Jamelle Bouie writes that Emperor Palpatine (of Star Wars fame) was not as wrong as we think:

I’m not so certain that the operating philosophy behind the Galactic Empire — that despotism is necessary to maintaining the peaceful cohesion of a galaxy-spanning empire –is entirely wrong. Especially since we have enough examples of republican forms of galactic government to know that the alternative isn’t that much better. The previous galaxy-spanning political unit — the Galactic Republic — collapsed largely because it was too large to be effective. The Republic didn’t even possess the strength or legitimacy to handle a trade dispute on a minor core world, much less an existential threat like the Clone Wars.

Several years ago, Jon Last wrote a seminal piece entitled The Case For the Empire:

Scores of thousands of planets are represented in the Galactic Senate, and as we first encounter it, it is sclerotic and ineffectual. The Republic has grown over many millennia to the point where there are so many factions and disparate interests, that it is simply too big to be governable. Even the Republic’s staunchest supporters recognize this failing: In “The Phantom Menace,” Queen Amidala admits, “It is clear to me now that the Republic no longer functions.” In “Attack of the Clones,” young Anakin Skywalker observes that it simply “doesn’t work.”

The Senate moves so slowly that it is powerless to stop aggression between member states. In “The Phantom Menace” a supra-planetary alliance, the Trade Federation (think of it as OPEC to the Galactic Republic’s United Nations), invades a planet and all the Senate can agree to do is call for an investigation.

Bouie is a liberal and Last is a conservative, which makes this a rare non-partisan issue (except for the fact that Last wrote his piece when Republicans were in power and Bouie his now that the Democrats are… the justification of power rises and wanes depending on who, precisely, is in power).

This sort of puts its finger on something that I find myself thinking about on this issue or that. Some of the greatest evils that have been committed were an illegitimate response to legitimate issues. Whether the villains were greedy oligarchs or the extraordinarily unfavorable terms of a post-war treaty, Hitler and Castro came to power because the previous models of governance were not working for large segments of the population.

Having gotten Godwin out of the way, you can see this in contemporary issues as well. To pick an example of something that has worked in multiple directions, sexual harassment law. Sexual harassment law, whatever its faults, was a response to a real problem. When women did not have sexual harassment workplace protections, there were no systems in place where she could file a complaint if men would demote or punish women that were not receptive to their sexual advances. The original incarnation of sexual harassment law, however, also went too far and the backlash was to be expected. Men had little or no defense against any allegation and could, at least theoretically, be fired for an innocent gesture taken the wrong way. There were absolutely no assurances that men wouldn’t be fired simply because a female coworker wanted them to be fired. There was no way that this was not going to cause a backlash. Even if it were the case that the men most likely to speak up were those that really just had a disregard for women and wanted the right to treat them however they wanted, they gained an audience in part because there were some legitimate fears about what this sweeping legislation would ultimately mean.

Ben Franklin’s famous quote about security and freedom notwithstanding, a society that disregards security for too long will almost certainly lose its freedom in the long run. When policies don’t allow the law enforcement and security personnel to do their jobs, the temporary result will be a population more free from police interference. The longer-term result is increased anger at rising crime that results in a new round of legislation that’s not unlikely to go five steps too far.

There needs to be a term for the opposite of the slippery slope argument. The slippery slope argument says that if you give in 10% on Issue X that you’re setting to stage to give in 20%, 30%, and up to 100%. The opposite of this would be that if you don’t give in the 10%, you’ll create a situation that will have people clamoring for a 50% solution.

Ultimately, institutions have to be able to respond to the problems set before it. Further, to the extent that those in power completely disregard the perspective and concerns of the opposition, they lay the groundwork for a disproportionate backlash that could easily outlast the effects of the legislation that they managed to get through in the first place.

-{Note, I touch on a lot of areas here with varying degrees of volatility. It may be too much to ask you to keep focused entirely on the abstract, but any and all comments that are disrespectful towards people that you disagree with will be cropped or deleted. Ditto for comments expressing great skepticism that the people you disagree with are good-intentioned or honest about their motives.}-

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3 Responses to The Empire’s PR Strikes Back

  1. cleared in hot says:

    The Galactic Senate sure seems a lot like the UN, and I’m reminded of Mark Steyn commenting on Alexander Downer, who was commenting on “transnationalism”:

    In more genteel mode, he put it like this: ‘Multilateralism is a synonym for an ineffective and unfocused policy involving internationalism of the lowest common denominator’. See Darfur, the Iranian nukes, the UN’s flop response to the tsunami, etc, etc. If it’s right to intervene in the Sudan, it’s not wrong because the Russian guy declines to stick his hand up at the relevant meeting.

  2. rob says:

    The opposite of the slippery slope argument is the pressure cooker argument. If there’s no release valve for some pressure to dissipate, the whole thing will explode. People also talk about nipping things in the bud, or an ounce of cure being worth a pound of prevention.

    No one, or almost no one, wakes up in the morning and says “I’m going to really effing evil today.” At worst, people do things because the ends justify the means. And of course ends do do that: slicing open an unconscious person’s abdomen is wrong. Doing that to remove his or her appendix that’s about to rupture does make cutting them open okay.

    This stuff is why I think all sorts of facts and arguments should be allowed in public discourse. Analagous to guns and criminals, if some facts are outlawed, only outlaws will have facts. Feel free to crop this part, since it might violate your (totally reasonable) comment policy. Feel free to crop this part, since it might violate your (totally reasonable) comment policy.

    Take eugenics, people argue not just that it is evil, they call it a pseudoscience. The only acceptable public opinion evolution by differential reproduction in people is that it is not possible, quite a different thing than evil. That position is fine for those who beleive it while there are plenty of other anti-eugenic arguments independent of viability. For example, forced sterilization is immoral, or aborting a zygote is murder. One day, noncoercive eugenics will be possible: the only currently acceptable argument against personal eugenics(embryo selection, say) is that the parents are wasting time and money for nothing. The current zeitgeist says that saying eugenics will create a genetic overclass is just as stupid as saying that using astrology will create an overclass: applying myths has no effect.

    to get the violation of Godwin’s law with over fast. Sometimes truly evil people are idealists, they ideals that are awful. Nazis come to mind. As some dude pointed out in a movie he made about it, if someone only wants to get elected, he joins a party, runs for office and climbs within the establishment. Nazis didn’t do that. They started their own party pushing for their ideals.

    Back to Star wars, the problem with the Emperor is not really that he turned a nonfunctional republic into a functioning emptire. The problem was that Palpatine was a tyrant: the functions the empire was goood at was killing huge numbers of innocent people for not much reasoning (Death Starring that one planet to make Princess Leia talk)

    Of course, Star Wars wouldn’t have been very interesting if the Empire was simply a well-regulated federal system that enforced reasonable regulation on the member planets.

  3. web says:

    The thought is not without its merits, at least in the structure as given by the movies themselves.

    In the “first” (eps 4-6) set of movies, we come in at a time when the Ruthless Empire is beating up on the Underdog Rebels. Darth Vader seems by all accounts to be an unprincipled madman – his behavior, choking subordinates, randomly killing people who displease him, is replete with kick the dog moments designed to remind us of how evil he really is, whereas Ben Kenobi’s Heroic Sacrifice is designed to show us how “good and noble” the Rebel side really is.

    In some ways it reminds me of the back-and-forth portrayals of the Sarafan Warriors in the Legacy of Kain series; over the course of the series they evolve (through increased knowledge and the perspective of different characters revealing more and more information) from a mystical group of holy warriors, to a group of depraved and genocidal scumbags, and back around to a group that had good intentions but, through manipulation and deceit on the part of third parties, lacked access to the information that would have led them to better conclusions and behavior.

    Of course, part of the problem with this whole discussion is that Lucas is at best a mediocre hack writer who never gets his crowd reactions right, and the “expanded universe” novelists are always busy covering up for Lucas’s bad writing. For instance, in Episode 1, the crowd would never have been cheering when Anakin won the race. Nobody in the crowd, save for Qui-Gon Jin, had any bets on Anakin. Nor would the announcer have any reason to know that Anakin’s freedom rested on winning the race. If Lucas had any clue of crowd reactions, the moment that Sebulba went down the crowd should have erupted into an angry mob. A “critical mass” of them certainly had major bets on him, and probably had just lost their (metaphorical) shirts on what they’d see as a fluke win.

    In the rewritten Episode 6, the small-scale victory party is portrayed as a galactic-scale celebration. This too, for me, is a hard sell. As we had seen, the Empire exists largely on inertia. The regional governors keep the local systems “in line” (e.g. paying taxes and nominally obeying Imperial laws) by brute force, which means they all have a pretty decent force of arms. In theory, cleaning up the galaxy even after killing the Emperor should take decades (this is handwaved away in two of the Expanded Universe novels by saying that Palpatine was “using the Dark Side of the Force” to remotely make all his minions more ruthless, and that 90% of them simply fall to disarray afterwards, with a large part of the Imperial navy realizing what assholes they’ve been and calling in to join the New Republic at first opportunity).

    Honestly, I’m happier with Star Wars just as the original trilogy. In his quest to make the universe more “vague” and “nuanced”, as well as justify killing off all the Jedi, Lucas made a lot of things just look downright backwards.

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