Monday, May 16, 2005

Civics Lessons in Star Wars

A long time ago, in a theater far, far away, an impressionable ten-year-old stared up at a movie screen filled with images of flying space machines and swords of light.

These are the words of La Shawn Barber but they could have been mine if I had written them first.

I anticipate that there will be a lot said in the coming days and weeks about George Lucas as many claim the latest movie is merely an attack on the neo-conservatives and their attempts to destroy a republic and build an empire. Such attacks give Bush too much credit. He is just the latest and most successful neo-con. The ideas and forces that are expressed in our current foreign policy are nothing new. The story of Republic and Empire was there to read in my childhood and early adolescence. I read it, it was not written to attack Bush. What is does attack is all that Bush represents. If Bush has chosen to become one of the empire builders described in Star Wars that is really his problem, not that of Lucas.

I write often about the ills of our society and the entertainment we enjoy is certainly one of those. My wife cannot understand how it is I hate the television but enjoy movies. More accurately stated, I enjoy movies that make me think. Just like a good book that is well written I do not have to agree with everything the author portrays; if in the end of the experience I have been forced to think I have learned something.

Star Wars was for me the first big movie I viewed in my young life. In innumerable way this one movie inspired within me thoughts that shaped who I am today more than any other movie. The books that I read in the early eighties in the genre of the Star Wars universe only added to my deeper ponderings on the lessons the movie(s) taught me.

How silly you say for a 37 year old man that has traveled the world, completed a graduate degree and read more books that I care to admit in polite company to attribute so much of his world view to a space opera.

So just what do I mean? I was taught in church and at home as a young lad that Good and Evil exists in the universe. I could not fully understand these things before I accepted salvation and I really could not grasp this concept until I opened my heart and mind to an understanding of the Law that the Spirit teaches us.

The Star Wars universe was one of good and evil at extremes. The first movie was simple in this presentation. A large empire bent on forcing its will on others was challenged by a few rag-tag rebels that sought only to live free and determine their own destiny. This sat well in my mind and meshed with the other things I was taught by example, tale and heritage.

Anyone that watches the first movie understands that the Empire is evil. This is a given. The beautiful part of the genre is that as the story unfolds in various books and in the first three movies (Episodes IV, V, VI). By the end of the last movie you are left with an understanding that there is more to the story. Evil cannot exist in an abstract. Even though men are born sinful we do not assume that we come out of the womb determined to do evil. Just how did a man like Darth Vadar slip so far into darkness?

The viewer comes to understand that there must have been more to Darth Vadar at some point in his life. His sacrifice for his son at the end of Episode VI bespeaks of a man that wishes he traveled a different path in his life. The viewer is left with questions, how a man turns to such absolute evil and how a government as efficient as the Empire can turn so brutal burn in the mind.

For those that had to have the answers to these questions all of the books that contained the story before the story presented on the screen were available in print. The movies forced me to ask questions, the answers provided in reading the rest of the story truly made me think.

We find that in the beginning the Republic was a government based upon law with honorable traditions and a noble history. Great good, security and prosperity came to those that fell under the umbrella of the Republic.

We see, however, the very underpinnings of the fall of the Republic and deterioration into Empire. Greed, personal and financial, is at the core of the fall. Large mega corporations conduct bloody private wars in order to secure profits. We see the conniving and scheming of politicians that promise to stand on the principles of the Republic but really have only their personal interests and ambitions at heart. We also come to love a little boy that is as innocent and full of potential as any little boy.

In Episode II we begin to see the formation of the Empire. The fist thing attacked is the old religion of the Republic. It is unnecessary to the future; in fact the old ways get in the way of progress. The religion itself is dismantled and destroyed while the Empire makers wrap themselves in a perverted remnant of the old, just to secure the legitimacy of the new. We still love the little boy now teenager. He struggles to remain true to the old religion in a time of great change. His struggle is made all the more difficult because of the limited time he has had to fully understand the principles of his religion. He lacks a foundation.

Now without giving away the story of Episode III I will say simply that all is revealed. The struggle of the young man so ungrounded in his beliefs is exasperated by betrayal. Anakin Skywalker is betrayed by the two people he loves most. He looses his family and as a result he looses any grasp he had on his former beliefs. In the parlance of the movie he turns to the dark side completely.

If we replace the old religion of the Star Wars Republic with that of Christianity in our American Republic we see that the commonality of sin in various forms is at the heart of both stories. Both religions stand in the way of bringing in a new order, but the new order still requires parts of the old (traditions etc.) to gain legitimacy. Is there any difference today? Liberals and Neo-conservatives hate what Christianity represents and the stubbornness with which it ought to resist their agendas. Greed, anger, betrayal and scheming are also at the heart of both stories. Can anyone deny that these four elements are rampant in our society?

There are other lessons in the Star Wars story of note that directly relate to ours. Consider for instance the scene in Episode IV when Queen Amidala addresses the Republican Senate on behalf of her planet. You see an image of thousands of senators representing a few hundred thousand planets. Think about that for a moment in terms of real representative government. The book series gives a clearer picture of this. Many of the planets in the Republic are represented by one senator. Millions or billions of people represented in their government by one man.

This provides a thought exercise in just how big a government ought to become before it is too far out of touch with the people it represents. Do you think for a moment that a mere citizen in the Star Wars story had any real access to his representative?

In our current system one congressman represents an average of 646,952 citizens. Compared to the enormous numbers portrayed in the Star Wars universe this number seems manageable. But how much influence do we really have over our representatives? Adding additional congressmen would only add new and different problems.

This is really more of a oligarchy without the benefit of a qualified and morally accountable ruling class. A Republic based on representative democracy has limits. The example in Star Wars is the extreme version; our real life example is surely enough to prove that bigger is not better in terms of allowing the voice and will of the people to be heard.

In summary I would recommend the Star Wars experience (books and movies) as an adjunct to any good civics study program for the young. My son and I have watched the movies several times; during each viewing we stop the tape and talk about relevant issues. (we always turn entertainment into an opportuntiy to learn)

My only question is why did these stories not engender the same sort of response and world view in others of my generation. All those wide eyed 10 year olds watching an amazing story of freedom, tyranny, good and evil surely ought to have learned something applicable to our world. It seems not. Too many of them happily support the destruction of our Republic through liberal or neo-conservative ideologies.

As for the nonsense that this last film was written as an attack on current policy, I say hogwash. The actors in real life may have been unknown but I read the story years ago.

UPDATE: Apparently others have taken lessons in civics from Star Wars; the wrong lessons. Consider this piece by Jonathan Last. (HT to Cicero and La Shawn for digging it up)

Read this quote:

Whatever the case, the important thing to recognize is that the Empire is not committing random acts of terror. It is engaged in a fight for the survival of
its regime against a violent group of rebels who are committed to its

No Mr. Last, the Empire is not randomly committing terrorism; they are the defacto government with enormous resources. The terrorism the Empire visits on people and planets in Star Wars is strategic, methodical, calculated, well resourced and planned.

I suppose this make the examples of wholesale destruction of planets OK with you, just because it is the government and they are establishing order, tyrannical order but order non the less it is ok.

I suppose Thomas Sumter, Francis Marion and a dozen other American rebels that upset British order were wrong as well, at least if we apply your flawed logic.

UPDATE II: It seems everyone is getting on the Empire train. Read what La Shawn says in her commentary on the Last article.

After the Jedi prevail and the Empire is crushed, the galaxy is back to square
one: Run by a disparate group of regional authorities who answer to no one. At
least under Darth Vader, they had to answer to him (or suffer unpleasant
consequences). Like it or not, he provided order and stability

Gosh La Shawn, please tell me what is wrong with regional authorities answering to no one? I am baffled by the thought process in your statement. Genghis Khan provided order and security, Napoleon provided order and security, so did Adolph Hitler. Would you prefer any of these systems of government over self-rule?

These issues are theoretical as applied to the Star Wars story but the principles are perfectly applicable to everyday life and politics. The end does not justify the means. The road between human freedom and tyranny is filled with good intentions like the ideas you stated above. Order and security mean little if a people give up their freedom to attain it.

Recedite, plebes! Gero rem imperialem
El Cid

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