This week two foreign policy experts from Foreign Policy magazine had a public debate over whether or not we should get involved in the situation in Syria. This isn’t surprising, since foreign policy experts everywhere are having this discussion. What makes this different is that these two are basing their arguments on Star Trek.
That’s right. Star Trek.
The first expert, John Arquilla, argued that we should stay out of Syria, because of the Prime Directive, the over-riding policy of Star Fleet that demanded the Star Fleet crews to adopt a model of non-intervention when encountering new planets. Michael Peck, the second expert, responded that the Prime Directive is all well and good, but the real hero of Star Trek (and, by extension, Star Fleet), Captain Kirk, would have ignored the Prime Directive, and would have gone into Syria. And, as Captain Kirk goes, so should the United States.
This discussion was met with a good amount of press and some questions of why in the world the United States should base their foreign policy on a television show.
When I first read the headlines about this, I laughed my head off. And I had a similar reaction to those commentators online asking why Star Trek should play a role at all. But then I thought about it…
Well, why not Star Trek? It’s certainly a good starting place for the conversation, and has more legitimate claim than a lot of other approaches.
Let's be honest, we'd follow this man into hell if he asked us to.
Star Trek, with its space Western genre1, is just about the closest thing we have to a modern American mythology. It represents ideologically who we want to be and how we want to be perceived. Bones and Spock are our emotional and rational responses, respectively, and Captain Kirk is our hero – our national identity – who can balance the two. And because of that, he can harness the power to save the world (worlds!) again and again.
Sure, it’s idealistic and simplistic. And sure, the situation in Syria is complicated and nuanced, and it should be. But if Star Trek is our perfect version of ourselves – if it is who we wish we were – then why not start the conversation there?
Isn’t starting conversations, after all, one of the major roles our stories are supposed to play within society?
1 I can hear you laughing, but this is legitimate. The very first point where American culture became distinct from the cultures of its inhabitants was with the idea of the frontier. The pioneering spirit, the making do in hostile environments, the exploration of the unknown, and the hero who rides off into the sunset looking for more adventures are all iconic of American culture. So, (and this simplifies things a bit) while historically the western genre did (and still does) exist outside of the United States, it is generally recognized as an American story, and most of the international westerns are seen as connected to the American stories. Because of this, modern space westerns, like Star Trek, Star Wars, and more recently, Firefly, are seen as extensions of American culture, and are rightfully held in fairly high esteem.
Newitz, Annalee. "Yes, Captain Kirk Would Intervene in Syria." Io9. May 1, 2013. Accessed May 3, 2013. http://io9.com/why-captain-kirk-would-intervene-in-syria-486658171.