In the Star Trek episode, “Mirror, Mirror,” Captain Kirk and a few other crewmembers find themselves in a parallel universe on a more barbaric ship. On this imperial version of the Enterprise, disobedient or otherwise malperforming crew are punished, tortured really, in an “agony booth.” And that’s exactly how I felt last night watching the Biden-Trump debate. What did I do wrong to be put in this agony booth? Fortunately, I was able to escape after 75 minutes. The “full-duration” just may have killed me.
I watched the debate with my wife (agony loves company), and she had some of the best lines of the night. Here’s a sampling:
Great, two old white guys again. It’s blinking Biden versus bully-boy Trump.
Trump’s just a horrible, badgering bully.
Biden’s already muddled and is mixing up his numbers.
Trump never smiles, never laughs. Mean people suck.
Trump is steamrolling over everything.
Really, the less said about this “debate,” the better. It was insult after insult, interruption after interruption, most of the insults and interruption coming from Trump. His followers, I assume, enjoy his bully-boy tactics, but they left me cold and made the “debate” unwatchable.
As usual, Trump played some of his greatest hits. Covid-19 is “the China plague” and is “China’s fault.” A vaccine is “weeks away” (with no mention of how many weeks. Five? Fifteen? Fifty?). He’s going to make insulin for diabetics as cheap and available as water. Even that he was the one who brought back Big Ten college football.
Speaking of football, Trump earned many penalties in this debate. Taunting. Unsportsmanlike conduct. Delay of game. Unnecessary roughness. The list goes on. Next time, instead of a debate moderator, I suggest a team of NFL referees with whistles and plenty of penalty flags.
Media spokespeople and candidate spin rooms are most concerned about which candidate “won” or “lost” the debate. My sense is that Trump, in dominating the debate — what a nasty man he is — “won.” And who lost? Anyone who was expecting a real debate.
Welcome to the agony booth that is politics in America.
Trump isn’t a politician — he’s a brand. What he wants more than anything is brand loyalty. So he plays to his base as much as possible, maintaining their loyalty by hitting “hot button” issues like immigration, abortion, white power, guns, Confederate generals, standing for the flag and the national anthem, the bible (while gassing peaceful protesters), and so on.
Obama was also a brand — but he arguably gave his most fervent supporters much less than Trump. What I mean is this: Obama posed as a progressive but ruled mostly as a corporate Republican-lite, taking his base for granted, figuring quite rightly they had nowhere else to go. What that meant in practice was a feckless administration that led to disillusion, setting the stage for another, much less moderate, brand name: Trump.
Early in 2010, I was flummoxed by Obama and his feckless leadership. Tapping into my affection for science fiction and “Star Trek,” I wrote the article below on how Obama had to “Learn from Mr. Spock” and take bigger chances. Of course, Obama had no interest in going big — he much preferred to cash in and go home. And so he has.
Trump and Obama: well-known brand names, but one has served his base more loyally than the other. Guess which one? Hint: It’s the one who overacts, much like William Shatner playing Captain Kirk.
President Obama: Learn from Mr. Spock! (Posted 1/27/2010)
President Obama’s cool, cerebral, logical style has drawn comparisons to Mr. Spock of Star Trek, as played by Leonard Nimoy in the original series from the 1960s. Like that half-Vulcan, half-human Spock, Obama is a man of two worlds, of White America and Black America, of Kansas and Kenya. Like Spock, he’s a careful thinker, a man who measures his words with precision, a man who seems to pride himself in being in control of his emotions.
Yet perhaps the most telling similarity between fictional Spock and factual Obama is their lack of command experience. Spock was Captain Kirk’s loyal first officer. An expert in science, he had no desire to gain the captain’s chair. Before he gained the Oval Office, Obama was a community organizer, a law professor, a state senator, and a U.S. senator. Respectable positions, but not ones requiring a command presence.
Both lack Kirk-like swagger, yet each had to take command. In Spock’s case, it came in the Star Trek episode, “The Galileo Seven.” His decisions, the criticisms he faces, even his mistakes are uncannily like those of Obama in his first year of office.
To set the scene: Spock leads six crewmembers in a shuttlecraft that crashes on a dangerous planet. As Spock and crew race against time to repair their disabled craft, they are attacked by a primitive race of large, hairy humanoids. While facing down an enemy he barely understands, Spock simultaneously has to win the trust of a crew that thinks he’s a heartless machine, and perhaps even a malfunctioning one at that. He succeeds, but only after experiencing a most unSpock-like inspiration.
Along the way, Spock makes several questionable decisions. He seeks both to understand the hostile primitives and to intimidate them. Rather than hitting them hard, he directs fire away from them, concluding “logically” that they’ll run away and stay away after seeing “phaser” fire. Meanwhile, he posts a guard in a vulnerable position. The result: the primitives return, the guard is killed, and a vacillating Spock is barely able to keep control over an increasingly insolent crew.
What went wrong? Spock doesn’t know. Logically, the primitives should have respected the superior technology of the marooned crew. But as the thoroughly human Dr. McCoy points out, the primitives were just as likely to act irrationally as rationally. Facing dangerous intruders in their midst, they didn’t run and hide; they attacked with unappeasable anger.
While under attack, Spock even experiences a moment of “analysis paralysis” as he thinks out loud about his failings. A crewmember cuttingly remarks, “We could use a little inspiration.” Even the good doctor calls for less analysis and more action.
Now, let’s turn to Obama. Consider the Republicans as stand-ins for the hairy primitives (resemblances, if any, are purely coincidental). Throughout his first year of office, Obama acted as if he could both reason with them – creating an amicable modus vivendi – and intimidate them if the occasion demanded.
What he failed to realize (the “irrational” or “illogical” element) was that Republicans could neither be convinced by sweet talk nor intimidated by warning shots. Implacable opposition and anger were their preferred options. By misinterpreting his opponents, Spock lost a crewmember; Obama (perhaps) a legacy.
How does Spock recover and save the day? By gambling. As the repaired shuttlecraft crawls into orbit, Spock jettisons what little fuel remains and ignites it. Like sending up a flare, the redoubtable Mr. Scott, the chief engineer, notes ruefully, as the shuttle starts to burn up on reentry. But the desperate gamble works. Kirk, showing his usual command resourcefulness, had stretched his orders just enough to stay within scanning range of the planet. Seeing the flare, he beams Spock and the other survivors on board the Enterprise a split-second before the shuttle disintegrates.
The lesson? Sometimes a commander has to grab the reins of command and act. Sometimes, he even has to gamble at frightfully long odds. Earlier, Spock had said he neither enjoyed command nor was he frightened by it. He had to learn to enjoy it – and to be frightened by it. In the process, he learned that cool logic and rational analysis are not enough: not when facing determined opponents and seemingly lost causes.
So, President Obama, what can you learn from Spock’s first command? That we could use a little inspiration. That we want less analysis and more action. That we may even need a game-changing gamble.
C’mon, Mr. President: Jettison the fuel and ignite it. Maybe, just maybe, the path you blaze will lead us home again.
Postscript (7/1/20): Obama never took command. He never took risks on behalf of progressive principles. (Perhaps he just didn’t have any.) The emptiness of his brand enabled Trump. Will Trump’s emptiness enable more fecklessness in the name of Joe Biden?
Space, the “final frontier,” isn’t what it used to be. In the 1960s and early 1970s I grew up a fan of NASA as well as Star Trek with Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock. NASA was (and is) a civilian space agency, even though its corps of astronauts was originally drawn from the ranks of military test pilots. Star Trekoffered a vision of a “federation” of planets in the future, united by a vision “to explore strange new worlds,” venturing forth boldly in the cause of peace. Within the US military, space itself was considered to be the new “high ground,” admittedly a great place for spy satellites (which helped to keep the peace) but a disastrous place for war. (Of course, that didn’t prevent the military from proposing crazy ideas, like building a military base on the moon armed with nuclear-tipped missiles.)
Attracted to the space mission, my first assignment as a military officer was to Air Force Space Command. I helped to support the Space Surveillance Center in Cheyenne Mountain Complex, which kept track of all objects in earth orbit, from satellites to space junk. (You don’t want a lost hammer or other space junk colliding with your billion-dollar satellite at a speed of roughly 17,000 miles per hour.) In the mid-1980s, when I was in AFSPACECOM, an offensive space force to “dominate” space was a vision shared by very few people. I had a small role to play in supporting tests of an anti-satellite (ASAT) missile launched from F-15s, but those tests were curtailed and later cancelled as the Soviet Union, considered as America’s main rival for control of space, began to collapse in the late 1980s.
But that was then, and this is now, and the “now” of the moment is a new US military service, an offensive space force, proposed by the Trump administration as essential to US national security. At TomDispatch.com, William Hartung provides the details of Trump’s new space force in this fine article. As I read Hartung’s article, a thought flashed through my mind: We’re not the peaceful Federation of Star Trek. We’re much more like the Klingon Empire.
In the original Star Trek, the Klingons were a highly aggressive and thoroughly militaristic species that was dedicated to dominating space. They were proudly imperial and driven by conquest. Trump, who with his bombast and barking and boasting would make a great Klingon, sees a “space force” that’s all military: that’s all about domination through aggressive action and better offensive weaponry.
Perhaps you’ve heard the saying: Everywhere we go, there we are. Increasingly for America, that saying means: Everywhere we go, there our military and weapons are. Even in space.
The “final frontier” of space, which in my youth was largely a realm of peaceful exploration, whether by NASA in the real-world or in the imaginary future of Star Trek, is now under Trump an increasingly militarized place. This is so because our minds, perhaps humanity’s true “final frontier,” have also been thoroughly militarized.
A war-driven people will bring war with them wherever they go. If the Vulcans (like Mr. Spock, who was half-Vulcan) are smart, they won’t reach out to humans if and when we find a “warp” drive that allows us to travel much faster than the speed of light. Logical and peaceful beings that they are, perhaps they’ll quarantine earth and humanity instead. Maybe with the Vulcan equivalent of a big, fat, beautiful wall?
(For an extended essay on sports and the military, please see my latest at TomDispatch.com: “Why Can’t We Just Play Ball? The Militarization of Sports and the Redefinition of Patriotism,” August 19, 2018, http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/176459.)
There’s a lot of blurring and blending of sports with the military in the USA today, but my service branch, the U.S. Air Force, has taken it to a new level. The Falcons football team at the USAF Academy has issued a new “alternate” uniform in honor of air power and specifically the AC-130 gunship. What this means is that cadets can now wear helmets that feature spooky, grim-reaper-like images together with images of the AC-130 firing on some indistinct enemy below. Check it out above and below:
The fog and the shark-like tailfin in the background are nice touches. Somebody probably got a promotion and/or a commendation medal for putting this campaign together.
Of course, the Air Force celebrates flight, using falcons as the team mascot, which makes sense. But uniforms dedicated to and celebrating a specific weapon system — really? The AC-130 gunship rains death from the sky; it’s a nasty weapon system and certainly one that I’d want on my side in a shooting war. But putting it on football helmets with images of screaming skeletons is a bit much.
How did military academies like West Point and Annapolis play football for so long with just regular uniforms? Without images of tanks or battleships adorning their uniforms?
I know: I’m an old fuddy-duddy. This is the new military — the military of warriors and warfighters. These new uniforms: so cool! So sexy! Dealing death is so much fun!
Why is it that these new “alternate” football uniforms of the AF Academy remind me, not of our citizen-airmen force of the past, but of some sinister, darker, force of the future? Why does the Star Trek episode, “Mirror, Mirror,” come to mind? (Hint: We’re no longer the “good” Federation.)
(You can go to https://twitter.com/hashtag/LetsFly and watch an Air Force video that links AC-130 combat footage with the new uniform, complete with lusty music and stoked players.)
Mercy has been on my mind since re-watching “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. There’s a nasty little character known as Gollum. Before he was seduced by Sauron’s ring (the one ring of power), Gollum was known as Smeagol. Twisted and consumed by the Dark Lord’s ring, Smeagol becomes a shadow of himself, eventually forgetting his real name and becoming Gollum, a name related to the guttural coughs and sounds he makes.
Gollum loses the Ring to Bilbo Baggins, a Hobbit of the Shire. The Ring extends Bilbo’s life but also begins to twist him as well. As Sauron returns to power in Mordor, he needs only to regain the Ring to defeat the combined might of the peoples of Middle Earth. Bilbo passes the Ring to his much younger cousin, Frodo, who together with a Fellowship consisting of representatives drawn from men, elves, dwarfs, and hobbits as well as the wizard Gandalf, journeys to Mordor to destroy the Ring and vanquish Sauron.
Early in his journey to Mordor, Frodo says he wishes Bilbo had killed Gollum when he’d had the opportunity. (Gollum, drawn by the Ring, is shadowing the Fellowship on its journey.) Gandalf sagely advises Frodo that Gollum may yet play an important role, and that mercy is not a quality to disparage. As the Fellowship is separated and Frodo has to journey to Mordor with only his faithful friend Sam beside him, Gollum soon becomes their indispensable guide, and Frodo begins to pity him. Frodo, by showing Gollum mercy, reawakens the good within him, calling him Smeagol and preventing Sam from hurting him.
But the corrupting power of the Ring overtakes Smeagol again, and Gollum reemerges. Even so, without Gollum’s help, Frodo and Sam would never have made it to Mordor and the fires of Mount Doom. On the brink of destroying the Ring, Frodo too becomes consumed by its power, choosing to use it instead of casting it into the fire. Here again, Gollum emerges as an instrumental character. He fights Frodo for the Ring, gains it, but loses his footing and falls into the fires of Mount Doom, destroying himself as well as the Ring and saving Middle Earth.
It was Bilbo and Frodo’s mercy that spared the life of Gollum, setting the stage for Gollum’s actions that ultimately save Frodo and the rest of Middle Earth from Sauron’s dominance. Without Gollum’s help, Frodo and Sam would never have made it to Mount Doom; or, if by some miracle they had, Frodo in donning the Ring would have been ensnared by Sauron’s power and executed by him. If Frodo is the hero of the tale, Gollum is the anti-hero, as indispensable to Middle Earth’s salvation as Frodo and the Fellowship.
Another story about the role of mercy came in one of my favorite “Star Trek” episodes, “Arena.” In this episode, Captain Kirk has to fight a duel with an enemy captain of a lizard-like species known as the Gorn. It’s supposed to be a fight to the death, overseen by a much superior species known as the Metrons. When Kirk succeeds in besting the Gorn captain, however, he refuses to kill the Gorn, saying that perhaps the Gorn had a legitimate reason for attacking a Federation outpost. A Metron spokesperson appears and is impressed by Kirk, saying that he has demonstrated the advanced trait of mercy, something the Metrons hardly suspected “savage” humans were capable of showing.
Perhaps war between the Federation and the Gorn is not inevitable, this episode suggests. Diplomacy may yet resolve a territorial dispute without more blood being shed, all because Kirk had the courage to show mercy to his opponent: an opponent who wouldn’t have shown mercy to him if their fates had been reversed.
Mercy, nowadays, is not in vogue in the USA. America’s enemies must always be smited, preferably killed, in the name of righteous vengeance. Only weak people show mercy, or so our national narrative appears to suggest. But recall the saying that in insisting on an eye for an eye, soon we’ll all be blind.
The desire for murderous vengeance is making us blind. The cycle of violence continues with no end in sight. Savagery begets more savagery. It’s as if we’ve put on Sauron’s ring and become consumed by it.
Do we have the courage of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, and even of that man of action, Captain Kirk? Can our toughness be informed by and infused with mercy?
My wife, who knows how to cut to the chase, pointed out a big aspect of Trump’s appeal to me this morning: “Trump is the anti-Obama.”
Think about it. When it comes to their personal qualities, it would be hard to envision two men who are such polar opposites. Consider Obama. He’s cool. Rational. Analytical. A thinker. He’s also polite, cautious, and considerate. He’s a skilled writer and a poised, often inspirational, speaker. He’s at pains to broadcast a message of inclusiveness. He’s all about diversity and tolerance and embracing those who are different. He’s also by all accounts a loyal family man, a loving husband and father, with a strong marriage.
Consider Trump. Everything I just said about Obama is the opposite for Trump. Trump is emotional. Flamboyant. Given to knee-jerk responses. A man of action. He appears to be impolite, impetuous, and inconsiderate. Near as I can tell, Trump’s books are ghost-written, and his speaking style is bombastic and inflammatory rather than poised and inspirational. Promoting divisiveness rather than inclusiveness, his message of “making America great again” is read by some of his supporters as making America white-male-dominated again. Hardly a loyal family man, he’s on his third marriage, the previous two ending acrimoniously, and if you credit his boasts caught on tape he was trying to cheat on his current wife while they were still newlyweds.
Now, which one of these men is more desirable as a role model? The loyal husband and family man, the one who embraces diversity and brings people together? Or the disloyal husband, the one who boasts of sexual encounters, who objectifies women, the one who rejects tolerance for rhetoric that drives intolerance?
It’s sobering to see self-styled conservative or evangelical Christians, who claim they are all about family values and the sanctity of marriage, twisting their professed beliefs to embrace Trump and reject Obama. Certainly, in some cases racism is involved here, a sense that Obama is “not one of us,” whereas Trump, with all his glaring flaws of character and behavior, is accepted as the imperfect guy who’s “just like me” (or perhaps just like a black sheep of the family).
Here’s another way of looking at it if you’re a “Star Trek” fan: Trump is Captain Kirk to Obama’s Mr. Spock. In his coolly logical manner, Obama has often been compared to Mr. Spock. And Trump as Captain Kirk: it seems to work, since Kirk was a man of action, often emotional, a womanizer, sometimes intemperate.
But this is to insult Captain Kirk. More than anything, Kirk was a leader: a man who brought a diverse crew together and made them better. Yes, he could be intemperate, but he had a capacity for personal growth. Smart, tough, and experienced, Kirk was a ladies’ man, but he wasn’t married and never forced himself on women (with the notable exception of “The Enemy Within” episode, in which Kirk is split in two, his hyper-aggressive twin given to attacking women for his own pleasure).
In Trump you’re not getting Captain Kirk, America. You’re getting a one-dimensional “evil” Kirk, or perhaps a Khan Noonien Singh, another “Star Trek” character (played memorably by Ricardo Montalbán), a tyrant and ruthless dictator, a man who believes it’s the right of the strong to take or do whatever they want. (So-called Alpha Male behavior, according to one of Trump’s sons, though I prefer a different A-term: Asshole Male.)
Some of Trump’s success, at least initially, came from the fact he was a powerful contrast to Obama, the anti-Obama, if you will. And the “anti-” was more than symbolic, considering how Trump drove the birther movement and its false narrative of how Obama was illegitimate as president. And I can understand after eight years the desire among many for a “Captain Kirk” after two terms of “Mr. Spock.”
But Trump is much more Khan than Kirk. He’d embrace Khan’s motto that “Such [superior] men [like me] dare take what they want.” But a man who believes in his own inherent superiority — that his might will make right — is not a leader. He’s a tyrant. And tyranny is the very opposite of democracy.
Much of our foreign policy is driven by fear–fear that if we don’t act, whether in the Middle East or Africa or elsewhere–the bad people there will thrive, after which they’ll come for us in the good old USA. Most of us will recall George W. Bush’s saying, “We’ll fight them over there so that we don’t have to fight them here.” But what if constantly fighting them “over there” is a guarantee of blowback right here in Homeland USA?
As one of my conservative friends (Yes – I have them!) says, “If they (the enemy) stay over there, I’ll airlift knives, forks, and condiments to them.”
Well, we’ll never know unless we try. Call the cavalry home, America. Send in the cutlery and condiments. And let’s see what happens.
OK, call me an isolationist. All these American machinations in and deployments to the Middle East and Africa – paraphrasing Otto von Bismarck, to me they aren’t worth the bones of a single Pennsylvanian grenadier. Isn’t the Middle East of today roughly the equivalent to the Balkans of c.1910? Except for the oil, why bother with Iraq and Iran? Radical Islam is no picnic, but a direct threat to the USA? Come on. If we leave, my bet is radical Islam will burn itself out.
Our constant interventions in the Middle East merely fan the flames of radicalism there, except when we throw fuel on the fire by sending lots of weapons or burning a Koran or wiping out (accidently, of course) another convoy of civilians with Hellfire missiles. If we’re the enemy’s “Great Satan,” let’s leave and see how they do in a paradise without the US serpent in it.
The problem is that our foreign policy “experts” are subservient to national and international (corporate and financial) interests (among others), and those interests, along with their own hubris, make it impossible for them to order strategic withdrawals, much less imagine them.
Put briefly, our experts see the world as a stage (or as a staging area for military forces), upon which the USA must play the leading role. They believe that if we don’t occupy that stage, and dominate it, some other country will, e.g. China will take over Africa.
The US military, meanwhile, favors “proactive,” forward-leaning, can-do, spirit. The mentality is: We must act, or someone else will. And our way of acting is necessarily a military way, since that is what our nation favors–and funds.
For my fellow “Star Trek” fans, the U.S. government is like the aggressive, action-driven Captain Kirk (even better: the bombastic, scene-hogging William Shatner), but without Mr. Spock or Dr. McCoy at his side to provide cool logic or warm compassion. So all we get is warp drive and phasers (or lots of histrionic overacting and scene-stealing, a la Shatner).
We can do better, America. Let’s start by calling the cavalry home. Cutlery and condiments to the fore!
Back in the ancient time of 2007, you may recall that color-coded threat warnings were constantly appearing on our TV screens. Those “Homeland Security threat advisory ratings” fluctuated between yellow (elevated) and orange (high). With the lone exception of the State of Hawaii in 2003, the threat ratings never dropped to blue (guarded) or (heaven forbid) green (low).
It was like we were in an old Star Trek episode with Captain Kirk, stuck on a bridge that’s constantly on Yellow Alert, phasers and photon torpedoes locked on target.
Thankfully, the Department of Homeland Security finally ditched the color-coded warnings. But have we ditched the mentality that drove them? Are we not encouraged still to be afraid?
Yes, terrorism remains a threat. I’m sure there’ll always be terrorists of some sort who seek to harm us. But we’ve made a lot of progress in the so-called global war on terror. We killed Osama Bin Laden. We devastated Al Qaeda.
Indeed, as we teeter on the brink of national financial default, one of the bigger threats we seem to face is our own divided and ineffectual government. While it appears a last-minute deal is in the works, it’s one of those “solutions” that just kicks the can down the road a few months. We’ll doubtless be dealing with the same governmental gridlock — the same hostage-taking — after the New Year.
Hmm: Maybe we should revive that color-coded warning system. But let’s apply it, not to the terrorists outside our borders, but to our own politicians who continue to threaten us with financial default and societal ruin.
If they continue to insist on taking our government hostage, throwing people out of work, and threatening us all with financial collapse, I’d say that rates at least an “orange” rating. And if they persist in shooting the hostage (that’s us), I’d say that counts as a “red.”
Come on, Homeland Security! Protect us from those who’d destroy our government. Or are you shut down too?