Star Trek and Multiculturalism

I’ve been re-watching Star Trek: TNG (yes, Picard is My Captain). Yesterday I came to the fourth season episode “Half a Life.” The basic premise is that Deanna’s mother falls in love with an alien scientist, an alien that comes from a culture that believes everyone should kill themselves on their 60th birthday. Naturally, the scientist is only days away from turning 60, and Lwaxana tries to convince him to defy his culture and live. The rest of the episode plays out this conflict: between the scientist’s desire to continue his work, his desire to stay with Lwaxana, and his desire to honor his upbringing and his home.

It could easily have been a throwaway episode, but for me it showcases what I loved about Star Trek. The conflict here works on several levels: we have the romance angle, the fear of growing old and becoming a burden on others, and the conflict between saving a life (the scientist’s) and honoring the Prime Directive. All the main characters react to that conflict in keeping with their natures: Picard stays out of it, Lwaxana fights against what she sees as a barbaric custom, and the scientist is torn between custom and his desire to live.

And the third conflict points directly to a problem American liberalism was facing in the 90s, and continues to face today: multiculturalism. The idea that people should be free to practice their own cultural traditions is an honorable one, but where do you draw the line? Where does honoring someone’s culture become dishonoring (or refusing to fight for) my own?

In the 90s, these questions came up over the conflict in Bosnia, female genital mutilation in Africa, and our relationship with China. We knew genocide was happening in the Balkans, but did that give us the right to go in guns blazing? We believed female circumcision to be wrong, but did that mean we should pressure other governments to stamp it out? And we knew human rights were being stamped on in China, but did that mean we should stop trading with them?

Domestically, it played out over civil rights – for women, for minorities, for gays and lesbians. With so many intolerant people in the world, using hateful language, discriminating against others, and claiming it was their right to do so, how much of it should we allow? How much intolerance should we be tolerant of?

Star Trek’s answer, with the Prime Directive, seems to be: all of it. At least in terms of foreign policy, the Prime Directive would tell us to butt out.

At one point in the “Half a Life” episode, one of the aliens from the euthanasia culture says “How dare you insult me and my beliefs?” When I first saw the episode, the line and its sentiment really resonated with me. Who was I to make fun of someone else’s culture?

Re-watching it today, the line seems ridiculous. How could anyone expect to be free from criticism? What kind of culture would we have, if no one could poke fun at someone else’s beliefs? And in this particular case, what sort of liberals would we be, claiming to speak for human dignity and freedom, if we didn’t speak out against a culture that asked its members to commit suicide?

Wealth and Power by Orville Schell and John Delury

Highly recommended. Takes the interesting approach of covering China’s rise over the last 200 years by profiling a selection of leaders (intellectual and political) from each period. It’s missing a map of China, so you may want to read with Google Maps handy so you can get a sense of where things in the book are happening. Also seems slanted toward the position that China’s path to wealth and power has been a successful one, instead of a crooked road paved with the bodies of the dead (see Tombstone).

Three things I learned:

1) Sun Yat-Sen was not the “father of democracy” I thought he was. Rather, he was one more reformer vying for power in the period at the end of the Qing dynasty, and not a very successful one, either.

2) The feeling of humiliation for Chinese goes back to the nineteenth century. It’s not an invention of the communist party; the Chinese intellectuals of the time saw their treatment at the hands of the Western powers as humiliation, not simple defeat.

3) The Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989 was done at the orders of Deng Xiaoping, the same leader that started China on the path to a more market-based economic system.

Hobby Lobby Ruling Undermines Pluralism

The Hobby Lobby ruling didn’t make sense to me for several reasons. One thing that really bothered me was the way they asserted they could apply the religious exemption law to the corporation: they started out asserting that corporations are persons, then shifted to saying the rights of persons are protected by protecting the rights of the people employed by corporations, then shifted to saying the shareholders would be burdened by the penalties if they didn’t comply with the healthcare law.

It felt very slippery, and didn’t seem to hang together. Then it dawned on me: what they’re saying is that shareholders should be allowed to practice their religion through the corporation. Which sounds good at first glance, and is certainly not unconstitutional. But I don’t believe it’s a good principle for a liberal society.

Think of a Muslim-held company that decides to force its employees to pray while facing toward Mecca five times a day, or a Rastafarian company that expects employees to smoke ganja. Or worse, a company owned by Jehovah’s Witnesses that refuses to pay for health coverage that includes my kid’s vaccines, or my blood transfusion during an emergency surgery, or my mother’s kidney transplant. According to the logic behind the Hobby Lobby ruling, this would just be the owners practicing their religion through the corporation. Never mind that they would be pushing their religion onto their employees.

I don’t think anyone should have the power to force a religious practice on someone else – not my teachers, not my city council, and certainly not my boss.

I shouldn’t need to worry about my employer’s religion when applying for a job, anymore than they should have to worry about mine. When you enter the public sphere, you check your religious baggage at the door. It may be uncomfortable, you may not like it, but it’s necessary in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society like ours.

If you don’t check your religion at the door, you can end up with Christian businesses and Muslim businesses and Atheist businesses, everything split along sectarian lines, like in Iraq. That’s not the kind of society I want to have.

In the past, our laws have been used to avoid precisely that kind of sectarian society. When Amish employers sued to be exempt from taking their employees’ Social Security payments out of their wages, they lost, because you can’t exercise your religion through a corporate body. When shop owners in the South sued to be exempt from Fair Hiring laws, they lost, because when you enter the public sphere, you agree to be bound by the laws of that sphere.

By going against that precedent, the Hobby Lobby ruling undermines one of the core principles of our pluralistic society. I can only hope it gets overturned as soon as possible.

The Ruin of the Roman Empire by James J O’Donnell

Worth the read, but takes a while to get going. The meat of his argument is in Part II, and you can basically stop reading there without missing much.

He often seems more interested in creating a mood, a shift in perspective, rather than advancing an argument or telling a story.

3 things I learned:

  • Both the Vandal conquest of Africa and the Gothic conquest of Italy were less “invasions” than power grabs by elites that had grown up on the borders of the Roman Empire and wanted to be a part of it. Those elites were elites, in part, because of intermarriage with the imperial family and having served as imperial troops in previous wars.
  • Justinian, the emperor who in most histories is a valiant hero trying to reclaim Roman glory, can be seen as the man who destroyed the new stability the empire was settling into, pushing it into dissolution.
  • The popularity of the monophysite variant of Christianity in the Eastern Roman lands (Egypt and Syria), and its suppression during the reign of Justinian, probably paved the way for the rapid adoption of Islam in the seventh century.

Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber

Well worth the 400 pages. Graeber humanizes the history of debt, bringing anthropological insight to our understanding of the history of money.

Unfortunately, his multiple objectives – to overturn the common story of the origins of money, to critique capitalism as a system, and to give a comprehensive history of debt, among others – pull the book in different directions. They’re all interesting, but prevent the book from gelling into a coherent whole.

Three things I learned:

  1. The interest for credit cards in the US used to be capped at 7% (!).
  2. There were large periods of human history where things were bought on personal credit, not with coins. Only strangers used currency.
  3. We can distinguish between capitalism, or the belief that money should always make money (interest), and free markets, or the belief that people should be free to start and run their own businesses. Being in favor of free-markets does not automatically make you a capitalist.



5 Signs You’re Living in a Dystopia

1. Everyone you know is happy

Is there anything creepier than a society of happy people?

2. No one is happy

Conversely, if you’re surrounded by miserable sacks wearing gray and shuffling through life, you’re either a zombie in a horror flick or trapped in a dystopia.

3. You can go anywhere, except to __.

We all know why it’s forbidden. The secret undermining the whole society is hidden there.

4. No one wants change

People always want to change things: they want more money, more power, more time to play video games. If no one around you wants anything to change, you’re trapped in a dystopia.

5. No one knows what a dystopia is

People in dystopias don’t read. They don’t have any idea they’re trapped in someone’s nightmare future. If even one person has read 1984, you’re not in a dystopia, just a gritty sci fi novel.

Superman II: Theatrical Release vs Donner Cut

I recently discovered my wife had never seen the first two Superman movies all the way through. We decided to take advantage of the long weekend to remedy that.

When it came time to watch Superman II, though, we had a dilemma: should we watch the original theatrical release, or the “Donner Cut” that came out in 2006?

If you don’t know the history: Richard Donner was the director for the first Superman movie, and was supposed to direct the sequel as well. In fact, he started filming both movies at once, since they were intended to be two halves of the same story.

He broke off filming Superman II to concentrate on wrapping up the first movie. Before he could come back to finish the sequel, the producers fired him and replaced him with Richard Lester. Lester re-shot most of the movie along with some new footage. The movie released into theaters was Lester’s.

Donner’s footage was rediscovered in the early-2000s, and after a huge fan campaign, Donner’s team was allowed to go back through and do their own cut of the movie using Donner’s shots.

So which one should we watch? We decided to do both: we watched the theatrical release first, then the Donner Cut.

I worried that we’d be bored watching the Donner version; I assumed we’d be watching basically the same movie with some different scene edits.

Boy, was I wrong. The Donner Cut is not only a completely different movie from the theatrical release, it’s a better one.

So many things don’t make sense in the Superman II released in theaters: Why did Superman have to give up his powers? Why was it so easy for him to get them back? How the holy hell does a kiss from Superman make Lois Lane forget he’s Superman?

All of those plot elements are better explained (or replaced with something more logical) in the Donner Cut.

The theatrical Superman II is a hodge-podge of stories: there’s some Superman-Lois romance parts, some General Zod antics, some powerless Superman bits, and a little bit of Lex Luthor. They don’t really cohere into a single story, but some of them are entertaining.

In contrast, the Donner Cut puts the focus squarely on the developing relationship between Kent/Superman and Lois Lane. Everything becomes part of their story, and in particular on the consequences of Lois figuring out that Kent is Superman. The result is a stronger, deeper movie.