Last weekend, hundreds of die-hard fans gathered at the Star Trek convention in Las Vegas to see the stars and mingle with other sci-fi-minded folks. Costumes and attitudes aptly demonstrated their commitment to the Star Trek philosophy, which has many similarities to American ideals.
When asked to explain the key aspects of the Star Trek philosophy, a man who could easily pass for Deep Space Nine’s Captain Sisko told me, “Star Trek is about hope — it is about hope for the future.” Perhaps this is not a surprising comment, given that the show is based on overcoming challenges in space, but it’s also a reflection of the American character.
Compared with other countries, our history is short. This tends to produce a culture that looks to the future, not the past, to define itself. America was founded by people who were explorers or simply looking for a new start in a new land. Star Trek also looks to the future, of course, going boldly where no one has gone before.
The culture that explorers brought to America is reflected in the nation’s mantra of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” That freedom to define one’s way of life, so long as it doesn’t harm others, is also central to much of Star Trek’s moral message.
For example, consider the “prime directive,” which says that the Federation is not to interfere with alien cultures. For the most part, the Star Trek crew tries to abide by the prime directive of cultural freedom, but there’s been many an episode where the ideal of individual liberty required their interference.
Consider, for instance, “The Apple,” in which the Enterprise discovers a planet whose people are living in what appears to be paradise. But it only lasts so long as they serve their god, Vaal, with blind obedience. Spock defends the society in a somewhat relativist way, but Kirk and Bones recoil. They work to destroy the controlling Vaal, and after succeeding, Kirk says, “That’s what we call freedom — you’ll like it a lot.” Some people might interpret the Iraq war through the same type of lens.
On the one hand, there’s the argument that America the superpower should just leave other nations to do what they will with their people. On the other hand, it seems horrific to sit idly by and watch as millions of men, women and children are terrified and slaughtered by their leaders.
Founding on Ideas
If debating the Iraq war were an episode on The Original Series, one might expect Spock to say that the Federation should simply close off America to Middle Easterners, given that they now pose a threat to security. Kirk and Bones would object and note that cocooning America and leaving Iraq as it is would harm the freedoms of both peoples.
Unlike other countries that came together out of ethnicity or historical accident, America was a country founded on ideas, a key one being that all humans are created equal. This belief is reflected in Star Trek through scripts that tell the audience that differences among species should be tolerated, as everyone has an equal right to exist. This idea was apparent at the Las Vegas convention, where tolerance of all things strange was prevalent.
Attendees dressed up as Warf, Data, the Borg, Q, Seven of Nine, Captain Kirk, Scotty, Councilor Troy and others. Many of them were in full character, and they interacted with one another as their characters did on the show. For instance, when I asked one particular Ferengi how his Latinum stockpile was coming along, he told me he didn’t discuss “such matters with females.”
He was, of course, referring to Ferengi rule number 94, which says that “females and finances don’t mix.” In the “live and let live” spirit of the event, I couldn’t help but smile. In the welcome message to the Star Trek convention, the organizers asked attendees to “imagine if the world was taught the Star Trek philosophy how much better off we’d all be.” It’s hard to disagree.
If the world were filled with forward-looking people who embrace liberty and individual difference with a creative flare, it would indeed be a much better place.
Sonia Arrison, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is director of Technology Studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute.
This story was originally published on August 6, 2004, and is broughtto you today as part of our Best of ECT News series.