I hear many people say that it has been a long year. This kind of perennial social navel-gazing is nothing new. Every year, even as people anticipate the coming holiday season, the same mutterings begin about how cruel the previous year was and how the coming can not possible be as bad. Though I have always had a tendency to give in to my cynical leanings, I have never been one to so easily write-off a year. Even the seemingly worst years usually have given us something. I am fortunate (and also try to be grateful) enough to realize that life has been on a steady upward trajectory for me. We are all products of our own experience and maybe it is for that reason that I have always had faith not only in my own future, but that of our shared future. That is why for the first time, I was really happy to see a year come to a close.
After the election, I instituted a personal embargo of the news and popular culture. I tried continuing to watch my favorite political satirists in the aftermath, but found myself simply too disgusted with the reality to be able to enjoy it. Social media, already a cesspool of insipid drivel for the credulous, actually managed to take a turn for the worst. I needed an escape and therefore found myself doing something that I hadn’t done in years: watching episodes of Star Trek.
It is no secret that I was once a huge fan of Star Trek, and after November eighth I thought that what I sought was its warm familiarity and science fiction motif to distract me from our bleak political reality and grim outlook that lay before us. Escaping into classic science fiction was just what I thought I needed to help me deny the political reality. Although I enjoyed my regular escape to the 23rd and 24th centuries, I found that somehow my anger was growing.
I have mentioned before how I have always been somewhat of an idealist. As a kid, I was fascinated by science and the hope that it offered humanity to conquer disease, improve our understanding of the world, and give us a better quality of life. It was the portrayal of such a future that first hooked me on Star Trek. I was convinced that a future where humanity’s troubles have been solved by science was our destiny, driven by the search of knowledge for its own sake and our betterment. It’s only looking back after some years that I realize that the potential of science was only half of Star Trek‘s important premise. Because although science might save us from disease, it can not save us from each other. It was the promise of equality and recognizing the value in the individual that would truly bring us forward. With the humanist values so boldly portrayed on Star Trek coupled with the ongoing breakthroughs in science, the future seemed just around the corner.
And so it was for all of my life. We have computers in our pockets and on our wrists. Today electric cars are on the road and soon will drive themselves. We send robotic probes to Mars and have finally visited Pluto. GMO technology holds the promise of feeding the world and vaccines prevent unspeakable illness. Other astounding advances have taken AIDS from a death sentence to a manageable, chronic illness. At the same time we have witnessed increased gender equality with multiple female supreme court justices, secretaries of state, and heads of government around the world. LGBT rights have progressed tremendously at an heretofore unbelievable rate and our society is demonstrably more pluralistic. The hope that was installed in me as a boy has been proven for most of my life.
This is why the election came as such a shock. I have witnessed other electoral disappointments before, but this one shook me to my core because it was not an election about policy differences or differing economic theory. Rather it was two diametrically opposed world views, offering one which continued our progress forward and one that not only longed for a time long ago past (and which could be argued never actually existed), but also embraced and actually exalted the qualities which we have worked so hard to overcome in our society: hatred, xenophobia, racism, misogyny, religious bigotry, violence, and fascism. Seeing the triumph of such a poisonous message cut me deeply. For the first time in my life, I saw progress not just slowing down or stopping, but actually reversing. The idealism of Star Trek had been defeated, and with it I felt that part of me had been as well.
Watching those old episodes in the dark days of November, it took me some time to once again fully appreciate the enduring message. When I started watching some of the original series I realized that for humans, progress is inevitable and is merely a question of time. On Captain Kirk’s Enterprise there was a Russian navigator at a time when détente with the Soviet Union seemed unthinkable. There was a Asian-American helmsman when most of America only saw Asian faces engaged in horrible war in unfamiliar and dangerous corners of the earth. And there was the African-American communications officer who was also a strong, intelligent woman. It is difficult to remember that the reality was that if Star Trek had been a naval drama instead of science fiction, the same cast would have been impossible in the 1960s as it was would have been rejected by society. And yet, fifty years later we have an African-American president of the United States. Dr Martin Luther King Jr. once said that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” I have been fortunate enough to see its positive effects within my own lifetime. I dare not now make the mistake of losing sight of this due to an unexpected setback on this endless journey we are all a part of.
And make no mistake, this was a setback not a defeat. We had a choice between a message of poison, spite, and fear and a message of nuance, diplomacy, and optimism. As H.L. Mencken said, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” Because fear is the simple answer, the heavier burden will always be on the side of rational thought to advance the message of reason. This election was a setback, yes, but not because the majority of Americans bought into the view of an intolerant America. We know empirically that this this is not the case. Rather it was a failure in rallying the energy and ultimately the vote of a new generation and growing demographic of voters to choose the better, but ultimately more difficult path. Indeed given the chance, the majority of voters chose progress and equality.
Since the conservative religious right enjoys quoting scripture to justify its regressive policies, let us quote one of my favorite passages:
When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
1 Corinthians 13:11
The promise of Star Trek was that we would eventually put away those things which have prevented our growth as a species: hatred, violence, persecution, and intolerance. If ever we were in need of a bold, idealistic vision it is now. As this year comes to a close, remember to donate to those foundations which can support us in bending the arc back in the right direction, through social justice, scientific thought, and critical thinking. Let’s start 2017 by remembering our idealism and re-committing ourselves to a vision of a future which is better for all of us.
So yes, I am excited to see 2016 come to an end, but not to put anything behind us, rather to embrace that which is to come. As Star Trek reminded us:
The human adventure is just beginning.