Roddenberry for President.

7 09 2007

Tonight I’d like to explain to you why I think Gene Roddenberry was smarter than George W. Bush. Arguably, Tom Arnold is also smarter than W. But, then again, I think we can all agree that if we made a list of people whose mental prowess exceeds that of our commander in chief, few people would fail to make the cut. I see that. But let’s just focus on Gene for a second and how Star Trek is the answer to our foreign policy woes.

Don’t stop reading. I realize that I’m probably the only person any of you know who is infatuated enough with the idea of space travel – and the future in general, really – to be way into Star Trek [specifically The Next Generation and, recently, Enterprise]. Wait – despite all evidence to the contrary, you still thought I was cool? Ha.

But I digress.

The point I’m trying to make doesn’t actually require any knowledge of Star Trek. All you need is a quick overview. I’ll keep it short since you’re far less nerdy than me:

In the future that Star Trek paints for us, there exists an alliance of a bunch of different worlds called the United Federation of Planets. And Starfleet is sort of the Federation’s military – only it is about more than just defense: it’s mostly about exploration, research, diplomacy, and reaching out to hitherto undiscovered civilizations. As such, Starfleet, this fictional team of FAKE planets, has enough sense to prepare itself for this type of genuinely universe-changing work by thinking out what its intended purpose is – and what standards it ought to hold itself to. This is more than a mission statement – it supersedes and governs ALL missions. It’s called the Prime Directive.

Think of it this way. There are all types of dilemmas associated with medical ethics, right? Well, “First, do no harm” doesn’t necessarily solve these dilemmas, telling us whether or not we should clone organs, for example, but it provides doctors with a guiding principle – a north star by which they can find the way to what’s right. The Prime Directive does the same thing. It’s the Federation’s guiding principle.

So, you ask, what does it say, this new-fangled Prime Directive? Well, it’s simple. It mainly says that you can’t interfere with the internal affairs of other cultures and civilizations. And more specifically, you can’t expose “primitive” cultures to anything that makes them aware of technology they’ve never seen or even to the fact that life exists outside of their little world. To do so would mean altering the natural course of their development. You can’t even help them when they’re in trouble – even if their lives are in danger – if it means making contact before they are ready. Imagine Marty McFly leaving his iPhone at the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance in 1955. Bad news.

I have decided that the United States [a member, by the way, of a little federation I like to call the United Nations] should adopt said Prime Directive as its foreign policy. I think the idea of live-and-let-live [hmmm…maybe that’s oversimplifying] is pretty straight-forward. I also believe that, should The Decider happen across this post [not that he reads or visits websites other than “the google”], he may automatically decide, as history suggests, that if the definition of “primitive” determines whether or not our grubby little imperialist hands can spread democracy to a country, then we are the most un-primitive country there is, so everyone else qualifies for invasion.

So how do we decide who is “primitive” without being national supremacists? [Call Dennis Kucinich and tell him I coined a term he’ll probably want to adopt.] I don’t really know. Maybe the fact that we’re interested in reaching out to, trading with, and visiting other countries makes us “advanced” [as opposed to primitive].

Of course, good old Gene has it all figured out in his fake universe. There, you’re a primitive culture if you haven’t yet thought to or figured out how to travel at warp speed, which is many times the speed of light. I guess it would take you and entire lifetime just to get all the way out into deep space if you were traveling slower than that – so you’d have to have warp drive to even get to a far away enough place to have a chance at bumping into a neighbor or two.

So Gene says, basically, that a culture’s technological advancement is the litmus test for determining whether or not it’s appropriate to try to make friends. Get it? – If they are capable of getting in a starship and traveling toward us, then they have conceived of us. Therefore, we can introduce ourselves without blowing their minds.

Remember my Kucinich-ish term “national supremacy” – It would lead us to believe that democracy is our litmus test. Or maybe that’s all wrong – maybe it’s capitalism. Maybe that means that, if we’re following Gene’s rules, we can actively give and take resources with capitalists and we can swap war stories with fellow democracies [wait – we’re a republic], but we shouldn’t force our square pegs in dissimilar societies’ round holes, if you know what I mean.

But what if they ask for it? There are lots of other questions like this. I mean, there are a lot of people on any given planet. Who do we talk to first? And how far do we take this Prime Directive? What if lives are at stake?

There are lots of good examples of how the Directive has been applied in tough situations. And even my favorite of the Enterprise captains, Jean-Luc Picard, violated it 9 times, each time for a different, but seemingly understandable reason. But I think the best example of a tough situation that required pretty strict adherence to the Prime Directive took place before the Directive itself even existed.

The last ST series produced, Enterprise, is like the prequel to the original Star Trek series and is set just as Earth begins to explore deep space – before they figure out they need a Prime Directive – before there’s even a Federation of Planets. I’d call them the George W. Years, but I think it was more like an age of innocence than one of ignorance. Plus that’d be pretty insulting to Captain Archer – I mean Sam – I mean Scott Bakula.

Anyway, back in those days, the Enterprise found a planet that was populated by two different species. One was more advanced than the other – they had technology, although it wasn’t as advanced as the Federation’s. The second species was much less advanced and acted as laborers for the first. The stronger species gave the weaker ones food and other necessities while the weaker did all of the manual labor, etc. The more advanced of the two also had a serious genetic problem – they were all getting pretty ill and the symptoms and death rates were growing with each century. They were becoming extinct. The Enterprise crew could have made a cure that would save the species – one that the dying people themselves could never have come up with – but they didn’t. It appeared that the secondary species was pretty intelligent when not dominated by the first – and their genetics would triumph over that of their stronger cousins. If the Enterprise had freely given away a cure, it would have completely changed the natural course of evolution on the planet. They did, compassionate earthlings that they were, create, replicate, and dispense a drug that would ease some of the dying people’s pain. Aww.

Should the same type of logic be extended here on our planet? When the fledgling US went through its Civil War, did any one of the long established countries – if not empires – intercede? What would they have had to gain from picking a side and helping – or even arming them? What if someone had given the south phase pistols and tricorders? I’m just saying – how does our country decide who to make “first contact” with when we decide to get all imperialist and democracy-happy? How do we decide who is right? The Sunnis, or the Shiites? And how do we know if they are members of a federation that we don’t know about? You know, like the Federation of the Entire Muslim World Which Is Huge that seemed like just a blip on the radar 6 years ago.

I guess the most important part of Star Trek-ish-ness that I would love for our country to internalize is self-awareness. Before the Prime Directive existed, Starfleet officers were guided by a gut feeling – and a little bit of welcomed Vulcan influence. They knew they needed to temper their potentially hasty actions, so they devised a plan, learned from their successes and failures, and optimized for good results. And by The Next Generation, they were best buddies with their old foes the Klingons and the Cardassians.

And what did we do? We lost track of history. About 100 years ago, this guy named McKinley got the itch that is greed [undoubtedly agitated by prime canal real estate and sugar crop envy], started the Spanish-American War, and took over a bunch of Spain’s annexed territories. He had the choice: give these countries [and the people] their sovereignty and try to make friends, or take them over. You guessed it – we took them over – but “for their own good.” And what made McKinley’s decision? Yep, you guessed it again – God told him to. Sound familiar? And just like Al Gore’s prescient rants on global warming and Louisiana levies weren’t heard until it was either too late or fashionable, McKinley had his own alter ego in Mark Twain. I’m not sure if I’m more pissed at W for not learning from McKinley – or at Gore for not learning from Twain. Or at Twain and Gore for not breaking through the noise. ‘Cause it’s all happening again.

One hundred years is a lot more today than it will be by the time we meet the Vulcans. I’m just pretty frustrated that – not only do we not seem to understand our place in the universe – we can’t look back to just 8 years before my grandma was born and decide that maybe we needed a guiding principle by which to judge our future foreign policy decisions – or even inclinations. I want a Prime Directive and I want it to be a good one – and I want it now since we couldn’t manage to write or follow one 100 or even 6 years ago, really.

And with that, I nominate [the probably cryogenically frozen head of] Gene Roddenberry to be the 2008 Democratic candidate for President. Do I hear a second?

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One response

7 09 2007
Anonymous

Sandy, we really have to get together. Adam will never stop making fun of me for admitting this, but your thesis here is one that I actually came about this close to writing on in a class in college back in 1978. Except that I think Vietnam had something to do with it back then. Fortunately or otherwise, another thought occurred to me and I took it another direction (one having nothing to do with Star Trek, unfortunately).

In any event, interesting piece. You need to get some sleep.

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