It’s another testament to how perversely political times have changed, and how completely the left-liberal establishment has been corrupted and turned authoritarian, that 25 years ago—Dec. 11, 1998—audiences happily accepted that insurrectionists were the (rebellious but gently agrarian) good guys in Star Trek: Insurrection, peasant-farmer types up against an increasingly callous and mechanized Federation, whereas today “insurrection” is a dirty word.
It’s now a word gleefully applied as a pejorative by the establishment and its secret police to any overly large or rowdy crowd of protestors—especially in its technical constitutional sense, as possible grounds for legally disqualifying the popular Donald Trump from running for president again.
Paradoxically, the establishment now points to Trump’s stated desire to use police and military as anti-insurrection forces—in case of violent, large-scale riots—as new evidence he is an authoritarian who must not be allowed in the Oval Office again. Insurrection is bad when Trump does it, cool if his foes do it, apparently.
But minor quibbles about the intensity of policing aside, after nearly a century and a half of big government around the world bulldozing the populace (killing some 300 million of them, decimating our species) and infiltrating all of society’s institutions, we’re expected to recoil with real panic only when someone threatens to “tear down” parts of government itself (or to act firmly to defend private institutions), like the man inaugurated as president of Argentina this week, Javier Milei.
That’s the tag-you’re-it game the passive-aggressive establishment loves most: waiting until the rebels ever so briefly touch the reins of power, then pretending the rebels (such as Milei) were the real fascists all along while the establishment—the centrists, the lucrative public-private partnerships, the intelligence agencies—were plucky but fragile outsiders.
This schizo (or worse, strategically brilliant) tension in left-liberals’ sympathies—sometimes the free spirits, sometimes the architects of the crackdown—can arguably be traced back to inquisitive but Sparta-loving intellectual Plato, surely as far back as the liberating-but-punitive French Revolution in any case, and closer to our own time undeniably at least as far back as World War I, when the Bohemian anarchists and artists who opposed the military-industrial complex eventually made common cause with the centralization-loving modernists of the Progressive movement—a movement so in love with war they thought it should become our model for tackling all problems, from illiteracy to disease.
The post-WWI amnesia about that huge logical fault line within the left (and within elite New York City circles) would recur in the 1970s, as the Democrats quickly and willfully forgot that the hippies had just spent the prior decade fighting against Democrat administrations’ war in Vietnam.
Born of that era, Star Trek contains the same personality split that modern liberalism in general does, constantly trying to side with the marginalized and with impoverished, indigenous locals yet also with the tidy, uniform-wearing regulators sitting back at the shining, modernist headquarters and lecturing (or when necessary stunning) dissenters.
J.J. Abrams, head producer of years of recent Trek material, can’t resolve this tension simply by making Trek look so shiny, explosion-filled, dangerous, and fast-paced that we’re lulled for a few minutes at a time into thinking it’s Star Wars, a franchise in which the imperial-vs.-rebel battlelines are far more clearly and decisively drawn (more about that franchise’s own problems next week, though).
If you fill your core cast of characters with true-believing Federation officers but then have them periodically fight the Federation itself to maintain the officers’ “underdog” cred, you increasingly end up with a muddle that is, so to speak, the worst of both worlds. Neither home base nor nomadic travel seems welcoming anymore, whereas both were once inspiring in this franchise.
At least on TV, the tension between tolerance and authority—and the similar tension between techno-optimism and the dangers of dystopia—could be explored with some gentle, multi-season nuance (even if the anti-Federation separatists called the Maquis got short shrift plot-wise on Deep Space Nine). Harder to cram all that into one big, shiny, crowd-pleasing, slightly dumb, mega-budget movie every four years or so. Star Trek: Insurrection was sort of a transitional work: more cerebral than the Abrams era to come but often described as feeling a bit like an overlong episode of Next Generation inappropriately projected onto the big screen. Not enough bang for your cinema-going buck.
As for the man who played Capt. Kirk but has been criminally underused by the Trek franchise in recent decades, William Shatner, he embodies some of the same tensions as Trek itself, always acting as a booster for big science and recently flying to the edge of space at 90 but also glumly pronouncing doom for our high-tech, industrial, polluting civilization afterwards.
Lately, one minute he’s denouncing the sorts of control freaks who want to censor speech and the Net, the next he’s proclaiming that “everyone is going to die” unless we appoint England’s King Charles global eco-dictator to bring industrial humanity to heel, as if English aristocrats have ever needed much encouragement to think monstrous things like that about the carbon-spewing commoners.
If Shatner is really worried about the downsides of tech now, maybe instead of encouraging haughty rulers like Charles to exert more authority, he should worry about things like, say, whether the governments of the world are already filling the atmosphere with high-tech, UFO-like, aerogel “vacuum balloons” that bounce around at high speeds and near-zero resistance, like void-bubbles in currents of our air, festooned with tiny cameras that turn the whole surface of the Earth into a sporadically yet thoroughly mapped—and A.I.-diagrammed—surveillance terrarium.
May the Gene Roddenberrys—or for that matter Norman Lears—of the future spend more time wrestling with the question of how to defeat centralized power, as they did in some of their best works, and less time dreaming of using centralized power to monitor and improve all of us. Reformers should be on the side of the unruly, untamed masses covering the planet’s surface, even when centralized power has fast ships, tall buildings, and shiny monuments the rural bumpkins scarcely comprehend.