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.

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