About Zack

About Zack
I am a freelance writer and researcher from the Pittsburgh area. My writings have been published in
The Washington Examiner, The American Conservative, The Mises Wire, The Daily Caller, and The Federalist among other places.

In the past, I have worked on regular executive level briefings, documentary research and fact-checking, research prep for a Soho Forum, and various other miscellaneous research tasks ranging from going through newspaper archives to compiling academic profiles.

Feel free to email me to discuss your research needs and how I can help you lighten your workload and ensure your projects stay on schedule.

Email me at Zyost81@gmail.com

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

John McCain's Legacy

With the passing of Senator John McCain on August 25th, social media has been abuzz with controversy, as usual, between those lavishing immense amounts of praise and adulation (see Jack Schafer’s round up on the mainstream media’s grief-stricken canonization efforts) on the late senator, and those who, with varying degrees of tact (“When John McCain was Right”) and callousness, had more negative reflections to his legacy.

While the desire to steer away from crassness is understandable, what is not as clear  is why commentators feel the need to laud a man whose main legacy is greatly––and perhaps even fatally––weakening the very country he spent his entire life serving. One need not impute ill motives to McCain to point out the extreme cost his good intentions incurred.  

As the famed Chinese strategist Sun Tzu wrote, “warfare is the greatest affair of state, the basis of life and death, the Way (Tao) to survival or extinction. It must be thoroughly pondered and analyzed.” It was to this greatest affair of state that McCain dedicated most of his career — first in the navy as a pilot, and later as a leader when it came to foreign policy in the senate. In this preeminent role, more often than not, McCain ended his analysis by concluding that the United States armed forces should be dispatched in arms to intervene around the world. From Serbia to Iraq, from Iran to North Korea, McCain was always leading to charge to push for further US military involvement. Fortunately, in many instances, calmer heads prevailed and the US did not invade North Korea or start a war with Russia over Georgia. Unfortunately, US hawkishness has already done immense amounts of damage.

While at the moment, McCain is being remembered fondly in most of the mainstream press, if one looks to the distant future, it seems likely that he will not be remembered for being a jovial colleague or for having positive interactions with reporters. Rather, his true legacy will be the long-term consequences of the interventionist policies that he championed, consequences that will continue to bear poisonous fruit for decades.

While some consequences are easier to see than others, one that is clear  is the massive price tag that have accompanied McCain’s wars. Although it seems to be conveniently ignored by both Republicans and Democrats at the moment, the US is currently over $21 trillion in debt, not even counting tens of trillions of dollars of unfunded liabilities. According to research from Brown University, the war on terror has cost over $5.6 trillion dollars. Even worse, it’s estimated that, by 2056, the US will have accrued another $7.9 trillion in interest on the debt used to fund these wars.  

In 2010, then-Joint Chief of Staff Chairman Admiral Michael Mullen told CNN  that debt is “the most significant threat to our national security.” It seems that Mullen’s warning has failed to dissuade further unfunded spending, since the national debt has since continued its trajectory through the roof

It is also worth mentioning that China, the only other state on the map that could potentially be an unfriendly great power rival to the US, has been one of the largest lenders to the US, holding just under $1.2 trillion in US bonds. Should relations between the US and China deteriorate, China could have a mass sell-off of US bonds, bonds issued in part to fund the wars McCain supported. This would hand China the terrifying capacity to wreak havoc on the US economy, devalue the dollar and make it more expensive for the US to borrow money in the future.

Beyond the ever-increasing monetary cost of these wars wars,the U.S. has racked up an incalculable human cost as well. According to the Watson Institute’s Cost of War Project, over 6,800 US service members have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. On top of this an additional 7,000 US contractors have died as well. Nearly 1 million VA disability claims have been filed from veterans of the Iraq and Afghan war. Equally chilling, the rate of veteran suicide has shot through the roof.:in 2014 alone 7,400 veterans killed themselves. And, of course, hundreds of thousands of civilians have been killed or displaced across the Middle East as a result of these wars.

John McCain’s legacy is leaving the US massive debt, economically vulnerable to a likely future geopolitical rival, an epidemic of veteran suicides, and thousands of dead soldiers. Unfortunately, his legacy does not end there. Much like interest on the national debt, America will be paying for McCain’s wars in other unforeseen ways for decades to come.

But conservatives have long known of the devastating consequences war has on the health of societies. As author William Lind pointed out in The American Conservative, true conservatives should hate war; its negative consequences for social order are without end. It racks up an immense monetary cost, leaves young men dead or disabled, has the potential for  negative and unpredictable cultural change, and can destabilize society itself. In Lind’s words “if history is a guide, and it usually is, the price for the nationalist right’s love of militaries and war is likely to be higher than we can [sic] to imagine.” Similarly, conservative sociologist Robert Nisbet has documented the far reaching negative consequences increased militarism has had on American society, especially when it comes the atomization of individuals and the enlargement of state power. As I have written about in The American Conservative, this increase in state power that results from militarism itself lends to even further social breakdown.

John McCain has indeed left an immense legacy — a legacy that will live on far after he has passed from living memory. The American militarism he promoted, however, is nothing new. Its continued effects, compounded by the numerous conflicts in which McCain helped the US involve itself, have only made the ailing body politic of the US more frail. As we look ahead, from amidst the chaotic and decaying present of the Trump era, we are left to wonder if the US will ever manage to recover from McCain’s long-lasting legacy.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Deregulate TV White Spaces to Solve Pennsylvania's Rural Broadband Access Problems

For most people, the internet has become a ubiquitous and integral part of our daily routines that going without it would seem like going without indoor plumbing or electricity. Yet, that’s the reality that millions of rural Americans––and hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians––face every day. This deficiency is, in large part, due to the fact that it’s difficult to connect isolated households and communities to high-speed internet.

In Pennsylvania, the state and federal governments have tried to remedy this lack of access to the rest of the world with taxpayer-funded subsidies to internet providers, yet the problem persists. Rather than pouring millions more taxpayer dollars down the drain, Pennsylvania should urge the FCC to deregulate unused white spaces on the same bandwidth used to transmit TV signals that can be used to connect rural households to the internet.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has set the benchmark for advanced communications capability, often called broadband, as having a download speed of 25 megabits per second (Mbps) for fixed services. According to the FCC’s most recent report, around 800,000 Pennsylvanians––six percent of the total population––lack access to broadband at this level. This issue disproportionately affects the rural poor: a full 20 percent of rural residents lack decent internet access.

Under Pennsylvania state law, residents have the right to purchase access to broadband internet, defined as having a download speed of 1.54 Mbps. This speed is many times slower than the FCC definition, and the inability to reliably access the internet has negative consequences for students, teachers, and businesses around the commonwealth. Businesses in areas with poor internet connection across the state have expressed fears they will be forced to close up shop or relocate due to the lack of internet. In one report from The Daily Item, focused on the Susquehanna River Valley in central Pennsylvania, a custom snowboard company confessed that it’s forced to send employees to another town in order to download needed files onto a flashdrive and then drive back. A tax business along the Susquehanna River also relayed similar concerns with their frequent internet outages, saying that, in the digital age, when everything is kept online, it is simply impossible to keep up without it.

Many places in Pennsylvania aren’t even receiving the state minimum 1.54 Gbps. In November 2016, Pittsburgh’s Action News 4 investigated the slow internet speeds in rural areas and found that some places had even less than 1 Gbps download speeds. Despite poor results from the $434 million in taxpayer subsidies from the federal government between 2006 and 2016, Action News 4 reports that telecom companies in Pennsylvania are slated to receive another $509 million between 2017 and 2027.

With Verizon estimating that “it would cost ‘millions if not billions’ to provide copper or fiber lines for broadband internet across rural Pennsylvania” it may seem that the only option is for rural Pennsylvanians to be stuck in the internet dark ages, or for the government to continue to pour millions of dollars into subsidizing access. However, recent technological innovation in the ability to utilize the unused white spaces to transmit the internet across vast distances appears to offer a cheaper and more effective solution.

White space technology has been pioneered by Microsoft and has been successfully implemented in other countries around the world, such as Namibia and the Philippines. Microsoft estimates that the use of TV white space technology could provide access to about 80 percent of the US rural population currently without broadband. Additionally, they project that utilizing TV white space technology in conjunction with other connection methods, such as satellite, fixed wireless, and 4G, is the cheapest most efficient way to eliminate the rural broadband gap in the US.

To that end, Microsoft has launched an initiative to eliminate the rural broadband gap by July 4 2022, through partnering with telecoms providers and providing royalty-free access to patents and licensing of the TV white spaces technology and code that Microsoft has already developed. Just this week, Microsoft President Brad Smith joined with the governors of Arkansas and Colorado to discuss the digital divide in rural areas.

However, the current regulatory environment surrounding white spaces and their use has created uncertainty that is preventing developments and investments from taking place. This is likely the largest obstacle in the way of TV white space technology being used to increase rural broadband access. Space on the spectrum is limited and the majority of it has been auctioned off by the FCC to various broadcasters and businesses.

Fortunately, the deregulation of the Bluetooth and Wi-Fi spectrum demonstrates the ideal solution. By simply allocating three channels on the TV spectrum as being for public unlicensed use, the FCC can make clear that there is a space for TV white space technology to operate in, opening the door to the necessary investments in the technology.

In an age of rapid technological change and globalized competition, Pennsylvania can’t leave hundreds of thousands of its residents behind in the internet dark ages. FCC deregulation of the white spaces that make this technology possible is the first step to ensuring that no Pennsylvanian gets left behind.

Zachary Yost is a Young Voices Advocate who lives in the Pittsburgh area. Follow him on Twitter @ZacharyYost.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Appearance on Young Voices Podcast

Last week I was on the Young Voices Podcast to talk about the Alt-Right and some of my recent writing. Let me know your thoughts!

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

I Go Live on the Young Voices Facebook Page Discussing My Recent Article in the American Conservative

Last week I went live on the Young Voices Facebook page to talk about my recent article in the American Conservative entitled "The Triumph of Reason Over Emotion". Let me know your thoughts.

(Excuse my off-centered head)

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

If Trump Was Serious About Putting America First, He Would Have Blocked Montenegro From Joining NATO

During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump caused great consternation with his rhetoric regarding U.S. participation in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) alliance. With only four of the other 27 member states meeting the minimum threshold of spending two percent of their GDP on defense, Trump leveled sharp criticism against European cheap riding. Such criticisms were a cause for cautious optimism among Americans in favor of a more restrained foreign policy that prioritizes America’s interests. However, as is often the case when it comes to politics, rhetoric has failed to result in action, evidenced by Trump’s failure to prevent Montenegro’s accession into NATO. If Trump was serious about an agenda of “America First,” the Montenegrin membership treaty would have been the perfect opportunity to demonstrate it.

First, Montenegro is worthless to the United States as an ally and actually slightly increases the odds for confrontation with Russia. Montenegro’s armed forces of merely 2,000 personnel would play a negligible role in any conflict the U.S. could find itself in. In fact, the NYPD is over 17 times larger than the Montenegrin armed forces, and its budget is nearly half the GDP of the entire country. How the addition of such an insignificant military (to an alliance that is already too costly) advances American interests is certainly a mystery. Trump has said that he desires better relations with the Russians, yet admitting Montenegro into NATO will do nothing but antagonize them and lend support to their accusation that NATO is seeking to surround them and their ally Serbia.  

Moreover, Montenegro’s accession to NATO serves European interests, not those of the American people. While Montenegro is useless to American security, its membership in NATO has great meaning to the people on both sides of the Atlantic who value NATO as a method of spreading liberal Western institutions. To them, adding Montenegro would hopefully demonstrate that NATO is not obsolete, and that it still has an open door to countries like Georgia and Ukraine (much to the chagrin of the security-minded Russians).

Montenegro’s membership created perfect leverage to incentivize European members to increase their defense expenditures. As president, Trump could have withdrawn the treaty from the Senate (where it has been awaiting approval since last summer) and said he will not submit it again until more Europeans have met their defense spending obligations. Likewise, such a move could also be used as leverage domestically against more hawkish members of Congress such as John McCain, who recently declared that Rand Paul was “working for Vladimir Putin” when Paul temporarily blocked the treaty in the Senate.   

But instead of doing any of that, Trump did nothing and simply let the Senate approve the treaty. Letting Montenegro into NATO without so much as a peep from Trump will only weaken his negotiating position and communicate to the Europeans that despite Trump’s protestations, they can continue to expect a free lunch from the U.S. per usual.

Trump has claimed innumerable times that he is great at making deals. His handling of the situation with Montenegro seems to indicate otherwise. Rhetoric is no substitute for action, especially when such action is easy and has very little cost. Trump dropped the ball on an easy win, and this doesn’t bode well for future success in more difficult circumstances.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Neo-Machiavellianism and Rogue One

Several critics have noted Rogue One’s departure from the rather stark black and white conflict between good and evil in the main Star Wars storyline. While some viewers have praised this grayness, other critics have lambasted this turn away from the simple morality of the main series. In a review entitled “Why the New ‘Star Wars’ Movie Could Use Some moral Clarity,” Charles Camosy, a professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham University, condemns the film for “overturning previously black/white judgments about certain actions” and concludes that “‘Star Wars’ has a moral responsibility to live up to its longtime charge of teaching children that, while people often have various levels of ambiguity, the same cannot be said of certain gravely evil actions that should be always and everywhere condemned.” Similarly, although with less condemnation, Matthew Gault writes at Motherboard that “Even the Good Guys in ‘Rogue One’ Are Bad.”

By what might be considered the widely accepted moral framework of our time, such critics might be correct in their condemnation of the moral message portrayed in Rogue One, and, in fact, given some of the extremely subversive messages at play in the film, it is surprising that more critics have not spoken out against it. For, when it is all said and done, Rogue One is a film about a moral framework that places immense and, when one is honest, terrifying responsibilities of discernment upon the individual. And as the film so aptly shows, there are no easy answers, and sometimes, no matter how hard one tries, one still ends up choosing incorrectly.

The best way to describe this framework would be as Neo-Machiavellian. Machiavelli, the renaissance politician, and political theorist, often gets a bad rap for supposedly being a “preacher of evil” or at least advocating amoralism when it comes to politics. This perception is due, in no small part, to Machiavelli’s own words, such as when he explicitly states that it is necessary “to learn how not to be good, and to use this knowledge and not use it as necessity dictates.” However, when one examines Machiavelli with more nuance, it is possible to expand upon his core points into what one might call a Neo-Machiavellian moral framework.

At its core, Neo-Machiavellianism would argue, in the words of political theorist Claes Ryn, that whether he recognized it or not, Machiavelli “is, in effect, not so much exempting politics from morality in tough situations as attempting to to redefine political morality.” Machiavelli speaks of effective truth, in contrast to imagined truth, because he is interested in the truth that “leads to action in the world,” as Machiavelli translator, Wayne Rebhorn, has noted. This real world action is what is at the core of a Neo-Machiavellian moral analysis. In The Prince Machiavelli notes that “in the actions of all men… where there is no appeal, one looks at the outcome." In other words, one must judge the morality of an action by the results that were brought about by the action, not by the intent behind it, or by its adherence to certain abstract principles that are considered to be good in a vacuum.  

Machiavelli urges his reader to acknowledge that humans live in the real world that is inhabited by less than perfect people. In The Prince, he writes that "the distance is so great between how we live and how we ought to live that he who abandons what is done for what ought to be done learns his ruin rather than his preservation; because a man who wants to make a profession of goodness in everything is bound to come to ruin among so many who are not good. Therefore, it is necessary for a prince, if he wants to preserve himself, to learn how not to be good, and use this knowledge and not use it as necessity dictates." This passage exemplifies the way in which Neo-Machiavellians view Machiavelli as redefining political morality, even though he still operates under the framework of conventional morality.

Whereas Machiavelli at least claimed that what he was urging the ruler to do was something bad, he argued that it was needed, in the end, for the greater good. However, the Neo-Machiavellian would instead argue that such actions are not actually evil at all, but since morality is determined by “looki[ng] at the outcome,” actually good and moral actions that should be carried out, despite their departure from conventional morality. Claes Ryn explains this difference as being that “the point is not that the end justifies the means and that evil means are permissible provided they are for a good end. A good end can only be achieved through good means. Our point is that lying, deceit, violence and other actions which are scorned by the conventional morality of civilized society can be substantively moral, i.e., good, in some circumstances.”

This definition of morality is much more demanding of the individual than the conventional morality based on ahistoric and abstract universal moral ideals that are applicable in all times and places. If one believes it is in all times and all places wrong to kill someone, then one must never wrestle with the decision of whether or not the decision to kill someone would be the correct choice in a specific circumstance. The conventional morality also frees its adherents from questioning the results of an action; one must simply follow the principle, regardless of the outcome. How much more difficult things are for the neo-Machiavellian who must strive to discern what the morally correct action is in each individual circumstance, knowing that since an action’s morality is judged not by the intent behind it, but by its results, it is all too easy to make mistakes and miscalculations.

Rogue One provides the perfect scenario in which to observe a Neo-Machiavellian moral framework in use, and likewise to observe the way in which such a framework requires a much higher level of moral responsibility and discernment than conventional morality.    

One of the most contentious moments of Rogue One is when Cassian Andor, the Rebel Intelligence agent, shoots one of his informants in the back in order to escape from the Imperials. In any conventional moral framework, such a dastardly deed would certainly be viewed as wrong. However, a Neo-Machiavellian, recalling The Prince, would instead look to the outcome of an action in order to evaluate its morality. Cassian clearly believes that it is necessary to kill his informant to avoid the Imperials realizing what a large intelligence leak has occurred. If he followed conventional morality, he risked the lives of trillions of beings across the galaxy.

Yet, as Cassian realizes, there is no way of knowing for sure if his decision was the correct one. Perhaps the Imperials would find out the information another way, or perhaps they already knew the extent of the intelligence breach.  If so, then Cassian’s killing was pointless. Cassian clearly stated that he and other members if Rebel Intelligence had done numerous unseemly things in service to the Rebellion. The morality of those actions hinged upon the outcome they brought about.

In an attempt to do what they believed was right (and all of their dark deeds being rendered meaningless), the members of call sign Rogue One took matters into their own hands and disobeyed direct orders and launched the operation on Scarif. This leads to the very clear moral theme of Rogue One: that moral responsibility and agency can never be transferred or given up.

Conventional morality has largely enshrined authority and authority figures, to such an extent that, as the Milgram experiments demonstrated, some regular people will follow orders to the point of killing someone else, even though they believe it is wrong. However, in Rogue One, we see numerous instances of people flouting authority in order to do what they believe is right. We see Cassian disobey direct orders to assassinate Galen Erso, and then commit mutiny when hatching the plan to infiltrate Scarif. We see Admiral Radus also completely disregard the Rebel chain of command’s instructions not to attack and bring an entire Rebel battle group along with him. When she learns of the infiltration, Mon Mothma encourages General Antoc Merrick to join the attack, effectively abandoning any pretense of holding onto the established rules of the Rebel Alliance. Similarly, we learn that Saw Gerrera had broken off from the main Rebel Alliance and had charted his own course when he came to believe that the Alliance leadership was in error.

Had the 
heroes of the story adhered to conventional morality the Death Star plans never would have been recovered and countless trillions more beings would have perished under the Imperial yoke. Yet, as the film so magnificently portrays, exercising one’s moral agency can come at an immense cost. The decision to infiltrate Scarif led to the loss of large amounts of vital Rebel ships and material, not to mention the thousands of lives that were lost on both the battle in space and on the planet’s surface. Had the mission not succeeded, the entire attempt would have been nothing but a complete waste, a meaningless gesture that did no harm of consequence to the Empire.

The convenient thing about following conventional morality is that for the most part, one’s choices are already made. While surrendering one’s moral agency to following the conventional, one can easily make one’s self believe that one bears no responsibility for the outcome. While this belief, a Neo-Machiavellian would argue, is not true, it is certainly easy to believe that is the case (although certainly not always, as the heroic defection of Bodhi Rook demonstrates). Contrast such a veneer of moral surety with the moral conflict and uncertainty that comes with courageously grappling with the implications of one’s moral agency, as so many characters in Rogue One do. Taking responsibility for one’s actions, as opposed to merely following order or convention, makes one fully appreciate the vast amount of unknowns one faces when making a choice. Such uncertainty can be terrifying and maddening. One needs only to look at Saw Gerrera to see what the cumulative effect of years upon years of making difficult decisions, some of them incorrect, can do to a person. When one is simply following orders or convention one can always pass off the blame for mistakes and failures, but when one has embraced one’s moral agency, one has no choice but to confront the unfiltered consequences of one’s actions in an uncertain world. Clearly, such pressure drove even a hardened fighter such as Saw Gerrera to the brink of madness.      

In summary, a Neo-Machiavellian moral framework is comprised of two main components. The first is the idea that morality should not be based on abstract ideals or universalized principles applied to all times and all places. Rather, this moral framework posits that morality must be measured by the results. Wrong actions lead to evil results, while good actions lead to good results. Conventional morality does not contain the flexibility needed for dealing with the non-ideal and non-uniform that one must confront in the real world. The second component is that one bears ultimate moral responsibility for one’s actions. The Neo-Machiavellian has the moral courage and fortitude in order to accept this responsibility, rather than merely abandoning it behind the excuse of orders and conventions.

The moral themes portrayed by the characters in Rogue One overwhelmingly exhibit these traits. Whether it is carrying out assassinations, committing mutiny, or completely disregard the institutional framework governing the Rebel Alliance, the characters in Rogue One abandoned conventional morality in order to do what they believed was morally necessary. Likewise, they accepted the responsibility for their decisions and actions, even to the point of death.The heroes of the story had the moral courage and conviction to abandon the comfort of convention in order to do what they believed was right.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Rogue One and the Politics of Star Wars: A Response

Image result for rogue one rebel council

Recently, law professor Ilya Somin opined on the portrayal of political issues in the recent film, Rogue One at the Learn Liberty blog. In particular, Professor Somin criticizes the film for its failure to explain what the rebels are actually fighting to bring about, and for its harsh criticism of democracy that results in an alleged message of the superiority of heroes or “great men” to solve problems over good institutions of governance. Unfortunately, these critiques seem to largely be motivated as an attempt to criticize the election of Donald Trump, as the many analytical simplifications and factual errors indicate.

Somin recognizes the brutal nature of the Empire gives plenty of beings cause enough to fight against it, but claims that “we have almost no sense what they are fighting for. What kind of regime does the Rebel Alliance intend to establish if it wins?” He goes on to claim that “it is almost as if the rebels simply assume that, if the Empire is bad, virtually any alternative government is likely to be better.” This is a very weak assumption to make. As we already know from the previously released The Force Awakens, as well as the various canonical extra-film sources about the Star Wars Universe, the Rebel Alliance seeks to restore the Galactic Republic, that at least in the Star Wars Legends canon, had existed for nearly 25,000 years. This effort has unequivocally come to fruition in both the Legends version of the canon and the new Disney timeline.

What’s more, later in his analysis, Somin acknowledges that the Rebel Alliance has a governance structure. In the film itself, we see this shadow government’s Shadow Chancellor, Shadow Minister of Education, Shadow Minister of Industry, and Shadow Minister of Finance.    If one bothers to do a little digging into the expanded universe, one can easily find the official Declaration of Rebellion, clearly modeled on the U.S. Declaration of Independence, that lays out exactly what the Rebel Alliance objects to and what their stated aims are. However, even without this explicit declaration, it is no mystery what the Rebellion is fighting for, to anyone with some familiarity of the Star Wars universe.

Somin compares the Rebel Alliance to the Russian, Chinese, Cuban, and Iranian revolutions as being instances in which people opted for change because they mistakenly believed that nothing could be worse than the status quo. However, such comparisons seem to verge on the absurd. The denizens of the Star Wars Galaxy aren’t living in a place with nothing but centuries of despotic tzarist rule like Imperial Russia or Imperial China. 20 years prior to the events depicted in Rogue One, the Empire didn’t even exist. It would seem ludicrous if the inhabitants of the Star Wars Galaxy didn’t think this new tyrannical status quo could be replaced with something much better, i.e. a return to more or less the former status quo.             
Speaking of the rise of the Empire, this leads to Somin’s argument that Rogue One and the Star Wars universe as a whole, is too critical of democracy and instead elevates heroes and “great men” as being the answer to problems, as opposed to democratic institutions. This is a much more reasonable critique, although, in the context of the situation still seems to be off base.

Somin acknowledges that democracy has numerous flaws, (noting that he has written a book on voter ignorance) but posits that “history shows that institutional flaws are usually best addressed through institutional solutions, not by trusting in a few heroes or great leaders.” He goes on to say that “Star Wars would never have become a cultural icon if the Emperor were vanquished by the separation of powers or judicial review, instead of Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, and Princess Leia.”

Such a critique might make sense in different circumstances, but given the situation in Rogue One, it hardly seems fitting. Institutions are undoubtedly an essential part of preserving liberty, but sometimes they can clearly fail, as is the case in the Star Wars galaxy. Nearly all governing institutions have been swept aside or been rendered toothless by the Emperor, who was able to rise to power in the first place due to the decades-long decay and rot of the very institutions that Somin expects to somehow be able to reform themselves in the face of an authoritarian autocracy.   
This entire situation brings to mind the work of Machiavelli. In The Prince, Machiavelli encourages acting with flexibility according to “the times.” Different circumstances call for different measures. Machiavelli notes that if one acts in a similar manner all the time one will fail when circumstances change. Institutional reform may be called for when such a project would be feasible, but when institutions have collapsed other action is called for.

Some people discount The Prince as being merely satire, since Machiavelli was a republican and expressed such sentiments in his Discourses on Livy, yet, if one interprets The Prince literally, then Machiavelli is simply advocating what should be done in a time of crisis, which he clearly considers Italy to be in, given that the last chapter is entitled “An Exhortation to Seize Italy and Liberate Her From the Barbarians.”

Thus, if one were to adopt a Machiavellian framework, prior to the complete domination of the Empire would be the time to advocate for institutional reform in order to prop up and repair the collapse and rot all around, however, seeing how the collapse has already occurred, there is nothing is left to do but to adapt and strive to act according to “the times.” Machiavelli predicts and observes that men who fail to adapt their course of action to the nature of the times shall fail while those who correctly adapt to the nature of the times shall prosper.

It seems that, again unduly influenced by the Trump phenomena,  Professor Somin has confused individuals abandoning failing institutions and incorrect courses of action in order to act with what they believe to be the nature of the times, to be promoting the idea that we must trust “in a few heroes or great leaders” to save the day. In fact, I find that Rogue One promotes the exact opposite message!

In the film, we see the utter failure of leadership to save the day. What saves the day is individuals of low rank and status throwing off the idea that they are powerless and that one can simply surrender moral agency to collective institutions and organizations, even if one believes they will end in disaster. If the leadership of the Rebellion had their way, the Death Star would be simply unstoppable as planet after planet is obliterated across the galaxy. It was not the “great men” of the rebellion who saved the day, it was the small regular people who saw what must be done and did it, despite what the leaders said.

Rather than the message being that one must wait to be saved by heroes and great men, the message of Rogue One seems to be quite clear: everyone has the power to change the world by accepting responsibility for one’s actions and striving to do what one thinks is right.  

Machiavelli argues that Fortune controls half of our actions, but that we exert control over the other half. The more active in seeking to control our situation the more control we will have. He likens Fortune to the force of water, saying “she shows her power where there is no force (virtu’) organized to resist her and direct her onslaught there, where she knows that no embankments and dikes have been made to hold her.”

If and when the time comes where you are faced with a moral conundrum and will you abandon your moral agency to the excuse of institutions and collectives? Will you let Fortune run hither and thither unopposed? Or will you take responsibility for your actions and do what is necessary? Will you prepare dikes and levies for the future in order to resist Fortune and subdue her to your will?

In these uncertain times, this core message of individual moral responsibility and action in Rogue One is in great need. We should not let the Trump phenomena cloud the interpretation of what is one of the best Star Wars films and its positive and instructive lesson.