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

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.