Friday, June 29, 2012

Imagining Social Justice Through Sci-Fi TV: From "Trek" to "Torchwood" (Part Four: The Star Trek Universe 2)

Previous installments:
Part One: Introduction
Part Two: Reviewing the Literature
Part Three: The Star Trek Universe (part one)


Section Two: A Palestinian Allegory

"Stories teach in memorable ways. In that sense, they are much more valuable than rote learning and memorization" (Gaskin 10)

While the previous discussion is one of a general transition from The Original Series to The Next Generation wherein we may observe how the imaginings of their time of creation influence and contain the raced and gendered future created by their writers and producers, I want to move now to a more specific example of the working-out-of contemporary concerns on screen.  While there are many themes to choose from, I have decided to choose an allegory that proved to be a long standing influence on the franchise.  I choose this particular allegory not only for its widespread use across three Star Trek series (Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager) but because it remains a current topic of contention in USian society, and most of all because it is an excellent example of the way stories allow conversations on topics that, when engaging with their real world counterparts, are typically silenced.
This allegory is that of the Israeli occupation of Palestine as told through the experiences of two alien species and their planets: Cardassia and Bajor, as seen from a USian perspective through the Federation.  While executive producer Rick Berman has said that these stories came from an amalgamation of various occupied/colonized peoples, particularly "the Kurds, the Palestinians, the Jews in the 1940s, [and] the boat people from Haiti” (Nemecek 178), it is my contention that given the time these episodes aired, and the way the storyline progressed, the most relevant allusion is indeed to Palestine/Israel.  In fact, the official editorial for the VHS version of the episode “Ensign Ro” on reads, in part: TNG’s “take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict…introducing the dispute between Cardassians and the displaced Bajoran people” (Spletzer). This interpretation of the Bajoran/Cardassian conflict remains a contentious one in the Star Trek fandom, as evidenced by its wide discussion online (DevilEyes) and the diversity of opinion within those discussions (quinnox, Bernardi, Anonymous)
The Palestinian allegory is rejected outright by those who maintain the Bajorans are only the generalized amalgamation Berman professes to have intended, as well as those who see potential antisemitism in the equating of Bajor with Palestine (and thus Israel with the evil Cardassians) (TVTropes), or those who subscribe to the Zionist ideology of Palestine as a land abandoned and then (rightfully) returned to by a non-Arab Jewish population.  For this last group of fans in particular there is nothing reminiscent of Zionist Israelis in the colonialist Cardassians, because the Cardassians are not attempting to “reclaim their ancestral homeworld” (sic) (Anonymous).  However, I reject these arguments, and particularly reject the Zionist foundations of the last.[1]  Instead, after careful consideration of these spirited debates, the words of the producers, and my own critical viewership of the episodes in question, I continue to believe and will argue below that the most accurate allegory remains that of an alternately radical/liberal anti-colonial critique of Palestine under occupation, and the imagining of Palestine and Israel as at “peace”[2] as two separate nation-states. 

To give the non-Trek-watcher a picture of these episodes and their content I will now briefly explore the construction of the Bajoran people and the episodes in question. We are introduced to the Bajorans in the already cited Next Generation episode "Ensign Ro."  In this first episode the story of the Bajorans is the most generalized, and it is easy to see the plight of many occupied people with in it.  There are several cultural markers which indicate specific allusions to different real world counterparts.  For example, traditional Bajoran culture dictates that the family name comes first, followed by an individual's name, mimicking a similar convention in Korea and Southern India. A refugee even comments on many Bajorans' assimilationist move of placing their individual name first, as it is apparently done on most Federation worlds.  This act of adjusting one’s name, of “Anglicizing” it, is one that is familiar to many immigrants from non-English descended cultures transitioning to English-descended nation-states (like the United States).  However, this is particularly true for Orientalized peoples, [3] such as the aforementioned Korea and India, as well as those from Arab countries who are attempting to make lives for themselves in the Anglo dominated West.[4]
In addition, the Bajoran people appear to live largely in refugee camps, having been expelled from their homeland by a group of people from another planet, and some groups have turned to terrorism to call attention to their situation and to strike back against their occupier.  Finally, we learn that Bajorans have time and again been promised that something will be done about their situation, while the Federation has really never gone through with it, and have worked out border treaties and the like with the occupying force instead.  It is this point which most glaringly positions the Federation as a surrogate for the U.S., who has acted similarly towards Palestine and our own colonized Native population in particular.  Also as with Palestine, the promises made are directed at “officials” recognized by the Federation, people who generally do not command the respect of the Bajorans who live in the camps the officials are meant to speak for.  These official channels are shown to be out of touch with the people on the ground, a situation reminiscent of the Palestinian authority and every day Palestinians. 
This discrepancy is stressed by Ensign Ro Laren (a Bajoran advisor to the Enterprise crew) in the briefing held by Captain Picard to decide how to proceed in addressing the recent alleged terrorist attack by a Bajoran group on a Federation outpost in “Ensign Ro.”  In this briefing the audience is presented with a typical meeting between the senior staff, with its members taking turns putting forth their views on how best to proceed.  Dr.  Crusher mentions a Bajoran man she has interacted with at several conferences.  His frequent representation of Bajoran interests at official Federation functions is held up as making him a potentially helpful candidate.  However, as it turns out, he is one of these “officials” who cannot really be said to speak for the Bajoran people as a whole, as Ensign Ro bluntly states, clearly and intentionally embarrassing Dr. Crusher for her ignorance and naïvety.
Similarly, Ensign Ro admonishes Captain Picard when he ignorantly refers to her as "Ensign Laren.”  This is a disconcerting moment for two reasons.  First, Captain Picard elsewhere expresses knowledge of Bajoran culture.  He speaks with admiration about their history of producing a vast civilization long before human beings were exploring the stars.  That he is not familiar with Bajoran naming practices suggests that his knowledge may be derived from imperialist and shallow outside sources, such as the Orientalist scholars criticized for their exotification and unearned claims to authentic knowledge of Arab peoples in Edward Said’s work.  Second, this is an uncharacteristic ignorance for the crew in general and Captain Picard in particular.  This is ignorance not just of naming practices but with the lived realities of Bajoran life, with the extent of the atrocities committed by the Cardassians under the occupation and, as previously mentioned, that those Bajoran individuals invited to official functions on Federation worlds are not actually respected by the majority of the people they are said to represent. 
Picard is generally represented as an all-knowing father figure, always composed and always prepared for any situation.  That he is caught off guard by Ensign Ro is a major interruption to the narrative surrounding his character throughout the series, and a moment of unsettling rupture for dedicated fans, like myself.  Such an inconsistency cries out as a contrivance meant to serve a very specific purpose for the writers.  This points to a strategic choice to place Picard as a USian surrogate for the viewer who is similarly ignorant about the colonial histories of Palestine and Korea (both being central inspirations).  Through Picard, and the naively portrayed Dr. Crusher, we see USian ignorance reflected back on the audience.  In a best case scenario this might lead that audience to ask about the important histories of imperialism around the world, and further, to ask ourselves WHY did we not already know about them.  This demonstrates one strategy of using television for social justice: to poke and nudge at the gaps in hegemonic USian knowledge and education.
The answer to this question of “Why?” is that the US government allies itself strongly with Israel, and the official position of our government (and consequently our mainstream news outlets) is sympathetic to an extreme degree in favor of Israel’s “official” interpretation/presentation of history and events.  As such, USian people often remain in ignorance of Palestinian and other Arab cultures, which are generally painted as our stereotypical "Others:" the West is Christian, the "Middle East" is Muslim, the West is democratic, the "Middle East" is full of dictators, the West is free, while the "Middle East" hates us for it.  This is a long standing discursive relationship (Said), the rhetoric of which was ramped up to ever greater heights after the terrorist attacks of September 11th.  But The Next Generation was conceptualizing the storyline of “Ensign Ro” in a time and place that was pre-9/11, a time when the Troubles in Northern Ireland were beginning to come to an end, and when USian media was circulating a narrative of “Israel and Palestine talking seriously of peace” (credited to the efforts of then President Bill Clinton) as well.  There are many problems with this USian-perspective narrative, but by taking it into account we can see the framework “Ensign Ro” is working with: a time when people in the US were just starting to imagine what a post-occupation Palestine might look like, and what issues Palestine, Israel and the US might have to deal with in the wake of the occupation’s partial dissolution.[5]

Choosing Sides: A Difficult Conversation

In analyzing Cardassian/Bajoran representations as allegories, one cannot help but notice that sympathies on the Next Generation writing staff appear to heavily favor the Palestinians.  The Bajorans are constructed as pure and innocent people before the Cardassians come with their ruthless determination to exploit the land and people of Bajor.[6]  Indeed, Cardassians are portrayed over and over again as highly militaristic, ruthless, cunning, manipulative and untrustworthy people.  In fact, they might be the most evil race to come out of Next Generation.  As even a remote allegory for Israelis/Zionists, this is not a flattering portrait to say the least, and could not be more different from the typical representation of Israelis/Jews as constant victims in USian media.[7]  Consequently, this might be one of the most anti-hegemonic storylines in Star Trek history, which is not to say it does not rely on problematic tropes as well.  This story-telling strategy serves as an example of the way in which stories can provide a social forum for issues which are difficult to discuss, a situation which most definitely presents itself in discussions of Palestine/Israel.  Any public moves that might serve to create sympathy for Palestinians and/or criticism of Israel are swiftly and thoroughly shut down by Zionist lobby groups in the United States.  
While it is not directly related to Star Trek, there does exist an appropriate recent example of conversations about Palestine being foreclosed on within the realm of visual popular culture.  That is the exhibition of Palestinian children's art at the Museum of Children's Art (MOCHA) in Oakland, California.  This exhibit had been scheduled for months, but very close to the opening Zionist groups successfully lobbied the museum not to put the show on at all (they threatened MOCHA with de-funding and began smearing them as an anti-semitic institution), citing the "violent" nature of some of the children's work and contending that (other) children should not be exposed to such themes (Grossberg).  Many supporters of the exhibition cited the fact that MOCHA had before hosted similar artwork by children from Iraq and Afghanistan to no such efforts from the community to shut that exhibit down.  But the show ultimately was displayed elsewhere.  I use this example for two reasons, first, to stress just how contentious discussions surrounding Israel and Palestine are: even children expressing what they have gone through under occupation are treated as though they are terrorists, and second, to call attention to the fact that this is a tension that cannot and must not be resigned to the past.  This is an ongoing cultural discourse, one that the episodes discussed here could still be useful in approaching, if used critically. 
So, while the black and white portrayals used by the writers of The Next Generation do not do justice to the more gray and complex situation of the real world, within the realm of fiction this choice of a more clear-cut story allows a consistently shut down issue the rare breathing room to be discussed widely.  It even created the room wherein the writers could be self-critical, and examine the way in which the US enables the cycle of violence in Palestine/Israel through its relationship to and funding of Israel.  The storyline of "Ensign Ro" holds the US accountable for this through its portrayal of the Federation's actions: talking too much and doing too little to help the Bajorans, putting the treaties signed assuring peace between the Federation and Cardassia ahead of the wellbeing of Bajorans.  
Here too is an over-simplification of the nature of the relationship between Israel and the United States, but it does open up the question of whether USian people should continue to accept the government’s policy of sticking by an alliance with a government we know is doing wrong.  This is a conversation opener that, if allowed to develop deeper, would implicate the United States and its own wrongs, in its own history of colonization and imperialism.  Even though this work relies on problematic tropes to get its message across, and centers the US in its discourse, it is an extremely important interruption of the dominant discourse about Palestine/Israel in the United States.

Star Trek in Shades of Gray

“There are some excellent, harrowing political episodes in [Deep Space Nine’s] first season, and some indication that its writers were interested in, though not entirely certain how, to tell continuous, messy stories” (Nussbaum)

As Cardassia and Bajor were returned to time and again, the stories told and questions asked in the narrative became what Lynnette Porter has called "gray."  Room was made for Cardassian characters to be less evil and Bajoran characters less pure (though who were the "good guys" and who were the "bad guys" could not be said to have ever been rendered out of these storylines).  Several Cardassian characters were even portrayed sympathetically and several Bajorans as wrong-headed and bigoted in their treatment of Cardassians as "all the same."  This was enabled by the choice to launch the Star Trek franchise’s next series, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, on a former Cardassian space station orbiting the planet Bajor.  The placement of Deep Space Nine as right in the middle of a decolonizing Bajor allowed the writers to further develop the themes touched upon in Next Generation’s “Ensign Ro.”
Before moving on, however, it should be noted that “Ensign Ro” was not the only Next Generation episode to deal with the occupation of Bajor.  In fact the character Ensign Ro Laren eventually leaves Starfleet and the Enterprise to join the Maquis, a group of resistance fighters working against repeated Cardassian attacks on colonies in Bajoran space, against the wishes and law enforcement of the Federation.  In keeping with the sympathetic writing towards the Bajorans (Palestinians) demonstrated throughout all the Star Trek series that feature them as characters, Ro’s departure was portrayed with compassion for the character.  Her decision to leave was treated as the thoughtful decision of a person who has confronted her conscience and wrestled with her decision before making it.  In the words of Commander Riker, “she seemed very sure she was doing the right thing” (Echevarria and Shankar) and while Captain Picard is clearly very angry with her choice, there is an ambivalence to this ending (wherein Riker seems quite sympathetic in the face of Picard’s silent anger) that leaves the question of whether Ro makes the right choice or not (and whether Picard has the right to be angry at her or not) open to debate. This episode’s resolution is a hint at the morally gray spaces Star Trek will occasionally explore in more depth on Deep Space Nine.  The powerful narrative created by “Preemptive Strike” is important to acknowledge, however I have chosen to focus more extensive attention on “Ensign Ro” and Deep Space Nine’s “Duet” for reasons of length and clarity of argument: in essence to show where this storyline began, and in some ways, where it ended.[8]
The Deep Space Nine episode "Duet," pits a deeply troubled Cardassian against Major Kira Nerys (the space station's Bajoran first officer) [whatsername fun fact: this is Nana Visitor's favorite episode of the series].  Through an elaborate set of circumstances, this Cardassian planned to be killed as a war criminal by the Bajoran provisional government, allowing him the opportunity to demand that Cardassia admit to its crimes and hold itself accountable for its actions during the Occupation of Bajor.  Eventually, Kira discovers that this man was not the great Gul (a high ranking military officer) he claimed to be, but a simple file clerk who is suffering from something akin to PTSD due to what he witnessed in his post and the unresolved guilt he feels at not having stopped the atrocities occurring at the labor camp where he worked, a labor camp that Kira herself helped liberate.
But let me pause here to more fully flesh out this episode so that my reader might more fully grasp the context in which it occurs.  Deep Space Nine (“DS9”) is a liberated Cardassian space station; the Bajoran provisional government has asked the Federation to help them in running it.  In part this is because Bajorans do not have experience with running a space station, as all but a handful of collaborators and religious leaders/politicians have been living in refugee camps with very few resources, working as slaves of the Cardassians and/or fighting them as part of the Bajoran resistance movement.  It is also believed that Starfleet will provide protection against Cardassian incursion against the very recently decolonized planet.  This latter reason proves to be a reality throughout the series, as hostile Cardassians repeatedly attempt to re-take Deep Space Nine and undermine the development of a free Bajor.
Since the running of Deep Space Nine is a joint effort between the Bajoran provisional government and Starfleet, the crew is a mixture of Bajoran militia officers and Starfleet officers, with a Starfleet Commander (Sisko) taking command of the station, and a Bajoran Militia Major (Kira) functioning as his first officer.  Major Kira was a resistance fighter during the occupation and is initially distrustful of Starfleet officers running Deep Space Nine as she believes this “aid” could easily turn into yet another occupation.  Since the Federation are the good guys, this fear turns out to be unfounded and Major Kira and Commander Sisko come to be close colleagues. 
The Orientalist tropes also continued in the portrayal of Major Kira in particular.  She, like Ensign Ro before her, is depicted as hot-headed, intelligent and capable but stubborn and emotional, the quintessential (if somewhat sympathetic) “angry Arab” (Said).  It is also revealed that Bajorans are incredibly religious, to the point that their shared faith is what kept them together and resisting during the occupation.  Although it is erroneous to believe that all Palestinians (and all Arabs in general) are Muslims, this is a common mis-representation in the USian imagination, and thus the religiosity of the Bajorans recalls an image of Arab-ness to USian viewers.  By the time the episode I discuss in a moment aired, the viewing audience would have interacted with Major Kira and other Bajoran characters and they could not have but noticed that the Bajoran resistance is treated as completely justified and necessary by the writers and producers.  Given the other ties made between Bajorans and Palestinians there is an implicit suggestion that Palestinians, too, are justified in their resistance to Israeli occupation, a claim that continues to be difficult to make without being shouted down in USian social discourse.  It is from within this framework that “Duet” emerged.
Throughout “Duet” the Cardassian man, named Marritza, and Major Kira engage in conversations that delve deeply into each character’s thinking about the actions they took during the Occupation, up to and including the revelation of Marritza’s true identity and the impact of his experiences on him.  These conversations illustrate well the hatred that opposing sides develop for each other as a psychic defense against deeply harmful actions (like the murder of other people) taken during such conflict.  Specific to the colonization of Palestine, both sides claim to have been working “in defense of their homes/homeland.”  But Marritza’s rhetoric makes clear that by “defending the homeland” he in fact means defense of its colonial interests and that these interests were sold to him by his government as ones which threatened the “security” of Cardassia.    In contrast is Major Kira’s claim to defense of literal homes being smashed and people taken away, which is portrayed as legitimately defensive. 
Through these conversations the audience is asked to question under which circumstances and by what means it is appropriate to engage in what is unapologetically called “terrorism” (through Kira) and by what means soldiers may turn against their government’s professed interests if they believe the actions being required of them are wrong (through Marritza).  As Kira comes to understand the suffering Marritza, too, has gone through, and that he is trying to force his government and people to be accountable for that suffering and the suffering of Bajor, her built up hatred of all Cardassians (a self-preservation technique required for the killing of other sentient beings) begins to dissolve.  Ultimately we see how destructive this hatred can become when a Bajoran man stabs Marritza in the back in the middle of a conversation with Kira about how he is going back to Cardassia to change it for the better.  When Kira demands to know why the Bajoran man does this, his defense is simply "he's a Cardassian, isn't that enough?" to which she answers "no, it's not" and the episode ends.
What is particularly interesting about this episode is the way in which the evolving conversation between Kira and the Cardassian lead to this tragic ending, the way in which it manages to create sympathy for both sides while not backing away from the fact that both sides had "done things [they] regret," things that clearly have left serious mental, emotional and physical scars.  The story does this while also not demonizing those who take up terrorism in the face of occupation, and while calling for accountability from the occupiers.  The writers do not leave the moral of the storyline as simply "individuals having to live with what they've done,” but instead make clear that colonizers/imperialists must put real effort into making amends as part of a healing process for themselves, their own people and for those they have colonized/oppressed/enslaved.  Further, the actions of the Bajoran man who kills Mirritza shows the way in which anger and hatred can thwart this process, that through forgetting the "humanity" of one’s enemy or former enemy, one forecloses on the ability of those same people to ultimately do the right thing and create a chain reaction in their own society/communities/nation-state for the better.
This multi-layered moral is one which is difficult to express except through anything but a story wherein one's audience might see and relate to characters they have some emotional investment in working out these issues for themselves.  Such a story takes its audience through their own emotional process of hate and distrust to sympathy through their identification with the character going through the same.  Through stories such as this one we are able to imagine how we might deal with our current enemies (or others we have learned/been taught to hate) in a sympathetic way, which is necessary from both oppressor and oppressed for lasting peace.  Importantly, we also learn what actions are required of those who are/were colonizers/aggressors/otherwise in power over others to begin to push back against the harm they and/or their government has done: namely, that those of the oppressor group must hold each other accountable for their actions.  Moves toward reconciliation must emerge from the oppressor/privileged class and, critically, not from those who were/are oppressed.  This, too, is an important interruption in the discursive and material unaccountability of colonial nation-states such as Israel and the United States wherein oppressed groups are often told they must “teach” individuals from privileged groups about how those individuals and the classes they belong to have been oppressive and/or how the privileged are, in fact, privileged.  That “Duet” actively rejects this narrative is a truly significant step forward in acknowledging the importance of accountability from those benefiting from settler-colonialism and other material/discursive systems of oppression.  As I have been arguing throughout, before we can do something in real life, we must first be able to imagine how such a thing might work, and this story makes that attempt.

“The human race is a remarkable creature, one with great potential, and I hope that Star Trek has helped to show us what we can be if we believe in ourselves and our abilities” – Gene Roddenberry (Wolcott)

[1] There is no doubt in my mind that Zionism is a colonial project akin to the organized genocide of Indigenous people in other areas of the world (including the United States, Canada and Australia); for more reading on this subject I would refer you to the work of Edward Said, Joseph Massad, and Ella Shohat.
[2] I put quotes here because I question whether the cessation of violent hostilities such as terrorism and war are really “peace” as it is popularly imagined.
[3] By “Orientalized” I gesture towards the work of Edward Said on the controlling images/stereotyping of people from what was once called the Orient by Western institutions and nations.  We will return to his work later on, as the Bajoran characters highlighted in the chosen episodes replicate many of these controlling images, in particular the “angry Arab.”
[4] This phenomenon effected Trek itself when the actor Siddig El Fadil, cast as Doctor Julian Bashir on Deep Space Nine, felt the need after several seasons to alter his professional name to Alexander Siddig because “no one could pronounce El Fadil” (IMDB).
[5] This imagining of course precludes total decolonization, as it relies on the so-called two state solution which requires Israel retaining the land it has already colonized at least in part.
[6] This is a very black and white victim narrative, a choice in story-telling that is very loaded, and might produce helpful and unhelpful effects from an anti-colonial/social justice perspective.  The key point at this particular moment in my argument however, is that this is a rare sympathetic portrayal, if articulated in a rough and problematic way.
[7] I put “Israeli” and “Jewish” together here because they are constantly conflated in that way in the USian media I am discussing.  The truth of the matter is, of course, that “Jewish” most certainly does not always mean “Zionist” or “Israeli.”
[8] While it is true there are former Maquis on Star Trek: Voyager their status as Maquis and the moral debates engaged on in TNG and DS9 are almost entirely absent.