• Rowan Fortune

Why so Political?


From Maverick to Star Trek, what is political?


The word ‘political’ is frustratingly vague. Its usage, more than most words, is highly context specific. This becomes especially clear in any conversation about anti-politics. Confusingly, anti-politics is a political category. It is not the rejection of politics wholesale, but a given posture against a narrow band of what is called politics.


The word derives from Aristotle’s Politiká, which etymologically refers to the affairs of city-states, their running and management. The word is now associated with all attempts by groups of people to organise themselves and manage the distribution of power and goods.


Anti-politics is any rejection of a widely accepted form of such management, which can manifest in an active resistance to it (a revolutionary rejection of systems of power) or apathy about it (a refusal to participate). But either way, all anti-politics makes postulations about how a group organizes itself and what power is and is not legitimate. Crises of legitimacy are the inspiration for all anti-politics. Here, I will be focusing on one example of it.

A common cultural refrain you can hear from the right is “why is [insert cultural artefact] so political?” The complaint is often lobbed at something, such as the film franchise Star Wars or Netflix reboot of the children’s cartoon She-Ra, perceived to have become a vehicle for a progressive social agenda that is alien to its allegedly obvious primary purpose, apolitical entertainment.


It is self-evident that the real complaint is never about politics, since it would never be made against anything that is reflective of the politics of the complainer. It is not a charge likely to be levelled at a celebration of American military power such as Top Gun: Maverick. ‘Politics’ is often, implicitly defined as “that with which I disagree in a social context”.


It is not that those on the political left do not complain about such media. In Jacobin's review for the new Top Gun film, for example, Eileen Jones described the first instalment as a “ludicrous piece of shit” that constituted as propaganda aid to “the Ronald Reagan administration’s insane military buildup and aggressive pro-war policies”. She goes on to call the new outing, “every bit as vile and idiotic as the first film, but slicker, better edited, featuring more gripping action scenes, and now awash in tears of nostalgia for the 1980s”.


There is nothing much here with which I would formally disagree, except that the review could focus more on what makes the films so successful, so emotionally effective. Where the review does not err, however, is in pretending that a better, left-wing alternative would be any more or less political than the propaganda piece that was made. There is no insistence that Top Gun has become politicised, or that it being political is the problem.


William Shatner, the actor of the Original Star Trek’s captain James T. Kirk, recently opined, “When did Star Trek get all political?” It is a classic articulation of this type of grievance, made all the more emblematic by being so patently absurd even on a surface reading. Shatner’s period in the role was noted for charged, sometimes quite ham-fisted anti-racist parables such as “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” (S.3 E.15).


When Kirk kissed the character Nyota Uhura (played by Nichelle Nichols) the interracial intimacy sparked huge outrage from a predominantly racist society and was of sufficient political relevance for Martin Luther King Jr. to praise the moment and to insist to Nichols of Uhura’s importance for Black and female representation. Shatner himself had pushed to retain this kiss despite the controversy it was likely to cause.


And so why do those who would laud Star Trek's politics in the 60s, even participating in it, come to see the politics of new Trek as imposed and alien to the franchise, as truly 'political', today? Like many aging actors and comedians, trying to retain relevance, Shatner has adopted more and more of the trappings of an anti-woke celebrity since his heyday. He has adopted the position of the right on this, but even so, he is not claiming that Star Trek’s politics is something he has come to reject, but more indefensibly that it only now has one at all.


We naturalise and erase what we like and what works for us. As the phenomenologist Heidegger noticed, this happens at quite functional, everyday levels of consciousness. You will not tend to think about the fact of having an arm, but you quite dramatically do if it is broken or severed. If you have an operational oven its existence rarely occurs to you, certainly if you are accustomed to it. However, if it stops working, it reappears forcefully to your consciousness.


The right is made up of those who live comfortably with the pregiven, who wish to defend it either as a bulwark for unhappy lives, or as a bastion of their power. They are happy with the status quo, and opposed to changing it. Liberal progressives and socialists share, at least, a perspective that wishes to see society drastically altered, albeit to radically different extents and by quite opposing means.


Politics is not just the running of things, but that which is problematized in the running of things. That is, what is discussed as political. For the left, that is all of society, and so politics is seen as ubiquitous. An unhappy state of things, a state of alienation, powerlessness and injustice, can either be preserved or abolished.


For the right, politics is perceived only in those things through which someone is seeking change. Top Gun: Maverick is not experienced as political because it is just depicting how things are, which is elided via the naturalistic fallacy to how things ought to be.


The left are largely bad at propaganda, but the right, who are experts at it, can only perceive propaganda as left. What they do cannot be propaganda, since it is not propagandistic, to their way of seeing the world, to advocate for the preservation of the “natural order”. Entertainment that does so is seen as natural as what it defends, and therefore as pure entertainment.


Moreover, the goalposts of the right do not need to stay in one place. A man who accepts the basic humanity of Black people (within certain parameters) does not have to see symbolic antiracism such as the Kirk and Uhura kiss as political. But if he does not accept the basic humanity of trans people, as indeed Shatner does not, nor really accept the full humanity of Black people (as his mocking use of the word Woke suggests), then all of the associated demands with that humanity are political.


It is not hypocrisy or stupidity at play, here. Shatner is simply delineating the boundaries within which he will acknowledge humanity. And the boundary is called “politics”.

 

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