Deep Space Nine often gave Quark, the Ferengi bartender, lines that regularly challenged Benjamin Sisko and audiences to reexamine their own standards. One of his most well known lines comes from the episode “The Jem’Hadar” –
But you’re overlooking something. Humans used to be a lot worse than the Ferengi. Slavery, concentration camps, interstellar wars. We have nothing in our past that approaches that kind of barbarism. You see? We’re nothing like you. We’re better.
Many Ferengi women and workers would scoff at this comment. Quark’s mother Ishka especially would fume that Ferengi women were treated terribly—kept naked, housebound, dependent on male family members, and otherwise subservient. Quark’s brother Rom actually fought to create better working conditions for everyone at Quark’s where there was sick leave, better wages, less harassment, and more, upending the hypercapitalist standards that were the basis of Ferengi society. Yet Quark had a point: humans may look down on Ferengi for good reasons, but humans have done terrible things in the past they conveniently forget about or gloss over.
Knowing what we do about Ferengi society, some may discredit Quark’s above quote, but do these examples combine with the quote to reveal more about humans and Ferengi than we realize?
DS9 was the first series that broke the most dramatically from the humanist utopia Gene Roddenberry originally established with The Original Series and The Next Generation. It had an overarching series plot of helping a planet recover from occupation and trying to protect the Federation from war, which meant political intrigue, social unrest, and other topics moved to the forefront of many episodes. Whereas most previous examples of this kind of political and social upheaval had the Enterprise crews solving whatever crisis came up then leaving never to return, Sisko and company often had to accept their only choices would result in some form of loss or having to compromise. This often meant there was no solution that fixed everything then they had to live with the consequences; Sisko and the others also had to deal with internal corruption such as Section 31 and other shadow organizations, something Kirk and Picard did not have to worry about (even the infamous space worms appear to have been defeated off screen). On the station, Quark became the main critic of Federation ideals and optimism, calling out when and how members fell short of these ideals.
Many alien species from across the franchise have been criticized for being monocultural and lacking diversity. It took until Voyager for a Vulcan of color to have a prominent role, Klingon men have been portrayed by mostly African American actors from TNG onwards, and so on. Yet humans, who are polycultural and very diverse, often fought and oppressed each other based on xenophobia and other forms of prejudice in the pre-Starfleet or Federation years.
Take for example how during their accidental time travel to the Bell Riots, Sisko and Bashir, men of color, are forced into deplorable living conditions yet Jadzia Dax, a white woman who fits modern beauty standards, is whisked away to the safety of life among the upper class. If Kasidy Yates, a woman of African heritage, had ended up during this era, would she have been given the same opportunities as Jadzia Dax or would she have joined Sisko and Bashir because she isn’t white?
The history of how racism and sexism shaped human society is very poignantly depicted in “Far Beyond the Stars,” where Sisko imagines himself and his crew in pre-Civil Rights America. There is a very clear divide in the writers’ room where most of them work. The characters who are not male or white have to hide their identities from the magazine audience. Bashir has to emphasize how British he is, even if his heritage is from India. Kira Nerys has to write under a pseudonym, Jadzia Dax is not a writer but plays a stereotypically hyper-feminine secretary, and Sisko’s story about a black captain of a space station is white washed based on the owners’ fears that readers will boycott or protest this idea. Sisko as author Benny Russell is so angry about the whitewashing of his story on top of being beaten by white police officers and the racism he faces every day that in later appearances, Russell is in a mental hospital where the doctors order him to stop writing more stories on the walls of his cell and paint over his work.
Then there is Sisko’s retort in “Badda Bing, Badda Bang” about how in the real world historical version of Vic Fontaine’s club, many of the crew would not have been allowed in to gamble or enjoy the music due to racism. They could have been custodians or performers in 1960s Las Vegas, but not customers.
So, did the Ferengi not have racism because of their own lack of diversity? Viewers can see the unfortunate anti-Semitic tropes attached to representation of Ferengis, but internally there is very little discernible difference between individual Ferengi besides tertiary sex characteristics (i.e. smaller ears) compared to humans. The oppression Quark exerts over his employees appears to be almost equal opportunity—all employees regardless of species are underpaid and overworked. His instances of sexual harassment are based around exploiting women; throughout the series Quark treats women of various species poorly based on their gender.
Quark’s assertion that Ferengis did not start intergalactic war points may be technically true, but we do know the Ferengi have a history of staying on the sidelines, then profiting off of both sides of a war. While Quark does end up not selling devastating bioweapons to one customer, this comes later in the series, and Quark even quotes the Rules of Acquisition about how profitable war is. While there is also a rule about how profitable peace is, this seeming contradiction supports the idea that the Ferengi can find a way to make any situation profitable, whether that means selling weapons to both sides during conflict to gouging survivors for medical supplies.
This shows the Ferengi as an equal opportunity profiteers, ready to meet the needs of whatever potential clients they can find while keeping themselves out of the frontline of conflict. This idea is reinforced during the episode “The Siege of AR-558,” when Quark yells at Sisko for not working on a treaty with the Dominion or the Founders to prevent the war. While part of his rage does come from seeing his nephew Nog lose a leg during a Jem’Hadar attack, Quark does raise a valid point: the death toll is growing daily and the survivors have been dramatically altered by the continuous war, mentally and physically changed forever. Could Sisko have saved millions by working on a treaty?
“In the Pale Moonlight” had Sisko realize he was willing to sacrifice his own principles to change the tide of war, but if he had tried to work on a treaty earlier in the conflict, would he have had to enlist Garak then be implicated in the death of a Romulan politician? Even if the treaty talks had come to nothing, Sisko could have used the delay to help Starfleet prepare for conflict, give spies time to gather intelligence for Starfleet, or even given doctors time to see if they could find a way to circumvent the ketracel-white dependence of the Jem-Hadar to take away the hold the Founders had over the Jem’Hadar. Even if the treaty talks had come to naught, by using them as a stop gap measure Sisko may have been able to avoid so much bloodshed.
Quark became the voice of dissent in DS9, citing hypocrisy and failings of humans. He may have overgeneralized when he claimed Ferengis did not have slavery or start wars, but he was right to criticize humans for downplaying their own history of prejudice and oppression. This attitude helped strengthen the overall narrative of the series as it proved how humans needed to reckon with their past and present to build a better future. Quark may have been able to call out the rose tinted glasses of Starfleet and Federation members due to being outside of their influence.