The Nevers

I’m beginning to plan an overnight trip from Chicago to Benton Harbor/St. Joseph, Michigan. It is a trip across Lake Michigan that addresses some of my nevers. The thing about the nevers is that we all have them; they always exist. I’ve never had a child, I’ve never been from Tucson to Tucumcari, and I’ve never been to heaven (but I’ve been to Oklahoma.) In my boat Ikaros I’ve never sailed so far, never sailed away from shore, and never spent the night on it.

Everyone has to face the nevers. For a relative novice such as myself, sailing for ten hours across open water is a big step forward, but one that I must take in order to walk down the street. And my ultimate goal is to not just walk down the street, but leave town.

By leaving the shore I will not be able to rely on coastal navigation techniques, I cannot dismiss weather forecasts, and I will have to prepare for the unlikely event that I will ditch twenty-five miles offshore. I’m cautious each time I leave the harbor — especially when I’m sailing solo — but this trip will require an extra bit of deliberation. It’s a great opportunity to practice skills I will use in difficult situations on the Great Lakes and eventually in blue water.

Toward Benton Harbor

My destination is significant for a couple of reasons. First, it can be reached from Chicago in a single day. With a bit of luck I will arrive under sail before sunset. Second, St. Joseph is the site of Fort Miami, established by Robert de La Salle in order to explore what is now southern Michigan and northern Indiana. It is believed that La Salle built canoes there to continue his journey. While nearly 340 years ago, I shall make a point of toasting him with my evening martini.

The Great Lakes will help me overcome many nevers. I have not sailed overnight. I have not sailed in difficult weather. While I consider myself a cruiser, I want to solo sail on a multi-day trip, perhaps to Mackinac Island. Still called the Mediterranean Sea of North America, the Great Lakes are beautiful, formidable, and challenging. The more nevers I can face on them the better prepared I will be to explore the rest of the world.

Every Sail is a Lesson Learned

I subscribe to Christian Williams on YouTube. Williams is a solo sailor who recently published a book titled, Alone Together: Sailing Solo to Hawaii and Beyond. It was the associated video that first got my attention. Yesterday, before my sail, I sat with my coffee and watched his video about preparing to sail in high winds.

I am new to solo sailing and everything that I read or hear about the topic begins with, “prepare for the unexpected before you leave the dock.” It may seem like an obvious point to make but putting it into practice requires considerable deliberation. It seems (to me at least) that the most important characteristic of the exercise is that it is perpetual — no matter how long you have sailed or what type of experience you have there will always be new scenarios you can imagine. It is that imagination that allows you to visualize successfully overcoming problems when they occur.

Problems turn up not just when you least expect them, but where. Click To Tweet

After sailing last week in high winds I wanted to see Williams’ message. His focus on fouling is great advice for any sailor, especially one who goes solo. Even the most seasoned sailor (which I am not) needs the humility and sobriety to prepare for unexpected conditions. And given the fact that conditions can change so quickly, there is never a day when you can ignore the practice.

The lesson I learned on yesterday’s sail is that problems turn up not just when you least expect them, but where.

I must admit it was just a stupid mistake, the kind that I don’t like to admit. I’m actually writing this post because I feel like I should call myself out. We had a perfect sail on a southeast tack in moderate northeast winds. Chicago faded in the distance and we enjoyed a little picnic lunch. The trip home was equally uneventful.

Just outside of Belmont harbor we turned into the wind and furled the sails. Everything was neat and tidy and I started the engine. After a few seconds it seized and I realized that the bow line had slipped overboard and gotten tangled in the prop. The price of my inattention was a dip in Lake Michigan in order to free the line from my prop.

There were several layers of stupid here. First, the line should have been tied down. It was coiled on the deck but that was inadequate. Second, I should have paid attention before starting the engine. I hadn’t gone forward earlier so I didn’t include that on my mental checklist. Totally my fault. Third, the line was too long. A shorter line might have gone overboard but not been able to reach the prop. The worst part was that I bought a new, shorter line but hadn’t swapped them yet.

In the end all is well. It smarts a bit to admit my mistake, but it was one more lesson learned during another day of sailing. We learn by doing and that means (hopefully) that every time we do we will learn. I can’t think of a better reason for trying again.

Rediscovering the Craft of Maintenance

For those who follow me on social media, you have no doubt discovered that I purchased a sailboat last winter, a 2003 Beneteau 331. I have been sailing for many years but reached a point where renting sailboats, especially cruisers, was unsatisfying. If your goals include sailing any day the wind is good or crossing Lake Michigan for the weekend, then taking the plunge into boat ownership is essential.

Not having unlimited cash on hand, I bought the nicest used boat I could afford. This necessitates a certain amount of minor maintenance. So, when I’m not enjoying a day on the lake, I’m on the boat repairing or upgrading everything that will provide me with a project.

Eventually, working with my hands surrendered to the concept of economic specialization. Click To Tweet

As a kid I never hesitated to learn as I went. After I got my first car I installed a stereo, amplifier, and new speakers, boldly cutting holes in the dashboard and rear deck to receive the new equipment. I wired new fog lights. I upgraded the driver’s seat (this was the late 70s, after all.)

Eventually, working with my hands surrendered to the concept of economic specialization. I began a career in Information Systems and paid other people to do the wiring and the plumbing. By the time Ikaros arrived at its new home in Belmont Harbor, my confidence to perform a lot of the maintenance needed a boost.

Choosing what seemed to be the most straightforward task, I decided to rebuild my winches. Depending on the amount of use, winches need to be rebuilt every year, so it’s something I needed to learn. During the sea trial two of the four were performing poorly, which made me think it had been a long time since they had been cleaned. One morning I sat down with my coffee, searched YouTube, and watched a Lewmar video on cleaning winches. I downloaded the manual and ordered a parts kit. I thought I was ready to go.

The first snag I encountered was finding the right degreaser. Lewmar recommended the use of white spirit, and no matter where I went no one had heard of it. The day was slipping away as I got back to the house and sat down at the Google machine. It was with a bit of chagrin that I discovered white spirit to be the British term for mineral spirits (Lewmar being a British company.) Laura and I had a laugh at my expense over cocktails that evening.

The next day I got the job done. By the time I reached the third winch I was moving like a pro. The work was really nasty — it had clearly been years since the previous maintenance — but things went back together cleanly and quickly. My winches are now good as new.

Gross and gunky

Clean and smooth

While it seems like a simple task, it got me excited to tackle the pump on my marine sanitation device (toilet.) Well, maybe excited is not the right word. I did feel a sense of pride when the new pump was installed and the system was working. Along the way I learned about every aspect of the MSD, from the bowl to the holding tank vent, and every hose, valve, and gasket in between. I only hope I never have to use that knowledge while I’m out on the water.

I am not sure what it is about adulthood that breeds caution in us. Ikaros is certainly important enough to me that I could avoid using it as a learning tool for fear of “breaking something.” On the other hand, if things aren’t working there is little I can do to make them worse. If I fail to fix something I can always call an expert. Having that safety net is important to regaining my confidence in the craft of maintenance. Becoming intimately knowledgable about my boat and competent in making repairs is crucial if I want to realize my sailing goals. It is therefore important that caution be a warning but not an obstacle.

As I sail beyond the Chicago shoreline and explore the Great Lakes, I must both nurture and temper my caution. While there can be no destination I avoid, the lakes can be a formidable environment, rivaling the oceans in many cases. Gaining confidence and knowledge through maintenance is one part of knowing that I can learn to handle situations I confront on the water.

Revisiting Bernays’ Propaganda in the Age of Trumpism and Post-Truth

The past eighteen months can be characterized by wildly variable political expectations, forcing many to search the depths of their consciences for explanations of the domestic and global emesis of id that embraces aspects of racism, misogyny, and even fascism. The rise of Trump in the United States and various nationalist parties across Europe demands that we examine the causes and processes that enabled it. Enhancing this demand is the shifting analysis following the U.S. election. Much of the pundit class is ignoring previous campaign analysis, instead attributing Trump’s success to external influence and opponent mistakes. Surely there is a grain of truth to these statements, but there is no sound reason for abandoning previous observations that Trump taps an anger that evolved out of the 2010 Tea Party movement. Although Tea Party members are firmly entrenched in the Republican Party and revile Trump, their candidates could not shake the “establishment” label hurled by Trump supporters. What, then, is this force that provided Trump with a swift consolidation of power in a political party hostile towards him, and at the same time guaranteed an overwhelming flame-out for recent political darlings? A return to the Edward Bernays 1928 classic, Propaganda, provides much insight into the process.

Bernays defines propaganda as “the mechanism by which ideas are disseminated on a large scale.” The word dates back to the 17th century, when the Vatican’s Office for the Propagation of the Faith (Congregatio de propaganda fide) was established to oversee the Church’s missionary efforts. Until the Great War, the term’s meaning remained benign, but with the aggressive psychological tactics employed on the American and British people to maintain support of the military effort against Germany, it gained the negative connotation it still holds today. Bernays worked in the war effort with Walter Lippman and emerged as one of many practitioners who believed that the future of business and commerce relied upon the scientific use of propaganda to shape consumer attitudes. The book is thus both an attempt to reform the word and also an argument for why his corporate clients should engage his services. While he was wildly successful with the latter goal, he failed with the former.

At the core of Bernays’ work is the distinction between the individual and the group mind. Both are resident within each of us, and they operate independently of one another. The individual mind projects what we recognize as the self; the group mind penetrates myriad networks of interests that define our social being, ranging from book preferences to attitudes about labor unions. While specific individuals may share interests in one network, they may be opposed in other networks. It is not unusual for a person to join a network that is contrary to her individual interests. This is typically referred to as cognitive dissonance.

The sheer complexity of information assaulting the group mind necessitates the acceptance of what Bernays refers to as the invisible government. The members of this government — small and often unknown, even to each other — are responsible for shaping expectations of the group mind. The invisible government is not evil or conspiratorial, nor is it threatened by the knowledge of its existence. It is merely a mechanism of conferring credibility, prioritizing needs and wants, and shortening the process of selecting goods that will improve our lives. It falls to a few select individuals “because of the expense of manipulating the social machinery which controls the opinions and habits of the masses.” Whether we seek to purchase a fifth of vodka or a book on Atlantic history, we first filter the possibilities through early adopters, celebrities, thought champions, and product experts.

The propagandist, also referred to by Bernays as the public relations counsel, employs the invisible government to shape the group mind so that the goods and services offered are what the customer desires. There are various ways of achieving this, which Bernays touts in the book (remember, the book itself is propaganda for his firm.) While the archaic method involves repeatedly asserting a direct message[1], such as “Buy X for good health!”, by the 1920s a more scientific approach was advocated. The propagandist undertakes a study of customer needs and beliefs, and then executes a campaign to address the drives which might underlie the acceptance of a product. For example, instead of telling customers to buy product X to relieve stress, a campaign to set expectations of stress-free living makes the customer want to buy product X. This campaign employs members of the invisible government as well as public thought champions.

Bernays believed that checks on this process exist: customers react negatively to fabrications and dishonest propaganda. The professional public relations counsel demonstrates integrity in order to build credibility and maintain acceptance of the consuming public. Methods and messages lose effectiveness if they fail to satisfy the group mind.

Although Propaganda addresses product consumption, Bernays recognized its value in politics. Indeed, he found it ironic the original champion of the practice lagged so far behind in the precision and skill business had achieved. He devoted a chapter to entreating politicians to adopt the scientific methods of modern public relations in order to effectively engage the body politic. From page 119:

In actual fact, [molding the mind of voters] can be done only by meeting the conditions of the public mind, by creating circumstances which set up trains of thought, by dramatizing personalities, by establishing contact with the group leaders who control the opinions of the public.

Bernays realized that tapping into the networks of influence was infinitely more effective than “pressing the flesh”, making stump speeches, and kissing babies. The successful politician recognizes the desire of a network and offers the product that satisfies the voter’s need.

Which brings us back to Trump, his unfathomable behavior, his unflappability, and his success despite being profoundly unprepared for the task at hand. To understand his achievement we must examine the networks of influence he utilized to ascend to power. Were these networks available to Trump’s rivals? How were Trump’s tactics more effective than up-and-comers like Marco Rubio, or proven gubernatorial candidates like John Kasich?

The first step that Bernays prescribes is to create a need or expectation in the customer (in this case the voter.) This is not something Trump did himself, but he correctly identified it. The American Right has received a consistent narrative of “reverse oppression” across multiple media. For over two decades right-wing media has relentlessly “othered” liberal and non-white members of society. The breakdown of the social order, reverse racism, job loss, and faithlessness have been attributed to “coastal elites” and immigrants. Homosexuals are recruiting children in bathrooms. Liberal humanities professors are teaching young adults to hate their nation. These are not propaganda strategies to invoke direct action, instead they are designed to create a feeling of siege, a notion that what was once a position of wealth and power is now ephemeral. Despite the fact that individuals live in affluent, white suburbs (or other homogenous enclaves), their group mind is wracked with anxiety about losing everything at any moment.

Looking at Fox News (cable news on the Left has tried to copy but without the same success), it is obvious the opinion personalities highlighted during the evening hours are the network’s thought leaders, nurturing and shaping the prized networks of influence. “Real news” is relegated to the daytime hours when the audiences are smaller. Unleashing O’Reilly and Hannity with their fear-mongering and message of imminent social destruction helped form the network of influence that has driven the Republican Party (until recently the GOP considered Fox News a mouthpiece.)

One important factor that is different from politics in the days of Propaganda is the lack of overlap. Bernays spoke of myriad networks all overlapping. Today, ideological isolation is more pronounced than at any time perhaps since the Civil War (I will yield to constructive criticism on that judgment.) These silos of belief make it harder for people to find some common ground, even if it isn’t the topic under discussion. The idea that we might interact with a wide variety of people based on social contacts, church affiliation, work experience, or recreational endeavors seems less credible today than it did in Bernays time[2].

By the time Trump takes the idea of candidacy seriously, the infrastructure is already in place. It is important to give him credit for realizing it’s potential; no one else seemed to. “Gaffes” like calling Mexicans rapists or accusing the Chinese of fabricating climate change actually fueled his popularity, not because individuals accepted the veracity of these claims, but because a group mind had been conditioned to be satisfied by the slaying of these demons. Trump’s GOP rivals who tried to navigate a more responsible path were quickly vanquished, because there was no network of influence they could utilize. Their message didn’t resonate; they were irrelevant.

Those in today’s invisible government have eschewed integrity for power. Click To Tweet

Trump is a current crisis, one that Bernays did envision, albeit indirectly. The consummate professional, Bernays believed that integrity is the hallmark of the public relations counsel. He practice what he preached, dropping large tobacco clients when it became clear that smoking was harmful to consumers (long before the Surgeon General’s report.) And in fairness, he did believe that communists were a threat in Guatemala when he orchestrated the public relations campaign that encouraged lawmakers to support the CIA coup. He cautions politicians in Propaganda to be honest, lest the public punish them (page 113.) It appears that we are now in uncharted waters. The notion of Trumpism as “post-truth”, with the employment of “alternative facts” to present a fictional narrative, demonstrates that those in today’s invisible government have eschewed integrity for power.

Trumpism presents the United States with a seemingly overwhelming set of obstacles, which may destroy the republic or take decades to repair. We must accept the asymmetrical political networks of influence that divide our body politic and spread a false narrative (alternative facts.) Our group mind is reliant on propaganda to filter and coordinate the overwhelming number of social signals that are presented to us each day, yet the only thing separating us from the responsible assimilation of information and misdirection by influential people is the integrity of those shaping the message. Propaganda is our drinking water, and we rely on the invisible government not to poison it. This is not to say that we can fight propaganda by appealing to the individual mind; Hillary Clinton made a strategic error by focusing on policy and how it appeals to the voter. We cannot separate ourselves from the group mind; it is a facet of our personality unaffected by awareness or education. Those opposing Trump can only formulate their own group narrative, one that is more effective than the current one. Ultimately we can only campaign against corrupted networks and champion those that provide honest influence (as opposed to those that align with our ideology.) Finally, working to re-establish the myriad overlapping networks that Bernays described in 1928 may help people reconnect at the civic level, tearing down the ideological silos that separate us.

Bernays, Edward. Propaganda. New York: Ig Publishing, 2005.

[1] For an interesting read and discussion about cumulative advantage, see Roger L. Martin’s post in Harvard Business Review, “How the Attacks on Trump Reinforce His Strategy.”

[2] I realize I have stepped in a large pile of goop here. For the purpose of this essay, we do not need to discuss the race and sex segregation of the 1920s. I only wish to assert that Bernays’ suggestion of ideological interaction is less likely today.

Ikaros

I haven’t spent much time on the blog lately, but it has been a busy summer and fall nonetheless. After moving back to Chicago this year I began searching for a sailboat, its purchase being something I have been planning for several years. I’m really excited to say that, despite the snow covering the ground and the sub-zero temperatures outside, I am a boat owner.

Even before closing I had a list of names. One thing was reasonably certain: the existing name would have to go. That decision is not inconsequential, since renaming a vessel is considered bad luck at best, and suicidal at worst. Considerable tribute, in the form of Champagne, must be paid to Poseidon and the Four Winds in order to rechristen a boat (which will take place in the spring of 2017, if you’re interested.)

I knew from the beginning that my sailboat should pay homage to a great starship from the science fiction canon. As a big Star Trek fan, I gave serious consideration to Defiant from my favorite series Deep Space Nine. Serenity of Firefly fame seemed like a good choice, but it is apparently the most popular name for sailboats, something like naming your daughter Ashley (no offense to all the Ashleys out there.) Names from Iain Banks’ Culture novels also made the short list, Irregular Apocalypse being a favorite. Finally, one of my own story characters, Eloquent Profanity, held on for a long time (to be vetoed by my partner.)

We finally settled on Ikaros, a bastardization of the Japanese interplanetary craft IKAROS (Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation Of the Sun), the first spacecraft to deploy and be propelled by a solar sail. Johannes Kepler proposed the solar sail in a letter to Galileo in 1610, noting that comet tails pointing away from the sun must be reacting to “heavenly particles.” Four centuries later, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) successfully detached IKAROS from the AKATSUKI Venus probe and deployed a 200 square meter sail. Since then it has been sailing toward a point on the far side of the sun.

The IKAROS sail deployed.

The solar sail encompasses many of my interests: the great historical narratives I enjoy, my own recreation, and the science fiction stories I love so much. It seems fitting that a simple idea, four centuries old, could present us with a vision of the future. It is an exciting idea and I look forward to talking with fellow sailors and neighbors in the harbor about what it stands for and how it represents an exciting technology.

However, as I write this I am bracing for ten more inches of snow and a long spell of freezing weather, so I will spend the next few months performing some maintenance projects, enjoying the Strictly Sail show in January, and dreaming of sailing the stars.

Review: Trekonomics: The Economics of Star Trek by Manu Saadia

More than one iconic science fiction author has observed that the genre’s stories are not about the future, but instead reflect the present day. While cloaked in the trappings of interstellar travel and alien species interrelationships, science fiction themes address important issues facing the reader outside of her fantastic voyage. So it should come as no surprise that Manu Saadia’s Trekonomics — an examination of the underlying economics of Star Trek in the 24th century — is securely grounded in 21st century America and Europe. Using economic principles to explain the franchise’s post-scarcity society, the book makes a strong argument that we only lack the political will, not the wealth, to provide for everyone’s needs. In doing so, Saadia succeeds in translating Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future into a contemporary plan.

Each chapter focuses on a particular aspect of 24th-century economy. Chapters 1 and 2 discuss the absence of money and the meaning of work when economic security is a basic human right. Chapters 3 and 4 examine the role and limits of technology in achieving Roddenberry’s vision. Interestingly, it is not the technology but the public policy that enables Star Trek to approach its utopian ideal. For the historians of science fiction (like me), there is a fascinating chapter on trekonomics in classic science fiction, illustrating possible sources of influence for Gene Roddenberry. Chapter 8 addresses the role of the Ferengi (the galaxy’s capitalists) in the franchise and the tensions created by the interactions of the two civilizations. The final chapter brings us back to the present day and discusses how close we are to reshaping our economy and realizing trekonomics.

A key point made throughout the book is that the critical ingredient responsible for our advance is not technology but public policy. As our civilization solves each seemingly intractable obstacle to continued growth — food supply, energy consumption, information processing — real costs of commodities plunge toward zero. This creates post-scarcity in parts of the economy, as certain goods require smaller and smaller shares of GDP to produce. It is only capitalism’s choice of distribution that perpetuates shortages and profit. Trekonomics asserts, quite successfully, that we are no farther than a couple of generations away from providing basic sustenance to every human on the planet. From that point, the consequent shifts in behavior could lead to a society that looks very much like Captain Jean-Luc Picard’s.

The book strikes an appropriate balance between the themes of economics, science fiction, and history. There is something for everyone, whether or not you have in-depth knowledge of the subjects prior to reading. I even found my skeptical self persuaded by Saadia’s arguments that limits to growth are not insurmountable, and that we have faced them for centuries and used them to become a wealthier civilization.

Saadia’s passion for progress towards a post-scarcity economy is palpable throughout the book. While some readers may consider this political, I found it genuine and refreshing. It is an optimism that admonishes us to do better, to strive for justice that is within our reach, to cooperate and transcend our primitive individualism. Importantly, it grounds Roddenberry’s vision of the future in our present. Trekonomics illustrates that there are concrete policies that will improve our lives.

Given the late-20th century’s penchant for dystopian futures, Star Trek has stood out against other science fiction franchises. Not only has humanity survived, it has conquered its demons and thrives in a galactic community. Through a communitarian structure and deep sense of civic responsibility, individual freedom is enhanced, not oppressed. All of this is made possible through the fair distribution of essential goods, the removal of want and material status, and the expectation that everyone will achieve their potential (even the mendicant!) Of course there is killer tech, but the core of Roddenberry’s vision is not warp drive, it is social equity. That is the most optimistic theme of Trekonomics, knowing that we already possess the power to turn our civilization toward the ideal.

The Trials of Humanism

I have been a Star Trek fan for most of my life. Although too young to enjoy the original run on network television, I experienced the first syndication in the early 1970s. I plugged my portable reel-to-reel tape recorder into the Aux jack of my black-and-white TV and made audio recordings of each episode. I read the books. I fretted when the series was rotated for other programming.

It should come as no surprise that my current project on the development of American identity in the 20th century has entered orbit around the Star Trek world. Although my writing is limited to the Federation’s Prime Directive, I am indulging myself by watching all of the episodes again, one per day. Yesterday I queued “Elaan of Troyius” and started taking notes.

One caveat for now and ever: I understand that Gene Roddenberry was a committed humanist who championed gender equality, peace, and scientism, but what makes Star Trek an interesting learning experience is the fact that there is so much prejudice, hostility, and ideology in the scriptwriting. We are all products of our time and environment. It is simply not possible to project into the future in more than small increments. Roddenberry’s anchor in the world he sought to leave behind allows us to see the mid-20th century through the eyes of the man trying to transcend it.

The episode opens with the U.S.S. Enterprise in orbit around the planet Elas, waiting to pick up the Dohlman Elaan for transport to nearby Troyius, where she will enter a political marriage to end hostilities between the planets. As Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and Scotty enter the turbolift their dialog details the importance and secrecy of the mission. Kirk mentions the strategic location of the system — near the Klingon Empire — while McCoy touches on the mystical qualities of Elasian women. It is impossible to listen to McCoy (often the source of irrational, prejudicial statements) and not be reminded of orientalist writings by British mercantilists describing their travels through India, or descriptions of present Islamic cultures.

Elaan is an entitled, savagely aggressive, petulant leader who holds nothing but disdain for all those around her, including the “Troyian dogs” with whom she must make peace. In short, she is a most unlikable character. While being “acclimated” to Troyian customs, Elaan stabs the Troyian ambassador. Thus the job of “civilizing” the Dohlman falls to Captain Kirk, and we get much fodder for juicy analysis.

There is a lot to unpack in this episode. First, note that the Federation considers this a critical mission: it has assigned its flagship to transport the delegations of two insignificant planets, and we are later informed that a High Commissioner will attend the wedding. Both civilizations are clearly inferior in technology — to the point where the Prime Directive of non-interference might apply — so we must assume that it is the strategic placement of the system that the Federation values. Maintaining stability on the frontier dictates the actions of expanding powers, even if they are benevolent. The Federation is prepared to insert itself into system politics to prevent a vacuum that would be filled by the Klingon Empire.

Next, Elasian society is viewed by all parties to be primitive. Kirk makes this clear to the irascible Elaan in the following exchange:

Kirk: “Enjoy the privileges and prerogatives of being a Dohlman, and be worthy of it. If you don’t want the obligations that go along with the title, then give it up.”
Elaan: “Nobody speaks to me that way.”
Kirk: “That’s another one of your problems: nobody has told you that you’re an uncivilized savage, a vicious child in a woman’s body, an arrogant monster.”

Here we see a logical relationship between the hierarchy of Elas and the hierarchy of the galaxy. In both situations, entitlement and exclusivity are cornerstones to maintaining order. Just as ruling a people carries obligations and requires recognizing protocol, so does belonging to the exclusive club of civilized planets. The rules are clear: if you want to eat in the dining room, then you need to comport yourself.

Today we find this behavior condescending, but is not surprising that it appears in a script from the 1960s. Throughout the first half of the 20th century an expanding United States considered the non-European world to be barbaric and intellectually childlike. Theodore Roosevelt believed both the Cubans and Filipinos to be unable to self-govern after the Spanish-American War without a period of mentoring.[1] “Period” was an indeterminate amount of time that was defined by an élite with economic interests in the territories. Our history is replete with examples of conditional promises unfulfilled while we furthered our economic and geopolitical interests. It is a familiar theme that happens to make good television drama.

Such stories always bring me back to familiar concerns. Foremost is the consideration that cultural imperialism, including the imposition of “civilizing protocols”, is often a violent act that yields social and political upheaval within its target. The United States meddling in Cuba led to decades of instability and corruption ultimately resulting in the ascendancy of Fidel Castro. A similar path of progress can be traced in Iran, following the overthrow of Mohammed Mossadegh. Today we need only look at Yemen to wonder why the United States exposes itself to so much political risk for the purpose of determining the direction of a strategically unimportant government.

By the end of the episode we discover the value of Elas and the need to solve the “regional” dispute: the planet is brimming with dilithium crystals, a scarce resource of abundant power.[2] Kirk’s epiphany explains why the Klingons want control of the system, but Federation control of the planet is not mentioned. Control of a precious resource justifies colonialism even in the twenty-third century, despite the Prime Directive. That the alternative is domination by the Klingon (re: Soviet) Empire only strengthens the argument for bringing Elasians to the dining table.

“Elaan of Troyius” presents a world — or galaxy — as close to the turmoil of mid-twentieth century Earth as the humanist vision of Roddenberry’s United Federation of Planets. Hierarchy, scarcity, and Orientalism combine to describe a geopolitical dance and clash of civilizations in a remote sector of the quadrant. That is simply good drama.

Notes:

[1] If you want extensive analysis of Roosevelt’s complex racial attitudes, then I highly recommend Gary Gerstle’s American Crucible.
[2] The idea of economic scarcity is also a concept that mid-20th century writers find difficult to discard. Although Roddenberry would later assert, through Picard, that society was no longer driven by scarce resources, dramatic conflicts still relied on this idea.

Holiday in St. Louis

Going home for the holidays always provides fodder for a family essay, but this is not one of those opportunities. My visit was not stressful, there was no crazy uncle berating my liberal lifestyle in the “big city”, nobody pressured me to get married and have children. I caught up with family and visited dear friends.

Nevertheless, I cannot return to St. Louis without experiencing a sense of ennui, a stifling sensation that strikes the moment I leave the jetway and enter Lambert’s East Terminal. Progress is marked by the closing of the smoking lounge. What some might consider comfortable familiarity is more honestly described as profound stagnation.

With the advantage of reflection the entire visit can be characterized by the word static. It describes the landscape, it describes the urban development, and as we all witnessed with the #Ferguson affair, it describes the personal attitudes of those in power. St. Louis revels in maintaining the existing order of all things. Despite it being a Democratic bastion in Missouri politics, it is one of the most conservative cities I have experienced.

My hotel was in Clayton, the county seat. If you are not familiar with St. Louis, it is where the Grand Jury examined evidence against Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot Michael Brown. It represents both power and wealth. Clayton has some of the most prestigious homes, an impressive public school district, and the best business address (relative to St. Louis, of course.)

Downtown Clayton at Bonhomme and Bemiston avenues.

Downtown Clayton at Bonhomme and Bemiston avenues.

Nothing has changed much since my departure six years ago. There have been a couple of small projects, not the kind of growth you want to see in a healthy city. The view from my hotel window told a valid story, one of a bucolic neighborhood that is under no pressure to change. Showing up its neighbors, the brick and glass building in the right background of the photo is a new county jail (although by “new” I mean ten years old.) Most of this urban hub speaks to the glory days of the 1960s.

This is the pace one becomes used to when traveling St. Louis history; what exists serves the status quo and what could be threatens it.

A brief visit to the St. Louis Public Library in downtown served to remind me of the logistical difficulties navigating what is, by all appearances, a small town. The library is a truly beautiful building and I was excited to spend a couple of hours reviewing microfilm of the daily newspapers from the late 1970s. Unfortunately it took me almost 45 minutes to park, not because the neighborhood was busy, but because I had to drive back to midtown in order to find enough quarters to feed the parking meter.

Most serendipitous was an article I came across from 1977 about an urban planning conference held to address population decline in the city. An academic from Washington University in St. Louis asserted that population flight to the suburbs — already a concern at that time—was actually good because it would leave the cosmopolitan demographic in place. In St. Louis-speak that means the poor whites and people of color will move to the county and leave the élite alone in their grand houses. The political machine will remain intact. Life will improve by remaining static.

The old Schnuck’s market at the corner of Hanley and Clayton roads.

The old Schnuck’s market at the corner of Hanley and Clayton roads.

That didn’t work out so well. Worse is that the flight is continuing to erode the county as people flee to exurban communities. Public policies promote flight to the surrounding townships in controlled ways: infrastructure provides the means while eminent domain provides the bludgeon. The unfortunate consequence is an impotence within the core neighborhoods. Even the abandoned Schnuck’s grocery store at the corner of Hanley and Clayton roads—one of the most heavily trafficked intersections Clayton—has not been able to attract a viable development project for over six years. Growth is being exported in order to maintain the familiar.

The situation is reminiscent of C.S. Lewis’ opening to The Great Divorce. He describes a city that has continued to spread as its residents move farther from each other, until they are barely cognizant of their neighbors. Lewis was illustrating purgatory, and sometimes I wonder if that same sense of limbo exists in St. Louis.

Sameness. Order. Who would dare to rock the boat?

Different faces at the news desks told familiar stories during the morning broadcasts (I wonder if they realized it?) The old feud between Reverend Larry Rice and downtown power brokers took a step forward. Rice, the leader of the New Life Evangelical Center and brash champion of the homeless, is going to be shutdown by the city. The NLEC has provided a safety net and shelter for the homeless in downtown St. Louis for three decades; the city has relied on his private organization in lieu of funding their own program.

As if something psychoactive is in the water supply, the élite believe that closing Rice’s shelter will eliminate the homeless in downtown St. Louis. Instead of recognizing the need for Rice’s shelter and his ability to provide a private solution to a public problem, politicians and developers will scatter the consequences of capitalism to the doorways and park benches that lie below downtown’s renovated loft warehouses.

What lies beneath the 1977 urban planning conference, the Larry Rice feud, and yes, even Ferguson? Social stasis. St. Louis is stuck in a mid-19th century framework while the world grows around and through it. Instead of adapting to powerful social forces, those in power reinforce the defensive walls. The pressure builds.

People like me move away and grow. When we return we see the anachronisms that surround us. Hence the ennui that permeates. Like a dysfunctional love affair, there is deep knowledge that things won’t get better. Attitudes haven’t changed for two centuries, optimism would be folly. Declaring “irreconcilable differences” and asking for a divorce is the only choice. Oh, you might remain sociable at family functions, but the trust and intimacy are gone. The investment has petered out.

Review: How Star Wars Conquered the Universe: The Past, Present, and Future of a Multibillion Dollar Franchise

[Note: This review appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books in December 2014. I am reproducing it here with some minor formatting changes.]

Seminal moments in our popular culture arrive less often than we claim, and their impact on our lives often requires time to manifest. Chris Taylor, deputy editor of Mashable and an undeniably rabid “Star Wars” fan, presents a compelling argument that the premiere of “Star Wars” was just such a moment, touching the entire human population. His new book, How Star Wars Conquered the Universe: The Past, Present, and Future of a Multibillion Dollar Franchise, is a social history of the franchise. More than a chronicle of movie production or an inventory of licensing agreements, it is a far-reaching examination of how the six-movie (and counting) film series changed the world and how the world shaped the franchise.

Taylor weaves his story through many short chapters, and he is not afraid to wander afield when necessary. He starts at the beginning with the founders of the science-fiction genre – H.G. Wells and Jules Verne – to illustrate the distinction between fantasy and science fiction. Later, this legacy explains the divergence of George Lucas’ space opera and Gene Roddenberry’s (the creator of “Star Trek”) futurist vision. Taylor discusses the influence of serial science fiction from the 1940s and 50s, including Lucas’ favorite, “Flash Gordon.”

As any good history demands, this is not simply a story about the movies or George Lucas. We are not only given a cohesive picture of Lucas’ formative years and social influences at home and in school, but also an adequate look at the cultural influences that preceded “Star Wars.” Film school social networks suggest how the Creator – Lucas’ self-proclaimed title – moved toward the realization of his childhood dream of creating a space fantasy/opera. Even Alejandro Jodorowsky’s stillborn “Dune” project demonstrates how failures liberated ideas and talent to change the direction of science-fiction filmmaking by cross-pollinating writers and special effects people. George Lucas may have occupied the watershed position for science-fiction cinema, but he was the product of hundreds of incremental forces.

The cornerstone of any franchise is the fan base, and multiple stories throughout the book emphasize its passion and influence. Albin Johnson’s tragic injury in an automobile accident created a circuitous route to the “Fightin’ 501st” Stormtrooper legion and their adoption as an official standard bearer at Star Wars events. This more than cosplay, it traces both the depth of cultural assimilation across the globe and the embrace of such movements by Lucas. What became known as the Expanded Universe of books, animated series, and other media not only allowed for creativity outside of the franchise, but also provided an environment for ideas to germinate. The success of the movie franchise – despite its uneven critical acceptance by fans – is intimately linked to the familial communities that flourish around the world. Taylor does an excellent job documenting these stories.

How Star Wars Conquered the Universe excels when finding anecdotes to reveal its message. In this regard, there is no stronger writing than the Introduction, which recounts Taylor’s visit to the Navajo Nation for the first screening of “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope” dubbed in the native language of Diné. This visit – 35 years after the film’s premiere – hoped to discover the few people left on the planet still unaware of the franchise’s cultural impact. We are introduced to George James Sr., who is not only significant for his isolation from “Star Wars,” but also because he is one of the last Code Talkers, a group of World War II veterans who crafted unbreakable code from the Navajo language. Their code was impenetrable because of the cultural barriers between the Navajo and the rest of the world. Now these folks are the latest adopters. James represents the difficulty of transporting myth across cultures, but by the end of the tale (and the screening of the movie), we realize that “Star Wars” has achieved that very goal.

A disappointing omission from the book is an explanation for the movies’ limited distribution channels. After finishing the chapter on the filming of “Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back,” I took a break from reading in order to rent the movie. It took no time to realize that it was unavailable in digital format (although you can still buy a LaserDisc version). A bit of research on the Web uncovered myriad conspiracies and explanations, but none could be verified or seemed credible. In a world in which even this 50-something no longer keeps a Blu-ray or DVD player, this strikes me as a huge revenue opportunity being ignored. With all of Taylor’s access to executives from Lucasfilm and its owner, Disney, finding the answer to that question would have been valuable and insightful.

Still, How Star Wars Conquered the Universe engaged me in much the same way as the movies: It was informative and entertaining, even though I had to overlook its flaws from time to time. Taylor’s narrative occasionally strays, but there are great benefits to his storytelling. The book has iconic moments (like the Navajo Nation discussion) and there are sections that fade quickly. But as many fans of the “Star Wars” franchise will tell you, we watch the cable-TV marathons, are instantly transported back to that Memorial Day Weekend in 1977, and talk online with giddy excitement about the next release. Our parents are familiar with the Force and our children play with light sabers. For all of us in this global community, this is definitely a book you will want to read.

#Ferguson Observations from an Erstwhile Local

Less than two weeks ago an altercation between teenager “Big Mike” Brown and Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson ended with bloody finality and ignited sub-surface social tensions in my hometown of St. Louis, Missouri. There has been no dearth of coverage throughout the media. Much of it has been excellent, but with few exceptions I — a native St. Louisan who only left at age 47 — have not found good descriptions of the overall dynamic present in the region. Unable to experience the situation firsthand, I keep waiting for the narrative of St. Louis’ evolution to emerge. As people are beginning to realize, Ferguson is emblematic of much larger problems; a symbol in a language of oppression. This is not to diminish the importance of individual stories, but to add another layer of nuance and demonstrate that the events of Ferguson are not materializing from thin air, and they will not disappear when the current tension abates. The St. Louis metropolitan area is a product of social, civic, and economic segregation practices that date back to the late nineteenth century.

For a topic so volatile, opinions have varied widely and clustered within a couple of broad narratives: oppression of a minority people and the maintenance of law and order. In one of the best essays I have read, Jeanette Cooperman — a St. Louis writer — reaches back to the eighteenth century to illustrate how those in power used social and civic levers to segregate and control black communities. Recently, a 1937 map of redlined neighborhoods in the St. Louis region has been making the rounds on Twitter. Although it is dangerous to attribute today’s tension in Ferguson to redlining six decades ago (when the town’s demographic composition was quite different,) the idea that minority neighborhoods have traditionally been deprived of wealth and capital is relevant. However, that is not a phenomenon unique to St. Louis, and therefore leaves me unsatisfied when looking for causes. Anthropologist Sarah Kendzior wrote a positive and compelling piece about St. Louis that reminds me of its vitality and opportunity. Christian Davenport — a professor of political science at University of Michigan — wrote this post on the different outcomes of policing when the race of protestors and law enforcement varies. Finally, on the law and order side of the debate, there are posts demonstrating support for Darren Wilson and asserting that compliance to authority is the answer to avoiding trouble.

If we use Mike Brown’s tragedy to find abiding Truths — and I think that is an excellent, noble purpose — then we discover St. Louis fixated on its past. The structures and processes that led to Ferguson, social oppression, and economic inequality are rooted in the nostalgia of a great city at the nexus of commerce.

Early image of the Veiled Prophet.

Early image of the Veiled Prophet.

One manifestation of power in St. Louis is the venerable Veiled Prophet Ball. Although rebranded recently to discard some of its controversial past, the ball has been a symbol of wealth and power for 140 years. Even at its inception in 1878, its purpose was to advance St. Louis as an industrial and agricultural powerhouse to compete with Chicago, despite the fact that the competition was over. The secret society that hosts the event has been comprised of St. Louis’ most powerful men — white, Christian men — who asserted that the ball was designed to boost civic identity and celebrate the success of the region’s élite. Not surprisingly, many working class and non-whites have not shared this interpretation. Apparent in the early symbolism of the pageant (see photo) are racist and authoritarian themes that concerned those outside of the society. The ball was the target of civil rights protests in the late 1960s, which further polarized the population. Blacks were not allowed to join the society until the 1980s, enforcing the dividing line between those who rose through the alleged meritocracy and those who truly held power. The ball is no longer televised, nor does it receive much media attention, but its legacy of asserting social power remains.

On a more mundane level, hierarchy is negotiated in the common starting point of conversation amongst St. Louis natives, “where did you go to high school?” Regardless of age or distance from your home, meet a St. Louisan and they will ask the question, although some do so apologetically. Although I have moved to Chicago and New York, I still must answer it, and it is an embarrassing one. The response immediately conveys your geographic, social, and economic status. North, south, or central; working class or old money; someone with a desirable network or not. These answers provide a potentially big ego boost to the questioner, or alienate all parties and stifle further discussion. It is a bit like asking someone how much money their parents make, or whether they have had many lovers. And lest we question the concreteness of the hierarchy, realize that the successful graduate from Normandy High (the school from which Mike Brown graduated) will never merit the same consideration as the washed-out drug addict from a school like John Burroughs or MICDS (the Country Day franchise.) This is but one way that social mobility is stifled. Like the Veiled Prophet, this structure projects and enforces differences throughout society, beyond the élite all the way to the poorest strata. It may be cloaked in pride, but the only purpose it serves is to perpetuate difference.

The fears of the past and the desire to maintain political dominance manifest in the evolution of civic entities. Other writers have addressed the fragmentation of the region; there is little controversy in asserting that this is by design. St. Louis is one of two American cities that is apart from a county (the other is Baltimore) because it seceded from St. Louis county in 1877. At the time the city was prosperous and metropolitan and it resented the “double taxation” imposed upon it by the rural county. The result can almost be described as a civic schism, ironic in the present day because of the change of fortunes between the two. Additionally, the surrounding county (which includes Ferguson) contains ninety separate municipalities, creating a bizarre mosaic of enclaves witnessing impoverished neighborhoods next to wealthy ones. This plurality of townships often prevents economies of scale and creates risk of capital flight from small neighborhoods. The loss of one employer can mean impoverishment for a city government. One result of this — discussed this week by Jeff Smith on Real Money with Ali Velshi — is the reliance on misdemeanor fees collected through citations. Residents are harassed through fines in order to maintain vital services. A second consequence is the use of county police in lieu of a local force. This separates officers from the community and prevents the relationships necessary for the peaceful maintenance of order.

In response to decades of neighborhood deterioration and population loss, the city implemented a plan in the mid-1990s to redevelop the central corridor between downtown and the Central West End (uptown.) The capital improvements to anchor organizations like St. Louis University and Barnes Hospital created tremendous development opportunities but effectively severed any connection between historically black north and historically white south city neighborhoods. As a result, gentrification is occurring through downtown, midtown, and uptown, while the rest of the city continues to deteriorate. Certainly there are neighborhoods thriving (mostly on the south side) but the ability to connect these into a cohesive network is missing. Instead, city fortunes vary on a block-by-block basis. The shocking distinction is wonderfully captured in this BBC report examining the profound differences found along Delmar Boulevard, a street that divides north and south St. Louis.

The county is also no stranger to bizarre planning. One of the most visible projects was the Page Avenue extension, subsidized by St. Louis county to provide easier access to St. Charles county, west of the Missouri river. Once a rural county peppered with small townships, St. Charles is now an unbroken exurb filled with subdivisions and big box-anchored shopping plazas. New schools, cheap property taxes, and subsidized roads make it attractive to former inner ring suburb residents who want to flee the higher social costs of living in St. Louis county. Not surprisingly, employers are beginning to follow the demographic shift and relocate west of the Missouri river as well. Although signs of growth pains are already evident, the momentum remains strong and will certainly carry more of the population away from St. Louis county (similar forces are acting on the Illinois side of the Mississippi river, where an exurban explosion is also taking place.) In affluent areas, such as Kirkwood, Missouri, the city invoked eminent domain to condemn the entire neighboring village of Meacham Park, which was almost all black. The land now contains a Lowe’s and Sam’s Club. Although the region’s population is stagnant, geographical realignment is a method employed to retain power and maintain the “integrity” of communities.

When I look at the situation unfolding in Ferguson, I [sadly] see the result of an evolutionary process. I see people outraged at the actions of a disengaged law enforcement apparatus, disenfranchised by generations of segregation, and dehumanized by a culture of paternalism. But also important is the flip side: agreement with the actions taken, belief that the presence of a militarized police force demonstrates a problem with crime, and confirmation of long-held beliefs that minorities are not ready to be a part of civil society. These are late-nineteenth century attitudes of race perpetuated through twenty-first century systems and institutions.

St. Louis has many great characteristics. There are great people there. I know many of them, and often miss not being in their company. But this is not about the good. This is about facing our failings and becoming stronger. This is about penance.

We certainly need justice for Mike Brown. We need justice for Ferguson, too. But what is not being communicated by the national media is that we also need justice for the people of Kinloch, Black Jack, St. Ann, Jennings, and many others. Until the region stops gazing nostalgically at its past and recognizes the shape (and color) of its future, there will be more Fergusons.