Thursday, September 22, 2005

You’d Do the Same For Me
Further Reflections on Star Trek and New Orleans

by William S. Kowinski

Thousands crowded in the sealed darkness of a gleaming domed enclosure, confined with little food or water, trapped in an extreme nightmare of violence, death, heat and excrement. Families marooned on baking slivers of interstate highway, or waving frantically from rooftops at blind helicopters passing by on fathomless missions. All surrounded by roiling waters of spilled oil, toxic chemicals, sewage, and decaying human remains.

Then even as rescue began, two- mile lines of ambulances waited to bring patients into the only working medical facility, in the passenger concourse of the New Orleans airport. There, as Dr. Mehmet Oz reported on a harrowing hour of Oprah, those who were too ill to be helped were moved to the makeshift morgue while still alive.

This cannot be America, everyone was saying. This cannot even be...civilization.

This was perhaps the most sobering of many shocking realizations. Beyond political responsibilities and human failings, beyond the truth or illusion of national self-image, even beyond the physical suffering and material deprivations, there was the sense that civilization itself had broken down.

If it had, whose fault would it be? The people who were improvising survival under unimaginable duress, some of whom interpreted the absence of rescuers and resources as attempts to ignore or even kill them? Or those who failed in their designated tasks as the representatives of civilization? Or perhaps even those who set the terms of this civilization?

When civilization breaks down, it's often said that we revert to a more primitive self, the implication being that savagery is our natural state. This is a view of humanity shared by some religions and certain interpreters of Darwinian evolution-two groups that don't believe much in each other, and who might be scandalized to think they share anything at all.

It's a curious paradox, that the nature of humanity and the nature of human civilization are considered so radically different, one hostile to the other. It is a view that supports and is supported by authoritarian rule: the king and court, those of noble blood, and the hierarchy of the church. Only they can define and enforce civilization; the rest is the savage mob.

Is human nature savage? It's a question that Star Trek addressed in many ways. We think of Captain Kirk, an authority figure and an anarchic troublemaker at the same time, who gloried in the human struggle, and yet also knew that part of the struggle was to bring instincts and consciousness into balance.

The Enterprise came up against aliens who were vastly more powerful than humans, and aliens who were much more primitive. At the far ends of this opposites were the advanced "energy beings"(spirits without bodies) and the primitive beings who were only physical, with undeveloped mental powers and apparently primitive spirituality. Humanity was a middle state, always struggling to keep the spirit and the body in balance. That balancing without denying the different parts results in a kind of harmony, music, a dance, which some believe defines what we mean by soul: that which harmonizes body and spirit, thought and emotion.

Star Trek had its own working definition of humanity, a statement of the soul in action, which was in its way a working definition of civilization.

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