In celebration of the new Star Trek movie, which I will be watching tonight, I am taking the liberty of re-publishing an old article of mine: Star Trek As Progressive Mythology. My view is that science fiction that takes a positive view of the future, perhaps best exemplified in popular culture by Star Trek, is a progressive shift in the use of mythology. Instead of taking our ideal of society in an unattainable past, as conservatism does and as mythology has usually done, Star Trek views the ideal of society in an as yet unattained future, ala progressivism:
[L]ike with the X-Files, there are basically two types of Star Trek episodes. While the X-Files has "monster of the week" episodes and "myth" episodes, Star Trek has "ethical problem of the week" episodes and "galaxy politics" episodes. While I love both kinds of episodes, the focus on this post is on the "ethical problem of the week" type. Specifically, they always seem to resolve their problems by being, well, liberal humanists.
Star Trek is a rare phenomenon in popular culture: a detailed, future fantasy universe that is both based on our own past and that takes an overwhelmingly positive view of our future. Most popular culture science fiction either views the future in negative terms (The Matrix, Phillip Dick) or as an indecipherable "other" (X-Files, Arthur C. Clarke). Star Trek is an unusual view of our future simply because it is so darn positive. Poverty has been eliminated. Humans are free and united. People live to be over 100 years old on a regular basis. There isn't even any money! As Jean Luc Picard puts it, in the future world, individuals do not search to acquire wealth or power, but rather "to better themselves." As we travel around the galaxy making more new friends all the time, our beliefs in equality and self-determination always serve to make us stronger, even against totalitarian adversaries such as the Borg that in many ways are more powerful than the United Federation of Planets.
Star Trek not only shows what is best about liberal political structures and philosophies, but it is fundamentally a representation of the culmination of modernism and the great march of progress. It shows us what liberalism and modernism hope to eventually achieve, rather than what they have already achieved. It is, in that sense, a powerful mythology of modernism, of liberalism, and of progressivism. That works perfectly for those beliefs since, in contrast with conservatism, progressivism always sees the ideal of society as lying somewhere in the future, rather than in the past. As a result of our march of progress, things will be better in the times to come. Even for the characters in Star Trek, rather than trying to live up to some past ideal, rather than trying to imitate the unmatchable actions of super-human archetypes from the past, the best is always yet to come in new worlds and new cultures that are not yet known.
One of the problems with the mythology of almost any culture is that it tends to find our ideals in the distant past. The ways we should act as members of a family, as citizens of a public society, or simply as social animals have always been laid down for us by people who lived long ago (or who didn't live at all). In this way, most of mythology has been inherently conservative, depicting contemporary society, and indeed all societies, as but a poor imitation of the greatness of the past. However, if we are always trying to live up to the greatness of the past, we may have difficulties imagining a better future, which is a necessary aspect of any progressive. By taking the unusual step of placing your mythological greatness in the future--and not in an eschatological future, as the rapturists would have it--then what we are ultimately trying to live up to is the fulfillment of the promises inherent in our own liberal democracy: equality, self-determination, prosperity, and friendship. With this shift, mythology can become a progressive vision for self-improvement that is not bounded by the dictates of the past. Hell, San Francisco even becomes our capital. Hard to imagine a better place for the capital of a progressive future.
Dif-tor heh smusma. (Or, for you humans out there, live long and prosper.)