U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Mike O’Connor, "Liberals in Space: The 1960s Politics of Star Trek"

Check out former USIH blogger Mike O’Connor’s newly published article, Liberals in space: The 1960s Politics of Star Trek,” in the newish journal, The Sixties: A Journal of History, Politics and Culture. Here’s the abstract:
Among television programs of the late 1960s Star Trek was somewhat anomalous in tackling philosophical and political themes, and in doing so in a consistently liberal voice. Its statements, however, reveal not only the highest aspirations of the period’s liberal project, but also the limitations and unresolved tensions of that approach. This point is exemplified by considering Star Trek’s treatment of the two most significant issues of the era: the African-American civil rights movement and the ongoing crisis of the Cold War. With regard to the first, Star Trek took a strong and unambiguous stance in favor of what one might call liberal color-blindness. Yet by the late 1960s, the rise of Black Power and the growing white working-class backlash against the civil rights movement had raised questions that liberal color-blindness could not answer. As a result, Star Trek’s racial politics unintentionally reflected the limitations of the integrationist framework. Star Trek was more conflicted and less confident about the issues of Vietnam and the Cold War. The series consistently articulated anticommunist “establishment” or “Cold War” liberalism, while simultaneously featuring the equally strong, yet contradictory, message of the pacifist anti-militarism reminiscent of the counterculture and New Left. Yet Star Trek’s undoubtedly conflicted position on the Cold War embodied less an unreflective or illiberal spirit in the show than a broader split within the American left itself, between liberal anticommunism and countercultural pacifism. Star Trek was unable to provide a venue, even in a fictional universe, in which these contradictory positions could co-exist.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Only after skimming through the other TV programs on at the time can we appreciate (1) the fact that this show tried to deal with moral issues at all, and (2) the fact that it featured characters with different races, different faces, different accents, different backgrounds.

    • Thanks, Brian! I’m not sure if you’re kidding about the next article, but such a thing has actually been in the works for quite a long time. The original seminar paper on which the current article is based contrasted the 1960s liberalism of the original series with the 1990s liberalism of The Next Generation. (It was very long…my poor professor!) I think it makes for pretty interesting analysis!

      I’ve been submitting, rewriting and resubmitting the same Star Trek article for at least ten years, though. I had to wait for the perfect journal to actually be founded before I could get the article placed, though, so I’m likely to take a break from Star Trek publishing for a bit.

  2. This is fantastic. I’ve actually been tossing around the idea of writing an article on Star Trek and its pronouncements on American foreign policy. This is the kick in the butt I need to finally get started.

Comments are closed.