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The Case for the Empire

Everything you think you know about Star Wars is wrong.

12:00 AM, May 16, 2002 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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STAR WARS RETURNS today with its fifth installment, Attack of the Clones. There will be talk of the Force and the Dark Side and the epic morality of George Lucas's series. But the truth is that from the beginning, Lucas confused the good guys with the bad. The deep lesson of Star Wars is that the Empire is good.

It's a difficult leap to make--embracing Darth Vader and the Emperor over the plucky and attractive Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia--but a careful examination of the facts, sorted apart from Lucas's off-the-shelf moral cues, makes a quite convincing case.

First, an aside: For the sake of this discussion, I've considered only the history gleaned from the actual Star Wars films, not the Expanded Universe. If you know what the Expanded Universe is and want to argue that no discussion of Star Wars can be complete without considering material outside the canon, that's fine. However, it's always been my view that the comic books and novels largely serve to clean up Lucas's narrative and philosophical messes. Therefore, discussions of intrinsic intent must necessarily revolve around the movies alone. You may disagree, but please don't e-mail me about it.

If you don't know what the Expanded Universe is, well, uh, neither do I.

I. The Problems with the Galactic Republic

At the beginning of the Star Wars saga, the known universe is governed by the Galactic Republic. The Republic is controlled by a Senate, which is, in turn, run by an elected chancellor who's in charge of procedure, but has little real power.

Scores of thousands of planets are represented in the Galactic Senate, and as we first encounter it, it is sclerotic and ineffectual. The Republic has grown over many millennia to the point where there are so many factions and disparate interests, that it is simply too big to be governable. Even the Republic's staunchest supporters recognize this failing: 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."

The Senate moves so slowly that it is powerless to stop aggression between member states. In The Phantom Menace a supra-planetary alliance, the Trade Federation (think of it as OPEC to the Galactic Republic's United Nations), invades a planet and all the Senate can agree to do is call for an investigation.

Like the United Nations, the Republic has no armed forces of its own, but instead relies on a group of warriors, the Jedi knights, to "keep the peace." The Jedi, while autonomous, often work in tandem with the Senate, trying to smooth over quarrels and avoid conflicts. But the Jedi number only in the thousands--they cannot protect everyone.

What's more, it's not clear that they should be "protecting" anyone. The Jedi are Lucas's great heroes, full of Zen wisdom and righteous power. They encourage people to "use the Force"--the mystical energy which is the source of their power--but the truth, revealed in The Phantom Menace, is that the Force isn't available to the rabble. The Force comes from midi-chlorians, tiny symbiotic organisms in people's blood, like mitochondria. The Force, it turns out, is an inherited, genetic trait. If you don't have the blood, you don't get the Force. Which makes the Jedi not a democratic militia, but a royalist Swiss guard.

And an arrogant royalist Swiss guard, at that. With one or two notable exceptions, the Jedi we meet in Star Wars are full of themselves. They ignore the counsel of others (often with terrible consequences), and seem honestly to believe that they are at the center of the universe. When the chief Jedi record-keeper is asked in Attack of the Clones about a planet she has never heard of, she replies that if it's not in the Jedi archives, it doesn't exist. (The planet in question does exist, again, with terrible consequences.)

In Attack of the Clones, a mysterious figure, Count Dooku, leads a separatist movement of planets that want to secede from the Republic. Dooku promises these confederates smaller government, unlimited free trade, and an "absolute commitment to capitalism." Dooku's motives are suspect--it's not clear whether or not he believes in these causes. However, there's no reason to doubt the motives of the other separatists--they seem genuinely to want to make a fresh start with a government that isn't bloated and dysfunctional.

The Republic, of course, is eager to quash these separatists, but they never make a compelling case--or any case, for that matter--as to why, if they are such a freedom-loving regime, these planets should not be allowed to check out of the Republic and take control of their own destinies.

II. The Empire