10 Political Organizing Lessons from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

Each Star Trek show holds a special meaning for many of us, but no one can ignore that Deep Space Nine, at its core, is a show about politics. Politics in space. Politics that involve shapeshifters and Tribbles. The events of end of the Occupation of Bajor and Bajor seeking Federation membership serve as catalysts for the entire show. Step into the pilot and the early seasons, and you expect, by season seven, a ribbon cutting around the station with Captain Benjamin Sisko and the crew toasting Major Kira Nerys, a non-evil Kai, and the other Bajorans on their well-earned Federation membership.

But politics gets in the way.

 

Lesson number one: You are never done. Politics and society are never finished.

DS9 doesn’t end this way because the work of political organizing and societal change are never done. Of all the Star Trek shows, DS9’s “mission” is never completed. Never tied up with a bow.

When we first meet the Bajorans, they think they are done. They finally kicked the Cardassians to the curb after the long Occupation of Bajor. They’ve come out from under their oppressors, and they are finally building a unified society. Or at least that’s how it appears on the surface.

Kira is uneasy with the Federation putting an outpost on the former Terok Nor. The station enhanced the Cardassians’ ability to control Bajor, so would the Federation just be another oppressor? While Kira ends up trusting the Federation via Sisko throughout the years, she is an early voice that not all Bajorans think the same way about rebuilding their society.

As Kira softens her skeptical views due to bonding with the crew, other Bajorans from Kai Winn Adami, Bareil Antos, Shakaar Edon, Tora Ziyal, and even Leeta express opinions about how Bajor should be and what should be done. Seven seasons allows us to see people with shared interests still develop their own nuances. When Keiko O’Brien tries to start a school in “In the Hands of the Prophets,” the Bajorans experience unhappiness as a group; but as their culture changes, it’s doubtful they’d be in total unison against the school had the issue come up in season 7.

In the United States, we thought we were done, too – that society was humming along; things were going great, especially in the post-World War II economic boom with industrial and technological revolutions. Prosperous times made us civically unengaged because it was impolite to mix business or family dinners with politics. Wins for equality like the Civil Rights movement, women in the workplace, LGBTQ rights, and more made it seem like society was finally on a curve toward justice. Many white people mistook the twice election of Barack Obama as President as signalling the end of racism.

But like the Bajorans, our politics and society are never done. As more people got ahead, inequality grew still wider. The cracks began to show through that we weren’t really on a golden ride. In DS9, we see Shakaar, a man who returned to farming after being a rebellion leader, embody this aspect of Bajoran society in his decision to become a political leader for his economically weak district. Conversely, Winn embodies the greed of those who did very well for themselves post-Occupation and who are intent on having the pie all to themselves.

Like us, the Bajorans must keep fighting for their interests. They must reflect changes in their society and culture which lead to changes in their politics. The nuances don’t means they can just ignore what the Cardassians are doing. Their enemy never goes away. Even DS9 is retaken by the Cardassians during “Call to Arms”: an act that seemed impossible in the early years, given the Federation’s presence on the station.

Our civic engagement, is never done.

 

Lesson number two: Don’t ignore special players who bring unique experiences to the table.

Before the wormhole’s reawakening and Sisko’s appointment as Emissary, the Bajorans mostly only listen to each other. Sisko’s training as a Federation officer, and his experiences as a human allow him to see Bajor differently. To Sisko’s credit, he honors his position as an outsider and as someone who did not suffer under the Occupation. He does not see himself as a god or assume he knows best for the Bajorans. But he does give Bajor his best advice, love, and hard work. Sisko brings the hope of the Federation and the stability and prosperity it may bring to Bajor.

In “Image in the Sand,” it’s revealed that the Prophets have been messing with Sisko since his birth. His biological mother Sarah’s body was hijacked by a Prophet’s spirit and purposely started a romantic relationship with his father Joseph in order to give birth to Sisko.

While not so clandestine and (hopefully) not as messed up, there have been political figures, who like Sisko, have life experiences and destinies which make them special. One such person is President Barack Obama. He grew up in Hawaii and Kansas. Obama was raised by white people who loved and respected him deeply. Ta-Nehisi Coates argues that Obama’s very different early childhood experiences with white people compared to most people of color, especially black people, directly influences Obama’s ability to believe in everyone’s good intentions and his ability to build bridges and reach a variety of audiences.

Because we don’t live in a science fiction TV show, we must do the work to find the voices out there that need elevation. Political movements must drive intersectionality instead of pushing it away because it complicates the narrative. These intersections of identity and experience are where the solution to our problems will be found. Bajor might’ve found an incredibly different solution had any other person besides Sisko been the Emissary, the same way that Obama shaped the political landscape of America (and his impact continues).

 

Lesson number three: We must quickly move past the arrogance of American (white) exceptionalism.

There are many things we told ourselves would never happen in America. Yet, they are happening. There are many social ills that we’ve lied to ourselves about, saying they were solved. We’ve ignored the voices of underrepresented groups who’ve told us these ills are still happening. Now, racists and those looking to plunge America’s minimal social progress backwards have been emboldened by Donald Trump and his administration. Avowed white supremacists walk the halls of the White House and sit at the right hand of the President.

How did this happen? America’s arrogance embedded in white exceptionalism.

Too many white, liberal Americans are like early seasons’ Doctor Julian Bashir and his views of DS9 as “real-life frontier medicine.” Unlike Sisko, Bashir prescribes a better life to the Bajorans through the marvels of technology and the benevolence of the Federation. Early Bashir believes in the exceptionalism of the Federation as a medicine to the station’s ills. He believes nothing can go wrong or progress backward.

Representing Bajor, Kira remains fully and rightfully unimpressed as Bashir plays a tourist to a life outside of Earth. How many of us are Bashirs in our activism? How many of us play tourist when we donate to those less fortunate than us, when we see homeless, or when we push out marginalized groups in the name of gentrification? Or when we plan our marches meant for empowerment of all through the shopping districts of ethically underrepresented groups on their major shopping day?

How many of us white liberals were in paralyzed shock over how Donald Trump, reality TV star and heir to a fortune he’d bankrupted multiple times, became POTUS?

Likewise, early seasons’ Bashir would’ve never been prepared for the Dominion War. Or Changeling infiltration of the Federation. Or Bashir himself being replaced by a Changeling and thrown in an interment camp. He would’ve been shocked and overwhelmed.

While Star Trek writers gave us an evolution of Bashir, we don’t have seven seasons to get our act in order, to take off our Bashir-goggles. We don’t have a choice. We must actively educate ourselves. We must listen to underrepresented groups. Just as the crew of DS9 didn’t abandon the Bajorans or kick Odo out of their inner circle due to his race, no one can be left behind. We must accept the situation we’re in without condoning it, and work to get out of it through concrete actions. We must leave our white arrogance and exceptionalism behind as we acknowledge we don’t have all the answers.

 

Lesson number four: Never underestimate someone’s quest for power.

When Gul Dukat hands his people over to the Dominion, it’s not a very “Cardassia First” plan. To see an imperialist conqueror hand his people over — knowing the consequences — seems shocking, except when you realize he does it for his own power.

Kai Winn may be an antagonist for seven seasons, but we never see her get her hands dirty, until she poisons Dukat for the Pah-wraiths in “What You Leave Behind.” Even rewatching this scene and knowing it will happen, his murder seems more shocking than the counter betrayal of the Pah-wraiths ultimately choosing Dukat over her.

Everyone underestimated Trump and his quest for power. Or perhaps, the quest for power of those he’s surrounded himself with. But even Trump, as a figure himself, has been underestimated in his impulsiveness, vanity, and quest for power and control.

During the election, both Chris Christie and Rudy Giuliani put their loyalty on the Trump train. Both were kicked off and ousted from the administration the moment investigations around their conduct grew, and for Giuliani, the added backlash against Trump’s initial Muslim ban. Likewise, when Steve Bannon was appointed to the National Security Council and the Joint Chiefs removed, public outcry targeted Trump’s vanity and referred to Bannon as “President Bannon.” This upset Trump enough to remove Bannon from the Council (but not yet the White House).

Trump’s ever-changing talking points around his association with Russian President Vladimir Putin waver between whether or not the tone implies him to be “Putin’s puppet” or a peer to Putin. When they are associated as peers, Trump admits to meeting and admiring Putin and allows the Russian government and media into the White House with a warm welcome. When Putin’s positioned as controlling Trump, Trump threatens to sue media, disavows ever knowing the man, and launches drone strikes on Syria against a Russian-backed Syrian government.

The most recent power-based actions of Trump: firing the FBI director who led the charges against Russian interference in the US elections and Trump’s ties to Russia. We cannot underestimate Trump’s quest for power and his need for vanity or that he’s the only player out there.

 

Lesson number five: There’s potential in lived experiences for the extension of empathy.

The shadow of the Occupation of Bajor hangs over the entire run of DS9. It motivates the Bajorans to consider different directions for their future. It shows up in different characters’ approaches to resistance. As audience members, we’re taken into the past multiple times with Kira and others to understand the horrors committed by the Cardassians, and how, yes, the Bajoran Resistance wasn’t about peaceful sit-ins.

Kira teaches us empathy. We understand she’s a complex person, who’s not afraid to act with violence, but we also know she will seek peace and negotiation when it’s a possibility.

In our own world, it’s not shocking that the newest rise of white supremacy is happening as the number of those who lived through World War II is fewer by the day. As the lived experiences of those who remember the most fades from our collective consciousness, those who seek power through the oppression of others find a society less vigilant against oppression.

One potent example of this is a renewed effort by white supremacists to justify Japanese Internment, part of our history which many Americans are unaware of. This ignorance of our shameful history of locking away innocent Japanese Americans post-Pearl Harbor through the end of WWII facilitates those seeking historical precedence to argue for locking Muslim Americans or immigrants away. We cannot justify creating new horrors because we don’t actively account for the past.

However, there are more living voices out there we need to empathize with – those whose oppression has remain masked in the ideas of American progress and the cloak of complacency toward systemic white supremacy. There are many documentaries and books we can use for our own edification as we look to empathize and believe people’s lived experiences.

Jim Crow is not over, just replaced by the school-to-prison pipeline (watch Ava DuVernay’s 13th) and police brutality. Trans and nonbinary people are having their rights to use the bathroom attacked. Transwomen of color are being murdered at a rate that demands a much bigger outcry. Native Americans are, once again, having their lands destroyed by leaking oil pipelines. The (Christian) Religious Right continues to push policy eroding access to family planning, access to safe abortions, marriage equality, the ability for LGBTQ folks to adopt, and more. Flint, MI still has lead-filled unclean, undrinkable water three years later. Not to mention, the continued suppression of voter’s rights and outright gerrymandering in districts whose politics would be more progressive if all citizens had equal representation at the ballot box.

Voting patterns among racial minorities tell the story of how the choice between Trump and Hillary Clinton was not a choice of lesser evils. Black women, in particular, voted 94% for Clinton. Those of us, including myself, who ignored the challenge of “Trump and Hillary Clinton are the same evil” by fellow white people, are to blame for not taking action. There are millions of stories and situations that we must empathize with, acknowledge, and support those communities working to solve them.

 

Lesson number six: Alliances must be intersectional and real.

We must have intersectional and real alliances to move forward with political progress. During the Dominion War, the Alpha Quadrant and Federation would’ve never won if the Federation, Klingon Empire, and Romulans had not banded together. Throughout the war, we see this alliance almost fall apart compared to the Dominion, whose totalitarianism unifies them.

The Dominion causes the Federation-Klingon War through Changeling infiltration because they know the Alliance is tenuous and based on mutual cooperation between peoples who historically haven’t always trusted each other. The Dominion knows if the Federation and Klingons fight each other, their forces will be weakened and easier to conquer.

Post-Federation-Klingon War is when we arguably get to know different Romulans and Klingons better. They build a real alliance together to take down the Dominion. DS9 gives us many counter-stereotypes about the different cultures. Worf’s son Alexander Rozhenko is a different look at a Klingon, one who’s clumsy and not bloodthirsty, but nonetheless, reports to duty. Nog’s quest to join Starfleet, and his eventually placement on the front lines show us a side of the Ferengi we’ve never seen.

In our own political organizing, we must make alliances and come to understandings about each other that show our humanity. They must be intersectional and real. We must hold progressive political leaders, like Senator Bernie Sanders who does not always address systematic racism and sexism, accountable. We must be able to argue both nuance and hold onto our principles. We cannot wear a Black Lives Matter button but be okay with private prisons or the constant policing of Beyonce’s feminism. We cannot defend free speech but be silent when a woman who laughed at Attorney General Jeff Sessions may face a year in prison.

In order to win for progressive causes in upcoming elections, real alliances must happen. Real understandings must happen, and we must stand up for each other with more than slogans and t-shirts.

 

Lesson number seven: Believe people when they show themselves to you.

“When someone shows you who they are believe them; the first time.” ― Maya Angelou

When we meet Gul Dukat, he’s shown to be the cruel Prefect of Bajor during the Bajoran Occupation, someone who isn’t afraid to conquer others for his political gains. Through the seven seasons, the writers never redeem him. However, he has moments that show him as more than an evildoer wearing a black hat and twisting his moustache. His ultimate soft spot turns out to be his daughter, Tora Ziyal.

But like Angelou warns, Dukat has shown up his face the first time. While the main crew never warms to Dukat, we see those who let down their guard destroyed by him. Winn is a notable example. Whereas, we see Kira take a cautious view of Dukat and never let him lull her into believing he’s a different man. She’s never seduced, literally or figuratively, by him.

This isn’t to say second chances don’t happen, but believing people the first time is a powerful lesson in our own political organizing. Those like Dukat, who seek power above all else, cannot be trusted. When we’re building alliances or voting at the ballots, believe people the first time. If someone reports to be a feminist ally, but devalues women’s work or only follows men on Twitter, believe their actions. If a politician calls themselves pro-life, but votes for repealing access to primary education or is for high-risk healthcare pools, believe what they show you. In a world of buzzwords and 24-hour news cycles, our memories must be longer. We must seek the truth of our own characters and that of others.

 

Lesson number eight: Never forget your ideals.

Any movement or alliance will have arguments over the nuances of ideals and positions. This is how we keep a vibrant political culture, and how we offer more than just “two sides” of any debate. But when times get hard, we all must never forget our ideals and we must confront them.

Throughout DS9, we see Kira hold onto her faith in the Prophets. Initially, Kira’s unsure about Sisko as the Emissary and how to balance her duty to him as an officer and be his friend. She doubts Winn (correctly) as a spiritual leader, but she ultimately does not let this interfere with her personal faith and her belief in the Bajoran people. Kira doesn’t unquestioningly follow her faith or her ideals. She isn’t afraid to ask the hard questions of herself and her beliefs.

Kira isn’t the only one to struggle with their ideals. Set in the middle of the Dominion War, “The Siege of AR-558” opens with Sisko receiving names of dead soldiers. He laments the many deaths, and how at the beginning of the war, he read every name and now he’s fatigued. The dead have become ubiquitous. During the episode, Sisko and several crewmembers end up unexpectedly on the front lines on planet AR-558. While they defeat the Jem’Hadar, it costs many lives and Nog loses his leg. The episode ends as it started, Sisko with another list of the dead, and his renewed ideals about reading their names. Sisko says, “They’re not just names, it’s important we remember that. We have to remember…”

In the face of corruption and an increasingly authoritarian administration, we must not forget our own ideals. We must not forget what drives us and the future we’d like to see for everyone. In the face of misery, in the face of arrest, in the face of whatever escalation the future brings, we must hold onto our ideals and our own lines in the sand.

 

Lesson number nine: You may have to teach your “enemies” to resist (near the end).

Without Kira, the Cardassians might’ve been completely destroyed the Dominion or remained a Dominion outpost in the Alpha Quadrant. Despite the fact that the Cardassians forcefully colonized, turned her people into slaves, and committed genocide against them, when the Cardassians need to learn how to be a resistance, Kira shows up. She advises and pushes Damar into becoming a true leader of his people and the rebellion. Kira shares with them her techniques and shoves the Cardassians out of their comfortable, complacent lives.

Post-US election, there have been many articles written about how liberal people must work harder to understand conservatives. How we must have an understanding of each other, especially if we ever want liberal majorities in the government again.

But this is not where our alliances need to be built. These are the people who’ve shown us who they are and what they value. Yes, we cannot allow policies to leave them behind, and yes, we know things like the continued attempts to repeal and replace the ACA/Obamacare will affect and kill many of conservative voters.

However, the Cardassians had to reach their own turning point first. Due to their xenophobia, the Cardassians lack the empathy for others required to see why aligning with the Dominion would be such a bad idea. Unfortunately for them, and unfortunately, for some conservatives in the US, things will have to get much worse for them before they realize the current batch of conservative politicians are only out for their own power and wealth. We’ve seen a little bit of this with recent town halls over healthcare, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg.

When they are ready, we’ll be here to show them how to resist. Just like Kira.

 

Lesson number ten: Imagine a better world and make your own.

Star Trek is rooted in utopian ideals, and while Gene Roddenberry’s vision isn’t without flaws, it serves as an example of an ideal future. No other show besides Deep Space Nine calls an evolved Federation’s ideals more into question. By the end of the show, Bajor has more options for their idealized world than in season one. Then, they only had the Federation. Now Bajorans can dream of their own better Bajor. (The DS9 novel “Unity” depicts the Bajorans joining the Federation, but we never see this in TV canon.)

Time and time again, the crew of DS9 and the Bajorans must rely on their imagined better world and turn their lives into that. They take a space station built on the backs of dead Bajorans and make it something more — a thriving economic system, a place of political parlance, a station to fight wars and resist, a place of religious significance.

Political organizing starts in our own neighborhoods. We may see rampant corruption and problems in the federal government and in the White House, but our resistance begins at home. This is the place where we build alliances. This is the place to grow new policies and new ways of living.

Want more options than two parties’ candidates for President? Start with city councils and mayors. Want to protect people from mass deportations? Support becoming a real sanctuary city and do the actual work to help. Want to foster understanding between different groups of people? Get to know your neighbors. Want to show solidarity to others? Stand up against harassment in public places. Want more people to vote? Register people, drive them to the polls, and make sure voter ID laws fail.

Are the Bell Riots already here?

In 2017, none of us are looking around and wondering how the Bell Riots happened. It’s already here: the mass inequality, the systemic hatred spreading its wings in our political systems, poverty, hunger, Gimmies, Dims, and Ghosts. We have this idealized Roddenberry model of how a world can be, but it’s up to us to decide the blueprint to get there and make it better. Will things have to get as bad as the Bell Riots? Maybe. If they get that bad, can we get out of it? It’s up to us.

Let’s take these lessons around organizing, around standing up for ideals, and more from DS9 and apply them to our work. The more actively we engage in politics and do our civic duty, the more our culture will change. What seems like an impossible task today, can change in the future. But not unless we get out there. Remember the first lesson, the work is never done.

  5 comments for “10 Political Organizing Lessons from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

  1. Eric Cheung
    May 23, 2017 at 8:58 am

    I love this, except that Sanders hardly ignored racism and sexism. When BLM protesters confronted him at a rally, he gave them the stage, then hired Symone Sanders. Activists did hold him accountable, and that’s how he responded. No other candidate had a similar response when confronted with Black Lives Matters protesters.

    That said, independent of actual policies established in the 1990s such as broken windows policing and welfare reform, the Clintons did establish relationships with the Black community much more aggressively. There was obviously political value in that, which Sanders ignored to his detriment, believing his history as an activist arrested during the Civil Rights movement would speak for itself in its contrast.

    We must pay attention to who profits from the prison industrial complex, and hold them accountable.

  2. Mark Plemmons
    May 23, 2017 at 10:04 am

    Great article, though I found the many typos very distracting from the message. (Also, “lose” not “loose”.) If you fix these, the article will have a better impact.

    • May 23, 2017 at 10:08 am

      Thanks Mark – fixed the loose/lose thing.

  3. May 23, 2017 at 10:08 am

    Yeah you lost me at the unnecessary Sanders dig. He constantly addresses systematic racism and sexism. The Clintons hardline on crime and drugs led to the worst example of racism in our society today, the massive incarceration of black folks and other nonwhite groups. I agree that we should align but we don’t need to make up stories that Sanders isn’t on the side of the people.

  4. Josh
    May 26, 2017 at 11:54 am

    First rate Trek analysis. Amazing work. Thank you!

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