Star Wars and the "summer of love"
Part 2: The politics of hope and the journey to Andor on Disney+
Good morning and welcome back to This Is The Way, a Substack dedicated to stories of growth, overcoming challenges and living well that are derived from the world of pop culture. You’re reading part 2 of an excerpt from How The Force Can Fix The World on the politics of Hope that can be found in Star Wars, particularly Rogue One (2016). This will pair perfectly with themes to be found in the upcoming Star Wars TV series, Andor, on Disney+. This new show will look at the origins of the Rebellion against the Galactic Empire.
Read part one first.
Rebels always have choices to make. Sometimes the choice to fight is easy, or made for them. More often though, the choice is how to fight and on what terms. What kind of rebel are you?
One piece of housekeeping before we begin. I’m going to speaking about Star Wars, politics and philosophy in sunny Miami this October 14-15 at LibertyCon. You should come down and join in the fun. We’ll be joined by Twitch streamer Destiny, Justin Amash, Spike Cohen, John Mackey, Rep. Nancy Mace and many more awesome, thoughtful people. Discount code for your registration below!
Part two of “Hope” from How The Force Can Fix The World
Hope on the ballot
Many of the crossroads we come to in our lives are choices not between going left or right, but more so moving forward or moving backward. In some cases, there’s also the option to stand still. The first election I voted in was 2008, the contest between U.S. Senators Barack Obama and John McCain. The narrative around that choice was made pretty clear by the campaigns they ran and the slogans they leaned on. McCain’s was “Reform, Prosperity, Peace,” at least to me as a then college Republican, it was a campaign about staying the course — standing still. We all know what Barack Obama’s campaign was about: “Hope & Change.” Obama carried the election easily by 365 to 173 electoral votes and nearly 10 million in the popular vote. America chose this thing called “hope” over what was seen as continuation of the Bush years, both on foreign policy and the economy, which had sunk into recession months prior to the election.
Believe or not, the 2016 election was similar in one key way. Donald Trump ran on “Make America Great Again,” and Hillary Clinton with, “Stronger Together.” Which one was about changing the status quo and offering a vision of what could be?
It was MAGA. Sure, Trump was harkening to the past in a way, but he did so to point in a direction that America should actively go. His message resonated in the states where it mattered most, and Donald Trump became president. Fast-forward to 2020 and it came as no surprise to me that Trump lost his bid for reelection. “Keep America Great” was the status quo message of the campaign and couldn’t have been more poorly timed given the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. People weren’t feeling like things were so great. Biden had a slew of slogans, “Build Back Better” being the most frequently used of them. In that election, he was pointing to new things, not just rebuilding a country ravaged by the coronavirus, but making it better than ever before. Vague, but compelling.
The start of 2021 was more or less the immediate sequel to the prior November election that saw Donald Trump relegated to one term and the ascension of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris to the White House. The U.S. Senate races in Georgia had been sent to a January 5th runoff between Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, and Republicans Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue. If the Democrats managed to win both Georgia seats, they’d win control of the Senate and officially make Majority Leader Mitch McConnell the Minority Leader, and give president-elect Joe Biden a unified Democratic government. It’s not that the Democrats had a particularly hope-based message, but more so that the Republican campaign in Georgia had devolved in total cynicism bordering on nihilistic self-destruction.
You have to wonder how the Republican National Committee felt about the head of the party, Donald Trump, tweeting throughout the week of the Georgia runoff, that the election he’d just lost was “rigged” and “stolen.” Worse still, ballot machines became the primary target of the president’s Twitter rage, which he maligned as being tampered with by Dominion Voting Systems, the company who made the machines. If you were a Georgia Republican working two full time jobs and barely making ends meet, would you feel particularly compelled to go back out to vote a second time in January if you were convinced the process was rigged anyways? It couldn’t have helped. Demographic change in Georgia combined with slightly suppressed Republican turnout for the runoff led to a Democratic victory for both seats.
As we start to unpack the dualism between hope and nihilism, I want you to keep that example in mind. Because while you could be a Republican deeply concerned or even afraid of what a Democratic Senate could mean for America, there’s little to no utility in pairing that with a message of conspiracy around the integrity of elections. In a democracy, voting is the release mechanism for anger and discontent. When politicians take voting off the table as a means to achieve change, removing hope from the equation for their constituents, what’s left is not pretty. It’s what we saw unleashed on the Capitol in January 2021. It’s what we see in the most violent incidents involving the masked leftists of Antifa. No belief in the system. No hope for change by democratic means. What you get is indiscriminate violence.
During the Galactic Civil War, rebel leaders had a choice of their own in how they rallied the disaffected peoples of the galaxy to their cause. Senator Mon Mothma, Princess Leia and her adopted father, Bail Organa of Alderaan, rose as the principal leaders of what is known as The Alliance to Restore The Republic, also known as the Rebel Alliance. This Alliance was the culmination of roughly 15 years of toil, sacrifice and organizing on the part of these leaders. In the years following the formation of the Empire, there was dissent in several pockets of the galaxy. The problem was that individual rebel cells in a vast galaxy had little to no knowledge of one another’s activities. To the best of their knowledge, they were acting alone, risking everything to stand up to a behemoth Empire with little real hope of toppling it. The rebels would be “stronger together” if they knew of one another, so that was the first hurdle Mon Mothma, Leia and Bail Organa had to clear...letting freedom loving people of the galaxy know they are not alone.
After that, you have to keep the band together amidst a fight against a brutal, totalitarian enemy who didn’t recognize constructs such as “the rules of engagement” or civil rights. The Empire has no rule book. As a result, many dissidents were asking if the rebellion should be playing by the “rules” themselves? One such dissident was named Saw Gerrera, and he led a militant cell of rebels called The Partisans.
A Rebel without a cause
Seen on-screen in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) was a frightful figure in the imagination of both Imperial loyalists and the average citizen of the galaxy. He was clad in metallic armor and bearing scars of not only resistance to the Empire, but also the horrors of the Clone Wars. By time we see him in Rogue One, Saw sports both a mechanical leg and a breathing apparatus that implies a collapsed lung or similar injury. Whenever he goes for his breathing tube, it’s eerily reminiscent of Darth Vader’s strained drawl of breath through his own oxygen delivery system, his iconic mask and black suit. Saw Gerrera, like Vader, has given up pieces of his humanity in the ongoing fight for freedom.
Gerrera serves as a foil to Mon Mothma and Leia’s movement, a rebellion he often describes in air quotes when he’s featured in animated series’ such as Star Wars Rebels. To him, Mothma is a vanguard of the status quo, of politics and centrism. To Gerrera, she is spineless and unwilling to do what must be done to take down the Empire. It’s a common archetype in world history and in pop-culture. Think Malcom-X to Martin Luther King, or Samuel Adams to his second-cousin, John Adams, or Magneto to Professor Xavier in the X-Men series. Revolutionaries all of them, united by a similar goal or motivating sense of injustice, but divided on the means by which to achieve their end.
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In Rogue One we’re treated to a little exposition about this rift with Gerrera from an exasperated Mon Mothma, who is struggling to keep the Rebel Alliance together amidst increased pressure and violence from the Empire. “His militancy has caused the Alliance a great many problems,” she says to the movie's chief protagonist and reluctant-rebel agent, Jyn Erso. Gerrera’s Partisans are violent extremists known to kill civilians, torture their captives and employ all sorts of other brutal tactics in their stand against the Empire. You won’t find Saw waxing poetic about what he hopes to build after he defeats the Empire, because he has no vision for what comes next. What he understands, and somewhat to his credit, is that the Republic he once fought for during the Clone Wars, became the Empire. He sees that throughline as evidence the entire enterprise is rotten to the core. The Republic, the Empire, to him it is all the same. He’s not wrong about this. But if your goal is to compel a galaxy to stand up to the objective evil of the Empire and throw off its oppression, would you take his little history lesson as inspiring….as a beacon of hope?
Doubtful. Hope isn’t part of the equation for Saw. Just fear, righteous anger and a burning hatred for the Empire. These things aren’t enough to fuel a popular movement and founding of a new government, not in a galaxy far, far away and in most cases, not in our own world either.
Saw Gerrera lives for the fight, but he doesn’t have a cause that brings people together beyond their anger and fear. Successful movements require more.
What went wrong with the “Summer of Love”
Halfway through 2020, it seemed all but certain that the year would be defined by two things: the global pandemic and the U.S. presidential election. Then came May 25th and the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. Floyd was detained by police for allegedly passing a counterfeit $20 bill at Cup Foods, a neighborhood market on the southside of the city. One of the arresting officers, Derek Chauvin, had Floyd pinned to the ground beneath his knee, where he knelt for nearly 9 minutes. George Floyd died there on the pavement.
Minneapolis erupted. Soon the entire national was swept up in protests, rioting, looting and a mix of civil disobedience and outright violence. At its peak in the first week of June, about half a million people had hit the streets in at least 550 spots across the United States. In the midst of a pandemic, downtowns and government districts from coast to coast were burning.
You may recall that this was a movement without a singular leader. Whereas the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s is popularly understood to have been led by Martin Luther King Jr, the #BlackLivesMatter movement encompassed a wide net of civic and grassroots organizations all pushing an agenda of racial justice. Some items of that agenda were moderate and aimed to work within the system to make meaningful changes in law to protect the civil rights of all Americans: banning no-knock warrants, breaking up police department unions, ending qualified immunity, requiring a kind of liability insurance for police officers, as well as mandatory body cameras among other things.
Then there was #AbolishThePolice and burning buildings, courtesy of radical groups like the anarchists of Antifa. These so-called “anti fascists” reemerged in a big way in 2020, after generating headlines for a number of years primarily for their antics on college campuses, such as shutting down events for conservative speakers or physical altercations with college Republicans. The militant left-wing group, its members clad in black and their faces concealed, has also been known to attack journalists and bystanders for documenting their activities or attempting to intervene.
Antifa is a popular boogeyman of conservative media, and not without cause. They’re a scary group. The very fact that these violent, mostly white and male militants mask their identities to the public is a big part of it. And it’s a real gift to the defenders of the status quo. When Mon Mothma alluded to problems Saw Gerrera had been causing for the Alliance, some of that was military, but most of it was PR. The Empire relished the opportunity to capture images of Gerrera’s attacks and turn them into propaganda that smeared the entire rebel movement as one of terrorism and thuggery. Fear is an effective ally of the powerful, and political movements throughout history have had to reckon with this reality when challenging the government, law enforcement or whatever powers may be. More on that later.
When the Black Lives Matter movement and demonstrations peaked in June, support for their cause was measured by Pew Research Center and sat at 67% for adults, a clear majority. By September that support had dropped by 29%, settling now at 38% of adults. That’s a devastating dropoff in support. What began in 2013 as a movement in response to the killing of 17-year Trayvon Martin, a black boy, and the subsequent acquittal of his killer, George Zimmerman, had come a long way and expanded its base of support from the suburbs to the boardroom of the NFL and NBA. As the summer wound down, the civil unrest in Portland and Seattle was just getting started. What Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan described as a “summer of love” in regards to anarchists colonizing a part of downtown and dubbing it the “Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone” or C.H.A.Z. for short. It would have been totally comical if not for the violence that ran amok on those few blocks of downtown, culminating in a per capita crime rate that was 50 times that of Chicago.
These hotbeds of Antifa-organizing were teeming with random violence and street battles with police, supposedly in the name of racial justice. George Floyd’s death was at this point something of an afterthought for what was happening on the streets. Rioters wielding makeshift clubs and shields were not pushing police reform, nor were they promoting policies that could be tied to the injustice that was perpetrated against George Floyd. Onlookers understood this wasn’t about reform. Militant groups like Antifa believe that the United States itself was founded on white supremacy and that its constitution serves those same ends.
Antifa’s goal is to burn it all down and they make no effort to hide those intentions.
Unless you’ve read the Communist Manifesto and have some vague sense of what radical socialists like Antifa aim to build, you might be left wondering where is “hope” in their movement? Well — it’s not there. The entire enterprise of dressing up in all-black, brandishing weapons and attacking both agents of the state (police, federal officers) and civilians indiscriminately is an exercise in nihilism. There’s nothing hopeful or aspirational about it and as a result, it’s appeal is quite limited. This is why you’ll never see an Antifa revolution take off.
Balancing hope and anger
There’s a vocal contingent within the Star Wars fan community who pushes the idea that the franchise is exclusively a story about standing up to fascistic regimes. Those people aren’t entirely wrong. Star Wars is definitely about the virtue of recognizing and facing down evil, and fascism is evil. But this debate tends to obscure at least two things. First, the specific political orientation of the Empire and whether or not its specific brand of authoritarianism is purely fascism and not a hybrid which includes elements of communism and corporatism (among other things). The second, is what we’ve been exploring in this chapter about what it takes to win against oppressive regimes of whatever variety.
In any historical scenario you’ll always be able to find real life characters who fit the mold of radical and realist, incrementalist or revolutionary. Star Wars and its clever inclusion of Saw Gerrera in the story of the Rebellion is no exception. And the timing was just right. In our own world, Rogue One had come just after the Bernie Sanders insurgency against Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic presidential primaries. Now, we aren’t talking about some sort of armed insurgency of course, but a legitimately radical (and I don’t mean that as a slur) alternative to the establishment figure and centrist that is Clinton. The timing didn’t feel like a coincidence. The rise of Bernie Sanders and a more militant left politics came right on the heels of Barack Obama’s tenure, a presidency many thought would be more progressive than it turned out to be. Obama spoke the language of the establishment and with an idealism about what America is and could be. He had his moments to the contrary. But at the end of the day he was a guy whose 2006 book was entitled, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream. It wasn’t titled, Irredeemable: Why The American Dream Never Really Existed.
For all his flaws, Obama might have fit in at the table with Mon Mothma, Bail Organa and the Rebel Alliance, fighting for a belief in what the Republic once stood for and could be again. The historical revisionists behind journalistic catastrophes like New York Times’ 1619 Project, writer Hannah Nicole Jones for example, it’s hard to see her standing with anyone other than Saw Gerrera. To these kinds of thinkers, righteous anger is the primary currency of their politics. Anger can be enough to get people animated about change, but it tends to be a powder keg of emotion more prone to flaring up and burning out.
To be continued….
Part 3 will post early next week. Andor drops on Disney+ this coming Wednesday. Have a great weekend!
This is the way.
This Is The Way is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.