This Academic Life
  "I'm not brave enough for politics"
There is a scene in Revenge of the Sith, immediately after Anakin manages to crash-land the burned-out husk of Grievious' flagship on a convenient Coruscanti runway, which involves an exchange between Anakin and Obi-Wan on the subject of politics. Obi-Wan has always cautioned Anakin about his political contacts and ties, but in this case he goes a little further and declares, in a self-depricating way, that he's not brave enough for politics -- so Anakin, the hero of the day, should go enjoy his "glorious day with the politicians" while Obi-Wan goes to report to the Jedi Council.

Obi-Wan's kidding, kind of. But I think that his line is entirely appropriate to a reading of the entire Star Wars cycle as an extended treatment of the dangers of combining absolute ideals and political power -- a reading which I think more than defensible, since the final reasoning behind Anakin's transformation into Darth Vader is all about how Anakin's absolute commitment to the fulfillment of his morally good ends (preserving Padmé's life, ending the civil war, creating a stable and secure society) leads him to sacrifice everything in the pursuit of sufficient power to achieve those ends. Which, of course, results in Anakin's corruption as the means (achieving power) steadily takes the place of the original ends and becomes its own justification and its own goal.

This is an old story, of course. It's been told on film before, perhaps most brilliantly in Orson Welles' Citizen Kane; Lucas includes a cinematic homage to Welles in the scenes just before Anakin and Obi-Wan's climactic lightsaber duel, employing the same deep-focus technique to keep both foreground and background faces sharp that Welles regularly uses in his portrait of the corruption of a young and fortunate idealist. And it's the plot of Macbeth, figures into Hamlet, and can be seen on display in numerous other great works of tragedy. And the message is almost always the same: politics corrupts, because its currency is power rather than ideals, so one only survives and prospers in politics by sacrificing one's ideals to practical necessities.

Pretty bleak. But I don't think that this is the last word on the subject. Not surprisingly, I think that Weber has something important to teach us here, something that has to do with the mechanisms through which the corruption of ideals happens in political life. As Weber describes the situation in "Politics as a Vocation," the corruption of ideals takes place largely when someone without the vocation for politics gets involved in political struggles. The person with a vocation for politics is a person who is capable of responsibly balancing normative ideals and practical necessities, and thus pursuing an "ethics of responsibility" in which hard choices are made and their effects acknowledged. The person with a vocation for politics owns up to the consequences of her or his actions, and does not try to mollify critics by pointing to the good goal that she or he was striving for. "She meant well" or "his motives were pure" doesn't cut it in politics -- and can in fact lead to disastrous consequences.

The problem, as Weber diagnoses it, is that people without a vocation for politics, and thus not operating according to an ethic of responsibility, get involved in things and try to operate according to a very different logic. instead of an ethic of responsibility, they act according to an "ethic of ultimate ends," according to which they take absolute ideals and try their hardest to implement them politically. Here are my ideals; let me now try to act on them. This runs into problems because exercising political power -- which is inseparable from violence and other forms of coercion -- requires you to engage in morally questionable acts. So you can't stay pure. In an ethic of ultimate ends, this trafficking in immoral activity is justified in the name of the goal pursued, which paradoxically makes it more likely to happen than if the politician didn't have such a convenient rationalization ready-to-hand. The ethic of ultimate ends thus devolves into a pure instrumentalism, in which a morally pure (and in many respects irreproachable) goal stands above any number of reprehensible acts but doesn't seem to have any ability to restrain those acts or to prevent them from occurring.

So the implication would seem to be that only those with a vocation for politics should engage in political struggle. How does this connect to Obi-Wan's line? I would argue that people with a vocation for politics have to have three kinds of bravery:

Obi-Wan is a brave man; he does face both Grevious and Jango Fett in single combat at different times, and he certainly stands up for what he believes. So he has the first kind of courage. What I think he is acknowledging in his comment to Anakin is that he lacks some combination of the second and the third kinds of courage -- in a sense, he loves his ideals too much to compromise them, and isn't willing to press on with full knowledge that they have been compromised. Instead, he'd rather keep those ideals out of the political process.

Contrast Anakin, who is for sure acting with an ethic of ultimate ends. The Sith are evil, so executing them (as he does Count Dooku) is good. Saving Padmé is good, so betraying the Jedi is justified. Palpatine has the knowledge of power that Anakin needs, so murdering Jedi younglings and trying to kill his best friend Obi-Wan is acceptable. Darth Vader, a man without a vocation for politics who is in a position of political power…a real Weberian nightmare.

Obi-Wan's admission doesn't make him a coward, however. It makes him someone with a different vocation -- a Jedi vocation. A vocation for science, actually. A vocation that is more concerned with integrity and consistency than with practical results, and leads to witnessing rather than to administering. But that's another post.

[Posted with ecto]

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"Academia als Beruf," or, an occasional record of the various aspects of my life as an academic. Written by "21stCWeber," an arrogant handle I know…but I must confess that I do want to be Weber when and if I grow up :-)



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