Ted Cruz Thinks Captain Kirk Would Be A Republican – He’s Wrong and Here’s Why

Kirk

Captain James T. Kirk

According to a recent New York Times interview, Ted Cruz thinks Captain James T. Kirk would have been a Republican. He’s wrong – and here’s why. (Naturally, we’ll file this is one of the more important topics I’ve written about.)

I’ll skip the pedantry of pointing out that Republicans and Democrats no longer exist in the future depicted in Star Trek. Instead, let’s get right to the heart of the matter – James T. Kirk is the captain of a starship on a mission of exploration for a socialist government, and Star Trek itself is a rosy-eyed depiction of a socialist utopia, crafted by and populated with humanists. The very essence of Star Trek should be anathema to the modern Republican.

For the woefully uninitiated, here’s bit of a primer. Star Trek takes place in the 23rd – 24th centuries, following the adventures of men, women, various aliens, and even a few androids, operating on behalf of Starfleet, the exploratory/defensive wing of a massive, centralized bureaucracy called the United Federation of Planets. Member planets in the UFP are in many ways autonomous, but are nonetheless bound by the dictates of the central authority of the Federation. Society is classless, and the economy operates without the exchange of money.

Star Trek depicts a world in which values closely aligned with progressive humanism have triumphed. The Vulcan philosophy of “infinite diversity in infinite combinations” is celebrated, and collectivist phrases like “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” carry the weight of moral compunction. The motivating force behind the mission(s) of the starship(s) Enterprise is a search for knowledge simply for sake of knowledge – and at great personal risk and material cost.

Infinite diversity

The Vulcan symbol for diversity. Spock describes it as follows: “The triangle and the circle – different shapes, materials, and textures – represent any two diverse things which come together to create truth or beauty – represented by the jewel.”

Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, put the spirit of diversity that drives Star Trek quite forcefully:

Star Trek was an attempt to say that humanity will reach maturity and wisdom on the day that it begins not just to tolerate, but take a special delight in differences in ideas and differences in life forms… If we cannot learn to actually enjoy those small differences, to take a positive delight in those small differences between our own kind, here on this planet, then we do not deserve to go out into space and meet the diversity that is almost certainly out there.

One can be forgiven for thinking these are values individuals inclined toward conservatism – at least as expressed by the modern GOP – don’t really appreciate. People who think members of the LGBT community do not deserve to share the same rights as everyone else are miles away from delighting in “those small differences”. They are expressing the sort of regressive attitude that will forever keep the most plausible, most reachable aspects of the future depicted in Star Trek forever grounded in the world of science-fiction.

Likewise, Republican rhetoric is often firmly rooted in a celebration of individual self-interest and anti-establishment sentiments that are contrary to the submission of individual needs to the collective good. Nor can it be said that people who cut funding to organizations like NASA and the National Science Foundation come off as particularly big fans of the quest for knowledge.

Hell, even free market capitalism, approached with near religious reverence by the modern GOP, is portrayed as an artifact of humanity’s childish past in the universe of Star Trek. Its primary practitioners are the Ferengi, hideous aliens who are variously treated as predatory, lascivious villains and greedy, bumbling clowns. The Koch brothers, Donald Trumps, Mitt Romneys and Herman Cains of the Star Trek universe are greeted with scorn and distrust. Their motivations are viewed as sordid and puerile. But for the modern Republican, capitalism and the quest for profit is the glue holding the moral architecture of the universe together.

So why does Ted Cruz think James T. Kirk, the equivalent of a NASA mission commander working for the government of the Netherlands, is a Republican? To begin with, there seems to be a natural human tendency to paint our heroes and role-models in the subjective palette of our individual values. Cruz is projecting his ideals on the charming space-rogue that is Captain Kirk. According to Cruz, Kirk is “working class” and “a passionate fighter for justice”. What exactly “working class” means in a classless society is, and shall remain, mysterious. But Cruz is dead-on when he describes Kirk as a passionate fighter for justice. He’s just wrong in thinking that characteristic makes him a Republican. There are passionate crusaders for justice on both sides of the aisle – they just have a few differences of opinion concerning what qualifies as “justice”. I have a strong suspicion that Kirk might be a little more sympathetic to the liberal/progressive perspective on justice than the conservative one.

In the interview Cruz says that “readers of science fiction are interested and attracted to the future. And politics is a battle for framing that future.” The future depicted in Star Trek is one in which the pillars of modern Republican ideology – Christian theology, free market capitalism, nationalism, traditionalism – have been cast aside in favor of the ideals espoused by progressive humanists. Christianity is properly viewed as a collection of myths – a comfort blanket for humanity’s infancy. Economic and monetary interests have been entirely subordinated to the will of the state and the society it serves. Multiculturalism is the rule of the day and the shackles of tradition have been broken away and replaced by context-sensitive humanistic ethics.

Let me reiterate: there’s no reason the conservatively inclined shouldn’t like Star Trek. The world depicted in Mad Max is a morose and violent hellscape. But those movies – the latest entry in particular – are great entertainment. I just wouldn’t want to live in that world. Based purely on observations of their behavior and stated political beliefs, I suspect something along those lines captures a person like Ted Cruz’s appreciation of Star Trek. It’s fine from a distance, but he sure as hell wouldn’t want to live there. In fact, his political record is that of a man who works diligently to prevent it from ever happening.

gene-roddenberry

Wise words from Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry.

The Proper Route to Progress

Reflecting on my previous post, I wonder if the problem with certain strains of modern progressivism is that people are so eager to live in a society marked by equal access to justice and prosperity that they are willing to take a hazardous shortcut. They want progress to be a guided a process. This, unfortunately, is not the way things work – nor should it be. Limiting speech that doesn’t perfectly mirror our most lofty ideals does not result in progress. It produces a stultified atmosphere in which the safest ideas that appeal to the lowest common denominator – the boring, if admirable, ideas that every moderately intelligent and empathetic person can agree on – are promoted at the expense of ideas that are more risky or transgressive. Yes, we want a more equal and just society, in which people are not persecuted for their sexual preferences or identity, receive equal pay for equal work, and don’t die of preventable causes. But we absolutely cannot build that society in a vacuum of political correctness. Progress, whatever form it takes, must be an emergent product of a free and fair competition among ideas. The surest way to build a better society that is sufficiently resilient is to put our best ideas into the sometimes rotten stew of public discourse and see how they perform. Only after ideas have been vetted against the cold filter of empirical reality, in a world rife with unsavory and ill-informed opinions, will we know how good they really are.

Stephen Fry on God, the Capricious Tyrant

Stephen Fry was asked what he would say to god, as a humanistic atheist, if he were to meet him/her/it. His answer was stupendous and I couldn’t agree more. It is probably worth clarifying that he is not giving reasons for not believing in a deity. Rather, he is giving reasons for believing that any agent that created the world is not the benevolent architect some religions chose to paint him/her/it as. By any ethical standard, that being is culpable for a staggering amount of brutality and suffering. It is a malevolent and petty despot: nothing more and nothing less. Arguments to the contrary are naive, disingenuous, and altogether nonsensical. That doesn’t mean god doesn’t exist – the reasons for doubt relate more to the stubborn lack of corroborating evidence and the ultimate superfluity of the concept as an explanatory mechanism. What it does mean is this: if the universe has  a creator, said being is a massive dick.

Anyway, watch the clip. It’s fantastic.

 

A.C. Grayling on Humanism

Philosopher A.C. Grayling recently gave a talk on Humanism at The National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secularist Student Societies 2014 Convention. I noticed the video while perusing the blog of evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne and thought it worth passing along. The talk is eloquent and the message both uplifting and enlightening.

 

Grayling addresses the question – frequently posed by theists – of how humans are to live fulfilling, ethical lives if there is no religion to tell them how to do so. The notion underlying this idea seems to be that religion is the means by which order has been imposed on anarchy. This line of thinking is common among the adherents of the various modern branches of ancient Levantine monotheism – namely fundamentalist Christians, Muslims, and Jews. Broadly summarized, Grayling’s answer is that there is no single way of behaving living a good and ethical life. To the extent that religion has anything to say about moral behavior, it does not have a monopoly on the topic.

Do we need god to be good?

For many people this is a subject that produces considerable consternation. God is the epicentre of most people’s moral philosophy. Priests and bishops are colloquially thought of as paragons o  righteousness. The notion that individuals can, through careful introspection and critical reflection, sculpt personalized systems of value is anathema. This type of thinking is a product of the vicissitudes of history and the nature of institutionalized power. Western society has been under the spell of Christian hegemony for centuries, including stretches during which religious authority dominated political discourse and actively silenced dissent. But the fact of the matter is that humans were living successful lives for thousands of years prior to the advent of modern religion. Of course, pinning down exactly when our hominid ancestors became more or less human is something of a mystery, and pinning down the moment of speciation in the parade of gradual change captured by any organism’s phylogeny is an arbitrary affair. Some argue that art is the harbinger of modern humanity. Under that rather conservative and capricious definition, humans have been around for 30,000 years or so. If that is so, then we have a stretch of at least 27,500 years during which our species not only survived, but actively flourished, in the absence of the moral dictates of Abrahamic scripture. Anatomically modern humans, however, have been around for around 200,000 years, during which time everyone seemed to get along just fine (in a very general sense) without Yahweh telling them what to do.

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Image of horse from Lascaux caves in France. Painted around 17,300 years ago.

Now, there is a compelling argument that says religion may have played a role in enforcing large-scale socio-political cooperation1,2. Rooted in the principles of evolutionary game theory, the basic notion is that in larger communities of distantly or entirely unrelated individuals, the costs of defecting from social contracts might have decreased in concert with a decrease in the positive incentives toward cooperation (reputation, inclusive fitness, reciprocal altruisum, indirect altruism etc.), increasing the likelihood of free-riders or cheaters. It is hypothesized that the specter of all-powerful, vengeful, omniscient deities played a role in enforcing cooperation in the absence of effective incentives toward cooperation (or equally effective disincentives toward defection). Widely accepted, the idea that ill-deeds never go unpunished might have played a role in stabilizing large, complex social systems.

This is the sort of thing I could see theists latching onto, arguing that – by virtue of its hypothetical merits with regard to the maintenance of social order – religious beliefs has demonstrated its value and paid its way. Such an argument is not unthinkable (I just thought it), but it is hardly justifiable. Even if religion played a role in facilitating social cohesion, it did so a great cost. If one takes the Old Testament as an example, then morality is vouchsafed by tyrannical, capricious, and petty3 god dispensing harsh punishments for petty infractions. Who, after all, wants to go back a system where people are stoned to death for not properly observing the Sabbath? Not I. Religious enforcement of social forms involves not only the fear of damnation according to the whims of an ever watchful eye, but severe real-world costs to those caught in the act of defecting. This latter item is probably the more important motivation for cooperation when it comes to the Abrahamic religions. Additionally, the success of the modern monotheisms is, to a considerable extent, predicated upon their militancy. The fear of god maintains order within the group while the wrath of god eradicates those outside of it. The primary intrinsic merit that has secured Christianity’s supremacy as a putative moral authority in the West is its apparent willingness to annihilate opposing ideologies. This was true of Christianity before it was known as such. After all, the god of the Old Testament commanded the Israelites to massacre the Canaanites and Amalekites. Once Christianity had earned its modern moniker and Constantine had consecrated Christianity with the blessing and authority of the Roman state, the stage was set for centuries of slaughter. Take Charlemagne’s brutal response to the Saxon’s initial refusal to accept Christianity, for instance, or the Spanish conquest of the Inca and Aztec nations as another.

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Charlemagne (742–814) receiving the submission of Widukind at Paderborn in 785, by Ary Scheffer (1795–1858).

These, I think, are real problem with notion of religion as a source of moral authority. I don’t think they invalidate the hypothesis that religion played a role in ensuring cooperation in incipient nation-states (as I said, I find the idea compelling) but they do illustrate that religions role in said regard was not a moral one. However, I think the best reason to disregard religion as the wellspring of moral of enlightenment is the simple fact that there is no reason to believe religions are true. This is a realization the Abrahamic monotheisms steadfastly guard against in their insistent on blind faith and submission in and to the will of god. I won’t waste any space pointing out why I find the truth claims of religion so dubious. Fundamentalist believers never change their minds, regardless of the reasoning and evidence with which they are presented. This sort of intransigence is made manifest in Creation Museum, a subject Grayling touches on4.More malleable minds can consider the matter for themselves and come to their own conclusions.

And that, as Grayling so eloquently describes, is at the very heart of humanism. It is a philosophy that celebrates individuality and critical thought. To summarize Grayling, it says the best possible kind of life is that life carefully considered and freely chosen. It takes love, freedom, creativity, and respect for the dignity of all humans as its core values and allows individuals to elaborate from there. It is not a rigid code of dos and don’ts, but a general outlook that requires both courage and hard work.

Courage, in that many people stumble when they realize that there is no concrete, universally applicable, monolithic meaning to life. There are many. There is, in fact, one for every single person. Put plainly, that sounds like some crass hippy bullshit, but it happens to be true. Having been reared in a religious home, I personally had a difficult time transitioning out of theism. Letting go of that bastion of purported truth was difficult because, for me, it entailing giving in to a period of listlessness. There was no new foundation to jump on when I stepped away from the old because that foundation hadn’t been built yet.

In a way, it still isn’t.

That’s where the hard work comes in. Thinking for one’s self and coming to a personal understanding of what one finds valuable can be difficult. As Bertrand Russell put it:

“Men fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth – more than ruin, more even than death. Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible; thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habits; thought is anarchic and lawless, indifferent to authority, careless of the well-tried wisdom of the ages. Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid. It sees man, a feeble speck, surrounded by unfathomable depths of silence; yet it bears itself proudly, as unmoved as if it were lord of the universe. Thought is great and swift and free, the light of the world, and the chief glory of man.”

From Why Men Fight, 1916

It demands engagement with unfamiliar and challenging ideas. It is also a task without a firm end point. People build the meaning of their lives until they die. It is, for most, a work that is never truly finished. The trick is to revel in the work itself.

  1. Norenzayan, Ara. 2013. Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict. Princeton University Press
  2. Johnson, Dominic & Jesse Bering. 2006. Hand of god, mind of man: punishment and cognition in the evolution of cooperation. Evolutionary Psychology 4:219-233
  3. Other than petty and capricious, what would you call someone so concerned with his personal image that he commands people in four different ways to show him respect? Then, for good measure, he says we probably shouldn’t kill each other either.
  4. Grayling calls the Creation Museum a “human rights crime”. As Jerry Coyne commented in his blog, the museum is certainly abominable, but I think calling it a human rights crime is a bit extreme. That said, I do think Ken Ham, the museum’s creator, is  not a particularly good person. One might counter that he is trying to do good – he is, with the best of intentions, trying to do what he thinks is right. Fair enough, but the same could be said for Adolf Hitler. Before someone carries that analogy to far, let me be absolutely clear: I am not saying Ken Ham is anywhere near as terrible a person as Hitler. Hitler was a real human rights criminal. If one could quantify evil, Hitler would be orders of magnitude worse than Ham. The point is that a person’s intentions do not necessarily redeem their actions. Ham’s work may be perfectly well intended, but its fruits have been unequivocally rotten.