Podcast

199 – Political Theory in Star Trek

The Mythcreant Podcast

Sound, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Mythcreant Podcast, and as you might be able to tell, today we’re talking about Star Trek. But not just any Star Trek: political theory in Star Trek. For that we’ve brought on a special guest, Professor Kathy Ferguson, who just so happens to teach a class on this very subject. We talk about what makes someone a person, how we know what we know, and what being Machiavellian even means. Also, Kathy weighs in on the age-old philosopher debate: was Socrates real?

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Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.

Show Notes:

Episodes

Death Wish 

The High Ground

The Measure of a Man

The 37’s 

Darmok

Let This Be Your Last Battlefield

The Cloud Minders

Philosophers 

Socrates

Plato

Foucault

Sigmund Freud

Machiavelli 

Hannah Arendt

John Stuart Mill

Harriet Taylor Mill

John Locke 

Karl Marx

Hanna Pitkin

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Transcript

Generously transcribed by Anonymous. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.

Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle. [opening song]

Oren: And welcome everyone to an episode of Mythcreants podcast on the road, recording from our mobile studio. Joining me today is:

Chris: Chris.

Oren: And we have a special guest, Kathy Ferguson.

Kathy: Hi.

Oren: Kathy, as I say a lot on the intro to these podcasts teaches political theory in Star Trek at the University of Hawaii. So that is what we are going to be talking about today. That specific concept and the class. So first, Kathy, describe your class for us. What is it and how do we take it?

Kathy: Well, the class. I joke that the class is the important dead white guys. The class looks at the major traditions of Western political thought from Socrates to Foucault. We do about a dozen philosophers. We look at both what are their arguments, the content of their arguments, and how they make their argument, both meaning how they relate to the context of their time and how they construct it rhetorically. The idea of using Star Trek is to see these ideas alive in the world because students are intimidated by political theory.

So to get past that, you can show them that they actually live in a world that is saturated with political theory. Star Trek is particularly good because many of what theorists call grand narratives of Western thought are in the episodes. I can show them an idea at work, in that story, and then they can step back and make use of the story to generalize about what are the philosophical dimensions of that particular narrative arc.

Chris: So do students get to come into class and watch Star Trek during class?

Kathy: Yes, we do. We watch about four or five during the course of the semester. I match them to the particular philosophers and then also they have assignments. They have to watch one Star Trek a week for the first six weeks.

Chris: So do I have to attend the University of Hawaii to go to this class?

Kathy: I’m afraid you do. It’s the only way.

Chris: Well, if you’re lucky enough to already be attending the University of Hawaii.

Oren: Unfortunately, I don’t think you can find this class by searching political theory and Star Trek. I think it’s just listed as a standard political theory class.

Kathy: It’s History of Political Thought.

Oren: But it’s taught by Kathy Ferguson. So if you’re at UAH, this is the class that you want to take. So why Star Trek?

Kathy: Well, I think the best of any of the science fiction, or any of the popular shows that I’m aware of, for a relatively thorough engagement with the set of ideas, as opposed to just the superficial drive by. Also in general, science fiction is great for political theory because science fiction is particularly good at crossing boundaries: boundaries between genders, between ethnic or racial groups, between species, between times, between the human and the machine. That’s what scifi is known for. It doesn’t take the familiar for granted. Better said the way that Freud said it, Star Trek is uncanny in the sense that it lodges the familiar in the strange and the strange and the familiar.

Oren: Freud once said on a Star Trek episode, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

Kathy: He did say that.

Oren: I was surprised to find out that was a real person and not just a holo program that they made up.

Chris: So, let’s talk about episodes.

Oren: Yes.

Chris: Is there a particular episode that you want to talk about, Kathy, that is really good for this?

Kathy: I start the class– the first episode I show is Death Wish from Voyager, because it’s such a great episode for Socrates and Plato, right?

Chris: Is that the episode where there’s a Q that wants the right to die?

Kathy: Right. The Q was a philosopher in the Q continuum, and he wants to die in order to bring a more vibrant, lively political community back to life. So he dies in the service of his community or Plato and Socrates would have said he died to save his city.

Chris: Right, I think his argument was that the Q continuum had become super static, not changing, and that by dying, he would initiate change.

Oren: That would make sense if we accept the premise that the Q are omniscient, which, granted, there are some episodes that suggest they’re not, but if we accept that they are, it would be really easy to see how they could become static if they know everything. I just find the concept of, well, there’s one thing they don’t know, which is what happens when one of them dies because it never happens. Right? That’s just a fascinating idea. I really liked that. It’s easily the best Voyager Q episode.

Kathy: It’s great for my class because unlike most of the others, the writers clearly wrote it with Socrates and Plato in mind. So, the Q takes space hemlock essentially to die. Right. As soon as you say hemlock, you think Socrates, so the parallels must have been deliberate. Whereas some of the other episodes that I use, like for Machiavelli, there’s so many great choices. Most of DS9 is great for Machiavelli.

Oren: Machiavelli is just very fiction friendly. He’s all about that conflict.

Kathy: The most recent one I’ve been picking is The High Ground, because there’s this really interesting philosopher, her name is Hannah Pitkin, and she wrote about how Machiavelli is — she called him a “republican for hard times.” That is when you live in a very oppressive situation and none of your political options are good, how do you pursue republican values?

Oren: And by republican, we mean a republic, not the modern Republican Party.

Kathy: Exactly, small “r.” The advocacy of the republic as opposed to the contemporary party. Yes. What The High Ground does–you recall that it’s the episode where there’s a rebellion, and a guy named Finn who looks vaguely–probably it’s reminiscent of the Irish rebellion against the British. One of them.

Oren: That episode was actually banned in Britain for quite some time because it mentions Irish unification.

Kathy: Interesting.

Oren: That was considered too sensitive.

Kathy: So, Machiavelli is often misread. One thing I try to teach in my class is we read original texts. We read one commentary, everything else is the original text. And the students have to use the original text in their papers because so many of these philosophers are badly represented by widely available summaries of their work that were done by people who hadn’t read them. It’s somebody summarizing somebody who summarized somebody who summarized them 10 steps back. Somebody must’ve read it, but you wandered way off.

So the popular image of Machiavelli is this guy who will do anything for power. And that’s what, when we say somebody’s Machiavellian, that’s typically what we mean. But that’s not what Machiavelli said. He said in The Prince, and even more so in The Discourses, that the political leader should be willing to do whatever is necessary for the honor and glory of the city. So not personal aggrandizement, not a narrow private interest, but only if you have to do something bad to achieve something good, that good has to be the public good of their city. It has to be a step toward a stronger republic.

Oren: And how does The High Ground feature into that?

Chris: Can I get more context for The High Ground? What is the basic plot of this situation?

Oren: Sure. So the plot of The High Ground is that the Enterprise has gone to this planet which is suffering from an insurgency. They mention the causes of the insurgency, but they also say that it’s essentially become just a longstanding political divide at this point. The Enterprise is there to deliver medical supplies to the dominant faction, which the insurgents take as an act of war.

So the insurgents attack the Enterprise and kidnap Beverly Crusher. And she has a whole thing of being imprisoned. The episode goes back and forth on the question of who’s in the right? Is anybody in the right? Is there a way to stop this? At the end they end with the idea that maybe it’ll stop in the future. There’s maybe hope, but it’s certainly not going to stop right now. It was funny to me because the writers of that episode don’t like it. They think it’s bad. They think that they didn’t say anything. First of all, in the modern context, just portraying the idea of terrorism as anything other than something that evil brown skin people do to good white people is really radical in the modern climate. Maybe it wasn’t like that in 1994, I don’t really remember that super well, but just for that it definitely said something. And it’s double ironic that these writers think their episode didn’t say anything and it’s being used in a political theory class.

Kathy: One of the things that I like about it is exactly the sort of open-endedness of the conclusion. The sort of lack of a clear conclusion. The philosophers I’m looking at that I want students to take seriously and to see their ideas as being omnipresent in our lives didn’t just say one thing. They had complicated analyses and often those analyses are full attention. They’re not easily resolvable. And so the idea that you would tell a political story where the guy you could roughly think of as the revolutionary hero, Finn, was willing to use violence against people that could be called innocent in the sense that they were–like Beverly Crusher wasn’t his enemy.

Oren: Right, the people in the cafe they blow up.

Kathy: The people in the cafe, right.

Oren: They’re not soldiers.

Kathy: So they’re civilians and he’s presented no–you don’t necessarily think he’s the good guy, but it’s hard to conclude that he’s only a bad guy.

Oren: Right.

Kathy: So the moral ambiguity of the episode is very reflective of the moral ambiguities of politics. The need to think deeply about consequences is part of what Machiavelli tried to get us to do, because he did say that the end justify the means, which is what he’s famous for saying. But he didn’t mean any end justifies any means. He meant that the honorable and noble end of advancing the goals of the republic justified the other means. So it’s ethically problematic, but it’s not the same as I do whatever I want whenever I feel like it.

Oren: You can still definitely get to a pretty bad place following what he actually said, but it’s important to understand that those nuances, like whole worlds of difference rest in there. So I actually have a quick question for you. Since we’ve been talking about both Socrates and Machiavelli. Cause I’ve seen philosophy nerds on the internet get into debates about this. I just want to get your stance here. First of all, is Socrates real or did Plato make him up?

Chris: [Laughter]

Kathy: I kind of think Socrates was real. I think there was a historic Socrates. Other Greek writers talk about Socrates. He didn’t write anything. When I say Socrates said X or Socrates thought X, I’m really saying Plato’s account of Socrates attributes that to him, because that’s the account I’m going on is what Plato said primarily in The Apology, but also in other texts. I don’t know for sure, but I think it’s likely.

Oren: Okay. Then for Machiavelli, is The Prince satire?

Kathy: I don’t believe that. I think that’s over the top stretching the context. These things are all legitimate questions and you do have to put a text in its context. A lot of times political people who are taught as I am to teach political theory or philosophy, we often learn a lot about the ideas, but not a lot about the circumstances that the writer or lived in. I ended up coming out of graduate school knowing a lot about Plato, but not that much about Athens. I had to remedy that on my own because I realized that as somebody famous once said, text without context is pretext.

Oren: That’s great, I love that.

Kathy: So in the context that Machiavelli was writing. He was trying to ingratiate himself with an incoming set of rulers. He had been badly treated by the rulers of Florence in the past. He had been arrested. He’d been tortured. He’d been–the worst thing that happened to him from his point of view was that he was thrown out of public life. He had to go back to the farm and he was a public figure. He wanted to be involved in public life. So that was very–he hated that. But no, I don’t think it was satire. I think he might’ve certainly in the introduction where he’s kinda kissing up, he exaggerates his fealty to the new rulers. But no, I don’t think so. Because in the context, when you look at The Prince in relation to The Discourses, it isn’t that different. It is different. The Discourses are more practical. They’re really long, and they’re not specifically advice to a prince. They have a lot more detail in them about how laws ought to work, but it’s not inconsistent.

Oren: Okay. So what kind of work do your students do in this class? You know, besides just watching Star Trek.

Kathy: Well, that’s one of their main jobs and they always say that their roommates say, “You’re watching Star Trek again?” And they say, “Yes, I’m doing my homework.” That’s my contribution. They, in addition to reading the original sources, we have assignments and then we read them together in class, and take the challenge of learning to be an active reader and really invest yourself in taking a text apart and looking at how the elements fit together, figuring out where to raise questions. So that’s a big part of the class. Their written work is that they write a Star Trek story. It’s what I believe in show business would be like a pitch where they don’t have to write out the whole dialogue, although they can, but they basically summarize the plot.

So it needs a plot, it needs characters, it needs a setting. It needs some kind of conflict that the characters have to address and some sort of arc where the conflict peaks and is either reconciled or continued in some way. It has to go somewhere. I’m partly there getting them to see, just to get them involved in the relationship of story to theory, but also I’m driving home Hannah Arendt’s point, she’s one of the philosophers I use, Hannah Arendt argued that all political theory is really based on stories and that when it sounds really abstract and unrelated to any concrete set of events, that’s an artifact of the distancing of themselves that the philosopher did from the story. But that doesn’t erase the story. You hide it, but the stories that give rise to the analytic frames are still resonant in the frame.

So I have them write a story and then I have them analyze their own story using at least three of the ten or so philosophers that they’ve read.

Oren: Okay. Do I get more credit if my work has more philosophers in it? So if I have that story where a ship full of philosophy textbooks is about to crash and those are like the last surviving philosophy textbooks of these authors.

Chris: No, no better yet, we find an alien planet where there’s a bunch of people who are in stasis and it turns out they’re all the philosophers from history, abducted from their place of history, maybe transporter cloned and put in stasis. There’s a Voyager episode where that happens.

Kathy: It was Amelia Earhart’s group.

Oren: Or remember that TOS episode where the premise is that some earth ship left a story or not even a story, a textbook on Chicago gangsters on this planet and they made gangster planet out of it. We can do that except with various philosophy textbooks. Just go to a place that has modeled their society off of Plato’s Republic. It’d be real weird. I’d be way into that.

Kathy: Well, the answer to your question is that I have found that what people really wanna do with this paper is that when they get to the part where they analyze their own story, using the philosophers, they want to write on each of nine or ten philosophers for a paragraph each. And that’s not what I want. I want them to go into depth on three. So you can have as many more as you want, as long as you go into depth on three.

Oren: It’s a real quality over quantity situation here. All right. Okay. So here’s something that I’ve been wondering. So we on Mythcreants say a lot that all storytelling is political. But I’ve noticed that you have some episodes that are clearly–that the episodes that you pick seem to be more related to specific philosophers than a specific message. So I’m curious how you make that choice. For example, on this list, you have The Measure of a Man, which is the episode where they argue about whether or not Data is a human. That is a very clear political message. But you don’t usually have something like Let This Be Your Last Battlefield, which is a story about how racism is bad. Also very clear message. And I’m just curious how you pick them.

Kathy: I picked the ones. It’s not so much the message that I’m after, it’s the strongest lead in to the message. It’s the strongest analysis of a situation. So I really like The Measure of a Man.

Chris: For anybody who’s not familiar, this is a pretty well-known episode of Star Trek, but if you haven’t watched the Next Generation recently, you might not be that familiar with it. In this episode, a scientist who is studying androids wants to take Data apart to learn how he ticks. It’s obviously a very dangerous procedure, so Data refuses. Then the scientist tries to have him ruled as property of the Federation instead of being his own person. They have a whole trial basically to discover whether Data has personhood or not.

Kathy: It’s a great episode in many ways, but one of them is that it’s really perfect for John Stuart Mill. Mill was a late 19th century British philosopher who was kind of at the tail end of the rise of classical liberalism. He moved away from Locke’s idea and other people’s idea that liberalism was really just the political dressing that you put on capitalism. He said, no, liberalism is a way of fostering the most robust development of individuality that is available to each person.

So first of all, it’s to each person. Mill was one of the early feminists. He and his wife, Harriet Taylor Mill, wrote one of the early books on feminism. So it’s an egalitarian message. More importantly, for my purposes, he talks about what goes into individuality and why he thinks it’s so important. Part of it is that he’s giving us a vision of what it means to be a person that is very open-ended. It’s not that the terrain of personhood isn’t already mapped and then he just wants everybody to have access to it. It’s that personhood isn’t a category that you are in or not, it’s a process that you can have access to or not, or more or less access to. And that process is very open-ended. You don’t know where it’s going to go. So it makes so much sense from Mill’s point of view when Picard does his final great courtroom speech and he says, we are here to seek out new life. We’ll there it sits. And he says to everybody, Is he human? Do you know, do you know, do you know? I don’t know. That whole point was that not knowing was an opportunity and newness didn’t have to be like what we already know. That the newness of Data’s individuality was part of its significance.

Oren: All right. So I read some Nietzsche and I’m still not really sure what it means. It’s been awhile. So I noticed that you have an episode on here for Nietzsche, and I want to talk about that. This episode is called Darmok. To summarize for anyone that hasn’t seen it for awhile, the premise is that the Enterprise gets hailed by these people who speak oddly. We can understand their words, but they seem to speak entirely in example and metaphor. They’ll say, “Temba, his arms wide.” It takes the Enterprise crew a while to figure that out.

Chris: My favorite part of this episode is the fact that there’s just no way we can translate this because it’s all memes, basically that’s what it is. It’s all cultural references. You can’t translate a phrase just like you would translate a word, like no you can’t do it. We understand the words individually somehow, but the phrases they’re too much for us.

Oren: We don’t understand this weird memespeak they have going on here. Picard gets transported down to the planet and has to learn to communicate with the captain such and such.

Kathy: It’s perfect for bringing home Hannah Arendt’s point about the resonance of stories in thinking. That the reason that they can’t translate it is they don’t know the story.

Oren: So how does this figure into Nietzsche is the question?

Kathy: Nietzsche argues that the conventional distinction that we, he was talking about modern Euro-American people and he was talking in the late 19th century, that we make between literal and figurative language. You learn it. Everybody learns that in English class at some point. Literal is statements of fact and figurative is figures of speech. His argument is that all language is figures of speech; that it’s metaphor all the way down. That what appears to us literal only appears that way because it’s such a congealed, familiar, widely distributed metaphor that we take it–We know exactly what it means and we’ve smoothed over its rough edges and attributed a definitiveness to it that erases the history of it’s useful vagueness, because metaphors are usefully vague. That’s why they can mean more than one thing.

So to have a group of people, a whole society whose language is obviously all metaphor gives students who are reading Nietzsche a chance to look at their own language and see how the policing of the boundary between literal and figurative is itself a political act. And that that’s a much fuzzier boundary, less distinct and more culturally accreted over time then we tend to think. We think, for example, we’ll science is about facts and facts are the same for everybody. And while there is certainly something to that, the question Nietzsche wants us to ask is how did that come to be a fact. That’s what Nietzsche always ask us to do, to ask the question, how did it come to be that way?

Because if you give language a history, what you see is this sort of murky struggle over meaning that eventually emerges around some quasi consensus. But then it didn’t just happen. It was a political struggle. So I just love that episode and I love having the students think more vividly than they typically do about the figures of speech that inhabit their daily conversations.

Oren: This makes the episode better. I mean, I already like it, but now I feel so smart for having watched this episode. All right. So the last one you’ve got on your list is everyone’s favorite bearded philosopher, none other than old Karl Marx himself. I want to know first because, as you know, Star Trek has, at least as far as mainstream entertainment goes, Star Trek has a somewhat leftist bent. I think the episode that everyone is most familiar with is probably Bar Association from Deep Space Nine, where the premise is that Rom, Quark’s brother, and a bunch of other employees form a union, and Rom actually reads from the Communist Manifesto at one point. So that seems like it would be the obvious one from Marx, but I noticed that’s not the one you use. Instead, which episode is that that you use?

Kathy: I use The Cloud Minders from the Original Series.

Oren: And that for anyone who doesn’t remember, the basic premise is that the Enterprise goes to a planet where everyone, they think, lives in a floating city and it’s all beautiful and utopian, but then they find out that it’s all made possible by the people who live underground and mine constantly to supply the floating city with all of its needs.

Kathy: And Marx, of course, is useful for the portrayal of the class structure. So, the students read the Communist Manifesto and they read a section of Capital and a few other things, and then they watch The Cloud Minders. It’s really clear that there’s a working class on the planet doing the physical labor and their labor is alienated. That is, they don’t control it. They don’t control the product or the process. They don’t control the circumstances. They are exploited. Then you’ve got the ruling class in the clouds who do very little physical labor. They are parasites on the physical labor of others, but they have told stories about their deservedness and their merit. So they think they live in a meritocracy, but of course, this is all a set of self-serving stories to bolster their own superiority. So that’s all good Marx.

I bring in Marx’s more to critique the episode because that’s the other way you can use these philosophers. You don’t just have to look for their ideas in the episode. You can look for a story that if Karl Marx were watching it, this is what he’d say. You can use them to be the foil, to criticize the episode. Marx would look at that–You remember in that episode, Kirk saves the day because he invents this thing that looks kind of like a snorkel mask or maybe a breathing mask of some kind. Because his argument is that the alleged inferiority of the working class is an artifact of their working conditions. That they’re working in these mines, and there’s this poisonous gas that inhibits their mental abilities. If they have breathing machines, so they don’t breathe the gas, their mental abilities won’t be inhibited. And then they will rise.

But where Marx would roll his eyes is the idea that the solution to class inequality is an individual solution. Give every individual person a mask. He would say, okay, that’s a step, but if they’re working in the mines with masks on, they’re still exploited labor.

Oren: What are you going to do now that everyone who has these masks isn’t happy to work in the mines now, right?

Kathy: So the next step, what there ought to have been was a sequel where they see the workers organizing. If you remember in the– and this is consistent with Marx, one of the things Marx argues about capitalism is that often the people who are a little more marginal to the exploited class will emerge as leaders. And that’s what happens in the episode. It’s the young woman who was taken off the poisonous air planet up to be a personal servant to the rich people who becomes a leader. It’s because she’s not exposed to the gas anymore. And the metaphor there is, it’s that she’s no longer so immersed in the degraded conditions of exploited labor that her imagination can roam. She can imagine something else. Marxists typically don’t expect the most exploited people to be the ones to rebel. They expect, Marxists expect rebellion to happen more from people who have a little bit more room in their lives to imagine something else and the possibility of hoping for that thing. So that part is good Marx, but there ought to be a sequel where they form unions and they start organizing and they make demands that are for more than masks.

Oren: Right. It’s like, Hey guys, I like this mask and now my mental facilities are operating at full capacity. I would also air conditioning.

Kathy: Schools, healthcare, vacation time.

Oren: [Sarcastically] Can we talk about the food that we get served down here, ‘cause I’ve seen what y’all eat up there on your cloud city and I want some.

Kathy: Exactly. Where’s the militants?

Oren: All right. Well, with that episode we are out of time for this episode. So now I’m going to thank our two most generous patrons. One of them is right here, so that’s easy. Thank you, Kathy.

Kathy: You’re welcome.

Oren: We could not do that without you. And our second patron that I want to thank today is Ayman Jaber, and you can look at his stuff on his blog, thefantasywarrior.com. And if anything we said piqued your interest, you can leave a comment on the website at Mythcreants.com. Otherwise I will talk to you next week.

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Comments

  1. Bryony

    The Irish border is still a very sensitive issue. Tiny point of the podcast, not doubting you know that, but living with the Brexit vote is scary.

  2. rodneyzalenka

    “The Measure of a Man” doesn’t try to prove Data is human, but sentient. Hinging on whether he has a soul, OTOH, is absurd, since Man can’t prove _we_ have one. (The Bible is not evidence.)

    • rodneyzalenka

      I’m a bit troubled “Cloud Minders” is used as a commentary on class structure & not the more obvious one David Gerrold pointed out: slavery. (Of course, that could apply to “The 37s” & “North Star”, too… Which does raise an obvious question: why do aliens capable of interstellar travel need slaves, when machines can do any manual labor task better, faster, cheaper, & with fewer headaches?)

      I’m also curious how “The 37s” plays in anywhere…

  3. Oren Ashkenazi

    Three transcripts in one day, very nice.

    • A Perspiring Writer

      Something I just noticed: on the list of transcribed podcasts in the sidebar, this podcast is listed below episode 200.

      Also, episode 108 hasn’t been added to that list yet, even though there’s a transcription.

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