The past month has been largely a soul-crushing affair. (With the notable exception of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez ousting Über hack Congressman Joe Crowley in last night’s New York primary election.) On multiple fronts we are witnessing the metastasizing of every hard-right fever dream that has defined political ideology in America over the past 50 years.
Science fiction and fantasy, at its best, provides a relief from real-world anxieties. The Wizard of Oz was not only a brilliant children’s story, it also was a very clever satire of the Gilded Age and had a definite progressive slant. Star Trek was able to fuse mid-twentieth century America’s awed aspirations for the cosmos with a strident analysis of issues that defined the Cold War and the brewing cultural revolution brought forth by Black, women, LGBT, Latinx, and other civil rights struggles.
J.R.R. Tolkien, who loathed works that were based around one-to-one analogies and detested claims that his Lord of the Rings was about the World Wars, argued his writings should instead be seen as having applicability, that the various scenes and characters within his adventures would instead always have relevance to readers and their lives.
It is in this sense that this clip from Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith (2005, dir. George Lucas) has an applicability we can glean wisdom from. Thirteen years ago, when the picture was released, the director was adamant there were plot elements in this story borrowed from the political chaos of Richard Nixon’s presidency.
Over the course of his three prequel films, Lucas advanced one story at the forefront while, always in the background, the characters of Anakin Skywalker and Chancellor Palpatine slowly but surely moved into a position whereupon they would surprise everyone and upset the very foundations of the political order. Nixon did this in 1968-1974 via his manipulation of the public’s opinions on crime, morality, and war. One need not refer to Marx’s quip about tragedies and farces to understand how such historic patterns are repeating themselves.
And so I would suggest the following:
Emperor Palpatine, the powerful Sith Lord disguised as a mild-mannered politician who fooled everyone as he ascended to power, is Mike Pence. For years it was seen as insane to suggest that the hard right program would get anywhere (and indeed I thought it would be a Clinton-styled neoliberal who would actualize those policy goals, as had been the case in the 1990s with Welfare “reform”, the Crime Omnibus Bill, et. al.). Yet suddenly and with a shock to everyone, here we are, living under a government where all three branches are controlled by the worst possible actors.
Obi Wan Kenobi and Yoda, the beguiled surviving Jedi Knights who were caught completely off guard by political developments, are Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer. The ultimate conclusion one derives from this film, something that is enunciated by Yoda in a later scene, is that they absolutely failed and everyone suffers for their screw-up.
Padme Amidala, the political outlier who aspires to noble visions of democracy and preservation of the republican order, is very much akin to the progressive movement today in America. Both have great ideals but are fundamentally hindered by a key weakness. For Senator Amidala, it was the secret marriage to a forbidden lover.
Back on planet Earth, it is the inability of the progressives to break free of the Democratic Party and build a genuine, viable, and not completely barmy alternative. (Ahem, Green Party of the United States, I see you there with your ballot petitions and patchouli). This is perhaps best embodied by Senator Bernie Sanders.
The tragedy of these Senators is that they were both so close to doing the right thing. Sanders could never accept that there was no changing the Democratic Party, while Amidala refused to accept that she would never be able to have a viable family life with a Jedi. And, if we look at the fate of Amidala at the film’s closing, one is forced to wonder whether Sanders will meet a similar end.
So this leaves only one character to discuss, Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader. Who is he? Nothing more or less than the entirety of the American voting public. Here we need to see things in a dialectical fashion, which always was the subtext of the whole Light Side/Dark Side of the Force business.
Anakin, the good Jedi with a wild side, was naive and egotistical but generally wanted to do the right thing while falling in love and having a family.
Darth Vader, the evil Sith with power-hungry delusions of grandeur, is, in this analogy, a Trumpian figure. He and his supporters use the powers of the state to inflict maximum harm upon anyone they don’t like. Furthermore, because of the delusions they operate under, they believe they are doing the right thing!
Consider this short clip below:
While it was a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, there is something eerily familiar and downright haunting about a clip like that in our current political geography. This is a fable that speaks perfectly to our social foibles.
Or, as the Russian version of Cinderella says, “If the shoe fits, wear it.”