It’s been almost 50 years since Star Trek debuted on television and in that time we’ve seen many great advances in technology. The sad news of Leonard Nimoy’s death today spread at a speed unimaginable in 1966 thanks to the internet. Our cell phones are essentially tricorders, able to call up the sum of human knowledge and use satellites to pinpoint our exact locations on Earth. We put people on the moon and just recently a robot on Mars. We don’t have transporters yet (damn!) but in many ways we are living the future imagined by science fiction in the 1960s.
Star Trek, however, was not just about technology and gadgets. It also promoted a humanist philosophy and used the exploration of space as a metaphor for the exploration of ideas. Certainly we’ve seen some strides in the betterment of our society. Something that was shocking when Star Trek did it–the first interracial kiss on TV–is now routine. We’ve seen the advancement of civil rights across a broad spectrum. For a while there it seemed that what MLK said was true: the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.
I hope that’s true. I really do, but having lived through the last 35 years of American politics, I have my doubts. Science and the scientific method itself are under attack. America tortures in the name of freedom. Voter ID laws–created in response to the made up problem of in person voter fraud–are undoing the hard won battles of the Civil Rights era. Seemingly uncontroversial ideas (like all human beings deserve a place to live, food to eat, and at least basic health care) are being replaced with Randian “I’ve got mine, screw you” sociopathy. Instead of working towards a society where money is less important, money is now the only measure of success. If some rich asshole can get just a little richer by screwing over workers, poisoning the environment, bribing politicians, and not paying his fair share of taxes, his profit-seeking at all costs is viewed not just as laudable but morally correct. And while all that money is flowing upwards to Wall Street and multi-national corporations, engorging the 1% to unprecedented levels, we are told that America “can’t’ afford” health care and education for everyone, never mind upgrading our crumbling infrastructure. Endless wars though? Well, there’s always money for those.
All this is a vision of the future all right, but not Star Trek’s. We are not arcing towards justice but dystopia. So as you read about Leonard Nimoy on your tricorder today, try using that empathy you are feeling as a lens to see the world. How would you feel if you loved someone very much and wanted to marry, but it was against the law in your state? How would you feel if a group of people who had never had a hungry day in their lives decided to cut off the food assistance that let you feed your family? How would you feel if the police routinely stopped and harassed you because of your skin color?
America is re-dedicating itself to a cruelty that we should have left behind. That is not the way forward. We should aspire to something greater and it starts with empathy. If we can take that step, maybe we can one day make it to justice.