In 2002, James Lileks began one of his more memorable “Screeds” with the following call to arms — ideally, arms designed by Matt Jefferies:
I don’t want to be a bloodthirsty fiend squatting on a heap of skulls, waving a lasso made of my enemies’ entrails over my head, whooping like Conan on Spring Break in Lemuria. I want nothing more than a well-ordered world of rational people, a globe where societies react with instinctive revulsion to barbarism and smother it in its cradle. Where a sociopathic rogue leader who seizes power is extirpated by altruistic neighbors – who promptly help the vanquished nation rebuild its civic institutions. I want a world in which international law is respected by all, because it reflects the aspirations of an enlightened species who value the gift of rational thought, and recognize the naked adoration of power as a challenge to human civilization itself.
In short, I want to live in a Star Trek episode.
As Shannon Love writes this week at the Chicago Boyz blog, in a sense, we already are:
Star Trek is often used as a starting point for musing about this or that utopia because everything in Star Trek seems so wonderful. Star Trek is Gene Roddenberry‘s vision of New Frontier democratic socialism evolved to a utopia so perfect that individuals have to head out into the wilds of deep space just to find some adventure. Watching Star Trek, one naturally begins to wonder what it would be like to live in a world so advanced that all of the problems we deal with today have been resolved or minimized to insignificance.
Well, we don’t actually have to imagine what it would be like to live in a Star Trek-like, radically egalitarian, technologically advanced, “post-scarcity” society because we live in a Star Trek-like utopia right now, right here, in contemporary America.
How can I say that? Simple, Star Trek the Next Generation takes place 353 years in the future from 2364 to 2370. If we were to think of ourselves as living in a futuristic science-fiction society we would likewise look back 353 years in the past to 1658.
Image what modern America would look like to the people of any of the world’s major cultures back in 1658! Any novel, movie, TV or comic book set in day-to-day middle-class America would read like astounding science fiction to anyone from 1658. Our society looks even more utopian in comparison to 1658 than Star Trek world 2370 looks to us today.
I’m not just talking about all the amazing and frightening technology like nuclear power/weapons, spacecraft, cars, cell phones, computers, the Internet, etc. I’m also talking about issues of want, individual dignity and social/political equality.
Just to start, by the standards of anywhere 1658 ,contemporary America is a land completely devoid of material poverty. No one in 1658 would consider anyone in America, even a street person, to be even marginally materially poor. Poor people today in American have a material standard of living that surpasses that of even the wealthiest individual in 1658.
For example, just turning on a faucet and getting safe, clean drinking water would look as amazing to a 1658 person as a Star Trek replicator looks to us today.
A poor American has functionally unlimited access to clean drinking water, something not even the emperors of 1658 had. A 1658 person would be gobsmacked that we take perfectly clean and safe drinking water so much for granted that we don’t think there is anything even remotely odd about using a few gallons of it to shit and piss in every single time we go to the bathroom!
In 1658, one in four children died before the age of five. For poor Americans today, more children die from accident than disease. In 1658, waves and waves of disease cut through the population regularly, killing young and old alike in vast numbers. Plagues of all kinds emptied cities and wiped out armies. In modern America, owing to vaccines, antibiotics and sanitation even the poorest person is protected from history’s greatest killers. We have so forgotten the terrible diseases of the past that many of today’s idiots question if vaccinations and antibiotics are even necessary any longer!
In 1658, even middle-class people spent 80% of their income on food and the poor spent 95%. Today, our “poor” spend at most 25%. Moreover, they routinely eat 1658 luxury foods like beef, jello and marshmallows. Spices common today like black pepper cost the equivalent of hundreds of 2011 dollars an ounce in 1658. Sugar in 1658 cost roughly five dollars a teaspoon. Tea and coffee were exotic drinks of the fashionable wealthy, selling for the equivalent of $20 or more a cup.
Even more amazing, poor people today eat different foods for every meal every day! In 1658, the vast majority of humanity ate the same boiled grain/rice for their one or two meals a day, every day. There was no seasoning and salt was rare. Any meat at all was a weekly or monthly luxury. You had to be a 1658 upper-middle class to eat bread with every meal. If you bemoaned to anyone in 1658 that 2011 America was a flawed society in part because obesity was a major health concern for its poor, they would have looked at you like you were insane. Well, the wealthiest of 1658 would think you insane, the actual poor of 1658 would beat you to death in moral outrage.
As Shannon writes, “So here we are, living in a science fiction utopia. How do you like it?”
Judging by the American city in which so many of Star Trek’s earthbound scenes take place, at the moment, they’d much prefer to set the controls for the heart of 1658, or much, much earlier, which brings us back to James Lileks, from yesterday:
I had no idea that you could walk around in San Francisco without pants. I tend to side with Oliver Wendell Holmes: pants are the price we pay for a civilized society. At the minimum, shorts. There’s no better symbol of a city determined to make it unlivable for everyone to accommodate a few whose wide interpretation of personal freedom cannot be abridged, because that would mean, like, going back to the Leave it to Beaver era, and don’t tell me June didn’t vacuum in the altogether now and then. YOU KNOW SHE DID! Yes, I know the amount of public nudity is probably rare and confined to certain districts where addled old satyrs can flop around with their plumbing swinging to and fro, but that’s not the point. The point is that civil society should not have to craft laws to enable exhibitionists intent on airing their yarbles. Asking them to put down a towel on a public seat is like asking public defecators to give the leavings a squirt of Glade, because some people, well, they’re aromaphobic. Remnants of a less honest era. It’s natural! What’s your hangup?
San Francisco no doubt prides itself on occupying the apex of civilization, but they have a rather curious definition. We have balanced the competing needs of nudists, and the needs of people who don’t want to sit where a naked man recently plopped his sweaty fundament. Hence our towel ordinance. A less enlightened society would criminalize the needs of the minority to assuage some ancient, hidebound code of public behavior. Mind you, I’m not one of those people who thinks we should all wear wool suits all year ‘round and redefine feminine allure down to a flash of ankle. I’d say “is it too much to ask people to put on some pants?” but the answer is obvious.
Happily for all concerned though, there’s an ever-dwindling number of small-fry in San Francisco these days who risk having their childhoods…confounded…by these gestures, but I’m sure that’s purely a coincidence. (Though the above story does help to explain why the city was so obsessed with circumcision recently.)
And it’s a reminder that, as Mark Steyn has written, “The idea that social progress is like the wheel or the iPhone — once invented, it can never be uninvented — is one of the laziest assumptions of the western left.”
Which means forget 2366 — we may very well be looking at 1966 as the apex of western civilization.