despots or populists? SciFi explorations.

David Brin contrasts “Star Wars” despots vs. “Star Trek” populists (Why is George Lucas peddling an elitist, anti-democratic agenda under the guise of escapist fun? 99Jn15). Empire is an ancient concept. Federation on a broad scale is much more modern. Empires depend upon the annointed with extraordinary controls and powers. Federations depend upon individuals who build coalitions and hold governing bodies accountable.

The differences at first seem superficial. One saga has an air force motif (tiny fighters) while the other appears naval. In “Star Trek,” the big ship is heroic and the cooperative effort required to maintain it is depicted as honorable. Indeed, “Star Trek” sees technology as useful and essentially friendly — if at times also dangerous. Education is a great emancipator of the humble (e.g. Starfleet Academy). Futuristic institutions are basically good-natured (the Federation), though of course one must fight outbreaks of incompetence and corruption. Professionalism is respected, lesser characters make a difference and henchmen often become brave whistle-blowers — as they do in America today.

In “Star Trek,” when authorities are defied, it is in order to overcome their mistakes or expose particular villains, not to portray all institutions as inherently hopeless. Good cops sometimes come when you call for help. Ironically, this image fosters useful criticism of authority, because it suggests that any of us can gain access to our flawed institutions, if we are determined enough — and perhaps even fix them with fierce tools of citizenship.

By contrast, the oppressed “rebels” in “Star Wars” have no recourse in law or markets or science or democracy. They can only choose sides in a civil war between two wings of the same genetically superior royal family. They may not meddle or criticize. As Homeric spear-carriers, it’s not their job.

In teaching us how to distinguish good from evil, Lucas prescribes judging by looks: Villains wear Nazi helmets. They hiss and leer, or have red-glowing eyes, like in a Ralph Bakshi cartoon. On the other hand, “Star Trek” tales often warn against judging a book by its cover — a message you’ll also find in the films of Steven Spielberg, whose spunky everyman characters delight in reversing expectations and asking irksome questions.

Above all, “Star Trek” generally depicts heroes who are only about 10 times as brilliant, noble and heroic as a normal person, prevailing through cooperation and wit, rather than because of some inherited godlike transcendent greatness. Characters who do achieve godlike powers are subjected to ruthless scrutiny. In other words, “Trek” is a prototypically American dream, entranced by notions of human improvement and a progress that lifts all. Gene Roddenberry’s vision loves heroes, but it breaks away from the elitist tradition of princes and wizards who rule by divine or mystical right.

By contrast, these are the only heroes in the “Star Wars” universe.

“Star Wars” belongs to our dark past. A long, tyrannical epoch of fear, illogic, despotism and demagoguery that our ancestors struggled desperately to overcome, and that we are at last starting to emerge from, aided by the scientific and egalitarian spirit that Lucas openly despises. A spirit we must encourage in our children, if they are to have any chance at all.

Both “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” are fables – stories – that reveal more about their authors than about reality. In this case we see two ways of looking at ourselves. In one it is looking to the past and fondly remembering those kinds of social structures that are going the way of dinosaurs. In the other we see a vision of what might be when people are released from constraints by knowledge and technology and have the independence and quality to form ever better social structures.

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