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July 4: The Empire Strikes Back?

By Dave Menendez
Wednesday, August 4, 2004, at 1:31 AM

Summary: Imperial Stormtroopers parade through Ohio. Cool, sure, but weren’t they the bad guys?

Cory Doctorow relays a story about a Fourth of July parade including a garrison of Imperial Stormtroopers from Star Wars. I have to confess to mixed feelings. On the one hand, it’s pretty cool. They look great, and I have to respect the effort they put into it.

On the other hand, there’s a weird (unintentional) symbolism at work here. The Imperial Stormtroopers were the bad guys (at best, they were merely employees of evil). The whole Imperial style deliberately echos the Fascists and Nazis. The values they symbolize are directly contrary to those we celebrate on Independence Day.

I don’t know to what extent this is a reasonable objection or how strongly I agree with it. Certainly I’m not suggesting that the members of the 501st Ohio Garrison support, say, blowing up planets in real life. (From what I’ve read of their web site, they seem like friendly, upstanding citizens.) But what are we saying when we adopt enemy symbols?

A while back, Restoration Hardware was selling replicas of KGB watches. They were pretty cool (the movement of your arm helped wind them), but there was always a part of my mind pointing out that the KGB did a lot of nasty things, back in the day. Plus, they were the enemy. Would you walk around with an SS watch?

My gut feeling is that the SS watch is somehow worse than a KGB watch, but it’s hard to say why. The Soviets and Nazis both ran totalitarian states and engaged in mass murder. Leaving aside the details of their ideologies, the difference between the two is that the Nazis had a better infrastructure and were defeated in war, whereas the Soviets gradually moderated themselves before collapsing.

I’d guess that people dressing up like Stormtroopers are doing it for fun, like Klingon fans. There’s probably some deeper explanation as well, but I’m too sleepy right now to offer any theories. Soviet souveniers are probably more of a tokens-of-the-defeated-enemy, spoils-of-war thing. The Nazis were defeated while their atrocities were still fresh, so their symbols are too associated with inhuman horrors to be appropriated as a symbols of our victory.

Or something else. I dunno.