Star Wars: a Criticism of Paternalism as Stepping Stone to Empire
During the week of October 14th, 2019, Trump ordered the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the northern regions of Syria, exposing the U.S. allied Kurds to violence at the hands of Turkish military preparing to storm the borders of Syria. Many Democrats and military analysts are decrying the move as a betrayal of vulnerable U.S. allies and a sign that can possibly taken as cowardice or even complicity with the desires of foreign nations like Syria and Russia. However, a question we must ask ourselves as promoters of human rights whether perpetuating the U.S. role of world police or global “peace keepers” really promotes global democracy or undermines it.
Paternalism is described by John Stuart Mill in 1859 1 as ruling methods or governmental ideologies based on the belief that government should act as a father to the people, preventing them from knowingly or unknowingly harming themselves, thus justifying legislation against “victimless” crimes like drug consumption or riding motorcycles without helmets. Mill’s rejects paternalism on the grounds that:
“the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection […] the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so” (13).
Although at the time, Mill’s argument to restrict government merely to preventing violence between individuals represented an increasing movement towards liberal democracy, this line of reasoning (e.g. getting involved militarily in order to stop violence between groups or nations) has become the justification for U.S. and/or U.N. involvement in foreign affairs. Mill’s attempt at restricting governmental sovereignty now justifies what amounts to imperial interventionism as a foreign policy regardless of which political party sits in the White House.
1950 to 1953: the U.S. defends the South Koreans from the Communist Chinese and North Koreans. 1965 to 1973: the U.S. fights the Communist Viet Cong in Vietnam. 1963 to 1973: covert U.S. operations ends up leading to the assassination of Chile’s democratically elected President Allende and installing military dictator General Pinochet. 1992 to 1995: U.N. Peacekeeper Forces found themselves embroiled in the Yugoslav Wars. 1991: U.S. forces drive Iraqi forces from Kuwait. In 2001, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in response to the 9/11 attacks and Iraq in 2003 as a response to false reports of weapons of mass destruction. 2014: the U.S. gets involved in Syria. 2015: the U.S. gets involved in Saudi Arabia’s conflict with Yemen.
A 2016 study 2 from the University of Maryland tries to justify these 21st century U.S. interventions as more often motivated by humanitarian concern than personal security reasons, in other words, the U.S. has become a global empire motivated by paternalism, or concern for others. Assuming we even bought this argument, the question remains: how democratic can the international community be when the U.S. tries solving all conflicts by military intervention?
Historically, democratic states fall from within by being corrupted into a tyranny or empire of some kind. As early as 404-403 BCE, ancient Athenian democracy, marred by the corruption and violence characterizing the Thirty Tyrants’ rule, saw five percent of its citizens murdered in its one year. 3 In 31 BCE, the Roman republic transformed by violent military takeover into a theocratic empire under Julius Caesar’s nephew Gaius Octavian Thurinus (Caesar Augustus) and remained so for close to five hundred years. 4 Following the 1933 panic at seeing the Reichstag, the German Parliament building, burn to the ground (allegedly set by a Dutch communist), the Wiemar Republic ended with the appointment of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor and the granting of unparalleled powers to the National-Socialist Party by President Hindenburg’s signing of the Emergency Decree for the Protection of the German People. 5
George Lucas’ Star Wars prequel series of motion pictures shows audiences how fragile a functioning democracy really is, how it always lives under shadowy internal threats of tyrannical empire, often unseen until it is too late. Even the most powerful leaders of the Jedi Council led by Yoda fail to anticipate the loss of democracy to Sheev Palpatine’s (Ian McDiarmid) conspiracy to become Emperor. Yoda exclaims repeatedly how the threat to the future of the Republic cannot be deduced by the clairvoyant and prophetic powers of the Force: “Clouded is the future,” “The dark side clouds everything. Impossible to see the future is,” and other instances throughout the prequel series. It is for this reason that Episode I is titled The Phantom Menace (1999).
The prequel trilogy traces how the Old Republic, driven by the fear of secession, gradually devolving through the increasing reliance on violence into an Empire. Motivated by a fear of losing control over individuals, the Republic declares civil war on the Separatists, building armies and weapons of mass destruction, and removing the rights of people and planets by strengthening the powers of the government under Sheev Palpatine as means of forcing unity. As we learn by Episode III- The Revenge of the Sith, these uses of violence as responses to fear play right into the plans of Sheev Palpatine, aka Darth Sidious, who recognizes how fear and desire make people easy to manipulate. As Yoda perceptively explains to young Anakin at the end of Episode I, “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
In Star Wars Episode II: the Attack of the Clones (2002), a vibrantly colorized prairie on the planet of Naboo, home to Senator Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman), presents the pastoral, idyllic setting for a conversation between Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christiansen) and Padme. The vibrant impressionistic backdrop of Naboo stands as a stark opposition to the planet wide urban sprawl of Coruscant, much as Padme’s democratic idealism opposes Anakin’s authoritarian idealism.
Further, Naboo’s sharp contrast to the metropolitan planet city of Coruscant (the capitol of the Republic in the Star Wars’ prequels and seat of Palpatine’s first democratic then imperial power) immediately invokes Nezar Alsayyad’s essay 6 , which describes how often science fiction movies depict the pastoral or rural as an aesthetic and moral ideal in opposition to cities, shown as places of corruption and sin, an inheritance of the sentiments of early modernity from the 17th through the 19th centuries. Alsayyad writes,
“The issues that these films raise have to be looked upon in the context of Utopian and dystopian ideas about the city and
countryside both in America and Europe. In fact, for many people and cultures particularly in early US history and nineteenth century England, cities were dirty, unhealthy, dangerous and even immoral […] Throughout the nineteenth century the city versus country debate raged, drawing upon the Romantic tradition of the pastoral.” (269-70)
In this picturesque scene on the rolling fields of Naboo, in the early stages of courtship and the prime of their youth, with nothing but their ideals in their hearts and the whole of their untapped futures to look forward to, Ani and Padme try getting to know each other by discussing their political philosophies. Padme’s democratic ideals reflect the pastoral planetscape she hails from even as Anakin’s darker, imperial impulses echo the Machiavellian realpolitik teachings of his new master Palpatine (Darth Sidious), who perfectly matches his dirty, cyberpunk, dystopian surroundings on Coruscant.
It turns out that each represents one half of what Arthur Miller calls the paradox of civilization in his play The Crucible 7 :
“for good purposes, even high purposes, the people […] develop a theocracy, a combine of state and religious power whose function [is] to keep the community together, and to prevent any kind of disunity that might open it to destruction by material or ideological enemies. It [is] forged for a necessary purpose and accomplishe[s] that purpose. But all organization is and must be grounded on the idea of exclusion and prohibition, just as two objects cannot occupy the same space […] a perverse manifestation of panic set[s] in among all classes when the balance beg[ins] to turn toward greater individual freedom.” (4)
What Miller explains about the Puritans of Salem in the 1690s applies even to a “galaxy far, far away,” any state must find a balance between individual rights, on the one hand, and order/unity on the other. While Padme defends democracy and the rights of individuals in the conversation, she does admit that its greatest difficulty lies in getting people to agree. Anakin, however, doesn’t “think the system works” and that the people who disagree as to how to serve the “best interests of the people […] should be made to […] by someone wise.”
Anakin’s childhood experiences as a slave on the lawless desert planet of Tatooine in the Outer Rim of Star Wars’ galaxy molds him, his traumas presumably pushing him to value order over liberty. However, Anakin’s naïve belief in someone wise enough and good enough to always choose what is best for an entire galaxy is reminiscent of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato’s Philosopher King in his book The Republic (381 BCE) 8 , wherein the philosopher wisely rules as a benevolent tyrant, using his knowledge of all things to maintain peace and harmony among the citizens (369a, 371e, 472e, 451e-466d). Amidala, taken “a bit off guard” challenges him, “That sounds an awful lot like a dictatorship.” But his response of “if it works,” belies the terrible pragmatism (a feeling that results justify methods no matter how immoral they might seem) underlying totalitarian movements and ideologies (philosophies and governments that believe in the use surveillance and violence to forcibly control every aspect of citizens lives).
We find another example of imperial analogues to Plato in the Star Wars universe in Star Wars Episode VII- The Force Awakens. Plato’s plans to exile a nation of parents and elders after forcibly kidnapping those under ten years of age (540e-541a) parallel the practice of the First Order in shanghaiing (kidnapping and forcing to serve) human children across the galaxy in order to brainwash and train them as Storm Troopers in Star Wars Episode VII- the Force Awakens.
By the end of the prequel trilogy, however, Star Wars Episode III- The Revenge of the Sith exposes the egoism, fear, greed, and rage underlying Anakin’s (and any empire’s) “pragmatic” methods of fascist expediency “for the best interest of the people” when Padme, representing the very people of a democracy that those in power claim to love and desire to protect, is literally dying at the hands of Anakin, representing the betrayal at the heart of all imperial aspirations. Anakin’s promise to Padme that they can overthrow Palpatine and rule together justly and his slip of the tongue in speaking with Obiwan Kenobi calling the Republic, “My new Empire,” both reveal Anakin Skywalker’s hidden lust for godlike power.
Obi-Wan’s horrified response, “Your new empire?! Anakin, my allegiance is to the Republic, to Democracy!” elicits from Anakin, “If you are not with me, then you are my enemy!” Anakin here exemplifies the false dichotomy of “us versus them” implicit in the line of reasoning underlying the downward spiral from paternalistic interventionist democracy to authoritative imperial tyranny: in a state of emergent crisis, any voice of dissent becomes rhetorically demonized as subversion, casting aspersions as to its allegiance, criminalizing all disagreement, further justifying institutional violence and increased state powers.
Anakin uses the Force to choke Padme out of a rage arising from the paranoid fear that she has chosen Obiwan Kenobi over him, a fear of loss stemming from the egoistic assumption that Anakin deserves Padme’s love and the egoistic desire to control circumstances beyond anyone’s reach like death or the feelings and choices of another. We kill what we love and wish to protect. Empires work much the same way. Those ruling empires do so out of egoistic assumptions of their own power and wisdom, working to control the lives of countless others according to their own standards and worldviews, willing to kill those who stand in the way or threaten their agendas.
It is interesting to note that Anakin does indeed love Padme. His love for her after his violent loss of his mother sparks uncontrollable fear of losing his wife. The quest to prevent her death rather than facing his fear by making peace with death’s inevitability eventually births the corruption, anger, and fear that erupts in the manslaughter of his wife much as many a dictatorship may truly love its nation and its people even as it ends up destroying them because of the consequences of using violence as a means of controlling the existential or political situation in the face of loss and fear. The fear of further attacks after 9/11 not only produced the endless wars of the War on Terror as a foreign policy for the U.S., but also the Patriot Act, perhaps the biggest threat to American democracy through its own domestic policy ever, single-handedly shredding the Constitution’s Bill of Rights as it empowers the federal government to remove due process and allow torture while also militarizing local police agencies.
The galaxy’s Republic dies simultaneously with Amidala, the subsequent Empire born alongside Anakin’s transformation into the Sith Lord Darth Vader, an echo of Karl Popper’s charges in The Open Society 9 that Plato betrays his own ideals of justice. George Lucas’ preoccupation in the original Star Wars trilogy of the late seventies and eighties focused on an American role in global politics as the Cold War came to a close, just as his later prequel trilogy comes back to that same question right when America re-justifies its world police role in the wake of 9/11 through its War on Terror.
Americans’ angry frustration with the feeble bureaucratic strength of the United Nations after the loss of more than 3,600 civilians and its subsequent use of military violence on Afghanistan and Iraq manifests itself much like Anakin’s murderous rage visited on all of the men, women, and children of the Tusken Raider sand people of Tatooine who were responsible for the torturous murder of his mother in Star Wars Episode II- Attack of the Clones. According to Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, “About 147,000 people have been killed in the Afghanistan war since 2001. More than 38,000 of those killed have been civilians” and “No one knows with certainty how many people have been killed and wounded in Iraq since the 2003 United States invasion. However, we know that over 182,000 civilians have died from direct war related violence caused by the US […] through November 2018.” Like the peace of mind for US citizens at home at the expense of a world abroad terrified by US drone assassination programs, military occupations, and the threat of nuclear strikes, Anakin’s and Palpatine’s Empire rests on the pillars of fear and might, forcing all star systems to fall into ranks by threatening them with the apocalyptic weapon the Death Star, a space station capable of destroying planets.
Even though the original trilogy (the 1970’s and 80’s Star Wars trilogy beginning with Star Wars Episode IV- A New Hope) chronicles the redemptive arc that destroys the Empire and restores a (New) Republic, this restoration costs the lives of millions, including featured characters like Obi Wan Kenobi, Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker, Lars Owen and his wife, and many others. Further, this New Republic is presented as an unstable democracy rebuilt for a mere twenty years before being threatened by the newly emerging First Order and its cataclysmic Star-killer base in Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens.
In the end, we discover in the Star Wars prequel series that Anakin Skywalker began his journey to become Darth Vader as an idealistic youth working towards order, peace, and stability for the democratic Republic he grew up in, that he sought more power out of a desire to protect those he loved, and that his gradual descent to the dark side of the Force symbolizes through science fiction cinema the corruption process Lord Acton of England described when he wrote in 1887, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”
George Lucas’ admission that Darth Vader comes from Dutch and German for “dark father,” reveals that the transformation from Anakin Skywalker to Darth Vader parallels the corruption of empires that begin as paternalism but end up as abuses of power. The tragedy of the Star Wars series is the tragedy of every historical empire: the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Perhaps, not only should we be withdrawing from Syria, but also Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and the more than 70 countries around the world in which the U.S. keeps its military bases as footholds to U.S. military presence, “gentle reminders” of U.S. imperial agendas and its corporate interests.
- Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Print. ↩
- Choi, Seung-Whan and James, Patrick. “Why Does the United States Intervene Abroad? Democracy, Human Rights Violations, and Terrorism.” Journal of Conflict Resolution. vol. 60, no. 5, 2016, pp. 899–926. JSTOR. doi:10.1177/0022002714560350 ↩
- Wolpert, Andrew. Remembering Defeat: Civil War and Civic Memory in Ancient Athens. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP. 2001. Print. ↩
- Mark, Joshua J. “Roman Empire.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 22 Mar 2018. Web. 16 Oct 2019. ↩
- “How Did the Nazi Consolidate Their Power?” The Holocaust Explained: Designed for Schools. The Wiener Holocaust Library, The London Jewish Cultural Centre, www.theholocaustexplained.org/the-nazi-rise-to-power/how-did-the-nazi-gain-power/themes-of-nazi-consolidation/ ↩
- Alsayyad, Nezar. “The Cinematic City: Between Modernist Utopia and Postmodernist Dystopia.” Built Environment (1978-), vol. 26, no. 4, 2000, pp. 268–281. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23287791. ↩
- Miller, Arthur. The Crucible. New York: Bantam Books, 1959. ↩
- Plato. The Republic. Trans. Richard W. Sterling and William C. Scott. New York, London: W.W. Norton & Company Inc. 1985. Print. ↩
- Popper, Karl R. The Open Society and its Enemies. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2013. Print. ↩
What do you think? Leave a comment.