With the release of “The Rise of Skywalker”, last weekend, there have now been nine “Star Wars” movies. And with the saga coming to an end, without delivering any spoilers for the latest and last film, we can now say one thing, definitively: Palpatine, Darth Sidious, Emperor of the Galaxy, was the good guy, all along, and the Jedi were the villains.
This is a controversial statement. After all, the premise of the movies is that a plucky, underdog, rebellion is fighting for liberty from an oppressive, brutal, and unabashedly evil Empire. The bad guys dress in black, and say things like “let the hate flow through you”, and shoot lightning from their fingertips. The Jedi talk of peace, and oneness with the force, and fighting for democracy. To the casual viewer, Star Wars is very simple. But the casual viewer is entirely wrong.
For the purpose of this argument, we will consider the films not in the order that they were released, but in the order that they are supposed to be viewed, starting with “The Phantom Menace”, and working our way through to “The Rise of Skywalker”, since that’s the only logical way to examine the political history of the Galaxy. We’re going to look at all Palpatine’s alleged atrocities – from starting a civil war, to exterminating the Jedi, to Alderaan, and put them in their proper context. But first, let’s start at the beginning.
The Galactic Republic was an absolutely terrible Government
The very first act of Star Wars opens with news that the Galactic Republic is in trouble. A weak Senate is no longer capable of maintaining order throughout the Galaxy, and various factions are resorting to extra-political means to achieve their ends. The Trade Federation has blockaded the peaceful planet of Naboo, attempting to win political leverage by starving a planet full of innocent people.
The Jedi order, the alleged peacekeepers of the Galaxy, and servants of the senate, have despatched what amounts to a fact-finding mission. They have been sent not to end the blockade, but to “negotiate” with the Trade Federation. What, exactly, is there to negotiate? We are never told, but the very act of negotiating with people using the starvation of millions as a political tool suggests a Galactic Republic that is weak, ineffective, and lacking any moral compass.
The Senator from Naboo, Palpatine, is rightly and justly infuriated by this. “The bureaucrats are in charge”, he tells Queen Padme of Naboo – and he is proven correct. Chancellor Valorum refuses to act, and in a final act of frustration, the Senate votes no-confidence in him, choosing instead a new, strong, Chancellor – Palpatine himself – to bring peace and order to the Republic.
Palpatine recognises immediately that some truths are politically unpalatable. The Republic itself is defenceless, aside from the Jedi Order. Meanwhile, those inside the Republic who wish to dominate it are armed to the teeth, and have no difficulty in using those arms – as demonstrated at Naboo – to push their own agendas. Much like the late Roman Republic here on earth, the Senate is no more a legislative body than it is a collection of factions with their own private armies, more a forum for threats and obstruction than for actual legislating. Here we come to Palpatine’s first alleged atrocity – because, and let’s be clear about this, he deliberately starts a civil war.
The Civil War was necessary
We know that Palpatine starts the war because we see him, in his guise as Darth Sidious, encouraging the rebel factions to become separatists, to arm themselves, and to take military action against the Republic. At the same time, and in secret, Palpatine has built an immensely powerful “Grand Army of the Republic”, knowing that it would be called upon one day to crush the enemies of peace and order.
The classic analysis of this manoeuvre is that Palpatine is evil, promoting and provoking a war, and playing both sides against each other to entrench his own power, but this is completely mistaken. What Palpatine does is classic espionage. He knows that a conflict must come, and so he works very hard to ensure that when it does come, it comes on his terms, and to his, and the Republic’s, advantage. He inserts loyal agents right at the top of the Separatist cause, like Count Dooku, and ensures that the Separatists, while believing that they were fighting against Palpatine, were actually dancing to his tune.
Is his method bloody? Yes. But it is also the only method open to him. As we see in Episode One, the peace that the clone wars supplanted was no true peace at all, for people like the citizens of Naboo. It was absolutely, indisputably essential that the Trade Federation and its allies were defeated. Nobody – not even the most avid Jedi supporter – disputes this. In fact, the Jedi council was not only in favour of the war against the separatists, it actively took part in it. You cannot argue for the virtue of the Jedi on one hand, and against the Clone Wars on another, when the Jedi themselves believed the Clone Wars to be just and necessary.
What Palpatine does, simply, is to ensure that those wars are fought in a way most advantageous to the Republic. His strong leadership, and the unity of purpose he provides, lead to him being re-elected, off screen, for several terms. When we see him, throughout episode two, he is a popular, genial, and well-liked figure. There is no “tyranny” in the republic under his leadership.
The Sith were extremist tyrants
The tyranny, in fact, comes in Episode 3, the so-called “Revenge of the Sith”. It is in this episode that Palpatine commits what is universally believed to be his worst atrocity – the destruction of the Jedi order. But this was not an act of tyranny – it was, in fact, a strike against tyranny.
The Jedi order are sectarian religious extremists. They take children from their mothers before the age of five, and spend a lifetime indoctrinating them in the ways of their order. No wives or husbands. No friends. “Let go”, as Yoda says to Anakin Skywalker “of all that you fear to lose”. He says that, incidentally, about Anakin’s beloved Padme, when Anakin fears her death. Yoda’s answer to him amounts to “you should not care if she dies, because she is holding you back”. And these are the good guys?
What’s more, the Jedi are explicitly, horribly, sectarian. Remember if you will that the decision they take to launch a coup d’état against Palpatine is not based on his actions as Chancellor. They do not try to remove him because he has remained in office too long, though that is mentioned in passing as a justification, or because they disagree with his military policy, or because of human rights concerns, or anything else. Their sole, and only reason for removing him from office is that they discover that he practices a different religion to the one that they practice. “He is a Sith”, they say, “so he must go”. The Jedi have more in common with Oliver Cromwell than they do with Buddhist monks.
And what is Palpatine to do, having survived an attempted assassination, thanks to the love and patriotism of a single Jedi, the aforementioned Mr. Skywalker? His enemies have attempted a Coup D’état, and literally tried to take over the Republic by force of arms. He is faced with a situation where the Coup on Coruscant has failed, but where Jedi Knights are scattered throughout the Galaxy, almost all of them in command of a division of troops. Left unchecked, these Jedi Generals would undoubtedly have led their victorious armies back to Coruscant and used them to depose the legitimate Government of the Republic.
Here, once again, we see the breadth of Palpatine’s vision, for he had anticipated this possibility, and like any good leader, hedged against risk. He was able immediately to communicate with loyal officers in the Grand Army, and in one, clean, swift, strike, to depose the disloyal generals, preventing a second Civil War. In a single stroke, Palpatine decapitates enemies internal, and external. He despatches the newly ennobled Lord Vader to Mustafar to finally deal with the rebellion, and he cements the Government on Coruscant, by instituting constitutional reforms and declaring an Empire.
And what of that act, the abolition of democracy itself? In truth, it is the one black mark against Palpatine, for it was unnecessary, and uncharacteristically grandiose. He should have learned here from Augustus, who never declared himself Emperor, and maintained, at least in name, the democracy of the Roman Republic. But Palpatine and Augustus have far more in common than what separates them.
The Pax Palpatina
When Augustus defeated Mark Anthony and Cleopatra, he began a hundred years that are now known to history as the Pax Augusta – the peace of Augustus. Stability and order were restored to the Empire, and provincial governors were appointed who were loyal to one man.
It is no coincidence, none at all, that the longest gap between Star Wars films is the gap between Episode III and Episode IV. Some twenty years pass in which there is basically no fighting at all. The Pax Palpatina, to coin a term. Across nine films, only one man ever achieves a period of peace and order of this length – the Emperor himself.
All that we hear of Palpatine in Episode IV is that he has finally completed his reforms of the constitution, abolishing the ineffective Senate altogether and instituting a system of regional government, headed by men and women who have taken an oath to uphold the Emperor’s peace. It is appropriate here to focus on the great crime of one of them – Wilhuff Tarkin.
Tarkin’s decision – and it is Tarkin’s alone – to destroy the planet of Alderaan is the single greatest crime committed in the Star Wars films. It is notable that it is not done on the orders of either the Emperor, or Lord Vader, the latter of whom was present when it happened. This is not to excuse Palpatine for it, because Tarkin clearly felt he could get away with it, but it is worth noting that it was done on his own initiative.
Equally though, let us not forget that Alderaan’s leaders were in open rebellion against the Emperor. Senator Bail Organa is last seen at the end of Episode III, already commencing a plot to take down Palpatine and restore the feckless democracy that had caused all the problems to begin with. His daughter, a Princess of Alderaan, is a high-level rebel activist, overtly plotting the destruction of imperial military bases. Indeed, very few of those who condemn Alderaan ever pause to note that the Government of Alderaan was overtly plotting – we see them do it in the film – the destruction of the Death Star, which itself would have cost millions of lives. Alderaan was a pre-emptive strike. Was it disproportionate? Yes. But consider also the fact that we are only presented with one side of the story. “We don’t have weapons”, pleads Princess Leia. But every word she has said to Grand Moff Tarkin up to that point is a lie. We are expected to sympathise with her, because her lies are in a good cause, but why should we believe that Alderaan was defenceless and had no weapons, when its government was plotting the downfall of the Empire itself? We’re being asked to believe something with no evidence, when there is plenty of evidence to suggest that Alderaan was actually a threat.
Palpatine the diplomat
Palpatine’s instinct, learned through many years of persecution by the Jedi order, is to eliminate Luke Skywalker. He has, after all, no good reason to let Skywalker live. The man is a rebel, and a threat. Palpatine himself says to Lord Vader that “he could destroy us”.
If Palpatine were the bloodthirsty monster he is portrayed as, he would have ordered Luke’s death and not given it a second thought – but that’s not his way. It’s here that we see the true reasonableness of the man.
“If he could be turned”, Lord Vader suggests, “he would be a powerful ally”. And so Palpatine, far from the dictator he is portrayed as, goes along with his friend’s suggestion and devotes himself completely to a diplomatic offensive to persuade Skywalker of the benefits of the Empire. This proves to be his greatest error, but it is an error for which he should be given credit.
In fact, it’s notable that in Palpatine’s career, every time he behaves reasonably, he is betrayed. His faith in the Jedi leads to a coup. His initial faith in democracy leads to Valorum’s decadence. His faith in negotiation with Skywalker leads to his own death.
The true proof of Palpatine’s goodness, as in so many great people, comes not while he lives, but after he is deposed.
When Palpatine is finally betrayed by Lord Vader in the orbit of Endor (proving, incidentally, that no Jedi can be trusted) we see celebrations break out across the Galaxy. The so-called tyrant is gone, liberty and democracy is back, and a new era can begin.
So, how did that work out, exactly?
We know from episodes 7 through 9 that the new Republic made exactly the same mistakes as the old Republic. Within a very short time, the new Government is besieged on all sides. The attempt to restore the Jedi order fails, because some pupils realise that Palpatine had been correct all along. A small group of former imperial officers recognise the longing of the people for order, and challenge the new regime.
Princess Leia is a good rebel, but she is hapless when it comes to governing a galaxy. In the end, all that Palpatine’s defeat achieves is utter chaos, and misery.
The true hero
The true hero is not the person who is the best looking, or who has the flashiest moves with a light sabre, or they guy who gets the girl. The true hero is the person who works day and night so that their fellow citizens can live their lives without worrying about conflicts or disasters. Palpatine was not a perfect man, but he was, indisputably, a truly great man.
The Star Wars films are not actually about attempts to depose an evil Tyrant, though that is how they are presented. They are in fact about one mans struggle to keep the peace in a Galaxy full of children who think that liberty is the only value that matters. Time and again their actions lead to misery for trillions of beings, and time and again we are supposed to celebrate them.
It is time, at long last, to recognise that the only true hero of Star Wars is the one man who brought actual peace and harmony to the Galaxy. This Christmas, we lift a toast to him. To you, Sheev Palpatine. May the Force always be with you.