I had been waiting for the neocon reaction to the spectacular new Lucas film, Star Wars, Part 2: Attack of the Clones. Here we have an aggressive allegory of the current American problem (actually a problem that dates back, perhaps, two centuries): a once-free Republic has become an increasingly evil Empire. As the Empire grows it both inspires and foments rebellion, here and abroad, which provides a further excuse for consolidating power in the center.
Lucas nicely illustrates the connection between militarism and statism with implied references to the British, German, and American experience. Among the profound questions raised by the movie are: How is the transition orchestrated? Who benefits from it? How do the partisans of freedom deal with it? At what point is revolt necessary? These are the political themes of the new Lucas film, and they should make any partisan of the Bush administration queasy, to say the least.
The "terrorists" in the film are the separatists led by the evil Jedi-trained Count Dooku (Darth Tyrannus, the new apprentice of Darth Sidious), who has a huge droid army to assist him. Combating them is the new Chancellor Palpatine, who was only recently given power to combat rising corruption. Once in office, he constantly harps on the dangers of the separatists. He secretly raises up a clone army without the approval of the Senate, and, contrary to all tradition, plots to institute a galactic empire.
Once the separatist threat emerges, the Senate is relieved to hear the news of the clone army, and grants the Chancellor all power, which he reluctantly accepts, adding that he will give back all power once the crisis abates. And yet: Clearly Palpatine had foreknowledge. He is way ahead of the game. By the end, the identity of Darth Sidious is no longer a complete mystery: the abettor of separatist terror and the dictator empowered to fight it are one and the same.
Clearly this is a deeply subversive film, in the same tradition as Locke’s Second Treatise on Government or the Declaration of Independence.
What is the neocon response to this obvious attack on current trends in the US?
National Review is the test case. Jonah Goldberg tried his hand at reviewing the film. He ignores the political message altogether and instead concentrates on whether the film successfully immerses the viewer in the sci-fi world. Yes and no, he opines, and concludes: "I left the movie glad I saw it, not disappointed."
Not that Goldberg is necessarily engaged in a coverup. It’s possible that the politics of the film completely eluded this spokesmen for the new Buckley generation whose conservatism is largely affected.
More interesting is the review by Edward Hudgins, one-time editor of Cato’s Regulation and Washington Director of the Objectivist Center. Now, here is a scholar educated in the Misesian tradition (in fact, his dissertation was on Mises’s method). Unlike Goldberg, Hudgins cares about ideas and takes freedom seriously. The politics of the film were not lost on him:
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.
Hudgins knows the truth. But Hudgins is quick to prevent his readers from drawing the conclusions that something should be done to avoid this fate: "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."
How interesting: The movie doesn’t make that point at all! The point of the movie is that Republics become Empires when they permit governments to consolidate in the name of fighting threats that they themselves concoct and inspire!
Realizing that he can’t really get away with this line for long, Hudgins further adds that "But Lucas seems confused concerning such threats to republics." What follows is an attempt to demonstrate that Lucas is consumed by anti-capitalism (when in fact the commercial themes of the film are anti-mercantilist), thus making it possible for Hudgins to offer a defense of business as the backbone to a republic.
Yet all of this is beside the point. Hudgins’s attempt to avoid the central issue spins wildly out of control when he compares Anakin Skywalker’s fits of temper to that of the "rage-filled Islamic militant." It would be more plausible to compare Anakin’s arrogance and lust for power with the typical Capitol Hill policy wonk!
Not avoiding the central issue is a remarkable review by Jonathan Last in the Weekly Standard — a far more brassy publication than National Review if only because it is not shy about being dead wrong on just about every issue. The review comes as something of relief, if only for its sheer honesty. This is surely the only review of any Star Wars film to make the case for the Dark Side (however, I didn’t bother to check what the Neo-Nazis are saying about the movie).
Whereas the typical viewer gets the creeps to see the way Supreme Chancellor Palpatine manipulates events to give himself total power, Mr. Last makes the case for giving it to him, on grounds that Palpatine is actually an "esoteric Straussian." Even more clearly, Last attacks Lucasfor not understanding that consolidated power is a great thing:
Lucas confused the good guys with the bad. The deep lesson of Star Wars is that the Empire is good…. Make no mistake, as emperor, Palpatine is a dictator — but a relatively benign one, like Pinochet. It’s a dictatorship people can do business with. They collect taxes and patrol the skies. They try to stop organized crime (in the form of the smuggling rings run by the Hutts).
How refreshing to see the neocon position presented so clearly! There’s more here. Mr. Last makes the case against the Jedi Knights on grounds that they are elitist, like the "royalist Swiss guard," and not democratic. The Jedi are "full of themselves" and ineffectual. His only regret about the dictator is that he fails to make "a compelling case — or any case, for that matter — as to why…these planets should not be allowed to check out of the Republic and take control of their own destinies."
But lest you think that running an empire is easy, remember that it sometimes requires mass murder: "Imperial stormtroopers kill Luke’s aunt and uncle and Grand Moff Tarkin orders the destruction of an entire planet, Alderaan. But viewed in context, these acts are less brutal than they initially appear. Poor Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen reach a grisly end, but only after they aid the rebellion by hiding Luke and harboring two fugitive droids. They aren’t given due process, but they are traitors."
He concludes by regretting the eventual abdication of Darth Vadar, and decries Luke Skywalker and friends as "an unimpressive crew of anarchic royals who wreck the galaxy so that Princess Leia can have her tiara back." And the final touch: "I’ll take the Empire."
We always knew that these people were partisans of the Dark Side. At least now we have the open admission. If given a choice between those who cover for evil or pretend it does not exist, and those who openly advocate it, I’ll take the latter.