Media: Theoretical Economist articles

One of my favorite things about the Economist is the way it discusses ideas as enthusiastically and lucidly as it talks about politics. It’s something you very seldomly see in the media (a few exceptions spring to mind– The New York Review of Books, the NYT Books section on Sunday, and especially The Nation’s book reviews). But no one else puts the discussion of ideas next to the news, and gives it as a rubric to understand the news with.

The proximate cause for this outburst is the discussion of proportionality (http://www.economist.com/world/africa/displaystory.cfm?story_id=7231163) in war in this week’s issue (following articles on the Hizbollah conflict).

I also like the way the Economist differentiates between different kinds of liberty, and firmly advocates the advance of economic and social liberty. I feel like there was recently an article about the problem of liberalism, but I can’t find it. As a consolation prize, I found an article (http://www.economist.com/displaystory.cfm?story_id=4327143) on the quandary of liberals in Germany. Also in a similar vein are the articles on the rise of soft paternalism (unfortunately both subscribers only– the leader here (http://www.economist.com/displaystory.cfm?story_id=6772346), and the main article here (http://www.economist.com/finance/displaystory.cfm?story_id=E1_GSGRTVJ)).

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Trek Epicureanism

The last couple of days I’ve been playing around with the idea that Star Trek is epicurean, that the plots of its episodes and its larger plot arcs illustrate the importance of sticking to modest pleasures and eschewing emotional extremes.

As an example, I just watched the DS9 episode ‘Business As Usual’ (the one where Quark becomes an arms dealer). The episode is framed by scenes of Quark and Jadzia Dax playing tongo. What that suggests to me is a quasi-moral exhortation to eschew the pursuit of great happiness or success in favor of spending time relaxing with your friends– very epicurean. (Though I don’t know how historical epicureans felt about playing games)
To make this claim really convincing, it’s important to separate the morality of Star Trek from other considerations. For one, Trek is dramatically conventional; you know that when Quark is rejoicing, Odo isn’t far away (e.g.). Furthermore, as a serial TV show with a stable cast of characters, Trek graduates towards stasis– the Simpsons thing. But I think the moral concern goes beyond these considerations.
I don’t know that Trek strictly follows the epicurean party line on love. There are a number of episodes and plot arcs where love is a mistake, where it just causes pain for all involved (the majority of love affairs, I think). My gut feeling, though, is that Trek has more of a ‘Tis better to have loved…’ attitude towards love than an epicurean one. The biggest counter-example for me would be Paris and Torres, who are a great love affair.

I still think the rubric’s useful, though. Pon farr is a negative example, suggesting that unattached sex, that indulging physical needs in a small way is better than great swings of emotion.

There are other funny coincidences. Trek doesn’t spell out where it comes down on the mind-body distinction, but there’s some sort of basic atomism at the soul at work, at least from the standpoint that non-corporeal entities can be affected by various physical phenomena, e.g. pah-wraiths and chroniton beams. I think this lines up with the epicurean belief that the soul is comprised of atoms which dissipate upon death.

Trek Multiculturalism

Much as I love Star Trek, I wish they would take on deeper moral questions. As far as cultural (non-political) conflict, the deepest questions seem to be whether you prefer a Klingon bed or a fluffy Starfleet one, or whether you prefer Oo-mox to par’Mach.

Alien customs are either transparently bad or vapidly liberal.

You also have to think that human culture would change somewhat in the next few hundred years. I wish they’d do something with that.