“This is our world, the world of the Information age”: In the Hands of the Prophets
In his Network Society trilogy, sociologist and Neo-Marxist Manuel Castells argues (among a great deal other things) that the titular concept, referring to the sociocultural, political and socioeconomic restructuring of the world and its methods of production through globalization and information technology, will inevitably, and perhaps ironically, lead to an increase in fundamentalism and violence beget from it. The argument goes that, far from opening up their eyes to a literal new world of possibility, those inclined towards a reactionary fundamentalist movement will, when exposed to new ways of thinking through globalization, instead dig their heels in even further and violently lash out against a perceived threat to their way of life.
Writing in 1998, and again in 2010, Castells seems ahead of his time, and I’ve often thought he got a beat on the direction the geopolitical climate was going well before it became evident to all of us. Living as we do in an age where it seems the world is poised on the brink of war between various assorted fundamentalist terrorist organisations and equally reactionary state governments, Castells seems downright prescient. And, airing in 1993, so does “In the Hands of the Prophets”: For its season finale, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine seems to have suffered the same fate as so much other science fiction before it, unwittingly predicting the future’s worst case scenario through cautious rumination on humanity’s worst impulses.
Writer Robert Hewitt Wolfe insists that “In the Hands of the Prophets” isn’t so much a condemnation of fundamentalism as much as it is a criticism of people who feel the need to impose their beliefs on others. Wolfe believes that anyone has a right to believe anything, so long as they don’t force anyone else to hold to the same beliefs and that this is ultimately the angle he was going for. When I was younger, I found this to be a deeply profound truism, though in retrospect the sentiment seems a bit shallower than would perhaps be desirable…For one thing I find it difficult to see how you can have one critique without the other: Fundamentalism by definition demands that its adherents hold to it without question, and the very reason it’s reactionary is specifically because it’s convinced it’s the one universal truth that everyone needs to be converted to, by force if necessary. A fundamentalism that retreats back into its own insularity to avoid contact with other ways of thought is not the fundamentalism we see manifesting in the world as a result of globalization and the network society, and it’s not the fundamentalism of Vedek Winn and her orthodox Bajoran terrorists.
Where I do see in Wolfe’s interpretation of his work, and especially in Commander Sisko’s position all throughout the episode, is a statement of a kind of anarchist ideal: “My philosophy is that there is room on this station for every philosophy”. Or perhaps “A utopia is a framework for utopias”, if you prefer. This is the most basic form of utopian anarchist thought-The idea that, without statism or any other kind of centralized or structural hierarchy (that is, without someone telling us what to do and what to believe), everyone’s personal beliefs would be and should be respected. Commander Sisko, as he has done since the beginning of the series, is also representing globalization (or the equivalent outer space term) and cosmopolitanism here, by stressing how beneficial exposing oneself to other viewpoints and other ways of life can be. This is most explicit in the scene with Jake, and is of course also the central theme in the episode’s conflict. And yet so is Vedek Winn, because according to Castells we cannot have globalization and networked societies without also having fundamentalism and fundamentalist violence.
And so “In the Hands of the Prophets” reveals the dark dilemma at the heart of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. It is good to voyage and to make connections with people all over the world, and it is good to look for discourse and commonality with all life. However, this is not a process the ego accepts easily. At a spiritual level this is the process by which we discover our birthright as life in the universe, but at a political level this can and does cause short-term trauma and disaster. Just because you have purged the ego and moved beyond it at an individual level does not necessarily mean the reflection in the larger world is always going to be an exact one, and the best you can strive for is to serve as a role model to others struggling with the same process.
It’s something Star Trek: Deep Space Nine has always subconsciously been aware of as a reality it will be forced to ultimately confront (indeed, one could argue it was even foreshadowed as early as “The Nagus”, with Ben’s warning to Jake that not every viewpoint is going to be compatible with his, mirroring the similar conversation between father and son here), and it’s a perfect companion piece to Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s season finale “Descent”. That episode deals with the rhetoric and trappings of fascism, while “In the Hands of the Prophets” examines the root cause and material consequences of fundamentalism. Both of which are born, of course, from a similar place: A reactionary perceived threat to an imagined conservative utopia. Though the tactics of fragmented cell-based terrorism and jack-booted fascist dictatorships may be superficially very different, intellectual speaking they both share strikingly similar origins. “In the Hands of the Prophets” gives us the charismatic (almost Osama bin Laden-esque in hindsight, though her order was perhaps ironically enough based on Catholicism) Vedek Winn while “Descent” gives us Lore in his final form, crazed fuhrer of the Borg. And recall “Descent” also gives us Admiral Alynna Nechayev, whose own fascist rhetoric belies the Federation’s true nature.
Alan Moore says the global mind operates on a spectrum between fascism and anarchy. And now the Star Trek universe, much like the real world, is poised on a precipice where it must decide upon which side it’s going to fall.
In terms of its production, “In the Hands of the Prophets” continues Star Trek: Deep Space Nine‘s recent commitment towards delivering first class dramatic performances. Though perhaps coming up a bit short in comparison with “Duet”, it’s trying remarkably and consciously hard and if it comes up short it’s only because it has to follow “Duet”. Lousie Fletcher and Philp Anglim are both first rate grabs and commit themselves with wild abandon. Fletcher most famously and iconically, whose multifaceted performance (again, recursive) of a religious zealot whose fire and brimstone condemnation of unbelieving pagan infidels is secretly trying to mask her true, very materialistcially political ambitions to consolidate power. Vedek Winn is already one of the greatest villains in Star Trek history, quite possibly the greatest, and her Machiavellian appeal to reactionary Bajoran evangelicals to further her own influence can be easily read as a metaphor for too many political leaders and movements throughout modern history to mention. yet Anglim’s Vedek Bareil must not be overlooked, his dignity and quiet strength of leadership serving as a potent contrast to his own bid for political power.
The first/sixth season of Star Trek: The Next Generation/Star Trek: Deep Space Nine has been its creative peak, and its ended on a story that anyone would be fully within their rights to dub the greatest in the entire franchise. But while the show’s true purpose at long last revealed to it, so too have the challenges it will have to face on the path towards living up to that potential.
The final battle for the soul of the universe is about to begin.
January 4, 2016 @ 4:54 am
far from opening up their eyes to a literal new world of possibility, those inclined towards a reactionary fundamentalist movement will, when exposed to new ways of thinking through globalization, instead dig their heels in even further and violently lash out against a perceived threat to their way of life.
Take away the overt religious dimension, and you can find this being discussed in 1967, in Jeremy Seabrook's The Unprivileged: a hundred years of family life and tradition in a working class street, quoted by Phil Sandifer near the end of The Last War in Albion's discussion of The Bojeffries Saga (Seabrook was Alan Moore's first-form French teacher), specifically in the paragraph that (in the web version) bridges Part 98: The City's Burdened, Swollen Heart and Part 99: The Storm I've Unleashed:
Seabrook returns constantly to the closed-mindedness of the area’s inhabitants, describing their hatred of abstract art as “the anger of anyone brought abruptly face to face with ideas which he has no use for, but which he finds form the very basis of someone else’s philosophy. They did not admit it willingly that anything exceeded their ability to understand, and in consequence violence had to be done to everything they encountered in order to accommodate it.” […] But for all of this, he speaks movingly of the plight of his family and neighbors, […] “shown the error and irrelevance of their faith by those who have access to greater truths, and who tear the veils from the eyes of others, veils that prove to be not veils at all, but living membranes, the removal of which leaves nothing but empty and bleeding sockets.”
January 4, 2016 @ 9:43 am
Winn is definitely my pick for the greatest villain in Star Trek. She is the antithesis of everything Trek stands for: closed-minded, self-centered, self-satisfied, opportunistic, manipulative… and yet she is never dismissed easily, never depicted as entirely, irredeemably evil in the way that Gul Dukat or the Borg are. A lot of that is down to the spectacular performance of Louise Fletcher, of course.
The one meetup between characters we never got that I most wanted was Kai Winn vs. Lwaxana Troi. The station would likely have exploded from the sheer forces of will involved.
All that said, I'm not sure Winn's fundamentalism and her materialist political ambitions are as separate as you describe them here. I think she is a master of self-deception, and quite honestly believes that her political success is a spiritual necessity, and that her spiritual beliefs justify her political actions.
February 19, 2016 @ 3:17 am
I think that Bareil's reasonableness and placidity are a plotting mistake that makes Winn seem just ridiculously evil. This subplot could be so much more interesting. Because, in our world, the targets of fundamentalism are rarely clad in virtue. Yitzhak Rabin was killed by a crazed religious fanatic, but he was still the leader of an apartheid state.
I swear this is related, so hear me out: in the game Dragon Age: Origins, the player character has to settle a succession dispute in an underground Dwarven city riven by caste-based oppression. One candidate for the throne, Bhelen, the late king's youngest son, wants equal rights for the casteless, who are the poorest of the poor, and also wants closer relations with the surface world. However, he is also politically ruthless and strongly suspected of having framed one of his older brothers for the murder of the other to position himself to inherit.
The other candidate, Pyral, is a nobleman who insists that the late King, while on his deathbed, nominated him to succeed. He appears to be the more honorable man and has no cloud of treachery about him, but he is an isolationist who wants to cut off contact with the surface, and also wishes to strengthen the brutal caste system that frequently disinherits those without means and relegates them to a ghetto.
It might be one of my favorite RPG plotlines of all time, because of how it resists easily characterizing the rivals for power. Winn vs. Bareil poses no complexity at all. It's a missed opportunity.
I liked Neela a lot, though, and wish she'd been seeded into more prior episodes, to make her role much less obvious.
February 19, 2016 @ 8:03 am
Actually, Neela was supposed to be seeded in prior episodes, as the character Anara in "The Forsaken". Sadly, the producers didn't get on with her actress, so her role was scrapped and repurposed for a new character here.