Star Trek: Science Fiction for Progressives
Okay, first of all, I haven’t seen the new movie, yet, so there are no spoilers here. Second, I don’t want to be too politically correct. Conservatives can certainly like the Star Trek universe. (I hear they are especially fans of the Ferengii and have many posters of Quark. Go figure. :-) ) I am a strong progressive, but love the Terminator movies and other films with conservative themes like Bruce Willis’ Die Hard series. (Although the Die Hard movies aren’t QUITE as rightwing as many wingers seem to believe. After all, a prevailing theme in the films is of hi-tech thieves, motivated by nothing more than capitalist greed, are the real villains. They pretend to be terrorists, taking advantage of conservative government hyper-fear of terrorism to provide cover for real crimes. Hint, hint. Is this too subtle?) We all have our guilty pleasures.
But I do think that Star Trek is a fairly progressive/liberal science fiction franchise. It’s a basically hopeful vision of the future. It offers up a future earth that has survived war, terrorism, and ecological disasters and forged a global government of representative democracy (we are never told this, but it must be some form of federalist system to avoid tyranny). Hunger and poverty have been overcome. Most diseases have been conquered and high quality universal healthcare is available for all. Education is free and the world is highly literate with most people going beyond secondary education. It’s a clean energy society that is eco-friendly. (In Star Trek IV, the Enterprise crew in their stolen Klingon ship actually go back in time to the 20th C. to keep whales from going extinct–and in the process save the earth of their future.) There is finally global racial harmony. And, despite the micro-mini-skirted uniforms that reflected the fact that the original series was made in the ’60s, we finally have gender equality, too.
Even moving beyond terrestrial concerns, Star Trek paints a hopeful future not of a terrestrial-based galactic empire, but a United Federation of Planets–that eventually even includes the Klingons. The Starfleet ships are armed–Roddenberry’s humanistic vision is liberal, but not pacifist–but their main purpose is exploration and diplomacy. They try to avoid wars. (It would be hard to write a pacifist space adventure series that would still find ways to be action-oriented–but I write that as a challenge that I hope some will take up.) And, although often violated, there is a strong attempt to avoid repeating the grim histories of imperialist colonialism and neo-colonialism through a “Prime Directive” of non-interference in pre-space cultures and non-interference in the internal politics of even space-faring worlds. The problems still to be faced are the problems inherent in civilization.
I don’t mean to suggest that there are no problems with Roddenberry’s vision. Several come quickly to mind:
- I could never comprehend the Star Trek economics. Money has disappeared. So how are goods and services exchanged? A galactic system on the barter system? The Ferengii certainly show capitalism at its worst (and I find it very fitting that their planet is horribly polluted and their society so patriarchal that the women are required to be naked all the time and to remain homebound!), but at least their economics is recognizable. I am a democratic socialist, but NOT a Marxian communist. I can’t buy the Marxist dream of the withering away of the state, never mind the withering away of money!
- It is a very secular vision. Not until Next Generation explores Klingon religion and Deep Space Nine explores the faith of the Bejorranns do we see any exploration of spirituality. Star Trek projects a rationalist view of the future that I do not share. The Roddenberry vision still sees science/logic and faith as locked in eternal warfare. This is a modernist outlook that our post-modernist world has, thankfully, begun to question. (Although, international readers take notice: Here in the U.S., the Bush admin.’s utter hostility to science has led to a resurgence of modernist “scientism” among progressives. The “faith vs. reason” framing that I thought we had begun to transcend in the ’90s is back with a vengeance. Sigh. Thanks, AGAIN, George.) I also like that the movies and the later series flesh out what the original series only hinted at: that even the Vulcans were not completely empiricist, having numerous meditation techniques and disciplines–even for their devotion to logic. Like our Zen Buddhists, or some forms of Quakerism or Unitarianism, the Vulcans may have purged the supernatural from their worldview, but they have not been able to abandon some form of spirituality, including heavy doses of ritual.
- There is an Enlightenment/modernist disregard for tradition in the Roddenberry vision and in progressivism itself. It can easily become rootless. Of course, this is endemic to pioneers. Explorers and pioneers who leave home to find out what’s over the next mountain or the next wave or beyond the next star are a decidedly rare breed in human history. They leave home and home traditions behind–but bring more home traditions than they think. Yet they cannot be traditionless. In the new place, they forge new traditions–and more of what they once knew will work itself in that they consciously intend. I have a healthier respect for tradition and received wisdom. I think there needs to be a constant creative tension between tradition and innovation.
In general, I think, conservatives paint their ideal societies in the past. In a lost Eden or a lost Golden Age or swallowed Atlantis. They idealize the 1950s of Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best or they idealize an Old Europe or Puritan New England or the First Generation after the U.S. Revolution or life on the American Frontier (Little House on the Prairie)–or Ronald Reagan’s America. The real history of all those eras was not so idealistic, of course. Wally and the Beav may have been oblivious to it, but the America of the 1950s had a Cold War, McCarthyist witch-hunts, a war in Korea, and deep segregation and the beginnings of the great challenge to segregation. I could complicate the pictures of the other “golden ages” too.
Even when conservatives paint hopeful pictures of the future, they tend to be projections of a return to the idealized past: Lost in Space shows the patriarchal nuclear family structure of Father Knows Best in the future. And those science fiction shows simply had no black people, indeed, no non-whites, in them–not even in subservient roles. It’s no wonder that African-Americans in the 1950s and 1960s viewed those shows as genocidal–they seemed to take place after an (unmentioned) racial genocide. And no wonder that civil rights leaders like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. were fans of Star Trek, which featured prominent roles for African Americans!
The conservative regard for the past is not completely without merit. We all search for a “usable past.” The Hebrew prophets appealed to past actions of God and past eras of greater faithfulness in order to call Israel/Judah to repentance and reformation. We do well to judge ourselves by the ideals of our forebears at their best. But we also do well to remember their failings and faults and to refuse to make idols of either our forebears or the times in which they lived.
Progressives, by contrast, tend to be more like the Church Father Irenaeus than like Augustine of Hippo: we tend to project human perfection not in an unfallen past, but in a redeemed future. But this also has its limits. It easily falls into the trap of the Myth of Inevitable Progress. Progress comes only through struggle and never without set-backs and pain.
Still, I remain a progressive. I grew up in Florida–a mile from Cape Canaveral until Junior High. I watched Apollo rockets and later space shuttles take off. I had a poster of Neal Armstrong (as well as Jacques Cousteau). My Christian commitments lead me to modify Roddenberry’s vision, but the Star Trek vision of the future still resonates with me. In this time of economic recession and multiple perils, may we all “Live Long and Prosper.”
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