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.


[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.

Individualism As A Function Of Wealth

Take away the spirit of Individualism from the people and you at once eliminate the American spirit – the love of freedom, of free industry, free and unfettered opportunity, you take away freedom itself.

Henry Clews, 19th century Wall Street veteran

Individualism, the assertion of the primacy and inherent dignity of the individual, originated in the hazy beginnings of America, and matured during the nineteenth century to the point where Alexis de Tocqueville coined the term. It is fundamental to our mythos, but the ability to actually achieve it has waxed and waned throughout the years for most Americans. Depending upon one’s station in life – agrarian, laborer, professional or elite – professing individualism and practicing it have not always been consonant.

In modern life, individualism is once again the central narrative, and its association with freedom and choice remain unchanged. During my youth in the 1970s and 80s, libertarianism made for interesting political science study, but little of it was found in civic debate. Today, with the advent of the Tea Party factions, most debates center around the libertarian notions of individualism, total government deregulation and the oppression of taxation. In short, social organization equals totalitarianism. In an examination of such an argument’s presuppositions, however, we discover unstable foundations. American history provides a robust laboratory to observe the relationship between individualism, well-being and financial security. When doing so, we find that the natural response of a group under threat or financial pressure is to organize for mutual benefit. Conversely, groups which have mitigated outside threats have more difficulty maintaining ongoing cohesiveness, and have a higher likelihood of disbanding. Which brings us back to the question of today: will public policies for which the Tea Party and GOP advocate, actually prompt a collapse of individualism, causing a resurgence in social organization and mutualism?

Americans foster a manic nostalgia for “the good ol’ days.” But the truth of the matter is that most people found life in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries pretty horrible. A laborer or farm worker averaged well below a self-sufficient income despite working over 80 hours per week. Women and children compensated for the shortfall. Conditions were harsh, and average life-expectancy was short; as low as 40 years. Families could count on experiencing the premature death of a parent or child. The concept of economic mobility was unheard of, despite a couple of exceptions like Andrew Carnegie. If you were born to a working class family, it was unthinkable that your life would be an improvement over that of your parents.

At the height of the Gilded Age, when income disparity equaled today’s level, farmers and laborers had a singular response to their threatened existence: greater social organization. Immigrant populations in city ghettos formed mutual groups that provided child care, unemployment support, food banks and other family services during unforeseen circumstances. Farmers – despite their propensity for individualism – experimented with cooperatives and political movements (while these did not succeed, their creation attests to the validity of my hypothesis.) Even in the face of company militias, Illinois coal miners risked their lives to organize into unions, leaving us the legacies of Bloody Williamson and Mother Jones. Each of these groups favored mutualism over individualism, not because they didn’t share the American dream, but out of sheer desire to survive.

Interestingly, the greatest period of individualism – and the one which right-wing policy makers often cite as an example – is the period following World War II, when personal wealth, innovation and the economy exploded in this country. Obtaining greater financial security allowed populations the indulgence of individualism: blue-collar workers could afford a nice home, children and spouses were not required to contribute wages, an eight-hour work day and five-day work week provided time for leisure, readily available health care extended lives and careers, and ubiquitous public education facilitated economic mobility. Public policies like the minimum wage, union concessions like the 40-hour work week, and government programs like FHA and the GI Bill all contributed to America’s financial security. It was not until mutualism provided for each of these social goods that individualism became a mass movement, allowing Ronald Reagan to launch a systematic attack against mutualism in the early 1980s, finding little resistance.

During the current election cycle, Tea Party and mainstream GOP candidates (and, to be fair, a couple of conservative Democrats) argue for reducing or eliminating the minimum wage, repealing the recent health care reform legislation, privatizing Social Security and Medicare, deregulating the financial sector further, and even facilitating the outsourcing of jobs overseas. These policy planks align with an ideology based upon individualism. But will they produce the desired effect? Are they aligned with the extension of individualism? The history laboratory that is our country indicates they will not. With income disparity almost as high as the Gilded Age, and political pressure being exerted to minimize class mobility, the majority of Americans may find that, while individualism is their philosophical right, practicing it may be a secondary priority. As the middle class shrinks and experiences greater financial insecurity, it can be predicted to resort to mutualism as a strategy for survival.

Actioni contrariam semper et æqualem esse reactionem: sive corporum duorum actiones in se mutuo semper esse æquales et in partes contrarias dirigi. [translate: To every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction: or the forces of two bodies on each other are always equal and are directed in opposite directions.]

Newton’s Third Law of Motion