Monday, April 04, 2005

Star Trek and the Culture Wars

The range of writings responding to the death of Pope John Paul II demonstrates the inaccurate limitation of our "us or them" habits, particularly in evaluating the complexity of beliefs, observations and principles that any one person or group of people might have.

Was Pope John Paul a conservative or a liberal? Was he a red states' Pontiff or a blue states Prelate? Conservative talk shows in America claim him for their own, but as others have shown, they weren't so certain a few years ago, when the Pope came out strongly against the war in Iraq. Some Vatican insiders have told reporters that not being able to stop the U.S. invasion was among his greatest disappointments of his papacy.

As various writers are now noting, Pope John Paul was passionately attentive to the needs of the poor and dispossessed; he was against birth control and considered abortion to be murder; he promoted diversity and ecumenical understanding, admired the devotion to prayer of Muslims and was the first Pope to enter a mosque; he thought homosexuality was wrong and condemned gay marriage; he was against capital punishment; he was against changing Church practices so that priests could marry or women become priests; he spoke out against rampant capitalism, environmental destruction, the culture of consumption, and the rich western countries ignoring the poor countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America. So what was he?

I don't know that the late Pope ever saw Star Trek, but it's very likely he would have approved of a lot of what he saw, and would not have damned the entire vision for what he disagreed with, or thought was missing. Star Trek stood for diversity, tolerance, social justice, and a respect for spirituality, even a belief in something transcendent to human knowledge at work in the universe.

Because Gene Roddenberry is characterized as a humanist, even a secular humanist, it is often proposed that he was against religion and religious values, even that he had no spiritual life. His own statements, along with the evidence of what he wrote or approved as part of Star Trek, don't add up to so simple a characterization, so black and white (or red or blue) a picture.

By that evidence, it seems to me that Roddenberry was suspicious of organized religions, and saw that many needless wars and much suffering were caused or encouraged by conflicting religions, each certain it was justified in killing people on the other side, because they were on the side of God and the other side therefore was in league with the devil.

But also by that evidence (for instance, the interview with Terrance Sweeney at the end of David Alexander's Roddenberry biography, Star Trek Creator) he had spiritual feelings and thoughts, and a faith in the divine, though his definition of God would not satisfy some adherents of some religions.

It seems to me that if it had been possible to put Roddenberry, Pope John Paul and the Dalai Lama in a room together for an hour, they would respectfully disagree on a few things, but would quickly find they had much more in common, and moreover, they would concentrate on those common beliefs and probably would spend most of the time talking about how they could work together to further those values, so they would indeed be part of the soul of the future.

While I believe it is important to strongly oppose what I find to be dangerous, and to engage in debate and dialogue on important questions of justice, morality and governance, I find today's automatic political typecasting, and all the laundry lists of absolutist positions, to be repugnant and themselves dangerous.

Not only are these lists harmful, they are often irrelevant and inaccurate. Star Trek is a very good example. Where does Star Trek stand in the so-called Culture Wars? In most respects, with the Blue States. But consider this statement by Michael Medved, a movie reviewer who now makes his living principally from Rush Limbaugh dittoheads and Christian conservatives, who castigated Star Trek V for being anti-God: in his book, Right Turns, he criticizes how much our culture is now willing to "accept the ability to shock as a replacement for the old ability to inspire."

That seems to me to be one of the major reasons that Star Trek is so singularly valuable. Take a look down the rows of video store shelves: it's all guns, muscles, t&a. We have replaced inspiration with shock, except for Star Trek, and a minority of other movies and TV shows. That Star Trek is family friendly (including the movies, though some include mild profanity and jokes about bodies, but pushing it with certain episodes of Enterprise) has been important to its character. "Apart from perhaps the Weather Channel," Marina Sirtis said, "Star Trek is the only show on television the whole family can watch together." And, I would add, enjoy, while they quite probably learn something, and may even talk about moral and values issues in the real world that the story inspired.

So on this I agree with what Medved wrote, and I am not happy that my belief in the right of free expression is confused with my support for mindless vulgarity and, incidentally, equally mindless violence. But Star Trek V as anti-God? Come on, Michael. That's sophistry or zealotry, and I don't accept either, or the idea that fundamentalist or conservative Christians get to define my morality and spirituality. And my values tell me that however I might agree with Medved on this observation, it's not nearly enough to get me to vote for G.W. Bush, not even at gunpoint.

Even worse that the oversimplified shock and commercialized vulgarity, is the impoverishment of our political, moral and spiritual dialogue. We seem to be hypnotically locking ourselves in rigid oversimplifications, perhaps in fear of the interrelated complexity now revealing itself to us. We need to be inspired to embrace the adventure of understanding this, which Star Trek can do.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

And that is what trek is about.