Saturday, May 28, 2005

Oxblog's David Adesnik discusses the interesting question of whether the "Star Wars" saga--and the recently-released Episode III, in particular--is a political allegory, and if so, what lesson can be drawn from it. Apparently, George Lucas himself sees in it echoes of the US military invasion of Iraq, and an answer (of sorts) to the question, "how does a democracy turn itself into a dictatorship?". Others draw the same analogy, but from the opposite side, arguing that the Jedi that Lucas so obviously admires are in fact the real villains of the story.

Well, now that I've finally seen the film, I can say with some confidence that a few of the lines Lucas slipped into the film are intended to express his own rather conventional Hollywood political take on current events. The Jedi and the Senate are said to stand for "democracy" and the Republic, but the Senate is manipulated and eventually controlled by an evil chancellor/emperor, who conjures up a war for political reasons, and uses it to arrogate dictatorial powers to himself. At one point, a prominent female character even gives voice to some vaguely antiwar sentiments that sound more like the naive mumblings of a Hollywood starlet talking about Iraq than the words of a Senator of the Galactic Republic battling a rebel army of androids. The intention is clear, if somewhat jarring, given the tone of the rest of the film.

(Then again, it's hard to call anything "jarring" in a movie with dialogue this stilted, or with plot and characterization this incoherent. For example, Yoda briefly descends at one point into Hollywood-guru Buddhism, urging Anakin to "let go of everything you fear to lose"--not long before slashing people dead left and right with his light saber, apparently out of fear of losing the Republic.)

The political digressions notwithstanding, though, the overall story is completely unrelated to anything so modern and complicated as democracy. In fact, it represents much more conventional legendary fare: the age-old struggle between church and state. The Republic is best considered as a traditional tribal/national federation--think Iroquois Federation, Holy Roman Empire, ancient Israel under the prophets--in which clans, tribes or nations sharing a common religious allegiance agree to manage their conflicts within the framework of their shared traditions. The Jedi are a religious warrior class--think Crusaders, Jihadis, Maccabees, Samurai--whose code includes protection of the existing political order. The emperor is a warrior king--think Nebuchadnezzar, Alexander, Genghis Khan, Napoleon--who seeks personally to exercise absolute power over as much territory as possible, and views both religion and traditional tribal politics as a threat to his absolute sovereignty. This type of struggle among religious obligation, tribal loyalties and military ambition probably dates back to the struggle between prehistoric warrior-chieftains and medicine men, runs all the way through the Bible, and infuses numerous famous legends, including, for example, those of Robin Hood and King Arthur.

Of course, none of the parties in this eternal struggle has much to do with modern democracy. All, in fact, depend on undemocratic, or rather pre-democratic, notions of government--theocracy, tribal authoritarianism, or military tyranny. As I've mentioned before, democracy is a highly counterintuitive invention that proves useful, and therefore durable, once it catches on, but actually seems quite odd and implausible before that point. It therefore makes terrible material for a supposedly timeless heroic legend. I suspect that whatever his politics, George Lucas instinctively knew how foolish it would have been to try to build his space-opera mythos around it.

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