Why Emperor Palpatine Wasn’t as Wrong as You Think

(cross-posted from the United States of Jamerica)

(Before I even begin, this is all apropos of the fact that I’m rereading a few of the older books in the Expanded Universe)

It’s basically an article of faith among Star Wars fans that the Galactic Empire — as depicted in the original trilogy — is purely evil and the Alliance to Restore the Republic (or Rebel Alliance for short) is unambiguously good.  And there’s a lot of solid evidence for that assessment.  On-screen, we’ve seen the Empire wipe out the Jedi, destroy entire worlds, enslave peaceful peoples, and declare that their ultimate aim is perpetual rule through fear of force alone.  Indeed, the Empire is so evil that it actively rewards cruelty: Grand Moff Tarkin — the commanding officer of the first Death Star — was awarded his title after slaughtering hundreds of anti-Imperial protesters in cold blood.

All of that said, 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.  On the other end of the timeline is the successor regime to the Rebel Alliance, the New Republic.  The New Republic was, like its namesake, a loose confederation of worlds united by common economic ties and a representative body.  It maintained a large military, for the purpose of defense and peacekeeping, and was firmly committed to respecting the rights of sentient beings.  It was also a complete failure.

For the full 23 years of its existence, the New Republic was beset by division and problems of legitimacy.  Consensus was habitually hard to come by, even in times — like the Thrawn crisis — when it was absolutely necessary.  Indeed, the New Republic fell precisely because it couldn’t muster the cohesion or will to defend itself against the extra-galactic Yuuzhan Vong, despite possessing the combined resources of an entire galaxy.

Now, to me at least, this suggests that a single galactic, representative governing body — no matter how well intentioned — is simply incapable of dealing with such an overwhelming diversity of cultures, viewpoints and agendas (remember, we’re talking about trillions of people and tens of thousands of different lifeforms).  If you’re committed to something vaguely democratic, the only real option is a galactic confederation — not dissimilar to the Federation in the Star Trek continuity — where each member planet or sector has extremely limited ties to a central “governing” body of limited authority.  Of course, there are real threats from within and outside the galaxy, and there is a real need for a centralized authority, if only for collective defense.  In which case, it seems that the only way you could have effectivecollective defense is by forcing each member planet to provide for a common army and navy, which requires enough force for coercion, which in this context can only be successful if the regime has little respect for rights: i.e. the Empire.

Palpatine was incredibly brutal and evil, but he also understood — correctly — that successful galactic dominion requires the kind of cruelty and brute force that we see on display in the movies.  Otherwise the whole thing will collapse into petty-infighting and jealousy.

Please do be so kind as to share this post.
TwitterFacebookRedditEmailPrintFriendlyMore options

20 thoughts on “Why Emperor Palpatine Wasn’t as Wrong as You Think

  1. But the relatively minor consequences of petty infighting and jealosy (and even ineffective organizations) don’t seem worth enduring the hardship and suffering of cruelty and brutal force. In other words, the end (an orderly empire) doesn’t seem a fair justification for the means (the iron hand of brutality and dictatorship). Sometimes, in order to have freedom, one must accept some chaos and failures. And in a humane society, human life and its dignity ought to be more important than that the trains (or spaceships) run on time, wouldn’t you say?

    Report

  2. *whispers* Jamelle, have you become a neocon overnight? Emperor Jamelpatine… it has a ring to it. Can I be vice-president and speak in a rasping voice and have a man-size safe in which I sleep when not torturing people and laughing hysterically?

    Report

  3. perhaps there could be a giant alt universe crossover between star trek and star wars. the Federation has proven itself able to run a large confederation and has dealt with large scale galactic war. they took care of the dominion and could help out with Vogon’s or whoever the star wars uni villains are.

    Report

  4. Pingback: Matthew Yglesias » Palpatine and Perpetual Peace

  5. Doesn’t this argument kind if ignore the fact that the actual attempt at enforcing galactic peace through empire, the Empire, was felled by a rebellion, the Rebellion, which sort of implies that any such attempt would meet such a respond, which kind of proves the opposite of your argument?

    Report

  6. Au contraire, the EU is canon for the Star Wars universe, it’s all vetted quite thoroughly by George Lucas, and if it’s in the EU, it’s considered to be official Star Wars, to the point where they’ve retconned elements of the movies to fit more into the EU framework.

    Report

    • “Au contraire, the EU is canon for the Star Wars universe, it’s all vetted quite thoroughly by George Lucas”

      No it isn’t.

      George Lucas:
      “I don’t read that stuff. I haven’t read any of the novels. I don’t know anything about that world. That’s a different world than my world. But I do try to keep it consistent. The way I do it now is they have a Star Wars Encyclopedia. So if I come up with a name or something else, I look it up and see if it has already been used. When I said [other people] could make their own Star Wars stories, we decided that, like Star Trek, we would have two universes: My universe and then this other one. They try to make their universe as consistent with mine as possible, but obviously they get enthusiastic and want to go off in other directions.”

      He’s made some editorial decisions, but most of the day to day work is handled by people in Lucas Books.

      “and if it’s in the EU, it’s considered to be official Star Wars, to the point where they’ve retconned elements of the movies to fit more into the EU framework.”

      No they haven’t. Lucas Books developed a canon hierarchy, with Lucas’s movies being at the top. They’ve incorporated a few minor elements from Expanded Universe, but the books conform to the movies, not the other way around. Anyone who read the Expanded Universe since Zahn days or before knows that the prequels largely destroyed the collective back story that was forming. If Lucas picks up something he likes, he’ll use it. But he’s repeatedly contradicted the Expanded Universe, and his comments on the post-Jedi period indicate that the Empire fell the day the Emperor died. No protracted civil war, no resurrected clone Emperor, nothing. It’s a fairy tale; it’s meant to have a happy ending.

      Report

      • From the Wikipedia entry on the subject:

        “By 1996, Licensing was keeping an in-house bible of reference materials as the volume of publications, facts, and figures grew to such unwieldy proportions that it became difficult to know everything relevant to a particular project. They finally decided something had to be done to organize the increasingly large collection of media which chronicled the Star Wars universe. A system of canon was developed that organized the materials into what was and wasn’t fit for the Star Wars story.
        In 2000, Lucas Licensing appointed Leland Chee to create a continuity tracking database referred to as the “Holocron”. As with every other aspect having to do with the overall story of Star Wars, the Holocron follows the canon policy that has been in effect for years.
        The Holocron is divided into 5 levels (in order of precedence): G-canon, T-canon, C-canon, S-canon, and N-canon.
        G-canon is absolute canon; the movies (their most recent release), the scripts, the novelizations of the movies, the radio plays, and any statements by George Lucas himself. G-canon overrides the lower levels of canon when there is a contradiction. Within G-canon, many fans follow an unofficial progression of canonicity where the movies are the highest canon, followed by the scripts, the novelizations, and then the radio plays.
        T-canon[1] refers to the canon level comprising only the two television shows: Star Wars: The Clone Wars and the Star Wars live-action TV series. Its precedence over C-Level canon was confirmed by Chee.[2]
        C-canon is primarily composed of elements from the Expanded Universe including books, comics, and games bearing the label of Star Wars. Games and RPG sourcebooks are a special case; the stories and general background information are themselves fully C-canon, but the other elements such as character/item statistics and gameplay are, with few exceptions, N-canon.
        S-canon is secondary canon; the story itself is considered non-continuity, but the non-contradicting elements are still a canon part of the Star Wars universe. This includes things like the online roleplaying game Star Wars: Galaxies and certain elements of a few N-canon stories.
        N-canon is non-canon. “What-if” stories (such as stories published under the Star Wars: Infinities label), crossover appearances (such as the Star Wars character appearances in Soulcalibur IV), game statistics, and anything else directly contradicted by higher canon ends up here. N-canon is the only level that is not considered official canon by Lucasfilm. A significant amount of material that was previously C-canon was rendered N-canon by the release of Episodes I-III.
        Leland Chee continues to answer questions about the Holocron in the Holocron continuity database questions thread at the starwars.com forums.
        On August 4, 2004, when asked if the G and C-levels formed separate and independent canon, Chee responded by stating that both were part of a single canon: “There is one overall continuity.”
        In a December 7, 2005 post, Chee commented on how the Holocron is applied to licensees:
        “The Holocron comes into play for anything official being developed for books, games, websites, and merchandise. For anything beyond that, it is simply a reference tool.”
        In a December 6, 2006 post, Chee suggests the existence of a second continuity composed only of the films:
        “The only relevant official continuities are the current versions of the films alone, and the combined current version of the films along with whatever else we’ve got in the Holocron. You’re never going to know what George’s view of the universe beyond the films at any given time because it is constantly evolving.”
        On a post made on the same day, Chee stated that:
        “Anything not in the current version of the films is irrelevant to Film only continuity.”
        This statement confirms the existence of two separate continuities, the “film only” continuity maintained and followed by George Lucas himself, and the “films + EU” continuity that is used for licensed products.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Star_Wars_canon)”

        I think we’re quibbling over two different versions of these canons. You’re looking at “G” canon as the only canon, whereas I’m saying that “C” canon is also canon, though I’ll acknowledge that “G” canon trumps “C” canon when Lucas says it does.

        Report

  7. Pingback: The Greatest Trick The Devil Ever Pulled « Vogue Republic

  8. This argument relies on a very selective reading of canon to argue for the flaws of galactic democracy. Remember, the Republic had stood for a thousand years in its present incarnation before Palpatine, and its preceding states for millennia beforehand (longer if we’re using only G-cannon!). While the impossibility of a single integrated, democratic state is at least arguable in the context of the real world, in the context of Star Wars it is not merely false but demonstrably false.

    Moreover the New Republic did not have the full resources of the galaxy to draw upon in fighting the Vong invasion; the Imperial Remnant and various other groups were still outside their purview. Indeed, the Galaxy wasn’t really united until the fall of Darth Cadus in the year 41 ABY.

    Honestly!

    Report

  9. Personally, I think it’s painfully obvious (based on Dr. Who) that only the existance of Time Lords can save the Galaxy from ultimate enslavement/destruction at the appendages of the Daleks. Since, as far as we know, there are no Time Lords, it would appear that we’re all ultimately doomed and that all this quibbling over Star Wars is a foolish waste of time.

    Report

  10. Pingback: The problem with galactic empires - E.D. Kain - American Tory - True/Slant

Comments are closed.