Spoilers ahead for the Star Wars franchise, primarily the prequels, so consider yourself warned. This means you, Mary Katherine Ham.
With Lucasfilm’s Kathleen Kennedy getting a contract extension and The Mandalorian headed for television, it appears “Star Wars” will be with us on the regular for years to come.
As the fandom awaits Episode IX, it is as apt a time as any to consider a valuable political lesson from “Episode II: Attack of the Clones,” one of the worst entries in the franchise. Darth Vader was a liberal fascist.
Consider the scene in Episode II in which Anakin Skywalker accompanies Sen. Padme Amidala on a picnic while serving as her bodyguard on Naboo:
PADME: You really don’t like politicians, do you?
ANAKIN: I like two or three, but I’m not really sure about one of them. [smiling] I don’t think the system works.
PADME: How would you have it work?
ANAKIN: We need a system where the politicians sit down and discuss the problems, agree what’s in the best interests of all the people, and then do it.
PADME: That is exactly what we do. The trouble is that people don’t always agree. In fact, they hardly ever do.
ANAKIN: Then they should be made to.
PADME: By whom? Who’s going to make them?
ANAKIN: I don’t know. Someone.
ANAKIN: Of course not me.
PADME: But someone.
ANAKIN: Someone wise.
PADME: That sounds an awful lot like a dictatorship to me.
[A mischievious grin creeps across Anakin’s face.]
ANAKIN: Well, if it works…
[PADME stares at ANAKIN. He looks back at her, straight-faced, and can’t hold a smile.]
PADME: You’re making fun of me.
ANAKIN: [sarcastically] On no, I’d be much too frightened to tease a senator.
PADME: You’re so bad!
He was, in fact, so bad. It did sound like a dictatorship. He was making fun of her. All of this should have been yet a flashing red lightsaber warning Padme away from Anakin, but the heart wants what it wants.
The key aspect of the exchange, however, is that Anakin begins with the pseudo-hippie notion that if people just sat around a table, they would agree on the best interests of all people. When Padme informs him that politics almost never works this way, his instinctive response is that they should be coerced into agreement by “someone wise.”
Anakin— the future Darth Vader— was the fascist with a smiley face Jonah Goldberg describes in his book, Liberal Fascism:
The idea that there are no hard choices— that is, choices between competing goods— is religious and totalitarian because it assumes that all good things are fundamentally compatible. The conservative or classical liberal vision understands that life is unfair, that man is flawed, and that the only perfect society, the only real utopia, waits for us in the next life.
Liberal fascism differs from classical fascism in many ways. I don’t deny this. Indeed, it is central to my point. Fascisms differ from each other because they grow out of different soil. What unites them is their emotional or instinctual impulses, such as the quest for community, the urge to ‘get beyond’ politics, a faith in the perfectibility of man and the authority of experts, and an obsession with the aesthetics of youth, the cult of action, and the need for an all-powerful state to coordinate society at the national or global level. Most of all, they share the belief— what I call the totalitarian temptation— that with the right amount of tinkering we can realize the utopian dream of ‘creating a better world.’
It is not surprising that Anakin would harbor these attitudes, given his biography. Born a slave, Anakin Skywalker would find his identity among the Jedi Knights, which held the unusual position of being both a warrior class and a priestly class in the Republic.
The Jedi belief system regarding the dark and light sides of the Force is blatant Manichaeism. Anakin likely picked up his general distaste for “the politicians” through his mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi.
The effect of Anakin’s Jedi education versus the later radicalization of his son Luke rests mostly in the change of the Jedis’s position in society, not any change in Jedi doctrine. In Episode II, the Jedi are effectively part of the government. The Republic entrusted this religious order to act as a special police force. It is no wonder that Anakin Skywalker would think of resolving political conflicts by conversion or coercion instead of tolerance and persuasion.
Liberal fascists are not always as religious as the Jedi. However, those of the Progressive Era, including the American social gospel and Christian sociology movements, often were. The late 1960s and early 1970s were populated by hippies who largely eschewed Christianity, but indulged in Eastern mysticism and cults of self-actualization— and occasionally cults like the Manson Family and The People’s Temple. Even in the more secular provinces of the New Left, you could see people like Tom Hayden make the journey from a well-intentioned community activist to a radical defender of Ho Chi Minh, Kim Il Sung, and Che Guevara.
This was the cultural and political milieu in which San Francisco-based filmmaker George Lucas began plotting the Star Wars saga as a metaphor for the Vietnam War, which he described as “[a] large technological empire going after a small group of freedom fighters.” Lucas framing the Ewoks as a cuddly version of the Viet Cong indicates where his sympathies were. The tragedy of the prequels was akin to Tom Hayden taking a job with the Nixon administration.
Of course, Anakin’s journey from Jedi to Sith and back again was heavily influenced by family matters. But for Lucas to make Chancellor Palpatine’s seduction seem fully plausible, Anakin had to be a heroic figure who nevertheless harbored a taste for fascism.
Lucas would later have Kenobi declare that “only the Sith deal in absolutes,” a statement comically self-refuting and utterly contrary to the depiction of the Jedi. The dramatic requirements of Episode II demonstrate the path from liberal fascism to support for classical fascism is often shorter than Lucas cared to acknowledge.