Not So Long Ago, In an America Not So Far Away

Star Wars 7

This week, Walt Disney Studios will release the seventh installment of the Star Wars series, Star Wars: The Force Awakens.  Arguably the most popular and recognizable franchise in film history, millions have grown up watching, reading and playing the adventures seen in these films for nearly 40 years.  The latest movie will see the continued exploits of the Rebel Alliance, turned Resistance fighting against the First Order, which was once the Galactic Empire.  In the early episodes, it was the Jedi Knights and Galactic Republic against the Trade Federation and the Confederacy of Independent Systems.  As we watched these stories unfold, you might have seen an awesome science fiction expression of space, impossible technology and futuristic themes that dominate the genre.  I, however see much more than that.  Star Wars is the ultimate retelling of democracy, tyranny, religion, politics and war that is as old as our civilization itself.

Now, despite the themes in Star Wars being rather timeless, the conception of the story had its genesis back in 1962, where the creator of Star Wars, George Lucas, who was a fan of the likes of Buck Rodgers, Flash Gordon and sci-fi heroes of that time, found his true passion in auto-racing.  Unfortunately for him, this passion would lead to him getting into a violent car crash, nearly costing him his life and landing him in the hospital for months recovering.  With little to do, stuck in a hospital bed for weeks, George Lucas had plenty of time to watch the television set in his hospital room and it was around this time that coverage of the crisis in Vietnam was beginning to dominate the news.  What Lucas watched, as he recovered, was a low technology, loosely organized resistance force, the Viet-Cong, challenge a more technologically advanced, militaristic and tightly organized army in the American-backed South Vietnamese and win.  How they were able to win is the question Lucas sought to answer when he began writing Star Wars a decade later.

Earlier, I mentioned the overall scope of the competing forces throughout the films: the Jedi and the Galactic Republic vs the Trade Federation and Confederacy of Independent Systems as well as the Rebel Alliance and the Galactic Empire from the original trilogy.  Each themselves reflect familiar themes that are current in our world we know today.  To that end, if you look at the plot of the films, the subtext of what they are actually about is told within. Take the first movie in the series(chronologically 4th made), The Phantom Menace. Ostensibly, the movie is about a galactic trade conglomerate attempting to force the queen of a small planet to bend to their will, an idea plotted by a senator, who represents the planet in a galaxy wide republic, who himself is beholden to an ancient evil cult vying to rule the galaxy. That alone is the plot of the first episode. However, once you remove the science fiction elements from the story, here’s what you are left with: a powerful labor union exerts it’s control over a local government forcing a broken and corrupt democratic republic to bend to the will of a right-wing religious group. That sounds less science fiction and more of a story of real world political intrigue. Now, as the Star Wars saga unfolds, what happens is we see a powerful, yet thoroughly corrupted senator, named Palpatine, is elected to lead the Republic and with the imminent threat of civil war and the fracture of democratic rule from threats within, he convinces the legislative body to slowly give up their freedom in the name of greater security. Eventually, he’s able to seize absolute control over the republic and transform it to an authoritarian ruled, heavily militarized oppressive empire.

That is Star Wars in a nutshell. And if you look at our current social and political environment, what might have just seemed like a silly space fantasy, is more reflective of what we see in our nation over the last several years and even reflected in societies and civilizations of the past. In Star Wars, we saw the Galactic Republic transform from a large democratic body to an tyrannical Galactic Empire. The Empire did not go to war with the Republic. The Republic was never defeated in battle, nor was it usurped by a power enemy. The actual enemy was from within the Republic itself. It became so powerful that it could not control it’s individual parts. If you look at history, practically every great democracy would share a similar path of Star Wars’ Galactic Republic. The Roman Empire began as a Roman Republic. It even had a senatorial body that survived the republic within the Empire, just as Star Wars did. In France, 1400 years later, it was democratically ruled by a Senate until Napoleon Bonaparte became First Counsel and was eventually crowned Emperor by the senate, much like Chancellor and Emperor Palpatine did in Star Wars. 120 years after Napoleon, Europe saw the rise of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany from the Weimar Republic, which was a representative democracy in Germany at the time. And just like in Star Wars, where the chancellor was continuously granted more emergency powers, which he used to render the senate obsolete as Emperor, Hitler followed the same path as chancellor, eventually rendering the ruling Reichstag obsolete as he became Fuhrer. In fact, most democracies are hardly ever ended by outside agitators, but are taken over from rogue elements from within and often is the case these elements are swept in to power by popular demand.

Our current Presidential elections have featured similar elements that are present in history, also reflected in Star Wars.  Of course, you don’t have to look hard or far to see rhetoric from the likes of Donald Trump and compare it to the rhetoric and actions seen in Star Wars.  When Jedi Knight, Obi-Wan Kenobi says that the evil Dark Lords of the Sith “deal in absolutes”, I can’t help but to think of Trump’s penchant to over-exaggerate and ignore nuance, how everything is the biggest ever or best ever, as he often stays.  In the same vein, the way the Sith Lord, Palpatine pointed to the religious order, the Jedi as the bad ones threatening their democracy is much like Trump’s pointing to Islam as the bad ones threatening our democracy.  That we must give him power because he is the one that can save us from what he tells us is the threat.  But the most striking example of such a parallel, is with the fervent and loud support someone like Donald Trump has received for the things he’s said.  Although I am of the absolute belief that Donald Trump has no path to the Presidency, this was the same situation seen in Star Wars, Episode I.  Then Senator Palpatine was one of thousands of nameless senators, but when he used a tragedy to boost his own profile, he was swept into leadership by popular support.  Just as incredibly, we see Trump’s polling numbers surge in the days following tragedies in Paris and San Bernardino.  Step by step, the actions seen in Star Wars have direct comparisons to words and actions that are more familiar today and in history.

18th Century Scottish historian, Alexander Tytler, developed a theory on democracy and the cycle it takes.  He posed that a society starts in bondage and oppression.  From there faith and courage leads to society’s liberation.  However, that liberty eventually leads to complacency and apathy, which allows for certain elements to take advantage, causing a dependency or a need for a savior.  This dependency then causes the society to willfully give up their liberty for bondage again.  As I noted, most democracies have gone through similar cycles.  The obvious question is of course, is the United States of America doomed to follow the same path?  Will we share a similar fate as Vietnam, Rome, France and Germany in the past?  This was the same path illustrated by George Lucas in Star Wars, with the apathetic Republic replaced with the oppressive Empire, which itself spawned the courageous Rebel Alliance and Resistance.  As America navigates this cycle, we achieved our liberty from the bondage of a British Monarchy 200 years ago.  Are we at the point of complacency and apathy in our country that our liberty will eventually turn to bondage and tyranny?

In Episode III, Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, Senator Amidala, who was the queen from Episode I and opposes Palpatine’s authoritarian transformations has a line towards the end of the film.  As she sits in the Senate Chamber listening to Palpatine play upon the fears of the body, he announces that they must form a Galactic Empire to secure their society from all threats to which hundreds of other senators cheer their support.  She turned to a friendly senator and said, “So this is how liberty dies… with thunderous applause.”  When Donald Trump announced that the United States should ban all Muslims from entering the United States, what struck me was not his proclamation, which is rather typical and unsurprising coming from him by now.  What really gave me pause was the cheering from the crowd as he made the announcement.  Is Donald Trump the Phantom Menace seen from Episode I?  Can America scare itself into tyranny?  Some say we already have.  Some say we’re inevitably headed that way.  I say, I’ve seen this story before…  Only difference is it was on a screen, in a galaxy far, far away.

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