E Plebnista

I’m a casual Star Trek fan. I was just a kid when it was originally in its first run in the 1960’s and I really didn’t understand the stories they were trying to tell. When the syndications started in the 1970’s I was able to pay closer attention and see some of the allegories that Roddenberry was making.

The best stories that we tell each other, no matter the medium, teach a lesson. That’s the power of myth. In many cases, we learn more from a novel about ourselves and our place, than we do from a textbook. We can learn more about who we are and who we want to be and who we are supposed to be from a television show, or a movie or a song or a poem. The subtle power of entertainment, when used skilfully, is a lamp into the darkness created by muddled thought.

I have a friend who decided not to go see the recent Ghostbusters re-boot because of a single scene in the trailer. Leslie Jones’ character does a stage dive. The audience splits and she falls to the floor. Her punch line was “Is it because I am black? Is it because I am a woman?” My friend decided that this was too much politics in a movie. He decided that the film makers were forcing an agenda. He doesn’t like agendas.

Considering the racism and sexism directed towards Jones following the debut of the movie, I think her line there is prescient and

I’ve been thinking about that conversation. I’ve been thinking about The Power of Myth. Myth is a tool to provide a framework for the society to pass along the values and a cultural framework to our youth, according to Joseph Campbell. Mythology is often devalued as the characters and gods in myths are obviously not historical to us now, and so we look at the lessons of Greek, Roman, Hindu, Chinese, Norse, and Persian mythology as being ludicrous explanations of how things came to me. We look at the tales on the surface as being an explanation of nature and phenomena before people had access to the tools of science and looked to the gods to be the creators and destroyers. The story of Arachne is not really the story of how spiders learned to make webs. The story of “The Seventh Night of July” is not really the story of why the Moon and the Sun are separated. The lesson of Arachne is not to be too boastful. The lesson of the Seventh Night of July is that secret lovers who break the rules will be punished.

Even though I was very young when the Star Trek episode “The Omega Glory” was on television, I did understand the ending. Yes, I was a bit too precocious for my own good at times. I was six. James T. Kirk solved the issue of the “holy words” that the Yang were using as the basis of their religion, and explained to them that if they are recited without understanding their meaning is lost. The were worshiping the concepts of the American democracy but they didn’t know what the words meant. The words “We the People” had been recited for generations and like a game of telephone they had morphed into a nonsense phrase “e Plebnista.”

Words without meaning.

Gene Roddenberry had an agenda. He was a humanist. He wrote Star Trek as a way of projecting his own desired mythology that in an era of science, people would be able to create a united and peaceful society using science and exploration as tools for advancement. Religion in Star Trek, when portrayed, emphasized its negatives. Science, for him, was a humanizing force. And, in The Omega Glory, religion and nationalism were shown as coming from a shared loom. They are woven together to create solidarity, and while solidarity in various forms, whether mechanical or fluid, are necessary to a certain extent; they become poisonous when authoritarianism becomes a force to bind them.

Enter Colin Kaepernick.

When Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback for the San Francisco 49'ers, sat down for the national anthem, he was taking a stand by sitting. He believed that the issue of police not being held responsible for murder, or even manslaughter, when they kill black people in the United States, is an issue that is a barrier to freedom for African Americans. He said that he can’t salute or honor the flag because the principles of freedom are not being held up:

“I have great respect for men and women that have fought for this country,” Kaepernick said. “I have family. I have friends that gone and fought for this country. They fight for freedom. They fight for the people. They fight for liberty and justice for everyone. And that’s not happening. People are dying in vain because this country isn’t holding their end of the bargain up as far as, you know, giving freedom and justice and liberty to everybody.”

There has been great and terrible hue and outcry against Colin Kaepernick. Facebook friendships have been torn asunder between people who defend the flag and think that Kaepernick is an ungrateful traitor to the flag, and those who think that the freedom to protest is an expression of the meaning behind the flag, the constitution and the very concept of freedom itself. The controversy has served to illustrate that those who value the flag above all don’t understand the basis of liberty.

One of the liberties that the flag stands for is the liberty to disrespect it. If we force, through peer pressure and shame, a solidarity based on symbolism being more important than the values that the symbols themselves represent, then there is a limit to liberty.

I didn’t know much about Colin Kaepernick until this episode. I knew that he was a quarterback for the 49'ers, but I haven’t been following the game of football all that closely over the last few years. I know more about him now, and I admire him. This is what the ideal of freedom is about.

The United States is not a perfect union. It was not formed as one. Even the Preamble to the Constitution, “We the People” was written and used to form a “more perfect union,” from a divided union of diverse colonies with diverse economies and beliefs that varied even in the degree of freedom of the individual. Equality was a concept applied to a specific class of citizens, and others have had to fight over the years for their own access to equality. African Americans are still having to fight for rights that most of the rest of us take for granted in our privilege.

One of those rights is the right to be served and protected by the police rather than targeted.

Another is the right to make meaningful protest without being told to “leave the country if you hate it so much.”

We also have the right to say “We the People” instead of mouthing “E Plebnista.”