Download Episode 201 Subscription Feed
Have a question or comment for our hosts? Send it to [email protected]
Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.
Rejoined (Called Reunion in the podcast by mistake)
Generously transcribed by Ursula. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock and Chris Winkle.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Chris and with me is Oren and special guest, returning for the third time, Kathy Ferguson, professor of political theory in Star Trek. Thank you for joining us Kathy.
Kathy Ferguson: Thanks for inviting me.
Oren: And if you look on the nameplate, it’s also professor of political science and women’s studies, but we think the Star Trek part is what’s most important.
Chris: So this time we’re going to talk about political movements, which is a really exciting thing because in spec-fic, oftentimes stories are happening at the epic level, which is really big changes to the world, and a lot of times that means making some kind of change to the government. We do actually get quite a few questions from people about, you know, how does this happen, and to a certain extent there has to be some kind of reconciling between how it works in real life and what a story needs. Because stories need a kind of single protagonist that by themselves has a significant influence on the outcome of the events. At the same time, if you focus too much on that, there can be a tendency to, sort of, erase all the other people that must have put in their time, and risked themselves, into making change. And so looking at how you can kind of combine those factors and how these things actually happen is really useful.
Oren: Right. I mean, political movements are just one of the many places in fiction where there is a pull between fiction’s need to focus on a small number of people that the audience can remember and identify with, versus the reality that these things are almost never the work of one person, right? There are always lots of people, many of whose names you will never know, even if you research it. So there’s a few things that I thought would be useful to look at like, what it is that political movements need? And I think the first thing is: They need some kind of goal. And there might be more than one, there might even be conflicting goals within the same movement. But, you know, political movements don’t come out of nowhere. They’re responding to something someone wants, whether that be a noble goal like achieving civil rights, or an evil goal like, you know, suppressing all of the muggle-borns, that sort of thing.
Chris: Yeah. I remember one big criticism of – what was it called – we are the 99% – that sort of brief protest movement that happened a number of years ago…
Oren: Yeah, I think that that phrasing came out of the Occupy Wall Street movement –
Chris: – Occupy Wall Street movement, that’s what I mean – they didn’t really have a concise goal. Of course, they fizzled out, they came and they kind of said their piece, and we don’t really see Occupy Wall Street so much, although probably a lot of the same people are involved in other other things now.
Oren: Well, I would argue that they did have a goal. It just wasn’t a well-defined policy goal. Like, their goal was greater equity in income, and reduction of income inequality. That’s a very vague goal. It wasn’t like, “We want this legislation passed to achieve this.” But not all movements are going to have that, right?
Kathy: And what we tend to see historically is: the more anarchistic a movement is, the more its goal is to show by what it does the possibility of living a different way. Occupy didn’t have a set of demands that it presented to the authorities, and reporters and governments find that frustrating, but what Occupy did was, they lived in a park. And they created their own system of power, and they created their healthcare, and they had a library and they fed people and they governed themselves. And they became a model. And the anarchism – it’s called prefiguring: you prefigure the future that you want by showing that it is possible to live that way in the present.
Chris: Yeah, I remember hearing about Occupy Wall Street having their own kind of system for determining who speaks when they gather, and it was a very non-hierarchical way of letting people speak. And because every voice was heard it was, I think, harder to come up with demands, but they did show what they wanted.
Oren: Right, and I find one of the most fascinating things about political movements is how they organize both in macro terms, but also in micro terms. Because if you have a big enough protest, that protest has to be run. If you’re going to have thousands of people in the same place for several days, there are logistical concerns you need to work out, and that’s something that I think is just interesting and I feel like there’s potential for storytelling there. Not all stories want to go that far into the weeds, but I just find that fascinating. One thing that I know that fiction often gets wrong – we talked about this a little bit a couple episodes ago with the political theory – is that fiction tends to assume that there is a neat resolution. There’s one thing you can do and now you’ve sort of solved the problem. We talked about that with The Cloud Minders, which is an episode of The Original Series where a bunch of, you know, super rich aristocrats live in a floating city while a bunch of low class laborers work in mines all day to supply them with everything they need. At the end of the episode Kirk gives the miners a breathing mask so that the poison gases won’t affect them and it’s like – okay, problem solved?
Kathy: Yeah … rebellions need to be part of a longer timeline or they don’t they don’t make any sense, and you also can’t really see what they accomplished because often is it isn’t visible in the short term, or isn’t as visible. They might be small victories along the way, but often what each manifestation of a social movement does is, it contributes to the next social movement.
Oren: And I think for storytelling purposes you do want to feel by the end of the story like something was accomplished. For example, if you’re doing some kind of equality movement where a disenfranchised group of people is trying to attain better rights – unless your story takes place over a really long period of time, it is very unlikely that it would be realistic for that group to achieve equal treatment, let alone justice for the way they’ve been treated in the past in just one story. But you can still have like a satisfying climax by, for example, letting the story revolve around passing some kind of legislation that makes it illegal to discriminate against these people. Now that doesn’t fix everything. We have seen that in our society. The Equal Rights Act did not end racism, but it was a major victory for the civil rights movement. And you can build your story around that.
Chris: And if you’re not doing something that is epic-level, you can also do a little microcosm where, you know, a certain group is being excluded from some facility. The struggle of the story is getting them to not be excluded anymore. And that’s a small victory and it’s part of a larger movement and that movement is not done. It’s also easier for individual actors to make a big difference when you have a microcosm.
Oren: Yeah. I felt like Deep Space Nine’s Bar Association was a really good episode for that because we haven’t undone the the ill treatment of Ferengi workers. What we have instead is, Quark’s workers will get a better deal and Rom is leaving Quark so that he can focus on what he really likes, which is being a mechanic. That gives you a good feeling, like something was accomplished, but it doesn’t feel unrealistic or out of nowhere, the way I would argue the end of Deep Space Nine does, where Ishka off-screen apparently solved Ferengi problems. They’re all good now, the Ferengi are a socialist utopia and it’s like, how did – what? How did that happen, seems a little odd.
Chris: So one place that seems like a good place to have an intersection of story with a larger movement is the idea of inspiring a crowd. Now, is this a real thing, are political movements energized, inspired or started by one iconic thing happening, or is that just –
Kathy: It’s unlikely that they’re started by that, but they may be sparked. You have to have both a longer time frame where things evolve and periodic catalysts that are often a circumstance that invites a certain kind of leap forward. I really like the Deep Space Nine double episode Past Tense for this; this is one of the best Star Trek portrayals of a social movement, it seems to me.
Oren: Just to summarize what happens real quick, because not everyone’s seen these episodes: Past Tense is an episode where they go back in time to the mid 21st century, so for us that’s about 20 years in the future now. And in this time period there’s so many problems with late stage capitalism, and so many people are out of work that they started putting out of work people in sectioned-off parts of the city. And if that sounds like unrealistic and bizarre to you, at the time this episode was made the city of Los Angeles, I think it was, was considering something like that, which they voted down. They decided not to. But, you know, people watch that episode and say this could never happen, it’s impossible – and it’s just not. It definitely could happen. But anyway, that’s the basic premise, to go back, and they have to deal with this problem.
Kathy: And certainly it has happened in other societies. Bantustans in South Africa under apartheid, where it was actually separate areas, heavily policed. So; the episodes show Sisko coming back and essentially taking the place of Gabriel Bell, who, as history originally unfolded, would have been one of the leaders, but was killed helping Sisko and the doctor and so they had to intervene and try to put history to rights. So here are some of the elements that I think it had that make it a really good portrayal of a social movement: First of all, it showed why people’s expectations would be higher for themselves than their circumstances allowed. There’s a theory in the social sciences called the theory of rising expectations, which is that people tend not to rebel if they don’t expect things to be better. So just being oppressed isn’t enough to make people rebel. They have to have some belief that things could be better. Part of having that belief is having had some experience of better conditions. In Past Tense the people who are in the sanctuary had not that long ago not been in there. It was in their own living memory that they had lived otherwise, so they could reasonably expect to. And they knew the leaders – and there were multiple leaders. That’s another thing I liked about the movement, Gabriel Bell wasn’t the single leader. He worked with a variety of other people. And there were factions between them, which is another thing that typically happens. And they debated the use of violence which also typically happens, and they had goals: In this case their goal was to eliminate the sanctuary and restore the federal legislation, creating jobs. And a last thing was that rebellions need some narrative of justice that they can share with the larger public so that they are not isolated explosions, but they’re more participants in a set of cultural practices that has some grounding in the society. Otherwise, they just look alien and weird. And it’s not that everybody will support them, but they will be recognizable, it’s possible to understand what they are about and so they will get some support. In Past Tense they were able to get access to the internet and use the internet to broadcast their message, and to do it in a persuasive way. Being publicly persuasive is an important part, but it has to be in combination with the other parts.
Oren: My favorite part of Past Tense is when they get a bunch of government attention by taking these hostages and then they’re like, “Okay, well, we need to talk to the government. So we need to hide all of our radicals and bring out this comfortable, safe, centrist dude, who will negotiate because he’s someone that they’re more comfortable with talking to, as opposed to our brick-throwing, mask-wearing guys.”
Chris: So in this case, you have assumed that when there’s unfair conditions, there will be some kind of movement, or some people thinking about it?
Kathy: The very most oppressed people aren’t likely to rebel. Marx called them the Lumpenproletariat. They’re the people who don’t have enough of a toehold in the system to have any sort of stable place. No matter how oppressed they are – Marx did not think that they would. Now other people said, yeah, they can rebel, but it’s harder. They don’t have the ground and it helps to have some marginal amount of resources, but also to expect to have more. It’s that combination of having a little, but having an expectation for more, that is perceived as a legitimate expectation. So it’s the gap between what you’ve got and what you ought to have that really motivates rebellion.
Chris: So the person most likely to start a movement is somebody who was in that condition and then maybe gets free of those conditionsand wants everybody else to be free too.
Kathy: That’s classic in political theory. That’s the metaphor or the allegory of the cave in Plato’s Republic. That philosopher in the cave – well, he’s not a philosopher yet – but person in the cave who breaks free and goes out and realizes that everybody’s stuck in a cave and what they take for reality is only shadows. And it’s his obligation to go back.
Chris: But just seeing rich or powerful people taking advantage is not enough because the assumption is, “Okay, the king is super-rich and we’re struggling, but there’s no way it’s ever going to get better for us. That’s just how it is.”
Kathy: Yeah, that’s just how it is. There has to be some way to imagine things could be other than they are.
Oren: Right, although in some cases at least – and you could debate how much this is a movement versus just a movement of survival – but one of the things that is most likely to start revolutions are food shortages. A lot of governments have been toppled by bread riots because there just wasn’t enough food to go around for whatever reason. People, when they decide whether or not they’re going to participate in a political movement or rebel against the government, they have to make a lot of cost-benefit analysis. If for whatever reason you feel like, “Well, my situation now kind of sucks, but I’m alive and I have a farmhouse or whatever and if I rebel I could lose that”, then you might not. But it’s hard to get more desperate than when there’s not enough to eat. And at that point people who might otherwise have been willing to accept the status quo, or at least not to put their lives on the line to fight it, are suddenly like, “Nope, we are going out there, because we literally will starve to death if we don’t.”
Kathy: Right. Historically the bread riots often are the time in a in a period of unrest where, if they weren’t active before, women become active. Women go out and confront the authorities with empty shopping bags. That was one of the things that happened in the 1905 revolution in Russia, and the czar’s troops killed them. But then in 1917, the revolution erupted again and people who hadn’t been killed remembered 1905, and so memory was built of that resistance, and the food riots happened again. And what you might call ordinary men and women, who would normally be in a more of a make do mode, when there’s no making do anymore, and they often have a responsibility for somebody else, that, you can’t keep the lid on very well.
Oren: One of my favorite stories that portrays this sort of thing is the Discworld novel Night Watch – because you know, we haven’t gotten through a podcast and never mentioned Discworld. So in Night Watch we see the circumstances that lead to a possible uprising, in this situation where the city is being led by a very unstable ruler who’s all about extracting as much wealth as he can from the people so that he can have the best parties. And there’s certainly some European analogs for this. But people are still more or less trying to make do as best they can. There’s an inciting event which creates a chain reaction, because they were all primed for this anyway, which leads to this chaotic rebellion. It’s clearly modeled on various uprisings in France where they make a bunch of barricades … And in the end it is crushed, as rebellions often are, but it plants the seeds for future change. Which is again a very common thing with rebellions, it very often takes more than one rebellion to topple the government – because governments are in charge because they have the power, and so taking that out is never easy.
Chris: So what does it take for a rebellion to succeed?
Kathy: Well, a couple of key things. Historically, rebellions are very unlikely to succeed. If they’re full on revolutions, attempts to overthrow a government, they’re very unlikely to succeed if the army and the police support the existing government, because they army and the police always have more guns. So when you look at Russia in 1917 as opposed to 1905: In 1917, many of the czar’s troops were not willing to fire on the protesters. So you either need the Army on your side, or you need them kind of neutral. But if they’re still on the government side, you’re going to lose. So that’s one element. Another, sort of in terms of the psychology of the rebellion, a philosopher named C. Wright Mills said this really well: People have to be able to take their personal problems and redefine them as public issues. And if you can get a whole bunch of people to do that, then you’ve got sort of an emergent rebellion happening, because once it’s a public issue then it’s a shared problem and there is no private solution to it. There has to be a shared solution to it. One of the examples where Star Trek could have done that and didn’t was what is otherwise I think a wonderful episode, Rejoined, in DS9.
Oren: And what happens in Rejoined is, Dax, the Trill who has multiple lifetimes, meets up with another with another Trill with whose symbiont they were in a romance in a previous life. I think they were married. And now they’re both women. The best part about the episode is that it doesn’t care that they’re both women.
Chris: There’s no commentary on it.
Oren: Nothing. There is a taboo about their relationship, but it has nothing to do with their gender, which is just super nice. So it’s a great episode. But Kathy’s about to explain where it could have gone farther.
Kathy: Well, what you just said reminds me of why I think it’s such a great episode. It does what political theory needs to do in order to really break through the familiar, and that is: It takes something that we think we are familiar with and it makes it strange. So from our point of view as contemporary viewers, it was a relationship between two women but it makes it strange because the being two women was irrelevant. Nobody cared that they were two women; what people cared about was that they had been associated in a past life. So the taboo was strong, but it was not the one we expected. And it made you very aware of what you thought you were looking at compared to what the other characters thought they were looking at. That’s a perfect political move. That’s actually very good for illustrating Foucault’s arguments about making the familiar strange.
Oren: It also does a really good job of walking that balance between showing us why people believe the taboo without actually justifying it. Because that’s a thing that a lot of fiction has trouble with, whereas in real life, people believe taboos for reasons. They don’t just come from nowhere, but they’re usually wrong. And balancing that in a lot of fiction it’s like, “Why would anyone believe this? Why would anyone do these bad things? There doesn’t seem to be reason for it” versus “Well, you’ve convinced me that this thing is actually bad and they shouldn’t do it.”
Kathy: And in Rejoined, I’m left as a viewer siding with Kira and others on the station who said, why can’t they reassociate? And the Trill government is then put on the defensive to show why it would be a very bad thing for Trill society and they don’t do a very good job of that. That’s where the political vacuum got created in the episode. If they had only had a part two, where they followed up to show what happens in a society when you forbid behavior that isn’t actually very harmful, but you police it. You forbid behavior that many people want to do and it really isn’t that particularly harmful, but it’s strictly forbidden. Well, you create a political movement. And so why didn’t they show all the joined Trill who wanted to reassociate, which I would think would be a lot of them because they would have past parents, past children, past lovers? They would want to have a connection with them. Why didn’t they all get together? Why didn’t they make their personal problem into a public issue? Why isn’t there a colony somewhere of rejoined Trill who rebelled against Trill society?
Oren: Well, apparently they solved all that off screen because Ezri Dax has no issues getting back together with Worf in a couple of episodes. That’s definitely because all those problems were resolved back on the Trill homeworld and not because of poor continuity.
Chris: It also reminds me of the book The Feminine Mystique, which I think is famous for taking the dissatisfaction of being a housewife and turning it into a political issue of, why can’t women go out and you know, take jobs? When every woman was separate and by herself and thinking, “What’s wrong with me that I am not super contented washing floors?” – you know that had to turn into a political issue.
Oren: Another thing that I thought was underused with the Trill was their idea that actually almost everyone is compatible with a symbiont, and they have to lie and say that almost no one is so that they there are enough symbionts to go around. It seems to me that just naturally would have led into an extremely like tiered society with the joined Trills being treated like royalty and everyone else being like the common folk, where it’s like, “Oh man, there’s a joined symbiont in danger. Yeah, we’re going to send in 500 people to save them. I mean, we’ll probably lose half the rescue workers, but this person has like 12 lifetimes of experience. We can’t let them die. They have all of our best poet’s memories inside them.” Right? I just feel like there was some potential there. But you know, unfortunately Deep Space Nine was not The Trill Show.
Chris: It might be worth also talking a little bit about the kind of reverse: stories where democracy falls to fascism. You know, it’s not all not all stories of good things happening. One thing that I think about is that the Star Wars prequels were not good stories. But I feel like the idea there was okay – it’s just that the storytelling was so poor that it made it look really bad – when the chancellor created an outside threat to get the Republic to vote away democracy.
Oren: Right, and those things – where the chief executive manufactures a crisis, or takes advantage of a small crisis and makes it a big one to seize permanent power – happen constantly. It’s a very real problem. In fiction, in general you want to go with trying to make whoever the chief executive is not obviously evil. Because in real life, the reasons why these things happen are often very complicated. For example, just to pick a random one, the leader of Turkey is currently in the process of doing that, and has largely completed it, where he has essentially convinced the country to vote away their democracy. And from an outsider’s perspective, it looks incredibly obvious what he’s doing. But if you were doing it in fiction, you would probably want to make him more charismatic and seem like he actually had good things in mind, so it could be maybe a little bit more of a surprise. Unless you want to deal with the fact that he actually has a lot of support, and that’s the reason why he can get away with this stuff.
Chris: Or just honestly, making the threat more compelling, because a lot of times in the real world the threat is just xenophobia, right? It’s like, “Oh, there’s migrants and refugees coming into our country.” That is the threat that is driving some of these societies to vote away their democracy. Whereas I think you would do a more compelling job if you were doing speculative fiction by having a threat that isn’t just racism. You know, a threat to drive them to say, “This does feel truly threatening to us, we really do need some strong executive who can make quick wartime decisions”, or etc.
Oren: Or you could go the old Roman route and have dictators that actually gave up their power at the end of being dictators. Really weird concept but it actually happened. When one of them finally didn’t, everyone was like, “What, you’re not giving up your dictator power? But like literally every other dictator before you has done that!”
Chris: Yeah, that’s what the issue is in the senate with the filibuster, right? Social convention when it comes to maintaining democracy only lasts so long, you know and sooner or later somebody …
Oren: Right. And we’ve been talking a lot about progressive social movements, but you can do a regressive social movement as the bad guys. Very often they will use a lot of the same language, but the people they are appealing to are the people who are already privileged, and are either afraid of losing their privilege or want more. Harry Potter is always the one we go back to for that, because you’ve got the super privileged pureblood wizards, and those are the ones Voldemort appeals to, being like, “The muggle-borns are going to take your position in wizarding society, they are going to steal your magic.” That is incredibly realistic. And you have the wizard government, who is in theory there to try to stop Voldemort, but it’s really more concerned about what the leftists – and by the leftists I mean the Order of the Phoenix – are doing and wants to deny that the extreme right even exists and isn’t really a problem and won’t confront it until it’s too late.
Chris: This kind of reminds me of how before the Civil War, even though a lot of people did not believe that slavery was a good thing, there was a problem with the government not being willing to have a war over it. It’s the temptation to just keep the peace. And you know a lot of people think that Lincoln was not actually going to ban slavery. The reason why the southern states seceded is they thought he was. They forced the issue because they were afraid that he was going to ban slavery, but he might have actually allowed it to continue to keep the peace with them. There were ridiculous compromises where okay, we’ll add a slave state and then we’ll add a non slave state and then we’ll add a slave state to the union, then a non slave state, just to make sure that their power was perfectly balanced, so that we could perfectly compromise these two sides. So that the government didn’t have to go to the effort of actually freeing all the people in slavery.
Oren: Yeah, people will go to a lot of effort to maintain the status quo.
Chris: Right. And in Harry Potter, in the fifth book, Fudge doesn’t want to acknowledge that Voldemort might be back, because he just wants things to stay the same and he will allow terrible things to happen so that he doesn’t have to deal with it, unfortunately.
Kathy: I also think, going along with it, it’s often that elites give themselves a lot more credit for being able to control somebody who comes at them from the right. You know, the German governing elite after World War One thought they could control Hitler.
Oren: Certainly. What’s the name? Not Bismarck. What was the guy – Hindenburg? Hindenburg certainly thought he could.
Kathy: Yeah, and by the time they realized that they couldn’t do it, it was too late.
Oren: All right, well, to leave you on a slightly more positive note than that, let’s try to come up with some other positive examples. I actually quite enjoyed the the maquis with Deep Space Nine. Although, even more so, I really like the civilian revolution against the Cardassians in Deep Space Nine. Because it’s built up very slowly over multiple episodes. You see signs of people who are working against the government everywhere, from a school teacher who is considered a radical because she teaches that maybe a military government isn’t the best way to do things, all the way up to the radical elite, as they might be called, like the guy who thinks Kira is his daughter. It builds up really nicely, and one of my main disappointments with Deep Space Nine is that that revolution happens off screen, and is then crushed by the Dominion off-screen, and I really wanted to see more of it. It’s explored actually quite interestingly in some of the Star Trek novels, which I don’t usually recommend but a few of them were quite good for that.
Kathy: One of the things they would have had to face if they had done it on screen is the tension that would have emerged in a revolutionary movement of Cardassians whose motto was, free Cardassia. What kind of Cardassia did they want? Because if they just want the old system, but they want to be in charge, then that’s going to be contrary to the empowerment of the of the revolutionaries that happens during the process of rebelling. People rebel and it tends to empower them – it could kill them too, but it can also make them feel like they are entitled to have a political voice. So if your rebellion is in the name of authoritarianism, what are you gonna do with all these empowered people? It would have been a great story.
Oren: I really would have enjoyed it. I mean, I still like Deep Space Nine, but I think there was some missed potential there.
Chris: Yeah, this does come up in kind of interesting ways in the end of the Hunger Games series. In The Hunger Games, there’s these districts, it turns out to be 13 of them, and the first district is controlling all the other districts in kind of an imperial way. And there’s another district, outside of their control, that is also powerful. And so in order to free themselves, they ally with the district out of that control, but then that district looks like it’s just going to replace the first one. They have this issue of, are we just being the same people but reversed, are we now going make children from the first district compete in these Hunger Games, or are we actually going to manage to do something different.
Oren: Are we actually going to improve the situation. Yeah. That’s one of the big questions that I really like doing – I do this more in role-playing games than in written stories – but I’m a big fan of going, “Okay, you guys won the revolution – now what? You overthrew the government, now you have to run the country and see if you can do any better.” But are we are definitely out of time. So before we end I want to thank our most generous patrons for the third time in a row. One of them is here: Kathy Ferguson, thank you very much.
Kathy: You’re welcome.
Oren: And our other Patron that I must thank is Ayman Jaber, he’s been very generous to us, and he writes urban fantasy and knows all there is to know about Marvel. For those of you listening, if anything we said piqued your interest you can leave a comment on the website at Mythcreants.com. Otherwise, we will talk to you next week.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?