Star Wars: Redemption, authoritarianism, and the appeal of darkness

Nobody foresaw that a science-fiction story about a moisture farmer's adventure with a rag-tag group of interstellar ne'er-do-wells would break box-office records for 40 years and redefine American storytelling. But this Harvard Law professor has a few ideas why it's stuck around.

Cass Sunstein: Well, what Star Wars does is it tells us about parents and children and how connected each is to the other, and it is probably the most stirring tale (I think) of boy’s need for a dad and a dad’s need for a boy that we have in modern culture. And it kind of nails some of the intensity of those feelings. 

It also—and I think this is equally deep—tells us something about redemption. 

So the idea is that if you can get your kid to love you it’s probably going to be okay. 

And also if you do something heroic and good you can probably be redeemed in some sense of your soul—whether we’re talking about religion or not, you can be redeemed even if you were really a creep before that (at least if what you do that redeems yourself is very major and important, as it certainly was in Star Wars). I think we’re going to see themes about parents and kids and redemption in the new episodes as well. 

In terms of empires and republics, what the movies kind of capture (and I think nail) is that authoritarianism has a bit of an appeal. 

The idea that an authoritarian leader can get something done and maybe take a little bit of the chaos that freedom creates and then get it into some sort of management and that can make life a little more orderly—people like that. 

But it also tells us that in every human heart there is a kind of need for freedom (meaning there isn’t going to be a boot on your face) and there’s going to be a capacity for governing yourself. 

And the tale of the appeal of authoritarianism, which really kind of captures what happened in Nazi Germany and captures a little bit some of the appeal of authoritarians all over the world including, currently, Turkey—it gets that and it gets that in a way that is true to the arc of human history. 

And the failures of authoritarianism—because people don't like a boot in their face—it kind of lightly, but memorably, captures that as well. 

So, if you’re in a country that’s poor and where people’s property rights aren’t secure, or you go on the streets and someone might beat you up, or if you’re in a country that’s doing pretty well (like the United States and some European nations) but terrorism is a risk—or if terrorism is unlikely still you might get something stolen, or somebody might knock you out because there’s violent crime, or even if it doesn’t happen to you if you read about it in the newspaper—then you might think law and order is a pretty good corrective. 

And even if law and order means that civil liberties and civil rights will be reduced, maybe that’s a trade you’ll be willing to take. And we certainly saw that in the United States at times over the past let’s say 40 years. 

And while in the United States (in my view) nothing really horrific as happened in terms of the rise of authoritarianism, the fact that there have been movements away from civil rights and civil liberties is suggestive of something that’s possible when people feel really at risk. 

So what Star Wars captures—and this makes it transcend the kind of simple dichotomy between the light side and the dark side of the force—is it says that the Dark Side, it does have a seductive power, either because it means that each of us can wield power if we “go dark”, or because it means that somebody at least is going to be in control of human impulses that can threaten us. 

And if the controlling power is reflecting those forces that’s not so good, but some people would rather live in an orderly society that is not day-to-day let’s say unraveling than a society that is free, because freedom suggests the possibility at least of a little unraveling.

George Lucas probably had no idea that Star Wars, his story about a moisture farmer going on an adventure, would change the course of storytelling. Memorable characters sure help set it apart from other science fiction, but Harvard Law professor Cass Sunstein has good idea as to why it's such a global phenomenon. The original trilogy, he states, has something in it for everyone in that it tackles some very human problems: redemption, authoritarianism, and the appeal of darkness. Cass Sunstein’s research is cited in The Influential Mind: What the Brain Reveals about Our Power to Change Others by Tali Sharot.

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