Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Star Trek's Hypocritical Federation

Can there be any doubt that Quark is the most moral character on Star Trek Deep Space Nine? While his bible, the Rules of Acquisition, may not be something that I agree with, he places it as the centerpiece of his life, citing it frequently, and using it as a guide to pursue his endeavors. Whether we think that family should be exploited for opportunity or women should be treated as subservient is beside the point: Quark has a code of ethics that he sticks to in virtually every situation.

Contrast this with Captain Sisko, a man who allows men to be killed and bribes another in order to perpetrate a lie to the Romulan people and ensure that they entered the Dominion War on the side of the Federation. Much has been made of this episode, yet the judgments usually come down on the side of Sisko, whose temporary abandonment of a moral compass perhaps leads to the greater good, at least from the perspective of the Federa
tion and its allies.

Also consider the outright hostility and contempt that Sisko and other Federation and Bajoran characters feel towards Quark. That he remains steadfast in his unpopular beliefs even in an atmosphere where his very personhood is looked down upon, is something that would be lauded if we just stripped away some of the descriptors.

For a society that claims to respect other culture’s beliefs, the members of the Federation that we see on television seem to sit in judgment quite often, and not just in the case of the Ferengi. When Worf seeks to end his brother’s life at the latter’s request, he is threatened with prison and questioned severely for attempting to perform a legal and customary ritual between consenting people in his culture. In the episode ‘Waltz,’ in which the Defiant is looking for a marooned Captain Sisko in the brief window before they must return to protect a convoy, Doctor Bashir sneers at Worf when the latter says that it would be dishonorable to fail to return to the convoy, claiming that he doesn’t care much for Worf’s honor.

Is it possible to reconcile the lofty ideals of Federation society with the way we see such behavior portrayed on screen, behavior for which I have only provided the briefest of examples? In many ways, the Federation is merely a stand-in for the modern day United States, a superpower who uses its military and economic strength in order to force other countries to behave in a way the United States thinks is correct. The Federation does pretty much the exact same thing, forcing new members to meet certain criteria in order for acceptance. We also rarely see any dissention by members of the Federation against the central government, creating the impression that societies cede their individuality to some degree in order to gain the military and economic strengths the Federation wields. The respect for these alien societies seems to be an abstract notion, which to be fair is often reflected in American society regarding cultures in other countries.

I am sure there are all sorts of colonialist and imperialist critical frameworks that could be applied to this issue in order to better understand the gap between what the Federation is said to be and what evidence shows it is. Obviously, this is a rough outline of these ideas, or what might actually be two separate ideas, but with the new direction I am hoping to take here, I hope the following conversation will help clarify some points and hopefully muddy the waters a bit as well. Please, weigh in.


Brendan Moody said...

A nice overview. I don't have anything to say to it as such, but that's never stopped me from making comments before. Seriously, what follows are perhaps just other ways of making the same points, but may be helpful or interesting all the same.

Star Trek struggles, as the mainstream American liberalism from which it more or less derives struggles, with the balance between respect for diversity on the one hand and a sense of its own greal moral worth on the other. It's difficult to manage genuine respect for difference if you think you're better than those who embrace that difference. The difficulty is heightened with Star Trek because it's a utopia. If these other societies aren't members of the Federation, they are by definition excluding themselves from the perfect government. How can that be worthwhile or respectable behavior?

It's telling that, for all its putative complexity, when DS9 did a war it was basically an epic tale of Good vs. Evil. The Dominion is not presented with any ambiguity: it's an oppressive dictatorship, and its soldiers are different sorts of clones, and therefore not people as such at all. I appreciate that DS9 tried to examine the consequences of the existence of the Jem'Hadar, but I can't escape the feeling that as a concept they remove some of the moral atrocity inherent in war: if the enemy you're aiming your weapons at doesn't have a family and a life back home, it's that much easy to fire.

It's against this backdrop that the approving analyses of "In the Pale Moonlight" (the episode where Captain Sisko does the things described in paragraph two, for any readers who don't follow Star Trek) emerge. The Dominion is so broadly sketched and so awful that the greater good argument has a certain logic.

Other Star Trek aliens tend to be simplistically imagined in similar ways. Take the Klingons. For all that there's been a lot of elaboration of the species over five series and eleven movies, the basic idea (warrior culture with honor obsession) is very crude. There's little sense of the intellectual complexity that would characterize a real global society. Almost all Klingons have the same cultural heritage and the same approving response to it. Even an honor-based national culture in our own history wouldn't be quite that rigid.

That last paragraph doesn't feel quite clear. Let me try again with the Ferengi. The Ferengi were conceived as pure antagonists, the big enemy of The Next Generation, a satire on free-market capitalism. The basic concept is that they are simultaneously comical and threatening. For all the additions to the Ferengi mythos over the years, this basic idea remains, and it prevents presentation of the characters or their beliefs as truly respectable. You can't respect a punchline.

There's more to be said here, including some consideration of the Bajorans and the Cardassians, but I'll come back to that later if I can organize my thoughts.

Jonathan Polk said...

Great analysis, Brendan. With regards to the Dominion, especially, you have helped me in my struggle to articulate a specific point.

While I agree w/ your assessment of the Ferengi, I am not sure that when they were conceived to be the primary TNG villains, the capitalism run amok angle was really all that present in the beginning. Is it possible that we are retconning our analysis of their early portrayal?

Brendan Moody said...

It's interesting, I would have sworn that the capitalism angle was present with the Ferengi from the beginning, though not in the "comic" manner of DS9, but I can't find much evidence of it. I remember reading or hearing that Roddenberry saw them as a satire of 20th century enterprise, and the hamhandedness of the idea feels very late Roddenberry, but that's hardly good evidence. I'll look at the season 1 TNG Ferengi episodes sometime, when I can bring myself to face the sheer tackiness of early TNG.

I still mean to say some things about Bajor and Cardassia, but it's late now and I'm even less cogent than usual.