“Is there a free mind? Are our minds free? Are we programmed by something up there to follow our fate? Or are we programmed by Mom and Dad at a very early age? So is there free will? Do we make choices?”
So wondered William Shatner during his July 21 speech at the annual Las Vegas convention of libertarians and other free-marketeers called FreedomFest. He urged the audience to stick to its principles, not compromise as he says he did when he directed Star Trek V by giving up on his original vision of having the real God attack the crew with an army of lava men in the film’s climax.
Compromising principles is a mistake, suggested Shatner. “Nobody can tell you what to do. Somewhere inside us is a core.”
Is William Shatner a libertarian, you might ask? If not, what’s he doing there? Well, it seems more like he’s an environmentalist worried about overpopulation—and he’s a Canadian, of course—but he’s also expressed some populist longings for someone to sweep away the bureaucrats and make American democracy work again. And he avoids commenting on Donald Trump. Maybe call Shatner a frustrated technocratic populist? Sounds like sort of a Reform Party guy to me, leavened by an inevitable Star Trek-veteran love of science and education.
None of this makes him too much weirder than a previous FreedomFest speaker who went on to bigger things, namely Donald Trump. I suppose the question is how big you want the libertarian tent to be. You probably want a tent big enough to let in optimists who still believe we can invent and build things, but not a tent so big that it lets all the carny-barkers inside. A friend of mine in Colorado reports seeing someone flying around downtown Denver with a jetpack a couple weeks ago, so we know futuristic technological progress is officially going strong, but I worry more about unrealistic promises in politics these days.
I noticed some people joking online that they’d love to hear Shatner tell the assembled libertarians to “get a life” in the fashion of his notorious 1986 Saturday Night Live sketch about obsessive Trekkie conventioneers. I probably would have laughed harder at that joke myself a decade or two ago, when it seemed that the worst thing that could happen to the libertarian movement is that it might get too screechy and radical and alienate mainstream Americans. Everybody relax, I would have thought.
Nowadays, I worry more that in American politics, even the most radical road always leads back to the same mushy centrist middle, with a few highly predictable TV pundits guarding that middle against the emergence of any truly new ideas. So, if Shatner is unlikely to express a precise, coherent philosophical argument, I should at least root for him to leave crowds slightly confused, even if he says something stupid. That can spur thought. It beats sticking to safely-ambiguous, nigh-universal sentiments that are deployed as if to build coalitions but are really used mainly to make the speaker himself seem as non-threatening as possible, often boosting his career without doing much to shore up the hypothetical broader coalition. Absent utopian unanimity, one should root for competition, always.
I’m beginning to feel the same way about fictional continuity in Star Trek, to my surprise.
A sci-fi geek, I have been as eager as anyone over the years to see massive fictional continuities like that of the Star Trek universe or the DC Comics universe kept perfectly consistent. Inevitably, though, things fall apart eventually. New writers and new producers like Star Trek/Star Wars director J.J. Abrams come along and cavalierly decide there’s a certain scene they want to depict or a character they want to bring back, and out goes the whole timestream as we’re asked to pretend vast swaths of prior fictional history never happened. I used to think this process was as heartbreaking as watching footage of the old Penn Station being demolished.
But there comes a point when you realize that the hope of maintaining a consistent continuity—or a large political coalition—is probably rooted in a misguided optimism. The editors are too busy to care about all the details, and the politicians and most popular pundits are too busy or corrupt to care about philosophical purity. So, then the disappointed idealist starts to root for chaos. Perhaps that’s a little of what happened in November 2016.
Let my fellow libertarians fight viciously and devolve into factions (pausing to enjoy the occasional near-meaningless Shatner speech or other entertainment). Like small and decentralized states, the factionalism might afford a better chance for truth to survive out there somewhere than would one bland, homogeneous consensus version of the philosophy with all the rough edges polished and gleaming.
And if the new Star Trek: Discovery TV series comes out this fall and has a throwaway line in it suggesting that this timeline may replace both the Abrams films and all the TV material we know from the 60s and 90s, well, now I’m okay with that possibility, too. I am preemptively embracing that anarchic conclusion before the monarch—Shatner—has a chance to insult us all again. Let a hundred Omicron Ceti III flowers bloom.
In Vegas terms, until we really hit the jackpot, I’m grateful so long as we can keep rolling the dice.
Todd Seavey is the author of Libertarianism for Beginners. He writes for SpliceToday.com and can be found on Twitter at @ToddSeavey.