Thursday, January 11, 2007

“De Oppresso Liber”: The Representation of the American Interventionism and Ideology in Stargate SG-1

All societies express their beliefs and values through their cultural products. Just as the ancient Greeks expressed their worldview through their literature and theatre, so too do modern popular culture texts represent current American beliefs and ideologies. Through its presentation of the encounter of the primitive and morally deficient “Other”, the science-fiction television series Stargate SG-1 (1997-present) consistently expresses the American ideals of technological and moral superiority in relation to the people of the other planets they visit. Again and again, the protagonists of the show are faced with natives whom they must assist in scientific and ethical development, without regard to cultural differences. While recent scholarship applauds itself on the elimination of the ethnocentrism of the Victorian arm-chair anthropologists, such ethnocentrism is clearly still present in both modern foreign policy and popular culture. Following Barthes’ notion of “white mythology”, Stargate SG-1 demonstrates that the current American ideology is merely another mythical system used to understand the world, and the show’s characters are just as trapped by their beliefs as the aliens they encounter.

The ideological standpoint of the United States is indeed quite well-known. The slogans of “freedom” and “liberal democracy” are constantly in use by both politicians and citizens of the country, and are encountered continuously while watching any American news channel. These ideals are also present in American foreign policy: as described by Jackson and Nixon, the US sees it as its personal mission and duty to safeguard the very existence of freedom and liberal democracy, and it is their manifest destiny to ensure that these ideals exist in all corners of the globe. Such sentiment is readily plucked from the inaugural speeches of US president George W. Bush. In 2000, President Bush stated: “Our democratic faith is more than the creed of our country, it is the inborn hope of humanity, and ideal we carry but do not own, a trust we bear and pass long.” Although the Iraq War has dragged on these past few years to increasing criticism, the president echoed a similar, but more pointed, sentiment in his second term address: “The survival of liberty in our land is increasingly dependent on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom…”, also stating that the goal of the “new” American foreign policy would be to help other nations “find their voice”. In light of such statements, it is quite easy to understand Naeem Inayatullah’s belief that there has recently been a call for the return to the “white man’s burden” – the colonial mission. “And who could demur when colonial encounter is said to bring technological development, democracy, modernity, and civilization itself?”

Beginning in the 19th century during the expansion of imperial territories, the original concept of ethnocentrism stated that all societies proceeded along a straight line of progress, moving from savagery to barbarism, and eventually achieving civilization (the goal of this evolutionary path). This version of ethnocentrism was utilized by many of the earliest anthropologists, such as Edward Tylor, and also by the famous comparative mythology scholar James Frazer. Modern anthropology and cultural studies have made a point of attempting to avoid such loaded interpretations of other cultures.

While a noble goal to be sure, it is obvious from the examples of US political thought above that American values are held to be superior. These ideals represent a new form of ethnocentrism; one never explicitly acknowledged, but present nevertheless. This form assumes that a modernized and democratic state is the “best” possible type, not because all civilizations are required to follow along this same pattern but because “it just makes sense”. We may deny that this is ethnocentrism, as such rights are guaranteed by the United Nations Charter of Rights and Freedoms and therefore must be shared by all human beings – but this in and of itself is a value judgement on any groups that choose not to follow the dictums of these “indelible human rights”.

This would appear to be a more modern example of Frazer’s belief in the essential sameness of all human cultures who all travelled along the same trajectory of development toward urban, technological, democratic nations. Tylor and Frazer both believed that myth was the ancient or primitive equivalent to modern science, and this is echoed by Robert Segal: “Where moderns invent science to explain baffling experiences, primitives invent myths.” If this is the case, then consider Jung’s statement that “myth becomes a world view”. If modern myth is science, then science is also the basis of the modern world view. As mentioned previously, Roland Barthes also sees modern science and scholarship as the “white mythology”, even as we flatter ourselves with our perceived intellectual superiority. Following a Jungian analysis of this line of thought, it would not be misplaced to state that perhaps we see other cultures as trapped by their own mythology and cultural ideas as we are also trapped through a projection of our own denial.

Before turning to a specific analysis of Stargate SG-1 as it reflects these ideas discussed above, it would be salient to discuss the role of past science-fiction and politics in order to contextualize this argument. Firstly, it is important to note that while a direct relationship between modern political events and popular culture cannot be proven to exist, there is certainly “…an indirect, mediated, and symbolic process whereby Hollywood film [and presumably television] reference salient clusters of social and political values and, through the operations of narrative, create a dialogue through and with these values.”

Science-fiction as a genre has dealt with the current political climate in the past, namely in the readings of the various Star Trek incarnations as examples of a modern colonialist agenda. Indeed, it has been argued that the visual similarity between the humans and aliens and the fact that many other planets existed in recognizably Earth-like historical periods “…reinforced the American notion that all nations develop in the same unilinear pattern” – a statement uncannily similar to those of Frazer and Tylor.

The original Stargate film (1994) upon which the series is based follows in this tradition, “…offer[ing] a classic example of American ideology, from its emphasis on self-help through… its demonstration of the liberationist potential of ideas…” As established in the film and continuing throughout the course of the series, the characters attempt to teach the aliens they encounter about justice and freedom. Indeed, the basic premise of the majority of the television series is to liberate human slaves from their alien overlords across the galaxy. Cheung sees this mission as easily relatable to the current American mission in Iraq: “To the sceptical eye, it might seem as if both Saddam Hussein and the USA might merely covet Kuwait’s oil, but projects like Stargate help support the idea that the USA disseminates freedom, self-determination, and the pleasures of chocolate, while men like Hussein merely wish to exploit others for personal gain.” McGregor applies a similarly bleak reading, comparing the natives in the Stargate film to a “…Third World client country rescued from its own benighted past by the grace and might of America – Iraq or Afghanistan with a less obstreperous (and more grateful) population.”

Contrary to these extremely negative views, it would be preferable to read the television series in a slightly less cynical manner. While dissent and doubt abound in the news media, the show itself appears to be fulfilling a Jungian compensatory function, as it reassures audiences that they are in fact doing right by the world and that their actions are appreciated by the peoples they meet. This reading of the nature of the relations between Earth and the alien better reflects the essentially positive and optimistic atmosphere of the series itself.

First airing in 1997, Stargate SG-1 elaborates on the plot of the original film penned by Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich, in which a device (the Stargate) is discovered which allows instantaneous travel between Earth and any other planet with a Stargate of its own. The television series follows the team SG-1 as they travel to other worlds to make contact, seek allies, and gather technology to defend Earth against the Goa’uld, a race of parasitic aliens which take humans as hosts and enslave human communities by impersonating their gods. The SG-1 team consists of four members: Colonel Jack O’Neill, the flippant military commander and “frontier hero” ; Dr. Daniel Jackson, the archaeologist, linguist, and moral voice; Captain Samantha Carter, the astrophysicist and technology expert; and Teal’c, a former soldier for the Goa’uld now allied with Earth and the mystical and foreign alien member of the team. Based on the premise that human life began on Earth several thousand years ago and diffused across the galaxy, SG-1 usually encounters different cultures from Earth’s past in various stages of technological development, as well as many non-human beings.

For example, in one of the earliest episodes the team encounters a “living example” of a Mongolian-related tribe, whose clothing and lifestyle “could belong to Genghis Khan”. As with Star Trek as mentioned above, the placing of alien groups in Earth history leads the audience to believe that all civilizations evolve along the same path. Upon discovering that they have engaged with a tribe which sequesters women and whom will readily put a woman to death for speaking aloud in public, Carter (the only female member of SG-1) is forced to dress in the local style of clothing and cover her face with a veil in order to avoid upsetting the natives. However, she is later kidnapped to be exchanged for trade. Jackson attempts to explain it as a cultural difference that could be resolved peacefully, but O’Neill states firmly, “The hell with culture. One of my team has been neutralized. That constitutes a hostile act.” As this quote illustrates quite clearly, as soon as the team perceives itself to be under any kind of threat, any thoughts of cultural misunderstandings are immediately dropped. The fact that kidnapping might be a perfectly legal or acceptable method of women exchange to this group is ignored. It is painted as reprehensible and evil through the eyes of the SG-1 team, with whom we are invited to sympathize, and the naturalization of gender equality and individual freedom is taken for granted, even while they are relatively recent phenomena here on Earth as well.

When she reaches the tribe she has been traded to, the women attempt to explain their laws to Carter, but she will have none of it. She tells the native women how females are treated where she comes from and how they can choose to be free and fight back if they desire to, as if these women would never have thought of it without Carter’s help. Carter’s noble example convinces one of the women to run away from her impending trade marriage, but she is captured and sentenced to death as the law requires. After Carter is rescued by O’Neill and the team, she demands that they return and save this girl from being stoned to death (even though the girl would have known the punishment for breaking this law before she chose to escape). Perhaps setting the tone for the rest of the series to come, Carter recites the motto of the Army Special Forces: “De oppresso liber”, to free from oppression. Not only is saving this girl the morally correct act to take, but their military duty requires it.

Again, Jackson makes a standard objection: “Do we have the right to interfere with their culture, to interpret their laws?” To this, Carter emphatically responds, “Yes!” The episode makes note of the opposing viewpoint (Jackson’s), but it is Carter’s who is actually taken up by O’Neill and acted upon, and is seen as the ethically correct step to take. It is this scene which best demonstrates the reflection of American foreign policy in the series. As is currently politically correct, the active interference or altering of another’s cultural beliefs is viewed negatively, but is morally demanded. After defeating the leader of the young girl’s tribe in hand-to-hand combat, Carter demands that she be allowed to go free. The episode ends with all the women of the community removing their veils to triumphant music. The SG-1 team is assured that they will be remembered as liberators and heroes, and they return to Earth victorious.

This episode demonstrates the most straightforward example of American intervention, and is thinly veiled at best. However, in episode #305, “Learning Curve”, a very similar interventionist attitude is demonstrated, although through slightly more subtle means. Here, SG-1 meets a technologically superior civilization which is advancing at a much faster rate than Earth itself, due its use of nanite technology to increase the intelligence of specially chosen children. These children learn all they can over a period of twelve years at which point their nanite machines are harvested and distributed to the population, allowing perfect memory retention of all information without the need for any schooling. At first it appears that these Orbanians might be able to assist the Earthlings and SG-1 is eager to learn from them, until it is revealed that after having their nanites removed, the children become like infants, and “cannot be taught”.

While these children are well-cared for and the leader Kalan strongly resents any accusations of mistreatment, O’Neill becomes furious, insisting that they are “sucking their brains out”, and refuses to return the child Merrin, who has been visiting Earth. Kalan responds, “You claim to love knowledge, but when you find something you don’t like you expect us to change just to please you.” This cogent statement is summarily ignored: the fact that these children do not have “fun”, or play games, is mistreatment enough in O’Neill’s eyes. When Merrin herself asks to be returned home, he insists that she has been brainwashed, and spirits her off the base when his commander orders him to take her back to Orban. He takes Merrin to a middle school and asks the other children there to teach her how to play games and act like a “normal” child, where she learns how to have fun, be creative, and express herself as an individual. While Merrin appreciates his care for her well-being, she still desires to be taken home, and O’Neill returns her. After having her nanites distributed, though, Merrin’s experiences of “fun”, creativity, and games spreads to all the people of the community, and SG-1 returns to Orban to discover the formerly blank-faced children with their nanites removed to be playing hopscotch and colouring on the walls. Despite his earlier words, Kalan is delighted with this development, and again SG-1 are hailed as heroes, and were right all along.

If compared to the previously discussed episode, “Emancipation”, an interesting conclusion may be drawn. While Carter was kidnapped herself in that episode, the local women were completely unable to convincer her of their perspective on proper feminine behaviour. In fact, Carter left their company just as headstrong and determined to “save” them rather than understanding their viewpoint at all. In “Learning Curve”, however, when Merrin is similarly kidnapped by O’Neill, he manages to convince her that American-style individuality is preferable to the ideals of her own culture. This episode acts on a much more subconscious level, but the end result is the same as before: the American morality prevails over that of the “Other”, and leads them to live better lives.

Parallel to this type of positive interventionism is the notion that those who don’t interfere to “help” are somehow morally deficient. In a much later episode, #818, “Threads”, Jackson upbraids a member of the most advanced race in the series for just such a standpoint. Respected but elusive, the Ancients are honoured by SG-1 as the “Gatebuilders”, and a significant subplot of the show is the quest to finally encounter this race in person. Having “ascended” from their corporeal forms, the Ancients now live as pure energy in a nirvana-like state of omniscience. While all-knowing and all-powerful, the Ancients have an extremely strict policy of non-contact with “lower beings”, and any acts of intervention are punished severely. They strongly believe that they have no right to interfere with the natural state of any other group, no matter how they might personally disagree with their specific views – cultural relativists in the truest sense.

With the galaxy perched on the verge of complete annihilation, Jackson begs, cajoles, exhorts, and demands of Oma Desala, the only Ancient he has contact with, to step in and stop it before it is too late. She responds, “I’ve told you before: the galaxy you’re from, the plane of existence, is so small and insignificant compared to the rest of the universe.” Without hesitation, Jackson states, “I don’t care. It’s wrong.” Oma also argues that interfering would make them no different from the evil Goa’uld, who artificially advance civilizations, but enslave the people. By the final minutes of the episode, though, Jackson manages to convince Oma to break the most sacred rules of her people, and she finally acts to stop the destruction. “You were right,” she ultimately admits.

The Ancients’ choice to avoid all interference is portrayed through Jackson’s eyes as irresponsible – there is no reason to have the power to change the world if you won’t use it, he successfully argues. Jackson has inadvertently echoed the arguments for manifest destiny of the United States, such as Bush’s statement quoted above that America’s duty was to help other nations “find their voice”, and that democracy and freedom were the “inborn hope of humanity”. As the most powerful country on Earth, the United States must carry out the motto of “de oppresso liber”, or they are not acting responsibly or fulfilling their duties as elder brother to the world.
As demonstrated through these three episodes, Stargate SG-1 is a popular culture expression of the American ideology and cultural imaginary. As SG-1 travels from planet to planet, they bring with them all their beliefs in freedom, democracy, and individualism, and spread them to all those they encounter as they fight to free the universe from enslavement and misguided cultural beliefs. It is a testament to naturalization of ideology that this level of ethnocentrism, displayed weekly on television, could survive relatively unscathed by criticism. While scepticism and negativity abound on American news networks regarding US intervention abroad, Stargate continues to portray a similar form of interventionism as not only successful, but the most responsible action to take, and one that is demanded by moral decency.


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