USA! USA! USA!
Aw hell, here we go…Star Trek has always been political, so no need to shy away from discussing politics here. Did you watch President Joe Biden’s April 28, 2021 address to Congress? I hope you did because this speech felt like we might be on the precipice of a cultural shift. There was direct discussion of the need for reform and progress on human rights, racial justice, gender equity, LGBTQ protections, universal safety net programs for families, violence against women, migration, and gun safety. This past year woke all of us up that living lives of quiet desperation is an inadequate existence and that we have to help one another. More importantly, the past year has shown that government, by and for the people, has a role to play in remediating so many of these issues. It was a truly remarkable speech. I am cautiously optimistic that we may make significant progress on these issues in the next few years.
In the Star Trek context, perhaps the best episode that we can look to is DS9’s Past Tense. In the episode, Sisko, Bashir, and Jadzia beam down to San Francisco to attend a Starfleet conference, but a transporter malfunction has them ending up on Earth in 2024, 300 years in the past. See where I’m going? Things are bad. Earth is shown to have all the crimes of desperation, frequent petty crime, riots, and massive camps for people experiencing homelessness called Sanctuary Districts. Sisko and Bashir were shuttled into one Sanctuary District where they saw poverty unlike anything they had ever seen or heard of outside of the history books. Just for being homeless, poor, mentally ill and/or undocumented, they were treated like criminals. Sounds familiar, right?
“By the early 2020s, there was a place like this in every major city in the United States.“Sisko and Bashir
“Why are these people in here? Are they criminals?“
“No, people with criminal records weren’t allowed in the Sanctuary Districts.“
“Then what did they do to deserve this?“
“Nothing. They’re just people without jobs or places to live.“
“So they get put in here?“
“Welcome to the 21st Century, Doctor.”
Sure enough, there has been an overcrowded skid row/tent city/homeless encampment in every major city in the United States. After years of decline, homelessness was on the rise before the pandemic, but was surely exacerbated by the rampant job loss related to the economic disruption. Sanctuary Districts were developed at some point to warehouse people and keep them out of sight. Notably, even the well-meaning social worker attempting to help Sisko and Bashir uses derogatory terms to refer to them. In retrospect, it is a particularly poignant moment because she is a Black woman acting as a benevolent gatekeeper, emblematic of the systemic -isms that can be so insidious, hard to identify, and hard to change. She even tells them to watch out for District Security, so it appears police brutality was a thing there too. She has the smug confidence that comes with thinking she’s helping, but not the recognition that she is actually part of the problem.
“There’s no need for him to live like that…
“It’s not that they don’t give a damn, they’ve just given up. The social problems they face seem too enormous to deal with.”Sisko to Bashir
“Causing people to suffer because you hate them is terrible, but causing people to suffer because you have forgotten how to care–that’s really hard to understand.“
“They’ll remember. It will take some time and it won’t be easy, but, eventually, people in this century will remember how to care.”Sisko and Bashir
There is an old saying that things are darkest before the Dawn. The 2020s have been pretty dark so far, in real life and the Star Trek Universe. How Star Trek writers could have predicted things are happening now with such precision is pretty eerie; this episode aired 26 years ago. It’s so on the nose. I haven’t even mentioned the unique and subtle demonstration of racism in the episode. Jadzia, a white-passing actual alien, is given aid and treated like the toast of society while Sisko and Bashir, two black and brown American citizens, are treated immediately like criminals. That could be a whole post in itself.
I don’t have to recount all of the terrible things that have happened in the past few years. Our democracy has been tested, voting rights being challenged, unimaginable economic insecurity, immigrant children in cages, and widespread disease and rationing of access to healthcare. And most relevant to this episode, mass riots because people have been isolated to the point that they feel they have no other choice than to overturn the system violently. Again, sounds familiar?
So, are you feeling optimistic after the speech? If you find comfort in the post-scarcity ideas idealized in Star Trek, let’s work towards it. Seems like we’ve got momentum.
P.S. This might be my new favorite DS9 episode. I didn’t appreciate it until now.