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October 21, 2006
Was Star Trek Fascist?

I wrote this earlier in the week and teed it up for the weekend.

As long-time CQ readers know, my nickname came from my love of the various incarnations of Star Trek. It started in the 1970s, when I started watching the original series on re-runs, which inexplicably drove my father (the Admiral Emeritus) up the wall, considering he spent almost 30 years of his life working on the space program (Gemini, Apollo, and the Shuttle). I cheered when the movies came out, grew addicted all over again with The Next Generation, and finally ran out of enthusiasm somewhere in the middle of Deep Space Nine. I never attended the conventions, for a variety of reasons, and now catch a rerun or two occasionally.

Even when the various shows were must-see for me, though, I always had some discomfort with the future that ST presented, especially on The Next Generation. It didn't take long to discover that hardly anything existed outside of Star Fleet or academia as far as Earth was concerned, and the various alien societies always contrasted against the sterile functionocracy of humanity in the 24th century. No one seemed to do anything but research or enlist in the military, which was made to appear as the pinnacle of all human endeavor -- even as the writers pressed their anti-war messages to the fore.

This week, I stumbled onto an essay by Dr. Kelley Ross of Los Angeles Valley College in Van Nuys that cuts to the heart of the dissonance I felt then and now about Star Trek -- and the cluelessness of Utopianism in general. In the essay "The Fascist Ideology of Star Trek", points out the inherent contradictions in the Star Trek philosophy:

Star Trek typically reflects certain political, social, and metaphysical views, and on close examination they are not worthy of the kind of tribute that is often paid to Star Trek as representing an edifying vision of things.

In a 1996 newspaper column, James P. Pinkerton, discussing the new Star Trek movie (the eighth), Star Trek: First Contact (1996), quotes Captain Picard saying how things have changed in his day, "The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force; we work to better humanity." Perhaps Picard never stopped to reflect that greater wealth means greater material well being, which is to the betterment of humanity much more than any empty rhetoric. But this is typical of Star Trek. A first season Star Trek: The Next Generation episode called "The Neutral Zone," has Picard getting up on his high horse with a three hundred year old businessman who is revived from suspended animation: The businessman, naturally, wants to get in touch with his agents to find out what has happened to his investments. Picard loftily informs him that such things don't exist anymore. Indeed, poverty and want have been abolished, but how this was accomplished is never explained. All we know is, that however it is that people make a living, it isn't through capitalism as we know it. Stocks, corporations, banking, bonds, letters of credit -- all these things seem to have disappeared. We never see Picard, or anyone else, reviewing his investment portfolio. And those who still have a lowly interest in buying and selling, like the Ferengi, are not only essentially thieves, but ultimately only accept payment in precious commodities. In the bold new future of cosmic civilization, galactic trade is carried on in little better than a Phoenician style of barter, despite the possibilities of pan-galactic banking and super-light speed money transfers made possible by "sub-space" communications. ...

If daily life is not concerned with familiar economic activities and the whole of life is not informed with religious purposes, then what is life all about in Star Trek? Well, the story is about a military establishment, Star Fleet, and one ship in particular in the fleet, the Enterprise. One might not expect this to provide much of a picture of ordinary civilian life; and it doesn't. One never sees much on Earth apart from the Star Fleet Academy and Picard's family farm in France -- unless of course we include Earth's past, where the Enterprise spends much more time than on the contemporaneous Earth. Since economic life as we know it is presumed not to exist in the future, it would certainly pose a challenge to try and represent how life is conducted and how, for instance, artifacts like the Enterprise get ordered, financed, and constructed. And if it is to be represented that things like "finance" don't exist, one wonders if any of the Trek writers or producers know little details about Earth history like when Lenin wanted to get along without money and accounting and discovered that Russia's economy was collapsing on him. Marx's prescription for an economy without the cash nexus was quickly abandoned and never revived. Nevertheless, Marx's dream and Lenin's disastrous experiment is presented as the noble and glorious future in Star Trek: First Contact, where Jean Luc Picard actually says, "Money doesn't exist in the Twenty-Fourth Century."

So what one is left with in Star Trek is military life. Trying to soften this by including families and recreation on the Enterprise in fact makes the impression worse, since to the extent that such a life is ordinary and permanent for its members, it is all the easier to imagine that all life in the Federation is of this sort. Not just a military, but a militarism.

Dr. Ross manages to put together all of the nagging elements of Star Trek that so irritated my father on an instinctual basis. Politically and economically, it operates outside of the realm of science fiction and into fantasy. Nothing in its universe explains how human society manages to build the massive ships that comprise Star Fleet, nor the brilliant technology that enables them. Who builds these things -- and how and why? It's all well and good to say that money no longer exists, but people have to be compensated in some manner -- otherwise, the Star Trek society is based on benevolent slavery. The reference to "Imagine" is particularly appropriate; this view of human nature seems particularly flaccid, where all creative impulses have been subordinated and all enterprise has been discouraged, pun particularly intended.

After reading this, I thought about the movie Serenity, as Dr. Ross holds it out as the anti-Trek (along with its TV series basis, Firefly), and why I enjoyed it so much. The ultimate message in Serenity warns us about a human race that tries to transform itself into people who generate no conflict, no passion, and eventually no desire to live. Not only does the Alliance resemble Star Fleet, but their ambitions appear to be the evolution of their society into a Trek-like Brave New World -- only it turns out much more closely to Huxley than Roddenberry. The key character in Serenity, The Operative, is exactly the kind of deluded true believer that is perfectly willing to do tremendous evil in order to save humanity from itself by removing all of the choices and motivations that come naturally to free people. It's an impulse that has proven massively deadly in our history, and we still see it today in places where freedom and choice get stripped from people by true believers who intend to bring about their own Utopia, whether secular or not.

In Trek's defense, though, the limiting factor of this essay is that we don't see Earth in its 24th century form. We're looking at the future through the eyes of a military organization, and as such, Star Fleet seems pretty relaxed -- lots of fraternization, no salutes, little military decorum of any kind, a plethora of officers and a dearth of enlisted men and women, and so on. It's hardly a fascist military environment, and in fact it lacks most of the proper military discipline to keep a far-flung Navy in operation. Disobeying orders is practically a favorite hobby for the commanders in the Trek universe. Only Kirk ever got disciplined at all for it, and then only to give him back the next version of the vessel he stole from the Federation and deliberately destroyed.

The lack of context is the fault of the writers themselves, who leave us with few clues to human society outside of Star Fleet. We know that a President runs the United Federation of Planets, presumably elected to the position, although we never see any evidence of elections. It's possible to believe that the normal economic and political activities occur in the civilian worlds of the Federation, and that it's so unremarkable that the writers never bothered to portray it. If so, Trek can hardly be fascist, but we simply don't know much about it, and the message instead focuses on almost nothing but the military/exploration aspects of life in the Federation ... and their pronouncements that money has no use in the future.

Calling Trek fascist overstates the problem; its biggest flaw is the unexplained and unexplored Utopianism that nevertheless informs almost everything about the various shows and movies. One might have expected that after a half-dozen TV series with countless episodes and eight full-length movies, the writers might have finally explained how we got to this Promised Land of human interaction. Instead, it's just assumed, and that seems a rather unworthy intellectual choice.

I still enjoy the series, the characters, and the story lines of Star Trek, but now I understand much more clearly why I have always had an issue buying into its environment. Some may rightly claim that I'm taking ST too seriously, but its die-hard fans certainly do so -- and many more people hold out the Trek philosophy as the ideal for our future. Read all of Dr. Ross' excellent essays on this subject.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at October 21, 2006 7:55 AM

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» Was Star Trek Fascist? from Bill's Bites
Was Star Trek Fascist?Ed MorrisseyToo deep for me. Just read it. [Read More]

Tracked on October 21, 2006 8:51 AM

» Around The 'Sphere Oct. 22, 2006 from The Moderate Voice
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More Predictions That President George Bush Will Have To Change The Course ... [Read More]

Tracked on October 21, 2006 11:46 PM

» Was Star Trek Fascist? from Never Yet Melted
Captain Ed Morrissey (who confesses that his nickname was acquired as the result of an excessive fondness for Star Trek) links a couple of intriguing essays by Kelly L. Ross on: The Fascist Ideology of Star Trek: Militarism, Collectivism, & Atheis... [Read More]

Tracked on October 22, 2006 11:12 AM


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