“You,” she heard herself saying clearly, “you’re afraid. That you’ll never be as strong as–Darth Vader!” –from Star Wars: The Force Awakens by Alan Dean Foster
Spoilers. See the movie first. Blah, blah, blah.
Think about it—a kid raised to privilege. He’s the son of a princess who’s also a senator and a general. She may be on the run from enemies sometimes, but this is a lady who has access to entire planets to spread out and live on, and who commands a large, imposing fleet of space fighters. He’s also the heir to two generations of Jedi Knights, elite warrior monks who have control over the Force which binds the universe together.
So what makes a kid like that decide he wants to be part of an oppressive empire that kills wholesale, that enslaves large populations, that controls his every move?
Followers of socialist ideology and the 99 percent ideals would no doubt say that every rich, privileged person is, deep in the core of his soul, a fascist who wants to control everyone and everything, to buy and sell people like so many widgets.
I don’t think so. I think there’s something very different going on in the mind of Kylo Ren, the man who was once a boy named Ben Solo. After all, his mother Leia was also born to wealth and privilege, but she chose to spend her life and resources fighting to free people. Likewise his Uncle Luke chose to use his phenomenal powers to train young people as agents for peace and justice. (Of course, Luke was not born to privilege, unless you maintain that just being white and male with a roof over your head constitutes privilege, and there are those who would say just that.) Hell, even Ben’s father, Han, a scoundrel if ever there was one (even his wife says so!) turns to fight for the good when push comes to shove. Although his choice to do so probably has more to do with his love for Luke and Leia than any moral philosophy that he’s managed to pick up.
So why does Ben go bad? Assuming he has gone all the way bad? Based on the very high death toll he’s responsible for in The Force Awakens, he’s pretty bad. He orders the slaughter of a village, kills his own father, and, while he doesn’t personally pull the trigger that destroys the Hosnia system, he seems to have no problem with his buddies doing so. He’s bad, for now, anyway, but why? We can’t point backwards and say, “Well, the same thing happened to his Grandfather, Anakin Skywalker,” because I maintain we don’t know what happened to Anakin Skywalker. Even if I accepted the excrement-fest that was the three Lucas prequels as canon, I still wouldn’t be able to tell you what happened to Anakin because those movies didn’t make any damned sense.
The answer, I think, is encapsulated in a passage of Alan Dean Foster’s wonderful novelization of the film. This is from a conversation between Lord Snoke and Kylo Ren:
“Kylo Ren, I watched the Galactic Empire rise, and then fall. The gullible prattle on about the triumph of truth and justice, of individualism and free will. As if such things were solid and real instead of simple subjective judgments. The historians have it all wrong. It was neither poor strategy nor arrogance which brought down the Empire. You know too well what did.”
Ren nodded once. “Sentiment.”
“Yes. Such a simple thing. Such a foolish error of judgment. A momentary lapse in an otherwise exemplary life. Had Lord Vader not succumbed to emotion at the crucial moment–had the father killed the son–the Empire would have prevailed. And there would be no threat of Skywalker’s return today.”
“I am immune to the light,” Ren assured him confidently. “By the grace of your training. I will not be seduced.”
This is a twisted mirror-image of what Ben Solo would have been told throughout his childhood and adolescence. No doubt his mother and others would have said, “Your grandfather was a good man, who was seduced by the Dark Side of the Force, but who, in the end, chose to protect his family rather than serve the Empire.”
So what makes Ben Solo find the other side’s characterization more attractive? Why does he clearly work so hard at purging sentiment from himself, and try to become that ideal slave of the Dark Side and the Empire?
Fear. It’s the same drive that brings fascism to power, and the same drive that causes people to subscribe to religious fundamentalism of all stripes—For Snoke is nothing if not a fundamentalist.
And I don’t mean that fear brings fascism to power because fascists create fear and scare people into obeying their orders with death threats. That certainly happens, especially after they’re in power. But fascists come to power because fear is already there in the hearts of their potential subjects. We embrace authoritarian regimes because we’re scared, and, if someone comes along who looks brave and strong and is willing to put down our enemies and eliminate the threat, we’re willing to cast morality aside, not look too closely at their real motivations, and let them be in charge. That’s why the Patriot Act was supported. That’s why we tolerate abusive police officers (and I stress that such cops are very much in the minority). That’s why the U.S. was willing to ally itself with the murderous Soviet regime in World War II. That’s why people like Hitler come to power. We want someone to protect us from harm, and we don’t care if others, especially those who aren’t like us, get harmed in the course of protecting us.
Religious fundamentalism is a similar urge to the longing for fascism, and it offers the same kind of reward–safety and control at the expense of others. Fundamentalism developed as science began to un-answer questions that believers thought had long been answered for all time: What is the origin of the world? Where did life come from? Is there life after death? Science changed “God says it’s like this,” to “Well, we really don’t know, actually, but here’s some facts we can play with.” That scared the hell out of people, so some of them rejected science and turned to the promises of zealots, because that placed certainty in their minds and took away their fear. Never mind that the certainty included the certainty that most people would suffer damnation and eternal torment.
The fundamentalist and the fascist-lover sing the same tune:
I want to understand everything.
I want to know everything that’s going to happen.
I want the world to make sense.
All of these wants grow out of fear of the unknown.
Kylo Ren personifies this kind of fear. He leaves a loving family and the opportunity to be trained by a great hero in order to be sure that he’ll be in control. That’s what the Dark Side offers him–a path to perfect safety, perfect control, perfection in general. His grandfather, he’s told, almost made it. The only thing that stopped him, that broke his stride, was his love of his son, Luke Skywalker. That death, that sacrifice, is the price of true perfection. Kylo Ren knows this, and fears he can’t make a comparable sacrifice. That’s why he asks for the help of his father, Han Solo. And Han helps him by trusting him… and letting himself be killed.
But why? Why does Ren seek this perfection, at such a cost, when he comes from the coolest family ever?
We don’t know. We haven’t been told that story yet. But we can infer. Leia is still a general in “the Resistance.” Having a resistance means there’s something to resist. The First Order, surely, but we gather they’re not that old. They emerged only after Luke Skywalker disappeared, and Luke Skywalker disappeared only after his student, Kylo Ren, turned to the dark side. Ren ain’t that old, so we can assume Luke disappeared maybe ten years ago at most. Leia’s resistance looks pretty established. I’d say the odds are good that she and her family, her son Ben included, have been on the run for a lot of years. Ben lived in fear, despite a loving family. He feared for himself, he feared for his mother.
Someone offered him an escape from fear–the certainty of evil. That someone, Foster’s novelization reveals in a passage of dialogue between Han and Leia that’s more explicit than what’s in the movie, was Snoke. Snoke recognized Ben Solo’s potential and basically stalked him.
It’s anybody’s guess whether Kylo Ren’s murder of his father has put Ben Solo to death once and for all. My guess is it hasn’t. Like his Grandfather Anakin before him, Ben’s story will be one of reclamation. But both stories remain a cautionary tale of how even the powerful and privileged can succumb to fear and the need for control and certainty, and how dangerous that is.
It’s a cautionary tale for our times.