Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Founding Trekkes

The latest Star Trek flick took in $75 million at almost four thousand theaters nationwide on its opening weekend—not the biggest ticket bonanza in history, but close. What accounts for the persistent popularity of a sci-fi saga that began as a TV series over forty years ago, in 1966? Maybe the fact that Star Trek is a story about America--our dreams and values as a people.

It’s little known, but our Founding Fathers were fascinated with extraterrestrials. Deep space had just been discovered in the eighteenth century. Observations of the transit of Venus in 1761 confirmed the distance from Earth to Sun as 93 million miles, expanding the known universe by orders of magnitude. Philosophers like Immanuel Kant were speculating that the smudges of light astronomers were glimpsing through their telescopes might actually be “island universes” or separate galaxies, each containing billions of stars, many with planetary systems like our own.

John Adams mused, “Astronomers tell us with good reason, that not only all the planets and satellites in our solar system, but all the unnumbered worlds that revolve around the fixed stars are inhabited, as well as this globe of earth.” What rational Creator would have made such a lot of worlds, only to leave them devoid of intelligent life? Educated thinkers in the Age of Reason supposed that even the Moon and Sun might be inhabited. Pointing out that God left no part of the Earth unoccupied, Tom Paine asked, “why is it to be supposed that the immensity of space is a naked void, lying in eternal waste? There is room for millions of worlds as large or larger than ours, and each of them millions of miles apart from each other.”

Belief in a reasonable deity made our forbears theologically deviant. The Founders didn’t accept all the miracles of the Bible, for instance. Yet they had a quasi-religious faith in engineering and technology. Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson are renowned for their inventive flair. But George Washington, Adams, and James Madison would have been equally at home in our world of cell phones and rampant gadgetry. Tom Paine, when not discoursing on the Rights of Man, was busy tinkering with smokeless candles, iron bridges and planing machines. Warp drive? Just one more step for our nation’s inquiring, innovative spirit.

As with the crew of the Enterprise (whose very name is All American), our Founders were committed to religious and ethnic pluralism. Catholics, Protestants and Jews, immigrants from shtetls and barrios, could learn to co-exist, just like Vulcans, Klingons, and Romulans. And the “prime directive” for the United Federation of Planets sounds a lot like our own U.S. First Amendment. “As the right of each sentient species to live in accordance with its normal cultural evolution is considered sacred, no Starfleet personnel may interfere with the normal and healthy development of alien life and culture.” In other words, don’t interfere with other people’s holy traditions, whether they’re Amish or Betazoid. No proselytizing allowed.

Imagine: a self-governing association of peoples who thrive on diversity, use logic to solve their collective problems, and harness science for peaceful ends rather than for purposes of conquest or colonizing weaker races. Is it any wonder that Star Trek, even after eleven major motion pictures, still draws the crowds?

Throw in a computer that can materialize cappucinnos and it’s the American Dream!


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