“Starr Wars”

A little over a week ago, readers across the country saw this headline in their favorite newspapers and online magazines. When they saw this headline, many thought to themselves, What does this headline mean? To answer that question — to “get into the heads” of the editors, as they say — is the goal of this column.

Upon first seeing the words “Starr Wars,” it is tempting to appreciate them for purely aesthetic reasons, considering that they both have a’s followed by r’s and that, put together, they almost rhyme. It would be simple to assume the pretty words were just that, otherwise void of poesy. On further investigation, however, more is revealed.

In order to piece together this puzzle, it’s important first to know a few things about the United States political system: First, the federal government, which finds its seat in Washington, D.C., is structured around one predominant tenet, a concept known informally as “checks and balances” and outlined in a document titled U.S. Constitution. To summarize, the checks and balances system ensures that the three branches of government — judicial, executive, and legislative — “check” each other’s power, make sure each other is law-abiding, and thereby “balance” often disparate — but healthily so — forces and interests.

Every so often, when a situation arises that stretches the ability of those that govern to place it into the constitutional template, one branch of government may take an extraordinary step and appoint a truth-seeking individual to ferret out verity in whatever way he or she deems appropriate. This is the case with Kenneth Starr (note the two r’s; we’ll come back to that later), a lawyer who was appointed by the legislative branch to be a third check on the executive branch — in particular, to investigate the conduct of the leader of that branch, President Bill Clinton. There was concern that Clinton had been associated, many years prior, with a speculative land deal involving a river.

For his work in this capacity, Starr is known in political circles as the “Independent Counsel” and is signified by “Starr” in the headline. (In the interest of brevity, headline writers will often use only one of the subject’s two names; in this case, the surname.)

Not finding evidence of foul play with regards to Mr. Clinton and the land deal, Mr. Starr exposed an extramarital affair of Mr. Clinton’s and, along with the country’s “media machine,” succeeded in garnering another piquant example of what some consider the puritanical/titillating dichotomy of U.S. culture. On Thursday November 19, Mr. Starr stated his findings to a legislative arm of the government, the House of Representatives.

This is where the headline’s dexterity comes in. (Headlines are widely considered good when their layers of meaning are not immediately recognizable but, upon being peeled away, ever more is discovered, like literary baklava.) “Starr Wars” doesn’t only refer to Starr in the midst of wars (“War” is defined as an armed and hostile conflict, but is often used metaphorically and applied to verbal, literary, or metaphysical combat, as it is in this case — these exceptional constitutional situations are often quite volatile), but has an interesting cinematic reference as well. When one removes the second “r” on “Starr” one is left with “Star Wars,” also the title of a 1977 science fiction film directed by George Lucas and starring Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, and Peter Mayhew, in a breakthrough role. Perhaps best known for introducing the “Princess Leia ’do” — a hairstyle worn by Fisher throughout the movie in which she center-parted her hair and coiled the two sides just above her ears — it may also be remembered by Hollywood buffs for winning a number of industry awards (“Oscars”) for technical achievement.

In Star Wars, the protagonists collaborate with sentient robots to battle an evil empire, spearheaded by a character known as Darth Vader. With “Starr Wars,” headline writers were eliciting the movie’s action and tumult, making an analogy between that and the situation that Starr found himself in last month, presenting his findings to a House that did not unanimously abet him.

It is unclear whether or not a farther-reaching significance was attached to “Starr Wars” — it is possible that not just the movie was being referred to, but also the many as-yet-unknown wars that may be going on up in the stars. After all, there are galaxies that we don’t even know about, and they could be warring.

The online magazine Salon not only employed the headline “Starr Wars” but also added a subordinate headline (a “subhead” or “subhed,” in parlance). That subhead was “Democrats Strike Back.” This subhead draws on the title of a sequel to Star Wars entitled The Empire Strikes Back and connects it with the combative reaction of a House faction — the Democrats — to Mr. Starr and his findings. Democrats are the opposition party to the House-controlling Republicans. The Salon editor may have been using this phrase as well to evoke a negative connotation of Democrats — “The Empire,” after all, was Darth Vader’s stronghold.

Opposition and evil are not necessarily synonymic, because the primary agent is the opposition from the view of the opposition (i.e., one side is good, the other side is bad, but the labels “primary agent” and “opposition” reflect perspective, not discernment). Let us qualify that example. It has recently been hypothesized — the jury is still out, one might say — that if one side is good, the other side is not necessarily bad. There may exist the possibility that both sides have some good and bad; that both are good but disagree on process; and/or that both sides are deliberately deceiving the people they are speaking for (“constituents”), and are thereby manipulating the world around them for their own benefit. It can generally be assumed that the opposition is evil from the perspective of those they oppose, and vice versa.

In this case, evil may not be the editorialization intended by the editors — in fact, most U.S. media editors consider themselves to be against Republicans, and most vote for Democratic candidates, if only because they feel that, while there is little difference between the parties, they have a civic duty to vote and a third-party vote is a lost one. Here opposition is probably considered a good evil; the headline belies an affectionate “go get ’em” attitude on the part of Salon.

The fourth movie in the Star Wars series is due out next summer. In it, the unfortunate circumstances that led Darth Vader to the dark side will be depicted.