Star Wars Saw the Attack on Democracy Coming

For those wondering how it is so easy for a cunning and ill-intentioned despot to subvert democracy, the plot of 'Revenge of the Sith' is sure to resonate, even instruct.

Joseph Goebbels, the Reich minister of propaganda in Nazi Germany, once said:

“This will always remain one of the best jokes of democracy, that it gave its deadly enemies the means by which it was destroyed.”

Goebbels would have been thrilled to witness democracies in the 21st century being dismantled by the very institutions that are supposed to bolster and strengthen them. He would have been especially delighted to watch the proceedings in the Indian parliament on August 5, 2019 as a constitutionally mandated Article was struck down using a clause of that very Article. 

There is a terrible irony in the way a demagogue uses the vocabulary and language of democracy to come to power. There is an even more terrible irony in the way he uses the tools of democracy to take away the very power and freedoms he had promised the electorate more of.

But nothing quite beats the stupefaction one feels watching fellow citizens cheer and clap as the demagogue enacts legislation that takes away fundamental rights and freedoms while insisting that he is doing the exact opposite.

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How, one wonders, is democracy being strengthened with two democratically-elected former chief ministers of a state incarcerated? How is a state being “integrated” with the rest of the country with 45,000 additional troops patrolling it? But what is truly mind-boggling is the jubilation, celebration and sweet distribution we are witnessing around the country at this travesty of democracy and the use of brute force to subjugate a people.

The applause surrounding the abrogation of Article 370 and the further shrinking of democracy in India brings to mind George Lucas’ Revenge of the Sith, possibly the most politically prescient of all the Star Wars movies. This is one in which Anakin Skywalker, who, having been the hero of the Star Wars prequels thus far, finally turns to the ‘dark side of the Force’ and becomes the evil Darth Vader.

Besides showing the transformation of a hero into a villain, the movie also tells the story of a democracy morphing into a dictatorship. In a galaxy a long time ago and far, far away, a squabbling senate finds itself paralysed by political divisions and trade disputes. The political impasse gives rise to a growing discontent and a yearning for a strong galactic government – which the evil Chancellor and Sith lord Palpatine, exploits fully as he jockeys himself into a position of greater and greater power, ultimately becoming Emperor of the Galaxy. (For those uninitiated in the world of Star Wars, the Jedi are the good guys and the Sith are otherwise).

Released 14 years ago, Revenge of the Sith, it seems, turned out to be a cautionary tale warning of events to come, events which have indeed come to pass in the world’s biggest democracies only a decade or so later. For those who are wondering how and why it is so easy for a cunning and ill-intentioned despot to subvert democracy, the plot of the movie and many of its dialogues are sure to resonate, even instruct.

For example, during the first half of the movie, Anakin’s Jedi master Obi Wan Kenobi warns him:

“The Senate is expected to vote more executive powers to the Chancellor today.”

To which Anakin, who is finding himself increasingly impatient with democracy, replies with words that echo the sentiments of so many today:

“Well, that can only mean less deliberating and more action. Is that bad? It will make it easier for us to end this war.”

 A little further on in the film, a group of senators have a conversation that echoes present day attacks on democracy.

One of the senators asks, “Do you think he (Palpatine) will dismantle the Senate?”

A second one replies: “Why bother? As a practical matter, the Senate no longer exists.”

And a third senator says, “The constitution is in shreds. Amendment after amendment… executive directives, sometimes a dozen in one day.”

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But the most prophetic scene in the movie is the perhaps the one where Chancellor Palpatine finally manages to seize absolute power after falsely but convincingly accusing the Jedi (the good guys) of masterminding a traitorous plot to topple the senate.

The words and terminology he uses while addressing the galactic senate are worth noting: 

“The war is over.

The separatists have been defeated

The Jedi rebellion has been foiled.

We stand on the threshold of a new beginning.”

“In order to ensure our security and continuing stability, the Republic will be reorganised into the first Galactic Empire, for a safe and secure society which I assure you will last for 10,000 years. An empire that will continue to be ruled by this august body, and a sovereign ruler chosen for life, an empire ruled by the majority, ruled by a new constitution.”

The senate erupts in loud and long applause, and Senator Padme, who has fought long and hard to prevent Palpatine from becoming emperor, utters one of the most disconcerting lines in the movie:

“So, this is how liberty dies… with thunderous applause.”

One might be pardoned for feeling somewhat startled at the similarities between Emperor’s Palpatine’s language and that being used by members of our current dispensation. Or feeling the same dismay as Senator Padme about the “thunderous applause” and admiration that our current day rulers inspire.

“Security and continuing stability” and “a safe and secure society” are the grand reasons being given for some very questionable legislation that has been hurriedly passed in the current monsoon session of parliament, most notably, the amending of UAPA which gives the government the power to proscribe individuals as terrorists, the RTI Bill which has, for all practical purposes, been rendered toothless and incapable of being any kind of a real watchdog of democracy, and finally, the scrapping of Article of 370 by presidential decree.

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“…a safe and secure society which I assure you will last for 10,000 years” was quite possibly an oblique reference by director George Lucas to the thousand-year reign promised by the Third Reich (which lasted only ten) but is also eerily similar to boasts that have been made by those like Sakshi Maharaj, who have predicted a long uninterrupted reign of the ruling party with possibly no more elections in the future.

More and more, we are seeing members of the ruling party showing absolutely no compunctions in using word and phrases that are dangerously close to the ones used by Emperor Palpatine – a “sovereign ruler chosen for life”, “an empire ruled by the majority”, and being “ruled by a new constitution.”

Empire. Majority. New constitution. Sovereign ruler. The vocabulary of demagoguery never changes.

Towards the end of the movie, as Obi Wan and his erstwhile student, Anakin, battle it out with light sabers on the lava-filled planet of Mustafar, Anakin tells Obi Wan, “If you’re not with me, you’re my enemy.”

To which Obi Wan replies, Only a Sith Lord deals in absolutes.”

Nuance, moderation, dialogue and deliberation – the mainstays of a democracy – are fast fading from politics and public debate and are being rapidly replaced by absolutism, majoritarianism, binaries and extreme polarisation.

Star Wars, it seems, is turning out to be much more prophetic than George Lucas perhaps ever intended it to be.

Rohit Kumar is an educator with a background in positive psychology and psychometrics. He works with high school students on emotional intelligence and adolescent issues to help make schools bullying-free zones.