The Empire is Good? By La Shawn Barber
[Note: I didn’t realize the article was written in 2002. I wondered why it was spoiler-free.]
I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed Sci-Fi speculation, analysis, and present-day analogies. Last turns the “Star Wars” morality play on its head, arguing that the Empire, not the Republic or the Rebel Alliance, is the best way to run a galaxy. He acknowledges that it’s a difficult case to make, given the Empire-in-black theme and apparently murderous activities of Darth Vader and his “Dark Side” minions. His argument is convincing, though.
At the beginning of the saga in 1977, we see a young Luke Skywalker, restless on his uncle’s farm, suddenly thrown into a galactic adventure. Episodes I-III (which I didn’t see) provide the back story, which is where Last begins. He discusses the ineffectiveness of the Senate and compares the Republic itself to our own ineffectual United Nations. The only “armed” protectors of the galaxy, run by the Republic, are Jedi Knights, whose power (The Force) is inherited. Separatists, who “seem genuinely to want to make a fresh start with a government that isn’t bloated and dysfunctional,” want to break away from the Republic and control their own destinies. Sound familiar?
Darth Vader’s “evil” Empire seizes control of the galaxy some time between “Attack of the Clones” and the 1977 movie. Last writes:
Lucas wants the Empire to stand for evil, so he tells us that the Emperor and Darth Vader have gone over to the Dark Side and dresses them in black.
But look closer. 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.” [Sound familiar?]….Make no mistake, as emperor, Palpatine is a dictator–but a relatively benign one, like Pinochet. It’s a dictatorship people can do business with. They collect taxes and patrol the skies. They try to stop organized crime (in the form of the smuggling rings run by the Hutts). The Empire has virtually no effect on the daily life of the average, law-abiding citizen.
Also, unlike the divine-right Jedi, the Empire is a meritocracy. The Empire runs academies throughout the galaxy (Han Solo begins his career at an Imperial academy), and those who show promise are promoted, often rapidly.
Last presents evidence that the Empire isn’t the evil beast it’s made out to be, while acknowledging that it certainly appears so. For example, when the Empire destroyed Princess Leia’s planet, I remember gasping at the sight of it blowing up (80s-era special effects weren’t bad). A whole planet vaporized. Everyone on it, including those you loved, gone in an instant. But Leia was a rebel, liar, and lawbreaker who hid other rebels. And she was a spy.
About all the other killings, Last says, “Whatever the case, the important thing to recognize is that the Empire is not committing random acts of terror. It is engaged in a fight for the survival of its regime against a violent group of rebels who are committed to its destruction.” Good stuff.
After the Jedi prevail and the Empire is crushed, the galaxy is back to square one: Run by a disparate group of regional authorities who answer to no one. At least under Darth Vader, they had to answer to him (or suffer unpleasant consequences). Like it or not, he provided order and stability.
Last concludes with perhaps an unintentional comparison to present-day politicians who fancy themselves rebels — Democrats (the way I see it, anyway):
In all of the time we spend observing the Rebel Alliance, we never hear of their governing strategy or their plans for a post-Imperial universe…Their victory over the Empire doesn’t liberate the galaxy–it turns the galaxy into Somalia writ large: dominated by local warlords who are answerable to no one.
Isn’t order preferable to chaos even when scores of people (rebels) are killed in the name of “Empire?” The rule-of-law concept has proven to be liberating and better than any other system of government. Agree or disagree?
I could tell Last was really into writing this article, which made it all the more fun to read. Does that make me a Sci-Fi nerd? I can live with that.
This content was used with the permission of La Shawn Barber. You can read more of her work by clicking here.
*** Update #1 ***: Make sure to read the original column by Johnathan Last which is located here.
Also, let me add this bit of dialogue from Kevin Smith’s classic movie “Clerks” to the debate:
Randal: So they build another Death Star, right?
Randal: Now the first one they built was completed and fully operational before the Rebels destroyed it.
Dante: Luke blew it up. Give credit where it’s due.
Randal: And the second one was still being built when they blew it up.
Dante: Compliments of Lando Calrissian.
Randal: Something just never sat right with me the second time they destroyed it. I could never put my finger on it-something just wasn’t right.
Dante: And you figured it out?
Randal: Well, the thing is, the first Death Star was manned by the Imperial army-storm troopers, dignitaries- the only people onboard were Imperials.
Randal: So when they blew it up, no prob. Evil is punished.
Dante: And the second time around…?
Randal: The second time around, it wasn’t even finished yet. They were still under construction.
Randal: A construction job of that magnitude would require a helluva lot more manpower than the Imperial army had to offer. I’ll bet there were independent contractors working on that thing: plumbers, aluminum siders, roofers.
Dante: Not just Imperials, is what you’re getting at.
Randal: Exactly. In order to get it built quickly and quietly they’d hire anybody who could do the job. Do you think the average storm trooper knows how to install a toilet main? All they know is killing and white uniforms.
Dante: All right, so even if independent contractors are working on the Death Star, why are you uneasy with its destruction?
Randal: All those innocent contractors hired to do a job were killed- casualties of a war they had nothing to do with. (notices Dante’s confusion) All right, look-you’re a roofer, and some juicy government contract comes your way; you got the wife and kids and the two-story in suburbia-this is a government contract, which means all sorts of benefits. All of a sudden these left-wing militants blast you with lasers and wipe out everyone within a three-mile radius. You didn’t ask for that. You have no personal politics. You’re just trying to scrape out a living.
*** Update #2 ***: Of course, this is basically an impossible case to make because the Jedis are supposed to be the good guys, but I think it’s an intriguing argument once you get into it a little more. Here’s a summary of what I think Last & La Shawn were trying to get across:
1) The Republic may have been a democracy, but it wasn’t squeaky clean and it was so weak that it was non-functional. (Think about the United Nations as a world government).
2) The Empire may have been a dictatorship, but they also ran a functional government that was much more efficient and beneficial to the average citizen than the Republic was. (Think about replacing the United Nations as a world government with the government of China).
3) When the Rebellion defeated the empire, they didn’t make the galaxy safe for Democracy, they created galaxy wide anarchy which wasn’t beneficial to the average citizen of the government. (Think about replacing the government of China with the sort of governmental situation we see in Somalia).
Believe it or not, you can make a similar sort of argument about “The Scorpion King” and the movie “Hero.” In both movies the “bad guy” is a tyrannical ruler who wants to take over the region to bring order and stop the fighting between smaller kingdoms. But, in the “The Scorpion King,” the “hero” does what we expect: he stops the “bad guy.” In “Hero,” the “hero” is portrayed as a “hero” because he choses to let the “bad guy” take over the region in the name of the “greater good” (I.E. It will end the fighting and save a lot of lives).
Personally, I come down on the side of “The Rock” and the “Rebellion,” but still, Last & La Shawn have a captivating take on Star Wars that’s worth considering…