A Dorm Room Fifteen Years Ago and not Too Far Far Away
Like many new college students, my political disillusionment came at the hands of the dastardly class reading. The class was tasked with keeping abreast of current events and, as it was 2003, I was reading about the Iraq War. I had come across an article online about a wedding party in Mukaradeeb, in which witnesses reported that the United States had dropped bombs, killing forty people including thirteen children. While some might associate a Collegiate Left shift with drugs and assigned readings of the Communist Manifesto, mine came on the back of Star Wars. Here I was, I hapless and ignorant American teen, and all I could summon to understand this tragedy is: “I live in the Empire”.
Now, I didn’t think my country is “evil”. But I had by that time realized that the nation, both as a government and private citizens, had committed harmful and cruel acts. Instead of counting this massacre as one in a long line of unjust and careless violent acts, I instead imagined how this act might appear to a child surviving the incident, discovering their entire family wiped out in a day. I thought she might have seen America the way Luke Skywalker views the Empire, after discovering his Aunt and Uncle killed by Stormtroopers. I saw the sense in a way, the emotional causality that would draw Iraqi people, inspired by similar events, to join violent insurgent groups. You may have seen a meme going around, making a similar connection between Luke joining the Rebellion and the Radicalization of Middle Easterners in reaction to the Invasion [above]. Please understand, I was not drawing any hard and fast conclusions then, nor do I now, of “them” being good and “us” being bad. But, it is point of fact that we had hurt people badly, very badly. And I was being told by my leaders at the time that it was being done in my name. So how do I relate with my country as it is doing things I cannot morally stand by, but in my name as an American citizen?
If my comparison of an act so grisly, and hotly debated, to a fantastical movie series seems to you ham-fisted and inappropriate, I agree; I’m a hack. I have a Bachelors of Arts in History with an American History focus and a Teaching credential, I will not pretend to have the hottest take or the most seasoned political expertise. And I cling to Star Wars the way Obama suggested some people cling to their guns. Star Wars make sense to me, it speaks to something in me, and through it and its conversation on morality and myth, fantasy and flight, I hope to communicate some things I have come to understand about politics, perhaps relevant to us at this disturbing time. I have come to see Political and Social awareness like being Force sensitive, as the Jedi and Sith are.
Through the Force, an adept can connect with every living being and use the influence of that collective relationship to move and change the world around them. The Light Side of the Force teaches Altruism, as an awareness of the common struggle of all living things. It gives students of the Light Side a mystic compassion that can merge minds, heal, and act in the precise moment. On the Dark Side, they teach Agency, the power of wielding our animating emotions toward great victory…and great destruction, famous for producing lightning, ignoring blaster fire, and choking the life out of enemies. In the Old EU, the new Jedi Order of Luke Skywalker often wrestled between these values, striving to create a character of Jedi that was both Altruistic and wise, yet effective in applying their supernatural Agency. While many books cycled our characters through this moral struggle, Star Wars creator George Lucas was elaborating on the morality of the Jedi, their nemesis the Sith and the general Star Wars Galaxy in the controversial Prequel Films.
The Old Republic
Now, the Prequels were never controversial for their political messages as much as for their quality and tone, however here, I would prefer to focus on the former. Even before Lucas began writing the Prequels, he had been quite clear with us that the Original trilogy had a definitive political and moral message. In a 2005 interview that would later rob contemporary Reactionary fans’ argument that Star Wars was apolitical, Lucas repeated that Star Wars was in part conceived as a cinematic critique to the Nixon Administration, naming the politician as the primary inspiration for authoritarian dictator Emperor Palpatine. This tracks with comments he made in 1975, comparing the Empire to the United States during the Vietnam war, explaining that Star Wars is an eternal story of resistance against a “certain force” that can arise in democracies and corrupt them. This “certain force” is, reasonably, Fascism, signaled by Lucas’ use of the Nazi designation “Stormtroopers” for the Empire’s elite troops, as well as the racial supremacy narrative hinted at by enslavement of nonhumans by the Empire, an organization that features only humans in power, as well as the diversity present in their opponents, the Rebel Alliance.
Lucas went on to further compare Emperor Palpatine and his apprentice Darth Vader to Dick Cheney and George Bush respectively, mentioned in a in a 2009 opinion piece by Maureen Dowd, which is where this train of thought lines up with the tracks I laid out up in my introduction. Between Nixon and Cheney, the metaphor of Palpatine might best be summarized as the politician who selfishly grasps for, and abuses, political agency. It is no great stretch to think of the United States as the Empire, as Lucas himself had done, certainly not when the same militancy Lucas was protesting in the the Seventies was resurrected in the foreign policy of the Bush administration. Lucas did little to hide comparison of the Emergency Powers given to Palpatine in The Attack of the Clones to the signing of the Patriot Act, the Executive powers of either also share something else in common; having never been relinquished by Executive powers who promised to do so. The culture war spun by right wing media outlets became publicly realized during this time, as Progressive culture was attacked routinely as morally corrupt by an increasingly reactionary Conservative movement. Wars in the name of Christmas were waged, a second Gay Panic arose, General Welfare laws were derided as “unAmerican”, while Progressive politicians did not move to prevent an influx of White Nationalists into Police Forces around the country and Conservative redistricting placed previously unknown power in the hands of Representatives to pick their voters, rather than the reverse. Meanwhile, in a Galaxy far far away, a lethargic Senate and complacent Jedi Order allowed the building blocks of Fascism to be put in place.
The Dark Side and Balance
In times of moral crisis, Star Wars has captured my attention by both criticizing established institutions of “Good” and “Evil” and by providing further rationalization of “Evil” in the now non-canon writings of the Expanded Universe. You may be surprised that I find Star Wars to be critical of institutions with a name for good, but in the Original Trilogy, we see that the Jedi of the Old Republic were not sufficient in vanquishing their Sith enemies, and there’s a point to that. The Return of the Jedi remains my favorite Star Wars movie (unpopular opinion, I know) because Luke denies the zealotry of Obi-Wan and Yoda, refusing to be their secret weapon and, yet, he succeeds where they have failed. The Light Side overcomes the Dark Side. while the Jedi of the Old Republic do not get the specific victory they had foreseen. Though this interpretation may not fit with Lucas’ vision, young me found this to be a critique of the Jedi of the Old Republic as having fallen from the Side of the Light and needing the redemption of Luke’s ultimate pacifism.
The Prequels cemented this in my mind by showing the Jedi as ultimately blind to and complicit in Palpatine’s establishment of a Sith Authoritarianism. The Jedi would pluck a child from slavery because he might be useful to their cause, but would not raise a Force-empowered finger to free his mother from bondage. In Attack of the Clones, they assume control of an army of Cloned men, programmed to be obedient, and direct those men to fight to the death in a violent conflict for a Democracy that would never recognize their personhood or Enfranchisement. To put that another way, the Jedi as an organization abided a culture of slavery, and even owned slaves themselves, effectively, leading many of those slaves to die in a war of attrition. This deviates sharply from the philosophy of the Jedi as taught to Luke by Yoda, though any chance of that character having matured over time is squelched in my mind by his insistence that for Luke to fail to resist his Darth Vader violently would doom any chance of defeating the Sith. Wars may not make one great, but they can make one bitter, perhaps.
The Expanded Universe explored this theme of moral ambiguity by suggesting that the Jedi and Sith do not hold a monopoly on the Light and Dark sides, respectively. There were many Light Side adepts in these stories who were not of the Jedi Order and eventually, the New Jedi Order books suggested that it was possible to study the Dark Side without the cruel philosophies of Palpatine. Just as Jedi and Sith were not objectively good and evil, this storyline asserted that neither side of the Force were objectively “real”, but subjective ideas within the minds of beings interacting with an ultimately Indivisible Force (a view sometimes called the “Unifying Force” in the EU). These licensed narratives went on to assert that the Dark Side was a sentient and civilized being’s observations of the way the Force manifests in the naturally selfish survival instinct. A moralizing being would then label the compassionate aspects of the Force as the contrasting “Light Side”. This storyline finished by suggesting that it was more than possible to dabble in the Dark Side, as being in touch with our instinctual/emotional selves, without sacrificing the Compassion of the Light Side, as long as the adept did not allow selfish desires to shape their perspective. This view valuing subjective balance, known as “Grey Jedi”, rankled Lucas enough that he asserted creative control in subsequent novel storylines, in order to depict the Light Side and Dark Side as more simply black and white, allegedly.
However, I do not find this view to be at odds with Lucas’ assertion that the Light side represents the happiness found in altruism and living for others, whereas the Dark side represents the ultimate dissatisfaction in pursuing power and pleasure for the self . After all it is possible to pursue self-empowerment without disenfranchising others, power is not a zero-sum game. Similarly, anger is a naturally occurring emotion for a reason; listening to our anger allows us to perceive injustices that must be confronted. additionally, one does not need to act out of anger, having listened to it. On the other side of this equation, we cannot be altruistic beings without taking some of our focus from others to care for the needs of the self. Likewise, we are not doing good when we let evil abound through inaction and let our identity of high morality allow the ends to justify the means, as the Old Jedi did. The Dark Side, when held in check by the Light’s compassion, empowers us to cultivate our emotional well being and acknowledge the role of our emotions and desires in shaping our agency.
I find the tension between these internal forces to be the most compelling struggle between Good and Evil in the Star Wars mythos, not the physical melee between the forces of good and the forces of oppression. Despite being warned against following his sentiment by the Yoda, Luke touched the Dark Side when he allowed his emotions for his Sith father to stay his final lightsaber strike, while holding firmly to the Light in acting altruistically. In that moment, the act balance in Light and Dark had a benevolent effect; making plain the troublesome disharmony caused by the struggle between Sith (whose mutual hate gives way to mutual destruction) and the Jedi (whose old Order is proven less effective at resisting evil than Luke’s altruism and is thus shown to be irrelevant).
So what does that say about Luke’s Father, who also flirted with Darkness by embracing his emotions and subsequent suffering for the rest of his days, and how might he increase our awareness of our own political situation? In today’s political landscape, I see Palpatine as the hint toward an appropriate comparison for Vader. If Palpatine is the Oligarch or Politician who selfishly seizes and abuses power, then Vader is the agent he manipulates toward this end. Palpatine approaches Anakin in the guise of the charming demagogue asnd, just as Palpatine uses the fears of the Republic to grant himself wartime powers, he uses Anakin’s fear of emotional abandonment. It follows that Anakin puts his love for Padme on a pedestal that soon is stronger than the young Jedi’s own better judgment. With this trust, Palpatine pins Anakin’s sorrows on the Jedi, and forces Anakin to choose between his mentor and his Order. Anakin betrayed the Jedi, violently purging them, and pledges himself to a Mentor who, frankly, emotionally and physically abused him and continues to do so. Palpatine shapes Anakin into a being of constant suffering, pushing his buttons knowing the Apprentice will only lash out on Palpatine’s enemies.
Sadly, I see this relationship entrapping many Conservative voters. Their politicians place these voters’ fear of progress on the pedestal of “moral goodness”, pursue self-enriching and self-empowering policies that ultimately harm this selfsame voter base, and wield that suffering into a weapon directed through demagoguery at outsiders and the voters fellow disenfranchised. As others have noted, America does NOT have a healthy outlook on poverty. We moralize the rich as deserving their wealth on the merit of hard work, while the majority of Americans struggle against this class divide while working as hard as any oligarch or plutocrats. With this morality connected to poverty, we instill a deep shame in our poor, a judgment of not working hard enough, being unworthy, that they internalize as self-hate and shame. By using narratives of the illegitimacy of nonwhites, Conservative Politicians use the Southern Strategy and its political descendants to isolate white voters and use their animus as a pretext for dismantling our Social Safety net and erecting legislation that protects and further increases the wealth gap. Trump Voters play a Darth Vader like role, manipulated against their peers, the unfamiliar, and even their very children in a self-perpetuating cycle of abuse. Younger, Millennial Conservatives are more like Kylo Ren (a comparison they noticed), enticed by the power and dignity nostalgia for macho culture promises. They worship the ideal of indomitable power that they see in the last generation’s action heroes, everyman, and Devilish charmer, refusing to hear of the failures or imperfections of that time past, in effort to emotionally shield themselves against the various hardships installed by that selfsame generation.
Myth and False Narrative
Star Wars appears to offer a promise of physical victory over Darth Vader and the Stormtroopers, the Emperor and his Fascism, but I believe Luke’s moral victory, both over evil and those who do evil in the name of good, is the core climax of the Trilogy. As I said, to make this victory, Luke had to lift his perspective beyond the physical overthrow sought after by Yoda and Obi-wan. These Old Jedi are caught up in a relatively illusory conflict that is not the prime conflict driving the story. Star Wars appears to be about mythically awesome battles in the name of democratic victory, but the more essential narrative behind the Myth is that compassion overcomes anguish and tyranny. Star Wars, like the monomyth that inspired it, has many layers.
So too does America. A place, a power structure, an experience, a culture. America is a history of a people as divided as they are connected. Much has been written about what the “Story of America” is or was… or will be. But I think we get caught up in artificial and kin-deep narratives, while the stories that really turn the wheels of our society are often not revealed until after years of collective study and self examination. The 18th century was often described as a century of greatness for America, great risks, great gains, great wars, and great men that made decisions with great import. But I would argue that for most people living in what we now think of as America, that narrative was one of survival. “How will I survive the encroaching white settlements? How will I survive on these wages? How will I survive this war? How will I survive the cruelty of slavery? How will I survive out here on the frontier?” Because so many in power were disconnected and remote from the struggles of those whose lives they governed, the 18th century was made all the more difficult for so many by the decisions of a few. But History marched on and people found survival in each other. Integration, mass communication, unionization made the 20th century something very different.
The American Dream as a motivating narrative is an idea thought to drive America so fundamentally, we often don’t further specify it. But what it means is hope, hope for a better life, a better future for your children, middle-class luxuries, or even for fame and fortune. But I see this as a self-reflection focused solely on our selfish drives and accomplishments. To me the people of the 20th century have been less driven by “How will I move forward” than by “How will WE move forward”. This last century we asked ourselves if common people could band together and change society and we found out that si, se puede. Women stood up and moved gender politics in multiple stages and in multiple ways. The Civil Rights movement broke down inequity from the fields of California to the hills of Georgia. Incredible technological advancement was brought about by public universities and small ventures, peer-researched scientific achievement. The political debate is no longer “How do we govern?”, But “How do we govern better?” Thanks not just to the internet, television, telephones, mass publishing, and a constantly adapting media, but to the ubiquity of literacy itself, people are more connected to each other than ever. And we know what we can do, if we act as one.
Balance in the Force
The questions of how to govern best and what can many people accomplish when working together has not just been asked by revolutionaries and activists, but by Conservatives as well. A strong narrative of the quintessential American character under assault by change and the encroaching Other was utilized and refined throughout the 20th century. McCarthy wielded it to advance a power play propelled by paranoid accusations. The Southern Strategy was crafted in the early sixties, to begin to isolate White voters and shape their psychology towards xenophobia, the later use of which was instrumental in winning the Presidency for Nixon. After Nixon’s disgrace the culture war was devised as the ultimate refinement of this narrative and the Trump voter was born through fear sold by the Limbaugh’s, O’Reilly’s, and Alex Jones’ of mass media. With war comes dualism, and as this conflict drove Conservatism to degrade existing rights and threaten people, Liberal and Progressive culture rose to the challenge of that fight, completing the cycle necessary for Conservative politicians to justify the impression they had once created that their Voter base was under attack. This cycle may seem endless, the fight may seem hopeless, but it is not. You can be like Luke, triumphing over tyranny by being in balance, by being one with the Force.
To be one with the Force, even when you are surrounded by the complicity and conformity of Stormtroopers, is to be aware that you and all of society are connected. Your actions can affect multitudes and no one person of those is too insignificant to consider the consequences they would bear. In the reverse, you are the focal point of many acts of benevolence, from the wisdom and experience of those who came before you, to the kindness and support of your various communities.
With these as your Lightsaber, RESIST oppression, fight against Fascism. Luke’s victory was brought about in the context of the Rebellion’s physical struggle with the Empire, for a reason. Great oppression, such as the Genocidal Death Star, must be resisted physically so that the ultimate cycle oppression can be vanquished morally. When you touch the Dark side and acknowledge the emotions within you, while holding firmly to the Light, following the wisdom of Altruism and letting benevolence flow through your actions to enrich your community, you are in balance within the Force. And in that moment, when you see the hurt of the world and do your best, when considering your needs and limitations, to make your world better, the Force is with you. You are one with the Force…