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Now is a good time for Trekkies. J.J. Abrams’s excellent Star Trek breathed new life into the big-screen version of the franchise, and Open Court’s Star Trek and Philosophy: The Wrath of Kant is digging into the intellectual foundations that committed fans always knew were there. Now comes the intricate and bizarre public debate that makes the linguistic puzzles of Darmok seem like a game of peek-a-boo. Who could have predicted when Obama’s pledge to improve and widen health-care coverage in the US it would make him look like Kirk, Picard, Janeway and others seeking out strange new worlds of sentient (and not-so-sentient) creatures?


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Star Trek and Philosophy: The Wrath of Kant

  Kevin S. Decker, Jason T. Eberl (editors)

(Open Court; US: Sep 2008)

First, the enterprise landed on planet paradox, where vocal citizens are suspicious of government-run health programs, and especially resistant to politicians who might meddle with their beloved Medicare or Veterans-Administration health care. Then came the Borg, that massive collective of formerly free-thinking organisms that have been assimilated into a unified herd. Each knows what every other thinks because they receive the same messages and talking points (either telepathically, or via ordinary cable television and radio waves) from their central queen. Referring to the antiquated 20th century predecessor of photocopy machines, they call themselves “ditto-heads”.


The Borg see health care reform as sure steps to Nazism and eugenics (see “Limbaugh compares Obama’s new healthcare logo to Nazi swastika”Los Angeles Times, 6 August 2009), a comparison so natural and obvious that it was seconded by a different, yet still Borg-like race (some call it a “cult”) that starred in the very best recent episodes of Health Trek (to be clear, I said “recent”, so I’m not talking about the excellent episodes in the early-‘90s with Bill and Hillary sharing the captain’s chair and Harry and Louise forever sabotaging the warp drive). (see “Lyndon LaRouche, Holocaust Imagery & the Health Care Debate”, The Anti-Defamation League, 28 August 2009)


The episode begins with Senator Barney Frank leading an away team to planet LaRouche where he was angrily condemned by a follower of this collective for failing to see the obvious (and ominous) similarities between Washington D.C., 2009, and Munich, 1939. You need look no farther than Obama’s moustache to see this, this citizen explained, as she held up a photograph for the clueless senator to see.


Now the Borg insist that “resistance is futile” against their worldview and propaganda. Usually, it is. But Barney called this Borg’s bluff simply by refusing to recognize and these strange claims. He put his rhetorical phaser on stun, asked what planet she spent most of her time on, and compared her to a “dining room table”, which, like Borg individuals, do not think for themselves and therefore not only need not, but cannot, be reasoned with in the health-care debate. Next question?


Star Trek raises lots of them—questions, that is—especially about political philosophy. As Jason Murphy and Todd Porter note in their chapter “Recognizing the Big Picture: Why We Want to Live in the Federation”, the original Star Trek takes a “strangely antipolitical tone concerning life in the Federation”—as if Federation life were simple and rational, run by “a crew of competent professionals who work together to solve serious problems” (like health care). Only in the later installments do Star Trek writers begin to explore more realistic and often irrational dynamics of political life. One key to these dynamics, Murphy and Porter explain, is the concept of recognition—the one that Barney blasted with his phaser.


From Kant to Khan, recognition of individuals is one of the foundations that makes society and political participation possible. But what can a federation do when some who claim membership embrace incoherent paradoxes yet complain bitterly that they feel misunderstood?  Or when they pledge allegiance not to the federation and its political process but highly paid entertainers who’ve taught them how to feel good and self-righteous about being alienated and obstructive?


Unless debate is to become a drive-time carnival of insults, accusations and faux outrage, there are times when it seems that recognition is futile. As Barney showed us, we must sometimes simply ignore efforts to derail or obscure national projects with conspiracy theories and the attendant confusions of those who mistake entertainment for politics and policy.


Image (partial) found on Left of Centrist.com

Image (partial) found on Left of Centrist.com


Adapted from “Recognizing the Big Picture: Why We Want to Live in the Federation” by Jason Murphy and Todd Porter, Chapter 11 in Star Trek and Philosophy: The Wrath of Kant, Open Court Publishing Company, Chicago, 2008.

Saying anything about the political atmosphere of Star Trek is difficult because the show largely avoids Federation politics. In fact, what little we see can be disturbing from a democratic point of view. For example, in the original series, there’s no election coverage, nor other suggestions that the main characters are part of a participatory political structure. With the advent of the films, a political body comes into view, though it seems to have many military figures within it. In Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, the Federation president is nearly assassinated by a cabal of Federation, Klingon, and Romulan military officers interested in maintaining the antagonistic status quo.  Because the only active players in plotting and in preventing the murder are military officers, we get the message that the political branch is, to some degree, naive if not helpless.


On The Next Generation, a coup orchestrated by worm-like entities takes over Starfleet Command, but is thwarted by the officers of the Enterprise strictly out of the public eye (“Conspiracy”). On Deep Space Nine, elections on Bajor are always presented as an annoying impediment to Sisko’s work. While it’s true that the recovering culture of Bajor is important to Sisko—despite his discomfort with his role of Emissary—it’s also clear that the politico-religious struggles of an entire planet are of secondary importance to the military administration of the space station. The military hierarchy is sometimes questioned, but ultimately affirmed, in Voyager. There are no elections to determine who should govern their new arrangement, as we see in the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica.


When Janeway decides to blow up the Caretaker’s array rather than allow it to fall into Kazon hands—and thereby strand both the Voyager and Maquis crew in the Delta Quadrant—B’Elanna Torres protests, “Who is she to be making these decisions for all of us?” Chakotay, still a Maquis renegade and not yet Janeway’s First Officer, responds, “She’s the captain” (“Caretaker”). There are none of the political wranglings and constitutional debates found throughout series like Babylon 5 or Firefly. So, why would we want to argue that there’s a political dimension to a show that lacks democratic detail? The answer lies in the pervasive notion of recognition.


Leonard Nimoy, in an interview with Charlie Rose, said the key to the success of the series was the presentation of a crew of competent professionals who worked together to solve serious problems.


Everybody gets the same breaks. Everybody gets the same education. Everybody gets the same kind of household and family life and so forth. Everybody gets the job that they are qualified to do and holds the job if they do it well. Simple. Plain and simple. There’s no rhetoric. There’s no backstabbing. There is no political infighting, no political agenda on anybody’s part. And this is the Star Trek world if you stop and think about it.  It’s a morally structured society, and I think it is a very, very, desirable society.  I wouldn’t mind living that.


The moral implications of Nimoy’s idea are equality and recognition. The Star Trek universe is one “where things worked out properly, where people who are professional would work together to solve the problem… Start at square one, and what’s the next problem?” Such professional problem-solving provides a prime example of recognition. 


“You Have Helped Me to Recognize the Better Parts of Myself”
The idea of recognition has played an important role in social and political philosophy since the 19th century. At that time, Georg W.F. Hegel (1770–1831) emerged as the primary theorist of recognition, but the term is also used in the present day by critical theorists such as Jürgen Habermas and Axel Honneth. Recognition can be understood by first looking at it in a relatively simple light. In daily life, to get something done we often need to be recognized as entitled to do that work. Badges, degrees, knighthoods, job titles, and uniforms are examples of formal recognition, which entitle those recognized to enter specific places or do certain tasks. Starfleet Medical personnel wear blue uniforms, while Cardassian Guls are known for their form-fitting leather.


There are also a host of informal sorts of recognition, examples of which include greetings, rhetorical forms, and etiquette, like the Vulcan salutation “Live long and prosper.” These also reflect entitlements that are expressed by those who give them.  Imagine saying “hello” and getting only a stare. In this case, the blank look may be a sign that its wearer doesn’t recognize the greeter as entitled to be there or to talk to him—of course, ignoring “Q’plah” may only indicate that you don’t speak Klingon. Referring to Captain Picard as “Jean-Luc” in any but the most intimate situations indicates that the speaker doesn’t recognize the authority or station of the Enterprise’s commanding officer.


In Federation society, a person can find recognition for his or her interests and talents both within and outside of the workplace. But how did humanity advance to such a point?  In “Past Tense” (DS9), the story of human political progress is marked by a drastic act that leads to a quantum leap in recognition. Problems with chroniton particles and the Defiant’s transporter send Sisko, Dax, and Bashir back in time to 2024, when Earth society is shown to be deeply divided between rich and poor.  The unemployed are shunted into “sanctuary districts,” which are spoken of by the wealthy as if they were voluntary. The “Bell Riots” (lead by a reluctant Commander Sisko standing in for the real, murdered Bell) erupt, hostages are taken, and demands issued to release sanctuary residents and reinstate the “Federal Employment Act.” Sanctuary residents put their life-stories out on “Channel 90,” owned by a media mogul who has the hots for Dax.


While not in time to save those killed by government troops, the sanctuary dwellers’ testimony renders the public sympathetic to their cause and even to those who kept hostages in order to strike back.  In this way, the sanctuary residents achieved recognition as human beings, instead of being seen as “dims” (the mentally ill) or “gimmies” (the unemployed). We see that recognition is the beginning of good politics, and that some political measures are needed to recognize humans as such—like health care, housing, and employment.


Ironically, given Nimoy’s comments about recognition and expertise, the only sympathetic characters that don’t seem to understand recognition are Vulcans. In “Journey to Babel” (TOS), Sarek makes clear that “one does not thank logic.”  Still, during “Who Mourns for Adonais?” (TOS), with the entire communications system out to lunch, a god running about in a sheet, and Uhura underneath her console with a soldering iron, Spock, true to the Federation model of recognition, offers Uhuru some thanks. He makes it clear that though the stakes are high and the work is delicate, he “can think of no one better equipped to handle it.” Uhura is a little surprised. After all, the explicit Vulcan position on recognition makes such statements unlikely. However, the need for social co-operation aboard a Federation starship implicitly makes such statements just as necessary.


Jason Murphy teaches ethics and political philosophy and Todd Porter teaches composition and literature at Saint Louis University.


George Reisch is the Series Editor for Open Court's series Popular Culture and Philosophy. He also edited Pink Floyd and Philosophy (2007) and co-edited Monty Python and Philosophy (2006) and Radiohead and Philosophy (2009).


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