Sunday, February 21, 2016
“Set course for home”: Cardassians
Like last season's “Progress”, “Cardassians” examines the repercussions of life for administrators and local officials trying to do their best to represent their people, but who are ultimately at the whims of powerful governments and other systems of centralized authority who wish to consolidate power regardless of whether or not it serves the best interests of those who live under them. There's no way to argue that being forcibly relocated to Cardassia, a planetary society he fears, distrusts and doesn't even know, is going to be a net benefit for Rugal, so I'm not going to address it. Apart from the false equivalence in critiquing Rugal's hatred of the Cardassians by paralleling it with the decades of brutal oppression those selfsame people inflicted on the Bajorans, there's also the rather uglier implication that adopted children are always better off with their biological parents in every circumstance (the episode by no means endorses this perspective, but it doesn't do enough to refute it either). But ultimately, this is a story about the Deep Space 9 crew having their hands tied in order to prevent them from making the obviously correct choice and exploring how to react to a situation like that.
The regulars themselves are a slightly mixed bag on this front...Commander Sisko is generally excellent, as are Garak and Doctor Bashir, but I disagree with some of how Miles O'Brien is written. His speech to Rugal near the end about how it's wrong to write off an entire people with generalizations, stating that he himself has met some Cardassians he liked and some he didn't, is beautiful knowing his backstory and an utterly perfect Star Trek moment. Or at least it would be if the chief's history with the Federation-Cardassian War and the dismissive speciesist feelings he once suffered as a result of it were left unspoken and implied. Instead, the scene earlier in the episode where Miles expresses concern to Keiko about Molly associating with Rugal sort of undermines that moment's effectiveness for me.
I know it was meant to show moral ambiguity and that racism is difficult to overcome overnight and how even good people can slip back into bad habits from time to time. But the thing is I don't agree that was a good call. That's not a Star Trek: The Next Generation message. This series is supposed to be showing us how we can *overcome* our various foibles and vices. Not that we don't necessarily have them, just that we can overcome the ones that we do. And the point of “The Wounded” was to show Miles getting over whatever leftover baggage he had from the Federation-Cardassian War, his assisting Captain Picard and Gul Macet's efforts to track down and apprehend Captain Maxwell his moment of growth and redemption. That's what gives the Minstrel Boy scene its power: Having shown that he's grown beyond his anger, Miles proves to Captain Picard that he can be trusted to beam over to Maxwell's ship and do the right thing.
Even if you choose to ignore his subsequent growth in Michael Jan Friedman's comic book line due to canon concerns, that's self-evidently what “The Wounded” at least was about. “Cardassians” doesn't add any nuance to Miles O'Brien's character by having him say that sort of thing, its actually *undoing* character development, which sounds like the sort of thing this creative team would be opposed to (I guess “conflict” was more important). But more to the point, this scene is effectively a relapse, and relapses just aren't a Star Trek: The Next Generation to do. This show is supposed to be about growing and moving forward, not regressing, and the episode's final moments would have been considerably more powerful and effective had it embraced that angle.
But now that I've squared that away, I want to talk about another aspect of this story. Rugal is one of the more notable examples of a cultural transplant in Star Trek, and the comparative detail afforded to his backstory, along with the fact it's set against the backdrop of the heavily symbolic Cardassia/Bajor conflict, allows us to examine some important themes about cultural identity and belonging. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is a show about rebirth, healing, reconstruction and starting anew. Most everyone on the station has come to it from somewhere else, and everyone is looking to set aside their past and begin new lives as honourary, if not ethnically, Bajorans. Commander Sisko is moving beyond the trauma and grief of Jennifer's death, and while he is not technically “Of Bajor”, he is destined to be the Emissary of the Prophets. Major Kira feels self conscious about her past as a terrorist and, while she didn't want the job at first, has come to see Deep Space 9 as her home. The O'Briens moved to a new city and have to adapt to new jobs. Jadzia Dax literally gave birth to herself as a new person. Odo doesn't know where he came from, but he's slowly starting to realise that doesn't matter because its his actions in the present, not his heritage, that define who he is.
And the same is true for Rugal, who is Bajoran even if he wasn't born on Bajor. And yet Rugal is an interesting case, because he is descended from Bajor's former occupying overlords. Temporarily setting aside the larger latent political issues with the Federation, within the show's logic the Starfleet officers of Deep Space 9 effectively represent immigrants. They came from somewhere else and consciously cast aside their past in order to reinvent themselves. The Cardassians, however, including Rugal, are the descendants of imperialist colonizers who continue to live in the lands their ancestors conquered and stole away from its native peoples. This breeds a different sort of person, I think: Although some amount of intermingling can occur, colonial societies tend to live purposely apart from indigenous societies of the same geographic area, either walling themselves away in continent-sized gated communities or forcing the indigenous people into smaller and smaller reservations so they're out of sight and out of mind.
In his book Changes in the Land, environmental historian William Cronon dispels the myth that Native Americans in New England lived in a pristine, untouched wilderness prior to the arrival of European colonialists. Pointing out that ecosystems can never in fact actually be inert, Cronon shows how the Native Americans actually carefully maintained the land by working in tandem with it. Their intimate familiarity with their environment, as all indigenous people have, allowed them to recognise and respect the way the various natural cycles manifested locally. Therefore, while they did alter their environment, they did so in an empathetic fashion that was mutually beneficial to both the people and the land. The Europeans, by contrast, were strangers in New England-They didn't know or understand the land and were often fearful of it. Thus, they attempted to “tame” and “dominate” the environment, forcibly bending it to their will and perceived needs, paying no heed to whether or not their actions were sustainable or not.
I'm beginning to develop a theory that this is the original sin that lies at the heart of Western modernity. Because of our imperialistic roots, we have always grown up in societies distant and detached from the lands our ancestors conquered. Because it's not our land and we didn't come from here we never took the time to truly understand the places modernity assimilated and, as a result, we behave recklessly, destructively and shortsightedly. But also, we lose a sense of cultural identity: Westerners are a people without an actual home, and that gives us a crisis of identity and spirituality. I think this may be the root cause of not just capitalism's environmental destruction, but also the temptation of cultural appropriation. Since we don't really have traditions of our own (or the ones that we do are too odious and embarrassing to embrace), we try and adopt those of others in our joint ignorance and desperation.
Are voyaging and immigration the solution to these deep-rooted problems? Can you, like Rugal and the crew of Deep Space 9, ever truly become connected to a land and a culture you weren't born and raised in? As someone who is the descendant of immigrants and possesses an undeniable wanderlust, I'd certainly like to think so. But that's not a question I feel qualified to answer.