The Politics of Star Trek
Timothy Sandefur joins us for a discussion on political philosophy in the Star Trek science fiction franchise.
The celebrated science fiction franchise Star Trek is well known for incorporating broad discussions of philosophy and ethical conundrums into its episodes and movies. Timothy Sandefur joins us to talk about how the series deals with some of these big questions.
How does Star Trek: The Original Series reflect the way people thought about politics, justice, and human rights in the wake of the second World War? How does the series change over time? The Prime Directive: is it moral? What was its purpose in the original series if Captain Kirk violated it half the time?
Show Notes and Further Reading
Sandefur’s original article “The Politics of Star Trek” appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of the Claremont Review of Books.
Star Trek: The Original Series episodes referenced in this podcast episode:
Aaron Ross Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts from Libertarianism.org and the Cato Institute. I’m Aaron Powell.
Trevor Burrus: And I’m Trevor Burrus.
Aaron Ross Powell: And joining us today is Tim Sandefur. He’s a principal attorney at the Pacific Legal Foundation and heads the foundation’s Economic Liberty Project, which protects entrepreneurs against intrusive government regulation. He’s also a Cato Institute adjunct scholar. Today though, we’re going to be talking about the politics of America’s second best sci-fi media franchise namely Star Trek.
In a recent article on this topic that you wrote in the Claremont Review of Books, you make the provocative claim that “The development of Star Trek’s moral and political tone over 50 years traces the strange decline of American liberalism since the Kennedy era.”
So I guess let’s begin at the beginning. The original Star Trek was a product of Cold War America. So did that or how did that influence its political outlook?
Tim Sandefur: Well, I think it wasn’t just a product of Cold War America. It was also the product of World War Two. World War Two obviously was the worst catastrophe that the human race has ever experienced and it dramatically affected the way that people thought about politics and about justice and those thoughts I think are found throughout Star Trek in The Original Series, which of course began – in 1966, the brainchild of a World War Two veteran Gene Roddenberry and many of the stars themselves and the writers were veterans. Jimmy Doohan who played Scotty was himself a decorated war veteran.
So what you see throughout the show are discussions of ideas about human liberty, about justice and freedom that are rooted in what I think that the liberal West thought was the post-war consensus about justice, about human rights, about the role of the state, about technological progress and reason.
I think what you see during the three years of the show, the rise of the new left, that rejected that consensus in large part and you can see that permeating some of the episodes. The example I give in my article is in the episode The Way to Eden, which is an episode in which the Starship Enterprise encounters a group of space age hippies who are looking for some paradise planet of their own without any technology and it’s obviously the satire of the hippie phenomenon that was going on at the time the episode aired.
You can see the writers and the producers of the show who are from that World War Two generation really struggling with how to deal with this new wave of thought that rejected the idea of technological progress, universal human rights, of basic liberalism that the older generation thought was well-founded at the end of World War Two. I mean here’s the end of this war. They thought that the idea that all human beings have rights, that no government may justly interfere with it. The United Nations was going to lead a – to a worldwide liberalism rooted in technology and humanist values and here comes this wave of opponents and they really didn’t know how to deal with that, I think.
Trevor Burrus: So is it accurate to say – sort of to boil it down to say that absolutism was something that kind of animated earlier Star Trek, that there were principles about freedom and rights, that after confronting the Nazis who had been very bad, that these were principles that were not relative and so they were fighting for something in a way that was somewhat influenced by World War Two?
Tim Sandefur: Yes, that’s right. I think a good example of that is one of the better episodes The Conscience of the King, which is an episode that’s sort of a play on Nazi hunting because throughout the 1960s, you saw these prosecutions of former Nazi war criminals, most notably Adolf Eichmann, but actually quite a few. Some of them were going on while this series was on the air and this is an episode in which Captain Kirk encounters a character who’s basically like a Nazi war criminal and he’s asked to track him down and punish him for his crimes.
The whole point of this episode if who are you to judge and a character actually asked Captain Kirk, “Who are you to judge?” and Kirk responds, “Who do I have to be?” And that’s the theme of the episode is that everybody is subject to judgment. Nobody can escape by saying, “Well, it’s just my culture. It’s my society. It’s a different time. It’s a different place. You can’t judge me.”
I think the post World War Two generation that had seen the Nuremberg Trials and so forth were very committed to the idea that all human beings have inalienable rights and that no power including religion has any legitimate basis for trampling those rights or ignoring them. That idea permeates the original Star Trek.
Aaron Ross Powell: Was that idea at the time unique to Star Trek and science fiction or was this something that was just generally going on in the genre?
Tim Sandefur: I think it was going on throughout television at the time. You see it in more sometimes cloying ways and some of the more tedious television shows of the time.
Trevor Burrus: Like Leave it to Beaver.
Tim Sandefur: Yeah, that’s what I’m thinking is – shows like Mayberry and so forth, they all have these very obvious morals but the morals to them were things like everybody deserves a fair trial when they’re accused of wrongdoing and that sort of – the very ordinary by our standards principles but nevertheless they were very committed to them. Star Trek tried to take those principles and twist them a little bit and Gene Roddenberry actually consciously modeled Star Trek on Gulliver’s Travels which obviously was written as a way of talking about contemporary society and satirizing it or indicting it in different guise. Star Trek did the same thing.
Trevor Burrus: And the hopefulness too, that’s another big element that Star Trek sort of – that permeates Star Trek I would say even currently that there’s a lot of hope in the future and possibly in that post-war period the hope – as opposed to any sort of dystopian type of future, like the idea that a bunch of people working together can fight for what’s right and win.
Tim Sandefur: That’s right. It was very much an optimistic sort of welfare status, humanist broadly speaking liberal perspective. My favorite Gene Roddenberry quote, I remember he said in an interview ones, “Aliens in space didn’t build the pyramids. Human beings built the pyramids because they’re smart and they work hard.” That was his perspective. He thought human beings really could get past all the bad things in the world and could accomplish great things.
Now sometimes, I think that has sabotaged some of the dramatic possibilities of Star Trek. The writers of The Next Generation often found themselves having a lot of difficulty coming up with good scripts because Roddenberry kept vetoing ideas saying, “No, no, human beings won’t have conflicts among themselves in the future utopia,” and that made it very hard to come up with good stories for television.
So Roddenberry at times went too far in his – yeah, he often went too far in his utopianism. But when it was sprinkled in there, it gave it a real positive cast that I think contemporary Star Trek and a lot of contemporary science fiction is lacking.
Trevor Burrus: Now there’s an episode that you talk about in your essay called The Apple, which you think is the quintessential episode of the original Star Trek. Can you tell us about that episode and why it is quintessential?
Tim Sandefur: Yes. So the episode concerns – the Enterprise crew encounters a planet in which the people on this planet live in a sort of tropical paradise but they’re also deeply ignorant. They’ve never heard of farming. They don’t know anything about technology. They don’t even have sex because it turns out that the planet is ruled over by this god called Vaal who controls everything that the people do. There was a sort of totalitarian mind control system and he requires every day to be fed and the people of Vaal have to gather food and bring it to him. He controls all of their thoughts and has reduced them to a complete lack of individual initiative.
The idea is, well, they don’t have any kind of conflicts among themselves. Everybody gets the law and everybody is placid and peaceful. So isn’t this a good thing? Captain Kirk says, “No, this is a bad thing because it deprives the people of the capacity for thinking for themselves, living on their own, for their own ideals,” and yeah, the idea of freedom leads to conflict. You aren’t going to have that placid quality of peace as a result of freedom. You are going to have bustling conflict, disagreement, dynamism, creative destruction. That’s going to be part – that’s going to be what freedom is like, but that is what every sentient being in the universe deserves is the right to try their hands at freedom.
So he orders the Enterprise to destroy Vaal, which is in fact a sort of super computer that has been controlling all these people, and he leads them to their freedom. Now, this episode seems to me the quintessential episode of Star Trek because the whole point of this series was about freedom and individualism and liberating ourselves from the dead traditions of the past and recognizing that that means we will have – there’s a downside to that. We will have conflict. We will have trouble and strife amongst us. But the rewards of that freedom are worth the struggle.
I think a lot of people criticize that episode because Kirk blatantly violates the so-called prime directive which is the rule that in Star Trek, the Enterprise crew, is never supposed to interfere with the native culture.
But in fact, the point of Star Trek is that the prime directive is wrong and that a native culture that oppresses its own people has no rights to do so and that liberty takes precedence over these antique traditions.
Aaron Ross Powell: So does that set up then – if the prime directive is, call it, the core values of Starfleet …
Trevor Burrus: The prime …
Aaron Ross Powell: Yes, and it’s wrong. Does that make Starfleet the kind of organization that Star Trek the show is antagonistic towards?
Tim Sandefur: Well, no. I think what happened is if you watch The Original Series episodes in order, you see that the prime directive was kind of introduced subtly in a couple of episodes. It was introduced as a foil. It’s introduced for the dramatic purpose of breaking it in these original screenplays.
The idea being that to sort of satirize or criticize the idea of cultural relativism or the hands-off who-are-we-to-judge kind of attitude, that is introduced purely for the purpose of criticizing it in the original Star Trek.
Now it grows in importance as the franchise continued its life in the 80s and the 90s. It grew in importance in the episodes until a point where in The Next Generation it becomes this mindless dogma where we’re never supposed to interfere. In a section of my essay that was actualy cut out before it was published, I criticized an episode of The Next Generation in which Captain Picard encounters a race of aliens who have been kept in a drug-induced stupor by another group of aliens. They’ve actually kept this one race addicted to a drug in order to keep them as servants, as slaves.
When the doctor on the ship, Dr. Crusher, when she discovers this, she’s horrified by it and says, “Well, surely you’re going to do something to put a stop to it.” In one of the low points of the entire show, Captain Picard refuses to do so. He says, “No. Who are we to judge? It’s the prime directive. I had no right to interfere.”
He gives this ridiculous speech in which he says that in the past, anytime that we’ve interfered with an alien culture, it has ended up badly for everybody. Well, that’s completely false. In fact, it’s contrary to the entire basis of The Original Series, which was rooted again in this United Nations effort to bring freedom and modernism and liberalism and technology advancement to the people of the world.
Now here’s Picard saying, “No, no. If one man wishes to enslave another, no third man should object,” to quote Lincoln on – that’s Picard’s attitude, hands-off.
Aaron Ross Powell: How does that play in – I’m curious in the – the original Star Trek is exceedingly episodic. There are not a lot of these – so one of the things that tends to turn me off a bit about Star Trek in terms of the world-building aspect of it is that it always – it doesn’t feel to me like a universe that people live in and has a continuity. It’s instead – you know, each episode is we’re going to visit this thought experiment and then the next week, we’re going to go to another thought experiment. So do we have evidence that like the interventions that say Kirk did turned out well or does he intervene, smashed the computer and then we never go back to that planet again?
Tim Sandefur: Well, you’re right. It’s that way and remember, Star Trek was the first science fiction series that was not an anthology. That’s one of the reasons why it was such a world-changing thing when it comes to television drama. It was the first time that a science fiction show had ever been put on television that was not an – every episode is different. But it did still have – because it was the first one, it still had a lot of the qualities of like The Twilight Zone or X Minus One about it because that was what the writers were familiar with from their past.
So each episode does have this sort of standalone quality. But again, I think that the show was conscious in trying to be like Gulliver’s Travels or something where every episode was making a statement more than trying to create an alternative world. So they weren’t really particularly concerned with that.
Now, as the show went on, of course it developed certain back story and certain story arcs. But that’s true even of a show like I Love Lucy has story arcs to it. We don’t remember that now, but it does.
So they introduced Spock’s father and we get this idea that he’s half-human, half-Vulcan, all that and yeah, that stuff is there. But really the show is – the writers were more interested in every episode standing on its own. It’s Next Generation and that series in – the shows that followed it, that tried to get into universe building.
I would actually argue that that was one of the things that ruined Star Trek was that it lost that surrealist quality that was key to the original show’s longevity. The reason that people still watch and enjoy The Original Series and don’t so much see The Next Generation as iconic in the same way, that it’s familiar to them because they grew up with it, but it doesn’t stand out 50 years from now the way the original Star Trek does, the reason why is because Next Generation was more interested in its own authenticity whereas The Original Series was more interested in discussing important timeless questions of philosophy.
Trevor Burrus: Now, I’m not sure I will grant you your premise that – as I had mentioned before we started recording that your preference for the old Star Trek is merely a product of when you grew up with that and I grow more with Next Generation and I think that that’s pretty timeless too. But I want to get back to as opposed to like the world building aspects and that kind of thing, that the problem with Next Generation is the relativism of the prime directive, the kind of relativism that that engenders. Is that basically what the prime directive is? It’s a sort of a statement of relativism?
Tim Sandefur: Definitely. I think what happened was by the time the 80s and 90s came along, we had gone through the Vietnam experience and Vietnam in many ways was the direct opposite of World War Two. In World War Two, we went out and literally saved the world and in Vietnam, there was a lot more self-criticism going along and it ended up with ignominy instead of America setting the terms for a new wave of worldwide liberal freedom and human rights, the way that World War Two had.
So even though Next Generation was still overseen by Gene Roddenberry in its initial stages, it was a lot more of the relativist style of a liberalism, particularly post-1968 liberalism. To me, it symbolizes – very well by the 1968 Democratic Convention. You had the Lyndon Johnson generation of democrats who were this Gene Roddenberry post World War Two anti-totalitarian liberalism and on the other hand, you had this rising generation, the new left, that was fundamentally anti-technology, fundamentally anti-capitalist, deeply relativists, tune in, tune out – turn on, tune out liberalism and the clash between those two occurred during the hiatus after the original show and before the Next Generation came on.
So then by the time Next Generation comes up, you have this more relativist version of liberalism.
Aaron Ross Powell: But does this – this starts showing up in the Star Trek movies before Next Generation comes on the air, right?
Tim Sandefur: Yeah, I guess a little bit. The Star Trek movies are very – in one way, they’re fundamentally different from The Original Series in that The Original Series was always about going out there and discovering. The movies are much less about that, especially the Trilogy 2, 3 and 4 are really centered about these main characters.
It still has the same spirit of the original Star Trek I think, but there’s a lot less of the inquiry into universal morality than you see in The Original Series.
On that point, I will say another deeply important point of Star Trek, one of the crucially important points of Star Trek that everybody seems to miss is that the point of Star Trek is that Spock is wrong. Spock is wrong! He’s always wrong! The reason is because Roddenberry introduced Spock as a way – as sort of a foil to humans. He was supposed to be standing outside of humanity, sort of criticizing humanity, trying to understand humanity. He was this other character who was pointing fingers at humanity and commenting on humanity.
Roddenberry loved humanity. He didn’t love the Vulcans. He was interested in talking about why human beings are special. So throughout the original series, the Vulcans are very admirable for all sorts of reasons, but basically the humans are the good guys and the reason why is because they had this special quality of curiosity and innovation and commitment that Vulcans don’t really have. I think that shows up in the episode The Apple when Spock is perfectly willing to let the people of Vaal remain enslaved on the planet, whereas Kirk says, “No, these human values are universal of the ability to think for yourself and so forth.”
When you get to Star Trek 2, Spock is sacrificing his life for the ship because the needs of the many outweigh the good of the few. Everybody thinks that line is so noble and great, but the point of that line is that Spock is wrong. That’s why in Star Trek 3, he gets corrected and when he asks at the end, “Why did you give up everything to come rescue me?” Kirk answers, “Because the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many.” The climax I think of all of Star Trek is actually in Star Trek 4.
Trevor Burrus: Is that with the whales?
Tim Sandefur: Spock – the one with the whales when Spock says – they have to go rescue Chekov. Chekov has been injured in his effort to restore the power to the spaceship so that they can escape Earth. He’s now in a hospital in San Francisco and they have to go liberate him and Kirk turns to them and says, “Is that the logical thing to do?” and Spock says, “No, but it is the human thing to do.”
At that moment, Spock becomes human and really the curtain on Star Trek, I think the original vision of Star Trek, the curtain falls there because that is when we see the culmination of everything Spock has learned up to this point. He has died and been reborn and discovers human values are his values.
Trevor Burrus: Now I would say that a lot of people would think that – you mentioned something about the morality of The Next Generation. But it strikes us as a deeply moral show for most people. It’s almost proselytizing to the point of Picard’s nobility and you do have things like – there’s an episode in The Next Generation – his name escapes me. Something about drum. It’s about criminal procedure. So they accused this guy of a crime …
Tim Sandefur: Yeah.
Trevor Burrus: Of being a terrorist and he – we’re going to get a bunch of tweets telling me what the name of it is I’m sure. But accusing him of being a terrorist and they want to torture him and give him guilt by association and Picard gives a speech about how this is not what we do. We’re better than this.
Tim Sandefur: Right.
Trevor Burrus: That’s pretty common. It’s not an immoral or definitely not an amoral show.
Tim Sandefur: That’s right and the evolution of Star Trek is very gradual. The first seasons of The Next Generation on many of the episodes actually were written for the original Star Trek crew and were kept on hand for many years and then recycled into Next Generation episodes.
So the evolution of the show is very gradual. Roddenberry oversaw it and he got older and he died while the show was on the air and his successors very gradually I think moved away from what he was trying to do until you have shows like Deep Space Nine that are really not the original Star Trek.
Now, some of them are great. I think Deep Space Nine has some of the best episodes in the history of Star Trek and Next Generation has some great episodes. I mean, oh gosh, the episode The Nth Degree for instance is one of my favorites or – what’s the episode where Worf kills Duras? An excellent episode directed by Jonathan Frakes. So there are some really good shows there.
But I think what you see is Next Generation gradually turns away from commentary on universal themes and becomes much more distinctly political. A lot of the episodes are centered on specific issues, specific political issues of the day and they have to send a message about environmentalism or send a message about some other current controversy. It gets a lot less literary and a lot more propagandistic.
I think that the growth of relativism is gradual also until the show really ends on relativistic notes where it did not start out that way. Remember, one of the first episodes is one where they have to prove that Data is human. I mean that’s a classic episode. That could have been an Original Series episode.
So I don’t mean that there’s a point where you can just draw a line and say, “After this, everything is bad.” But I do think that you saw that distinct change during Next Generation, so that by the time that show went off the air, Star Trek had become something that it was very much not at the offset.
Trevor Burrus: I just looked it up. The name of that episode is The Drumhead. That’s the name of the episode.
Aaron Ross Powell: Does that trend of relativism continue into the post Next Generation series? I mean I – I haven’t watched Deep Space Nine since it was on the air but my recollection of it was not that it was relativistic, but that it was more morally murky.
Tim Sandefur: Yeah. That’s true. I think it gets a lot more into the gray areas and I think it’s – some of it is really good drama, very tightly written, but it’s a different universe really. I think it’s not the mission of the original show and honestly, I like Deep Space Nine better when it was called Babylon 5. But that show and some of the other shows I think – they just had drifted so much, which is fine. That’s what happens over time. It’s just – I think it’s a different show.
There’s an episode here – I don’t remember the title of the episode. But there’s an episode where Sisko explains to the camera how it was that he got the Romulans into – to enter the war that’s going on. I mean that’s crackerjack episode but it’s not. It’s not Star Trek.
Trevor Burrus: So how would you describe – we kind of touched on it a little bit. But if you were to sort of overview the morality, the liberal morality – and I’m not sure if you’re using that entirely for the left or just general bigger liberalism, but from the post-war period to now and how that morality has changed.
Tim Sandefur: I am using that word in the broadest sense. I mean liberal in the sense of broad liberal values, because obviously Roddenberry himself was some variety of socialist and the show at many times strikes certain socialist notes, which I find it amusing. They were unable to sustain the idea of a world where there was no really capitalist exchange going on.
By the time Deep Space Nine comes along, the writers have given up on even trying to write drama in that world because it’s so absurd and they end up in an ordinary trading post sort of society. But anyway, I think what you see is the show – Star Trek begins with a commitment to universal liberal values. All human beings have certain rights. All human beings should use their reason, should not be devoted to blind faith, should not be devoted to mindless tradition and the answers are out there, but they will raise more questions and that’s a good thing.
That sort of commitment to what Virginia Postrel has called dynamism over stasis, that’s the core of the original show. By the time you get to the – well, the end of the first line, by which I mean the end of next – The Next Generation feature films, by the end of that, what you have is a complete reversal, a gradual but completer reversal of those priorities.
So that by the end of The Next Generation films, Picard is content to no longer be exploring and seeks instead – instead he is satisfied with the idea of a rural village that lacks technology. What I mean by that is the Ba’ku people in the Star Trek Next Generation film Insurrection who are presented to the audience as being this idealic people who know about technology but have consciously rejected technology because they say technology takes something important away from them and that it’s better to garden by hand and be satisfied with looking down at the dirt instead of up at the stars.
Well, I think Roddenberry would have been horrified by this notion but that is the Star Trek that we’re left with at the end and it’s really – it’s like it’s going gently into that good night. It’s what that is.
Aaron Ross Powell: I was curious about that criticism because you – I mean it’s pretty clear that – at least I think that you think that Star Trek Insurrection is the low point, that that’s – like your heaviest criticism comes for when you’re discussing that movie and so tell me if I’m getting the plot points wrong. But my sense from your description of it was yes, these people want to farm and want to live this simple agrarian life. But it’s not that they lack technology entirely. It’s like a background thing that they have access to. So they’re not – it’s not like they’re living in poverty as we would think about it.
They have – they’re not sick. They’re not really wanting or destitute. They’re more just living say the ideal life of a Williamsburg, Brooklyn resident.
Tim Sandefur: Yeah, well, that’s – yeah, that’s a good way of putting it because the film never bothers to explain to us how it is that they don’t have sickness because according to the film, this race of aliens knows about things like warp technology and so forth, but have chosen not to take advantage of it because they prefer to live like the Amish.
This is presented to us as a good thing. Now, the morality, the moral, liberal, universal perspective of the original Star Trek was exactly the reverse of that. It was the idea that for all of its frailties and all of its sins, humanity will triumph in the end by the application of reason and by discovery and by science and progress.
This is a fundamentally anti-progress movie. Now I do think it’s the low point of Star Trek before the JJ Abrams films which are an awfulness all of their own. But it’s the low point in the sense that – not in the sense of badly written or anything. I mean there are some really lousy – just in terms of production moments in Star Trek. I mean Spock’s Brain of The Original Series is typically pointed to as one of the worst episodes of all time. I don’t disagree with that.
Trevor Burrus: What’s the green guy that Kirk fights in the very famous …
Tim Sandefur: Oh, the Gorn. Yeah, in the episode Arena which is – and see the episode Arena is a good example of sort of the pattern of Star Trek. It’s not a particularly good episode but it’s a good illustration of what Star Trek does a lot of the time.
So Kirk is kidnapped and put on this planet with this hostile alien creature and is forced to fight against him, against his will, by some alien being. Kirk using his reason, puts together a cannon – he finds sulfur and saltpeter and he makes gunpowder and builds a cannon with which he defeats the Gorn.
But he chooses not to kill the Gorn. He refuses to kill the Gorn when he can and the reason is because that’s not what humanity stands for. When he makes that choice, the alien beings reveal themselves and say, “Surprise! It was all just a test. We were just doing all this to determine whether you people are worthy of surviving and prevailing in the universe and because you have these commitments to these liberal values, you are worthy of surviving.”
Now, it’s a silly episode. But the moral themes are quintessentially The Original Series Star Trek. Now, an interesting contrast to that is the second generation version of Battlestar Galactica. The revived Battlestar Galactica was put together by a former Star Trek writer who consciously sought a way of creating an anti-Star Trek.
The second version of Battlestar Galactica was created purposely as an anti-Star Trek and the first episode of it, Adama is confronted with this question. He says at the memorial service, he says, “Are human beings worthy of surviving against the Cylon onslaught?” and that’s the theme of the series. The theme of the second generation Battlestar Galactica is, “Is humanity worthy of survival?” to which the series answers a resounding no.
Humanity is so awful for so many reasons that the Cylons are actually the good guys and humanity deserves to suffer and die. The series is extremely dark for that reason. It gets most of the questions wrong that it presents to the audience and it’s relentlessly naturalistic. So it’s sort of a complete opposite of the original Star Trek series.
Trevor Burrus: Now I derailed you for a second because you’re talking about Insurrection as being the low point. We talked about the Gorn and this idea of these people, these – you said naturalistic. On that point, I mean you mentioned the Amish. Do you think that we should be really critical of the Amish as being anti-progress and they shouldn’t be living the lives the way they should and we should violate our version of a prime directive and go into Amish villages and teach them the ways of liberal values and rights and rationality?
Aaron Ross Powell: And Snapchat and Instagram.
Trevor Burrus: And Snapchat and Instagram, yeah.
Tim Sandefur: Yeah. To some degree, my answer is yes. As a libertarian, of course I believe they have the right to make whatever conscious decision they choose about how they live their lives and if they do choose to live a primitive existence, then that’s their choice and they have that right. But I think it’s immoral and wrong and I think incidentally that Americans have this sense of the Amish as being quaint, harmless, little people who are cute and wonderful tourist attractions and so forth.
But in fact, they are a radical cult that is devoted to the opposite of technological progress and devoted to conscious ignorance. There’s no surprise that if you scan the newspapers, you find lots of incidents of horrific exploitation, sexual exploitation and so forth that goes on in the Amish community. A lot of people don’t pay much attention to it because they think of the Amish as being cute when in fact, as I said, they’re a radical religious cult.
Trevor Burrus: But we have – on some level, we have a prime directive in this. I mean there’s some sort of non-interference that we practice.
Tim Sandefur: Right.
Trevor Burrus: I mean I don’t go …
Tim Sandefur: That’s right, but that non-interference is still cabined by universal liberal values so that if an Amish person is discovered sexually exploiting a child for example, that they are brought up on charges in an ordinary civil criminal court and tried for violations of laws that are rooted in every human being’s right to be free from those kinds of violations.
That’s rightly so. So I think a Captain Kirk in today’s society would say, “Yes, the Amish, of course, they have the right to live their lives as they please within the limits of the rights that universal liberalism recognizes on behalf of every other individual.”
Aaron Ross Powell: I’m curious about where we draw lines specifically in your criticism of Star Trek Insurrection. It seemed that – so let’s accept that like they didn’t have sickness. However, they managed to not have sickness and they weren’t – they didn’t appear to be exploiting the rights of their fellow members. This was simply a choice that they made to not embrace certain levels of technology, to not fly off to the stars or have computers or whatever else and it seemed it wasn’t – they were capable of thinking about the alternative and simply rejected it for their way of life.
You were extremely critical of that on principle. You called that lifestyle immoral and I’m wondering how we decide where that line is. So we talked about – we kind of make fun of wealthy people today who are wealthy enough to live like they’re poor. So they – it takes a lot of money in order to be able to just grow your own food and super reduce your carbon footprint and all of that sort of stuff.
But there doesn’t seem to be anything – I mean if wealth and technology are there to ultimately enable us to live the kinds of lives that we want to, then what’s wrong with living the kind of life that we want to? I mean is it bad to go camping?
Tim Sandefur: Oh, yeah, of course not and of course Kirk would not have had any objection to that sort of thing. But see here, we – to answer that question, I think you have to –
Aaron Ross Powell: Well, he goes camping, doesn’t he?
Tim Sandefur: That’s right. He does in Star Trek 5. I think you would have to take a step back though and think in meta terms about how the show was written to answer that question. That is in The Original Series, whenever you encounter an alien race that’s anything like the Ba’ku people, in The Original Series, there’s always something wrong beneath the surface.
So a good episode – a good illustration, that is the episode Plato’s Stepchildren. The crew encounters this race of godlike beings who live in a very sort of Greco-Roman society and they all have these super telekinetic powers and everything. They are all happy of course. They don’t suffer any illness or anything, right? Except it turns out that they abuse and mistreat one of the characters who’s a dwarf and in order to demonstrate their strength, they come to later abuse and mistreat the Enterprise crew. In fact, the episode is most famous for having television’s first interracial kiss between Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Uhura.
Now, that is a good example of how in The Original Series, whenever you encountered an alien race that lived in what appeared to be a technology-free ideal in a sort of a quaint village setting, there’s always something bad beneath the scenes or behind the scenes.
In The Next Generation though, The Next Generation writers are content to present us with this cartoonish utopia that doesn’t answer questions like, “How do these people avoid getting sick?” and so forth.
I mean that would have been the first question Captain Kirk would have asked if he had beamed into a planet populated by the Ba’ku people. How is it that you people manage to feed each other if you don’t use modern agricultural technologies for instance?
The Next Generation authors were content to present us with this kind of silly cartoonish situation that would not have withstood any kind of probing or anything and the reason why is because The Next Generation writers were themselves wedded to this notion of idealic, technology-free, somehow or another organic kale is going to make us all healthy stuff.
I mean that’s the attitude behind the writing of the show. So I don’t think that the show can withstand the kind of question you ask precisely because it’s written in a way that represents a silly commitment to an idea that you can have a society without technology and still feed everybody and still not get sick and so forth.
So I think the original series was fundamentally anti-utopian and by the end of Next Generation, it’s fundamentally utopian.
Trevor Burrus: That’s a fascinating thing because the – they may encounter utopias that have some sort of fatal flaw behind them in The Original Series. But the people themselves on the Enterprise are living in a pretty god utopia without capitalism and all this kind of things that Roddenberry is – from a socialist sort of leanings that they themselves are living in a utopia.
Tim Sandefur: Yeah.
Trevor Burrus: That itself is socialist in its own way.
Tim Sandefur: That’s a good point and I think it’s a solid criticism of Star Trek that almost all of the conflict takes place outside of the bounds of the Starship Enterprise. As I said before the original – the Next Generation writers often found themselves handicapped by the fact that Roddenberry would not let them have conflict between the characters who are members of the crew and the Enterprise.
Roddenberry always wanted the crew of the Enterprise to get along and not have conflict amongst themselves and it made it difficult to write good drama. Now, for The Original Series, I think it kind of works because if what you’re trying to do is comment on issues or broad themes, it’s helpful for the drama that the crew all get a long.
But even so, there is a little bit of tension now and then. I mean McCoy and Spock have this sort of funny relationship where they tease each other a lot but in – you know, sometimes it’s not funny. Sometimes McCoy really appears not to like Spock and Spock appears really not to like McCoy.
Trevor Burrus: Are you out of your Vulcan mind? Yeah, exactly.
Tim Sandefur: Yeah.
Trevor Burrus: So the prime directive though, it’s interesting. I’m still not sure I’m totally on with your thesis to some extent. But I also think that some of that relativism, what we’re kind of calling relativism, that the Next Generation kind of exhibits.
Some of it would be a backlash to I think let’s say 19th century anthropology kind of thing, the sort of, well, we met some savage racists out there in the boondocks and then – so very, very paternalistic without any sort of understanding of different ways people can do things that are still acceptable under certain circumstances. But also the prime directive seems pretty useful for non-interferences of principle is something I might prefer because – I don’t know if I can endorse that as a principle of power because there might be people who want to interfere with me or with my people who think we’re not doing things correctly.
So I’m thinking of for example international human rights lawyers who would love to violate the prime directive to put labor laws, who think that it’s a right to a vacation, a right to healthcare, a right to all these things that are the things that they would like to use, forced to put on to us. So maybe the best sort of compromise is something where you say, “I’m not going to get involved in your affairs. I’m not going to force things on you if you don’t force things on me,” and that creates a more livable situation.
Tim Sandefur: Maybe. And I think these – some of this is stuff that’s too complicated to have presented in a television drama of one hour a week in the 60s. So at some point, the show is too broad to get into some of that depth. But I would say the point that The Original Series is making in criticizing the prime directive is precisely the fact that there are certain universal human truths and that the idea that culture – or a hands-off practicality shouldn’t trump those truths is expressly rejected in The Original Series.
So that in today’s parlance, people often bring up the example of female – genital circumcision as being a cultural practice. Should the West just look the other way about genital circumcision of little girls in the Third World? And I think the original Star Trek writers would emphatically say, “No, we should not look the other way,” that all human beings have certain rights and no society can legitimately violate those rights and that we are in the right to go into another country and say, “No, you may not mistreat people in this way.” I think that is what The Original Series is saying.
Personally, I’m on board with that. But the – you are right to say that one of the reasons why Next Generation pushes that away is because of sort of the anti-colonialism movement that was just getting underway while The Original Series was on the air. So you don’t see a lot of it in The Original Series just because it really wasn’t a cultural – as big a cultural phenomenon as it became in the years after the show went off the air.
But the sort of anti-colonialism notion that a society has a right to govern itself without entering interference from outside gradually takes root and is a real infection in the side of the Next Generation. It makes it very hard for the Next Generation to stay true to those principles of universal human rights while simultaneously believing that a society has the right to govern itself however it wants. If that includes violating individual freedom, then that’s OK.
That’s why you have such awful episodes as when the card says yes, if there – these people are being kept in a drug-induced slavery, then that’s OK with me.
Trevor Burrus: But would you rather live in a world where interference was generally OK or people who believed themselves to be – sort of the – think about the religious wars of the 15th – you know, the 16th and 17th century where everyone sort of thought they could interfere in everyone’s lives. That created a really bad 30-year war, that they kind of decided with the [Indiscernible] compromise that we’re just going to let – that we’re not going to interfere because a bunch of people are thinking that they have principles that are universal, who think they have the right to interfere in people’s lives. It’s actually fundamentally dangerous.
Aaron Ross Powell: Well, this is excellent, I mean the fact – and quickly interject that as we’re discussing this and as we’re discussing the notion of – the original Star Trek is very much this post-war notion of liberalism plus moral absolutism and a strong sense of who the good guys and bad guys are that – and then that we should intervene to stop people who were doing things that run counter to this, that you end up seeing a possible like mere image of the original series of Star Trek and say The Day the Earth Stood Still which is the enlightened aliens coming in and saying, “Look, this America of the post-war moral consensus of absolutism is actually going to destroy …” whatever. I don’t know …
Trevor Burrus: The world …
Aaron Ross Powell: The world, yeah, that this is really bad and unless you knock it off and get past this kind of moral belief, we’re going to destroy you.
Tim Sandefur: Yeah. No, it’s a good point and I think that the question about – well, the earlier question about, “Would you rather live in a world where …”
The difference between the religious wars of the 15th century and what we’re talking about here is that religion is nonsense. I mean that’s the fundamental difference between the two and something very important to Roddenberry who is deeply anti-religion and the show shows that repeatedly in the episode The Apple and in many other episodes – the one episode in particular in which they – the god Apollo appears to the Enterprise and in this case, it actually is the god Apollo. It’s not some fake and the Enterprise makes it impossible – ends up basically destroying his power source and Kirk gives a speech saying, “We have outgrown the need for gods.”
So the show is fundamentally humanist in that sense. But the difference between the liberals that I’m talking about and the religious wars of the 15th century is that the principles of universal human rights are true and the proposition that three gods and one god are the same thing is simply an arbitrary nonsense and that’s the most important point.
If one disagrees with that, that’s fine but that’s not what the original Star Trek was committed to. The original Star Trek was committed to this idea of universal human rights being true and the reason why this sort of rings all our libertarian bells is because the original – because libertarianism is a species of liberals, that’s why, and because the universal human rights that we’re talking about are basically a right to be let alone. It’s basically a right to be free from interference from others.
Now, in today’s political culture, you very often hear people say, “Who are we to impose democracy on other countries?” to which the right answer is democracy is not imposed. Tyranny is imposed. Democracy or universal human freedom is the natural state of man because mankind is born free. It’s tyranny that’s imposed.
So if one person comes and tries to enslave another person and I pull out a gun and I stop him from doing that, I’m not interfering with his rights. A slave owner can’t complain when I liberate his slaves because he had no right to enslave the man to begin with. That’s the perspective of The Original Series Star Trek and it’s a perspective within libertarianism that within libertarianism you also have this hands-off non-interference notion and a lot of libertarians or – so they call themselves, believe that non-interference trumps the principles of human rights because the principles of human rights are just our own cultural myth and that’s interchangeable with the cultural myths of the other societies.
Therefore the clash between libertarian freedom and authoritarianism is no more universally valid than the religious wars of the 15th and 16th centuries because we’re all just basically making it up. That’s a proposition that I and The Original Series emphatically reject.
Trevor Burrus: Again, the other alternative – I mean aside from practicality concerns is the fear that if you do preach intervention – if I were to live in a world and I could get them to believe in the prime directive and follow it religiously, which of course half of Star Trek is about them breaking it constantly, I probably would prefer that overall as a way of maintaining freedom because I think that generally the violations of the prime directive are going to be done by people who do not agree with universal values that are true throughout because the violation of the prime directive was to be based off of those who have power.
Sort of like I say that I don’t want to do a lot of international interference in human rights stuff because a lot of times I will do – agree with it for egregious circumstances but a lot of times it’s going to be taken over by international law professors who want to intervene for decidedly non-liberal reasons such as to make better labor laws or have universal healthcare or right to abortion or things like this. So there’s a practicality to this.
Tim Sandefur: Right.
Trevor Burrus: And that doesn’t concern you –
Tim Sandefur: Yeah, I agree. That is – and what’s interesting here is there’s an episode of The Original Series Star Trek that kind of touches on these things and it doesn’t go too deeply into it. But you can see in there and that is the episode Space Seed where we first are introduced to Khan who later comes back in Star Trek 2 and then later in one of the JJ Abrams films. What makes Khan particularly interesting is that he actualy is a superior being and …
Trevor Burrus: Yeah, he’s genetically superior, right?
Tim Sandefur: That’s right. A lot of Star Trek – the crew encounters allegedly superior beings and it turns out that they’re not actually superior, that they have some sort of trick up their sleeve. But here you have a guy who actually is superior and all the crew acknowledges it.
So this is a real challenge to the principle of fundamental equality that is the basis of all human rights theories. I mean the declaration of independence starts with equality, not with liberty and that’s realistic because it is because we are all equal that we are all free. It is because you have no right to – it is because you are the same essentially as I am. That means you have no inherent right to control my life and therefore you have to ask permission from me if you propose to control my life and that’s what we call the “social compact”. We have government by consent.
But here you have Khan who actually is a superior being. He stands in a position relative to the crew of the Enterprise in the same way that I stand to my pet dog. I don’t have to ask my dog’s consent when I tell him to get off the couch. He is an inferior being and I tell him to get off the couch and that – it’s as simple as that.
So what does the crew do when they encounter Khan? Khan tries to take over the Enterprise and kill the crew in order to become the ruler of the Starship Enterprise.
The crew defeats his plans but they don’t kill him. They put him on trial but they don’t convict him. What Captain Kirk does is he says, “Look, you have all the strength. You really are a powerful, unique creature with special gifts. So what we’re going to do is we’re going to put on an unpopulated planet and give you the chance to create a society and make you a pioneer to put your great energies to work in a constructive way that’s a good thing.”
Now of course 20 years later, it turns out that that experiment failed and that’s why we have Star Trek 2. But at the time the episode was filmed, nobody knew that that was coming. So you have to take it on its own terms.
Here you have libertarianism in the broad sense I think. Libertarianism’s answer to that question, which is within the boundaries of respecting individual rights, yes, you can do what you like hands-off. We are non-negotiable on the principle that every being has the right to live their lives on their own terms. But within those boundaries, yeah, you can have all sorts of cultural variation and different practices and so forth. But we’re not going to erase those boundaries.
Once you do, once you get into a completely relativistic sense, where every society has the right to govern itself – or even to depict the idea of human rights in a different way, which means overriding it and saying, well, in our society – like in Borat when he says, “She has no name because she has girl.”
We’re not going to go that far. We’re not going to take our relativism to that extent.
Aaron Ross Powell: So speaking of Khan, I want to turn the new movies which – I mean you are on record as being let’s say not a fan of JJ Abrams’ work on Star Trek and I’m not terribly either, but it largely has to do with concern about why anyone would ever let Damon Lindelof write a script. But those …
Tim Sandefur: Wait a minute. There were scripts to those …
Aaron Ross Powell: Questionably. But – so what’s outside of problems with characterization or problems with enormous plot holes and nonsensical decision-making? From the political standpoint, what’s wrong with the new Star Trek movies?
Tim Sandefur: Oh, I don’t think we have enough time for all of it. So the problem is – begins basically with JJ Abrams acknowledging that he’s neither a fan of Star Trek nor has he actually watched Star Trek. He acknowledged in an interview that he found Star Trek boring and really wasn’t a fan of it.
Well, if you don’t like your material, you have no business making the movie. Contrast that for example with the director of the recent film of Les Miserables that won so many Oscars and deservedly so. It’s an amazing masterpiece of film.
He in an interview about the same time said that he basically ate, breathed and slept Victor Hugo for years before making that film. So you have a – if you don’t like your material, you shouldn’t be making the movie. That’s the basic problem.
Now what Abrams’ films come out doing is being basically just sort of a pastiche and a really bad pastiche of the original Star Trek where Kirk is all about having sex with the girls and he’s all about emotional impulses and so forth and he has no reasoning.
Now the original Captain Kirk is a very intelligent guy. He’s a competent scientist for one thing. He was modeled on Captain James Cook, the great 18th century explorer who was – who rose from – he was not a nobleman. He was an average commoner and he rose to become a fellow of the Royal Society and the greatest explorer in the history of the earth.
So he was modeled on that and he’s a very intelligent, thoughtful leader. Yeah, he’s a ladies’ man but he respects women in a way that the new Kirk does not. What you end up with when you have a drama that’s centered around these emotional impulses and things is they have no real reason for respecting Captain Kirk. Why should Kirk be captain of the Enterprise instead of say Spock? The answers were given in a weird sort of deus ex machina way when Leonard Nimoy appears as Spock from another dimension to tell them that Captain Kirk should be captain of the Enterprise just because. And that’s it! He just says that’s the one rule you must not break.
Why? I don’t know. It’s just because. Even though in one of the Abrams’ movies, Captain Kirk has this monologue where he explains it. He has no idea what he’s doing. He doesn’t know why he’s captain of the Enterprise and he shouldn’t be running things. I mean it’s truly a chaos that does not withstand any kind of intellectual scrutiny. It’s presented as this – and the problem with that is if that is correct, if Kirk should be the ruler just because, well, then why shouldn’t Khan be the ruler?
If Khan is a superior being, genetically-engineered Superman as we’re told, then why shouldn’t he be the captain of the Enterprise? And we’re never given an answer to that. The only time that they even approached giving an answer to that in Star Trek Into Darkness is in the very last moment when Captain Kirk gives this speech at Starfleet Academy and he says, “You know, there are these bad guys out there, but we’re not like them because that’s not who we are.” That’s it! The phrase, “That’s not who we are,” is invoked as a cover, as an explanation for the entire movie.
We’re never told why that’s not how we are or why it shouldn’t be. I mean it makes no sense and in order to cover up the fact that it makes no sense, JJ Abrams’ films long for a strong man to come and impose his will because he’s stronger, which again is the opposite of what the original Star Trek stood for.
Trevor Burrus: So now to the most important final question from someone who’s qualified to talk about Star Trek as you is, “What is the correct solution to the Kobayashi Maru test?”
Tim Sandefur: So the Kobayashi Maru test is an unwinnable test in which – it’s to evaluate Starfleet candidates for command and test their command abilities before they go out into space and actually run a Starship. It’s unwinnable. So the idea behind it is to – just to see what you would do if you were in a situation where there is no escape. It’s revealed in Star Trek 2 that Kirk took the test three times and failed and finally just figured out a way to reprogram the computer so that the test could be won.
He got a commendation for original thinking in doing so and that’s the right answer is to reprogram the simulation. That I think is what Roddenberry would say. Roddenberry would say life is a no-win scenario. Everybody is doing to die and if you’re looking for some utopian fairy tale solution to that conundrum, you’re not going to find one.
So the solution is to reprogram the scenario. The solution is to think about what it is that you want from life. You’re here on earth and you have all these great potentials because you’re a human being. So find a way to do some good with it. Find a way to pursue happiness, to make some great scientific discovery, to become the best writer or thinker that you can be or to be the best marathon runner or even – or to be the best parent you can be or some way to use the special fire that you have as a human being to light up the world because otherwise, the world is just darkness. There’s a line in Edmond Rostand’s play Chantecler, which is about a rooster who is persuaded that his crowing causes the sun to rise and all the other animals make fun of him for it. Until one moment when he says, “The reason I knew that my crowing caused the sun to rise is that the darkness celebrated my silence.”
That’s what the universe is going to do if we don’t devote ourselves to the principles of civilization and progress that the original Star Trek stood for. So I think that’s the solution to the Kobayashi Maru scenario is to reject the premise that life is a no-win scenario. That’s why Captain Kirk is a hero because he does that and that’s why he says in Star Trek 2, “I don’t believe in the no-win scenario,” and he’s right.
Aaron Ross Powell: Free Thoughts is produced by Evan Banks and Mark McDaniel. To learn more about libertarianism and the ideas that influence it, visit us on the web at www.Libertarianism.org.