Folklore in human history was really an oral tradition, some of it making its way into poetry and literature. In our time, our folklore comes basically from popular culture, but it still serves the cultural function of providing a mythopoetic sensibility, communicating cultural values through the power of story within the mechanisms of the culture industry. I’ve been heard to say that Star Trek is my first religion, my first pop folklore. I really learned what it means to be an American through Star Trekism. The optimistic futurism, good-natured humanism, the primacy of rationalism, benevolent technology, and multiracial civic duty in Star Trek provided what is really a moral education. In Star Trek we have teams of dutiful learned experts, an alliance of the strong seeking to discover the new and defend the weak. It filled me with hope and optimism for a benevolent humanistic future in which there is no answer that cannot be solved, no problem that cannot be fixed, no frontier that cannot be crossed, crossing racial boundaries with the primacy of its technological utopianism. It’s a great vision, and I think pretty lonely among all science fiction in its optimistic futurism. It’s not a “cautionary tale,” not a “dystopian vision” that has become popular lately.
Much later, after studying myth, history, sociology, that I acquired a vocabulary to deconstruct what Star Trek means in terms of our own culture. One way to view it is as a mythic mirror for a part of the 1960s Zeigeist, where Star Trek is really the projection foreward of John F. Kennedy’s evocation of myth in his speeches of the New Frontier. Kennedy was really the sixties visionary, and supreme orator, who gave us a hopeful mission, a kind of post-racial manifest destiny to the stars. He initiated the race to moon after all. The United States, emerging as the preeminent world power after World War II, seeing itself as the standard bearer of liberalism. The United Nations turned into the United Federation of Planets. The Iron Curtain becomes the Romulan Neutral Zone, the Cossacks become Klingons. John Kennedy becomes James Kirk. Camelot is the Enterprise, asking not what their galaxy can do for them but what they can do for their galaxy. It’s five year mission is equal measure Peace Corps and Green Berets. James Kirk said, “To seek out new life and new civilizations, to go where no man has gone before.” John Kennedy said in his inaugural address:
“And if the beachhead of cooperation may push back the jungle of suspicion, let both sides join in creating a new endeavor, not a new balance of power but a new world of law, where the strong are just and the weak secure, and the peace preserved. And this will not be finished in the first one hundred days. Not will it be finished in the first one thousand days, nor in the life of this administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin …”
The 1960s turned out to be a very violent decade both within America and abroad. Many of the progressive idealists of the future were assassinated, including Kennedy and his brother. Malcolm, Medgar and Martin fell as well under the bullets of hatred and division. The hard-fought battles resulting in the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and eventual desegregation were beat back down in the backlash and rise of Richard Nixon, who governed as the “law and order candidate,” calling on the mandate of the so-called “silent majority.” Nixon effectively utilized the FBI as a counterrevolutionary force to disable the Weathermen and Black Panthers among other groups, and began the war on drugs to undermine communities of color.
Nixon’s silent majority was culled in large part from white Southerners. The southern strategy was a watershed event in federal politics. Republicans ever since would run as if all white America is Southern. Indeed, racial resentment would go underground, gain subtly and complexity rather than going away. The conservative reactionary backlash against the liberal‘s cultural revolution gained steam among white supremacist conservatives and emboldened white nationalists. Leonard Zeskind writes in Blood and Politics, “… the dynamics of the 1960s caused white supremacists in the 1970s and 1980s to conclude that their ideological forebears had lost that battle over civil rights. As a consequence, they built a movement around the idea of white dispossession, the notion that the country that they believed had once been the sole property of white people was no longer only theirs.” White nationalism, the kind propelling the conquest of the nineteenth century and manifest destiny, was an older national myth, one that was forced to invent a new rhetoric for itself. And there were those in the fringes – the Aryan Nation, white identity Christians, the forth rising of the Ku Klux Klan – who saw themselves as an insurgent culture within a “Zionist Occupied Government.” I’ll expand on this in a later post, but let me get back to Star Trekism …
After the cultural revolutionary sixties gave way to the backlashism of the seventies, pop culture gave us a dialectical response to Star Trek’s starry-eyed optimistic post-racial humanistic quest. We went from trekking to warring. The culture industry produced Star Wars, depicted as a universe that is embedded with constant struggle for power. Where Star Trek valorized exploration among a silk road of the stars, Star Wars suggests an eternal recurrence of reactionary societies, its rebels, and its reactionary empire, and again its rebels, and so on for generations, in an endless cycle of revanchism, (which I’ve previously written about here). Star Wars is really, in this sense, about a race war of usually white, English-speaking humans against a multicultural, multilingual rebellion. It’s about the Empire (do you ever see someone non-human in the Death Star or anywhere else in the imperium)? Where Star Trek is liberalism, Star Wars is imperialist.
In political terms, since Nixon the story has been about empires striking back, a march further and further right until its ultimate terminus today, at least on a federal level, flirting with radical right wing authoritarianism.
Race is an essential part of the American story. It’s an infection of bad consciousness, a persistent relic of colonial power. A decade or more ago, some were talking of the Star Trekist possibility of a post-radical future. I was talking with a friend about a year ago about race today and how these nakedly racist issues were emerging in the mainstream over the last four or five years – awakened in the Treyvon Martin incident, and then a slew of very public police brutalities and murders, the BlackLives Matter Movement. But just as loud, backlashism of the Birthers, Tea Party, All Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter, James O’Keefe, Andrew Brietbart, Limbaugh, Fox, the conspiracy against ACORN, voter suppression laws, SCOTUS gutting the Voting Rights Act, environmental racism, the New Jim Crow, then the rise of the Alt-Right, Milo, and the Trumpanzees in Bannon, Miller and Sessions, among others. Van Jones called Trump’s triumph “whitelash,” evoking comparisons to Nixon and the controversial election of Rutherford B. Hayes, which buried the aspirations of Reconstruction. White supremacism has, against all seeming common sense and to my own profound disappointment, gained steam in the twenty-first century. In the wake of Obama, the Republican autopsy on their sound electoral defeat in 2008 suggested that they needed to diversify away from their white base, prompting Senator Lindsey Graham to say, “We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.” But against all probability, they gathered around their most white, most xenophobic, most bigoted candidate, whose “Make America Great Again,” was the dog whistle white supremacists were waiting to hear – ready to mobilize and preserve an the older mythical narrative of a white nation’s manifest destiny.
Where do we go from here? Rogue One? A multicultural rebel squad cracking the code of the death star?
Seldom has pop folklore futurism really considered race as important as we do now. Past futurism prognosticating about our contemporary reality did not think that race would still be so important. What does racist science fiction look like? Are there Nazis in space? Darth Vader with a racial manifest destiny ethos? Are there Aryan purebloods circling Saturn in the future? Is there a near future with android skinheads on hover bikes roving the countryside for the last Muhammadans? What would Steve Bannon’s Star Trek be like? Like the Mirror, Mirror bizarro version of Star Trek in which in the alternate universe Kirk and crew are fascists? A distant future when the Federation is defeated and run by the craven Ferengi? Will future enterprises be segregated? Will Uhura sit at the back of the Enterprise? Say it isn’t so! …