Rogue One and the need for a New Hope
On Thursday, President-elect Donald Trump casually called for a return to the nuclear arms race of the twentieth century.
On Friday, I watched the latest Star Wars movie, Rogue One, in which a newly-built Death Star annihilates populations as a gesture of Imperial power and punishment against Rebel forces. Its inaugural blasts brought to mind the words of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the theoretical physicist behind the development of Earth’s first atomic bomb: “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
In Rogue One, which tells the story of the creation of the Death Star as a prequel to the original Star Wars trilogy, this new destroyer of worlds tests its power by targeting two cities from above. Each blast produces a spherical blaze of white light and a billowing mushroom cloud, the unmistakable hallmarks of nuclear detonations. I couldn’t help associating these two attacks in quick succession with the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, and then, almost inevitably, associating the impending build-up of the Death Star in the Star Wars universe to the ensuing build-up of nuclear stockpiles in the twentieth century Cold War of our own reality.
It’s a terrifying prospect, the use of nuclear weapons. The Cold War was a terrifying time for Earth, when “mutually assured destruction” was the name of the game. And it’s terrifying to know that those about to take power in this country are casually enthusiastic about returning to an era of arms races for the first time in decades.
How different it would have been to watch Rogue One a year ago instead, or even a month ago, and feel it was pure fantasy. How quaint it was watching Star Wars as a child in the nineties and interpreting it as a mere fable of good versus evil, Light versus Dark. Its villains weren’t real, and if they were, they’d already been vanquished a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Or at least, they’d been vanquished decades ago on another continent, since the Empire’s British accents and Nazi-inspired uniforms so clearly conjure images of a conquering European power while the Rebels’ scrappy guerrilla forces and devotion to higher principles channel the semi-mythical spirit of American Revolutionaries. The forces of dictatorship are evil and doomed to fail; the virtues of democracy will prevail; the Star Wars trilogy concludes in jubilation, and the world is safe again, just as it felt safe again at the close of the Cold War.
The real-world parallels in Rogue One feel suddenly, shockingly relevant right here in America today, but the script has been flipped. The Dark Side isn’t distant, long-defeated colonialism or fascism — it isn’t far away at all. The Dark Side is right at home among us.
An imperialistic view of the universe, with rhetoric that favors virile displays of power over diplomatic niceties.
And now Trump’s call to build up nuclear stockpiles keeps echoing in my head as a call to finish the Death Star, to pursue the creation of a weapon that’s known to devastate cities and has the potential to destroy an entire planet.
Like so many Americans this year, I’m grappling with who we are as a nation: what are our core values? Freedom, inclusion, and strength through diversity? Or the collective power of marching in lockstep with a fervently nationalist creed?
I used to see America’s best self embodied by the Rebel Alliance, but I’m beginning to see my country as the Empire itself, hell-bent on dominating the world through destructive might.
That’s what lies ahead as Rogue One draws to a dramatic close. The audience knows: soon the Death Star will obliterate Alderaan. Soon Obi-wan will feel “a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced. I fear something terrible has happened.”
I fear something terrible will happen in the next episode of our human story as well.
Let us be clear. We live in a time when our soon-to-be White House Chief Strategist praises fear. “Fear is a good thing. Fear is going to lead you to take action,” Steve Bannon says. Our soon-to-be National Security Adviser apparently agrees: according to retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL.”
“Fear is the path to the dark side,” warns Yoda. “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
But Trump thrives on fear, anger, and hatred. At a “thank you rally” in Mobile, Alabama, just over a week ago, Trump seemed to praise supporters for their anger and hatred during the campaign: “You people were vicious, violent, screaming, ‘Where’s the wall?’ ‘We want the wall!’ Screaming, ‘Prison!’ ‘Prison!’ ‘Lock her up!’ I mean, you were going crazy. You were nasty and mean and vicious.”
“Give yourself to the Dark Side. It is the only way you can save your friends,” Darth Vader encourages.
For his part, Bannon doesn’t shy away from this path; he’s downright specific in his praise of its outcome. “Darkness is good,” says Bannon. “Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power.”
These are the men who are taking over the halls of government in the United States next month. This is the rhetoric they’re content to use; these are the values they’re projecting.
And now Trump has casually boasted about building America’s capacity for planetary destruction on the level of the Death Star. “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes,” Trump tweeted on Wednesday. When questioned about his true intentions the next day, he reinforced the sentiment: “Let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass, and outlast them all.”
Yes, I fear something terrible will happen.
Who are we as a people, fellow Americans? Who are we as a species, fellow humans? Do we believe that fear is beneficial, that anger is edifying, that hatred strengthens us, that darkness is good? Do we believe that power for power’s sake is a virtue to pursue?
I don’t want to live in an era of Earth Wars akin to Star Wars. I don’t want “wars” to be the defining word in our existence or, God help us, our obliteration. So, drenched in fear for our future, what can we do?
We can start by listening to better voices than those quoted above.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his First Inaugural Address in 1932: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Michelle Obama in her speech at the Democratic Convention in 2016: “When they go low, we go high.”
Barack Obama in his aptly-named The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream: “Hope — hope in the face of difficulty. Hope in the face of uncertainty. The audacity of hope!”
Six weeks ago, millions of voters took their fear and chose to follow it down a path of anger and hate without realizing the power they were promised could lead to their own destruction. Can we reject that path to the Dark Side? Can we acknowledge our fear, then emulate instead the heroes of story and history alike who time and time again pull themselves back to what is good and true?
We must keep returning, always returning, to hope.
When Rogue One drew to a close I found tears were streaming down my face. The warring on screen brought images from recent history swimming into view: Aleppo’s urban carnage, Vietnam’s bloodied beaches, the leveling of entire cities in Japan with atomic bombs. Yes, all this is recent history — an incomprehensible amount of violent suffering in the last century alone — and it’s ongoing.
So much darkness has unfolded, and so much darkness lies ahead, in the Star Wars universe and more significantly in our own world. The fear is real, and it is exhausting; I understand the inclination to follow it down a path of darkness.
But as I left the theater and continued to process the story of Rogue One, I realized that while the movie was filled with every kind of destruction and despair, ultimately, it ends with a beautiful segue into the next Star Wars story: A New Hope. The last word of the movie, the one spoken by Leia herself, the one that moved me to tears: Hope.
People resist darkness. They draw on goodness and truth. They band together and strive to make the world a better place.
This has to be the path we take as Americans and as humans, step by step by step.
A new hope. Courage in the face of fear; light in the face of darkness; the will to continue doing what is right in the face of seemingly insurmountable forces of evil.
Can we resist a government hell-bent on stirring up fears, provoking anger, fueling hatred, and leading us into destruction? Can we, as mere ordinary individuals?
In Curing Nuclear Madness (1984), anthropologist Margaret Mead is quoted as such: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”