Sunday, May 10, 2009

Problems in applying the Prime Directive

From an article on Star Trek's Prime Directive, from the Toronto Star:

[Queen's University's Kim Richard] Nossal warns, however, against adhering too closely to anything like the Prime Directive. Taken to its extreme, he says, it can be a justification for both isolationism and ignoring the needs of other countries under the guise of respecting their territorial integrity.

That kind of thinking, he says, is what allowed the genocide in Rwanda to go unheeded, an outcome now roundly seen as a failure by the international community to act when needed.

I'm sure that Nossal is a fine and rigorous academic, but it's this sort of sloppy work on pop culture that reflects poorly on all of the rest.

The first problem, and one that Nossal seems keenly aware of, is that the Prime Directive is an ideal that isn't at all applicable to any inter-cultural meetings or exchanges in the 21st century - colonialism and globalization have seen to it that there no society can exist without some awareness of and relationship with the West/Global North. (But maybe he was pressed to try anyway...)

The second, and more egregious problem, is that his example of Rwanda is a hideously inappropriate one. We could maybe cite examples retrospectively, and maybe even try applying the directive to contexts where the exposure to Euro-American influence has not already been disastrous. The problem with the Rwandan Genocide example, though, is that the situation was itself created by colonialism and overdetermined by it. The Tutsi and Hutu populations which constituted the opposing sides in the civil war, for example, were only 100 years ago class-distinctions that became hard-and-fast ethnic classifications when Germany and then Belgium took control. (The Belgians and Roman Catholic church went so far as to invent socio-scientific definitions and give out cards.) While the UN's non-interference in 1993/94 was a problem, it's useless, and dangerous, to discuss it - much less use it in a discussion of Star Trek's Prime Directive - without acknowledging that it couldn't have happened in the first place without European interference.

Really, though, I'm quite confident Nossal knows all of this. So what is it about pop culture applications of theory and politics that seems to cause writers to lose their critical edge?

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