Science Fiction, Nationalism, and the Politics of Exclusion

We have already referenced the general lack of exposure to the concepts of Political Theory in particular and Political Science overall among the general population; this situation tends towards a lack of rigorous thought concerning topics that are complicated and emotionally loaded, such as the interplay of nationalism and identity politics. Issues of nationalism have taken on increased importance since the termination of the Cold War ended the Capitalist (United States) v Communist (Soviet Union) paradigm as local and ethnic political issues have taken on central importance. The exclusion of minority ethnic, cultural, and religious groups from membership in the states in which these people have lived, sometimes for hundreds of years, has led to the denial of political and human rights and to violence that has at times verged on genocide. Even when the stakes are not so dire, issues of nationalism have complicated topics such as immigration and the right to vote within many developed countries. The lack of political education has made some susceptible to manipulation by nationalist organizations who tend to see every political issue as a zero-sum contest for resources between ethnic or cultural groups. The desire for nationalist groups to accrue power by expanding their base is often accomplished through appeals to divide rather than unite populations.

I Pledge Allegiance to the Flag

How would an examination of these issues be different if they were conducted within the confines of VSF? In November of 1994, while the Bosnian war was playing out with its overt calls to Serbian nationalism, Babylon 5 broadcast an episode titled “The Geometry of Shadows” written by J. Michael Straczynski. This episode included a “B” plot (a secondary story usually unrelated to the main plot) that investigated these questions in an unusual way.

Insert Geometry of Shadows fight video

The episode opens with ominous music and a shot of the Drazi, who up to this point had not been an important part of the series. Before this episode the audience had not seen this race as more than background and had no expectations about their psychology or knowledge of their history; this is important to the message of the episode in that other races had been endowed with specific characteristics which would have interfered with the viewers’ conception of their motivations. The use of what up to this point in the series had been a minor race made them an ideal stand-in for humanity in general and modern America in particular. Curiously each Drazi is wearing either a green or purple sash. For reasons unknown to the audience, the two groups of Drazi are spoiling for a fight; a close examination of the scene reveals that the two groups are divided by the colors of the sashes they are wearing. The minor civil disturbance is taken care of, and the audience is left to ponder the meaning of what had just happened.  Later, this unrest in a part of the civilian population comes to the attention of the station leadership; it is in the scene that follows the audience learns some of the background, two groups are fighting to become “the dominant group’; the fighting is political! Notice that the scene stipulates that this is not a fight to the death, once a group gives up, the battle is over. The dominant group is determined by the number of battles won, but further details are scarce.

At this point the plot line could just be an amusing distraction or a chance to inject some drama into the episode, but instead the writers begin to question the motivations of the Drazi, and in so doing they begin to interrogate issues around loyalty, political leadership, the use of symbols and even the role of ethnic groups in politics.

Insert video Green and Purple

As the scene begins, Ivanova reminds the audience that the space station Babylon 5 is a place dedicated to working problems out peacefully, but at the very mention of peace, the Drazi become uncomfortable. What is the precise nature of your conflict, she asks, followed by the simple declaration by the purple Drazi while pointing at the other, “green.” The point is amusing and jarring at the same time; the audience is asked to believe that these “people” are fighting over, what? As the scene unfolds, we learn the truth, at least the truth that we are meant to see, they are fighting over what seems like nothing. There is no “point of contention” between the groups from our viewpoint. We hardly even see the possibility of contention since the factions are picked at random. We see the groups through Ivanova’s eyes, outside of their culture; therefore, we do not understand the differences which seem very real to the Drazi. At this point, the scene becomes a bit ambiguous, are we being asked to believe that the concept of green v purple is important enough to fight for, as many of us would say about our own political beliefs are? Or is the point that from a distance, no point is important enough to fight for, that all points should be settled peacefully, as Ivanova says is the purpose of Babylon 5?

The viewer might notice that the leaders of the Drazi do not need to expend any effort in earning the loyalty of their people or in appealing to their sense of reason, or deal in any way with what we would see as political leadership. “He who takes purple is purple and follows purple leader.” While it has not been unheard of for a country to use some random selection method to fill essential offices, indeed, in modern America, this is the common method used to fill jury pools; it does not seem that Straczynski was calling for appointing leaders by random selection! Instead, it seems that the emphasis the viewer is likely to understand is the lack of accountability in this system. Green follows green because the leader has the mark, not because of any political contest or promise of care on the part of the leader. The right of the governed to have a say in who their leaders are is less important than achieving the goal of the faction. We might think that it is an irony that the system seems unlikely to pick the best leader, but the same can be said for monarchies. Or perhaps the viewer may come to think about how their leaders are selected? Are democracies meritocracies, or is the pool of leaders limited to those who have money and connections, essentially making the choice of a leader random? The green leader continues to explain that “Where there was one Drazi people now there are two. The two fight until there are one.” The Drazi are wholly committed to their positions within the system, they leave no room for discussion or compromise. Once the two sides are drawn, they advance to violence. The scene ends by making a subtle comment on identity; when Ivanova moves one Drazi from one group to the other by changing his sash, the former group member is immediately attacked by his former compatriots. We see that the attack is not on Ivanova for assaulting a group member; she is simply caught up in the violence, the Drazi later apologizes to her, perhaps to make this point clear to the viewer. The attack is clearly on the former group member whose identity has been involuntarily changed. The concept that the Drazi are not given any chance to choose what group they belong to is being reinforced. Identity is being forced on the individual without regard to the individual’s wishes. The individual does not choose purple or green, it is chosen for them and they will be treated as members of that group regardless.

After this the situation begins to spiral out of control.

Insert video killing purple

 

We have seen that this system has boundaries; it is not a “fight to the death.” However, the situation has changed; for reasons we do not know, one faction has started to kill the other. This change did not begin with the characters on the space station, we are told that this change has started somewhere else (on the Drazi home world). Nevertheless, the characters we know, though far removed from that place, reflect this change. At this point, the viewer is left with a conundrum, are the Drazi on the station being carried along by events that are out of their control, or are they willing participants in a kind of genocide? The green leader, who has most of the screen time, is portrayed as a relatively likable character; during one scene, he apologizes to Ivanova and says he wishes to rise above their problems. The audience might be reminded of Hannah Arendt’s thoughts on the banality of evil since we are shown that the goodwill of the Drazi leader is not extended to members of his species. The following scene points out the lack of regard the green Drazi has for the purple Drazi.

insert video Ivanova as hostage

The greens have hatched a plan to kill all their rivals; when Ivanova expresses horror at this, the green leader is indignant, the purple Drazi are not regarded as worthy, they are simply an obstacle. Ivanova questions how they could contemplate killing “your own people,” only to be reminded by the green leader that they are purple, and so are not the same people.

The greens attempt to complete their plan only to be intercepted in route by station security, providing an opportunity for Ivanova (who had been taken hostage and then rescued) to continue the previous conversation. The focus of the conversation changes from Ivanova’s shock at the green Drazi’s lack of seeing the purple as “people” and their casual willingness to murder them, towards questions about their allegiance towards their group.

insert video conclusion

Now the previously unstated analogy between the Drazi’s colored sashes and our use of flags is made explicit. “Don’t you understand, this is insane. It doesn’t make any sense to go around killing other people over a piece of cloth,” Ivanova says. If the audience had not realized this point, the green leader makes it clear, the sashes are their flags, and they will kill for them just as humans will kill for their own.  Ivanova still does not understand and argues that human’s flags are special while the Drazi sashes are just “a stupid piece of cloth.” “But there’s nothing special about it,” she says, “it’s not patriotic, it’s got nothing but this stupid little star in the middle of it.” After she grabs the “stupid piece of cloth” in frustration, the Drazi snap to attention showing their allegiance. “But I’m human,” she says; it does not matter, she is holding the sash with the mark of leadership and so she is the leader. The sash is revealed as being just as special to the Drazi as our flags might be to us.

With less than 10 minutes of video, this episode exposes the viewer to many vital issues. Ivanova is a stand-in for the audience, and her uncomprehending shock and concern at the root of the violence is a clue to the viewer that there are real and important questions here. First, how can people fight over what from the outside seems like a meaningless issue?  Interestingly she knows the reason for the fighting from the beginning, we learn this in her explanation of the situation at the start, but she does not believe it herself. In her mind, there must be a deeper reason. Ivanova, the career military officer, asks the Drazi, if they are going to fight, why is it over a “stupid” symbol instead of things she thinks are essential, such as honor. “This is our way,” they reply, this is their form of honor. The use of honor, the flag, and similar concepts have been reinforcing nationalist tendencies for ages. The United States, like many other countries, has a national flag day and codes about how the flag should be treated. Flags are particularly prominent in military and government settings for obvious reasons. Any flag is a method of manipulation, if a person “pledges allegiance to the flag,” they are asking to be part of a group, part of a country. No wonder the practice is encouraged from an early age.

A closely related issue is that of identity. Why is someone a citizen? Is it because they choose to be or because they are born into it? Is citizenship something that comes from the inside (a belief) or the outside (a sash)? Who gets to decide who a citizen is? The Drazi are one people until the rules changed. We are never given the reason for the division into green and purple; perhaps that is part of the point the episode is trying to bring out. From our outsider’s perspective, the issue would probably not matter, or it might be religious or economic, or it might be so alien that it would make no sense to us. It seems the Drazi are engaging in a type of “identity politics,” just as we cannot pick the group we are born into, or how others view that group, the Drazi have no choice about what group they belong to. Though the term is relatively new, concepts surrounding “identity politics” have a long and troubled history in America. The parallels between Drazi combat and the Holocaust, for example, are all too apparent. Unfortunately, identity politics has become a hot-button issue in America, especially within the context of liberal versus conservative politics, perhaps to the point where the phrase itself is self-defeating. To use the phrase at all is to invite into the argument so much political baggage that issues of discrimination, self-determination, economic justice, and so on have become lost in the rhetoric. George Orwell pointed out that one of the defining characteristics of nationalism is that “For those who feel deeply about contemporary politics, certain topics have become so infected by considerations of prestige that a genuinely rational approach to them is almost impossible.”[1] How can issues such as these be divorced from partisan politics so that we as a society can discuss them and advance solutions? One of the advantages of portraying these issues in relation to an alien species (who are, of course, stand-ins for human ethnic or cultural groups) is that when the average person watches this episode, they are unlikely to identify the Drazi with any particular group in their experience. Once the break is made between personal experience and the concepts depicted, the merits of the issues have a much better chance of being examined rationally rather than emotionally.

Inclusion and Exclusion

Contrary to our idea of society being a melting pot, identity politics is an indication that groups of people are being excluded from meaningful participation based on what should be politically trivial characteristics by the mainstream population. Whatever the reasons for this exclusion, whether they be cultural or political, it is extraordinarily hard to overcome once the dynamic is set. Political factions adapt their behavior to maximize their position within a system and are resistant to change, so long as they are successful. For example, powerful people may find it easier to get and maintain power by being at the top of a system based on excluding some segment of the population.  Exclusionary politics can provide leverage that elite politicians can use to manipulate the mainstream by stocking fear of political, economic, and cultural strife. Also, those who have benefited are naturally resistant to admitting they have been part of a “problematic” system and have benefited from a privileged position rather than merit. People are often loath to give up the benefits of being in a privileged position even while they understand the negative moral implications of the system. Further, they do not want to be blamed for a system in which they participated but did not construct. Identifying the phenomena of identity politics is partially a method of attempting to make mainstream society fully understand the system they are participating in, and so it a method to push mainstream society to change. We may find that VSF is a reliable partner in this project to change society via its ability to point out problems in society in a non-confrontational way. Would this episode cause people to think about the politics of difference and modify their behavior?

As is the case with most examples of VSF, Babylon 5 is consciously relevant to the time and place in which it is being produced.  It works well as political and social commentary as long as we do not ask it to do more than it attempts.  While it is not meant to be a clear allegory for 20th Century politics, it is informed by 20th Century politics.  Unlike some other forms of Science Fiction, it does not take into account, and it does not encourage, any possible radical transformation of society or human nature.  In this sense, it is Science Fiction that is qualitatively different from Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness which examines questions of the human condition and Feminism through the eyes of radically different beings, or Arthur C. Clarks Childhood’s End, which questions the nature and ends of humanity.  VSF simply does not have the freedom that traditional literature does.  Babylon 5 and similar franchises must speak to their audience within the confines of Hollywood’s corporate studio restrictions on commercial viability, which has enormous implications for both the scope of production and the allowed plots.  Although these limitations on scope may be a disadvantage in one regard, it does predispose VSF to confine its message to the experiences of its audience.  Rather than investigating radical transformations, as Science Fiction in literature is more suited to, this provides space for VSF to speak to the general audience about the world they are in.  Because of these limitations, we find that VSF is better suited to investigating issues such as the drift towards authoritarianism in the modern world rather than existential issues such as the nature of being.

As with many VSF episodes such as this, “The Geometry of Shadows” is a little over the top. However, it must be understood that this is a secondary plot in a larger episode, and time is of the essence. Remarkably in less than 10 minutes of video, the episode manages to ask many important questions. It must also be understood that despite any perceived self-selection bias in which we might expect an audience that watches a show that continually brings up political themes to be accustomed to these types of arguments, the show cannot assume any special knowledge on the part of the audience. Babylon 5 does not talk down to the audience, and although it might nudge them in a particular direction, it does not preach. The show treats the audience with respect, trusting them to think about the issues and come to conclusions that work for them. Ultimately, we must ask, is this episode empowering? Does it provide a lay audience with the perceptive and tools they need to understand the politics of exclusion at a fundamental level?

 

[1] Orwell, George. Notes on Nationalism. 6 Feb. 2019, www.orwellfoundation.com/the-orwell-foundation/orwell/essays-and-other-works/notes-on-nationalism/.