‘Star Wars on Trial’ Part I: Does ‘Star Wars’ promote bad political, ethical or religious values? (Commentary)

In 2006, Benbella Books put out “Star Wars on Trial,” a collection of essays responding to eight charges against the “Star Wars” franchise (plus a ninth, overriding charge: Considering all the factors above, ‘Star Wars’ has been damaging to science fiction readers, writers and moviegoers.). Sci-fi author David Brin, who had written two Salon articles critical of the prequels, was the prosecutor, and Matthew Stover, author of (now) four “Star Wars” novels, represented the defense. Various essayists were the witnesses for each side, while a “droid judge” moderated the proceedings.

Unfortunately, the website where fans could give their verdicts doesn’t exist anymore, but I thought it’d be fun to revisit these eight charges eight years later. Obviously, my verdict for all of them will be “innocent” since I love “Star Wars” and tend toward apologetics when the franchise is criticized. On the other hand, as I hope my blog demonstrates, I do know a lot about “Star Wars,” including its specific flaws. I fully acknowledge that “Star Wars” is not perfect, but often times the imperfections lead to such fascinating side stories (a lot of the Expanded Universe is about ironing out unclear plot points in the films) that, in a way, I love “Star Wars” because of its flaws.

(By the way, if you’re wondering about the ground rules, Brin encourages EU references from the essayists. At one point, he expresses disappointment that more witnesses don’t cite the EU. As such, I will cite the EU in my arguments, although I’ll try to not solely cite EU sources, because if that were necessary, it would indeed undercut the messages of the work that comes directly from George Lucas.)

Although “Star Wars on Trial” includes eight separate charges, they can be pared down to four distinct groupings, which I’ll play out in this blog post and three following posts. Charges 1 and 2 (addressed below) accuse “Star Wars” of promoting bad political, ethical and religious values. Charges 3-6 accuse the franchise of having a negative impact on science fiction books and films. Charge 7 attacks “Star Wars’ ” portrayal of women, and Charge 8 tackles logic flaws in the saga.

Innocent on all counts, I say! But let’s dig into this a little further …

CHARGE NO. 1: THE POLITICS OF STAR WARS ARE ANTI-DEMOCRATIC AND ELITIST.

This section suffers from the confusing nature of the charge. Obviously, anti-democratic (the Empire, and to a lesser extent, the royalty-led Naboo) and elitist (the Jedi and Sith orders) interests are portrayed in the films. But that doesn’t mean “Star Wars” opposes democracy or advocates elitism. Therefore, the first step is to determine whose point of view George Lucas means to portray as the POV we are supposed to relate to. I think that’s clearly Luke Skywalker, and to a lesser extent, the other good guys. I grant that someone could watch the film through the eyes of Palpatine or Vader and sympathize with them, but that’s true of any story. The prequels don’t have a Luke Skywalker equivalent, and that’s exactly why it’s a tragic story of fatalism. Brin cites the prequels’ fatalist tone as a criticism, but I think that tone is appropriate for a cautionary tale about letting an evil man and his minions take over a government because a citizenry is willing to give up freedom for the illusion of security.

So a fair question is: Is Luke Skywalker anti-democratic and elitist? Clearly, no. Luke ushers in a republic with democratic voting similar to that of the United States of about 20 years ago, when the Fourth Amendment still existed. (Later EU novels show the New Republic/Galactic Alliance cracking at the seams – the people elect known warmonger Natasi Daala as president! — in a reflection of modern U.S. government, but that’s not Luke’s fault any more than NSA spying and drone bombing are George Washington’s fault.)

And Luke rejects the elitism of the old Jedi Order. His Jedi Academy on Yavin IV is more like an American karate studio. In the Expanded Universe novels, Luke’s academy is a failure in one key area: He (presumably) accepts money from the government, but often fails to help protect the Republic from outside threats. However, that is not because he’s anti-democratic or elitist. It’s a failure in the other direction: He’s afraid of a return to elitist ways if his Jedi get too involved in military conflicts. He would prefer they be monk-like advisers. Presumably, the Jedi Academy funding was approved through a democratic process. Leia’s pattern of behavior as chief of state doesn’t give any indication that she is using an executive order to fund her brother’s academy against the wishes of the Senate or the people.

But what about other good guys? Obi-Wan and Yoda are clearly on the side of good in the galactic conflict, or at least they believe they are doing what’s right for the galaxy at large. They believe in the democratic ideals of the Republic. The Jedi Order doesn’t believe they are entitled to more rights than anyone else, but on the other hand, they do believe they are opinion leaders. (In their defense, much of the galaxy looks to them as opinion leaders, and the Jedi Order is presumably funded by taxation.) As such, the Jedi of the prequels are indeed elitists, even if they are sort of uncomfortable and reluctant about it rather than aggressive about it, as Palpatine is, and as Anakin comes to be.

But Lucas is not holding up Obi-Wan and Yoda as elitists worth emulating. After Order 66, the two surviving Jedi sort of learn from their mistakes — they get out of the way and let the non-Force-users of the galaxy lead the rebellion against Palpatine’s Empire. Then they make a mistake in the other direction by marginalizing Luke and Leia (training Luke only with great reluctance, and withholding information from both of them about their parentage) out of fear of failing again. While good guys, Obi-Wan and Yoda are foils – and inadvertent teachers — to Luke in two ways: 1) They are elitists, and 2) They are failures. Quite clearly, Obi-Wan’s and Yoda’s arcs are cautionary tales, not heroic tales.

Likewise, Queen Amidala is unquestionably a good guy, yet she is a queen, a title that we in America assume is anti-democratic. Serious “Star Wars” fans know that Amidala was democratically elected to the title of queen, but I do sympathize with the Prosecution viewpoint: Why conflate your thematic intent by having her title be “queen” rather than “president?” Furthermore, the fact that she’s so young leads a viewer to assume there was a line of succession, rather than a democratic vote. Or if there was a democratic vote, perhaps it was something like a North Korean democratic process (technically, Kim Jong Un was elected as president with 100 percent of the vote).

I’m delving into apologetics here, but the answer is simply that “Star Wars” draws from all aspects of Earth history, throws them into a pot and mixes them together. Indeed, “Star Wars” is interested in royalty – just as many people on Earth are – and sometimes to an extreme degree. Most of planets in Marvel Comics’ “Star Wars” stories are led by kings and queens, and more variety in those issues would’ve been welcome (Dark Horse Comics and the books have given us more variety in governmental styles).

But overall, “Star Wars’ ” melting pot approach allows for an end product that’s familiar and exotic, accessible and mysterious. It makes for a better film when not every little thing is spelled out. And furthermore, Lucas can acknowledge that a good queen is theoretically possible without advocating for a royalty system. Indeed, “The Phantom Menace” shows the utter failure of the Naboo government, as it’s the Gungans – societal outcasts on the planet – who end up defeating the Trade Federation because they maintained a defensive army whereas the Naboo did not. The “boss”-led Gungan government seems oppressive itself, as Jar Jar Binks is banished from society merely for being physically clumsy. But in the end, the Naboo and Gungans peacefully combine forces, and I’d argue one message of “Episode I” is that both forms of government are imperfect, but perhaps they can get together and take the best aspects of each.

If that were the final statement of the saga, one could argue that it indeed leans anti-democratic and elitist (a queen and a boss form a duopoly to rule their collective citizenry), but it wasn’t the final statement any more than the creation of the Empire was a final statement about good governance in “Episode III.” It’s only fair to view “Episode VI: Return of the Jedi” as the final statement, and at that point, the Empire collapses under its own arrogance, a rebellion that welcomes all liberty-loving species prevails, and – as shown in the EU — a democratic republic is formed, supported by Luke’s non-elitist new Jedi Order.

(Yes, I know that the EU doesn’t technically exist in terms of what the Disney-produced “Episode VII” will pick up on. Still, it’s not likely that we’ll learn that Luke made all the mistakes of the old Jedi Order. It wouldn’t be a natural narrative flow. And besides, the new Disney canon doesn’t exist yet – and therefore hasn’t proven itself on its merits — so I’ll stick with the “Legends” canon for now.)

CHARGE NO. 2: WHILE CLAIMING MYTHIC SIGNIFICANCE, STAR WARS PORTRAYS NO ADMIRABLE RELIGIOUS OR ETHICAL BELIEFS.

Some “Star Wars” societies are religious (for example, Corellia has a religion that believes in hell, which is why Han refers to “hokey religions” and tells a deck officer “I’ll see you in hell!”), but I go back to my point in Charge 1 about conflating certain characters with the mission statement of the whole saga. When we say ” ‘Star Wars’ portrays …” we have to narrow that down to “The character(s) who the audience is supposed to relate to portrays …,” otherwise we’ll just go around in circles.

Another ground rule we should agree on is that the Force is not a religion any more than gravity is a religion, despite the words of Han and Admiral Motti (“Your sad devotion to that ancient religion”). Pious religious people don’t see their religions as religions. But that’s not the reason I reject the idea of “Star Wars” having a religious point of view. I reject it because everything about the Force is scientifically provable in the galaxy far, far away. For example, Yoda lifts the X-wing out of the swamp not because he’s a god, or because he worships the right god, but because he has been genetically gifted with a ton of midichlorians, which allow him – after centuries of practice — to tap into the Force to lift the starfighter. The Force is much more like “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ “ ninjitsu than Christianity.

The ethics of “Star Wars,” though, are fair game for debate. Brin and Stover clash over Obi-Wan and Yoda, and the crux of the argument is this: Brin believes “Star Wars” is promoting their ethics, which include illogical advice (“There is no try”), lies (“Vader betrayed and murdered your father”) and, tying things back to Charge 1, elitism (Jedis taking generalships over clones who were specifically bred as cannon fodder). Stover believes Luke’s ethics are what defines “Star Wars,” as Luke broke free of the flawed examples of his teachers.

I sympathize a bit with Brin. In 1999, I remember finding it somewhat amusing that all the “Episode I” cardboard character stand-ups – even the good guys — at the grocery store where I worked represented flawed people. When the Pepsi marketing period ended and I got to choose a stand-up to take home, I chose Jar Jar. While not a smart or savvy being (as we later see in “Episode II,” he casts a deciding vote to give Palpatine emergency powers), he is decent, noble and essential to the Naboo-Gungan team-up that saves Naboo from the Trade Federation’s military advance.

I admit there is a lazy default position to how Obi-Wan and Yoda are viewed in shallow pop culture articles or by very casual fans. They are seen as archetypal wise mentors. This frustrates Brin, and he sees it as a failure on Lucas’ part. I (and Stover, who correctly notes that all serious “Star Wars” fans understand the flaws of Anakin’s and Luke’s mentors) see it as an example of “Star Wars” having more depth than the typical blockbuster franchise. (Even good ones. Splinter in “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” is not perfect – he raises his kids with the overriding selfish purpose of killing his enemy — but the films, and even the original comic series, never explore this in-depth. The writers want to keep him safely within the “wise mentor” archetype.) “Star Wars 101” teaches us that “Star Wars” is about black-and-white, good versus evil. But if you give this notion even a cursory glance, you see that it only applies to “A New Hope.” The very next film, “Empire,” added layers (Lando’s redemption arc, for example), and that’s been continued throughout the other films and the EU. While the marketing of “Star Wars” sticks to good vs. evil (Of course! Marketing is by its very nature shallow), the narrative does not, and it’s the narrative that we should be debating.

The Defense leans toward categorizing Obi-Wan and Yoda as bad guys, but I think that tactic goes too far. I think Obi-Wan and Yoda are well-meaning, but flawed, good guys. I have a Yoda hand puppet overlooking my apartment from atop the kitchen cabinets, but I wouldn’t put Darth Vader or the Emperor there – those are truly bad people and it’d be as creepy as putting up a “Big Brother is Watching You” poster. I like Yoda because he means well, but also because he’s a cautionary tale. The old Jedi Order’s ethics and their strategy for training midichlorian-loaded kids is proven to be incorrect by the narrative. But Luke’s ethics are what the franchise is ultimately promoting. And his ethics are admirable.

More “Star Wars on Trial” essays: (Part 2) (Part 3) (Part 4)

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