Liberalism, the Same Old Frontier
Recent reviews of the latest incarnation of Star Trek, UPN’s Enterprise, have been less than stellar. Donna Minkowitz suggests that the franchise may be losing its liberal bias (The Nation, “Beam Us Back, Scotty!” 25 March 2002), and Sabadino Parker essentially concurs (PopMatters, “To Boldly Go Back Where We Were Before”), arguing that the show is “taking a step back socially.” While thoughtful, the criticism, I maintain, is unfounded. More importantly, whether or not Enterprise is still liberal, it can be argued that the newest Trek is still deeply committed to being Liberal.
The Liberal bias is different from the liberal bias, in that the former refers to the basic set of social-political assumptions that have founded most Western societies. Here, Liberalism includes the intellectual godfathers of Western social-political philosophy, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Jefferson, as well as Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Liberalism indicates a view of human nature and a concomitant assumption about the ends of politics. It assumes that humans are, first and foremost, isolated and self-interested, and a social contract is needed to pull them together. Government is established to protect individual rights and regulate a supposedly value-free state, in which each individual is free to pursue his or her own conception of the Good. Within Liberalism, one can be either liberal or conservative—better or worse. Regardless, one is committed to being Liberal.
There are alternatives. Communitarianism, for instance, rejects the metaphysics of the Liberal self, and the politics that follow. Communitarians argue that to be human is to be fundamentally in community, to be tied to others, even to be constituted by these others. Rejecting the idea of a value-free state, Communitarians acknowledge that any human endeavor carries with it a history and culture, such that particular values are maintained in these activities. Individual rights are important for Communitarians, but they are not the final word in every debate. Rights are too individualistic; they assume that the individual is the basic unit of politics, ignoring that we are all caught up in a common Good: when we act, we affect everyone else. Individually conceived “goods” are thus but perspectives on a common Good, and rights are one way of regulating our being together.
Star Trek, from the very start, has championed Liberalism. Kirk (William Shatner) and company destroyed community wherever they found it, forcing radical individualism on everyone they encountered. Then and now, community is usually demonized, as for instance, in the first Star Trek, when a computer was regulating some alien society and forcing people to adopt common values. Kirk then had to destroy the computer (either with a phaser or a “brilliant” logic puzzle that fried the insidious machine’s circuits), giving the aliens the gift of radical individualism (“I’ve destroyed your paradise,” Kirk would say before beaming off at the end of the episode, “but now you are free to be real individuals. You’ll thank me later”).
In The Next Generation, the Borg came to represent all that was communal and thus evil. The Borg think collectively and define themselves in relation to each other (as in Voyager‘s “7 of 9”). But Liberalism always triumphed. In one episode of TNG, the Enterprise crew captured a Borg “drone” and forced him to become an individual. Named “Hugh” by chief engineer Geordi (LaVar Burton), the Borg was indoctrinated into Liberal ideology, taught to think and act as an individual, to name himself not in relation to others (as if we humans don’t do this too!), but only in terms of his own personal desires.
The same story arc became central to the final years of Star Trek: Voyager, with the introduction of Jeri Ryan’s Borg character. (Ryan, too, showed how the journey from community to individuality also makes you hotter, a pattern she seems to have continued on her recent series, Boston Public, in which she makes a similar transition from stifled lawyer to hot-for-teacher High School educator.) All the while, the assumption on Trek is that Liberal selves are what we all—aliens and humans alike—really are. No one acknowledged that Liberalism is its own ideology, that Liberal selves are created and not born, that Liberalism requires its own indoctrination and is itself laden with values.
The Prime Directive—the order that Star Fleet personnel must not interfere with alien societies they encounter—is a manifestation of the mistaken belief that Liberalism is value-neutral. Non-interference is, of course, an action, a choice, a commitment to a value. The Prime Directive, though, is in keeping with Liberalism’s assumption that we should all be free to choose an individual conception of the good to pursue. Multiculturalism is our current social parallel to the Prime Directive. Here things get tricky: multiculturalism is surely “good” on some levels; it is much better than going around and killing those who are different from you, and as such it should be celebrated.
But multiculturalism is not really respect for difference; it is, at best, a sort of tolerance. And it is not value-neutral. One must agree to the principles and the metaphysics of Liberalism in order to play the multiculturalism game. That agreement carries with it commitment to the full slate of Liberal standards: free markets, globalism, radical individualism, etc. The U.S., in promoting Liberalism around the world, promotes its way of life. Star Fleet, in promoting the Prime Directive around the galaxy, promotes its way of life. New markets (new trading partners) are created, and more and more civilizations join NAFTA and the European Union and the Federation, abandoning their cultural differences (that are supposedly so prized) in the face of U.S./European/Federation hegemony.
The only Star Trek show to consider the possibility that something was amiss in all of this was Deep Space Nine. The lowest rated Star Trek franchise, it was also the most radical. Rather than traveling around space, spreading Federation values, the crew in this series stayed put, on a stationary ship at the far reaches of “the empire.” As a result, the series focused more on the particularities of place (a concept relatively unimportant in Liberalism: Liberal human individuals can live anywhere and choose to be anything; a Big Mac tastes the same in Iowa as it does in Indonesia as it does on Rigel VII). DS9 also introduced the idea that Star Fleet had flaws, that it could be complicit in maintaining its cosmic hegemony, that it knew very well how to wield power in support of its own interests, and that it was willing to do so even when the cost was apparent to local, small, powerless societies and planets. DS9 was a post-Gene Roddenberry series. It was great television.
So what, then, of Enterprise? So far, it is a mixed bag. Set in the future-past, that is, the year 2151 (150 years from now, but about 100 years before Kirk and Spock’s [Leonard Nimoy] adventures), the show takes place in the decades before the Federation is created. To a point, it assumes the Liberalism of past series, but it also includes a faint awareness of its problems. There is no Prime Directive yet, and a recent episode dealt with this crisis of public policy. Captain Archer (Scott Bakula) could have provided a medical cure for a planet full of dying slave-owners, but then he would have been perpetuating that social condition and perhaps keeping the enslaved humanoids from evolving.
Without an official Star Fleet policy to guide him, Archer chose to lie to the dying millions and keep the cure from them. In the end, the solution was something of a cop-out: an appeal to science and natural order (evolution was “choosing” one species to die and another to advance on the planet, so who were we to interfere?), but at least there was a dilemma, and many viewers might disagree with the choice the captain made. Archer hated the social practice of slavery, but could rest easily knowing that evolution would soon solve the problem for him by killing off the slave-owners and moving the slaves up the biological ladder. Luckily, evolution—on Star Trek—works in the service of contemporary U.S. values.
On another episode, a Vulcan meditation planet is exposed as a Vulcan spy base, an illegal listening outpost to keep a pointed ear turned toward the troublesome Andorians. In many ways, the Vulcans are, for the first time in the history of Star Trek, seemingly being shown in a less than flattering light. Along these lines, Minkowitz criticizes the portrayal of Vulcans in Enterprise as bitter, effete dominators who are “dumb as rocks.” Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. If anything, we are getting a more well-rounded view of Vulcans in this series than any of the past. In the original Star Trek, Spock’s logic needed tempering with human emotion, but Vulcans seldom, if ever, made dire mistakes. The Next Generation showed Data the android (Brent Spiner) as the stand-in Vulcan, the logical machine wishing for emotions. Yet when Data got an emotion chip, it proved his undoing in many respects. Indeed, it probably wasn’t in the best interest of the Enterprise crew, either, since for all of the championing of humanity, literally dozens of crises were solved on The Next Generation precisely because Data was not human (and so could act more quickly and think more clearly, etc.).
On Enterprise, Vulcans have been both smart and stupid—as if intelligence is not simply a matter of logic. Their policy appears to be completely logical (it makes good sense to monitor the Andorians), yet immoral (it is wrong to do so). That this listening outpost was masquerading as a “religious” shrine is doubly intriguing, forcing the viewer to see the complicity of spirituality in politics, and vice versa, even in the most logical of creatures. This is a fact that Liberalism has a hard time admitting because politics is a matter of rationality for the Liberal, of simple equations of right and wrong. Enterprise rejects such black and white thinking. George W.—with his holy war that he refuses to call a holy war, and his declaration of an “Axis of Evil,” a club in which you’re either a member or you aren’t—would do well to tune in to UPN on Wednesday nights.
In general, Minkowitz and Parker’s criticisms of Enterprise, ring true for most of the other versions of Trek as well. Hoshi (Linda Park), a female language specialist, has been poorly and somewhat misogynistically handled so far onEnterprise, but this is no different really from The Next Generation’s treatment of Counselor Troi (Marina Sirtis), who basically “sensed something” and ate chocolate for the first few years of the show. The premiere episode of Enterprise did have a gratuitous “decontamination in our underwear” scene, featuring the highly developed (in multiple ways) female Vulcan science officer T’Pol (Jolene Blalock) in her Victoria’s Secret-issued space panties; but from Captain Kirk’s mini-skirted yeomen to Jeri Ryan’s Borgalicious jumpsuit and matching energize-me high heels, the criticism of Trek‘s objectification of women is well taken, in all of its incarnations.
Character “development” aside, questions remain about Enterprise even at a level outside of the narrative, even at the level of the mechanics of the show. Concerning Enterprise‘s opening credits sequence: true, it is the first Trek to have lyrics to its theme song, and true, the song has been roundly criticized by most fans (for being a tacky, cheesy, ‘80s power ballad reject), but this change in the theme song draws attention to the fact that past Trek themes all had a militaristic overtone, with trumpets blaring and timpani booming. That this credits sequence includes drawings of past “exploration”—ships and maps like those associated with 15th-century European colonization—is, in fact, deeply self-conscious. Here, from its start, Enterprise admits its complicity in this history, admits that exploration is a form of colonization, that the powers of the Federation and the European nations had much to gain from it, and that seeking out new life can be a first step toward dominating that life.
Such admission suggests that there is hope for Enterprise, hope that it will call into question the Liberal ideology that it has inherited from most past Trek series, even as it sets up a future history in which that ideology seems to win out. This would be the truly subversive gesture of which science fiction is capable: by writing a new history to the Star Trek franchise—a new past to the future—the creators of Enterprise have a chance to re-cast the meaning of all of the other series. By exposing the power structures at work and the values inherent in the supposedly value-neutral Liberal project, Enterprise has the opportunity to shift the meanings of all of the other Trek series, altering the way that we now see them in retrospect. We might come to see the whole grand narrative created by these shows differently once we know their history, perhaps redeeming the darkest moments of Trek as farce rather than mindless propaganda, the most Liberal moments as tragic rather than victorious. It is a difficult task, but one well worth the effort. Let’s hope they make it so.