A few years after the Star Wars prequel trilogy came out, after we had all had time to digest just how unsatisfying it had been, an independent filmmaker named Mike Stoklasa produced a series of online videos picking the movies apart, figuring out just exactly why Anakin, Jar Jar, computer Yoda and the rest bothered us so much. Published under the imprimatur of Red Letter Media, the videos are quirky and profane—and also masterpieces of film critique.
There is no time to go over all of Stoklasa’s points here. Altogether, his reviews add up to four and a half hours, rivaling the actual trilogy in total running time. But one critique he had of Episode III: Revenge of the Sith has always stuck with me. In that movie, the stakes were meant to be so big—literally galactic in scale. Would the Republic hold on, or would they, as we all knew was inevitable, fall and be overthrown by a tyrannical empire? The movie was epic: with spectacular space battles, crushing betrayals, widespread assassinations and fate-deciding individual battles between the greatest warriors, all accompanied by a sweeping and majestic score by the inestimable John Williams. It was all supposed to mean so much.
And yet, as Stoklasa points out, something was off about this particular galactic star war. If you look just a little bit closer, you will notice that, as grand as the stakes appear to be, the conduct and effects of the war do not extend much beyond a small handful of individuals. There are only a few dozen Jedi fighting on one side, and, by rule, two Sith on the other. Their armies are made up of literally disposable droids on one side, and nearly disposable clone troopers on the other. Most importantly, at few points is this galactic fight connected to the people that make up the galaxy, least of all on Coruscant, the capital planet itself.
Stoklasa uses one scene in particular to show this point. As the now fallen Anakin leads a force of troopers to take over the Jedi Temple and kill all the Jedi-in-training children, it all seems so terrifying and important. And yet, even as the one-time hero is about to prove he has truly become Darth Vader, the scourge of the galaxy and a major player in a devastating galactic war, no one, not even the people all around him, notice at all. Rush hour traffic on Coruscant continues as usual, and Stoklasa highlights a single ship flying behind Anakin and inserts the caption, Average Joe, late for work.
As I write this, the current galactic problem is the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation hearings, and the sexual assault allegations leveled against the nominee. The amount of ink, bandwidth and airtime being spent on this issue is staggering. Everyone has a take, and in order for those takes to gain an audience, they grow ever more grandiose. As the Kavanaugh controversy has been pumped through the news cycle, it has gone from the relatively low key procedural question of when to introduce new evidence in confirmation hearings, to all sorts of virtuous stands about sexual harassment and assault, to the true meaning of due process and the nature of proof and truth. None of that has been enough. As of this morning, we are fighting a key battle in an ancient civil war between women and men. The battle lines have been drawn. Where you stand on this matter puts you irrevocably on one side or the other. You must stand somewhere. If not, we’ll assign you a side.
One week ago, it was the federal response to a hurricane. Two weeks ago, it was a shoe company’s advertisement, featuring a former professional football quarterback. Before that, maybe a tweet by the president? Something about body shaming a celebrity? A school shooting, or the false statistics about school shootings? The #MeToo revelations? Election tampering? Restrooms for transgender people? A local or state primary? A police shooting? Poor water quality somewhere? Some private business not serving someone for some reason? A protest march for some cause or another? A counter protest? A presidential election?
By the time this comes to print, we will have moved on to something else. Whatever that is will be so important that we must all line up in our digital armies, increasingly backed by the implied or even literal threat that someday soon those armies will be virtual no longer.
The specific issue doesn’t matter, really—not when we treat all issues as if they were battles in wars raging across our galaxy.
Although all this drama long precedes the current president, there is a nice serendipity to our current mania. Never has there been a more perfect and timely pun than trumped up, at least when it comes to all those average Joes, late for work.
In our mad rush to infuse everything with galactic meaning, to create some epic big picture, we pervert or deny all of the little true pictures of everyday life. The problem is not so much that these galactic problems rarely actually touch our local or individual day-to-day lives, although they rarely do. The problem is that the lines we draw in these galactic disputes box us into positions that have nothing to do with how we live those day-to-day lives.
It doesn’t matter what the topic is. All Americans come into contact with people of different races, ethnicities, religions, sexual orientations, shapes and sizes. Most Americans have had some close experience with issues of sexual assault, drug use or violent crime. Most Americans either are or know people who are politically active or even political activists. And, no matter what happens on television or on social media, almost all of those Americans deal with those experiences on a case-by-case basis. The rigid lines that supposedly divide us—men/women, Democrat/Republican, black/white, straight/gay, Christian/Muslim, etc.—are of course there, but they rarely apply to the millions of everyday situations at hand.
None of this is to say that the big controversies do not matter. They do matter, some more than others, and some for many more than others. After all, eventually Darth Vader and the Empire did use the Death Star to destroy a planet, killing everyone who inhabited it. That causal chain compels us—it links bad guys scheming to gain or consolidate power to those same bad guys using that power for unspeakable evil and murdering or oppressing the millions who oppose them. The twentieth century produced at least three very real Darth Vaders in Hitler, Stalin and Mao, and the damage they wrought has us on the constant look out for their like.
But, for all of our supposedly brewing civil wars, for all the budding Hitlers and Stalins out there, as people we remain awfully civil with each other in real life. While this galactic war between the light and the dark side rages out in space, millions and millions of average Joes go about their everyday lives. And it is not just that the star wars don’t matter, it is that their supposed meaning runs contrary to most of our experiences. Every day, supposed enemies, supposed Jedis and Sith, go to work, school and church, play sports, eat barbeques, and go out to dinner. Together. If we are aware that we are supposed to be enemies, we figure out ways to get along anyway. When we do fall out with others, it is almost always for specific personal reasons, not as some manifestation of a political or social division.
Ever since the election of Donald Trump, commentators from all over the spectrum have tried to explain the political landscape using the idea of a resurgence of populism. They have not been very successful, because the phenomenon they are trying to describe spans the political spectrum, and never approaches anything like a unified, big-P Populism. If the Tea Parties and the pussyhat-wearing women’s marchers can both be described as populist, the word does not really have much meaning.
There is something else going on. What we have tried to call populism is better described more simply as anger. This anger is a reaction to our Star Wars politics, and despite all the pain and angst, that anger is a good sign.
No one planned for us to get to this point, but we were bound to get into trouble. The twenty-four hour news cycle, the expansion of the internet, and widespread participation in social media have given more people direct access to national and nationwide politics than at any time in history. That open access has made it difficult to distinguish between the two, and we have fallen in the habit of treating everything that happens anywhere in the nation in terms of national politics. Bad water in Michigan? Blame Obama or Trump. School shooting in Florida? The Republicans let them have guns or the Democrats wouldn’t let them defend themselves. Sexual assault in California? Typical promiscuous liberals or typical manifestation of the oppressive patriarchy.
It happens all the time. Catholics are made to feel they are supporting a regime of child abuse, even though they know that is not why they adhere to the faith. The citizens of cities like Charlottesville are told they are all actively racist, just as the people of Chicago or Detroit are made to believe they are part of a criminal regime. All of Hollywood is made up of sex offenders. All Democrats are closet communists. All Republicans are women-hating fascists. All university classrooms are hotbeds of radicalism. All men are rapists. All women are victims of rape. And so on, depending on the issue of the day.
This is tyranny of the most fundamental sort, in that it suppresses individual free thought. By drawing lines and assigning ourselves positions on either side of those lines—left or right, Democrat or Republican, man or woman, black or white—these politics represent a fundamental assault on liberty.
That is why the anger is a good sign, because it is not really aimed at one group or another, but rather at the idea that what we believe and how we live our everyday lives can be defined by anyone other than ourselves. We remain fiercely independent.
These Star Wars politics, this diminishment of the average Joe, late for work, this assault on individual liberty, cannot stand. It is up to us to figure out what comes next.