It’s no coincidence that these escapist stories are so popular with our generation. Their moral clarity and message of hope (dashed with realism) is the exact remedy for the confusing, threatening climate we live in.
The class of 2005 came to Harvard and was immediately met by the events of Sept. 11, 2001. It was supposed to be another day of adjusting, the last day before we started classes at Harvard, before our new, grown-up lives began. Instead it was a day that ushered fear and instability into the world, and into our futures. We stood in the yard, sad and bewildered.
That winter we headed to the theaters in record numbers to see the first “LOTR” and “Harry Potter” films; that summer, “Star Wars: Episode Two” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” were our solace.
When we were sophomores and just getting the hang of the college thing, President Bush invaded Iraq. Most of us stood in the yard again, this time in protest, wondering why we were being led into a war that would turn a vast section of the world against us. If those movies had taught us anything, it was that war is only necessary when there was a direct threat; we didn’t see how 9/11 terrorists had anything to do with the Iraqis, save the fact that they shared a religion.
During the fall of our senior year, as our sights were supposed to turn outward to the “real world,” those of us who hated the regime traveled to New Hampshire and elsewhere to canvass and register voters in the hopes that we, the youth, could lead our country back on the right track.
The day Bush won again was, for that huge group of us, as upsetting as 9/11. We remained collectively depressed for the entire winter. Each day brought growing knowledge that in a few months, there would be no ivy-covered walls to insulate us from the events we bemoaned.
And the third episode of the “Star Wars” saga, which just opened, has only corroborated our feelings, with its message about power, propaganda and fear. As Harvard alumna Natalie Portman ’03 delivers the already widely-quoted line “This is how liberty dies—to thunderous applause,” we cringe, remembering last November.
The movie’s story is grim. The doomed protagonist Anakin understands that something is rotten in the Republic he lives in, but it’s easier for him to turn against the outsider Jedi order who are suspicious of the powers that be, than it is for him to turn against those powers themselves. The Republic’s increasingly undemocratic Chancellor, like many such leaders, derives his sway from his supreme confidence that his decisions are right (as opposed to the wise but far-from-omniscient Jedi master Yoda, who is constantly wrinkling his brows in thought).
Those of us who are feeling nauseous about the recent scapegoating of Newsweek would like to say we can’t believe that the government is getting away with such a dystopian shenanigan, but in fact, we can believe it. Of course it’s easier to blame some maverick reporter for screwing things up than to accept that the ruling structure of our great nation might actually be rotten to the core. Like Anakin did, Americans are seizing on the small errors of the few instead of the overarching wrongs of the powerful.
I’m not suggesting that Bush is a menacing Sith monster like his movie counterpart, the Chancellor, is revealed to be. The movie itself is. (Though maybe Dick Cheney is more apt for the part.)
There’s a scene in “Episode III” depicting foot-soldiers turning on one Jedi knight after another, cutting these soldiers of good down at a word from the Chancellor. I was immediately reminded of the way the press—and anyone else who speaks out against the status quo—is being offered up for sacrifice by the government, and the way Americans are joining the witch hunt without asking questions.
It’s almost as if the government is actively punishing those who have opinions it doesn’t like.
It’s almost as if the little guy matters even less than he used to in this changed world. And that’s a hard fact to swallow for us 2005ers, who are about to enter that world.
But that’s where these fantasy movies, despite their darkness, shine. We have to keep up the attempt to right the wrongs of our country (or restore balance to the force): we may be young and seemingly powerless, but so were Luke and Leia. And for that matter, so is Harry Potter. So are the hobbits.
It’s up to us to make sure the trend sweeping this country reverses. It’s up to us to stop the government from ruling by fear. It’s up to us to stand up against the current campaigns against women and gays, and it’s up to us to renew the only war we should be fighting: the war on poverty. It’s up to us to not be afraid, for as Yoda says: “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
So let’s draw our metaphorical lightsabers, and kick some Sith ass.
Sarah M. Seltzer ’05 is an English concentrator in Lowell House. Her column appears regularly.