Arts & Culture

Enterprise Solution: Star Trek and President Barack Obama

Long before the promotional campaign for the new Star Trek film started in earnest, commentators had already discerned an uncanny similarity between the personalities of Spock and Barack Obama. Calm in the face of anger, collected when others are scattered, … Read More

By / May 29, 2009

Long before the promotional campaign for the new Star Trek film started in earnest, commentators had already discerned an uncanny similarity between the personalities of Spock and Barack Obama. Calm in the face of anger, collected when others are scattered, the President-to-be struck many as the ideal to which anger management aspires. Far from taking offense at the analogy, Obama was happy to declare his love for the original television series. Leonard Nimoy reported with obvious delight that, upon meeting the actor, the junior Senator from Illinois forsook the usual pleasantries for their Vulcan equivalent, saying “Live long and prosper” while making the shape of a V with his fingers. Anecdotes of our new President engaging in other Trekkie behavior, such as pretending that his wife’s new belt buckle concealed a teleportation device, added more fuel to the fire. By the time the film was released, the link between Obama’s White House and the USS Enterprise was being insisted upon with a vigor usually reserved for official marketing campaigns.

Part of that, surely, had to do with the curious circumstance that, at a time of unprecedented crisis in the print media, pictures of the Commander-in-Chief were blanketing newsstands to an unprecedented degree. At times, it was easier to pick out the magazines that didn’t feature Obama on the cover, like Hot Rod and Needlepoint Now than the ones that did. Not only was the man struggling to rescue free enterprise from the aftermath of a grave systemic failure, his public image was serving as a substantial source of economic thrust in its own right. From this perspective, connecting his Presidency to Star Trek made as much sense as tying in other commercial ventures like the NCAA men’s basketball tournament to it.

Don’t Believe the Hype

No matter how much one admires Barack Obama or wants him to succeed, it is more important than ever to obey Public Enemy’s injunction: “Don’t believe the hype.” Whether positive or negative, the media attention devoted to him is both excessive and deceptive. If asked, I’m sure he’d say so himself. Caution is especally crucial for the Left, whose membership is divided between acolytes who see every decision the President makes another confirmation of his strategic brilliance and detractors who complain that the new boss looks an awful lot like the old one. There has to be middle ground for progressives, a position from which they can give Obama the respect he deserves without giving up the right to call him on his shit.

That’s why our initial reaction to comparisons of Spock and Obama should involve raising an eyebrow to heights worthy of Mr. Nimoy. Clearly, this coupling has been backed by the rich and powerful, which provides reason enough to be suspicious. Whoever floated the rumor that the President had requested a special screening of the new film at the White House made it painfully clear that the analogy was breathtakingly safe.

Political Allegory and Popular Culture

Once upon a time, the move to interpret popular culture allegorically was fraught with risk. Even when artists intended to spur such reflections, the social pressure to regard their work as disposable entertainment, with no function other than to bring temporary and limited pleasure to the masses, was often too strong to overcome. But things have changed. During the 2008 Presidential campaign, a number of mainstream pieces pondered whether Americans had been prepared to have an African-American President by seeing one represented in fictional texts like 24 and Armageddon. Whatever their conclusions, they took it for granted that the entertainment world has a profound effect on our perception of the real world. Instead of being dismissed as the work of out-of-touch academics or amateur conspiracy theorists, this exercise in connecting the dots between fantasy and reality was presented as a legitimate form of political analysis.

There is much to applaud in this development. Paying to attention to how and why people identify politicians – classifying them as members of some categories and not others – and, just as importantly, identify with politicians is a critical step in transcending the debilitating belief that they choose leaders by simply making a rational assessment of their own self-interest. Because identification is a fundamentally cultural process, shaped by textual influences from preschool onward, paying attention to the ways in which fiction interwines with fact enables insights that would be difficult or impossible to achieve with an approach that focuses narrowly on the domain of electoral politics.

Proceeding on the assumption that “throwaway” popular culture can have profound politicial significance also directs scrutiny to the relationship between money and power. Success in the cultural marketplace is not merely the result of a neutral competition in which innate quality prevails. On the contrary, a work’s popularity more often than not reflects the force of its financial backing. While this support sometimes converges with critical acclamation, there is no guarantee that it will. In the case of the new Star Trek film, for example, the extensive advance promotional campaign – posters started showing up in multiplexes last year – and wide range of product tie-ins emphatically demonstrate that a lot of time and money was spent trying to make it a hit.

The danger, though, in embracing this conception of popular culture is that we will let the mainstream media dictate how we interpret particular texts. To put this another way, just as the promotional give-aways at fast food restaurants are carefully orchestrated to increase a film’s profile without inspiring potentially counter-productive reflection on its deeper implications, so might analyses of the sort that equate fictional and real-world characters. Everyone knows that Barack Obama isn’t really Spock. But repeatedly emphasizing the similarities between them can have the effect of naturalizing the analogy, exempting it from critical scrutiny.

We need to let this metaphor shape our perspective on the new President without forgetting that the invitation to see Spock in Obama serves the interests of powers that stand to benefit from the analogy. One way of doing that would be to compile a list of points where the analogy breaks down. We could, for instance, focus on moments in which the President has appeared to place passion before reason. A more interesting approach, though, might be to follow through on the comparison, constructing a series of if-then scenarios.

Was Spock a Jew?

To give an example of how this latter strategy might play out with particular resonance for readers of Zeek, we can start by considering the origins of Spock’s character. The greeting Obama mimicked, making the sign of a V with one’s fingers, supposedly derives from one that actor Leonard Nimoy witnessed as a child. In his autobiography I Am Not Spock – tellingly followed by a sequel titled I Am Spock – Nimoy wrote that the idea for the hand gesture came from the childhood experience of being taken to an Orthodox temple, where he saw the Kohanim make the sign for the Hebrew letter Shin. In effect, this codes Spock’s otherness vis-à-vis the Enterprise’s multicultural human crew as analogous to the status of Jews held in the postwar American society of the original television show, a “model minority” imagined to be superior to other marked ethnicities, occupying a privileged position – Spock is First Mate on the Enterprise – but one that is in some ways further removed from the WASP norm than that of other characters.

It’s important to note that Spock is only half-Vulcan, however. As the new film repeatedly reminds us, his decision to exemplify characteristically Vulcan traits is the result of hard work, performed on him by others and by himself alike, to restrain his human tendencies. His upbringing has conditioned him to identify with his Vulcan side without entirely repressing the knowledge that he could have turned out quite differently. Within the context of the mid-1960s, the trajectory of his character combined with Nimoy’s background to imply that, in attaining the status of “model minority,” Jews were forced to suppress traits incompatible with that image. This was the price of assimilation.

Half and Half

The most compelling argument for seeing Spock in Obama derives from the President’s biracial identity. The product of a short-lived union between a dark-skinned African father and a light-skinned American mother, his life story provides an interesting comparison to Spock’s. On the one hand, his education at a mostly Caucasian prep school, Columbia University and Harvard Law suggests that he followed a characteristically “white” path. On the other, however, Obama’s subsequent political career, based in the predominantly African-American areas of Chicago’s South Side, indicates that he eventually chose to embrace his minority heritage. In other words, the President’s biography comprises a tale of both assimilation – suppressing his otherness – and self-conscious identity politics – celebrating his otherness.

Crucially, while Leonard Nimoy’s Spock distanced himself from the passion-ruled irrationality associated with dominant WASP culture, Obama’s rise was predicated on a careful negotiation of the relationship between a dominant WASP culture identified with being calm, cool and collected and an African-American heritage that has been historically aligned, often with gravely pernicious consequences, with an excess of passion and a concomitant dearth of reason.

We must remember, however that the coupling of Spock’s non-human side with a worldview in which the rule of logic was paramount reflected a major shift in the perception of Jewish ethnicity in the postwar United States. There was a time, during the waves of immigration from Eastern Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when the stereotyping of Jews borrowed heavily on long-standing anti-Semitic traditions. Far from being considered a “model minority,” they were identified with a series of negative character traits – untrustworthy, rapacious, lustful – that were also applied, though with more force and political malice, to Americans of African descent. This is what gave both Jews and African Americans a common experience of racism, but also distanced them from one another as well. 

 

The Passion of Dispassion

To the extent that commentators have pushed the Spock = Obama equation, then, they have implied, however unwittingly, that our new President has ushered in a new era for African-Americans, in which they have the potential, finally, to wriggle free of the negative stereotypes that have limited their advancement. Indeed, his stunning ascent from the Illinois State Legislature to the U.S. Senate to the White House has been heralded by both African-Americans and members of the Caucuasian majority as a fundamental turning point in the country’s attitude towards race.

But what about the Jews? Here is where following through on the analogy pays particularly interesting dividends. The new Star Trek film seeks to reanimate a rather morbiund franchise by fleshing out an origin story for the special relationship between Spock and James T. Kirk, the Captain of the Enterprise. While the familiar tension between Spock’s devotion to reason and Kirk’s willingness to act first and think later is retained from the original television series, we also get new insight into Spock’s human heritage.

To make a long story short, the film shows us how the appearance of disinterestedness can be a cover for self-interest. The new film’s twist on the original Star Trek narrative is to have Spock, not Kirk, assume command of the Enerprise. After First Mate Kirk questions Spock’s ability to make the right decisions after witnessing the destruction of his home planet Vulcan, Spock sends him into exile. With the assistance of a much older Spock, played by Leonard Nimoy, Kirk finds a way to return to the Enterprise and convince the younger Spock that he is unfit for command, thereby securing the post of Captain that he held on the original television series. The point, ultimately, is that Kirk’s impulsiveness is not necessarily less rational than the dispassionate façade Spock works so hard to maintain.

Teacher/Student

This point is reinforced by a scene from early in the film. As the new cadets of Star Fleet are being mustered to respond to an unexpected threat, Spock, who has served as one of their instructors, is confronted by Uhura. She demands to know why, despite her superb marks, she is not being assigned to the Enterprise, the most sought-after post. Spock responds, rather cryptically, that he did not want to give the impression of favoritism. But he quickly relents and lets her transfer to the Enterprise. Only later does it become clear that he and Uhura have been having a teacher-student love affair that continues to smoulder on the mission. What this deviation from the original Star Trek confirms, in short, is that the appearance of disinterestedness can just as easily indicate that one is overwhelmed by unruly passions as that one is ruled by logic.

The fact that Uhura is the Enterprise’s only featured African-American woman crew member further complicates matters. We see Spock, who was already being identified with Barack Obama before the new film was finished, getting to occupy the position that Kirk famously assumed on the original series, when he and Uhura shared one of television’s first interracial kisses. In light of the previously mentioned ethnic coding to Spock’s character, the amorous relationship between him and Uhura encourages us to scrutinize the new film for insight into the current state of the often fraught relationship between Jews and African-Americans in the United States.

One of the most interesting developments to which the original television series led was the popularity of so-called “slash fiction,” in which sexual relationships between well-known characters of the same gender are narrated. These days, the Harry Potter books are probably the most fertile source for such copyright-flaunting tales. But the original coupling, the one that started it all, in a sense, was Kirk and Spock. Interestingly, most of the people responsible for getting that romance off the ground were female fans of Star Trek who identified themselves as heterosexual. Even today, that demographic plays a significant role in the communities that have developed around slash fiction.

Because copyright issues ensure that slash fiction based on franchises like Star Trek can only exist outside of the conventional marketplace, it has managed to retain a resolutely anti-commercial aura. That hasn’t stopped copyright holders from trying to stop its production and distribution. George Lucas, for example, is reported to have strenuously opposed the “queering” of Star Wars characters. With Star Trek, however, the situation is more complicated. Although series creator Gene Roddenberry obviously could not endorse tales in which Kirk and Spock make love, his openly stated intention of promoting diversity of all sorts made many fans feel more welcome to repurpose the show’s characters.

Whether the team responsible for the new Star Trek film was self-consciously responing to the history of slash fiction associated with the franchise is unclear, though it seems likely that at least some of the people involved were thinking of it when they concocted the forbidden love subplot between Spock the instructor and his student Uhura. Given the vast quantity of Kirk/Spock fan fiction out there, though, the invocation of such transgressive behavior and the emphasis on Spock’s passionate nature provides plenty of fuel for reanimating that subculture.

Who Is Obama’s Kirk?

Less obviously, it also provides the raw material to radicalize the comparison of Spock and Obama in intriguing ways. The invitation to see the Spock in our new President typically seems to proceed from the assumption that fictional characters can be pried loose from the narratives in which they originally appeared and treated as self-sufficient entities. But what if this analogy were returned to its place of origin, the tale of the Startship Enterprise?

Latent within the Spock = Obama equation is the notion that he must work in tandem with a figure equivalent to Captain Kirk. Shortly after Inauguration Day, The New York Times ran an interesting piece on Obama’s Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel that described the former Congressman from Illinois as a “fierce partisan” with a partially justifiable reputation as a “relentless hothead” who was trying hard to “rein himself in.” Those are all traits identified with James T. Kirk. But the similarities don’t stop there. Consider this sentence. “How will the feisty, bombastic and at times impulsive former congressman blend with the cool, collegial and deliberate culture of Obama World?” Substitute “Iowa farm boy” for “congressman” and “Vulcan” for “Obama World” and you have the perfect tag line for a campaing to promote the new Start Trek film.

But it’s not just the adjectives associated with Emanuel and Obama here and those used to describe Kirk and Spock that make the current White House sound eerily like the Enterprise. Again and again stories on Obama have emphasized the crucial role that Jewish advisers like Emanuel and campaign strategist David Axelrod have played in his political life. Frequently, the implication is that the President needs the passion, fight and basic willingness to get dirty identified with these advisers in order to be successful. In a reversal of longstanding stereotypes in the entertainment industry, where performers were typically depicted as passionate and lacking in self-discipline, we are being sold a storyline in which an excessively cool and calm African-American requires the heated frenzy of Jews working behing the scenes to get things done.

More subtly, we are also being encouraged to conceive of post-WASP leadership as a hybrid of superficially opposed ethnic legacies. In an era when the notion of the “model minority” has been turned on its head, the only truth that seems to persist is that cultural self-sufficiency is an illusion. Without intimate relationships that are by definition transgressive in nature, like the coupling of Kirk and Spock in slash fiction, attempts to take command of the political situation will always fall short of their goals.