Thursday, April 18, 2013

We offered the world order!

There are few things, few issues--be they moral or political--that cannot be viewed through the prism of Star Trek (the original series). And this speaks to why Star Trek continues to fascinate people, older ones like me and younger ones like my children. The themes explored in various episodes were very much contemporary ones, from racism to sexism to war and beyond; those issues remain significant ones today, as well. And the writing in the series was high-quality for the most part, due to the fact that Roddenberry turned to seasoned science fictions masters whenever possible, like Harlan Ellison, Theodore Sturgeon, and Robert Bloch.

One of the most popular episodes of the original series, indeed of the entire Star Trek franchise, is Space Seed from season one. Guest starring Ricardo Montalbán as Khan Noonien Singh and written by Gene Coon and Carey Wilber, the episode is about a group of late-20th century earthlings who left Earth in a spaceship and drifted through the cosmos in a state of suspended animation until discovered and awakened by the Enterprise. These people turn out to be the last of a group of genetically engineered "supermen" who had attempted to conquer world (the period of the late 1990's is know as the "Eugenics Wars" in the Star Trek universe). Once awake and acclimated to their new time, they return to their task (only this time seeking to rule the galaxy) under the leadership of Khan.

The crew of the Enterprise is unsure of the true identities of these people until Spock and Kirk trick Kahn into an admission, at which point he offers the memorable line "We offered the world order!" The full exchange in this regard:
KIRK: Forgive my curiosity, Mister Khan, but my officers are anxious to know more about your extraordinary journey.
SPOCK: And how you managed to keep it out of the history books.
KHAN: Adventure, Captain. Adventure. There was little else left on Earth.
SPOCK: There was the war to end tyranny. Many considered that a noble effort.
KHAN: Tyranny, sir? Or an attempt to unify humanity?
SPOCK: Unify, sir? Like a team of animals under one whip?
KHAN: I know something of those years. Remember, it was a time of great dreams, of great aspiration.
SPOCK: Under dozens of petty dictatorships.
KHAN: One man would have ruled eventually. As Rome under Caesar. Think of its accomplishments.
SPOCK: Then your sympathies were with...
KHAN: You are an excellent tactician, Captain. You let your second in command attack while you sit and watch for weakness.
KIRK: You have a tendency to express ideas in military terms, Mister Khan. This is a social occasion.
KHAN: It has been said that social occasions are only warfare concealed. Many prefer it more honest, more open.
KIRK: You fled. Why? Were you afraid?
KHAN: I've never been afraid.
KIRK: But you left at the very time mankind needed courage.
KHAN: We offered the world order!
KHAN: Excellent. Excellent. But if you will excuse me, gentlemen and ladies, I grow fatigued again. With your permission, Captain, I will return to my quarters.
Khan is supposed to come across as a ruthless would-be tyrant, he is supposed to be--for lack of a better way to say it--a clear-cut villain. But later in the story, Kirk, Scotty, and Bones wax nostalgic on Khan and his rule, displaying a certain amount of admiration--even hero-worship--for the man and what he achieved or almost achieved, much to the surprise of the coldly logical Mr. Spock.

And here we have something of a conundrum, because the future world of Star Trek is one of near-absolute equality, almost free of racism, sexism, and even nationalism (Chekov not withstanding in this last regard). It is something of a Utopian society; other galactic civilizations (Romulan, Klingon, etc.) tend to pale in comparison to the Federation. This is symbolic to some extent: the Federation is the United States/United Nations, other empires are akin to the Soviets and the Chinese of the twentieth century. But in creating this very clear dichotomy, where righteousness and justice are forever the province of the Federation, Roddenberry's Utopianism goes too far. For there is truth he fails to take into account: peace depends on the existence of an authority sufficient to enforce it. There is no peace in anarchy. As Thomas Hobbes noted (Leviathan, Chapter XV, my boldface):
From that law of Nature [the right of everyman to everything] by which we are obliged to transfer to another such rights as, being retained, hinder the peace of mankind, there followeth a third, which is this, 'that men perform their covenants made'; without which covenants are in vain, and but empty words: and the right of all men to all things remaining, we are still in the condition of war. 
And in this law of Nature consisteth the fountain and original of 'justice.' For, where no covenant hath preceded, there hath no right been transferred, and every man has right to everything; and consequently, no action can be unjust. But when a covenant is made, then to break it is 'unjust'; and the definition of 'injustice' is no other than 'the not performance of covenant.' And whatsoever is not unjust is 'just.' 
But because covenants of mutual trust, where there is a fear of not performance on either part, as hath been said in the former chapter, are invalid, though the original of justice be the making of covenants, yet injustice actually there can be none, till the cause of such fear be taken away, which, while men are in the natural condition of war, cannot be done. Therefore, before the names of just and unjust can have place, there must be some coercive power to compel men equally to the performance of their covenants, by the terror of some punishment greater than the benefit they expect by the breach of their covenant; and to make good that propriety which by mutual contract men acquire in recompense of the universal right they abandon; and such power there is none before the erection of a commonwealth.
Robert Kaplan--in a new piece--proceeds from this Hobbesian principle in order to explain why the current world is one teetering on the brink of anarchy in many places. He notes that the lack of hierarchical systems in parts of the Middle East and the lack of am active hegemonic power in the world at at large are the principle contributing factors in this regard. And even more significantly, he points out that democracy requires hierarchy to exist, a point that leaves those nations of the Arab Spring in the lurch, so to speak:
Democracy itself implies an unequal, hierarchal order, albeit one determined by voters. What we have in the Middle East cannot be democracy because almost nowhere is there a new and sufficiently formalized hierarchy. No, what we have in many places in the Middle East is the weakening of central authority with no new hierarchy to adequately replace it.
In our current quest to level society (well, the current quest of some, at any rate), to create a world of absolute equality, we are seeing--sometimes slowly, sometimes not so slowly--a steady breakdown of hierarchical structures, political ones, economic ones, and social ones. And more often than not, these breakdowns are being widely applauded under the belief that less hierarchy and more equality is automatically a good thing.

At the same time, the United States--under the current administration--seems intent on relinquishing it's more or less hegemonic role in the world, based on the idea that it simply should not assume it has the right to take such a role. And again, this is applauded by the same groups who see the above breakdowns as good things.

But historical evidence--which Kaplan provides--suggests the Star Trek ideal is a false hope, that peace and especially justice require some sort of hierarchy, are ultimately better served when there is a greater hegemon. Perhaps not a hegemon like Khan Noonien Singh, but a hegemon nonetheless. For as Kaplan notes, historical hegemons tended to be more liberal, as compared to those powers who would challenge their dominance. Will there come a time when the last citizens of the United States echo those words of Khan, as the greater part of the world descends into anarchy and widespread violence? Will this ultimately be that nation's epitaph:
"They offered the world order...but it preferred anarchy. And Hobbes was proved right, yet again."
Cheers, all.


  1. Alexis saw it coming.

    "Americans are so enamored of equality that they would rather be equal in slavery than unequal in freedom."