Pop Culture Is More Than Mere Entertainment

Inventors, engineers, scientists, and astronauts have been inspired by Star Trek, so why not politicians?
U.S.S. Enterprise, NCC-1701-D

Stacey Abrams has become something of a rising star in the Democratic Party. Despite losing the race to be Georgia’s next governor, she became the first African-American woman to deliver a response to the State of the Union address, and there’s talk over whether or not she’ll enter the 2020 presidential race.

But more importantly, at least as far as this blog’s concerned, she’s a massive Star Trek fan, particularly of The Next Generation. And according to this recent New York Times profile, Star Trek may partially explain her political success.

In explaining her approach to politics as a black Democratic woman in a state controlled by white Republican men, she devotes several pages to a pivotal scene from “Peak Performance,” an episode from “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”

In the episode, Data, the preternaturally pale android with a greenish cast to his skin, is playing Strategema, a game that appears to be some incredibly complicated form of 3-D holographic chess, against a humanoid grandmaster named Kolrami. Data cannot defeat Kolrami, he discovers, but he can outlast him, drive him into a rage and force him to quit the game, which is itself a kind of victory.

Ms. Abrams writes that this has helped her focus her own thinking. “Data reframed his objective — not to win outright but to stay alive, passing up opportunities for immediate victory in favor of a strategy of survival,” she says in the book. “My lesson is simpler: change the rules of engagement.”

While Tim Carmody points out that it’s possible to overstate Star Trek’s importance to Abrams’ political strategies, we shouldn’t be so quick to scoff at it or dismiss its influence (emphasis mine):

[U]ltimately, it’s just a really cool show. It’s one we grew up with. And as politicians get younger, it’s one we’ve always had with us, framing our background on entertainment, war, morality, politics, economics — everything.

The world the original Star Trek entered was one where space was only beginning to open, as a direct consequence of the nuclear and geopolitical crisis than enveloping the planet. Now, we have all new geopolitical crises to deal with. Star Trek offers a surprisingly resilient fictional framework for understanding most if not all of them. That’s a powerful tool. It’s foolish to pass it up.

Inventors, engineers, scientists, and astronauts have all been inspired by Star Trek over the years, so why not politicians? Why not the rest of us?

One of the biggest mistakes that people have made — and especially within the Church, which is the social and cultural framework within which I operate most frequently — is dismissing pop culture artifacts (and especially seemingly nerdy ones like Star Trek) as (at best) mere entertainment or (at worst) sinful trifles. (Another mistake is trying to co-opt such artifacts for your own political purposes, but that’s a subject for another post.)

But pop culture is never just entertainment. Pop culture shapes us even as we create it. Even “nerdy” (though increasingly mainstream) artifacts like Star Trek, Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, and superhero movies can expose us to new ideas, reinforce pre-existing biases and convictions, help us make sense of life’s cruelty and brevity, provide a framework for contemplating ethics and morality, give us glimpses of truth and beauty, and inspire us to be better people.

This should surprise none of us, not anymore, not in this day and age. As with all things, there’s a dark side to pop culture (e.g., escapism, toxic and entitled fandoms, crass commercialization, an over-reliance on formulaic storytelling), but if Abrams wants to draw inspiration from Star Trek for her politics, then more power to her. And maybe she shouldn’t be the only one who does.

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