Saturday, April 30, 2011

In which I discuss Star Trek at the expense of another.

Update: My sincere thanks go out to Emily (@seelix on Twitter) for recovering this post for me after it went offline.

Bill Watterson is a sort of personal hero to me for having created the Calvin and Hobbes strip and writing such wonderful stories for 10 years.  Watterson once described that part of the charm of Calvin's character was his ability to precisely articulate very stupid ideas. This incongruence between Calvin's eloquence and his naive ignorance was the source of much of the strip's humor.

Well, today, I had the pleasure of reading some of the most precisely articulated stupidity that I have seen in a while. It is not every day, after all, that one gets to read a Tea and Crumpets Partier take issue with the utopian view that Star Trek puts forward and in doing so, lay bare the intellectual bankrupcy of the TCP movement. Truly, there is comedic gold buried in this bizarrely coherent but utterly stupid rant by Walter Hudson.

It is telling that our inadverent comedian opens with a quote from Roddenberry intended to demonstrate how Star Trek is a bad thing:

The whole show was an attempt to say that humanity will reach maturity and wisdom on the day that it begins not just to tolerate, but to take a special delight in differences in ideas and differences in life forms. We tried to say that the worst possible thing that can happen to all of us is for the future to somehow press us into a common mould, where we begin to act and talk and look and think alike. If we cannot learn to actually enjoy those small differences, take a positive delight in those small differences between our own kind, here on this planet, then we do not deserve to go out into space and meet the diversity that is almost certainly out there. And I think that this is what people responded to.
Ironically, this multicultural meme leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy. Tolerating every idea enables ideas which are destructive. As the franchise has progressed, it has (perhaps unwittingly) demonstrated this flaw in its own message.
Right out of the gate, Hudson has jumped the shark by presuming that his audience shares the same paranoia for the word "multiculturalism" that he does. Nowhere in the quote provided does Roddenberry state that he thought we should embrace or even tolerate all ideas equally, but rather that we should be willing to "take a special delight in differences in ideas." Multiculturalism does not preclude one from recognizing that some ideas have severely negative implications if acted upon, contrary to what Hudson seems to think.

The rest of this gem consists of a list of 10 supposedly destructive social messages espoused through Star Trek. Even a cursory glace at the titles of these ten sections gives one a startlingly blunt view on how Hudson sees the world:
  • The U.N. in Space
  • Prime Directive
  • No Money
  • Galactic Peace
  • Silly God, Tricks Are For Man
  • Occupations and Insurgents
  • Set Phasers on Stun
  • Cosmic Environmentalism
  • Resistance Is Futile
  • Can’t We All Just Get Along?
Only in the upside-down reality-starved community that is the Tea and Crumpets Party is this list somehow damning, but inside that petri dish of memetic insanity, words and names like "U.N," "peace," "trick," and "environment" take on the quality of nightmares induced by sleeping in front of one too many rants by Glenn Beck. Far be it from me to try and deconstruct such a perverse framework for understanding the world, for fear of being irrevocably damaged by the Lovecraftian horrors that lie dormant in such twisted logics. (OK, that last sentence was exaggeration bordering on purple prose, but it was fun to write.) Instead, I shall be content to address some of the more LOLworthy points that Hudson hits upon in his psychiatric disrobing so cleverly disguised as an article about Star Trek.

Let's start our journey into madness with the first "message": that the United Federation of Planets is much like the United Nations in the real world. Perhaps surprisingly, I agree! The UFP is transparently modeled after the UN, but I think it stands to reflect the unbridled idealism of Star Trek. Where the UFP differs from the UN is in that it works well to achieve it's intended purpose. That it achieves, finally, after so many false starts, the ideal of a cooperative body that spans across not only nations, but worlds and even species. To Hudson, this utopian idealism seems to be the whole problem:
While the occasional insurrection or insubordination was explored throughout the franchise, for the most part, no one within the Federation really questions their government. As we shall examine in more detail, in Star Trek, the government is a two-dimensional institution which works because it must in order to advance a particular political narrative.
In short, Hudson is arguing that aside from those times that people in Star Trek question their government so brilliantly and so passionately (take, for example, The Drumhead [TNG], The Measure of a Man [TNG], Star Trek: Insurrection, or practically all of Deep Space Nine's seventh season), no one ever questions their government! Hudson sees in the bold idealism of asserting a government that works well most of the time a spectre of timid uniformity. How markedly different from the Pickard, the Sisko, the Odo, the Data, the Spock, and all the other characters in whom I invested so much emotion are these timid spectres that haunt Hudson's Star Trek!

Next on the menu, we are served a deliciously absurd view of Star Trek's Prime Directive. For the uninitiated, the Prime Directive asserts that the Federation is not to go around the galaxy remaking technologically primitive planets into societies unto their own image. The Prime Directive is informed by a history of well-intentioned but disastrous interventions into the progression of other cultures, and aims to allow nascent cultures to get a chance to participate in galactic culture as equals and on the merits of what they offer, rather than to be damned by the accident of a slower technological progression. There are, of course, many points with which one can argue intelligently (and on which many Star Trek characters do!) with the Prime Directive, and I think it'd be a shame to accept the Directive as a given without critical thought. It will come as little surprise, though, that Hudson neatly sidesteps any intellectual basis for disagreeing with the Directive, instead connecting it back to the boogeyman of multiculturalism:

The defining aspect of Star Trek’s Federation is its Prime Directive, the law above all others which its officers are sworn to uphold even at the expense of their life and the lives of others. Stated simply, the Prime Directive is to never interfere with the natural evolution of another civilization. In the original series, this meant refraining from contaminating relatively primitive cultures with knowledge of Starfleet and its advanced technology. Over the years, the Prime Directive has expanded into a kind of galactic Tenth Amendment, assuring member planets jurisdiction over internal affairs.
While the latter may seem attractive to conservatives, it is worth noting that the supreme moral principle upon which the Prime Directive is based is not natural rights or individual sovereignty, but multiculturalism. In Star Trek, the one cardinal sin is applying your values to an alien culture.
Here, I have emphasized where Hudson seems to have been watching a completely different set of shows and movies than I did. What else other than "applying your values to an alien culture" is the whole Dominion War, or the earlier Cardassian War? The idea that the Federation has something to offer other cultures in terms of moral values is so omnipresent in Star Trek that picking a single example would be to miss the point. Where Star Trek differs from Hudson's wingnut world, however, is that the Federation also learns from other cultures. The interactions go both ways, unlike the one-sided ethnocentric and xenophobic ideas on foreign policy espoused by many of the TCP's most ardent supporters.

Since I don't wish to hash through this ridiculous article for the rest of my natural life, or even for the rest of the weekend, let me speed up a bit. I think you get the flavor of Hudson's approach already: isolate something that happened in Star Trek and connect it to a dog-whistle, boogeyman or spectre of the wingnut mind. To wit, "No Money" connects the absence of money in the Federation to communism (gasp!), missing soundly the point that the absence of money derives from an absence of scarcity. There's no point to money when there is no scarcity to drive economies. Whereas the Ferengi solve this "problem" by inventing new scarcities, the Federation embraces the promise of a world not held back by dollars and cents. A world freed to pursue its dreams and its ideals, no matter the price tag.

Hudson next misunderstands the ideals of the Federation rather dramatically by his characterization that "the Federation is a kind of galactic nation vying for power among hostile neighbors on all sides," and thus that "peace remains illusive." That the show documents how its characters deal with adversity in face of their ideals is not a criticism, but part of the wondrous utopia that the shows depict! Peace is so valued and well-understood by the Federation that they will work for peace even when so surrounded. One key transition depicted over the course of four shows spanning 26 seasons was the transformation of the Klingons from a violent adversary to an uneasy ally, then to a valued but misunderstood neighbor and finally to a celebrated friend in the Dominion War. What could better demonstrate the Federation's ideal of peace than their successful diplomatic efforts with a species whose cultural history celebrates violence and imperialism at every turn?

Skipping mostly past "Silly God, Tricks are for Man," I will pause just to note that it is so incoherent as to cite early Star Trek as following "Judeo-Christian tradition," as if such a thing existed outside of the weird premillennial-dispensationalism steeped mind of the modern wingnut. Far more interesting is Hudson's complete perversion of the Star Trek parables of the Cardiassians, Bajorans and the Dominion on display in "Occupations and Insurgents." No amount of analysis on my part could hope to improve simply quoting Hudson on this point:
When the United States deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq, its mission was similar to that of the Federation at Bajor, keep the peace, defend the interests of liberty, and prevent old and new enemies from exerting themselves in the area.
[Deep Space Nine] became the Federation’s vanguard, defending a wormhole through which the evil Dominion could attack from across the galaxy. Iraq likewise became American’s vanguard in the global War on Terror. The Dominion’s leaders were shape-shifters who could appear as anyone or anything, and thus conduct insurgent warfare against the Federation.
Anyone who equates the Dominion's grand imperialist schemes with modern insurgents either never watched Star Trek, or suffered one too many concussions to comprehend it properly. The same complete and utter lack of understanding of the ideals of the show is on display in "Phasers on Stun":
Be that as it may, the ability to simply stun enemies rather than kill them lowered the stakes of the drama somewhat. Star Trek frequently failed to address the uncomfortable scenarios such an ability would present in real life. Even if you could stun someone who wanted to kill you, wouldn’t they still want to kill you once they recovered? Have you really dealt with the threat?
Such a flirtation with violence as being the best solution to a problem, rather than as being a poor substitute for understanding, diplomacy and rational discussion says quite a bit more about Hudson and his memetic environment than I might have wanted to see, but there it is. To Hudson, it seems that killing someone is truly the only way to "deal with the threat," and that our fiction should reflect this cruel "fact." It seems that Hudson's comedy now gives way to a brutal exposure of a genuinely unpleasant mind. Luckily, we are spared delving too much further yet by the section on "Cosmic Environmentalism":
A powerful alien probe has come to Earth looking for them, and starts trashing the place when they don’t harmonize with its cetacean song. The moral of the story is obvious. If we do not act to protect the environment today, a race of alien sea turtles may destroy our civilization tomorrow.
Admittedly, Star Trek IV was cheesy and campy, but it was wonderful seeing the denizens of a better future come face to face with their history: a people that treats their environs as immutable, exploitable and lifeless. Hudson describes this in decidedly less gracious terms:
As they peruse the landscape of ’80′s San Francisco, the crew wander about like bemused Westerners stranded among a primitive tribe.
Maybe that should give us pause, Mr. Hudson? How should our decedents see us, and how do we go about making that happen? If we don't want the future to think of us as a what you call a "primitive tribe," maybe we shouldn't act like one!

I'm happy to report that Hudson has saved the best for last, as his sections on "Resistance is Futile" and "Can't We All Just Get Along?" meld together into a single thesis so bizarre, so stupid and so astounding that it alone could have motivated me writing this post. He opens with this doozy:

In a franchise which has clearly been leveraged to promote leftist ideology, one of the most fascinating developments has been the introduction off a villain so plainly emblematic of the Left. The popularity of the Borg, an aggressive race of cyborgs who share a collective hive mind, is no doubt attributable to the psychological horror they represent.
The Borg seek to assimilate intelligent life into their totalitarian society, wholly subduing individuality in service to the collective. In doing so, they believe they are working toward the perfection of their species. Could there be a better metaphor for the Left than these cybernetic zombies?
I dare you to count the number of buzzwords, dog-whistles and boogeymen hiding in that quotation, then add to that the ridiculous characterization of progressiveism as "cybernetic zombies." Any pretense of sanity has now been fully left behind, leaving Hudson standing bare in all his nuttiness, but he's not done yet!
The Borg challenge the Federation’s Utopian ideals, and thus those of the Left, by presenting a threat which cannot be reasoned or negotiated with.
But I thought the Borg was the Left! Oh, wait, they are again a few moments later:
The Borg are also the enemy faced in Star Trek: First Contact. At that point in franchise continuity, Picard has encountered the Borg enough to know there is only one appropriate response.
We’ve made too many compromises already, too many retreats. They invade our space, and we fall back. They assimilate entire worlds, and we fall back. Not again. The line must be drawn here. This far, no further!
So no mention of how that hard-line stance nearly cost Picard his life, his crew, his planet, his Federation, his ideals? No, as Hudson goes boldly on to conclude with this knockout of a thesis:
Again, the Borg stand as a curious contradiction to this sentiment. Strictly speaking, they share the same objective as the Federation, galactic peace. The difference is that the Borg see peace as the end result of destroying or assimilating all free people in the galaxy (a perspective they share with Islam). In this the Borg are correct, because freedom enables distinctiveness, and distinctiveness breeds discord. We will never completely get along so long as some among us remain free.
Setting aside for a moment the obscene perversion of the word "freedom" on display here, note what I have emphasized above: Hudson equates the Borg with Islam, and also with what he calls "the Left," and thus he's done! Liberals are Islam, QED. What better punchline could you imagine for such a coherently stupid manifesto?

While I have done my best to illustrate the comedy of Hudson's tea-stained view of the world, I would be remiss if I left one with the impression that this was all one big joke. The worldview through which Hudson sees Star Trek as not a utopia but a dystopia is currently still seen as a serious contender in the American marketplace of ideas; so much so that we think of Obama as liberal by comparison, so much so that Bill O'Riley has become a voice of reason on his network, so much so that Donald Trump is not immediately laughed off-stage and so much so that Michelle Bachman currently has a job. Thus, my laughter at Hudson's fevered views comes with a barb. I laugh in the hope and the promise of discrediting a bankrupt movement, against which the ideals espoused by a brilliant series of TV shows like Star Trek stands as all the more essential.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Like herding cats.

It must be a day whose name ends with a "y," for once again the Internet is abuzz with scandal du jour. This time, what seems to have set the fuse alight is Jerry Coyne's recent open letter to the NCSE and BCSE. While I found Coyne's letter to be well-written and compellingly argued enough to have been proud to add my name, there's bigger fish to fry at the moment.

Namely, I want to address the flood of comments directed at ν atheists that this melee has brought about. As Ophelia Benson has snarkily documented, this most recent shitstorm has prompted quite a few people to boldly define for their readers what ν atheism is. Perhaps my favorite contributed definition is that from Rob Knop, with whom I have had at least a few completely unproductive arguments:
Do the New Atheists really believe that they aren’t being argumentative, aggreessive, and generally dickish in their attacks on religion? Or, are the religious the “other” against whom any sort of rude behavior is justified?
With apologies to PZ Myers, the emphasis is mine, but the duplicitousness is all Knop's. Notice how Knop correctly notes that many atheists (including those often pinned with labels like "ν," "Gnu," "noo" or even "new") do not extend to religion the special privilege of immunity to criticism, but then immediately switches from talking about religion to talking about the religious. This bit of sleight of hand does the religious quite a disservice, as it implies that religious adherents are so incapable of separating themselves from their religion that criticism of their beliefs must necessarily equate to a personal attack against them.

By contrast, the view held by us νs is generally that religious adherents are, by and large, quite reasonable people, and in particular, are capable of engaging in arguments with those who disagree with them. Of course, one can point out examples where νs have engaged adversaries with more hostility, but as I have argued before, this is largely as a reaction to bad faith on the part of, well, some of the faithful. If you choose to call it "dickish" to point out that people like Knop are being duplicitous in their arguments, then I will admit that your definition of the word "dick" has little in common with any definition that I recognize.

While there is some judgment implicit in criticizing the positions of another, we rightfully do not let that stop us from criticizing political positions, accidental and intentional prejudices, breaches of ethics, illogical actions, etc. Why we should then suspend these actions where religion is involved eludes me. After all, criticism both at the level of society and at the level of one's immediate social circle is a valuable way of seeking a better world for everyone. At the same time, it is commonly understood in our culture that there is a time and a place for such criticism, but given the monumental importance that religious beliefs play in our world, I should rather err on the side of too much criticism of irrational beliefs than not enough.

To expound on that point just a little bit, let me direct your attention to one of Greta Christina's articles, in which she points out that even moderate and "sophisticated" religious beliefs must somehow deal with the genocide and infanticide on display in the holy books such as the Bible. That some widely respected theologians such as William Lane Craig decide to deal with the problem of evil in their holy books by actually making arguments that genocide isn't so bad after all should give us pause. Do we really want to leave unnoticed an elephant in the room that would render even well-educated and good intentioned people into apologists for the systematic destruction of a race? Now, before Knop or Staynard or someone else misinterprets the previous sentence, note that I emphatically did not just call all religious adherents genocidal. What I said, and let me make this precise, is that the process of rationalizing a religion with a modern understanding of morality can lead one to ignoring or attempting to justify atrocities. If criticism of the kinds of religious thoughts that lead to these problems can help make the world a better place by ensuring that we can continue to progress morally, without being bound to a the values written down in millennia-old book, then I will accept the label of "dick" that seems to come with the territory. I am, after all, in good company.

Returning to the original point, though, why is it that such dishonest and useless definitions as that quoted above still have such staying power? There are obviously lots of reasons for the unfortunate pervasiveness of the "New = Asshole" style of definitions, but I would like to add one more for your consideration: ν atheists are, for the most part, hard to characterize. Is ν atheism new? No; people have been loudly and proudly atheistic for quite a long time. Is gnu atheism well-characterized by a set of beliefs that are distinct from "garden variety" atheism? Not that I've been able to tell.

What unites noo atheists is mostly  what unites many humanists, skeptics, agnostics, atheists, brights and what have you: a dedication to the positive power of rational thought as a tool for advancing human understanding. This comes along with quite a lot of consequences, naturally, which are adopted more readily by some rationalists more than others, but that's as basic an understanding of ν atheism as I've ever been able to achieve. Past that, there is a constant flux of arguments by which we refine and develop our understanding. We are, by nature, curious and exploratory. Many of us are feisty in our ways, celebrating not only in chances to show someone else wrong, but to be shown wrong ourselves. From my view, trying to characterize ν atheists is a project as doomed to failure as trying to herd a bunch of cats.