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Star Trek: Is it liberal?

By Daniel M. Ryan
web posted May 11, 2009

Star TrekThe latest installment of the Star Trek movie series has been released, and all indications suggest it'll be popular. The original series is a classic, underrated in its time, and is still a mainstay on science fiction channels. The characters have made it so. James T. Kirk, the captain as miracle worker; Mr. Spock, the almost adamantly loyal second in command; Dr. Leonard McCoy, the irascible fellow who keeps needling Spock and keeps James Kirk grounded. The other characters have added needed vibrancy to the series, but the primary three make for the primary reason behind the series' longevity. All three are easy to identify with, especially the first two.

Discussing the politics embedded in the series may seem out of place, given its mythic status, but any savvy conservative knows what the side dish is often going to be. The entertainment industry keeps issuing statements saying that there's no particular bias in American entertainment products. More than a few conservatives scoff, with some reason. Liberal tilts in shows and movies have been long observed, and deplored, by writers as varied as Judge Robert Bork and Dinesh D'Souza. These writers tend to veer onto immorality, which partially but not fully explains the tilt. Sexual antics do sell, 'tis true, but so does exciting violence. It's easy to make a date movie out of an otherwise-clean action movie. Also, as Michael Medved noted a long time ago, there's a wide audience for more wholesome drama and comedy that had been underserved. This gap has largely been filled, even if some of the fillers are saccharine. Perhaps the reason why liberalism has an undue influence on American entertainment is because liberals are more loyal, and more vocal, about the entertainment they like. Thus, if true, a liberal-oriented movie or TV show will go viral to a greater extent than a non-liberal one. Movies and TV are big business; it's a dumb businessperson who doesn't go with the free-advertising chain.

There's another reason, one that pertains to science fiction. Liberalism is partial to Utopianism, and Utopianism and fiction go hand-in-glove. Science fiction, particularly, meshes well with Utopianism. So, it would be reasonable to guess that any successful science fiction series would have a ration of liberalism therein, even if that liberalism is not specifically Utopian. This guess would hit the mark for the longest-running Star Trek series, Star Trek: The Next Generation.

The ones with Captain Kirk at the helm don't really fit the liberal template, though. The original Star Trek, and the six movies that followed it, is definitely elitist. There's not much else to be said about a series whose main character regularly takes matters into his own hands, even to the point of bending regulations, General Orders and even Prime Directives. Captain Kirk gets away with it because his gambles pay off. The Star Fleet brass probably has him pegged as the above-mentioned "Miracle Worker" and Mr. Spock as Kirk's secret weapon. This type of hero doesn't appear in liberal dramas unless he's a conscious or unconscious moralizer. Kirk, and the justification for his lionization, is too practical to be truly liberal. The only one of the six Star Trek films that can be pegged as liberal is Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. It's also the one whose plot, from a character-and-motivation standpoint, is the most contrived. The interstellar probe is clearly a God-substitute, there being no discernible reason why an interstellar object would show a continuing interest in a species that cannot communicate beyond Earth's seas…and a notable callousness towards the one species that can both communicate and travel away from Earth itself. (To give the film its due, though, it's a didactic action-comedy that didn't fall flat on its face. That kind of film is hard to make a success.)

Captain Kirk doesn't show the kind of virtues and talents that would incline a liberal to put a Superman cape on him. He pulls his rabbits out of the hat largely through wisdom and wiliness, characteristics that are not specifically liberal strengths. The stock villains he faces, the Klingons and Romulans, are far from the liberal stereotype of the "evil conservative." As Star Trek VI suggested, the Klingon Empire seems to be based on the old Soviet Union. The polity that the Enterprise protects, the United Federation of Planets, is only there as background. It isn't clear whether it's based on the United States, the United Nations, or some other polity. We assume that it's a democracy, but this assumption is never explicitly confirmed.

It is a bit of a stretch to say that Star Trek is liberal overall. Does this conclusion mean, though, that it's conservative? Not necessarily. Although faiths tend to be respected, there is also relativism. The kind of officer that the typical conservative likely looks up to tends to be treated either as pitiable or foppish. By-the-book types don't fare all that well. So, it's also a bit of a stretch to say that Star Trek is conservative.

Except for one kind, the kind that's quite comfortable with elitism. The political ethos of Star Trek is actually Torylike. Although Starfleet is a meritocracy, Spock definitely springs from the Vulcan aristocracy. The Federation is considered good, with little justification as to why it should be. There's nary any intra-Federation political dissent that can't be chalked up to terrorism, adventurism or plain foolishness. If a member of the elite is unusually skilled, he earns the right to take matters into his own hands and act on his own judgment contra general orders. Others more ordinary, though, do not have that unwritten right. All of these qualities add up to meritocratic high Toryism.

As such, there's some wisdom that can be drawn from Star Trek by conservatives. To offer a single example, the character of Dr. David Marcus in the second and third movie illustrates that Kirk's "higher impetuosity" doesn't cross over too well into the scientific field. Dr. Marcus seems to have something in common with today's greenies… ESR

Daniel M. Ryan is an irregular columnist for LewRockwell.com, and has an undamaged mail address here.





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