Freedom of speech and religion. Freedom from oppression and exploitation. Equal treatment and opportunity. These things are not free. The people have to demand these things from their fellows, from their government, from their bosses, from corporations and from banks. It is this demand, whether through demonstrations, strikes, petitions, law suits or breaking unjust laws, that is the price of freedom. The price has been high; ridicule from the powers that be and their loyal sheep is the least of it. There are jobs lost, beatings, jailings and deaths. So thank a union member, an activist, even some lawyers. Don’t thank a soldier- because our freedom has nothing to do with invading far away lands for the benefit of giant corporations and banks to kill and terrorize their economically poor inhabitants.
If you’ve seen Clint Eastwood’s latest movie then you heard the erroneous metaphor used by the father to instruct his sons around the dinner table. Here’s a better version of that speech. What someone who actually understood the world, and followed the teachings of Jesus, would have told his kids…
“There are at least four types of people in this world: wolves, sheep, lambs and sheep dogs. All of us have the choice to be any one of these four at any given time. Wolves prey on those that are poorer & weaker than themselves. Sheep are focused on their own little piece of pasture so they don’t realize the wolves are surrounding them. Lambs are the unquestioning, loyal followers of the wolves and they are led to the slaughter by them. Sheep dogs have no special gifts except they are curious about the world and they care about their fellow man and the common good. Without using violence against wolves (who they can’t defeat through violence anyway), they fight to make things better for all the other animals. If a stronger kid is bullying a weaker kid (any kid- not just your brother) you have the right to try to stop him. We take care of our brothers and sisters here- and every human being is our brother and sister. That will keep you from being a wolf. Also, we are not raising any lambs in this family. So there’s no way you’re joining the US military.”
There is a lie that many in this country have swallowed and it is keeping us from moving forward and making this a more fair and just society. That lie is the belief that collective action, putting the common good before selfishness, equals totalitarianism.
This lie exists because the Soviet Union was a totalitarian state. But totalitarianism is not required for collective action. There are more examples of democratic collectivism in the history of the world, and our nation, than I could list in a year of blog posts.
This lie reflects simplistic thinking that confuses means with ends and believes there is only one means to any end. However, there are multiple means to any end. The means that is totalitarianism is bad; the end that is the common good is not. In fact, the means that is totalitarianism doesn’t truly lead to the common good since it stifles individual rights.
How does this lie keep us from moving forward to create a more fair and just society? Because it makes any cooperative effort taboo. It says that group action and “being your brothers keeper” require authoritarian control. Well it’s a lie. True group action is called democracy and really being your brother’s keeper is called love. Neither of these things could ever be authoritarian or totalitarian.
The people who believe the lie that collective action equals totalitarianism are often the most authoritarian people around. It’s Orwellian double speak and it’s helping destroy whatever moral fabric our society has left.
I don’t like it when right-wing talk radio hosts tell me what I, a left-winger, think and what my motivations are (which they do often it seems). They get it wrong most of the time, usually because they ascribe their own motivations to us left-wingers. So I’m going to cross a line here that I’m not completely comfortable with, but I believe it’s important to try to understand why people do what they do.
I am not a Biblical or Constitutional literalist, so I am often confused by why other people are. I have talked to many of them over the years and, to me, their reasons don’t justify their beliefs. So I’m going to try to answer a question, not by ascribing my motivations to them- but by ascribing universal human traits to them. If I mess it up, my apologies to all the literal authoritarians out there. Here goes…
What is it with all the fundamentalism in our country in this century- religious, political and academic? Fundamentalism is usually defined as a literal, authoritarian interpretation of a religious text. But this sort of thinking is often applied to the other areas of society- like politics and education. It is black and white thinking where black is always that which is different from yourself or different from those who influence you or hold power over you. I keep hearing the same disturbing phrases lately…
“Is he a true Christian?” This is all about judging whether people are worthy or not. It’s not the same as “is he a good person?” or “does he follow the teachings of Christ?” This question means- is he like us or is he “the other”?
“That’s Un American!” America is what we as a society say it is- today. America is what we make it- today. America is not an eternal unchanging thing. America used to be a land that allowed one person to own another person, America changed. America used to be a land that only allowed people who owned property to vote. America changed. America used to be a land where women could not vote. America changed.
“I don’t want my kids exposed to those ideas.” If you are truly interested in truth and facts and reality, and if you believe your ideas are right and true (and can therefore stand against criticism and alternate viewpoints), then what’s wrong with letting your kid learn about other ideas? This is a country that was founded on the belief that we needed a new way, that we needed to think out of the box, that we needed to drastically change things, that democracy is the way to run a country. In that country all ideas should be on the table. And if all ideas are okay to consider, then nothing is Un-American. Certainly many ideas might be morally wrong, factually wrong or just plain unworkable; but to divide ideas in to American and Un-American is pure fundamentalist authoritarianism. It’s a euphemism for “not what I am.”
“That’s a subversive idea!” According to the dictionary subversive is ‘To undermine the power and authority of an established institution’. Kind of like what the founding fathers did during the revolution. Fundamental thinkers seem to believe subversion is defined as any and all criticism. Well, if an institution can’t handle a little constructive criticism then it doesn’t deserve to have it’s power and authority. If it’s a good institution then it can weather a little criticism and if it’s a good institution it can take that criticism to heart and fix itself. I would hope that all persons and institutions have subversiveness in their souls. Things can’t get better, more efficient, more profitable unless the use of power and the claim to authority are questioned.
I’ll tell you what I think is up with all the fundamentalism. It’s not really fundamentalism, it’s authoritarianism. Authoritarianism is absolute strict adherence to individuals in power, and those structures that legitimize their power, at the expense of the wishes and the freedom of individual people. Why do people need authoritarianism? Why do they cling to it with such fear that they become violent and intolerant? Because they have a need to be told what to do instead of figuring it out for themselves. It’s really very anti-democratic and anti-freedom.
This goes hand in hand with black and white thinking- thinking that all versions of something are wrong. But in reality, what’s right and wrong depends on what version your talking about, It depends on what the situation is. “It depends”- and that’s what some people can’t stand. It’s too confusing for them. They can’t have things “depend”, so they decide that it never depends and it’s always wrong.
In order to avoid thinking for yourself you need a concrete, unchanging set of rules that you just follow without question. Even though no true set of rules such as this exists, you tell yourself the Bible is that rulebook and you make it fit your experience and you make it outlaw all other experiences. You tell yourself the Constitution is the rulebook for how to run the country and you make it fit your experience and outlaw all other experiences.
Now, in order to know when the rules are being followed or broken, you have to tie the rules into some superficial indicators that are easily identified. Easy-to-recognize visual cues that are familiar and comfortable to you- like whiteness or crew cuts.
Even if you have a set of concrete rules you still have to apply them to the situations you find yourself in. So you can’t escape the uncertainty of life as much as you’d like. In order to deal with that you create an ultimate authority figure in the form of a God or a “leader” (like a founding father or a superior officer). They tell you what to do so you don’t have to wonder how to apply the rules.
You just follow orders and only act when someone, or some God, tells you to. The God idea can be insidious because the answers come through prayers and those answers are really just your subconscious telling you what you feel most comfortable doing. Often this is what you’re used to, or what you imagine the authority figures in your life would tell you. It is, like all religion, a good thing for good people and a bad thing for bad people.
Authoritarianism is different from having principals. Authoritarianism is doing what your told without question by those who have power over you. Principals are a hierarchy of values that have nothing to do with who has power over you. “First principals” are more important than “second principals” which are more important than “third principals” etc. This is important since, life being full of grey areas and things that depend on circumstance, principals can often conflict with one another. Knowing which principals are of greater importance allows us to figure out how to act when the conflict occurs. But you have to think it through yourself because while your principals may be steadfast- each situation is unique. This is too much for authoritarian people.
Authoritarian literalism is not reflective of the reality we all live in. It is used to maintain the privileges of the few and control the many, some of whom are happy to be controlled so they don’t have to deal with the fear of having to accept responsibility for their own actions.
Many of us (myself included) spend way too much time figuring out what we like and why. I guess it’s part of being in a commercial, consumer culture. What I’ve noticed though is that many people, when telling others what they like, are just parroting what has been said by their perceived peers (or betters) over and over until it becomes “fact”- not through truth and evidence, but through repetition.
Alot of this desire to decide and disseminate what we like translates into “best of” lists. But does it really matter what we think the best beer is, or what the best clothes are? Does it make alot of sense to defend your preference for low riders when 70 years ago it was high waist-lines and 20 years from now it could be again?
Well, I think some “best of” lists do matter- when they affect and/or reflect our personal or cultural morality. This leads me to another interest of mine that began in childhood, but persisted into adulthood (unlike reading comic books). This interest is Star Trek. I was watching the original series in syndication back in the early seventies. My values were strongly shaped by that show and by other things during that era of unabashed talk about love, peace and brotherhood. I was certainly affected by all the talk from Gene Roddenberry that Star Trek was supposed to be intelligent, adult science fiction.
Since the lion share of Star Trek episodes (both old and new series) deal with the human condition and it’s struggles, values and ethics- I think which stories are considered the best does matter. It speaks to what we value for ourselves and others. It’s a conversation about how we should live and what world we should strive to make. So my “best ofs” when it comes to Star Trek are the episodes that are about some larger topic.
If you have no interest in Star Trek you can stop reading right now.
First, a few thoughts on the Star Trek movies. The best and purest movie version of Star Trek is Star Trek the Motion Picture (ST-TMP). It jettisons the styrofoam boulders and garishness of the original series and is about big, intellectually expansive ideas. The Star Trek film that’s premise is the least intellectually expansive is…Wrath of Khan. And Khan went from being a sort of anti-hero in the series to being a clichéd, scenery-chewing villain in the 1982 film. The original series had no comic book-type arch-enemies and that made the series more mature than the films. Maybe the idealistic 60s saw more grays in life than the superficial 80s did…
Star Trek The Motion Picture is smart sci-fi, it’s anti-Star Wars, and anti-childish- in a way that Wrath of Khan’s black-hatted villain and adolescent comic book silliness was not. Not that black-hatted villains, comic book silliness (or childishness) are always bad, but they aren’t very useful methods of telling Star trek stories. Besides, thanks to the influence of the aforementioned Star Wars, we have always had more than enough of that in science fiction. And don’t get me started on the recent (derivative, Star Wars-copy) film reboot of the original series crew.
Just an aside, it always amazed me how people forgot that, before Wrath of Khan was made, Khan was a minor character in the Star Trek universe and Space Seed was a solid but forgettable episode that was never paid any mind or mention.
I’m well aware the parroting chorus says ST-TMP stinks because it isn’t all soap opera-y and has no action in it. But liking Star Trek because of the action scenes is absurd! Star Trek has always been pretty crappy at action scenes. If that’s what someone is looking for there are way better shows & movies out there in that regard. As Gene Roddenberry once said, “People want me to do battles all the time, well screw them that’s not what Star Trek is about.” I couldn’t agree more. Solely escapist, adolescent wish-fulfillment sci-fi is a waste of time and talent on the part of us all (and I would venture to say that much of the Star Trek movies are just that).
Actually, the Star Trek movie series (both original cast and Next Gen.) prove that the television shows were way better than the films. This seems to be because film has to play to the lowest common denominator so they are all about action and quips and soap opera. The only Star Trek film that isn’t like this is the first one. At least that one, as well as Voyage Home and Undiscovered Country, were about some big ideas (although the humor in Voyage Home is the typical, lame humor that you always get from the original series- except in the first season and in Star Trek The Motion Picture).
So let’s talk about the best of Star Trek television. Here’s a simple question that would help everyone rank Star Trek episodes: “Is Shakespeare better than the TV show Friends?”
If you answered yes then you might understand that just because something is newer, or currently in vogue, doesn’t necessarily make it better. This means you shouldn’t rank DS9 higher than it deserves merely because it “broke the mold”- which is really code for “followed the mold- begun in the late 90s, of TV by being serialized, focusing on war and justifying the killing of innocents (things very, very much in vogue still)”.
Another thing that makes Shakespeare better is that his works are about deep and/or big ideas and truths. Star Trek is also better when it’s about these things. But I’m unusual I suppose, I find things the most entertaining when they’re about such things.
I have not seen many episodes of DS9 beyond season four and I haven’t seen more than two or three Enterprise episodes. So my knowledge is incomplete. But I have little interest in seeing the all-war-all-the-time version of DS9 or the all-war-all-the-time/Vulcans-suck Enterprise. This is not Star Trek to me.
My least favorite series (after Enterprise-which I don’t even count) is DS9. For most of it’s first 4 seasons it’s really great Star Trek- it’s a shame it lost it’s potential in war, soap opera and a concerted effort to deny the morals of the very franchise it was supposed to be part of. The other three shows are pretty equal in my eyes- although the Next Gen characters are distinctly lacking in passion compared to the characters in all the other series.
My favorite show might actually be Voyager. It’s just as inconsistent as the original series- more so; but unlike DS9, which eventually said that morality doesn’t work when the going gets tough, Voyager says that morality is the most important thing to hold onto when the going gets tough.
While Voyager’s time-travel episodes often promote selfishness, most of their Borg episodes are absurd and on occasion Janeway loses her compassionate, egalitarian manner and acts like an authoritarian crazy person (especially in seasons 3-5) – Voyager’s average episodes still promote the best that Star Trek has to offer and to teach: Do the right thing for the common good, regardless of reward or punishment. Don’t compromise your most important principals, be creative enough to find solutions that are in line with those principles. If they can be compromised, if they need to be compromised, then maybe they aren’t good principals in the first place. There are always conflicting principles that we have to choose amongst. But our highest principals should never be selfish (like winning at all costs for example)
I’m not much interested in listing the worst episodes. Although I will mention that I feel some of the original shows all-comedy episodes number among the worst (only the 24th century shows could do all-out comedy and make it believable). The shows that don’t have the courage of Star Trek’s moral convictions are definitely among the worst (DS9’s “In The Pale Moonlight” for example).
On the other hand, I feel that some of the surreal episodes from the third year of the original series like “The Empath”, “Savage Curtain” “Plato’s Stepchildren” and “Spectre of the Gun” are actually very good (you just have to accept they’re very-purposeful Twilight Zone-ness). Anyway, for the heck of it, below are my proposed top 32 Star Trek episodes. This allows for 8 episodes per series (not counting Enterprise)
By the way, I do not include “City on the Edge of Forever” as one of the top episodes- despite the fact that the drama (and the message about sacrifice) is top notch. I just can’t place a story near the top that is based on shaky premises or says that war is the best solution. As long as Hitler attacked Russia he, like Napoleon, probably would never have won, with or without US intervention.
Also, who’s to say what a national pacifist movement (as opposed to the national non-interventionist movement that really did exist) in the early 30s might have brought about? Maybe the US would have been able to get involved in international relations sooner and made alliances to stop the Nazis and keep them from remilitarizing- which would certainly be a key pacifist concern. The German’s didn’t begin their heavy-water experiments until the war had already begun anyways.
Why didn’t Kirk just tell Edith the truth about where he and Spock were from and why? Maybe she didn’t have to die, she could just change her path. Einstein (and many others!) promoted pacifism until the war started but didn’t cause it to be lost.
I know, the writers skewed the historical facts to create the dilemma- but when it comes to war and peace, the historical facts often get skewed, which allows further war to happen. Star Trek is supposed to be about solutions and truth, not promoting dangerous myths. They should have, and could have, chosen something besides pacifism as the “wrong-headed but well-meaning” idea behind the dilemma. It’s still a great episode about sacrifice, but it doesn’t make my top 32.
Below are, in chronological order, what I feel are the stories that best promote the core Star Trek values of Truth, Justice (especially social), Freedom, Responsibility, Tolerance, Brotherhood, Peace and the Common Good. Stories that are antithetical to these values (and they can be found in all the series) cannot be considered for the top anything.
Return of the Archons
Taste of Armageddon
Day of the Dove
For The World is Hollow and I have Touched the Sky
Arsenal of Freedom
In the Hands of the Prophets
Past Tense Part II
Our Man Bashir
All right, now let’s get off the couch and get back to real life.