Star Wars, George Bush, Judaism, and the Penis
Jay Michaelson

Warning: This essay is one big spoiler for all six of the Star Wars films.

Is it better to be tough, or sensitive?

This simple question, which I probably first wrestled with around age ten, seems to still divide liberals and conservatives, feminists and anti-feminists -- and the Jedi and the Sith. But it has ramifications far beyond political divisions, extending to fundamental questions of what it is to live a full, human life. I want to explore these issues, starting with Star Wars.

1. The Sith and the Bush

It's been observed all over the media that George Lucas's Revenge of the Sith functions as a political allegory. "So this is how liberty dies: to thunderous applause," Senator Amidala says as the Senate votes Chancellor/Emperor Palpatine imperial powers. That line has been widely quoted in the press, with George Lucas admitting that, in a time of "national emergency" justifying ever-expanding federal powers and everlasting war, he intended it to refer to planets other than Tatooine and Naboo.

In fact, the Star Wars political allegory began in the last film, the underrated Attack of the Clones. In that movie, Palpatine -- really the evil Sith lord Darth Sidious -- orchestrated a phony war in order to raise an army, suppress dissent, and arrogate power to himself. Blaming an assortment of ills on the droid army of Count Dooku -- actually Palpatine's ally and disciple -- Palpatine succeeded in getting the republic to vote away its liberty. Sound familiar?

Revenge of the Sith is, in many ways, a brilliant film, not least because it transforms how we relate to movies we saw twenty five years ago. Chief of these transformations is in the character of Darth Vader, who evolves from a black-clad embodiment of evil to a tragic figure, imprisoned in his mechanical shell because of his passion and his hubris. Sith also changes how we understand the Empire. In the first three films (i.e., episodes four, five, and six) the Empire is a fascist state, maintaining control by means of terror (the Death Star being the most important emblem of this). But now we see a different side. Actually, many members of the Republic/Empire think that good, strong government is just what the unruly galactic federation needs, and that Palpatine is the strong leader who will protect it from a host of enemies. In other words, the Empire, like our own, is maintained not by terror but by deceit. Palpatine's disfigured visage, we now learn, is interpreted as battle-scars earned while defending the republic from traitorous Jedi knights. The stormtroopers came into being to stave off threats from the outside, i.e., Dooku's droids. The Empire's totalitarianism is necessary to keep it safe. In sum, the people are not being terrorized -- they are being hoodwinked.

And it's more complicated than a mere lie. Again like our own empire, the Emperor and his apprentice may well believe their own rhetoric. In the earlier films, the Emperor was just a baddie, an evil sorcerer who shoots lightning from his fingers. But now he's a man with an ideology, and a philosophy of life: power, the individual, strength, and the expression of violent emotions. The appeal of the "Dark Side" of the force is not evil, in some mysterious or mythic sense, so much as power. What is called the "dark side," Palpatine explains, is really the application of power to those aspects of the self labeled as "dark" by the timid and the meek: anger, fear, rage. But this is our nature, Palpatine explains, and it is good to express it fully.

With a real dichotomy between coherent Jedi and coherent Sith, things get much more interesting. The Jedi are non-violent, Buddhist and gentle. The Sith are violent, Ayn-Randist, and fierce. The Jedi say that the real enemy isn't the person you think is your enemy; it's your inner capacity to hate. The Sith say your enemy is your enemy.

The Sith also say: believe in yourself, and your values, enough to force others to believe them. Kill, if necessary. Strength and toughness define the well-made man (more on gender below). And, if necessary, freedom must be sacrificed in order for our values to endure; dissent is to be quashed. In sum, Sith philosophy is Voldemort philosophy is Bushist philosophy: the good society is one in which individuals are as free as possible to flourish, make money, and wield power. Moreover, the Right, like Darth Sidious, believes that "everyone knows this is true." We all know, underneath the phony patina of egalitarian ethics, that the guy with the bigger house, bigger penis, and bigger bankbook is the guy who is winning. Darth Sidious says that even the Jedi want power -- they're just in too much self-deception to even realize it.

The Jedi, in contrast, say: believe in the Force. Cultivate compassion, and do not attach to your own emotions. Thich Nhat Hanh, Yoda, and the Dalai Lama agree that indulging one's fear, hate, and rage is not a sign of beautiful human expression -- it's a sad distortion of what humanity should be. Jedi philosophy is Buddhist, Left-Wing Green philosophy: the good society is one which cares for the weakest, and which respects difference of opinion. We don't all "know this to be true" -- we only feel it to be true at times, when our individual dark sides are allowed to predominate. The Left believes that the dominant narrative of the Winner is only one of many possible narratives -- that the schoolteacher is at least as valuable as the millionaire, even if her house and bankbook (and penis) are smaller.

Who is right, and how to tell?

Both sides try to appeal to history. In the Star Wars universe, the good side ultimately prevails -- but not before twenty years have passed and billions of innocents have been slaughtered. So it's not really clear who "wins," at least not for a while. In our own world, both sides can cite examples of successes on their side and failures on the other, but the circumstances are always so complicated and variable that such conclusions are generally flawed.

Both sides also try to appeal to human nature. "Strength is not only safety -- it is our essence," says the Right. Christian Right may not care much for evolution, but Darwinian natural selection still strikes a chord. It's a dog-eat-dog world out there, the Right says, and, let's be honest, people are out for themselves. So, we need strong, secure values and leaders to keep us safe -- and a strong moral compass to keep our own animal natures under control. It's entirely consistent: the strong morals, the individualistic achievement, the use of power -- all cohere within a worldview in which we are selfish animals, bent on power.

On the Left, we are told that humans are naturally compassionate, but corrupted by a dysfunctional society. So, the advice is different: go on retreats, work on yourself, develop your better self... and you'll see how happy you can be. What's more, our political culture ought to encourage the better parts of humanity to work together, sharing the world, preserving it for our children. Yes, we can be selfish -- but we can also be noble. So the Left, too, coheres: the greater reliance on individual conscience rather than fixed moral codes, the communitarian focus, and the cultivation of mercy all fit within a structure of compassion.

I don't know what ultimately resolves this dispute, but I do know that it underlies our most fundamental political choices. Apply the simple Ayn Randist philosophy and the reductive Leftist philosophy to everyday choices. Do you buy the SUV, or do your part to save the environment? Do you "sell out" and make plenty of money, or pursue a less lucrative line of work, all the while telling yourself that you're the "real success"? Do you aim high and work hard to achieve your ambition, or cultivate humility and a virtue of smallness? Do you work within established values, upholding generations of inherited wisdom, or follow your own heart even if that's not what they teach you in school?

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Top image: Bryan Arendt (from

June 2005

Star Wars, George Bush, Judaism, and the Penis
Jay Michaelson

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We Will Destroy the Museums
Dan Friedman on Ashes and Snow

Clive Firestone
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Heart of Pinkness
Michael Kuratin

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From previous issues:

Carrying Light into Dark Times
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi

Abraham Mezrich

Wrestling with Steve Greenberg
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