May 20, 2002 -- Myths often manipulate our understanding of current events. Thus it is appropriate to comment on mythmaker George Lucas's latest Star Wars prequel, Attack of the Clones. Yes, the series is principally entertainment, and Episode II is enjoyable, with great special effects, lots of action, and an outstanding John Williams film score. But what messages does Lucas hope we'll take home from the theater?
Lucas has been thinking about the fall of republics since he gave us the first installment of his epic 25 years ago. In Clones we find the Galactic Republic threatened by separatists. The Senate must decide whether to create a Grand Army of the Republic (the name of Lincoln's army during the American Civil War!) to meet the threat. Peace and order in the Republic normally are ensured by the Jedi, philosopher-knights aided by the mystical power of the Force, but those protectors cannot fight a full-scale war.
Lucas correctly sees republics potentially undermined by large armies fighting foreign wars. After all, the Roman republic was destroyed in part because Julius Caesar used his armies and conquests to expand his personal power. That's why America's Founders were suspicious of peacetime standing armies. But while the American military has never directly endangered our republic, the concentration of power that results from permanent overseas conflicts has. And let's not forget that a reluctance to fight for freedom, for example, against terrorists, born from moral uncertainty, can also lead
to the death of a republic.
The Galactic Senate also must decide whether to give the Supreme Chancellor broad, supposedly temporary emergency powers to deal with the separatists. Lucas offers a clear parallel with Chancellor Hitler who, in 1933, acquired such powers to deal with a supposed internal threat to Germany. In the Roman republic a dictator could be elected by the Senate for a six-month term to meet a direct threat. But it gave Julius Caesar a ten-year term and when he sought to be made dictator for life, he was assassinated by defenders of the republic. (By the way, in Clones we find that the elected Queen of Naboo is actually term-limited!)
For much of the 20th-century political power in America has grown in scope and become concentrated not in the hands of a single man but in government in general and Washington in particular. But Lucas seems confused concerning such threats to republics. The good guys in Clones believe the Senate is growing corrupt, usually a safe assumption about most legislative bodies. But what is the source of the corruption? And what is behind the separatist movement?
In Episode I Lucas was ambiguous. He showed us the evil Trade Federation blockading and invading a peaceful planet. But we weren't sure whether they were Pat Buchanan protectionists wanting to limit exchange or free traders who resented controls on their markets. In Episode II the bad guys, the anti-Republic separatists in league with the Dark Side of the Force, include the Trade Federation, the Banking Clan, Commerce Guild, and Corporate Alliance. That's about as obvious a slap at business as you'll get. And the head of the Federation is Nute Gunray. Get it, Newt Gingrich?
In fact, commerce usually is the backbone of a republic and a check on political power. When the American republic functioned at its best, its citizens did not spend much time engaged in politics but, rather, in creating farms, businesses, railroads, factories, and the richest country on Earth. Lucas the liberal sees economic power as a danger, and fails to
realize that it is political power, even in the hands of a republican government, that corrupts commerce and society.
In Episode II Lucas gives a nod to the moral qualities needed to ensure a republic's survival when the soldiers of the clone army, who will overthrow the republic in Episode III, are described as genetically engineered to be "totally obedient" and "less independent." Of course, these are qualities Lucas would prefer his businessmen.
Lucas offers us an unintended insight into the decline of republics in the character of Jedi Anakin Skywalker who will later be transformed into the Darth Vader. Anakin's fits of temper, anger, and hatred indeed can lead to the dark side of the human soul. Just look at any rage-filled Islamic militant. But Anakin also is shallow and vapid, like many of America's youth, not serious enough to be a good Jedi or even a good citizen, and not substantial enough to become a truly malevolence and diabolical villain. If Anakin is true to character, Hannah Arendt's description of the banality of evil best points to his destiny.
In the upcoming Episode III the Galactic Republic will finally fall as Lucas clears the way for Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and the great characters who, in a good versus evil battle without those post-modern shades of gray, will
bring down the Empire. Let's hope by then Lucas is inspired by his earlier films and by true republics.