Over at the Corner, Mike Potemra has decided to have a debate on the relative merits of Star Trek's moral philosophy. (Via.)
Coincidentally, I have over the past couple of months been watching DVDs of Star Trek: The Next Generation, a show I missed completely in its run of 1987 to 1994; and I confess myself amazed that so many conservatives are fond of it. Its messages are unabashedly liberal ones of the early post-Cold War era – peace, tolerance, due process, progress (as opposed to skepticism about human perfectibility). I asked an NR colleague about it, and he speculated that the show’s appeal for conservatives lay largely in the toughness of the main character: Jean-Luc Picard was a moral hardass where the Captain Kirk of the earlier show was more of an easygoing, cheerful swashbuckler. I think there’s something to that: Patrick Stewart did indeed create, in that character, a believable and compelling portrait of ethical uprightness.
Picard's ethical uprightness came in the context of the very ideals that conservatives hated. Picard's strength was that he deeply and passionately believed in multicultural tolerance and all that other frou-frou shit that made Star Trek so conservatively insufferable, someone who was unbreakable and wholly dedicated even in the most desperate of situations. Of course, that requires connecting the moral lessons of seven seasons of a television show to the main fucking character, which is apparently far more difficult than previously believed.
And then, of course, John Hood steps in and talks about how awesome Star Wars is in comparison, because we're in the opening night line for Avatar, right?
In Star Trek, law enforcement is armed with phasers. Officers stun people, then lock them up, then subject them to intensive psychiatry until they are “cured” of their criminal impulses. In Star Wars, law enforcement under the Galactic Republic appears to be the job of Jedi Knights who try to avoid violence but, if pressed, will cut you in half with a light saber.
In Star Trek, evil characters are frequently considered to be the product of a poor environment, a bad childhood, misunderstanding, or miscommunication. It turns out that Captain Kirk and the other original cast members just didn’t understand the Klingons, for example, or the Romulans. The Gorn, a lizard-like race that does a Pearl Harbor on the Federation and kills many innocent people, are later excused from culpability because they say that they saw peaceful Federation colonists as “invaders” in their territory. Killer clouds of space gas or giant space amebas threatening the lives of billions turn out to be lost children or mindless things just trying to survive. Even the Borg, a great source of villainy from The Next Generation, are humanized in subsequent stories.
In Star Wars, evil characters have been seduced by the dark side of the Force. They have given into temptation, and are held accountable for their actions. The Star Wars movies are really morality tales, and have a strong religious component in spite of themselves. No one argues that Sith Lords might have turned out differently if they had just been enrolled in a quality preschool program.
Star Wars (or what became of it) ended up being a rather terrible story about a society run on genetic predeterminism. The police force of the "good old days" were the secretive elite of a crypto-religious sect who fully accepted that at all times, two of their members would be trying to destroy civilization as they knew it. Membership was based on an accident of genetic luck, and those who lacked the access and wherewithal to get screened at the proper time were out of luck, stuck at the whim and mercy of their telekinetic, mind-altering overlords. Government was largely ineffectual, a dysfunctional democracy latched onto a decaying royal system. The entire lesson of Star Wars is that this highly traditional, morally unyielding system fails, and it fails miserably, as the billions of people killed in the Sith insurrection would have testified, had they, well, lived.
No wonder it's such a conservative series.
The fetish displayed here is for decisive, predictable action, but the presumption is that any such action is inherently conservative, no matter its motivation, and good, no matter its outcome. It must be nice to have a philosophy that thinks Jar-Jar Binks was a good idea.