Can Star Wars be the balm for our heated political moment? Stephen Kent thinks it’s possible. (And we’d likely agree). Kent, the host of the Beltway Banthas podcast and the show Right Now With Stephen Kent on Al Jazeera’s Rightly, is the author of How the Force can Fix the World (out this fall from Hachette). In the book, he talks about moving beyond the series as mere “escapist entertainment,” using it instead as a springboard to explore how key principles “can improve our personal well-being, and our broken politics as well.”
To better understand Kent’s theories, I sat down with him recently to address the book, modern politics, Star Wars lore, and much, much more.
The following interview has been edited slightly for readability and clarity.
AIPT: I’d like to start with an easy question, one that I think you’ll be able to answer pretty well. Stephen, what’s the book about?
Stephen Kent: Woah! That’s a question. How the Force can Fix the World is about how rapidly we are losing common ground in our society that allows us to talk about the big weighty issues of the day, and speak with a common language, and a common sense of purpose. And the book is about how Star Wars, as one of the most popular widespread pieces of mass entertainment in the world, which everybody knows by name recognition – everybody knows who Darth Vader is – gives us a language and a shared love in which to talk about the shared issues of the day, through another lens.
AIPT: That reminds me a lot of David French’s book from about a year ago-
SK: Yeah, Divided We Fall.
AIPT: Yes, which very much was about how there is a lack of binding institutions. So, can Star Wars serve as this sort of binding institution? Is a pop culture able to be something – I mean, it’s not going to take over for social security or whatever — can pop culture hold people together?
SK: It absolutely can. We used to live in a world where that was the case. It used to be very common things like mass viewed events on evening television, sitcoms, where everybody knew what was going on in Friends, everybody knew what was happening in the Cosbys, back in the day. You know, we’ve had a lot of market shakeup in the past twenty years that has really segmented who watches what. There’re very few things that we share, all together. I would still argue that Star Wars is one of those properties that everybody knows; everybody knows what’s going on with Star Wars, everybody knows who Darth Vader is. These stories are generation. They are unifying. They provide a common ground for us to have shared conservations about pop culture.
Is Star Wars particularly unifying? Well, Star Wars suffers from some of the same polarization problems that everything in society faces these days, where Star Wars becomes a proxy battle for other political fights being had: feminism, identity politics, the politicization of popular culture. We see this in Star Wars all the time, with the Last Jedi being a primary example of this. Star Wars is never going to replace institutions, but it gives us something that we can all talk about and love together, and that is a starting place for addressing polarization.
AIPT: Well, I’m going to circle back around to that, but I’d like take a little bit more of a dive into you. What drew you to Star Wars? What was your first Star Wars movie? Both that you watched, and in theaters?
SK: So I actually don’t know what the first Star Wars movie I watched was, I just sorta – I feel like I always had seen it. I grew up in the nineties, so I was raised on the box VCR tapes set, the 1996 rerelease. I was raised on those and I absolutely loved the originally trilogy, but I couldn’t tell you where I first saw it. My sort of coming-of-age Star Wars experience, honestly, was about age fifteen, seeing Revenge of the Sith in theaters, with my friends, without my parents, and standing in line until midnight to see that movie on opening night, back when midnight showings actually happened. So, for me, I grew up with Star Wars, but I didn’t love it love it until it became mine, and that was the end of the prequel trilogy, and really coming to age with that.
AIPT: When did you fall into the expanded universe? Books, I guess there wasn’t shows then, that whole world of Star Wars Plus.
SK: Video games. I never read the expanded universe books – I was not really ‘in’ to books in my youth – but I was absolutely in to video games. The most defining piece of Star Wars content in my young life was the video game Star Wars Galaxies. It was an MMORPG, kind of equivalent to World of Warcraft but Star Wars. I spent an unreasonable amount of time in the middle of high school in that game, and making friends, building community; my best met his wife on Star Wars Galaxies. I ended up being the best man at that wedding. That game, for me, was where Star Wars came alive, and gave me community.
AIPT: Before we change tack a little bit, how did you take the sequels? I know that for a lot of people, it reinvigorated a lot of their love for the franchise, was that how you responded?
SK: So, ah . . .
AIPT: A minefield, I know.
SK: Absolutely, I was very excited for the sequel trilogy when it got started. I think that the movies lacked a little bit of direction, and lacked a little bit of creative boldness from the studio. And I would say that I was onboard with everything until the Rise of Skywalker, and the Rise of Skywalker for me represented a huge failure by Disney to tell a story bravely, and with purpose. So, I, after I left the Rise of Skywalker, I mean, I almost quit this book project, because it was so demoralizing.
AIPT: It definitely felt like a movie that had been written in response to Twitter.
SK: Yeah . . . yeah. The Last Jedi was controversial, but bold. It said something. It had a commentary on what the force was, on what Star Wars was about. It meant something. And that’s divisive. But the response to that was a cowardly backtracking towards the Rise of Skywalker and making Star Wars mean nothing.
AIPT: So, Stephen, you occupy the unique niche. You’re both one of the biggest Star Wars voices on the web, but you’re also a very strong libertarian voice, too. You host Right Now, you host Beltway Banthas.
I want to go a bit into the intersection of those two niches – that little Venn diagram intersection – but first, tell me a bit about your political background. How did you come to libertarianism?
SK: So I was, kind of, a dyed-in-the wool Republican most of my young life, going through college as well. And after college, I was working at Hilton Hotels, doing customer service work, and I went to a conservative conference in Raleigh, North Carolina. The Conservative Leadership Conference. And I heard a speaker named Evan Feinberg, there, talking the criminal justice system, and reforming mandatory minimum sentencing. And he was talking about the story of Weldon Angelos, a Utah-based music producer – and drug dealer – who got sentenced to 50-plus years for a drug bust while carrying a firearm. At the time, I would say that my number one issue at the time was fiscal conservatism and taking on the welfare state. I was really up in arms about that issue.
Evan changed my mind, in that session that I went to. That the problems of government dependence were partially a problem of the government turning masses of people into wards of the state, and hollowing out communities of dads and brothers and breaking families, through the war on drugs and the criminal justice system. From there I started to move over. I slowly began my drift away from being a solid Republican to being a libertarian; I finally made the switch, officially, in 2019.
AIPT: How did 2016 affect your political shift?
SK: Oh yeah. I found 2016 to be incredibly ugly. I was bothered by the rise of Donald Trump. But that didn’t actually push me out of the party. At first I sort of had the mentality “Well, I was here first! Donald Trump has been a Democrat most of his life, he can’t just come in and make me leave!”
So I was like “well I’m going to stay, and try to make things better.” And I changed my mind during the Kavanaugh hearings. In the midst of the Kavanaugh hearings, I realized that the political parties were invested in campaigns of personal destruction and acting in a cult-like behavior, where they wanted each of their adherents to just believe what they want them to believe, because they need them to believe it in order to win this fight. And I watched the Christine Blasey Ford testimony, it seemed legit – I don’t know if it’s true, but she gave a compelling testimony. Brett Kavanaugh’s testimony was compelling, as well. And I was offended by Republican emails – like, Senate Majority Leader emails – showing up in my inbox telling me like ‘we must defend Brett Kavanaugh.’
I don’t know this guy. I don’t know Brett Kavanaugh. And it was this moment where I realized that partisanship is like . . . to these political operatives, it’s supposed to be like your badge of good character. ‘Well, he’s a Republican judge. Stand with him.’ I’ve never met this man in my life! So I just looked at that and I went – I am not going to put my reputation on the line to defend a guy and a lady, Christine Blasey Ford, who I don’t know. So I’m opting out. I choose not to be part of this. So I quit.
AIPT: I think that’s very in line with the themes that you’ve been talking about. This drive by many that you have to be a part of camp A or camp B, and you can’t rationally engage with people on both sides of – it’s not even an aisle anymore – this divide.
In our current moment, one of the great issues is police reform. Both on the practical level – how should a police force work – and on the philosophical – what is the role of a police force? And, in a sense, that’s the question of Star Wars, too. The Jedi are the police of the Star Wars universe, and the prequels and sequels ask how the Jedi should work, what should their role be. Stephen, how should the Jedi work? And do you think there are parallels we can bring in from that to our world?
SK: Hmmm. Good question.
AIPT: I like to think I ask them.
SK: In the original Star Wars, 1977, Obi-Wan is explaining to Luke Skywalker what the Jedi were. He says they were the defenders of peace and justice in the galaxy. And that is the basis for how fans understood what the Jedi were in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. And that is exactly what informed the prequels, when George Lucas went backwards to build the movies with the Jedi Order. The defenders of peace and justice in the galaxy.
So, when you watch the prequel trilogy, and Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi go to Tatooine, and they learn that slavery is still alive and well in this part of the galaxy, Qui-Gon Jinn says to Shmi Skywalker, Anakin’s mother, “we didn’t come here to free slaves.”
Why not? And where have you been? You’re the defenders of peace and justice in the galaxy.
But then you realize, in that moment, and in the clone wars, that they are not the defenders of peace and justice, they are the defenders of the Republic’s status quo. And the political order of the galaxy. Because the current political order of the galaxy allows the Jedi to have influence on galactic affairs, and keeps their enemies, their mortal enemies, the Sith, at bay and suppressed. They don’t defend peace and justice, they defend what the Republic needs them to defend, and they do errands for them. And that’s the problem, that’s the shortcoming of the Jedi. It’s political capture.
And then taking it over to the policing issue, are they serving the interest of the community? Are they serving and protecting, or are they serving and protecting one another? And I would argue that police unions, qualified immunity, these systems, that protect police officers from accountability, are the evidence that they don’t serve and protect you first and foremost, just as the Jedi do not further peace and justice in the galaxy first and foremost.
AIPT: There’s only so far you can draw the analogy, because one is imaginary and one is real human beings, but I do think that’s a good point. How much can we trust police to defend what’s right as opposed to their codified interests.
I think that the big unexplored territory in Star Wars fiction right now is that space between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens 30 years – that’s what Mandalorian is doing, that’s what The Book of Boba Fett is doing. I don’t want to compare Trump to Palpatine by any means, but I think there are some interesting points of comparison between now and that post ROTJ zone.
Leia and Mon Mothma were trying to build this state in a world where the state, and binding institutions of all sort, have been denigrated. And we’re living in a world too, where, as you noted, there isn’t a lot holding people together. Leia and Mon Mothma failed. What did they do wrong? How did the New Republic fail?
SK: One of the primary failures of Mon Mothma in forming the New Republic was her insistence that the New Republic dismantle its military, and effectively disarm. I understand why she did it, because the Republic itself was undone by militarization in a sense, but the Clone Wars crisis could have been put off in the first place if the Republic had a sort of UN coalitionary force type of military, where everybody who buys into the Republic enjoys military protection as well as access to trade routes. The New Republic disarms, and does not believe that the threat of Imperialism can come back, they ignore signs of the threat, and then they are surprised when weapons of mass destruction are used against them by a paramilitary organization called the First Order.
I don’t like to stretch this analogy too far, but Leia, in that time period, she was kind of a foreign policy hawk. She was pointing to the rise of the First Order in deep space as a serious threat the New Republic should not take lightly. No one would listen to her, including Mon Mothma.
AIPT: The John McCain of space.
SK: Yeah, or the John Bolton of space.
And then they get wiped out, and Leia and her resistance are the ones standing. I think it’s a lesson in hubris. It’s a lesson in resting on your laurels, and believing that just because you win one battle against darkness, the war is over.
SK: And then we have, at the end of Rise of Skywalker, there’s essentially an act of mass civil unrest, as everyone rises up against whatever Palpatine was calling his people. Part of that was because the movie was bad, but, I think, as libertarians, you and I really sympathize with this idea of spontaneous order, with this idea that people, given the opportunity, will act for justice without needing the constraining stricture of the state. How does that inform the post Rise of Skywalker galactic state? How can you organize a pan-galactic state, when the evidence has shown that the galactic state cannot protect them?
SK: I’m not sure you can.
AIPT: That’s fair enough.
SK: I’m not sure it can be done. The way that the Rise of Skywalker ends is beautiful. There’s not an effective fighting force or bannered army that can take on the Final Order, this new Sith Order that Palpatine is going to deploy, and then out of deep space, as you mentioned, jumps a civilian army. And one of the First Order generals goes “What’s going on? Who are these? What’s happening?” And one of the First Order officers goes “It’s just . . . people.”
And those masses of people take down this new Sith fleet and the First Order for good. And relegate them to the dustbin of history. I love that message. I think it’s a message for arming yourself, for self-determination, and coming together as individuals, rather then coerced by state actors, to do their bidding. Yeah, but in terms of galactic governance, the best thing that everybody could do would be to have free trade between worlds, and respect world to world sovereignty, as well as arming yourself. I think it’s pretty clear at this point in galactic history that the Republican model of government for Star Systems doesn’t work.
AIPT: I’m not going to call Adrian Vermuele Darth Sidious, either, but maybe this integralist combination of ultra-montane Catholicism and a whole lot of state power is as close as we get to the Sith, outside of actual terrorists, in real life. How can we work to preserve liberty in a time where the Right is embracing the use of state power for their own ends just as much as the left does? Is there a path forward, you think, for a traditional, argument for freedom and small government, or is that relegated to just being the ‘sacred Jedi texts,’ in the dustbin of history?
SK: Well, I’m going to answer in Star Wars. It’s the essential premise of David French’s Divided We Fall, as well, which is that a government so big and so scary that it makes people feel threatened and feel that their way of life, and the way they would like to live, is under threat every four years by any given election, is not sustainable. You can just look to the reaction of the galaxy to the Death Star. Tarkin believed that the Death Star represented such an existential threat to citizens of the galaxy that they would fall in line out of fear. But Leia said to him, you know, Tarkin, the tighter you grasp, the more star systems will slip through your fingers. And that turns out to be true.
The Death Star has the effect of uniting a divided galaxy around self-preservation and surviving. Because the Rebellion was not unified, the Rebellion was weak, at the time of Episode Four, the original Star Wars, but they didn’t have the choice any more to squabble. We see that in Rogue One. They needed to come together, and take down the autocrats, and blow up their Death Star, or they were dead.
And I think that’s the answer. That’s the lesson. Which is, if we keep trying to build Death Stars, and aim it at our enemies, are they going to roll over, or are they going to call to arms? And I think they are always going to call to arms?
AIPT: Grim, but I can’t disagree with you. Stephen, thank you for your time; I really appreciate it. Is there anything you’d like to plug before we go, and where can people find you online?
SK: I’d love if you all would subscribe to my newsletter, politicizeme.substack.com, and you can keep up with my podcast, Beltway Banthas, as well as my YouTube show, Right Now with Stephen Kent, and keep tabs on my book, which comes out later this year: How the Force can Fix the World.
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