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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

How (Really) Thinking About Star Wars Can Make You Feel Uncomfortable (i.e. Terrorists!)

How do you feel about terrorism? You don't like it very much, do you? Most of us don't, and for good reason. It's bad, right? No matter what! Damn those evil terrorists!

On the opposite end of things, there's Star Wars. Most of us like that, right? Well, at least the originals. The prequels have really divided us Star Wars geeks...

Now, what if I was to tell you that your hatred of terrorists is directly contradicted by your love of Star Wars? Stay with me. You see, Star Wars (the movies only) is basically a giant high five to domestic terrorism. You'd never know it if you didn't dig in and think deep (the show, after all, does such a fine job painting the Rebels as the good guys). Think of Star Wars in terms of its internal biases:
  • The Rebels are the focus characters. With the exception of Darth Vader, there are few, if any, Imperial focal points throughout the series. Figures like Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia, etc. are our heroes, and unabashedly so -- watch the first movie again and tell me they're not unreserved heroes.
  • The Light Side of the Force is pitted against the Dark Side, and, thus, the good side is pitted against the evil side.
  • We're told that the Empire is evil. Sometimes we see it commit evil, but the assumption left to be made by us is that they are only capable of evil. What isn't shown is actually quite shocking: infrastructure, culture, etc. The Imperial culture is militaristic, with an Emperor at the head giving all the major orders. But what about the normal folks living in the Empire? Again, we're left with a biased view, because those planets we are shown tend to be outer world, low-resource, or near-inhospitable places where outlaws have lived pre- and post-Empire, and where we see the failures of colonialism most pronounced. What of the inner planets like Coruscant, etc.? In the prequels we have a good idea that these places are technologically advanced, culturally driven, and prosperous. If you really think about what is shown to us, you have to wonder how much of that is truly the mark of an evil "nation" or "empire," and how much of it is simply an "empire" gone somewhat awry, but still a few shades short of the extreme evil that we are told it represents.
Inevitably, as I briefly touched on above, there is a lot left out of Star Wars in terms of what it doesn't tell us or intentional leads us to avoid thinking about. Such as:
  • The Rebels are terrorists. They periodically infiltrate the Empire with spies, attack convoys, invade Imperial prisons to liberate criminals against the Empire (yes, Princess Leia is a criminal), etc. The fact that the Rebels almost immediately resort to violence (albeit in a seemingly toxic political environment) is rather telling here. Am I suggesting that violence against the Empire is inherently bad? No, but the problem is that the visual given to us doesn't provide context to understand the motivations, at least not on a comprehensive level (superficially we are conditioned to hate the Empire).
  • As I mentioned above, and what is relevant to the point preceded this one, the complete lack of Imperial culture within the films essentially leaves an entire side of the coin unseen. This leads us to the following point.
  • Because we only see the militaristic sides of both the Rebels and the Empire (the prequels only show us a pre-Empire galaxy), we have no idea how these two groups are seen in the context of society. Are the Rebels viewed as a good thing, even secretly, among the citizens of the Empire? What about the Empire?
While it is certainly relevant to recognize the impetus behind the Rebels' actions, it doesn't hide the fact that whatever good intentions there may be, they are still engaging in what we would call terrorism today. Think of it this way: to the people who support Al Qaeda, they are doing a good thing; likewise, to the people who support the Rebels, they are also doing a good thing. It comes down to perspective, and when you are on the outside, as we are, you can think objectively about the reality that Star Wars proposes. That reality is one where terrorism is something to root for, where good and evil are clearly defined, and where, inevitably, the folks we think are the good guys always win. While the Al Qaeda analogy might not hold up for most, it functions well enough to demonstrate how good and evil are defined by both context and perspective, both of which we cannot ignore here, even if the movies want us to for the sake of its internal logic.

But ask yourself this the next time you watch the original Star Wars movies: are the militaristic and "evil" elements of the Empire the only things severely damaged by the end of A New Hope and Return of the Jedi? Or is it possible that the collateral damage from everything the Rebels have done is in fact far more devastating than leaving the Empire in control in the first place?

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  1. Did you by chance watch Clerks before writing this? I mean, those Stormtroopers and technicians were just doing their jobs.

  2. Of course, that was a different era.

    Terrorism was GOOD back in the late 70's, early 80's. That's when we were furnishing Afghanistan with weapons to defeat those EVIL Russians.

  3. Different era or not, it's still something to think about.

    And no, I haven't seen clerks, but I'm well aware of Kevin Smith's obsession with Star Wars...