Writing/Demonizing in the Dark
originally posted on the HyperTwiki on 2009-05-25
The other day, it somehow came up that Zander (Harena's 12-year-old) wanted to watch the "Devil in the Dark" episode of Star Trek. Having not watched it in maybe a decade or more, I sat down and watched it with him (from a VHS tape I apparently recorded in ~1987).
< BEGIN SPOILERS >
For those not familiar with the episode: a human mining colony is experiencing sudden and mysterious deaths as well as missing and damaged mining equipment, all of which are soon traced to a frightening creature who strikes with lightning speed and vanishes, horribly charring its victims with acid and leaving nothing but ashes and bits of bone. The creature even completely removes a pump vital to the colony's survival. The colonists and their leader understandably want the creature killed. Long story short: Spock makes mental contact with the creature, finds that it is very intelligent and that the humans have been unknowingly destroying its eggs; its attacks and vandalism were an attempt to protect the eggs and drive the humans off. Spock arranges a truce, the creature returns the pump, and she and her children begin helping with mining operations, making them all "embarrassingly rich".
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At the end, we were talking about how this is an example of why it's better to try and understand your "enemies" than to fight them, and it occurred to me that this is probably the thing I liked most about Star Trek: positive-sum thinking, as exemplified by things like talking to an "enemy" and finding that what they want is totally compatible with what we want, and all we have to do is avoid stepping on their toes; the idea that trustworthiness and communication are more important than weaponry; that we don't have to destroy others in order to get what we want; and so on.
Further, it occurred to me that the basic premise of this episode – the "devil" in the dark becomes an ally – epitomizes the exact opposite of the kind of "demonization" thinking nurtured and promoted by the neocons: there are those among us who may seem innocent but are in fact enemies of everything we hold dear; they must be sought out and eliminated, without negotiation.
Lately I've been having some rather intensive online discussion with a fellow claiming to be a "progressive" conservative. I was initially rather skeptical that "progressive conservatism" wasn't an oxymoron by definition, but it's looking like it may actually be theoretically possible, depending on how you define "conservatism" – if nothing else, I'm beginning to think that "progressive conservatism" is as good a name as any for a philosophy which is primarily being practiced, these days, by those calling themselves "liberals".
What he hasn't been able to show me, as far as I can tell, is how the public policy choices he supports are any more "conservative" than choices I might prefer.
I had labeled the philosophy I was defending as "rational liberalism", to avoid confusion with the wide range of "liberal" values, much or most of which I agree with but which can get pretty loopy in places (albeit generally less alarming or outright dangerous than many neocon beliefs), but after watching this episode I found the phrase "Star Trek liberalism" bouncing around my head...
...and then it occurred to me that what I am actually doing is saying something like this: Neocon/Republican philosophy is a radical departure from the values which seem the best to me and which I grew up with, many of which are demonstrated by the better Star Trek episodes. The moral values displayed in those episodes are the values I want to preserve, in the face of the "post-9/11 world" claims that we must clamp down on freedoms and lower our standards if we expect to survive the terrorists (and abortionists and gays and America-hating liberals).
In short: I am a Star Trek conservative.
- This was a few years before the common usage of "liberal" seemed to shift. In 2009, my understanding of it included "progressive" ideas; by the end of the next decade, it had come to mean a more incrementalist or centrist approach that is often at odds with progressivism.
- 2022 clarification: in that his preferred policies seemed really kind of wasteful, actually.