Who are the bad guys?

I watched Star Wars Episode III: Return of the Sith with my son over this holiday break, again.  It’s been awhile since he’s seen this episode.  It’s interesting to see what new things he notices when he sees it again.

In this episode, Chancellor Palpatine announces in the Senate chambers that he is dissolving the (democratic) Republic to form the (tyrannical) Empire and everyone applauds.

Padme Amidala (mother to Luke and Leia Skywalker, and naive pawn in Palpatine’s rise to power) says:

So this is how liberty dies…with thunderous applause.

My son asked, “Why are they clapping for the Empire?  Isn’t the Empire bad?

I told my son that they don’t yet realize how bad the Empire is.  And, I also mentioned that’s exactly what frustrates me about politics:  People clap for the bad guys and never realize it.

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Star Wars Geek Friday

Palpatine

Tyrants aren't often this ugly

Those familiar with the Star Wars universe know that episodes 4 through 6 were produced and released in the 70s and 80s and episodes 1 through 3 were released in the late 90s and 00s, making for an interesting way to tell a story.

As I’ve watched the whole series over again and again with my Star Wars-crazed kid, I’ve noticed some elements worth mentioning because they bear some resemblance to real life.

First, the story of Palpatine’s ascent to tyrant and his consolidation of political power is really well done and vastly under appreciated.  He led both sides in a war meant to soften political opposition to his consolidation of power.

He used the war he created to get the other Senators to vote him emergency power, promising to return it when the conflict was over.  He never relinquished that power.

I was reminded of this storyline this week when I heard talks of granting the President emergency power to raise the debt limit.  The parallel is stark.  Palpatine created the emergency to get the Senate to grant him emergency power.  Obama created the spending emergency, both by spending a bunch and by waiting until the debt limit was about to be reached before trying to do something about it, to get politicians talking about giving the President emergency powers to raise the debt limit.  Though few people draw this connection.

In fact, when the Senate does vote to give Palpatine those emergency powers and applauds his acceptance speech, the unwitting pawn that granted Palpatine’s first step of his ascent, Padme Amidala says:

So this is how liberty dies…with thunderous applause.

Second, if you watch the series from Episodes 1 through 6 in order, you will notice that Episode 4, Star Wars, picks up about 25 or 30 years after Episode 3.   In Episode 3, Palpatine and Vader take control of the galaxy and begin their reign.  Episode 4 begins after 25 or 30 years of that reign.

You will also notice that the technology in Episode 4 is rudimentary compared to the technology in Episode 3.  This is a common criticism of the series.  Star Wars was 30 years after Revenge of the Sith and the technology looks so bad.  After all, the fastest ship in the galaxy, the Millienium Falcon, was a bucket of bolts.  I personally think that criticism is unfounded.

While the appearance of the technology is a natural artifact of producing Episode 4 twenty years before Episode 3, it also bears a striking parallel to reality.

Once the galaxy comes under top-down control, there’s a really good chance that the state of technology would go backwards.  In his book, The Rational Optimist, Matt Ridley wrote this about China:

China went from a state of economic and technological exuberance in around A.D. 1000 to one of dense population, agrarian backwardness and desperate poverty in 1950.  According to Angus Maddison’s estimates, it was the only region in the world with a lower GDP per capita in 1950 than in 1000.  The blame for this lies squarely with China’s governments.

To be clear, China’s governments became top-down empires, much like George Lucas’ Empire (except they didn’t have space ships).  So, even though the lapse of technological innovation derived from the production schedule of the movies, it fits.