As we inch closer to the Dec. 18 release of the next “Star Wars” film, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” we sense a disturbance in the political Internet. Reporters, commentators and even some political scientists are opining recklessly, finding strained analogies between what happened in that galaxy far, far away and what’s happening here on the third planet from our sun. It’s as if a thousand editors cried out for clickbait, and no one had the courage to silence them.
For example, commentator Sonny Bunch made a forced analogy here at The Washington Post between, on the one hand, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings and, on the other hand, the destruction of Alderaan in “Star Wars: A New Hope.” Bunch maintains at length that Alderaan was a legitimate military target, “a financial and intellectual hub of the rebellion … a hive of scum and villainy no less wretched than Mos Eisley, but on a planetary scale.” Obliterating the planet and its millions of inhabitants, Bunch claims, provided a better option than military invasion and occupation.
But as Daniel Drezner, political scientist and blogger extraordinaire, recently pointed out, Bunch’s reading requires us to ignore the actual content of the film. Explicit dialogue makes clear that destroying Alderaan provides a way to “demonstrate the power of this station” such that “no star system will dare oppose the Emperor now.” Indeed, all this is part of a political problem: how to manage the Galactic Empire after the dissolution of the Imperial Senate, answering the question of “How will the Emperor maintain control without the bureaucracy?”
And this in turn takes place within a broader context, which is the Jedi-Sith struggle on which all important events in the “Star Wars” galaxy ultimately turn.
What does any of this have to do with political science?
Scholars of politics often find it interesting how fictional works — and science-fiction and fantasy works in particular — get deployed in, and appropriated for, ongoing political arguments. Examples include the conservative embrace of the Empire after the “Star Wars” prequels appeared to critique George W. Bush’s foreign policy. A significant number of political scientists are nerds or geeks. For many of us, the intersection of politics and speculative fiction proves irresistible.
That’s why political scientists sometimes author contributions to this genre. Over the last 15 years we’ve seen a cottage industry of articles, books, and edited volumes by scholars of politics on speculative-fictional worlds. Drezner’s “Theories of International Politics and Zombies” stands as far and away the most successful entry (although we haven’t yet seen what legal scholar Cass Sunstein’s “Star Wars” book will cover). But the genre includes books and collections on “Star Trek,” “Battlestar Galactica,” “The Lord of the Rings” and “Harry Potter.”
But comparatively few political scientists spend much time thinking about the methodological issues involved. That’s too bad. And it’s why so many of the “‘Star Wars’ and politics” pieces prove problematic.
Back in 2006, one of us co-edited with Iver Neumann a volume called “Harry Potter and International Relations” (the other co-contributed a chapter). The introduction suggests that these works resolve into a continuum of externalist and internalist approaches.
Externalist approaches focus on the relationship between a fictional work and politics in our world. They interrogate, for example, if “24″ really shaped “enhanced interrogation” practices, if reading “Harry Potter“ has an impact on attitudes toward diversity and torture, and if representations of threats — and threatening individuals — shapes foreign policy.
Some internalists use popular culture as ethnographic data — mining fictional texts to help make sense of the cultural drivers of foreign policy or looking at representations of enemies in video games. But at the far end of the continuum, political scientists use fictional worlds to illustrate arguments and reason through thought experiments involving theories of politics. In our own “science fiction and politics” classes, we treat such material as Alan Moore’s “Watchmen,” Iain M. Banks’s “Player of Games,” and Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Dispossessed” as works of political theory in their own right.
But if you’re going to use a fictional universe to make an argument, you have to adhere to the basic rules of that universe. Not everyone does.
For instance, we enjoy efforts to explain the downfall of the Galactic Republic by pointing to its structural deficiencies — its reliance on the Jedi Order or the lack of a “strong minority party.” But such efforts need to reckon with the “fact” (within the fictional universe) that the Republic lasted for over a thousand years — far longer than any contemporary political system — despite these putative problems.
Similarly, Bunch’s counterfactual speculation about the Empire not being evil runs smack into what we might think of as the basic proposition of “Star Wars”: The Force is divided into two sides, the Dark and the Light, and that divide is not arbitrary.
When Anakin tries to relativize the distinction in the climactic lightsaber duel between him and Obi-Wan in “Revenge of the Sith,” Obi-Wan replies in the only way a denizen of the “Star Wars” universe can respond: “Chancellor Palpatine is evil.”
Any discussion about whether the Empire is justified in doing anything must acknowledge that the emperor is an evil Sith lord, not just another politician sitting at the apex of sovereignty. The alternative — ignoring important aspects of the fictional world to make a point — is a form of hermeneutic violence, ripping the text to shreds by ignoring some of its fundamental features.
In “Star Wars,” there is a moral order built into the very fabric of the universe. You have to work hard to ignore that order and to imagine that Imperial fleet’s tactics are somehow intended to defeat the enemy outright instead of to advance the Sith plot against the Jedi.
Palpatine presses the Jedi into military service not because of the combat advantages of having Jedi military leadership (which are tremendous) but because he’s corrupting the entire Jedi order by forcing them to act as warriors instead of as “keepers of the peace.”
The Death Star is a weapon of intimidation designed to strike fear into the hearts of the subjects of the Empire. You can’t raise any moral issue about it because destroying planets full of peaceful civilians is what bad guys do, and the Empire is run by constitutively bad guys. Anakin’s redemption comes when he turns his back on the Dark side and returns to the Light; this has nothing to do with whether he’s atoned, per se, for his crimes and his murders. And so on.
If you’re not going to respect the rules of the fictional world, why refer to the fictional world at all? Reading “Star Wars” without taking the Force seriously means that you are left with misleading allusions. You miss the opportunity to read “Star Wars” as itself a (more or less) coherent text that comments on and theorizes about political and social life.
We can still argue about the meaning, message, and theories of politics operating in, say, a speculative-fiction franchise. But such arguments should take text, image, and other aspects of the relevant medium seriously. Otherwise what we produce amounts to bad fan fiction — bad because it rests on misleading and partial readings of the source material. And the more we tighten our grip on beloved cultural artifacts like “Star Wars” and force them to serve our political and theoretical agendas, the more the fictional world itself will continue to slip through our fingers.
Patrick Thaddeus Jackson (@profptj) is associate dean for curriculum and learning in the School of International Service at American University.
Daniel Nexon (@dhnexon) is associate professor in the department of government and the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.