are harsh in the short term.

  2. Was there a secret to be kept before now? There seems to have been some general knowledge that the Vorlons were messing around with cultures, for instance installing religious awe, but I don’t recall any suggestion that the Vorlons flat out created telepaths.

    On Earth the Psi Corp would be the ones most likely to have found out through their research programs, but we’ve seen that the Psi Corp likes to keep info about telepaths to themselves.

    Would it be kept secret afterwards? All the ambassadors at Bryon’s presentation got a printed booklet, so it’s not a human only matter anymore. On the other hand, the only actual evidence is Lyta’s memories.

    I can’t see much good coming from making this more widely known either. Tell everyone that teeps were artificially created as weapons instead of semi-naturally occurring through evolution? I don’t think this is going to help the cause of peaceful co-existence.

    So I don’t think Sheridan or anyone else is keeping this secret or trying to suppress the knowledge … just having no good reason to want to talk about it.

    1. Hmm. I think you have a point that Sheridan and co. may not actually know before this, which completely takes care of it. I’d have to go back through the series and see. I may be projecting stuff that is only established here onto earlier episodes.

      As for the second point, if a person in power decides “it’s better if people don’t know this,” for me that’s not a place where one can really see a difference between “having no good reason to want to talk about it” and suppression.

      And the counter-arguments are fairly obvious (just as they are in the real world). At some point, this may come out, and it’s likely to cause an additional problem that it was suppressed (“You can’t handle the truth!” tends not to be the best thing to say to people), and damage the cause of peaceful coexistence further. And there’s the pragmatic argument that releasing difficult information allows you to choose the moment and the message at the time when you release it (aka why the most interesting political news is on Friday), which is often a lot better than leaving it up to chance and someone else at some indefinite date in the future.

      (The fact that Psi Corps, an organization which you *know* contains a faction looking forward to a war between telepaths and normals, is a likely candidate to be that someone else, is an aspect of this that’s peculiar to B5. You may be giving Bester a gun that he can fire at a time of his choosing. He may never choose to fire it, but you can’t know that.)

      More importantly, someone would make the argument that all that’s beside the point: that it’s a basic principle of the liberal democratic order that important information is only kept from the public under strict conditions (usually, direct relationship to national security or because it’s not of public concern and would damage a private individual). Obviously, in the real world political figures hide stuff all the time (although usually not out of a benevolent philosopher-king desire to promote peaceful coexistence so much as a desire to win the next election, or to get away with enriching themselves corruptly) — but on B5 one would expect someone to make the argument for the ideal, given just how idealized JMS can be in his representation of these people.

      There’s a slippery-slope dimension to this. If you decide that your official government policy is that it’s bad for the public to know important scientific information, does the IA discourage academic research into it? Because given that we know that there are universities, and people wandering around with doctorates, so someone is doing research here, and it’s very unlikely that Psi Corps are the only people researching something as obviously interesting and important as why humans have telepaths. IPX could stumble upon this at any moment — do you start pushing for the IA to regulate archaeology? There are serious academic-freedom arguments here.

      And when you get down to it, this is important and basic information about who people are on a basic level, and someone is going to feel that you don’t have the right to suppress it because you feel that they’ll be better off not knowing.

      Now, there are pragmatic arguments on the other side. (On the whole, I think deciding to suppress it forever is unlikely for Sheridan as he is depicted, but one can see him thinking that “Now is not the time,” and deferring it to a couple of years in the future, especially during the civil war.)

      But my point is that the show never really treats it as a point that needs to be addressed at all and makes any arguments, pro or con. So, I think your suggestion that this is meant to be completely new information is a good one.

      If so, there may be a writing problem here: there should be some line for a non-telepath (probably Sheridan) in which that character reacts to learning this as part of the telepath crisis, to make it clear that s/he had no idea. But if it’s something that could have been fixed with a line and just got lost in the shuffle, that’s a very small problem.

      1. ” we know that there are universities, and people wandering around with doctorates, so someone is doing research here”

        “Wandering around with doctorates” is literally the job description of all university faculty. 🙂

      2. I didn’t make myself clear. There is a difference between suppressing information, and not talking about it. For instance, as an Australian who believes in free speech I expect my Australian government not to suppress people expressing various unpleasant opinions and views … but I don’t expect the government to actively assist or draw attention to them either.

        So far the Interstellar Alliance hasn’t made any attempt at suppression:
        * Lyta hands out booklets to all the alien ambassadors. Sheridan doesn’t try to get them back, or even tell the ambassadors what to do with that information.
        * In one scene the holed up telepaths are listening to a news broadcast, which mentions their tactics and demands. So neither B5 nor the Alliance appears to be stopping news from getting out.
        * All the non-violent telepaths now know the origin of telepathy. Sheridan lets them go without any condition of keeping quiet or even a verbal caution.

        If we don’t hear about the Vorlon creation of telepaths again, it’s most likely because Lyta is right and there’s nothing to gain.

        1. This isn’t a matter of not arguing for a view. This is a matter of the government knowing something important and deliberately deciding not to make that information public.

          Suppose, for instance, that the government discovered that a vaccine was ineffective. I do not believe that anyone would find “We didn’t conceal the information, we just chose not to talk about it.” a very meaningful distinction.

          1. I think it might also be a matter of having evidence. I’m pretty sure the only direct confirmation that we had was Sheridan’s conversation with Justin and Morden on Z’ha’dum. I agree that witholding information is bad, but you don’t release information based on mere hearsay either.

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