What “Star Trek Into Darkness” can teach us about US foreign policy (spoilers within)

J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek Into Darkness is not a great film, but it’s a phenomenally fun one & worth the price of admission, easily. It’s scope is not quite as broad as 2009’s Star Trek, & since it’s the sophomore film in what is likely going to be at least a trilogy if not saga of pretty serious sci-fi action films, a lot of fanboys’ expectations are likely not going to be met; but if you, like me, saw it on a particularly cold & miserable & rainy weekday evening in a sparsely attended cinema, & if you approach the film with kind of open heart we should reserve for movies that just ain’t art, you’re going to have a good time. I mean, if you sat through the execrable Inglorious Basterds & liked it, there should be no excuse in this respect.

Star Trek Into Darkness takes place in an alternate universe that may or may not have been created by Nero, the Romulan miner & the previous movie’s central bad guy, when he went back in time through a wormhole & destroyed planet Vulcan. One of the major problems I had with the first Star Trek – fun though it was – was that I found the story overly complicated & full of all kinds of nifty albeit confusing sci-fi time-travel paradoxes that never got properly addressed. Thus, I’m not really going to try & précis the original movie; just trust me when I say that the events of Star Trek Into Darkness (STID) take place in a very different reality than any of the actual series & older films.

The plot of STID is one of the least interesting things about it, so I won’t dwell on storyline – basically, when stripped of a lot of peripheral action the essential plot involves a terrorist attack on one of Starfleet’s archive buildings, which subsequently gives the same terrorist (whom we’re told early on is some sort of spy named John Harrison) an opportunity to wipe out a bunch of Starfleet brass with a futuristic helicopter. Thereafter, Cpt. James T. Kirk, First Officer Spock (which is what, his last name? first name?), et. al.  are sent on what is described as a “manhunt” deep in enemy territory, the Klingon homeworld of Kronos.

One of the things that makes the original Star TrekStar Trek TNG, & to a lesser extent Star Trek: Voyager so compulsively watchable – & what tends to differentiate them from the often inferior movie spin-offs – is that they were in reality never about the fi-ness of sci-fi, never about fancy F/X or long, protracted martial arts scenes on the hulls of weird floating hover ships.  Star Trek has always been a show about ideas, about taking ordinary characters & placing them in situations in which they have to reconcile their preconceived earthling ethics with alien races whose ethical paradigms are shifted some degrees left or right. One of my favourites of these was a TNG episode in which the Klingon Worf, played by the indomitable Michael Dorn, suffers a back injury from a falling piece of equipment & is rendered paraplegic. The Klingon sensibility being entirely governed by an almost samurai sense of honour,  Worf demands that he be allowed to commit some kind of Klingon seppuku, & asks his superiors to help him to do this – except that Worf has a twelve year-old son, Alexander, whom he’s raising on his own. Do Worf’s obligations as a father take precedent over his sense of honour? & what if “honour” in this sense is really just a short hand for “religion,” which is what the episode clearly implies? You can see how this stuff can get interesting.

In STID, the ethical dilemmas take a place somewhere in the background among the F/X wizardry, but they’re interesting to touch on. Kirk’s told essentially to take an arsenal of fancy torpedoes, find John Harrison (whom I might as well tell you right now is actually Khan, of The Wrath of Khan – & if you’re taking issue with Benedict Cumberbatch playing an Indian, you have to admit that he’s at least as Indian as Ricardo Montalbán) & basically vaporize him. Spock, ever the voice of reason, takes issue with this, reminding Kirk that “There is no Starfleet regulation that condemns a man to die without a trial.” (N.B.: Since the shooting script for STID isn’t yet available online, I’m working from memory here, so the quotation may not be exact; I have, however, had it corroborated from other sources, & it’s pretty damn close.)

(A quick digression: this begs some question over what, exactly is Starfleet & its mandate? In STID, there seems to be some tension between  Starfleet qua explorers versus military; while the original series have always taken place during exploratory missions, Starfleet’s also always been the go-to organization for intergalactic warfare, & at the very least seems to be the only game in town w/r/t advanced weaponry. Maybe a good analogy might be – if the Federation is like the UN, Starfleet would be only one division among many thereof, comprised of multiple planets rather & not the geocentric organization it sometimes appears to be. I guess its purview would therefore be space as a whole – i.e., exploration, diplomacy, trade, peacekeeping, defence, &c.)

If you, like me, are a compulsive consumer of news media, some pretty obvious parallels can be drawn between the abovementioned ethical dilemma & a few of the more seedy operations US foreign policy has inflicted on the world lately. In particular I can think of two, which screenwriter Robert Orci has sort of ham-fistedly combined to create a kind of Ur-allegory, a political universal derived from two particulars.

The first obvious one is the targeted assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen in 2011, which the Obama administration only formally copped to a couple days ago. al-Awlaki was an American citizen, born in New Mexico, educated in the United States, who later became a radical propagandist for al-Qaeda & subsequently accused by US officials of being in some way operationally connected to terrorist activities. No evidence was ever adduced to support these claims, but this hasn’t stopped President Obama (who has made targeted assassination with drone strikes a centerpiece of his counter-terrorism strategy & personally signs off on every hit) from openly gloating about it on television. (According to a letter to Congress written by Attorney General Eric Holder, al-Awlaki was only one of four American citizens executed without trial or due process by drone strikes personally ordered by Obama; another was al-Awlaki’s sixteen year-old son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki).

In STID, Khan is obviously meant to be an ersatz al-Awlaki, whose destruction, while not ordered to be carried out by drones, is nonetheless to be done at long-distance through remote photon torpedoes.  But while Khan is at least nominally a citizen of the Federation, the analogy with al-Awlaki ends there. Khan, we are led to believe, actually did commit major atrocities, which it’s not clear al-Awlaki ever did (it is not a crime in the United States, no matter what the media tell you, to say things). This makes Khan an almost Osama bin Laden figure, & indeed, the plan-of-action w/r/t his killing bears a great deal of similarity to the execution of bin Laden.

Consider, for example, the shameless breach of sovereignty represented by both governments – in real life, the invasion of Pakistani soil by American troops (to say nothing of the CIA’s fake vaccination program during the weeks before, which have since proved hugely damaging to the international vaccination movement) without permission, thereupon engaging in a firefight & killing unarmed suspects without so much as notifying the Pakistani government. In STID, Pakistan is Klingon space & Abbottabad is Kronos; & while bin Laden, like Khan, was overwhelmingly believed to be the perpetrator of atrocities, there was no actual hard evidence provided of this. Or if there were, why not capture bin Laden (or Khan, as Spock demands) & have him tried at the ICC (oh, wait…the Americans can’t do that because they don’t recognize the ICC…)? Hell, trying bin Laden anywhere would have been less damaging to American credibility than his summary execution.

What’s interesting about the way STID presents the case for Khan’s arrest & trial versus Starfleet Admiral Marcus’s gonzo assassination plan is how obvious the moral choice seems to be. Of course Khan should have a trial – there isn’t even an attempt at presenting the other side of the argument in this film (uncharacteristic for a real Star Trek conundrum, but let’s take what we can get). Spock knows it intuitively; so do Uhura & McCoy. Kirk’s storyline for much of the movie involves him in overcoming an intuitive, emotional desire for revenge in order to achieve a more rational & civilized & also deeper & more meaningful justice.

It seems unlikely that any movie-going audience member in America could possibly side with Marcus, but oddly the polling data shows that 75% of Americans approve of targeted assassination, & 24% even approve of assassinating American citizens. Its puzzling that moral truths clearly rendered in fiction don’t find immanentization in real life. What, exactly, is the blindness, & where does it come from?

One possible explanation is that it comes from Barack Obama himself. The erstwhile harbinger of “hope” & “change” has become arguably one of the most destructive & ruthless presidents in American history, from his almost erotic support for killing innocents with drones to the fact that he has prosecuted more journalists & leakers under the 1917 Espionage Act than all other American presidents combined, to his signing of the Monsanto Protection Act & thus entrenching corporate control over what we eat & how our food is produced (an aside: Monsanto also manufactured Agent Orange during the Vietnam war; this should tell you something), Obama has consistently demonstrated that he hates democracy & freedom & has little or no interest in even basic standards of justice & rationality. Yet even today his supporters in the mainstream media bleat their insipid hero-worship, immune to the forces of fact & argumentation. They use the sideshow bizarreness of Fox News & the risibility of the GOP as a distraction, the better to wrap themselves in feel-goodness about dear Barack.

In the Star Trek universe, the cult of personality (except, perhaps, as it applies to Kirk himself) seems to have gone the way of currency, poverty & disease (although this does raise certain questions w/r/t the governance structure of the Federation). Admiral Marcus, although clearly a colossal asshole, is nonetheless one guy with one guy’s opinion, & there is no PR machine backing him up – only an arsenal of photon torpedoes, & those, believe me, are far less dangerous.

As the ending of STID gropes for political relevance with a speech bearing all the finesse of a PSA, we are reminded by Cpt. Kirk that “There will always be those who mean to do us harm. To stop them, we risk awakening the same evil within ourselves.” What this means is that the characters in Star Trek have done nothing more nor less than embraced the most elemental of ethical precepts – that we apply to ourselves far more rigid moral standards than we apply to others, that we take responsibility for what we – & those we elect, & for us in Canada, whom our governments openly support – do.

It might also be to ask the question, racing straight past the verily fair-haired All-Americanism of Kirk himself to the inscrutable foreigner: what would Mr. Spock do?

Art & Atrocity

You’ve probably heard of this: an as-yet-unnamed student at the Alberta College of Art & Design brings a live chicken into the cafeteria, slits its throat, plucks it, & sets it in a pot as if he were about to eat it.

One of the things that interests me w/r/t the whole business is: what happened after that? As in, what happened after he put the chicken’s carcass in the pot? Did he take a little bow & exit stage left? Did he just leave the pot there? Whom did he expect to clean the carcass/pot-combo up after he was finished? These are questions that don’t tend to get asked, much less answered by the machines of media, & despite the semi-glib vibe about them I think they are nonetheless important. If, as is said about this kid’s noontime pullocide, this is an act of art, what exactly is the act? Is it just the killing? The plucking? Or indeed is the brisance of the public’s putative outrage part of the act’s scope as well – & if this is the case, does it make a difference in terms of how we view the act’s success or failure as a work of art? Shouldn’t it at least factor in?

Whether you’re a fan of what tends to get called “performance art” or not, if you’ve spent any time at all with the average college undergrad it’s likely that you’ve been exposed to some kind of artsy-fartsy gushing about the woman who paints with her vagina, or more recently the piece last October at the Codice Gallery in Manwhichagua, Nicaragua, in which Costa Rican artist Guillermo “Habucac” Vargas supposedly took a stray dog, tied it up in the gallery, & left it there without food or water to slowly starve under the pitying & indignant watch of art patrons. Generally, reactions to these & other like-unpleasant art-protest-performance-pieces fall under two categories: emphatic disapproval verging on hatred, or a kind of smug satisfaction at the art’s ability to provoke. Where one falls on this continuum likely determines how he/she answers the question that is ultimately asked: Does it cross the line?

But, does it cross the line between what? No attempt is made to resolve this ambiguity. On the CBC website, they have a little opinion poll (news media love opinion polls):

A Calgary art student slaughtered a chicken as part of a performance piece. Do you think the act constitutes art?

  • Yes. Art is what you can get away with, right?
  • No, he should be charged.
  • It doesn’t matter to me.
  • No, it’s grotesque.
  • Sure, it’s a comment on where our food comes from.

This is a perfect little microcosm of the discourse surrounding art & atrocity in modern life. Let’s dissect it piece by piece.

Yes. Art is what you can get away with, right?

Notwithstanding the fact that it’s not at all clear this kid’s “gotten away” with anything (the teacher whose class the piece was for certainly hasn’t, he’s been suspended by the college), we can treat this answer in philosophical terms through the lens of the deconstructionists. I had a history teacher once who referred to these ideas as “picking the wings off the butterfly,” a practice emblemized in the work of Tristan Tzara or Andy Warhol. In Tzara’s play The Gas Heart, he congregates a slew of non-sequiturs into an incoherent mess over which the reader, actors, director, & audience impose a kind of gestalt or meaning – his point being that “art” isn’t the object (or act) but instead the narrative overlay provided by the subject (or viewer).

Warhol’s probably the most popular of the deconstructionists (though it might be a matter of some controversy whether or not he would have accepted this label), likely because his demonstration of the movement’s principles is the most obvious – a soup can sans picture frame is a soup can, but throw a few 2″x4″‘s over it et voila – you’re selling to MOMA at $15 million.

Except then the assertion in the answer given above – “yes” – is disingenuous, because if art is only “what you can get away with” then art really is purely subjective, & therefore the question “Is this art?” is itself incoherent, or at least tautological. If it “is” then it “is art,” almost by definition. I’ve got no personal beef with this myself, capital-T Truthwise, but I can see how it might get depressing.

So where does this leave our ACAD student & his dead chicken? It basically absolves him of having to answer to why his act is “art.” He made it art by making the conversation be about whether or not it’s art. If the chicken’s the soup can, the CBC opinion poll is the picture frame.

No, he should be charged.

The punctuation in this one’s interesting. Is it, “No, and he should be charged,” or “No, therefore he should be charged”? In both cases the implication is that the act itself was worthy of criminal or civil charge.

(Incidentally, I’m not sure this is true – maybe he broke some health & saftey college reg’s, but I’m not sure there’s any question of criminality at play here. I know there’s the animal cruelty thing, but listen – I have eaten, & occasionally still eat, chicken, & I have without question eaten chickens that have died far more excruciating deaths than the decapitated bird in the ACAD Affair. You wanna talk animal cruelty? I guaran-goddamn-tee you the interior of an industrial poultry farm or slaughterhouse makes this kid look like Ingrid Newkirk.)

The second formulation “No, therefore he should be charged” is a lot more interesting. Let’s assume there was a city bylaw prohibiting the slaughter of poultry on school premises. Maybe there is such a thing; I don’t know. What’s odd about the phrasing is that it implies that were the act art, the artist should be absolved of charge. As in, the act’s artfulness overrides the legal transgressions. The implications of such reasoning gets pretty hairy, especially w/r/t things like graffiti, child pornography, &c.

It doesn’t matter to me.

Well, de gustibus non est disputandum. Most people don’t care about art anyway.

No, it’s grotesque.

Again – “No, and it’s grotesque” or “No, because it’s grotesque.” If the first, the answer’s useless because there isn’t a how or why. If the second, I adduce the works of Breugel, Bosch, Anselm Kiefer, Francis Bacon, Otto Dix, Goya, &c.

Not to mention Edmund Burke; q.v. his essays on the Sublime.

Sure, it’s a comment on where our food comes from.

So: the political or substantive philosophical content of a particular act determines its status as “art”? Why, then, isn’t Das Kapital art, or the pamphlets of William Whatcott? What operational difference is there, if politico-philosophical conundra form your artistic divining rod?

& how do we know that’s what it is? Who says? The kid? I’ve not read any such statements. What if tomorrow he publicly announced that in fact the performance was meant as a comment on his personal adoration for chicken nuggets? Or his loathing for birds in general? Why does he get to decide?

& if he doesn’t get to decide, then who does? & of what significance are their own political & philosophical prejudices?

Once we pursue these kinds of questions, it becomes clear that answering the broader question of “Does this cross the line?” necessarily involves one in the kinds of deep philosophical investigations most of us are just not qualified to undertake. Over simplifying them does two things – it debases our discourse & ability to think about & discuss complicated issues, & also leaves the issues open to the worst knee-jerk impulse reactions from both ends of the continuum I mentioned above. Consider the controversy over the recent bin Laden-death flick Zero Dark Thirty, in which the filmmakers include a torture scene which they portray as being crucial to bin Laden’s discovery. No such torture was necessary in real life, & I can see how, as Chris Moyers put it, such an inclusion can seem “objectively pro-torture” (full disclosure – I myself have not seen the film, so cannot opine one way or the other); does this make it a bad film? Does this disqualify it as art? If so, why? Because it fudges with the truth? There goes most of Shakespeare.

Look, I don’t think the kid should have killed the chicken. I don’t. I don’t think the dog should have been starved. But atrocity & art have a long history together. Once you start disqualifying acts or objects as art because of the atrocities that exist in connection with them, you open yourself up to some pretty uncomfortable retroactive moral/aesthetic judgements.  Most of the great works of architecture in the world were built by slaves. Is the Parthenon thereby no longer “art”?

The good news is, only morons tend to answer CBC opinion polls.