Where We Build Our Rebellions: Review of ‘Rogue One’ and the Political Ethics of Star Wars

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By now most have seen Disney’s latest installment of Star Wars. The first of the “standalone” films, Rogue One tells the story of how the Rebel Alliance learns of the evil Empire’s plot to build a planetary destroying weapon, how they discover there is a fatal flaw in the designs of said weapon, how they plot to steal its plans, and how they ultimately give hope to the fledgling rebels.

The movie has been widely praised by critics who were excited to see a film in the franchise which focused on the “little guys” who actually fought the rebellion, sacrificed their lives, and made it possible for the semi-aristocratic Skywalker family to decide the fate of the whole galaxy.

Also, the moral ambiguity of the rebels fascinated critics and viewers alike. These “heroes” were the children of imperial collaborators who assisted in the creation of the Death Star. They were terrorists who lived on the outskirts of civilization and tortured would-be informants. Deserters from the empire who had done horrible things in the name of duty. These “heroes” shot unarmed civilians to save themselves, and continue the mission. For a story whose universe is premised on the idea that there is an evil, dark side, and a good, light side to morality, these rebelling freedom fighters were a much deeper shade of gray.

“Let me ask you,” a colleague asked over coffee after seeing the film, “how do you feel about the rebellion now?”

We were discussing the best way to teach the Atlantic World Revolutions in introductory history survey courses, and were toying with the idea of using the example of Rogue One as a reference to show students that dividing the “good” revolutions (like the American), and the “bad” revolutions (like the Haitian and French) was a false dichotomy.

“I want my students to understand that revolutions, and rebellions are often built on violence and contradictions,” I said. Continuing, I explained, “Obviously, not always, but certainly there is a frequency there. I want them to understand this, because after the Atlantic World we go over Cuba, China, South Africa, Vietnam, etc. in the 20th century, and I always hear the same line, ‘Why did those revolutions have to be so violent?’”

We both agreed that this was no fault of any student.

Instead, it reflected larger political and cultural attitudes. In 2010 we saw such a cultural bias with the televangelist Pat Robertson arguing Haiti’s revolution was based on Satanic worship, and therefore, the country could expect eternal hardship. Like earthquakes. Because apparently that is what the devil does after sponsoring rebels God has abandoned to slavery and colonialism. Go figure.

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Likewise, in 2012 former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum argued that the French Revolution was “bad” because it produced tyranny, not liberty. This was opposed to the American Revolution, he reasoned, which was supposedly orderly, neat, controlled, and grounded in good capitalist principles, like ownership of property. Revolution, minus all that messy revolt part.

Of course these attitudes are ahistorical and uninformed. Comparing Voodoo to Satan worship and then blaming it for earthquakes is a Christian centric view of culture, not to mention a major contradiction to things like, you know, geology. Likewise, the countless Loyalists in the British colonies would have loved to hear how “violence,” “loss of property,” and “terror” did not exist in the Revolutionary War. Maybe it would have made their fleeing to Canada more enjoyable.

The revolutions of the Atlantic World in the 18th and 19th centuries, just like the revolutions in other parts of the world in the 20th, were violent events. They represented a rupture in ordered society, and came about precisely to create new social orderings. I am always hesitant to jump on board with my fellow historians of American history who argue the American revolution was “more conservative” and therefore “less violent,” because for many that simply was not the case. The westward expansion the Revolutionary War allowed was hardly “peaceful,” and therefore the American revolution, like many other major revolts, led to an extended period of uneasiness, instability, and prolonged violence.

And we, as Americans, generally honor this violent revolt in our culture. I believe this is an important distinction to make to students. Americans, for all our claims to be shocked and appalled by violence, have a bizarre way of celebrating it. Which always leads me to argue with students that “violence” isn’t really the issue many have with Mao, or Castro, or Ho Chi Minh. The issue is the political ideology they espoused, and how it fit into larger schemes of US international power. In other words, we care less about the violence, and more about how that violence challenges national interests.

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The more I thought about teaching the revolutions, the more I realized Star Wars, and not just Rogue One, really did help us understand that. There is a kind of false belief that Star Wars in general is Star Trek, only dumbed down. Whereas the intrepid crew of the Starship Enterprise permits a complicated, and extended story of how the liberal public sphere operates (each new voyage producing new cultures that go through a cycle of conflict, understanding, and resolution), Star Wars automatically resorts to violence to accomplish its goals. This is partly an aspect of the storyline. Star Trek is about diplomacy and exploration, Star Wars is more about a generations long militaristic period for political control over the galaxy.

But this difference does not mean Star Wars is simplistic in its views of morality. Sure, there is the “light” and “dark” side, but even in the first three films (New Hope, Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi) we are repeatedly told that morality is subjective.

In explaining himself to Luke, Obi Wan Kenobi tells him “truth” is predicated on one’s “point of view.” This seems like a lame attempt for Kenobi’s to cover for lying about trying to kill Anakin, but there is more going on. There is good and evil in the universe. Make no mistake. Furthermore, the behavior one exhibits can be generated by personal fear, anger, and pain. All of these things lead to further negativity, and ultimately destruction.

What Obi Wan, Yoda, and the other Jedi try to live by is an understanding that everyone can have a justification for what they do. That is why the “dark side” is so dangerous. It doesn’t pull up to people and advertise its evilness. It wriggles its way into people’s thinking. It latches onto legitimate, healthy desires. It corrupts from the inside out. This is the real danger of the Sith. From their point of view they are being “truthful.” Palpatine, Anakin, Dooku, and the other phantom menaces to the Jedi’s order want power, but the things they want to do— bring order to political chaos, save the people they love, end the hypocritical Jedi— are all predicated on a kind of absolute moral relativism.

When Palpatine talks to Anakin he tries to convince him that the Jedi just offer a competing view of the force. Broaden one’s mind, accept that there is no real good or bad, just different points of view, and everything will work out fine. What happens is the Sith take this to its logical conclusion. If there is no “good” or “evil,” if the light side and dark side are just two sides to the same coin, take your pick, then why not embrace the power of the dark side? All that Jedi stuff is just holding one back. It’s hypocritical, Palpatine argues, but more importantly it prevents one from fully realizing one’s unchecked desires.

The Jedi, and those who fight against the forces of tyranny, also understand that there are multiple views to morality and ethics, hence understanding that truth is based on “certain point of view,” but instead of taking this understanding and completely abandoning any pretense for ethics, the Jedi attempt to live with that ambiguity, do good, and practice as much as possible a life of selfless compassionate service to others.

Their strength, in other words, is not based on moral rigidness or absolutism. Instead, it is based on a complex understanding. There are multiple points of view, but there is still right and wrong. The point is not to abandon this contradiction, but to work through it, acknowledging that all have the capacity for good and evil.

We see this in how the political behaviors of particular characters play out in the prequel films Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith. Although critics roundly criticize these films, they are fascinating pop culture references to corruption in politics, problems in representative democracy, and how parliamentary procedures and bureaucracy strangle the work of democratic societies.

From the beginning, we see the Old Republic’s Senate as a hopelessly obsolete and dysfunctional system of government. Economic entities, like the Trade Federation, are treated as voting members (corporations are people, anyone?). Furthermore, the profits of these interstellar corporations can be put above the concern of actual people. That is why in the opening of Phantom Menace we see the Senate send two Jedi to “negotiate” (read: strong-arm) the Federation into lifting a legal blockade of Naboo. This leads to all kinds of shenanigans, with eventually the leadership of the planet escaping and petitioning the Senate to do something to help.

But our first experience with the Senate is troubling. Not just because it is a hopeless maze of bureaucracy, but because this is supposedly the seat of democratic government. Princesses, queens, princes, and aristocratic lords and ladies make up the voting members of the Senate.

Furthermore, we learn how the Jedi operate. They roam the galaxy searching for force sensitive children to be taken away from their homes and inducted into a religious and military institute. There they will learn how to use their abilities to kill, manipulate, and force inhabitants of the galaxy into doing what the aristocratic Senate says must be done.

This arrangement between the Jedi and the Senate is never an easy one. Yoda and Mace Windu repeatedly complain and question the effectiveness of the Senate. Not because of its corruption or feudal flavor, but because they take too long to deliberate, they are ambitious, and worse, they are not force sensitive Jedi. They have more faith in their religion, and their private religious institute, than they do the very government they are supposed to be protecting.

Obi Wan, too, complains frequently that one cannot, as an absolute rule, trust politicians.

“And don’t forget, she’s a politician,” he tells Anakin when discussing their old friend Padme, “they’re not to be trusted.”

Continuing, Obi Wan criticizes Palpatine and the entire economics of the government, “It’s been my experience that Senators are only focused on pleasing those who fund their campaigns… and they are more than willing to forget the niceties of democracy to get those funds…Palpatine’s a politician. I’ve observed that he is very clever at following the passions and prejudices of the Senators.”

How noble, then, are the Jedi? Is there not a horrible flaw in their supposedly serene existence as they give weapons to abducted children and tell them to fight for a corrupt government?

Some could argue this, and in the films the Sith do. The Jedi’s are weak hypocrites, afraid of their own power. The Sith have transcended this state of being, embracing the concept that truth is predicated on a certain point of view, and therefore their might makes them right.

Palpatine:  Remember back to your early teachings. “All who gain power are afraid to lose it.” Even the Jedi.
Anakin Skywalker: The Jedi use their power for good.
Palpatine: Good is a point of view, Anakin. The Sith and the Jedi are similar in almost every way, including their quest for greater power.
Anakin Skywalker: The Sith rely on their passion for their strength. They think inward, only about themselves.
Palpatine: And the Jedi don’t?

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Mumia Abu-Jamal in the anthology Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements has an essay titled “Star Wars and the American Imagination.” In it he argues that the historic significance of George Lucas’s original films was that it permitted defeated Americans reeling from Vietnam to reimagine themselves as the rebels.

“America, the Empire, didn’t like its role (at least among its young). It wanted to reimagine itself as it wanted to be, as it had claimed to be in its infancy against a cruel and despotic king in the late eighteenth century.

“It reshaped itself into the rebels, not the imperial overlords.”

“It shaped itself as oppressed, fighting for freedom.”

Abu-Jamal is correct. We see this clearly in Rogue One.

Travelling to Jedha City, Jyn Erso and Cassian Andor become involved in a street firefight, with tanks being destroyed with IEDs and rocket propelled bombs. The entire scene looks like something out of the Hurt Locker, and it is here we see Abu-Jamal’s thesis in full force.

Reeling from the imperial wars in the Middle East, the American audience gets to reimagine itself as the oppressed. Erso even wears a scarf that is strikingly similar to a hijab.

It is a fascinating, and shows that for all the hand wringing of moderate Americans about violence, that our mainstream culture has the ability to champion violence, but only when we can imagine “ourselves” as the perpetrators of that violence, justified in our own perceived oppression.

Others, if they are led by someone opposed to US interests, is too violent.

Enter again the Santorum argument about our revolutions being orderly and neat.

All of this would seem to imply that the biggest takeaway from Star Wars and our current politics is that Americans are hypocrites. We, and especially white, upper middle class America, are part-time pacifists. Decrying violence when it is Baltimore in flames, but cheering as necessary the bombing of Baghdad.

There is no denying that many Americans have a fast and loose relationship with conceptualizing violence. But, I argue, there is a deeper lesson to be had from the Star Wars films.

Specifically, it comes from the moral ambiguity many of its characters, especially in Rogue One, operate under. Watching them all in order (and yes, as a nerd I have done this) you see a universe filled with people charged with trying to figure out correct ethical action. Rogue One was precisely so interesting because it embraced that aspect of the story. These were no angels. They were traitors to their government and violent freedom fighting terrorists.

But this moral ambiguity, or I should say, these questionable actions and behaviors the characters engage in did not mean that they were free to do whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted. They attempted to live by some overarching sense of right and wrong. The difficulty of moral behavior was not an excuse to abandon the project. Violence and killing people were bad, but… and here the complications arose.

Was it really wrong to kill servicemen in the Empire, if those same servicemen were going to fly the Death Star around, pulling up to planets, and reign down death and destruction? Was it wrong to kill one to save many? At the end of the film Princess Leia blasts off into space having left the rebels who sacrificed so much to die, just so the rebellion could continue. Was this ethical?

There is no simple answers to these questions, and that is the point. Rebellions against tyrannical governments do not produce angels and saints, despite our efforts to whitewash our own into respectable portraits on money.

Rebellions, resistances, and revolutions produce political actors. It creates people struggling for a certain social state. We can never say the ends justify the means, but the ends are extremely important. It is what separates us from rebels trying to restore democracy, and emperors gleefully building weapons to commit mass genocide.

Political change, in other words, produces moral ambiguity and multiple perspectives, while maintaining a basic dichotomy of good and evil.

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Not just in the context of the Atlantic Revolutions are these lessons pertinent, which is why (aside from being a good film), I think Rogue One has resonated with so many, and angered others like the neo-fascist “Alt-Right.” The neo-fascist movement has attempted to capitalize on much of the language of the New Left, specifically this idea of cultural relativism and cultural identity. Yet, even though we can say there are multiple points of view, we can discern that there is a major difference between black nationalism and white supremacy. Not only are the methods different (no small distinction), but the very stated goal is different. The New Left’s cultural ideas were and are based on a commitment to the liberation of oppressed people. The white supremacists not only embrace said oppression, they demand they be in charge of it. Rebels and empires.

This is the easy lesson to gain for many leftists, but the more complicated one, and the one many are so unwilling to accept, is the moral ambiguity and conflicting nature of government and society. For all of its faults the Old Republic was not the Galactic Empire. Maddening bureaucracy, corruption, and endless argument and dispute was not the same as totalitarian rulers who destroyed entire planets. There is a difference here, and it is one the 21st century should take seriously. We have simultaneously created political offices with huge amounts of power in our governments while also creating large arsenals of weapons capable of planetary holocaust. How we govern (and hopefully, eventually, dismantle) said systems is a very important question. Merely saying the various political figures, political ideologies, and political parties are “all the same” because they are all produced by the same society is almost Sith like in its embrace of relativity. If we cannot discern between the stated goals of one entity and another, then we forfeit both wisdom, and our ability to be conscious political actors.

It leads us to a very dangerous political nihilism where there is no real hope of change, because the political process and its actors are all viewed as the same.

This is not to dismiss legitimate criticisms, or differences, but to reinforce the basic idea that hope, that is hope that things can change either gradually or rapidly, is where we build our revolutions.

The state of hope is founded on a belief that real change can occur. Therefore hope, true hope, is grounded in practicality. It understands historic limitations, but more importantly it understands history. It grounds itself in the knowledge that what currently exists will not, cannot, always exist. Yet, although change is inevitable positive change, or more specifically the change you want, only happens via direct participation of the people who want it. In this way hope inspires direct action. It is where we build our rebellions, our movements, our conscious calls for change. It is where we become historic actors moving through time, not as fabled legendary heroes, but as flawed, contradictory beings.

 

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