Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

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:

  1. 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!
  2. 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.
  3. 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.”

May 10, 2009 Posted by | arts, entertainment, science-fiction | 29 Comments

A Few Lessons from THE WATCHMEN

Yesterday, I saw the new movie, The Watchmen, based on the 1985 graphic novel by Alan Moore.  WARNING:  THIS IS NOT A REVIEW AND I WILL TRY NOT TO REVEAL SPOILERS, BUT I CAN’T PROMISE!  Those who have neither read the graphic novel, nor seen the movie, and are interested in doing so should stop reading this entry if spoilers ruin the experience for you–just in case.

SEPARATE WARNING TO PARENTS: TAKE THE “R” RATING SERIOUSLY! THIS “SUPERHERO” MOVIE IS NOT FOR CHILDREN AND CONTAINS NUDITY, SIMULATED SEX SCENES, AND GRAPHIC VIOLENCE, AS WELL AS PROFANITY AND SUBJECT MATTER NOT SUITABLE FOR CHILDREN.  Seriously,  I was furious when I saw Dark Knight, with Heath Ledger’s terrifying version of The Joker (as far beyond Jack Nicholson’s Joker as his was beyond Cesar Romero’s!) and VERY small children in the theatre being given  nightmares.  This is more serious and might have deserved an NC-17 (no one admitted under 17 years of age) rating. I am glad I saw no children in the theatre yesterday afternoon.

I thought the graphic novel deserved its place as the only graphic novel on Time‘s list of 100 best American novels and the film adaptation was great—VERY faithful to the original.

Here is some basic background necessary for further discussion.  The film is set in an alternate history of the United States. It is one where masked crimefighters (most originally having no “superpowers”) began appearing in the 1930s and were united under governmental semi-approval as The Minutemen to help fight the Axis Powers during World War II.  In the post-war years, some heroes were killed, others retired, and  new ones–sometimes more powerful ones–came along.  These united as The Watchmen, but the public soon began to fear them–sometimes for good reason as their powers increased and it became increasingly harder to distinguish their vigilante actions from those of the criminals and terrorists they opposed.  Under increasing public pressure, the Watchmen are disbanded and most go into retirement.  There are a few exceptions: One, Ozymandias, reveals his identity and markets toys, etc. of himself and his erstwhile colleagues, using that fortune to fund humanitarian work and a search for cheap, renewable, energy that will be free for all.  A second, the nearly-all-powerful Dr. Manhattan (a.k.a., giant, glowing, blue-dude-who-is-usually-naked!), whose identity was always known, now works for the government.  A third, Rorschach, is a fugitive.

The year is 1985.  Thanks to the Watchmen, President Richard Nixon is in his 5th term. (We later find out that one of the Watchmen assassinated reporters Woodward and Bernstein to prevent the Watergate scandal that led to Nixon’s downfall in our history.) Nixon used Dr. Manhattan and The Comedian to win the Vietnam War.  The world is poised on the brink of nuclear war and the flashpoint is Afghanistan. As the story opens, a retired Comedian is murdered by a super-strong, super-fast mysterious figure–a murder meant to look like a robbery. Someone is killing off “masks.” In struggling to uncover that mystery, we find that it is a diversion from a bigger, horrible, plot to save the world by extreme measures.

I read the graphic novel at a much younger age, so I do not know if the lessons I now draw from this parable are the same ones I did then. But here are my current thoughts for what they are worth:

  • Superheroes are fun, escapist fiction, but it is probably a good thing that we do not live in a world of masked crime fighters for several reasons.
  • The kind of personalities that would approach crimefighting through such extra-legal measures probably are not mentally balanced–and they probably tend toward fascist leanings. After all, they are bypassing due process, the human rights and civil liberties of suspects, usual rules of evidence,  public trials, etc.  The Watchmen is more realistic in this regard than the usual comic book superhero depiction: the “heroes” all have deep flaws:  a nearly all-powerful creature created by nuclear accident who is losing touch with humanity; a rapist (or attempted rapist) who also shot a Vietnamese woman pregnant with his child–and who had no qualms about leading covert coups de etat against Marxist-leaning governments in South America; the son of a prostitute whose experience with the seamy side of life has turned him nearly as sociopathic as the criminals he hunts; a woman who fell in love with an attempted rapist and later let him father her daughter; “the smartest man in the world” whose only “solution” for nuclear omnicide is mass murder and a huge deception.
  • “We don’t need another hero,” sings Tina Turner in Beyond Thunderdome.  We don’t need political (or religio-political) messiah figures.  There is a deep temptation in most people to what David Sirota calls “Dear Leaderism,” a hero worship that approaches politicians and other leaders uncritically.  I worry about that with Barack Obama–even though I worked for his election and still support him.  But not enough people took seriously his campaign speech in which he said, “I’m not just asking you to believe I can bring change, I am asking you to believe that you can.”  We don’t need to be cynical about the work for a better world, set backs and all. We just need to avoid this uncritical hero worship of leaders:  and organize mass movements of ordinary people working for change. Ella Baker, a mostly unsung heroine of the Civil Rights movement, clashed with Martin Luther King, Jr. over the top-down structure of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. “Strong people don’t need strong leaders” was Baker’s slogan as she worked for “participatory democracy,” group centered leadership and wide empowerment.
  • I am VERY glad that they kept the movie adaptation in 1985.  I REMEMBER how close the ’80s felt to nuclear war. (I think we barely escaped repeatedly, but you can’t prove a negative.) In such a crucible it is tempting to think that “the only way to save billions is to sacrifice millions.”  But the Cold War ended and the threat of global thermonuclear war receded–even if it has not ever gone completely away.  RESIST those who are willing to reach for extreme solutions that sacrifice lives to save lives: whether  in struggle against terrorism, against drug cartels, against street gangs, etc.
  • At the film’s end (as with the comic book), the deception that brought about peace, and that supposedly justified the horrifying destruction of so many, is about to come unraveled.  Without that deception, will the fragile peace break down? What then “justifies” the holocaust which preceded the peace?  Any “peace” based on fear of greater firepower or on mass deception or both is a false peace that cannot last. Peace is the fruit of justice and compassion and truth–and active nonviolence.
  • The ends DO NOT justify the means.  As Gandhi said, we cannot control the ends, only the means. We must worry about right means and trust that good ends result.  Evil means, however “regretfully” adopted, in whatever name of “realism,” poison the good ends they seek to achieve–as the last 8 years have so clearly demonstrated. As history has shown so many times in so many ways.
  • The early Christian rejection of “secret societies,” a rejection later adopted by many smaller Christian groups in their rejection of membership in the Freemasons or other secret societies is rooted in the idea that we are the People of the Truth. We do not swear oaths (meaning that our word is useless apart from oaths) but let our yes be yes and our no be no. We do not join Yale’s “Skull and Bones” or the KKK (even apart from its racism), etc. I do not believe that a Christian can be an undercover police officer or a spy leading a double life.  Neither can we adopt other “secret identities.” If something cannot be done in the open,  in the light of day, it is probably evil–and is certainly subject to temptations of evil.  Police officers are subject to civilian review boards; masked vigilantes are not.  Soldiers, whatever their moral problems in arming and training for violence and being prepared to wreak it, are subject to military and civilian discipline: covert operatives, mercenaries, etc. are not.  They are, therefore, dangerous to the very ends they seek to advance no matter how noble the goals.
  • A single minded focus on “crime fighting,” ends up assuming that the law is always just (except, of course, the laws which protect the rights of suspects). It is inherently suspicious of mass movements for social change or of citizen dissent from official policy.

There are probably numerous other things to take away  from The Watchmen which I read and viewed as a cautionary tale.   (Some social critique in the film is done very quickly–almost quickly enough to miss.  E.g., one of the heroines of the original Minutemen is lesbian and makes the mistake of openly kissing her girlfriend after WWII during the ticker-tape parade as the troops come home. Both women are then killed in anti-gay violence in the 1950s.  Another of the original Minutemen was African-American, although this is not obvious since his costume covers his entire skin, but it becomes known and the KKK lynch him during the 1960s Civil Rights era.)  The movie soundtrack is wonderful as are the visuals.  The acting is superior to the usual run of the genre.  The special effects are amazing. 

If you like the genre, as I do, go see the film–but don’t take your kids.  And don’t let them read the graphic novel before they are 15, at least!  Be prepared to talk about the issues portrayed with them if/when they do read it as adolescents.

March 9, 2009 Posted by | arts, entertainment | 2 Comments