Like many of you, I am suffering from EOPS: Early Onset of the Political Season. Meanwhile, I am still feeling the long-term effects of INOS: Iran Nuclear Obsession Syndrome.
The triggers of EOPS were Donald Trump’s announcement of his presidential candidacy and the continual rebooting of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, coupled with her e-mail server problems. You cannot listen to news programs and late night shows or read any topical publication without hearing mention of either Trump or Clinton. Between coverage of the two, there seems to be little room for anything else.
However, I have found temporary respite in The Politics of Star Trek, by Timothy Sandefur, a principal attorney at the Pacific Legal Foundation, published in the Claremont Review of Books. The essay combined two of my favorite subjects, politics and Star Trek.
Sandefur’s essay was triggered by the death of Leonard Nimoy, best known during the last half century for having played Mr. Spock in the 1960s series. One of Nimoy’s major contributions to Star Trek was the Vulcan salute, which Nimoy said was based on the hand gesture made by kohanim during the priestly blessing.
I always had an interest in politics. I recall, in the “good old days” of real political conventions, reading the results of convention balloting in the World Telegram and Sun. I remember in 1952, at the age of nine, discussing the relative merits of Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson with my best friend.
Star Trek, which debuted in 1966, was one of TV’s first science fiction series. At that time, I was an engineer for Western Electric, going to grad school and involved in New York City Democrat politics. Star Trek’s mixture of sci-fi, politics, and moral dilemmas was a natural for me.
I watched the original, The Next Generation, and Deep Space Nine spinoffs, as well as the Star Trek movies, of which The Wrath of Khan was my favorite. I could not get into the later spinoffs, Voyager and Enterprise. Sandefur’s essay helped me understand why.
Of the Star Trek episodes, my most vivid memories are of “The Omega Glory,” which involved a war between the Yangs (Yanks) and Kohms (Communists); “The Trouble With Tribbles,” in which a Klingon agent tries to sabotage a humanitarian assistance project by the Enterprise, and “Space Seed,” which introduced genetically modified superman Khan.
Sandefur posits that Star Trek’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, was a Cold Warrior, as was his creation, Captain James Tiberius Kirk. “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,” writes Sandefur. “They considered the Western democracies the only force holding back worldwide totalitarian dictatorship.”
According to Sandefur, 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.” Indeed, Captain Kirk could have said the equivalent in many episodes cited by Sandefur.
Individuality, justice, freedom of choice, and creativity were recurring themes of Roddenberry’s Star Trek, as voiced by Kirk. Kirk’s ideological opponent is the half-human/half-Vulcan Mr. Spock, whose human side is emotional and Vulcan side is logical and who has a high regard for order and collectivism. “Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. And the one,” he declares in The Wrath of Khan.
Society transitioned; so did Star Trek. “Roddenberry’s generation emerged from World War II committed to a liberalism that believed in prosperity, technological progress, and the universal humanity they hoped the United Nations would champion,” writes Sandefur. “Then came the rise of the New Left — a movement that saw the alleged evils of society as the consequence not merely of capitalism but of technology and reason itself.”
Sandefur describes the post-Roddenberry transition thus: “Civilization was not the perfection of nature or even a protection against nature, but an alienation from nature. Throw off its shackles, and man could reunite with the universe; unfairness would fall away, and peaceful coexistence would reign. ‘Peaceful coexistence’ was especially crucial.”
This sounds similar to the pronouncements today of Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders, and Pope Francis.
Echoing some political themes popular today, Sandefur states that the 1991 movie Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, which appeared after Rodenberry’s death that year, was the first Star Trek film devoted to politics of the waning Cold War. Partially written by Nimoy, it suggests détente between the Federation — the interstellar republic to which the Enterprise crew belongs — and the rival Klingons as proxies. Sandefur complains, however, that the reconciliation championed by Spock is one-sided: The belligerent Klingons are not asked to apologize for having tormented and subjugated the galaxy’s peaceful races, and Kirk is made to regret his previous defense of the series’ “original liberalism.” “[T]he price of peace, it turns out, is not merely to forgive past crimes, but for the innocent peoples of the galaxy to take the guilt upon themselves,” writes Sandefur.
In lamenting what he calls “Spock’s mission of elevating peace over right,” Sandefur could be describing the Obama administration’s justification of its foreign policy, particularly relations with Iran and Cuba.
Today, are we watching life imitating art? If so, be sure to watch the next Star Trek installment to forecast the future.