I was five years old when Star War: The New Hope (or Episode IV) was released and as a child I watched it countless times. I anxiously awaited each new chapter in this space opera which would become for many one of the great American stories. I grew up wanting to be Luke Skywalker, being able to wield the force and fly in X-Wing Starfighters and I believe many of my peers wanted to be either Luke or Han Solo or Princess Leia. Yet, there has been a trend I am noticing more and more lately and I think it says something about our society. In a narrative about the fall and redemption of Anakin Skywalker there has become an increasing fondness for the fallen Anakin, or Darth Vader and the Empire which he serves.
I never reflected on this phenomenon until recently. Admittedly the Stormtroopers and Darth Vader had the cooler costumes with their skeletal look. Yet one of the reasons for portraying these soldiers in this manner was to reinforce the message of the Empire they served, one of fear. I enjoyed the occasional video of Darth Vader and his troopers dancing to M.C. Hammer as it combined pieces of my childhood. Yet, the movies continually presented the Galactic Empire and its forces, or the First Order in Episode VIII, as forces that needed to be rebelled against. Lucas intentionally or unintentionally tapped into the piece of the American narrative that rebelled against an English empire in the Eighteenth Century that was perceived by the colonists as oppressive. The movies wanted us to identify with the Rebellion for all their flaws. Yet, somehow in culture something shifted, at least partially.
The movies and the literature and other media they spawned, with all their successes and flaws, presented a worldview that many Americans embraced. Yet, for at least a portion of the American audience there was the shift in alliances. Perhaps I should have noticed the increased use of the Imperial March with its brassy statement of power and control being used by high schools and colleges within football games and other sporting events. Perhaps the emergence of things like the 501st legion which was committed to cos-play using Stormtrooper, Sith Lord or Clone Trooper costumes should have been something I noticed. Yet, it wasn’t until last summer when Benjamin Burnley from the band Breaking Benjamin, who I knew was an avid fan of many pop culture items like the Star Wars series, launched into a praise of the First Order/Galactic Empire to play the imperial march that I began to wonder, “do we know what we are rooting for?”
Ultimately a rock musician loving the Imperial March or a bunch of people creating Stormtrooper costumes for fun is not something that I worry about too much. Yet, when we begin to embrace the ideals and policies behind the Galactic Empire it does become extremely worrisome. When Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s chief advisor can remark, “Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power.” The peace and order throughout the galaxy in the movies was only achieved, temporarily, by the use of fear and military power that had no moral qualms with destroying entire worlds that disagreed with their policies or were merely inconvenient. Our current administration campaigned on the rhetoric of fear, and has continued to govern using that rhetoric. When a nation that has struggled throughout its life to become a place where “all men (and women) are created equal” begins to be governed in a way that appears increasing xenophobic (much as the Empire’s policies were portrayed) I worry about the image we are attempting to mold ourselves into.
I grew up in the 1970s and 80s, during a time when there was a fear of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact which existed behind the iron curtain. It was a group of nations that had an enormous military and was equipped with a massive nuclear arsenal. Within the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact there was not the free press or the ability to protest that the United States and its NATO allies enjoyed. In the 80s it was easy to paint the Soviet Union as the ‘evil empire’ and at least for a young boy they became the concrete manifestation of the Galactic Empire within the Star Wars narrative. I still remember hearing Ronald Regan challenge Mikhail Gorbachev, “Mister Gorbachev tear down this wall!” When the Soviet Union collapsed and the Berlin Wall did fall, when former Warsaw Pact nations like East Germany and Poland as well as pieces of the former Soviet Union like Estonia and Latvia became a part of the NATO alliance I think we found ourselves at an identity crisis without the same type of massive enemy. Afghanistan and Iraq, where our forces have been deployed most recently, were no match conventionally for the United States military. When a nation with the best equipped military and an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction begins to use the rhetoric of fear on its own citizens as well as our allies throughout the world, when we begin to become the ones talking about building a wall, and when we begin to close ourselves off from others because of race or religion then our fragile American experiment is at risk of becoming a different vision. When we American power comes from fear rather than projecting ‘certain unalienable rights’ that our founders claimed then we have lost our way. Darth Vader (as well as Satan) may represent power but not a power that I would be willing to align myself with. If that is what our republic becomes then it will be indeed time for a rebellion to arise within our nation again. I, like many, hope that the rebellion if it occurs is done peaceable and through protest, mobilization, and voting. Again, this is one of those places where I pray that I am wrong, but through the stories of my youth and my faith I have a very different vision for this country than I fear our current administration does.