Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Cooperatives and Voyager

On Cooperatives and Star Trek Voyager

By John Taylor; 2009 Sep 29, Mashiyyat 03, 166 BE

A Note to Baha'is on Cooperatives

I do not plan to have any Baha'i content in the book that I have over the past few months been slowly writing here, but since I am talking about cooperatives now I cannot resist mentioning a blog posting, including a well chosen quote, that has influenced me. A Dutch Baha'i living in England, by the name of Ineke posted this on July 3, 2009 on her blog "Fewness of words, abundance of deeds," which is at:


She points out in this posting that the 1st Saturday in July is the International Day of Cooperatives. "Of course as a Baha'i, I am quite used to cooperatives since our whole Administrative System is based on cooperative decision making." (http://wordanddeed.wordpress.com/2009/07/03/international-day-of-cooperatives-international-dag-van-cooperaties/) She cites the BIC, who say that Baha'is "devolve decision making to the lowest practicable level" allowing "grassroots participation." This is the principle of subsidiarity that I have been talking about so much here lately. The quote from the Master that she quotes is so apt that I cannot resist citing it here in full (note that, as always here, I use the pagination of the newest edition of Promulgation). If any Baha'is had any doubts about the merits of cooperatives, this would surely dispell them.

"The supreme need of humanity is cooperation and reciprocity. The stronger the ties of fellowship and solidarity amongst men, the greater will be the power of constructiveness and accomplishment in all the planes of human activity. Without cooperation and reciprocal attitude the individual member of human society remains self-centered, uninspired by altruistic purposes, limited and solitary in development like the animal and plant organisms of the lower kingdoms. The lower creatures are not in need of cooperation and reciprocity. A tree can live solitary and alone, but this is impossible for man without retrogression. Therefore, every cooperative attitude and activity of human life is praiseworthy and foreintended by the will of God." (25 September, 1912, Denver, Promulgation, 478-479)

A Note to Baha'i Trekkies on Cooperatives

Like most in my generation, I've always been a bit of a trekker, though I am far from the sort of fan who actually knows the difference between a trekkie and a trekker. The series left me behind long ago; it was impossible to keep up, especially after I gave up regular television. Sometimes I borrow a DVD of a season of the original series, TNG, DS9 or Enterprise from the library. I recently did that for the fourth season of the Voyager series. Not only I, but both kids too were intrigued, so I shelled out some big bucks and bought the whole series of seven seasons. It is something we can all do together -- my first choice would be do something outdoors, but my daughter has an aversion to bees and mosquitoes, and they are especially bad this year. The Voyager series is certainly well written, surely the best Star Trek series so far.

While I like far more than I dislike about Star Trek, I will be negative today and talk about what I do not like. In spite of there being aliens all around, it is pretty clear that the future of planet earth as depicted here is dominated by White Americans. Even the aliens are Whites with a little dab of make-up or a ridge added here and there. I keep longing for a corrective series, maybe one where the star ship is staffed completely by Aboriginals or Pygmies.

I keep imagining that Star Trek series with its diminutive crew in a Pygmy-sized ship. Everybody is small, except one crewmember who is a Bantu, or whatever that tribe is who are the tallest people in the world. I imagine the Pygmies making fun of the Bantu crew member as he lies down with his back on a skateboard and rolls himself through the doors and hallways of the ship.

The thought of somebody other than White Americans representing the human race, which must comprise at least eighty percent non-Whites, is somehow comforting to me. The next Star Trek should cast only from Africa. In fact, the genetic diversity of Africans is so great -- studies found that there is far more variation among native Africans than there is among the totality of the human race -- that you could probably write an "Africa Trek" without ever leaving that continent, much less the planet. There are so many highly diverse tribes that their interactions would provide great interest -- you would not even need aliens.

Another thing that bothers me about all the Star Treks so far is the unvarying military/naval model of the ships. You might think that Americans, with their pretensions to freedom and democracy might imagine a future Federation of Planets that at least makes a nod at democratic process.

No way.

This is especially noticeable with the woman leader of Voyager, Captain Janeway, who frequently must reassert her authority and often repeats to her crew: "This is not a democracy." She makes all decisions for them. Even with half her crew being Maquis, a mild sort of pirate, there is no attempt to find an alternative to what my father, who as a WWII conscript hated every minute he spent in the military, calls a "dictatorship within a democracy." At one point Voyager finds a promising human colony that is already thriving. Many crewmembers take a tour and consider giving up their voyage home and staying on to make a life for themselves. Janeway has to decide whether to allow them to do so, since if too many stay there will not be enough to fly the ship and everybody would have to stay.

Should they have a vote?

In the end she tries a simple but risky expedient. She announces, "Everybody who wants to stay, meet me in Cargo Bay Four." Fortunately for her, nobody turns up. Myself, I would have devised a complex election with a secret ballot that also kept track of who had voted to stay. This would have allowed them to do so if and only if the yes votes were not too numerous. At the same time, I would have tried to recruit young people from the colony to take the place of those who stay.

But my point is that the writers have little _interest_ in democracy. This interesting decision is tacked on at the end of an episode dealing mostly with a revival of Amelia Earheart -- who, by the way, stayed a few days at the Lalor Inn here in Dunnville before being abducted by aliens and taken 70,000 light years away to the Delta Quadrant of the Milky Way galaxy. A little local angle, showing that it is a small universe after all.

I am not saying that a purely democratic ship would survive long. Even Plato used the model of a ship's captain to show the flaws of letting the people decide issues that involve expert knowledge. Indeed the Voyager series is meant to explore the limits of the expert model, since the good space ship Voyager is thrown way off to the other side of the galaxy and removed from contact with the Federation. As such, Janeway is forced to be more than just an expert leader.

Would the corporate model work better? What if they had a "board of directors" and general meetings of shareholders, or shipmen, who made broader, long-term strategic decisions, leaving day-to-day decisions to the CEO, or captain? Even if the spaceship had an all-Baha'i crew, I think that is essentially what they would do. They might call their board of directors a House of Justice and have its chair act as captain, and they might elect the members of their House of Justice, but other than that there would be little difference. I cannot see a Baha'i ship taking command authority away from the learned as the order of Baha'u'llah does from the learned in order to eliminate a clergy.

Imagine the doctor not being able to order the captain to take a break from her ceaseless work schedule!

On the other hand, maybe I have been misunderstanding the Order of Baha'u'llah as a model. Baha'u'llah clearly does not take authority away from experts and specialists in anything but a purely religious context. Only God has authority in matters of conscience, but if anything he strengthens the authority of figures like parents, police, lawmakers, etc. Indeed, even friends and strangers, as long as they are servants of God, have a certain power, as witnessed by the Hidden Word, "refuse not my servant should he ask anything of thee..." That is a pretty strong mandate. It is a pretty gross distortion to imagine that "there is no authority in the Baha'i Faith." Perhaps it is closer to the truth to pick your words and say "there is no authority in Baha'i qua Faith." In the role of social conditioner, there is tremendous authority; a prayer begs of God to make us "submissive" servants.

I have heard Baha'is criticize the early Star Trek because it does not see a place for religion in our future. On the whole, this is true, though it was corrected to some extent later on, especially in Deep Space Nine. In DS9, though, religion is more a negative than a positive factor in society. The religious groups in DS9 make me want to vomit. That is all I want to say about them.

Voyager depicts religion in the usual Western way, as a limp, emasculated, wholly personal emotion. It is devoid of vigour or social relevance and does not come near to affecting command decisions -- though Janeway comes close sometimes with her repeated invocations of principle, even at the price of their lives.

Personal faith is strong in its second-in-command, Chakotay, who is a sort of latter day adherent of Native Spirituality. Indeed he is quite inspiring and I am pleased that this character is introducing my kids to this religion. A few other characters have strong faith, but there is no faith that connects society as a social sinew, as a Baha'i would expect. Indeed, if Star Trek is all about hope for the future, so is the Baha'i Faith, and perhaps Star Trek and Baha'i are therefore rivals, incompatible.

But what if they were not?

In a Baha'i Star Trek crew faith would be not only a social factor but an organizing principle. Baha'is would not just reflect and pray before they consult, they would consult before they act -- assuming that they were not pressed by imminent Kazon attack. As well, I think they would not interpret the Prime Directive as severely as Janeway does, in view of Baha'u'llah's own prime directive to teach, teach, teach... And that teaching directive alone, not to mention that of search for truth, would assure that power and decision making would not be nearly as concentrated as it is on Voyager. On the other hand, we are only at the third season right now, maybe things will change later on.


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