Power, Institutions, and the Force

***Extensive SPOILERS for Star Wars: The Last Jedi. You have been warned.***

In the emotional climax between Kylo Ren/Ben Solo and Rey, Rey is tortured by Snoke, Kylo Ren turns on and kills Snoke, the pair defeat the red-clad guards, and now they must decide what will happen next. Both have entered this fight with assumptions about their end goals, and only now, when it’s just the two of them, do they realize how different these expectations are. Kylo asks Rey to join him in making a new order in the galaxy. Rey begs him not to choose this path of corruption.

They’ve been explaining their positions throughout the movie, but until this point they believed the other thought enough like them that the two of them could agree. And, honestly, I found Kylo Ren’s argument surprisingly relatable. All the only institutions are broken. Let them die, he says. We know how broken it all is. We can do things differently. We just have to let the broken institutions die. We have to let go of our ideas of how things have to be so we can build something better.

Even Luke, our dear, salty space uncle, is disillusioned with the institutions of the past and he makes sure Rey knows why they shouldn’t be resurrected. His unilateral decision about his nephew Ben’s darkness, and his power over him, is what pushed Ben to the dark side. Rey points this out to Luke, that his failure was a misuse of his power as the sole Jedi master as well as Ben’s uncle and mentor. By the red throne room confrontation, it seems Kylo has come to the same conclusion: the Jedi Order is just as broken as any other institution. His uncle tried to resurrect it and Kylo suffered, was nearly killed, because of it.

This morning on NPR, I heard a similar argument to Kylo’s, along with a guest asking young people, particularly millennials, not to completely abandon all the old institutions of government and civil service. The speaker agreed that institutions are fundamentally broken in many ways, but insisted that they serve a vital purpose: continuity. This is more of Rey’s philosophy. The First Order is tyranny. The Republic and it’s Jedi Order were also deeply problematic. But Rey doesn’t think others’ lives should depend on her whims, and in Leia and Poe’s arcs we see the need to pass on and learn wisdom so that the resistance and it’s members survive.

Kylo is willing to kill many people and to let many many more be killed for this purpose. And murder—since we’re talking about the rise of fascist regimes, it probably needs saying—is wrong. Including murders you allow to occur because the results will further your own purposes.

Kylo asks Rey to join him, to be his balance in the Force and in power, to let him be her balance and teacher. He asks that she accept that the existing institutions cannot be redeemed or saved. He asks that she give up on everyone who still clings to these institutions. He demands that she be complicit in the murders of hundreds of resistance members within sight of the late Supreme Leader’s command ship and the oppression of millions across the galaxy. After her experiences with Luke and Snoke, and confronting the truth about her parents and life on Jakku, he believes she will.

You don’t have to do it yourself, Ren says of the deaths. You just have to let it happen. Which is exactly how fascist regimes come to power, with the majority doing nothing so that, one day, they can hold more power. Even if that promise of power is a lie. I’d even say that it’s always a lie. Power corrupts. No one interested in sharing power with the masses wants loads of people to die in order to obtain that power. You can’t care about people’s freedom while not caring if they die.

I believe Kylo recognizes that he is a better person because of Rey’s influence. He wants Rey to be a part of this mission. He doesn’t want to be alone. But when she rejects his worldview and refuses to join him—refuses to accept the murders of hundreds and the oppression of millions in the name of one powerful person’s version of progress—Ren does not accept her decision and go about his mission on his own. He doesn’t wait out the battle on the planet or begin to dismantle the existing First Order power structures. He doesn’t wake up, fire Hux and Phasma, release all the Stormtroopers, and destroy the First Order ships. Rather, he lies about Rey and embraces again his existing power within the largest, most corrupt institution in the galaxy. Remember, this is minutes after Rey disagrees with his worldview, which is minutes after he promises to share power with her.

We don’t know Ren’s ultimate vision for the galaxy, but we are given a glimpse of possibility: a trusting and caring team, Rey and Ben Solo working together to eliminating oppression and bring balance to the Force. He is more dark, but possesses light. She is light, but possesses some darkness. Together, they can be in balance. If only she will accept oppression of others, but Rey will not. If only Kylo will work within the existing institutions, but he will not. Rey asks him to use his existing role of power to save lives, but Kylo wants them all to die instead so he and Rey can rule together, as they see fit.

Luke believes he’s right that the Jedi order should die when Yoda’s force ghost sets the ancient tree on fire, but that wiley master knew that the sacred texts, the building blocks of the Jedi and their understanding of the Force, were safe aboard the Falcon. In Rey’s choices, Yoda’s lightning, and even the final exchange of the movie between Rey and Leia, the filmmakers seem to be saying, “Yes. Tear down what’s broken. But don’t burn it all. Don’t hurt people to do it. Go back to basics. The basics are good. Start from there.” Considering the “Weinstein effect” presently gripping Hollywood, I find this argument particularly poignant.

Recently, a friend shared about a dysfunctional dynamic in an organization she belongs to. The person with the most power in the group felt threatened by anyone who disagreed with her and was actively discouraging discussion and making others feel small. This leader initially joined the group when only one person had a voice and only that person had any power. In her eagerness to dismantle that system in which she was voiceless, she created a new system in which only her voice mattered. She didn’t realize that she had helped created a system of oppression, just like the one she had suffered under, but this time she was the oppressor.

I read accounts of abuse, death, oppression, corruption, and listen to analysis of incompetence run rampant in the most powerful positions in government, supported by people claiming to value the opposite traits in humanity. I am tempted by Kylo’s message. I think the tired, jaded among us were meant to be tempted by it. Let it die. Just let all this horrible crap crash and burn. We’ll make something better. But power doesn’t work like that. Nor does creation. We must have honest group discussions, diverse voices, a populous that asks questions, leaders afraid of their own power, and checks and balances to both power and privilege. And I believe that we do need institutions. Not as they are at present, but institutions that will provide a framework of fair operations and protection of the vulnerable and marginalized so that no one is oppressed. I believe our rebuilt institutions should be able to survive in tact without its builders and leaders.

I don’t know where Star Wars is headed, if Kylo Ren will be redeemed somehow or not, if Rey will manage to create a freedom-oriented teaching environment for force-sensitive people. I come back to hope. I find more hope in a Falcon full of porgs and friends and mentors who work to give others freedom than in powerful people promising to forsake their power once they have a different kind of power. This year, as I call members of Congress and sign petitions and ask questions in response to diverse sources of news and commentary, I am leaning on hope. I am choosing to believe this country can be better. Rebellions are built on hope.