The World According to Star Wars

Cass Sunstein
May 29, 2018



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Suppose that Star Wars was a nation and that its earnings were its GDP. If so, it would be ranked right around the middle of the 193 nations on the planet. Doesn’t it deserve its own seat at the United Nations?

Jo. Det trur eg faktisk det gjer.

All these are just numbers, of course. In terms of the culture, the figures don’t come close to capturing the impact of the series. Avatar was a massive economic success, and it was really good, but can you recall even one line or scene? You might remember a few things from Titanic or The Wizard of Oz or Gone with the Wind—but frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn. We’re not in Kansas anymore; it is Star Wars that has become king of the world.

Spielberg is right about almost everything, and he was right about A New Hope. Lawrence Kasdan captures its awesomeness this way: “it’s fun, it’s delightful, it moves like a son of a bitch, and you don’t question too much.” Great things inevitably rise to the top (especially if they move like an SOB). With movies, books, music, and art, there’s no mystery about what succeeds and what fails. Shakespeare, Dickens, Michelangelo, Mozart, Frank Sinatra, the Beatles, Taylor Swift—all these were destined for success. You can’t imagine a world in which Hamlet or King Lear tanked. (Perhaps you can imagine one in which people don’t like Taylor Swift, but if so, I feel sorry for you.) Quality is necessary, and it is also sufficient.

…the lesson is that people pay a lot of attention to what other people appear to like, and information about popularity can make all the difference.

…trailer for The Force Awakens, it had been viewed more than 88 million times. That’s an all-time record. You can be sure that a lot of viewers were interested less in seeing the trailer itself than in being able to discuss it with others.

Daniel Kahneman, author of the magnificent Thinking, Fast and Slow, is the most famous of them; to many people, he’s a real-world Yoda. (A good life lesson from Kahneman: “Nothing in life is as important as you think it is when you are thinking about it.” Think about that. It’s important.)

…in a brilliant essay, Lydia Millet writes that Vader “was the most erotic figure in the Star Wars family, and the only tragic one, and because of this he had a terrible beauty.” An aristocrat, “he had poise, elegance and good manners.”

…the real theme is universal. By their innocence and goodness, by their boundless capacity for forgiveness, and by the sheer power of their faith and hope, children redeem their parents, bringing out their best selves. And as every child knows, deep in his heart, any parent is likely to choose to risk his life to save his child’s, even if it means a contest with the Emperor himself. When he makes that choice, the Force is going to be right there with him. I like that, and I believe it.

…to be my age, you’re still trying to figure that out. It’s amazing but it’s true. What am I, what am I about, have I fulfilled my potential, and, if not, is there still time? That’s what the Star Wars saga is about.”

The philosopher Harry Frankfurt makes a distinction between what we want (a cigarette, a bit of extra sleep, a visit to the Dark Side) and what we want to want (no cigarettes, a little more work, the Light). Frankfurt argues that if we act in accordance with what he calls our second-order desires, we are exercising our free will. For Frankfurt, freedom has a lot to do with the ideal of self-mastery.

Burke insists that traditions provide connective tissue over time. That tissue helps to give meaning to our lives, and it creates the closest thing to permanence that human beings can get. This is a conservative thought, of course, but even those who do not identify as conservative like and even need chains and continuities. That’s part of the appeal of baseball; it connects parents with their children, and one generation to another. The same thing can be said about Star Wars, and it’s part of what makes the series enduring. It’s a ritual.

In the Star Wars series, what the rebels seek is a restoration of the Republic. In that sense, they are the real conservatives. They can be counted as Burkeans—rebellious ones, but still. They’re speaking on behalf of their own traditions.

Group polarization occurs when like-minded people, talking mostly with one another, end up thinking a more extreme version of what they thought before they started to talk.

A lot of social science research, in many of the world’s nations, has shown that this is a consistent pattern. If you put a bunch of rebels in a room and ask them to discuss the rebellion, they’ll get more extreme.

But if you’re looking to learn about constitutional design, Star Wars probably isn’t your best bet. Go see Hamilton on Broadway.