by Rod D. Martin
June 10, 2005

In some circles, particularly young male ones, calling someone “Yoda” has come to mean something of a cross between Solomon and Batman: not merely wise beyond all reason, but powerful and cool as well. This was, of course, based on the original Star Wars trilogy, which depicted the diminutive green Muppet discipling Luke Skywalker in the ways of the Force, and ultimately bringing down the evil Galactic Empire.

Ah, things were so simple then. But now George Lucas has told the rest of the story (and judging by the box office take, you have almost certainly seen at least Revenge of the Sith). And Yoda, still “the best and the brightest”, remains as brilliant and well-intentioned as the subjects of Halberstam’s classic.

But he is also just as flawed.

Sure, Senator-cum-Chancellor-cum-Emperor Palpatine is still the villain, and a truly evil one of a sort best compared to Stalin and Hitler. But it is the Jedi who throw away the Old Republic. Not willfully, of course, but by a thousand small sins: attitudes here, assumptions there, and a blithe, unbecoming arrogance throughout. In another age these would not have hurt so much: indeed we learn that the Jedi have not rethought their methods in almost a thousand years. But pressed by a diligent, masterful foe, these same small faults betray them, and the Republic folds like a house of cards.

So it might prove with our Republic, or any republic.

As in the Garden or any Greek play, pride is their principal tragic flaw; but it is at least a failing the Jedi come by honestly. The Jedi are entrusted with guarding the galaxy’s liberties, and hence the Republic itself, and they’ve done this extremely well for a very long time. It is no more wrong for them to walk tall and call the shots than it is for modern America; and yet in the manner of all flesh, over time, they badly lose their way.

When, in Episode II, Obi Wan Kenobi cannot find a key piece of data in the Jedi archives, the school-marmish librarian tells him that “if it is not in our archives, it does not exist.” It does, of course, as even Yoda’s “younglings” figure out; yet this sort of self-satisfied superiority permeates the Jedi temple, from the initial grave mistake of allowing a barely-minted Jedi to train “the chosen one” to the mind-numbingly stupid decision to send the obviously hormonal Anakin to “guard” the stunning young Queen by himself. In all these things and more, the Jedi are oblivious to obvious consequences because they are so certain of their own “wisdom”.

This arrogance is matched by the ascetic, even Gnostic philosophy of the Jedi. Young Anakin is taught to purge himself of most emotion and all attachments: failure to do so is “the path to the Dark Side.” And indeed, much of what the Jedi oppose — fear, anger, hate and so on — can be very dark indeed. But the potential need not be the reality. As Martin Luther said, “Do not suppose that abuses are eliminated by destroying the object which is abused. Men can go wrong with wine and women: shall we then prohibit and abolish women?” This point is completely lost on Yoda.

The Jedi also fail to see that passions and attachments are strengths when under control. Jesus was angry when He overturned the moneychangers’ tables. But while Qui-Gon fell to Darth Maul despite his meditation, Obi Wan defeated him in angered reaction, Mace Windu defeated the Emperor in his own controlled rage, and ultimately, Luke’s anger at the threat to his sister (another obviously healthy attachment) makes possible the defeat of Darth Vader and the destruction of the Empire.

The Jedi asceticism proves inhumane as well. Viewers scratched their heads when young Anakin’s mother was left as a slave on Tatooine in Episode I; by Episode III they were aghast at Yoda’s cold-blooded counsel to a torn and devastated Anakin, facing visions of an agonizing Padme dying in childbirth, that he should just put that attachment out of his mind.

This alone might make Anakin’s Faustian bargain with Palpatine inevitable.

But ultimately (listen closely, John McCain), the real disaster lies in the Jedi’s attitude toward the Republic itself. The Jedi are “above” politics, although not really outside it, being possessed of lifelong terms and little if any review by outside authority. They believe in the Republic as an abstraction, and they certainly stand for its ideals.

Yet they loath its workings. Obi Wan tediously and tenaciously lectures Anakin on the baseness and cravenness of the political process. But while this may annoy Anakin, it does sink in. In discussing with Padme the Senate’s gridlock, the future Darth Vader intones that what is needed is someone “wise and strong” to “make them” act. When Padme points out that Anakin is proposing a dictatorship, Anakin makes clear he believes the ends would justify the means. And upon converting to the Dark Side, he justifies his course in terms of loyalty to justice and to the Republic itself.

There is no question that politicians are frequently venal, but to teach disdain for freedom’s institutions and processes is foolhardy in the extreme. The nature of democracy is that no one gets all of their way: compromises must be made, deals must be cut, because no one person or group has a monopoly on power. The people elected to do this are not evil: they are representatives of the much greater group of people who elected them. And they daily do proper battle with the representatives of other free people with different interests, different needs, and different points of view.

This is not just healthy, it is the only way there can be liberty. Churchill wasn’t kidding when he said that “democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others.” Another generation of Americans understood this and looked up to statesmen, encouraging their children to grow up to be President. And to the degree we label every campaign contribution as a bribe, every politically active citizen as a “special interest” and every politician corrupt, we set up the day when a Palpatine and a Vader of our own “protect” us from ourselves, to the cheers of a thankful nation of slaves.

Others have done this before us, most notably Germany in 1933. Our institutions are stronger, older, better. But arrogance, a lack of love for our fellowman, and a studied ingratitude and contempt for the institutions which define us can sap them yet. To the degree that George Lucas has taught us this, he deserves our nation’s thanks.