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Star Trek, Star Wars and populism
by Bouke S. Nagel
2011-07-24 10:42:28
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This year, Bas Heijne, a writer for Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad, ventured deep into populist territory and wrote a book about it called “Do we need to love one another?” At the beginning of his book he states that there is something puzzling about the problems in our world that cannot easily be understood or grasped. In search for a deeper understanding of what is happening in our world, Mr. Heijne discusses various topics in his book, which makes it very interesting to read. 

One of the topics he mentions is the difference between generations. Mr. Heijne however dismisses it right away as a possible factor in the debate about populism and focuses for example on the role of the media in his book. In this article however I would like to take a closer look at generational differences in regard to populism with the help of two pieces of science-fiction that have captured the imagination of many in our world: Star Wars and Star Trek.

Many of the leading figures in our times were young during the sixties. This decade may go into our history books as a Golden Era. Back then the economy was doing extremely well and people were idealistic and wanted to change the world. I think that Gene Roddenberry, the creator of the Star Trek series did a very good job in portraying those ideals in his shows. For those of you who do not know Star Trek, this is a series in which the main characters are not part of the human condition.

Within the Star Trek universe there is a federation of planet states run by a council that is constantly seeking for new planets to apply for membership, much like the European Union and its commission. Besides, in Star Trek there is a special device that makes food appear out of nowhere so people within the federation do not know what hunger is. There is no capitalism either in Star Trek and humanity in this series is well on its way to evolve into rational beings. 

Outside of the federation the human condition appears to be intact. The main characters of Star Trek meet other civilizations and are confronted with problems such as injustice, greed, environmental pollution or collectivity (opposed to the Western notion of individuality). In the name of equality and respect for other cultures, episodes of Star Trek paradoxically often end with other civilizations adopting the federation’s point of view, its way of life and a request for federation membership.

At the end of seventies and the beginning of the eighties our economy was in recession. Suddenly, another piece of science-fiction entered our imagination: Star Wars. In Star Wars the main characters are part of the human condition. Luke Skywalker for example grows up in poverty in a dysfunctional and violent family under a dictatorship. But Luke has something that the characters in Star Trek have not: a deeper connection with reality or truth, which is called the Force.

At the beginning of this century, George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars, tried to explain to us how a society can transform into a dictatorship in his prequel trilogy, which isn’t that popular with the fans of the original movies. In the prequel trilogy we see a universe in which the state doesn’t function well. State officials in Star Wars seem primarily interested in abstract issues like inter-galactic trade (see also the opening lines of The Phantom Menace).

The Jedi order, which is supposed to safeguard peace and justice in Star Wars, is depicted living in a palace. Within this building the Jedi high council dwells in an ivory tower. That is a bad omen. I think the Jedi symbolize the progressive elite, if I may refer to Glen Beck. Moreover, the Jedi do not seem to care much about suffering that is rampant within their society. When the Jedi are confronted with slavery for example, they somehow think that they are obliged to do nothing about it. 

The Jedi are not popular in the Star Wars universe because they are regarded as aloof and elitist by the populace. Furthermore, the Jedi order is state subsidized so the Jedi can spend their days with meditating, philosophy and discussing morality. Not unlike the Dutch Labor Party that once used to be out there to help people, but today seems more preoccupied with issues such as climate change or international affairs. Everyday life with its problems is regarded as trivial, vulgar or even unmoral.

After the war it also became unmoral to regard our society as superior. But after the Berlin wall fell and Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the end of history, the idea that the world would magically transform into a carbon copy of the West turned into a widely shared belief among Europe’s (left-wing) intellectuals. Personally, I do not see how that is any different from exclaiming that we are superior and in that sense I do not see a difference between mainstream politics and populism at all.

The difference between populist and mainstream politicians seems to revolve on the question if others in our world can become like us. As I said before, according to Europe’s mainstream politicians it is just a matter of time. We just have to sit and wait for the magic to happen. It implies that we expect of women, gays and atheists to wait until their communities are ready to adopt modern values before they can start living their lives in freedom (but how long will that take?).

The populist point of view also entails some form of magic. With no regard for Europe’s history in regard to anti-Semitism whatsoever, we are suddenly declared part of a Jewish-Christian civilization. Moreover, if we are born in a community, we are supposedly determined by it for the rest of our lives. Europe´s populists do not seem to believe that it is possible for others to become like us. Not surprisingly, Geert Wilders once said that millions of immigrants may have to leave Europe.

Within the Star Wars universe there are also two political factions opposed to one another. On the one hand there are the Jedi who preach being rational and detached of our world. On the other hand there are the Sith who believe in following your heart, guts or instinct. Standing in the middle of it all is Anakin Skywalker, an average human being, who made some serious mistakes in his life, but also did a lot of good. Perhaps Anakin is Star Wars’ equivalent of Joe the plumber.

One day Anakin finds out that his pregnant wife is going to die. As an individual there is only that much that he can do and this problem is definitely one that he cannot solve on his own. He therefore needs support from others. But Anakin’s problem is the same that many other individuals face in our modern society: he has no community to back him up. Anakin tries to make the best out of his situation and seeks advice with both the Jedi and the Sith. 

The grandmaster of the Jedi gives Anakin a “simple” advice. He has to cut out his own heart since Jedi are not supposed to love. The Sith however do what modern day populists do. They acknowledge Anakin’s problem, which is kind of reassuring, but then offer a solution that is downright crazy. He is advised to stop thinking. Anakin is now faced with an impossible choice: either cut out his heart (left-wing progressives) or throw his brain in the garbage can (right-wing populists).

The tragedy of Star Wars is that he ends up doing both.

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RBP van den Bogaard2011-07-30 19:43:11
Good food for thought :-) Especially seeing the sixtees as a golden era for the west, even with its excesses such as the idea of infinite progress and economic growth based on the usage of a limited resource such as oil... It is to heroic to see the dominant left winged elite in Europe as Jedi's. They have been stripped of their ideals due to harsh reality, resources are limited and the modern human heart is restless, irrational and not only filled with virtues... Reality strikes and the vertical dimension has to be rediscovered. A brilliant book I read about this is ´A Guide for the Perplexed´ by EF Schumacher

Agreed with Emanuel and Jung It is indeed Christianity on which the EU is founded. The distorted forms of religion and Christianity in the third reich where largely post-Christian, this allowed for Nationalism and Socialism to join. Christianity does not support nationalism since it focusses on being part of the heavenly kingdom instead of the earthly one. Nor does Christianity support socialism, for the condition of being able and free to join a community(as described in scripture) allows to bring in personal belongings which is only secured when there is freedom of ownership and people looking out for one another out of Charitas instead of an almighty state 'leviathan'.

Emanuel Paparella2011-07-24 14:36:53
Jung said that when civilizations throw religion out the window, it comes back the back door in a distorted way as a fanoatical ideology, or as a cult, or as xenophobic nationalism, or the myth of the superace, or as the mythology of "Star Wars," I would add.

Perhaps the founding fathers of the EU had an idea in perceiving Christianity as an antidote to all those distortions, a symptom of them seen in Norwar only two days ago. Just a thought!

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