September 4, 2015

EDEN WAS INHUMAN:

The Politics of Star Trek (Timothy Sandefur,  August 25, 2015, Claremont Review of Books)

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."

Abel deserved it.



Posted by at September 4, 2015 8:32 AM
  

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