“Set course for home”: Cardassians

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The imaginatively titled “Cardassians” is a solid story about innocent bystanders whose lives are upended by political gerrymandering. There are the Cardassian War Orphans, most notably the young Rugal, who are ripped away from the lives and families they know on Bajor in order to cover up a potential scandal involving a number of military higher-ups. But there is also the crew of Deep Space 9, namely Commander Sisko, who end up tasked with the unpleasant duty of uprooting these children from their homes as part of their jobs in order to avoid a diplomatic incident.

Like last season's “Progress”, “Cardassians” examines the repercussions of life for administrators and local officials trying to do their best to represent their people, but who are ultimately at the whims of powerful governments and other systems of centralized authority who wish to consolidate power regardless of whether or not it serves the best interests of those who live under them. There's no way to argue that being forcibly relocated to Cardassia, a planetary society he fears, distrusts and doesn't even know, is going to be a net benefit for Rugal, so I'm not going to address it. Apart from the false equivalence in critiquing Rugal's hatred of the Cardassians by paralleling it with the decades of brutal oppression those selfsame people inflicted on the Bajorans, there's also the rather uglier implication that adopted children are always better off with their biological parents in every circumstance (the episode by no means endorses this perspective, but it doesn't do enough to refute it either). But ultimately, this is a story about the Deep Space 9 crew having their hands tied in order to prevent them from making the obviously correct choice and exploring how to react to a situation like that.

The regulars themselves are a slightly mixed bag on this front...Commander Sisko is generally excellent, as are Garak and Doctor Bashir, but I disagree with some of how Miles O'Brien is written. His speech to Rugal near the end about how it's wrong to write off an entire people with generalizations, stating that he himself has met some Cardassians he liked and some he didn't, is beautiful knowing his backstory and an utterly perfect Star Trek moment. Or at least it would be if the chief's history with the Federation-Cardassian War and the dismissive speciesist feelings he once suffered as a result of it were left unspoken and implied. Instead, the scene earlier in the episode where Miles expresses concern to Keiko about Molly associating with Rugal sort of undermines that moment's effectiveness for me.

I know it was meant to show moral ambiguity and that racism is difficult to overcome overnight and how even good people can slip back into bad habits from time to time. But the thing is I don't agree that was a good call. That's not a Star Trek: The Next Generation message. This series is supposed to be showing us how we can *overcome* our various foibles and vices. Not that we don't necessarily have them, just that we can overcome the ones that we do. And the point of “The Wounded” was to show Miles getting over whatever leftover baggage he had from the Federation-Cardassian War, his assisting Captain Picard and Gul Macet's efforts to track down and apprehend Captain Maxwell his moment of growth and redemption. That's what gives the Minstrel Boy scene its power: Having shown that he's grown beyond his anger, Miles proves to Captain Picard that he can be trusted to beam over to Maxwell's ship and do the right thing.

Even if you choose to ignore his subsequent growth in Michael Jan Friedman's comic book line due to canon concerns, that's self-evidently what “The Wounded” at least was about. “Cardassians” doesn't add any nuance to Miles O'Brien's character by having him say that sort of thing, its actually *undoing* character development, which sounds like the sort of thing this creative team would be opposed to (I guess “conflict” was more important). But more to the point, this scene is effectively a relapse, and relapses just aren't a Star Trek: The Next Generation to do. This show is supposed to be about growing and moving forward, not regressing, and the episode's final moments would have been considerably more powerful and effective had it embraced that angle.

But now that I've squared that away, I want to talk about another aspect of this story. Rugal is one of the more notable examples of a cultural transplant in Star Trek, and the comparative detail afforded to his backstory, along with the fact it's set against the backdrop of the heavily symbolic Cardassia/Bajor conflict, allows us to examine some important themes about cultural identity and belonging. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is a show about rebirth, healing, reconstruction and starting anew. Most everyone on the station has come to it from somewhere else, and everyone is looking to set aside their past and begin new lives as honourary, if not ethnically, Bajorans. Commander Sisko is moving beyond the trauma and grief of Jennifer's death, and while he is not technically “Of Bajor”, he is destined to be the Emissary of the Prophets. Major Kira feels self conscious about her past as a terrorist and, while she didn't want the job at first, has come to see Deep Space 9 as her home. The O'Briens moved to a new city and have to adapt to new jobs. Jadzia Dax literally gave birth to herself as a new person. Odo doesn't know where he came from, but he's slowly starting to realise that doesn't matter because its his actions in the present, not his heritage, that define who he is.

And the same is true for Rugal, who is Bajoran even if he wasn't born on Bajor. And yet Rugal is an interesting case, because he is descended from Bajor's former occupying overlords. Temporarily setting aside the larger latent political issues with the Federation, within the show's logic the Starfleet officers of Deep Space 9 effectively represent immigrants. They came from somewhere else and consciously cast aside their past in order to reinvent themselves. The Cardassians, however, including Rugal, are the descendants of imperialist colonizers who continue to live in the lands their ancestors conquered and stole away from its native peoples. This breeds a different sort of person, I think: Although some amount of intermingling can occur, colonial societies tend to live purposely apart from indigenous societies of the same geographic area, either walling themselves away in continent-sized gated communities or forcing the indigenous people into smaller and smaller reservations so they're out of sight and out of mind.

In his book Changes in the Land, environmental historian William Cronon dispels the myth that Native Americans in New England lived in a pristine, untouched wilderness prior to the arrival of European colonialists. Pointing out that ecosystems can never in fact actually be inert, Cronon shows how the Native Americans actually carefully maintained the land by working in tandem with it. Their intimate familiarity with their environment, as all indigenous people have, allowed them to recognise and respect the way the various natural cycles manifested locally. Therefore, while they did alter their environment, they did so in an empathetic fashion that was mutually beneficial to both the people and the land. The Europeans, by contrast, were strangers in New England-They didn't know or understand the land and were often fearful of it. Thus, they attempted to “tame” and “dominate” the environment, forcibly bending it to their will and perceived needs, paying no heed to whether or not their actions were sustainable or not.

I'm beginning to develop a theory that this is the original sin that lies at the heart of Western modernity. Because of our imperialistic roots, we have always grown up in societies distant and detached from the lands our ancestors conquered. Because it's not our land and we didn't come from here we never took the time to truly understand the places modernity assimilated and, as a result, we behave recklessly, destructively and shortsightedly. But also, we lose a sense of cultural identity: Westerners are a people without an actual home, and that gives us a crisis of identity and spirituality. I think this may be the root cause of not just capitalism's environmental destruction, but also the temptation of cultural appropriation. Since we don't really have traditions of our own (or the ones that we do are too odious and embarrassing to embrace), we try and adopt those of others in our joint ignorance and desperation.

Are voyaging and immigration the solution to these deep-rooted problems? Can you, like Rugal and the crew of Deep Space 9, ever truly become connected to a land and a culture you weren't born and raised in? As someone who is the descendant of immigrants and possesses an undeniable wanderlust, I'd certainly like to think so. But that's not a question I feel qualified to answer.

Comments

Daru 1 year, 7 months ago

"Since we don't really have traditions of our own (or the ones that we do are too odious and embarrassing to embrace), we try and adopt those of others in our joint ignorance and desperation."

Interesting point. Myself, when I was exploring spirituality without have really investigated my own connection to my land of Scotland, I was drawn to teachings by visiting American First people teachers. I really, genuinely believed that we had no extant spiritual traditions here. And I found that following the teachings from another land just deepened my sense of disconnect. The one thing I always have felt though is a deep sense of connection and links with the Scottish land and mountains.

A few years of research and time on the land here showed me that there was buried wealth of nature-connection traditions in Scotland, but they had become subsumed by, or had cannily been woven into early Celtic Christian practices. I'm not saying that there is any kind of unbroken line, there isn't - as we had our practices essentially destroyed by the Romans when they massacred the last Druid colleges on Anglesey in Wales - but there have been enough threads to lead some folk to create anew for the present. Apart from this we do have in Scotland a long lasting tradition of the , poets, storytellers, Bards all being respected which has a through line to Ceilidhs now.

It is hard at times though, as there are many here who believe we have no traditions at all. So yes, I don't think I could connect at all to traditions, land or culture that I was not from as in my own past it has been hard enough to connect to my own.

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Josh Marsfelder 1 year, 7 months ago

I was thinking more about the legacy of imperialism and the impact that has on spirituality. In the United States, white people are descended from conquerors and slave owners who stole land from indigenous people and who never really adapted as a culture to the lands they conquered. They tried to bend nature to suit them instead of learning and working with it. While it may not be a totally unbroken line, since you're Scottish I would imagine you at least can claim things like the Celtic/Gaelic Reconstructionist traditions. But for me it's a little tougher.

Although I was born and raised in North America, I'm not Native American and thus do not feel entitled to the native spiritual traditions of this land. And because I didn't grow up anywhere else, I'm not entitled to any other tradition either. I'm not the descendant of colonialists or landed gentry (both sides of my family are European immigrants, including a branch from Ireland), but because of my assumed privileges here I've definitely benefited from their society in some way. And, conversely, I've grown up to at least some extent detached from the land it occupies

I'm only just now starting to find a path for myself, which is why issues of syncretism and cultural appropriation are very important to me. I'm generally of the opinion that if you take the time and effort to learn from a place and its energy, no matter who you are or where you come from, you can develop a kinship and relationship with it. This is, I think, part of the goal of travel and voyaging. But it's still an area I'm a bit cautious about exploring myself, personally.

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Daru 1 year, 7 months ago

"I was thinking more about the legacy of imperialism and the impact that has on spirituality."

Oh absolutely. I think in a roundabout way that's what I was maybe getting at too. That even though here there I can see a link to the reconstuctionist traditions, imperialism had a different effect on us, as the Roman Empire transposed their own practices onto the country and also brought other traditions with them - all of which the populace then in time grew to believe were systems native to Britain. Perfect way to dominate a society, dilute their culture and belief systems.

But you are right, being Scottish I do have a different experience - so I don't mean to have sounded like I was bigging myself up because I have existing traditions. And I really appreciate hearing the perspective of someone like yourself who lives in a country that was occupied - if I was in your position I would also not feel entitled to access the spiritual traditions there either. I do know that there are a huge number of Americans who are seeking to reconnect with the British, Irish and European traditions, and even going doing not a strictly Reconstructionist route, but more of historical re-creation route.

I myself also feel a real kinship with what you say regarding the ability to connect to places and their energy wherever you are from. I certainly feel this too and have connected with many beautiful new places in the world in this way. I can understand cautiousness, which I would interpret as coming from respect for the Spirit of Place.

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Josh Marsfelder 1 year, 7 months ago

"I do know that there are a huge number of Americans who are seeking to reconnect with the British, Irish and European traditions, and even going doing not a strictly Reconstructionist route, but more of historical re-creation route."

This is something I'm starting to explore, though very tentatively. I've been fascinated by Irish history and mythology for a very long time, totally independent of whatever Irish heritage I have myself so I feel slightly less bad about it. It's certainly one of the traditions I've studied the most...Though at the same time I still feel guilty for being passionate about it.

I read an article once that was written by an Irish person making fun of the way the United States celebrates St. Patrick's Day. He says he gets people coming up to him and saying "My great-grandmother was from Ireland!", to which he always responds "Great! If she shows up, I'll buy her a pint". I always think of that exchange whenever I start to get too deep into Irish spirituality.

"I myself also feel a real kinship with what you say regarding the ability to connect to places and their energy wherever you are from. I certainly feel this too and have connected with many beautiful new places in the world in this way. I can understand cautiousness, which I would interpret as coming from respect for the Spirit of Place."

I actually have an essay coming out here this week that builds upon this theme a bit. But in regards to your comment...The thing is I *do* feel this. I do love North America, or at least parts of it-Over the past five years I've been nursing a really strong compulsion that's drawing me to the Boreal Forests of Canada for whatever reason. And I obviously have the utmost respect for the cultural heritage of Polynesia and the Polynesian reconstructionists. I'm not Polynesian, but I learned an awful lot about them through my time in cultural anthropology. There's always more to learn, though.

I'd like to think it's possible to learn to love a land through the people and the Spirit of Place. But that flipside of being this kind of wanderer is that this doesn't mean I can ever belong anywhere. I'm also really curious about the ramifications and potential of syncretism (part of my newfound interest in Japan is that I think the Japanese have had a really unique and intriguing history with this, being an island culture subject to repeated invasions and occupations that's paradoxically also a failed colonial power). But this is something I'm dreadfully nervous about, because the line between syncretism and cultural appropriation is razor thin.

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Daru 1 year, 7 months ago

That's really interesting that you are getting into exploring and researching Irish history and myths. I don't think myself that you should feel guilty at all about connecting with them as it doesn't sound like you are seeking to appropriate them. I do feel myself that we can be enriched by linking respectfully with our mythic and historical roots, as they can open us up in the present. Of course even Scottish traditions aren't purely Scottish - for example you likely know that the Scots hail originally from Ireland?

Even within Britain I have seen some odd practices as various groups try to "accurately" and authentically recreate Druid practices (which is pretty impossible as it was a largely oral tradition), and ending up with creating dogma and something appearing quite sterile. So I think respect is they key - I am a practicing Druid myself, but I am really not interested in any kind of recreation of the past, but in more of a personal mystical, animistic connection to nature, the land, the Spirit of Place, or Genius Loci, and how these connections shape and affect me. Basically to discover myself through the land - primarily the Scottish and British land.

"I'd like to think it's possible to learn to love a land through the people and the Spirit of Place.... But this is something I'm dreadfully nervous about, because the line between syncretism and cultural appropriation is razor thin."

I have been drawn to many landscapes in the world (not that I have been to too many!), including areas for example in the Four Corners part of the United States, or the Maritime Alps on the French/ Italian border. I remember having many quiet and deep personal experiences with the land there. I always though, try to find a way to ask permission of the Genius Loci before connecting to a particular place. My partner has Gypsy and Romany heritage, and from what I have heard they also essentially practiced the same permission asking. That way wherever they went could feel like home, as it was the *earth itself* they connected to, but they were keeping with their own traditions whilst respecting the local ones and their peoples.

I completely agree that the line between syncretism and cultural appropriation is so fine. I guess we need to be very aware then of where we are coming from and the manner with which we approach a culture, and our reasons why. I suppose if I look at Scotland again, it has a huge history also of invasions and other cultures dumping their culture onto us whilst taking the best of ours, and over history is has turned into a muddle in some way. So I do have a *huge* amount of respect for cultures - such as the Saami culture for me, with who I feel a similar connection as you do to the Polynesians - who have managed to not only preserve but have kept their practices very much alive. I am am so aware of hundreds and hundreds of years of damage to many cultures, and would never want to be party to such harm.

Thanks for such a rich vein of conversation!

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