Treknobabble is a continuing series of columns written by uber-Trekkie Reed Farrington in anticipation of the upcoming J.J. Abrams Star Trek movie.
I know I’ve dealt with this topic somewhat in past Treknobabbles, but it’s a topic that bears continual re-examination because it’s a problem that’s difficult to see resolved by the 23rd century. The other day, I saw a program on ABC that staged someone being racist around common American citizens and catching their reactions with a hidden camera. This program was continuing a string of popular television specials that had been televised last year. Also I have been following reaction to the movie Gran Torino, which has Clint Eastwood playing an apparent racist. And the final episode of Boston Legal highlighted the issue of Chinese corporations taking over America with negative reaction from the characters because of the Chinese government’s habit of violating human rights. The criticisms directed to the Chinese during last year’s Beijing Olympics have also been weighing heavily on my mind.
Star Trek depicted a harmonious multiracial crew and is rightly looked on as a herald of tolerance. The Original Series episode “The Devil in the Dark” even had Kirk and Spock making peace with a non-humanoid silicon-based alien species that were viewed as monsters initially by the human miners. Communication was the answer to resolving the conflict, and it was Spock who was the voice of reason and who got Kirk to overcome his fears. The one view that was not tolerated was not respecting the value of human life. Along with that was the notion that human life should be about making life meaningful. And so when Kirk interfered with cultures, the television audience admired his actions because he was making life better for the aliens.
The Vulcan philosophy of Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations (IDIC) expressed an ideal that humans eventually adopted by the 23rd century. It was fine to be proud of one’s own accomplishments, but one always knew that an accomplishment was to be shared with everyone else’s contributions to make a better whole. So, played for humorous effect, we had Chekov’s propensity to attribute every invention to a Russian. Chekov never disparaged or made fun of another culture.
With the politically correct 80s, it seems strange to me that I find the Next Generation displaying subtle signs of racism. Everyone points to the stereotypical depictions of African Americans in an early episode called “Code of Honor”. There are instances where other culture’s customs are made fun of or not treated with due respect. (I admit being guilty of this.) There was a Next Generation episode where Picard had to make first contact by giving a prepared speech in the other culture’s language which consisted of clicks and odd sounds. Picard’s exasperation with having to learn the speech comes off as rather intolerant. Sure, he doesn’t overtly make fun of the odd sounding language, but this is a task that shouldn’t be treated with contempt. The Next Generation introduced the Pakled species, who come off as being slow and dim-witted. Their droopy face make-up exaggerates these characteristics. The Next Generation crew members always seemed to be condescending to them even when they showed they could be dangerous. The same could be said for the treatment of the greedy Ferengis. Quark on Deep Space Nine even addressed the issue. In the Next Generation movie Insurrection, Picard finds himself having to attend a party wearing a “silly” alien headdress. Picard expresses displeasure at wearing the headdress. These instances are played for comic effect. Now if you find that I’m being overly sensitive, I submit to you that you have some growing up to do.
I admit to being a misogynist, but at the same time, I have great empathy for individuals who make sacrifices for others. (Maybe I learned the latter from watching Star Trek.) I don’t think my misogyny comes from being a victim of racism. I have experienced racism growing up, but nothing really violent. I guess I tend to try to fit in with other people. I remember two cousins coming over from China when I was a kid, and they went to the same school I did, but they didn’t know how to speak English. We were the only Chinese kids at the school. One of them would always get into fights. I never had to fight anyone (except for one incident later in Grade 7 at another school). You would think being a teacher’s pet as a kid that I would have aroused some antagonism, but my aura of intelligence seemed to be a protective shield. (I can feel Greg wanting to punch me right now.) My cousins soon moved to Vancouver. There were more Chinese over there.
(Oh, about that one incident where I had to fight, the school bully would often make racist remarks which I would ignore. One day at the lockers, he decided to mock fight me, and did a flicking side kick that I easily avoided. I grabbed his leg and wouldn’t let go, so he shoved me into the lockers with his leg. The loud slamming noise attracted the attention of a teacher in his classroom. By the time the teacher came running out, I had let go of his leg, and we were both just standing there. When the teacher asked what was going on, my enemy and I both said, “Nothing.” After that incident, my enemy no longer made racist remarks towards me, and we became friends. We didn’t hang out with each other, but we did the “Hi, how’s it going?” thing when we ran into each other. So I guess the lesson here is to stand up for yourself, and don’t get the authorities involved.)
Watching the ABC special was somewhat cathartic with the Mexican being interviewed breaking into tears at how the actors portraying Mexican immigrants were treated by some American citizens. Being able to speak English overcomes a lot of overt racism. When I encounter unfriendly people, it never occurs to me that my outward racial appearance might be the cause.
I was not offended by Gran Torino, but I can see how some people might be offended. I can even see racists applauding the film, but I do think scrutiny of the film will reveal that white people come off rather badly in the film. Maybe ignorant people won’t pick up on this.
One thing about the Original Series that was somewhat bad was the portrayal of Klingons as the bad guys. And I think this is a problem with the mentality of the people making the movies is that Star Trek always needs a bad guy. With J.J. Abrams movie, we have a Romulan bad guy. Our culture is so rooted in antagonism and hatred that we love to hate the bad guy. The reason I love Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home so much is that the enemy is human ignorance. Star Trek IV is the top grossing Star Trek film, but the majority of people say that Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is their favorite film because Khan was such a good bad guy. In defense of the Original Series, the episodes with Klingons did show how irrational the hatred towards them was. I loved how the Organians put Kirk in a bad light when Kirk was ranting about how the Organians had no right to stop the fighting between humans and Klingons. Seeing our hero being made a fool of made us realize how irrational Kirk was about this issue.
Many Trekkies found it hard to deal with Kirk’s overt racism against the Klingons in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Sure, a Klingon had killed his son, but you don’t blame an entire race for the actions of one of them. You would think that having the Klingons taking credit for Shakespeare’s Hamlet and imprisoning you on an ice planet would make you even more unforgiving, but by movie’s end after it is discovered that humans were responsible for attempting to sabotage the peace talks, Kirk did express contrition for his earlier words and actions. This was the perfect coda for the Original Series adventures since the Next Generation had a Klingon serving on the Enterprise crew.
When the Beijing Olympics took place last year, I couldn’t help but feel a bit defensive about all the criticism directed towards China. Even though the criticisms were perhaps directed at Chinese government policies within a communist milieu, I felt that Chinese people were being picked upon. My mother had left China to escape the communist regime, and the stories she told me left me with no sympathies towards communism at all. But from a matter of logic, I understand in principle why the Chinese government does the things it does to keep people in line. Perhaps the misogynist inside me recognizes what people tend to do when given too much freedom. The problem with communism as with all styles of government has to do with the old adage that “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
I’ve been reading three books in trying to understand the Chinese culture: Good Luck Life – The Essential Guide to Chinese American Celebrations and Culture by Rosemary Gong, The Chinese Have a Word for It – The Complete Guide to Chinese Thought and Culture by Boye Lafayette De Mente, and The Geography of Thought – How Asians and Westerners Think Differently… and Why by Richard E. Nisbett. Now it’s a bit late in my life to try to understand my roots. And since I have no children, it’s not like I can pass my newfound wisdom along. But I find all this simply “fascinating” as our favorite Vulcan is apt to say in his special way.
Even a simple thing as how different cultures greet each other reflects cultural norms as we witnessed in the episode where Picard has to learn the guttural speech. Like Vulcans, Asian cultures do not touch each other in greeting. This was a learned practice to avoid spreading germs and disease. The Japanese came up with bowing instead. The Western handshake evolved from a ritual to indicate that one had no weapons in one’s hand. Vulcans appear to display the “live long and prosper” hand sign. The linguistic derivation of “hello” may be from an old French word that meant “stop!” (Westerners are so rude. Just kidding.) A common Chinese greeting translates to “Have you eaten, yet?” This reflects how food oriented the Chinese culture is. Wonder how Klingons greet each other? Their greeting translates to “What do you want?”
Star Trek is guilty of portraying individuals within an alien race as being the same. This is a storytelling conceit that serves a purpose. We all know that even within countries, you can have groups of people with different opinions as we are witness to during democratic elections and, in extreme cases, civil wars.
The last issue I want to discuss is human rights. I want to say at the outset that I am not making any apologies for what the Chinese government does to its people. I do want to briefly spread some understanding. With the Chinese, family has played an important part in its development and along with that fealty to authority. The idea of sin applies to an individual and is only a recent notion that has arisen among many cultures. For the Chinese, the individual isn’t as important as the family or state it serves. I think this is the major reason why the majority of people haven’t revolted against a government that violates individual human rights. With the pressure and influence of global nations forcing democratic reforms, and the “selfish” younger generation being more vocal in turn, I wonder how many generations it will take before China succumbs to Western freedoms. I think we’ll all be Chinese by then. (Joss Whedon was brilliant to have his characters in Firefly use Chinese phrases in dialogue.) BTW, in the Star Trek universe, the Bajorans are the Tibetans and the Cardassians are the Chinese.
I want to end with a story my dad told me about a family ancestor. This story illustrates how important revenge is to the Chinese. (I wouldn’t be surprised if East Indian culture also venerates revenge given what Khan did. ) My ancestor was a warlord involved in a feud with another warlord in another county. Through various battles, many people died on both sides, but the two managed to survive. All of a sudden, my ancestor’s enemy died of natural causes. My ancestor was enraged because he had not been able to defeat his enemy in battle and obtain some sort of satisfying resolution to all the perceived wrongs. So he went to his enemy’s gravesite, dug up his enemy’s corpse, tied it to a pole, and proceeded to flog the corpse!