The politics of "Star Wars"

Now I’ve seen all six of the Star Wars movies, and read the novelizations, and I’m starting to fully grasp the politics of the Old Republic and the Galactic Empire. And I am stunned with the sheer brilliance of Palpatine — and amazed that the same man who gave us Jar-Jar Binks and the Ewoks also pulled this off.

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First off, let’s tackle the bit about how Lucas intended to draw parallels between Palpatine and the Empire with the Bush administration. The big scene for this is Anakin and Obi-Wan’s argument, where Anakin says “you’re either with me or against me,” and Obi-Wan answers that “only the Sith see things in such black and white.” That sticks out like a sore thumb, because both sides engage in a bit of moral relativism. Palpatine tries to persuade Anakin that good and evil are simply a matter of perspective during the theatre scene, while in Return Of The Jedi Obi-Wan rationalizes his lies to Luke about his father “were true — from a certain point of view.” With those two examples, the Obi-Wan/Anakin argument pretty much falls apart.

Palpatine engineers his rise to power by arranging a war, where his two personas (Palpatine and Sidious) each run one side. And the way he arranges the two sides is also brilliant. Throughout the first three movies, the “bad guys” are almost universally non-human. This helps him push a human-superior agenda, and by the time of the original trilogy, there’s nary a non-human to be seen on the Empire’s side (apart from the informant who led the Imperials to the Millenium Falcon in Episode 4, and the majority of the bounty hunters in Episode 5). Further, trust and respect for droids is also diminished, based on the Trade Federation’s widespread use of them as soldiers and weapons. His plan is to make everyone think of humans as superior, and his leadership of the human element of the Republic will push him forward.

He also has plans for dealing with Jedi. They defeated the Sith the last time they clashed, and he knows that it won’t be easy to overcome them. His biggest advantage is that many of the Jedi simply don’t believe the Sith still exist, but that can’t last forever.

His response: he reveals that fact at a time, place, and manner of his choosing. He sends his apprentice, Darth Maul, to confront them. But Maul is a “classic” Sith Lord, a fighter above all, and ably demonstrates his abilities as such. And the Jedi, who have spent a thousand years training to fight such threats defeat him.

But Palpatine isn’t a “classic” Sith, he’s a “new” Sith. His battleground is political. He’s learned from the mistakes of the past, and his sacrifice of Darth Maul is to convince the Jedi that they are facing a resurgence of an old threat — one they’ve defeated before.

Palpatine’s second apprentice, Count Dooku/Darth Tyrannus, is a more of a “New” Sith. He becomes the political leader of the Separatists, but publicly plays down his Sith identity and highlights his political strengths. The Jedi dismiss this as a legacy of his noble background and former standing as a Jedi, and don’t see it as an indicator of the Sith’s incursions into politics. And he, too, is sacrificed in Palpatine’s greater plan.

Even the names the Sith take on for themselves indicate their personas. Darth Maul was a fighter, pure and simple. Darth Tyrannus was a political leader. Anakin Skywalker’s first act after being christened Darth Vader was to go to the Jedi Temple not as an honored knight, but as an inVader who struck down all within the walls. (Not to mention that “Vader” supposedly means “father” in Dutch — or so I’ve heard.) And Palpatine himself conceived and carried out one of the most inSidious political schemes I’ve ever heard of.

The Jedi made the classic mistake of most great powers: they devote too much time preparing to re-fight the last war, and are woefully unprepared for an opponent who tries a new tactic. It’s often said that one learns far more from failures than from victories, and that is exactly the case here.

George Lucas has given us a political saga that could rival The Rise And Fall Of The Roman Empire, but the most amazing thing is in most of the interviews I’ve seen, he doesn’t seem to quite grasp it. He seems incapable of recognizing and articulating it outside of his films.

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