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What is the "Dark Side" and Why Do Some People Choose It?

May 13, 2005

The Star Wars saga will conclude on May 19th when Episode III: Revenge of the Sith opens in movie theaters across the country. We already know a great deal about how the movie will end because writer/producer/director George Lucas must meld Revenge with Episode IV: A New Hope which debuted in 1977. (I've also written on Episode I and II )

Thus in Episode III we will see a continuing war between the forces of the Old Republic/Jedi Knights and the dark side forces of the Republic-turned Empire. Anakin Skywalker will go over to the dark side, tipping the balance of power in favor of the dark-sided Empire. The good-guy Jedi Knights are eliminated as a "force" and Jedi Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda go into hiding. Anakin Skywalker and secret wife Queen Amidala have two children who will turn out to be Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia in Episode IV.

The question on the minds of many Star Wars fans is: how does Anakin Skywalker end up in the shiny black helmet, with a skeleton-looking face, scuba-diving sounding breathing, and the voice of James Earl Jones? The obvious answer is that Anakin goes over to the dark side, learns its evil ways, goes out and massacres a bunch of Jedi knights,  but is horribly injured in the process. The Emperor pieces Anakin back together in a Count Dracula-meets-German Storm trooper costume and the end product is dubbed Darth Vader.

One thing that should be clear is that Anakin Skywalker-turned-Darth Vader is the central character in the six-part chronicle. From little boy/pilot, to apprentice Jedi, to Jedi turned Sith, to Darth Vader, and death: Star Wars is the story of Darth Vader, one of the greatest fictional "bad guys" of all time.

The key question is why. Why did Anakin go over to the dark side? This is a crucial question and Lucas must provide a plausible and sensible answer because the Darth Vader role is really the foundation of Star Wars. Without the dark side there is no Vader and without Vader there is no Star Wars.  

A key to Lucas's answer to this question lies in Yoda—the gnome super sage of the Jedi council. When little eight-year old Anakin was presented to the council Yoda said that he was too old to be trained as a Jedi and warned of the danger he presented. However, it could not have been age alone that disqualified him because Yoda himself trained Luke Skywalker—a young adult—in the original Star Wars movie. It also is not genetic predisposition because Luke Skywalker is Anakin/Darth Vader's son.

Yoda could have some special power to read minds or to see the future, but whatever the case may be, his insight into Anakin requires a rational and tangible basis. I believe that Anakin's acceptance of the dark side is based on three factors. First, he was a bastard. Second, he and his mother were slaves. Third, he abandoned his mother when he was set free from slavery only to return years latter to find that she had been horribly brutalized, surviving just long enough to die in his arms.

These three environmental factors can be seen preventing Anakin from becoming a Jedi and instead led to his succumbing to the dark side. In fact, we can see any one of these factors leading a young person down the wrong path to accepting evil. The difficulties of single-parent households are well-known, easily understood, and are known to fall heavily on the children themselves who often become involved in criminal and destructive activities. Slavery is the antithesis of humanity, depriving man materially, socially, and spiritually and contributes especially to the fragility of family bonds. Even in its most platonic form, it leaves scars of resentment, detachment, and fear that can last for generations.

Abandoning his own mother would no doubt be the most immediate and troubling of all because he knew the pain of abandonment all too well. In fact, after she died in his arms, the young Jedi went on a murderous rampage killing all the men, women, and children of the Tusken Raider tribe that were in the vicinity of his mother's death. This was the real beginning of his move to the dark side.

Slavery plays the central role because it was a causal factor with Anakin's not growing up with a father, his abandonment of his mother, and his mother's death. (Fatherhood, or the lack thereof, combined with the role of mentoring is the key dynamic feature that runs throughout the six-part Star Wars series.) In the galactic Republic, slavery was only practiced in the port city of Mos Espa on the planet of Tatooine. This city was controlled by mobsters and was based on businesses and trade that the government sought to suppress, such as gambling and pod racing. This would suggest that in the absence of the black market that slavery might not have existed in the Republic. Therefore we can trace Anakin's problems back to government intervention in the economy.

As I have shown in previous essays on episodes one and two, Lucas constructs his Star Wars movies with images and details from our history. These connections are a key to his success because it provides a rational basis for his science fiction. In recent episodes he showed how an evil empire emerges from a constitutional republic via expanding mercantilist polices, bureaucracy, and political manipulation using images from Roman and British empires as well as Nazi Germany.

Darth Vader's helmet, for example, is modeled on the German Storm trooper so viewers knew immediately Vader was evil the moment he stepped onto the screen in 1977. (There are also elements from his own life: he grew up on a farm like Luke Skywalker; he liked to race cars like young Anakin; and he was in a horrible accident, apparently like Jedi Anakin.)

The connection that Lucas makes between Hitler and Vader is interesting because Hitler's father died when Adolph was a boy. Reports indicate that he was somewhat unbalanced and that he was a misbehaved child and a poor student. Hitler was known as a sneaky prankster who dropped out of school before his formal education was complete. Like Anakin, however, Hitler excelled at working on his own. In Anakin's case it was building robots and fixing machines while in Hitler's case it was reading German history and painting. Hitler, of course, would go on to represent the real-life personification of the dark side.

You don't have to be a real bastard or orphan to be a potential member of the dark side and it has even become a common practice to label anyone who sells out to evil and pursues their lust of power as "the dark side."

In academia, for example, if a group of professors in a department "sold out" their professional integrity and other colleagues for material rewards they would be called the dark side. If there was a board of trustees where one powerful member secured the votes of other members of the board by offering them lucrative business contracts and incestuous employment agreements they could be called the dark side.

Naturally the dark side is very prevalent in government. The dark side is most especially politicians who campaign for limited government and then vote for bigger government, increased taxes and reductions in civil liberties. But it could also be an economist who takes a lucrative and potentially powerful position in government and then "sells out" his principles.


  Ethics of LibertyThe right and wrong of law: $18

<pjoseph stiglitz="" has="" been="" called="" the="" dark="" side="" (and="" even="" worse)="" for="" reversing="" his="" opposition="" to="" minimum="" wage="" law="" after="" joining="" president="" clinton's="" council="" of="" economic="" advisors.="" however,="" not="" every="" bureaucrat="" is="" part="" and="" we="" certainly="" would="" place="" ordinary="" secretaries,="" school="" teachers,="" street="" sweepers="" in="" this="" category.

The dark side does include bureaucrats and functionaries who are driven by their lust for power into expanding and nurturing big government. We see it in attorney generals who presume celebrities and deep-pocketed corporations are guilty until proven innocent and who twist the legal process to obtain guilty verdicts.

We see it in drug warriors who destroy lives and families and trounce on civil liberties and property rights in a futile attempt to stop drug consumption. We see it in social workers who take children from their parents on the presumption that a broken arm was the result of child abuse rather than a playground accident. We see it in airport security, gun registration, tax enforcement, zoning, and environment regulation.

Unfortunately, we see the dark side all too often in government, but this is the brilliance of Lucas to capitalize on real life in order make science fiction meaningful to a mass audience. Once again he has taught us a valuable lesson about ourselves and our society. The next new hope is that such lessons will be a force in our future.

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Mark Thornton [ send him mail] is a senior resident fellow in Auburn, Alabama. He is author of The Economics of Prohibition, is a senior fellow with the Ludwig von Mises Institute, and is the Book Review Editor for the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics. He is co-author of Tariffs, Blockades, and Inflation: The Economics of the Civil War. Comment on this article on the economics blog.


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