Friday, September 30, 2011

Star Trek and the American Dream

Ben Fry, All Streets (2009): David Brin, Pyramids and Diamonds (2011); Star Trek, Spectre of the Gun (1968)

According to Kevin Kelly "The uber American dream is to build your own comfy place on the edge of wilderness with your own hands." And indeed, that is the national myth; Manifest Destiny that begins with the founding fathers and goes right up to the returning vets of WWII settling the first suburbs. On his site, the author David Brin points to a very different aspect of the American Dream: "The founders started by banning primogeniture, so no family fortune could sit and accumulate, undivided, as a lordly demesne at the pyramid's peak. Instead, they would get divided among the large numbers of children that folks had then -- an intentional act of "social engineering" and outright 'levelling.'" Star Trek had some Manifest Destiny in the mix of its myth - but the greater part of the story it told was the promise of leveling.

In the Post War years, plenty of back-to-the-landers have taken the example of Thoreau, just as Kelly says (and did), but it is the less nationalistic dream of leveling and plenty for all that has been most meaningful in the last sixty years. Brin is a self-described libertarian who defends "social flatness" as a crucial element of  "vigorous market competitiveness." But the American Dream isn't a dream of vigorous markets - for most of us (even for many of those on the far Right) capitalism is a nothing more than a mechanism, not an end in and of itself. The American Dream is consumerism -  and its founding myth is Star Trek, which showed a future where social flattening and technology had ended poverty and (not inconsequently) where the great token of capitalism - money - was a thing of the past.
1960s vintage Jacques Cousteaus' Calypso & Starfleet Tricorder

In Gene Rodenberry's original vision of the Star Trek universe the crew of the Enterprise were the future's throwbacks. Starfleet was conceived as a place for retrograde knuckle-draggers to have bar fights, play with guns and carouse with green skin girls. That's what made the show fun to watch for the "primitives" of the 1960s. What made it fun to believe in was what was never shown, but implied by the ship's high-minded mission "to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before." 

The Enterprise started its life as Jacques Cousteaus-esque Calypso built to the scale of an aircraft carrier. Roddenberry was imagining a future for American consumer culture in which rising waters had raised all boats until no one was poor, war had withered away and the tremendous resources and technologies of an entire multi-planet society (the very UN like United Federation of Planets) could be given over to the pursuit of pure science and cultural exchange. That was the American Dream in the years immediately following WWII and it was a dream many Americans believed in deeply enough to risk nuclear war for. 
Kitchen Debate vs Food Replicator

Just as capitalism didn't start its life as the Wealth of Corporations, much less the Wealth of Billionaires - but instead as the Wealth of Nations, the American Dream was never just a dream of a corporate or personal pursuit of wealth, it was a national pursuit. It was the pursuit of a kind of wealth that was believed could and would eventually be shared by the entire world. During the Kitchen Debate Khrushchev mockingly asked Nixon, "Don't you have a machine that puts food into the mouth and pushes it down?" He had squarely put his finger on the beating heart of consumerism - vulgar luxury. "Many things you've shown us are interesting" Khrushchev admitted, "but they are not needed in life. They have no useful purpose. They are merely gadgets."

Nixon's defense of the American Dream is telling. It was not just defense of high-tech gadget filled houses that might appeal to the puritanical utilitarianism of his opponent ("In America we like to make life easier for women...") it was a defense based on who could afford those gadget filled houses: "Any steelworker could buy this house." Nixon asserted. "They earn $3 an hour. This house costs about $100 a month to buy on a contract running 25 to 30 years." The American Dream was not only to make wonderful things, but to make them so everyone could afford them.
Khrushchev and Nixon toast with Pepsi (cold); Starfleet replicates Earl Grey (hot).

The uber American Dream may be self-reliance  - but the Cold Warriors were competing for the hearts and minds of people around the world against an enemy who claimed that even $100.00 a month was too much for housing: "all you have to do to get a house is to be born in the Soviet Union."  Khrushchev crowed. "You are entitled to housing. I was born in the Soviet Union. So I have a right to a house. In America, if you don't have a dollar -- you have the right to choose between sleeping in a house or on the pavement. Yet you say that we are slaves of communism." The Americans needed to beat the Soviets at their own game, and to do so they served up Worlds of Tomorrow in which their gadgets had eradicated poverty. The fantasy at the core of the American Dream is a postscarcity abundance that would make capitalism as obsolete as Khrushchev promised communism would.

Brin points out that American reformers had begun to answer the challenge of the Soviets well before the Cold War: "The whole reason that FDR fought so hard to flatten the social order was because the Marxian alternative looked so very plausible to the people of that time." Far from dismissing Karl Marx, Brin admits that where "he discusses the failure modes and 'contradictions' of capitalism is savagely on-target. What he never, ever imagined was the possibility that humanity might produce someone like FDR... and tens of thousands of others who looked at Marx's plausible scenarios as problems/challenges to be solved." 
FDR, Winston Churchill; Dr. Spock and Captain Kirk

Elsewhere Brin argues that after 1950, American consumers "played crucial roles in this process that lifted billions of people out of grinding, hopeless poverty." Brin likens American Empire to the long peace of Pax Romana, arguing that American Postwar trade policy that set the stage for consumer culture were a historic anomaly, "an invention, as unique and new and as American as the airplane, or the photocopier, or rock n' roll."
America became the first pax-power in history to deliberately establish counter-mercantilist commerce flows. A trade regime that favored the manufactures of many foreign/poor countries over those in the homeland. Nations crippled by war, or by millennia of mismanagement, were allowed to maintain high tariffs, keeping out American manufactures, while sending shiploads from their own factories to the U.S., almost duty free.
"The question is" according to Brin, "can we face the same problem-challenge in a new generation, finding new solutions? Or let old Karl's nasty teleology play itself out?" In the years since the Soviet Union collapsed the American Dream's wider promise has been reduced down from a vision for the world as a better place (see Marshall Plan), to the aggressive pursuit of a "lifestyle" to be enjoyed by a lucky few (see Bush Doctrine). The legal inheritors of Roddenberry's franchise have reduced Starfleet's mission of exploration and discovery until the Enterprise is nothing more than a warship protecting the interests of a wealthy Federation from the disruptions of violent outside forces. Pax-Americana has devolved into the War on Terror, and even in our fantasies, the American Dream have been reduced to a zero sum game. But consumerism is no longer bounded by what Americans dream. (To be continued... in Scotland)
Pax Americana: Starfleet orbiting above the Arabian Peninsula; the shame of Mission Accomplished


  1. Wow! Very insightful essay. Methinks.

    david brin

  2. All our problems are solvable using a variety of different approaches. But they will only be solvable WHEN we all agree on the goals we want. Without agreement, we'll all just keep going around in circles.

    Also, just FYI, DOCTOR Spock is a real life baby expert. MISTER Spock is the awesome fictional character in your photo up there... :-)

  3. I wonder where you get the statement:
    In Gene Rodenberry's original vision of the Star Trek universe the crew of the Enterprise were the future's throwbacks. Starfleet was conceived as a place for retrograde knuckle-draggers to have bar fights, play with guns and carouse with green skin girls.
    Most of the low brow elements of the show were dictated by NBC. All of the high concept elements, the political and social statements, were from Roddenberry. My information comes from the many books written about the show AND from his appearance at my college in the late seventies.

  4. Thanks for the comment Richard - it kinda made my day. I hope you will read the rest of the Star Trek posts. I know I am pushing a non-cannon view, but I hope I am not in any way contradicting the cannon.

    If you follow the "retrograde knuckle-draggers" link to "Admiral Kirk's Preface" that opens the novelization of Star Trek-The Motion Picture, you will see where I got that statement. Roddenberry didn't write that book alone, but I bet he wrote that preface (although I have no way of knowing for sure).

    There, in Kirk's voice, Roddenberry doesn't call himself a "knuckle-draggers" (that was my word choice) but he does imagine critics of Starfleet characterizing them as "primitives" - and has Kirk himself calling Starfleet "conservative" and admitting that they (members of Starfleet) "do resemble our forebears of a couple centuries ago more than we do most people today."

    I am not a Trekky (the preface is the only bit of Star Trek franchise fiction I have ever read, and it was only because a roommate had left it out and I was bored that I picked it up at all - but it is because it was AWESOME that I remembered it 20 years later). I am very much a scifi fan, however, so I grew up watching the original series and have seen most of the movies and a lot of the newer spinoffs. I have tried to be respectful in this 10,000 word series of posts on the subject of Star Trek, and while I poke fun (and call Spock 'Dr.') I have tried to communicate my sincere respect for Roddenberry and his vision.

    But really, if you or anyone else sees something that rings a false note I'd love to hear about it.

  5. i read everything. the entire series. amazing, is all i could say.

  6. If you enjoy this kind of thinking and writing, you might like "Star Trek - The American Dream Continued". It was written as a thesis for my master degree in English and is available as PDF-Download on my site:
    The blog is in German, the thesis itself in English ;-)
    Best regards

  7. God bless your indelible soul.