Contrasting views of Star Trek

First, from the way left, A.M. Gittlitz:

In the postwar period, however, scientists inspired by Cosmism launched Sputnik. The satellite’s faint blinking in the night sky signaled an era of immense human potential to escape all limitations natural and political, with the equal probability of destroying everything in a matter of hours.

Feeding on this tension, science fiction and futurism entered their “golden age” by the 1950s and ’60s, both predicting the bright future that would replace the Cold War. Technological advances would automate society; the necessity of work would fade away. Industrial wealth would be distributed as a universal basic income, and an age of leisure and vitality would follow. Humans would continue to voyage into space, creating off-Earth colonies and perhaps making new, extraterrestrial friends in the process. In a rare 1966 collaboration across the Iron Curtain, the astronomer Carl Sagan co-wrote “Intelligent Life in the Universe” with Iosif Shklovosky. This work of astrobiological optimism proposed that humans attempt to contact their galactic neighbors.

Interest in alien life was not just the domain of scientists and fiction writers. U.F.O. flaps worldwide captured pop cultural attention, and many believed that flying saucers were here to warn us, or even save us, from the danger of nuclear weapons. In the midst of the worldwide worker and student uprisings in 1968, the Argentine Trotskyist leader known as J. Posadas wrote an essay proposing solidarity between the working class and the alien visitors. He argued that their technological advancement indicated they would be socialists and could deliver us the technology to free Earth from the grip of Yankee imperialism and the bureaucratic workers’ states.

Such views were less fringe and more influential than you might think. Beginning in 1966, the plot of “Star Trek” closely followed Posadas’s propositions. After a nuclear third world war (which Posadas also believed would lead to socialist revolution), Vulcan aliens visit Earth, welcoming them into a galactic federation and delivering replicator technology that would abolish scarcity. Humans soon unify as a species, formally abolishing money and all hierarchies of race, gender and class.

“A lot has changed in the past 300 years,” Captain Picard explains to a cryogenically unfrozen businessman from the 20th century in an episode of a later “Star Trek” franchise, “The Next Generation.” “People are no longer obsessed with the accumulation of things. We’ve eliminated hunger, want, the need for possessions. We’ve grown out of our infancy.”

For all its continued popularity, such optimism was unusual in the genre. The new wave of sci-fi in the late ’60s, typified by J. G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick in the United States and by the Strugatsky brothers and Stanislaw Lem in the East, presented narratives that undercut this theme of humans’ saving themselves through their own rationality.

The grand proposals of the ’60s futurists also faded away, as the Fordist period of postwar economic growth abruptly about-faced. Instead of automation and guaranteed income, workers got austerity and deregulation. The Marxist theorist Franco Berardi described this period as one in which an inherent optimism for the future, implied by socialism and progressivism, faded into the “no future” nihilism of neoliberalism and Thatcherite economics, which insisted that “there is no alternative.”

The fall of the Soviet Union cemented this “end of history,” in Francis Fukuyama’s phrase, and signaled a return to late-capitalist dystopian narratives of the future, like that of “The Time Machine.” Two of the most popular sci-fi films of the ’90s were “Terminator 2” and “The Matrix,” which both showcased a world in which capital had triumphed and its machinery would not liberate mankind, but govern it. The recent success of “The Road,” “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “The Walking Dead” similarly predict violent futures where only small underground resistance movements struggle to keep the dying flame of humanity alight.

Released the same year as “Star Trek: First Contact” — and grossing three times as much — “Independence Day” told a story directly opposed to Posadism, in which those who gather to greet the aliens and protest military engagement with them are the first to be incinerated by the extraterrestrials’ directed-energy weapons. (In Wells’s 1897 vision of alien invasion, “The War of the Worlds,” the white flag-waving welcoming party of humans is similarly dispatched.)

The grotesque work of 1970s white supremacist speculative fiction, “The Camp of the Saints” by Jean Raspail — recently referenced by the White House strategist Steve Bannon — has a similar story line. A fleet of refugee ships appears off the coast of France, asking for safe harbor, but it soon becomes apparent that the ship is a Trojan horse. Its admission triggers an invasion of Europe and the United States.

The recent rise of right-wing populism indicates a widening crack in the neoliberal consensus of ideological centrism. From this breach, past visions of the future are once again pouring out. Peter Thiel, Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg feel empowered to propose science fiction premises, like space colonization and post-scarcity economics, as solutions to actual social problems. Absent, however, are the mass social movements of the 20th century calling for the democratization of social wealth and politics. While rapid changes in the social order that are the dream of Silicon Valley’s disruptors are acquiring an aura of inevitability, a world absent of intense poverty and bigoted hostility feels unimaginable.

Shortly after World War II, [H.G] Wells became so convinced of humanity’s doom, without a world revolution, that he revised the last chapter of “A Short History of the World” to include the extinction of mankind. Today we are left with a similar fatalism, allowing the eliminiationist suggestions of the far right to argue, in effect, for a walling-off of the world along lines of class, nationality and race, even if this might condemn millions to death.

If humanity in the 21st century is to be rescued from its tailspin descent into the abyss, we must recall the choice offered by the alien visitor from the 1951 sci-fi film classic “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”

“Join us and live in peace,” Klaatu said, “or pursue your present course and face obliteration.”

I think of it as science fiction’s useful paraphrasing of Rosa Luxemburg’s revolutionary ultimatum: “socialism or barbarism.”

The last sentence reminds me of the UW–Madison journalism class where I had to sit through a lecture about Luxemburg. That’s an hour of my life I’ll never get back.

Be that as it may, I suppose it might never occur to a writer “who specializes in counterculture and radical politics” that socialism understood as everybody sharing everything preceded Karl Marx, to include various Greek philosophers and the 12 Apostles. (By choice, not government edict, in the case of the Apostles.) It is always tiresome to hear or read those who believe the world revolves around them.

I doubt creator Gene Roddenberry was a socialist. He was, however, a progressive, and progressives believe mankind can be improved with the right people in power. That utopian view has been proven false in the 100 years or so since the Progressive Era, to everyone but progressives.

I blogged an opposing view from the Claremont Institute, from which I excerpt:

Roddenberry and his colleagues were World War II veterans, whose country was now fighting the Cold War against a Communist aggressor they regarded with horror. They considered the Western democracies the only force holding back worldwide totalitarian dictatorship. The best expression of their spirit was John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address, with its proud promise to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

This could have been declaimed by Captain James T. Kirk (played by William Shatner), of the starship U.S.S. Enterprise, who, as literature professor Paul Cantor observes in his essay “Shakespeare in the Original Klingon,” is “a Cold Warrior very much on the model of JFK.” In episodes like “The Omega Glory,” in which Kirk rapturously quotes the preamble to the Constitution, or “Friday’s Child,” where he struggles to outwit the Klingons (stand-ins for the Soviet menace) in negotiations over the resources of a planet modeled on Middle Eastern petroleum states, Kirk stands fixedly, even obstinately, for the principles of universal freedom and against collectivism, ignorance, and passivity. In “Errand of Mercy,” the episode that first introduces the show’s most infamous villains, he cannot comprehend why the placid Organians are willing to let themselves be enslaved by the Klingon Empire. Their pacifism disgusts him. Kirk loves peace, but he recognizes that peace without freedom is not truly peace.

This was not just a political point; it rested on a deeper philosophical commitment. In Star Trek’s humanist vision, totalitarianism was only one manifestation of the dehumanizing forces that deprive mankind (and aliens) of the opportunities and challenges in which their existence finds meaning. In “Return of the Archons,” for example, Kirk and company infiltrate a theocratic world monitored and dominated by the god Landru. The natives are placid, but theirs is the mindless placidity of cattle. In the past, one explains, “there was war. Convulsions. The world was destroying itself. Landru…took us back, back to a simple time.” The people now live in ignorant, stagnant bliss. Landru has removed conflict by depriving them of responsibility, and with it their right to govern themselves. When Kirk discovers that Landru is actually an ancient computer left behind by an extinct race, he challenges it to justify its enslavement of the people. “The good,” it answers, is “harmonious continuation…peace, tranquility.” Kirk retorts: “What have you done to do justice to the full potential of every individual? Without freedom of choice, there is no creativity. Without creativity, there is no life.” He persuades Landru that coddling the people has stifled the souls it purported to defend, and the god-machine self-destructs.

This theme is made more explicit in “The Apple,” perhaps the quintessential episode of the original Star Trek. Here Kirk unashamedly violates the “Prime Directive”—the rule forbidding starship captains from interfering with the cultures they contact—by ordering the Enterprise to destroy Vaal, another computer tyrant ruling over an idyllic planet. Like Landru, Vaal is an omniscient totalitarian, and he demands sacrifices. The natives, known only as “people of Vaal,” have no culture, no freedom, no science—they do not even know how to farm—and no children, as Vaal has forbidden sex along with all other individualistic impulses. This sets Kirk’s teeth on edge. There are objective goods and evils, and slavery is evil because it deprives life forms of their right to self-government and self-development.

What differentiates “The Apple” from “Archons” is Spock’s reaction. In the earlier episode, he joined Kirk in condemning Landru; now the half human/half Vulcan is reluctant to interfere with what he calls “a splendid example of reciprocity.” When chief medical officer Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy (DeForest Kelley) protests, Spock accuses him of “applying human standards to non-human cultures.” To this cool relativism, McCoy replies, “There are certain absolutes, Mr. Spock, and one of them is the right of humanoids to a free and unchained environment, the right to have conditions which permit growth.”

Kirk agrees with McCoy. Spock—who in later episodes invokes the Vulcan slogan celebrating “infinite diversity in infinite combinations”—is comfortable observing Vaal’s servants nonjudgmentally, like specimens behind glass. But Kirk believes there must be deeper, universal principles underlying and limiting diversity, to prevent its degeneration into relativism and nihilism.

This is an insight Kirk shares with Abraham Lincoln, who—as we learn in a later episode—is Kirk’s personal hero. When in 1858 Stephen Douglas claimed to be so committed to democracy that he did not care whether American states and territories adopted pro- or anti-slavery constitutions, Lincoln parodied his relativism as meaning “that if one man would enslave another, no third man should object.” Instead, Lincoln insisted, the basis of legitimate democracy was the principle of equality articulated in the Declaration of Independence. Without that frame firmly in place, democracy could claim no moral superiority to tyranny. Spock, by regarding this as a merely “human standard,” and defending Vaal’s suzerainty as “a system which seems to work,” falls into the same relativistic trap as Douglas. By contrast, as Paul Cantor notes, Kirk believes “that all rational beings are created equal,” and extends the Declaration’s proposition “literally throughout the universe.” Kirk orders the Enterprise to destroy Vaal. “You’ll learn to care for yourselves,” he tells the people. “You’ll learn to build for yourselves, think for yourselves, work for yourselves, and what you create is yours. That’s what we call freedom.”

Spock’s hesitation here is an early glimmer of the relativism that would eventually engulf the Star Trek universe. Roddenberry’s generation emerged from World War II committed to a liberalism that believed in prosperity, technological progress, and the universal humanity they hoped the United Nations would champion. In the Kennedy years, this technocratic liberalism sought to apply science, the welfare state, and secular culture to raise the standard of living and foster individual happiness worldwide. Then came the rise of the New Left—a movement that saw the alleged evils of society as the consequence not merely of capitalism but of technology and reason itself. Civilization was not the perfection of nature or even a protection against nature, but an alienation from nature. Throw off its shackles, and man could reunite with the universe; unfairness would fall away, and peaceful coexistence would reign. “Peaceful coexistence” was especially crucial. The war in Vietnam and other crises helped foster a debunking culture that saw American principles of justice as a sham, as cynical rationalizations for American greed, racism, and imperialism. The older generation of liberals—and their literary proxies, including Captain Kirk—hardly knew what to make of it, or of the “turn on, tune in, drop out” escapism that often accompanied it.

The original Star Trek savagely parodied such Age of Aquarius romanticism in the episode “The Way to Eden,” in which theEnterprise encounters a group of space-age hippies searching for a legendary planet where all will be equal, without technology or modernity, living off the land. Almost all of Kirk’s crew regard these star-children as deluded, and their longing for prelapsarian harmony does turn out to be a deadly illusion: the Eden planet they find is literally poison—all the trees and even the grass are full of an acid that kills them almost the instant they arrive. Kirk is hardly surprised. All Edens, in his eyes, are illusions, and all illusions are dangerous.

Spock is more indulgent. “There are many who are uncomfortable with what we have created,” he tells the captain, “the planned communities, the programming, the sterilized, artfully balanced atmospheres.” Spock insists he does not share their views, yet he secretly admires them, and devotes his considerable scientific skills to helping locate their paradise planet. Later he tells one of the few survivors of the acid, “It is my sincere wish that you do not give up your search for Eden. I have no doubt but that you will find it, or make it yourselves.” The skeptical, spirited Kirk could never utter such words.

Kirk, it turns out, has personal reasons for his skepticism. In “The Conscience of the King,” we learn that he is something of a Holocaust survivor himself. When he was young, he and his parents barely escaped death at the hands of the dictator Kodos the Executioner, who slaughtered half the population of the colony on Tarsus IV. Having eluded capture, Kodos lived 20 years under an assumed name, making a living as a Shakespearean actor, until one of Kirk’s fellow survivors tracks him down. Now Kirk must decide whether the actor is really the killer.

Aired in 1966, this episode is a commentary on the pursuit of Nazi war criminals, and it typifies the original Star Trek’s moral outlook. During the show’s three seasons, over 20 former Nazis were tried for their roles in the Holocaust, including five who only two weeks after this episode aired were convicted for working at the Sobibór extermination camp. Intellectuals like Hannah Arendt were preoccupied with the moral and jurisprudential questions of Nazi-hunting. “Conscience” puts these dilemmas into an ambitiously Shakespearean frame.

Like Hamlet, Kirk faces a crisis of certainty. “Logic is not enough,” he says, echoing Hamlet’s “What a rogue and peasant slave am I” soliloquy. “I’ve got to feel my way—make absolutely sure.” Yet one thing Kirk is already sure about is justice. Hamlet may curse the fact that he was ever born to set things right, but he knows it is his duty. Likewise Kirk. When McCoy asks him what good it will do to punish Kodos after a lapse of two decades—“Do you play god, carry his head through the corridors in triumph? That won’t bring back the dead”—Kirk answers, “No. But they may rest easier.”

For Shakespeare, justice is less about the good prospering and the bad suffering than about a harmony between the world of facts in which we live and the world of words we inhabit as beings endowed with speech. When the two fall out of sync—when Claudius’s crime knocks time “out of joint”—the result is only a perverse and temporary illusion. And Kirk is, again, not impressed by illusions. “Who are you to [judge]?” demands Kodos’s daughter. Kirk’s devastating reply: “Who do I have to be?” …

By 1987, when the new Enterprise was being launched on the new series Star Trek: The Next Generation, the liberal landscape had changed. The show premiered a year after feminist philosopher of science Sandra Harding referred to Newton’s Principia as a “rape manual,” and a year before Jesse Jackson led Stanford student protesters chanting, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western Civ has got to go!” The Kennedy-esque anti-Communist in the White House was now Ronald Reagan, a former Democrat and union leader who thought the party had left him.

Next Generation’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) was more committed to coexistence and non-intervention than to universal liberty and anti-totalitarianism. Following Spock’s lead, Picard would elevate the Prime Directive into a morally obtuse dogma and would seek ways to evade the responsibility of moral judgment. Time and again, the show featured false equivalency on a grand scale, coupled with the hands-off attitude that the Kirk of “The Apple” had dismissed as complicity with evil. …

What accounts for this incoherent foreign policy? Nothing less than Picard’s commitment to non-commitment. He represents a new, non-judgmental liberalism far shallower than that embraced in Roddenberry’s era. Where Kirk pursues justice, Picard avoids conflict. Just as Kirk’s devotion to universal principles goes deeper than politics, so does Picard’s sentimentalism. When it comes to the universe of real suffering, real need, and a real search for truth, he is content not to decide, not to take responsibility, and not to know.

The Claremont piece is much better than the New York Times piece, not merely because I agree with the Claremont point of view more than the Times’ point of view. Kirk is an idealist, as is The Original Series, but he is not naïve. Kirk also has much more moral fortitude than Picard, as seen in episodes of each series. In TOS’ “A Taste of Armageddon,” Kirk brings about the end of a computer-run war between two planets by destroying the computers that conduct the war:

I’ve given you back the horrors of war. The Vendikans now assume that you’ve broken your agreement and that you’re preparing to wage real war with real weapons. They’ll want do the same. Only the next attack they launch will do a lot more than count up numbers in a computer. They’ll destroy cities, devastate your planet. You of course will want to retaliate. If I were you, I’d start making bombs. Yes, Councilman, you have a real war on your hands. You can either wage it with real weapons, or you might consider an alternative. Put an end to it. Make peace.

The conflict in The Next Generation episode “The Hunted”  is between a planet’s leadership and its war veterans, at the end of the last act Picard is asked to intervene, but answers:

In your own words, this is not our affair. We cannot interfere in the natural course of your society’s development. And I’d say it’s going to develop significantly in the next few minutes.

What kind of answer is that? We don’t care if you blow yourselves up in the next few minutes; that’s your problem. (Reportedly a different ending was shelved due to cost considerations, but a better ending could have been set entirely on the Enterprise bridge, with Worf reporting explosions on the planet’s surface. That would stick a knife in the heart of that Enterprise’s moral preening.) There are other examples (“Syubiosis” and “Pen Pals,” to name two) where Picard’s first impulse is to leave the primitives be, even if that means they die. That’s like washing your hands of what you’ve heard taking place in Nazi Germany to Jews in World War II.

 

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