What Is the Dark Side?

Okay, so here's a question for you: Suppose good and evil are as clearly defined in real life as they are in the Star Wars saga. You've got good guys who wear white and seek the ways of the Force, and bad guys who wear black and use the Force's Dark Side. In such a clear and unambiguous universe, who, in their right mind, would choose evil? And why?

Those were the questions I was hoping Star Wars, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith would answer. I wasn't too interested in whether this movie would turn out to be a veiled swipe at George Bush's post-9/11 policies. Yes, it portrays an Empire rising from the ashes of democracy. And, yes, America's actions since 9/11 have, at times, looked Imperial. However, the Bush team's post-crisis power grab is hardly the first one in history. It's not even the first one in America. What I wanted to learn from Episode III was how these post-crises power grabs happen in the first place.

What is the Dark Side, exactly? Why is it evil? And why the hell would anyone choose it?

To a degree, this movie succeeds in answering these questions.

(Warning: Here come the spoilers.)

(No, seriously. I'm going to ruin the entire movie for you.)

(Fine. Suit yourself.)

Revenge of the Sith is a tragic story. In it, a promising Jedi warrior, Anakin Skywalker, gives in to temptation and joins the Dark Side. His collusion with the devious Chancellor Palpatine is mutually beneficial. Anakin betrays his Jedi comrades and clears the way for Palpatine's consolidation of power; and Palpatine, in turn, makes Anakin'now Darth Vader'essentially heir to his throne.

Walking out of the theater, my only complaint was that the new Galactic Empire didn't seem too oppressive. We saw how Palpatine abused his power to manipulate special interests, create war, and abolish the Old Republic under the guise of peace and security. And we saw how he killed off the Jedis in order to ensure his plan's success. But I wondered, at first, was this enough? I mean, obviously, the Jedi slaughter was evil (though a little strange, since Jedis usually put up a fight). But if I were Palpatine and wished to be Emperor, I would've slaughtered the Jedis, too. After all, they knew his intentions and sought to impeach him. They directly threatened his scheme.

What I wanted to see was just how evil the Empire was. I wanted ruthless oppression'crimes that couldn't be rationalized or denied.

Now that I've had a few days to think it over, though, I no longer feel that way.

There are people in this world'and in galaxies far, far away'who kill because they want to kill, or because they simply can. But all things considered, those people aren't likely to convince many others to join them in their hobby. The far greater threat comes from people who rationalize murder'as with war, abortion, capital punishment, or when Darth Vader murders a room full of children training to be Jedis someday.

The Dark Side of the Force is not evil for evil's sake. It's evil because it believes the ends always justify the means.

Anakin doesn't turn to the Dark Side out of sheer want for political power. In fact, his conversion starts with the best of intentions. He envisions his wife, Padme, dying at childbirth. Palpatine tells him to join the Dark Side, tempting him with the ability to grant Padme everlasting life. Anakin foolishly believes he can have anything he wants if he wants it bad enough. He wants the power to tinker with nature, and his quest to attain it sends him down a self-destructive path. He doesn't just wake up one day and call himself Vader. He evolves. His thirst for God-like powers clouds his judgment to the point where he loses his mind.

This brings us back to the questions posed at the start.

What is the Dark Side, exactly? Well, technically speaking, it's an underlying energy that guides people'for better or worse'in the Star Wars universe. But in the big picture, the Dark Side is a form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Not a clinically diagnosed form, mind you. (And before I get emails from OCD readers: Please, I'm just trying to make a point here.) But rather, it represents 'order.' It represents the undying allegiance some leaders have to their vision of how things 'should be.' Politicians consolidate power for plenty of reasons'like money and job security'but it's the belief that they're somehow performing a vital service that clears their conscience to do this. It's not they haven't got values; it's just that their values are totally messed up. They truly believe in their vision for society. This is what justifies everything they do.

As George Lucas puts it: 'Power corrupts, and when you're in charge, you start doing things that you think are right, but they're actually not.'

The nature of the Dark Side is universally accepted in the Star Wars universe. As Steven Greydanus points out, the good side doesn't usually get a qualifier'no capital 'G' and 'S.' The good side is simply called 'the Force.' History is full of people who come to power by making promises to their constituents not unlike Palpatine's promise to Anakin. Hitler, of course, is the favorite example, but there are more. Just as Anakin wants to save Padme (and ultimately ends up losing her), so, too, did Hitler'and Stalin, etc.'kill millions just to serve some warped vision of the greater good. These people don't see the Dark Side as a perversion of the good side. They see it as progress. That's why they choose it. And that's why some folks, sadly, choose to believe in them.

Hey, it could happen to the best of us.

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Jonathan David Morris's picture
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Jonathan David Morris writes a weekly column on politics and personal freedoms.  His website is www.readjdm.com