The Star Wars Holiday Special and the Banality of Evil

The Star Wars Holiday Special and the Banality of Evil December 31, 2015
TV Guide ad for the special. Via, fair use
TV Guide ad for the special. Via, fair use

The Star Wars holiday special aired only once, in 1978. It is widely — and justifiably — known as ridiculously bad. After an introductory scene of Han Solo and Chewbacca piloting the Millennium Falcon and Han promising to have Chewie home for the Wookie celebration of “Life Day”, we cut to Chewie’s family for ten or fifteen minutes of Wookies grunting at each other unintelligibly. And it mostly doesn’t get better from there, with the Wookie grunting as the frame story around musical and comedy bits and short scenes with the actual Star Wars cast — some of whom are rumored to have been on serious drugs for the filming. (It was the 70s…) The high point is the cartoon that introduces Boba Fett, which isn’t bad.

Even for the badfilm connoisseur, sitting down deliberately to watch the whole thing would probably be too much. But with the recent Star Wars hype it struck me that it wouldn’t be too terrible to have on in the background on Christmas Eve while wrapping presents.

And so I was reminded that apart from the Wookie grunting and the musical and comedy bits bizarrely shoehorned in, we get a glimpse of everyday life in the Empire, the banality of evil behind the oppression citizens face. And it has some disturbing resonances with life in America today.

In Star Wars we see the Death Star blow up the planet Alderaan; but it’s an atrocity too big to really register, it’s just a special effect. And within the Star Wars universe such an act of mass destruction would probably find its defenders just as the nuclear massacres in Hiroshima and Nagasaki find theirs.

We see the charred corpses of Luke’s Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru, but it’s a fait accompli; the stormtroopers are long gone by the time Luke get back to the farm. Apologists for authoritarian tactics might claim Owen and Beru were armed — they might even claim they deliberately burned themselves up in a siege.

Similarly it’s implied that Princess Leia is subject to some sort of torture during her captivity on the Death Star, but it happens off-screen. And “enhanced interrogation” is an accepted practice these days — no one has even been charged over the US’s use of waterboarding.

Oppressive policing in the Empire. Via, fair use
Oppressive policing in the Empire. Via, fair use

But in the Holiday Special we see stormtroopers ransacking Chewbacca’s family’s home, throwing items off shelves to the floor and tearing apart a kid’s stuffed toy in apparent glee. It’s a scene that in the 1970s was meant to show the evil of the Empire, but to anyone who’s studied the militarization of American policing over the past few decades it looks like a kinder and gentler version of how police routinely act today — trashing the homes of citizens, not to actually catch criminals but to demonstrate the power of the state and keep the people properly cowed.

And another scene has the Empire announce a curfew and shut down a Tatooine nightclub. It’s a scene that will hit all too close to home to those affected earlier this year by the illegal Baltimore curfew, especially those in the restaurant, bar, club, and theater businesses who lost a week’s wages while the Empire tightened its grip.

“Due to increased activity among subversive forces, we are placing a curfew on the entire Tatooine system effective immediately. All inhabitants will return to their homes at once. This order will remain in effect until further notice.” — Imperial Officer, Star Wars Holiday Special

“The Mayor finds that a public emergency has been created as a result of rioting within the City of Baltimore, creating a serious and substantial menace to the public peace, safety, health and welfare of the Citizens of Baltimore….Beginning at 10 p.m. on April 28, 2015, this General Curfew takes effect. These Curfews remain in effect until May 4, 2015 unless rescinded or extended by Order of the Mayor….(i) no person located within the City of Baltimore may be in a public place during the Curfew Period, whether in a vehicle or on foot; (ii) no person within the City of Baltimore may engage in a march, parade, assembly or demonstration on a public place, whether during the Curfew Period or during Other Hours unless the event has a previously issued permit…” — City of Baltimore Emergency Curfew announced by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, April 28, 2005

Over the past few months several commentators — some overtly satirical, others of more ambiguous tone – have suggested parallels between the Jedi and jihadists. As the Jedi were agents of a Republic and never forced their mystical/religious practices on anyone, that’s a heck of a stretch.

But what makes the parallel seem credible is that in many ways, in its authoritarian domestic policies and its brutal and domineering foreign policies, the United States has become the Empire.

“Fear will keep the local systems in line. Fear of this battlestation.” — Grand Moff Tarkin, Star Wars: A New Hope

“What we want to do is to create in the minds of the Iraqi leadership, and their soldiers, this Shock and Awe, so they are intimidated, made to feel so impotent, so helpless, that they have no choice but to do what we want them to do, so the smartest thing is to say, ‘This is hopeless. We quit.’ ” — Harlan K. Ullman, principal architect of the “Shock and Awe” or “Rapid Dominance” strategy employed by the US in its 2003 attack on Iraq. (Quoted in Air Force Magazine, November 2003

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