Yes, it may be set a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. But "Star Wars" and the sweeping space opera conjured by George Lucas and co. lends itself readily to metaphor. A cottage industry of nerds and wonks have already picked apart the real-world implications of the conflicts and rivalries on display in the films. WorldViews, a mere padawan in these matters, offers a quick guide into a universe of political meaning.
The Jedi and the liberal order
Sure, these mystic knights of the Old Republic, clad in robes and armed with lightsabers, don't have a clear equivalent in our sadly Force-abandoned planet. The Jedi are steeped in cosmic mysteries, and gifted with monk-like faculties of perception and foresight. Yet they are also mighty paladins in the service of ruling elites, key figures in the halls of power.
The question is: How should we see the Jedi's political role?
Viewers of the original "Star Wars" film trilogy would probably cast the Jedi as subversive change agents. Jedi powers are, after all, essential in aiding the rebellion against the usurpers of the Galactic Empire. The Jedi philosophy — premised on finding balance and harmony in the Force — may be boilerplate pseudo-Buddhist blather. But it is also fundamentally good and carries within it a vision for a kind of eternal liberal order.
Yet there's another strain 0f interpretation, particularly championed by right-wing bloggers, who see the Jedi as the henchmen of an almost totalitarian status quo. This is particularly true when you think about how the Jedi have, for time immemorial, been custodians of the Republic, not unlike the Janissaries of the Ottoman Empire. One particularly strident blogger at the National Review offered this blistering hot take earlier this year, when he suggested that he would choose the Sith, the Jedi's arch-nemesis, over the good guys any day:
The Jedi — as portrayed in the movies and in many of the books of the expanded universe — are basically the lightsaber-wielding jihadists of an intergalactic bureaucratic caliphate. The Galactic Republic is the Hotel California of interstellar governance. You can check out, but you can never leave — at least not if you want to keep your head on your shoulders... The Sith, by contrast, are defined not by a system of government but rather by their struggle for individual liberty — a struggle against centuries of Jedi oppression.
As PostEverything's Dan Drezner — a real Yoda when it comes to making any of these parallels —- observed half a decade ago, this sort of reading is perhaps a bit harsh. The Jedi are sensible centrists, intent on moderating power and keeping peace.
"Were the Jedi perfect agents of liberty?" Drezner asks. "No, probably not. But neither were they handmaidens to the greatest concentration of state power in galactic history."
The Galactic Empire and the uses of power
Conservative journalist Sonny Bunch set the cat among the pigeons earlier this year when he suggested, rather delightfully, that the Galactic Empire's destruction of the planet of Alderaan using its Death Star was "justified." The scene (see clip above), which is in the first film of the original "Star Wars" trilogy, is held up as an example of the perfidy of the empire and its apparatchiks, including the Sith lord Darth Vader. (The Empire's aesthetic parallels to the Third Reich also speak for themselves.)
But Bunch sees little difference between this act and that of the United States dropping nuclear weapons on two Japanese cities in World War II. Alderaan was a haven of rebellion and probably a legitimate military target. Pulverizing it with one doomsday device would be strategically preferable to a costly and difficult invasion:
The destruction of Alderaan, then, is more analogous to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki than it is to a “genocide.” Yes, it was horrible, and yes, it would be nice if it didn’t happen. But it was an attack on a legitimate military target and defensible under Just War Theory, an attack intended to save lives by deterring other major powers from beginning conflicts of their own.
This led to all sorts of howls across the Internet, with many contesting Bunch's various claims: Some argued that, indeed, the attack did amount to "genocide" and did not satisfy the ground for "just war" theory; others insisted that the scene is a clear demonstration of imperial overreach and villainy, a sign of the empire's moral and political failings.
That said, there's still a rich, entertaining debate about whether the Galactic Empire is actually evil — or, at the very least, that much more contemptible than the Old Republic, a feckless confederacy of preening royal elites so zealously protected by the Jedi.
The Rebel Alliance and politics of counterinsurgency
The new "Star Wars" film is set some three decades after the end of Lucas's earlier plot, which saw the Rebel Alliance defeat the Imperial legions at the Battle of Endor. But, as two academics writing at Foreign Policy note, we now know the protagonists' Mission Accomplished moment was premature:
In hindsight, it’s clear that for the Rebel Alliance the Imperial defeat at the Battle of Endor was a classic example of a catastrophic victory: a sudden collapse of a seemingly unbeatable foe that produced opportunities it was unprepared to exploit. Rather than capitalizing on their historic gains and establishing the hoped-for New Republic, the Rebels simply allowed the Galactic Empire to fragment, ushering in a period of chaos.
The authors, Paul D. Miller and Michael Boyle, proceed with remarkable thoroughness to catalog the real-world political lessons of such a "catastrophic victory."
"The collapse of empires has traditionally led to new conflicts," they write, "fomenting hypernationalist forces that conjure a mystical, glorious past and seek to punish those who cost them their privileges and position." On a different scale, we see such forces unleashed in places such as Syria, Iraq and Libya — where the removal or unraveling of an entrenched, authoritarian status quo spawns further violence and factionalism.
Moreover, the rebels' dependence on indigenous boots on the ground — in this case, furry Ewoks, Wookies and other such intergalactic species — clearly presented the remnants of the Empire with an opening. Miller and Boyle suggest that a more robust "conventional military campaign," buoyed by upgraded and withering air power, be complemented with a concerted effort to lead a "coalition of the willing" of local and tribal forces under a unified military command. Sound familiar?
Lastly, though, they recognize that no war can be fully won, or peace be properly kept, without the right political system.
"It is crucial that [the New Republic's] leaders build a government that is more democratic than the Old Republic," they observe when discussing post-conflict resolution. "The weakness of the Old Republic’s executive and judicial institutions to check the legislature," after all, allowed the rise of the Galactic Empire.
No matter the armies of Stormtroopers, the fleets of X-wings, or the friendliness of Gungans, at the end of the day, it's all about institution building.
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