Saturday, March 31, 2012

Star Trek and Conservative Philosophy

I recently found an interesting blog dissecting TOS episodes in terms of conservative philosophy.  Below is one article breaking down the Balance of Terror episode.

Let’s talk about Episode 14: “Balance of Terror,” which introduces the Romulans! Patterned on submarine films, this episode involves a tactical game of chess between Kirk and a Romulan commander with a galactic war hanging in the balance. It’s also an allegory for dealing with aggression and it’s firmly conservative.

The Plot
As the episode begins, Kirk is about to perform a wedding, when the Enterprise goes to red alert. An unknown alien craft is attacking a manned Federation outpost along the Romulan neutral zone. The Federation and the Romulans fought a war a century earlier, before the advent of warp power. The treaty ending that war and establishing the neutral zone was negotiated over subspace radio, and neither side ever saw the other. The Enterprise arrives at the scene of the attack to find the outpost destroyed and a sensor blip leaving the scene. Kirk and Spock immediately suspect the blip is a Romulan “Bird of Prey” (warship) and that the Romulans have developed a cloaking device. Kirk decides to destroy the Romulan ship before it can slip back across the neutral zone.
Why It’s Conservative
Liberalism and conservatism have fundamentally different views about the nature of aggression. Liberals believe aggression is the result of fear, by the aggressor, that others intend to do them harm. Thus, the aggressor turns to aggression as a means of preemptive self-defense. Hence, the liberal solution to aggression is to assure the aggressor that the victim intends the aggressor no harm. This was why liberals advocated disarmament in the face of Soviet aggression, to show the Soviets we meant them no harm, and why it advocates appeasement in the face of Islamic terrorism.

Conservatives reject this. Conservatives believe aggression is the result of envy combined with the aggressor believing they have the power to seize what they desire because the target cannot successfully resist. Thus, showing an aggressor weakness, either by disarming or by demonstrating a lack of will to fight back, will encourage the aggressor to become more aggressive because it makes aggressor more confident of success.

This episode comes down firmly on the side of conservatism. Consider the debate over what to do about the Romulan:
MCCOY: You're discussing tactics. Do you realize what this really comes down to? Millions and millions of lives hanging on what this vessel does.
SPOCK: Or on what this vessel fails to do, Doctor. . . .
STILES: We have to attack immediately.
KIRK: Explain.
STILES: They're still on our side of the Neutral Zone. There would be no doubt they broke the treaty. . . . These are Romulans! You run away from them and you guarantee war. They'll be back. Not just one ship but with everything they've got. You know that, Mister Science Officer. You're the expert on these people. . . .
SPOCK: I agree. Attack.
KIRK: Are you suggesting we fight to prevent a fight?
MCCOY: Based on what? Memories of a war over a century ago? On theories about a people we've never even met face to face?
STILES: We know what they look like.
SPOCK: Yes, indeed we do, Mister Stiles. And if Romulans are an offshoot of my Vulcan blood, and I think this likely, then attack becomes even more imperative.
MCCOY: War is never imperative, Mister Spock.
SPOCK: It is for them, Doctor. Vulcan, like Earth, had its aggressive colonizing period. Savage, even by Earth standards. And if Romulans retain this martial philosophy, then weakness is something we dare not show.
MCCOY: Do you want a galactic war on your conscience?
KIRK: . . . Prepare to attack.
Spock and Stiles represent conservatism. Spock argues that aggression is part of human nature and that showing weakness will feed that aggression rather than cause it to abate: “weakness is something we dare not show.” Indeed, he notes that for some people, aggression is simply a way of life, e.g. countries premised on a “martial philosophy.” This is directly opposed to the liberal belief that aggression is the result of fear and can be tamed by showing weakness. Stiles backs this up by noting that the Romulans have historically responded to demonstrations of cowardice with increased aggression, which mirrors our own history. Thus, they argue that the only way to stop aggression is to stand up to the aggressor, or as Kirk puts it, they are “suggesting we fight to prevent a fight.”

McCoy, the show’s liberal, is aghast that they are considering attacking the enemy vessel. He believes that using force against an aggressor will lead to a larger conflict, a “galactic war,” and he dismisses Spock’s view as prejudice, i.e. based on “memories of a war over a century ago” and “theories about a people we’ve never met.” He would rather let the Romulans destroy the Earth outposts and presumably sue for peace. This is appeasement. And the fact that he’s an appeaser is clear from his statement that “war is never imperative.” Indeed, if you never reach the point where war is “imperative,” then logically you are suggesting that you are always ready to make compromises to avoid war. That’s a statement of perpetual appeasement and ultimate surrender.

Kirk, true to his conservative form, rejects the liberal position and decides to stand up to the aggressor. His decision is validated by the Romulan commander:
COMMANDER: Danger and I are old companions.
CENTURION: We've seen a hundred campaigns together, and still I do not understand you.
COMMANDER: I think you do. No need to tell you what happens when we reach home with proof of the Earthmen's weakness. And we will have proof. The Earth commander will follow. He must. When he attacks, we will destroy him. Our gift to the homeland, another war.
CENTURION: If we are the strong, isn't this the signal for war?
COMMANDER: Must it always be so? How many comrades have we lost in this way?
CENTURION: Our portion, Commander, is obedience.
COMMANDER: Obedience. Duty. Death and more death. Soon even enough for the Praetor's taste. Centurion, I find myself wishing for destruction before we can return. Worry not. Like you, I am too well-trained in my duty to permit it.
There are several interesting aspects here. First, note how the Centurion believes the time to be aggressive is when you are strong. The Commander confirms this view of aggression when he says the Praetor will attack when he learns of the Federation’s weakness. This runs counter to the liberal belief that aggression is borne of desperation and instead shows aggression as being opportunistic. Note also the subtle anti-concentration of power argument, as the Commander observes that the Romulan people are trapped in a series of never-ending wars because their absolute ruler is bloodthirsty. And he even notes that he disagrees with this policy so much that he almost wishes he would die rather than succeed at his mission, but his own desires do not matter.

Note also the subtle anti-concentration of power argument, as the Commander observes that the Romulan people are trapped in a series of never-ending wars because their absolute ruler is bloodthirsty. He even disagrees with this policy so much that he almost wishes to die rather than succeed at his mission, but his own desires do not matter.

This dovetails with another conservative message in this episode: the importance of the individual. Unlike collectivism, which sees people like the Romulan as tools of the state, classical liberalism favors the individual. So does this episode. We see this both in the fact that the Romulan Commander obeys the collective against his better judgment and is destroyed, and in a fascinating speech where McCoy points out the value of the individual human life and how unique we are:
MCCOY: But I've got [an answer]. Something I seldom say to a customer, Jim. In this galaxy, there's a mathematical probability of three million Earth-type planets. And in all of the universe, three million million galaxies like this. And in all of that, and perhaps more, only one of each of us. Don't destroy the one named Kirk.
But even more, we see it in a subplot about guilt by association. No human had ever seen a Romulan before Spock manages to hack into the Romulans’ viewscreen. At that point, we learn they look a lot like Vulcans. Because of this, Stiles begins to view Spock as a traitor. Some interpret this as a message about racism, but it’s really not. If it was about racism, Stiles would have hated Spock from the beginning. Instead, it’s a message about guilt by association. And Kirk will have none of it on his ship: “Leave any bigotry in your quarters. There's no room for it on the Bridge.”

This is a conservative message, though liberals won’t like hearing that. Conservatism, like classical liberalism, rejects the concept of group guilt and judges individuals on their own merits.

Modern liberalism, on the other hand, divides people into groups by race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc., and then assigns rights and obligations, and assumptions about guilt/innocence to people through their groups. Indeed, this is the theory behind affirmative action, that people should bear the collective guilt for the historical actions of “their group” whether they partook in those actions personally or not. Similarly, liberals tar Christians for centuries old abuses, tar Catholics for the crimes of a few Catholic priests, seek to take the rights of all gun owners for the misuse of the product by a few, destroy the internet to stop a handful of pirates, etc. In each case, guilt by association underpins the policy, as liberals seek to inflict group punishment rather than just punishing the specific individuals who did the wrongdoing.

Kirk rejects that kind of thinking and makes it clear that Spock is an individual and will not be made to answer for the crimes of his distant cousins the Romulans.

Once again, conservatism prevails.