Rebirth of Reason


No Case for the Empire
by Glenn Lamont

I have been a Star Wars fan for as long as I can remember. The original Star Wars motion picture was the first film I ever saw "at the pictures" (i.e. a movie theater) at the age of five or six. My father and I made the rare journey from the northern suburbs of Auckland across the Harbor Bridge to the city's downtown area where the movie was screening. I remember queuing in Queen Street before we finally managed to get in -- late, unfortunately -- but in time to see our first introduction to Luke Skywalker on the desert planet of Tatooine. That night, when the Star Wars magic had been staved off by a young boy's tiredness, my father came into my room just as I was falling asleep. He had brought me a present: toy figurines of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. That was enough for the magic to return, much to my mother's displeasure.

Years later, with the advent of video, I hired the movie and watched it in full on the small screen. I remember one scene in particular speaking to me. Luke storms from his aunt and uncle's table in frustration, yearning to leave his desolate, bleak planet. He walks up a small dune and casts his eyes to the horizon to watch the twin suns of that world set as John Williams' score crescendos in the background. I could relate strongly to Luke's desire to leave home and establish himself as his own person.

Star Wars has captured the hearts and imaginations of millions of people worldwide, in part because the saga celebrates heroism and the limitless potential of the individual. For an entire generation Star Wars has been a defining cinematic moment, inspiring countless young men and women into pursuing creative and scientific careers of all kinds.

Like almost all epics, Star Wars excites us because it's about conflict between good and evil. What would The Fountainhead be without the philosophical conflict between Roark and Toohey? And like The Fountainhead, the distinction between good and evil in Star Wars is very clear. Which is why I was surprised to read an article posted on an Objectivist forum entitled 'A Case for the Empire,' by one Jonathan V. Last, which some members had sympathy with. This article attempted to reverse the morality of Star Wars, asserting that the heroes of the saga (the Jedi, the peaceful Galactic Republic and the freedom fighting Rebel Alliance) were, at best, misguided, at worse, criminals and traitors. Even worse, this article made the case that the villains (the Galactic Empire with its complement of stormtroopers and planet-destroying Death Stars) were somehow benevolent keepers of the peace.

'A Case for the Empire' was not written from an Objectivist perspective and is relatively easy to debunk. Regarding the pre-Empire Galactic Republic, the author writes:

In The Phantom Menace, Queen Amidala admits, "It is clear to me now that the Republic no longer functions." In Attack of the Clones, young Anakin Skywalker observes that it simply "doesn't work."

This was a significant moment in the movie that had me tugging on the sleeve of the friend sitting next to me. It presents the classic false alternative between democracy and dictatorship; between a paralyzed mixed economy where lobby groups vie for legislated favors (represented by the bureaucratic Galactic Senate) and a totalitarian tyranny (represented by the Empire that Anakin, as Darth Vader, eventually leads.) One alternative is ineffectual and corrupt, the other, clearly evil. The scene leaves viewers wondering if there isn't another way, which, as Objectivists, we know there is.

In defense of Palpatine, who later becomes the Emperor, the author writes:

When Palpatine is still a senator, he says, "The Republic is not what it once was. The Senate is full of greedy, squabbling delegates. There is no interest in the common good." At one point he laments that "the bureaucrats are in charge now."

Assuming "the common good" is a virtue, we know from Episodes IV -- VI that this is pure manipulation on the future-Emperor's part. His goal is complete coercive power over the galaxy. It's in his interest to paint a poor picture of the status quo -- he is sowing the seeds of dissent in order to more readily assume control. Palpatine is later voted absolute power by the senate in much the same way Hitler was voted "emergency powers" by the Reichstag in pre-Nazi Germany. The author continues:

But the most compelling evidence that the Empire isn't evil comes in The Empire Strikes Back when Darth Vader is battling Luke Skywalker. After an exhausting fight, Vader is poised to finish Luke off, but he stays his hand. He tries to convert Luke to the Dark Side with this simple plea: "There is no escape. Don't make me destroy you. Join me, and I will complete your training. With our combined strength, we can end this destructive conflict and bring order to the galaxy." It is here we find the real controlling impulse for the Dark Side and the Empire. The Empire doesn't want slaves or destruction or "evil." It wants order.

Again, assuming "order" is a virtue, again, this is manipulation by a villain. The goal of the Empire and the Sith is political subjugation of the galaxy. The promise of order and stability is what attracts Anakin to Palpatine in the first instance.

In Episode IV, Imperial stormtroopers kill Luke's aunt and uncle and Grand Moff Tarkin orders the destruction of an entire planet, Alderaan. But viewed in context, these acts are less brutal than they initially appear. Poor Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen reach a grisly end, but only after they aid the rebellion by hiding Luke and harboring two fugitive droids. They aren't given due process, but they are traitors.

The destruction of Alderaan is often cited as ipso facto proof of the Empire's "evilness" because it seems like mass murder - planeticide, even. As Tarkin prepares to fire the Death Star, Princess Leia implores him to spare the planet, saying, "Alderaan is peaceful. We have no weapons." Her plea is important, if true.

But the audience has no reason to believe that Leia is telling the truth.

Here, I think we see some of the author's premises. The summary execution of "traitors" for harboring fugitives and the torture of prisoners are hallmarks of totalitarianism. The destruction of Alderaan by the Death Star is indeed a metaphor for genocide. There can be no excusing these acts. What the author neglects to tell us is that before Tarkin gives the firing orders, Leia does indeed give him the name of a planet where the rebels are based, albeit a false one. Tarkin accepts this and in true villainous style, carries out his threat anyway. The author describes Leia as untrustworthy and evasive due to her lying to protect her people. But as Objectivists, we know that when the lives of those you value are threatened, honesty ceases to become to useful tool for living.

A criticism of the Jedi heroes on the Objectivist list was:

Well, with the Jedi you have neither reason nor passion. With Anakin you, have passion without reason. Yeah, he does look pretty good compared to the Jedi.

Condemnation of the idea of the Jedi knights is common amongst Objectivism, primarily due to the Jedi appeal to "trust your feelings" or "trust your instincts." One of the first things we need to understand about the Star Wars universe is that it's a work of fiction. As such we are often called to take, as metaphysically given, aspects of fiction that are not consistent with reality, for the purposes of the presentation. In Star Wars, the Force is one such aspect. The Force is essentially a sentient energy permeating all living things. Some individuals are able to harness this power and use it to their advantage. The Jedi have made a science of tapping into this energy and as such, having discovered an unharnessed aspect of nature and bent it to their will. This is extremely rational in this context.

Well, what were the proofs that Darth Vader was evil? That he wore black and was "more machine than man"? Not very impressive. When watching Star Wars I get the impression that the villains are villains because Lucas says they are.

It takes a perverse cynicism to sympathize with this view. George Lucas is not Oliver Stone. He is not trying to trick us into a revised view of history. There is no evidence to suggest that Lucas' motivation is anything other than to entertain. Lucas went to great lengths to make it very clear that his villains were villains: from the imposing costumes, to the dirge-like score of the Imperial March, to the fascist metaphors (a political empire, stormtroopers, mass murder.)

But the likes of Darth Vader not only have a malevolent style, they're evil in action. In Episode IV, Vader's response to an officer's failure to deliver an order was to slay him. Last asserts this as proof that the Empire is a "meritocracy." One poster writes:

I'd say the officer deserved it. If you're in a position of responsibility in the military, you're supposed to either do the job or make way for somebody who can do the job. This officer did neither.

It's true that Star Wars takes us far away from the world we know, but not so far that we forget the value of life. The officer was killed merely because he failed a task that was beyond his ability. This is an example of Vader's evil. The officer certainly did not deserve it.

One of Objectivism's greatest enemies is obfuscation: the deliberate attempt to make that which is clear, unclear. In an age of "anti-heroes," where the lines of morality are blurred and virtues are package dealt, there are few examples where heroes are heroes and villains are villains. Star Wars is one of them. There is no case for the Empire.

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