Monday, April 6, 2009

Is lee Adama the new Thomas Jefferson?

Is Lee Adama the new (and not so improved) Thomas Jefferson? – thoughts on the Battlestar Galactica finale

Frederick Jameson, the Marxist literary critic, argues that pop culture consistently provides us with interesting rich alternatives to the status quo and then in the end rejects them. We can escape into alternate (even at times radical) possibilities without actually having to challenge our own cultural system. Because of pop culture we can go to Oz while simultaneously renewing our commitment to not leave Kansas.

I know I wasn’t alone in hoping that Battlestar Galactica was going to break that pattern. Throughout the past 4 seasons they’ve consistently raised rigorous questions about the nature of humanity, the role of government, the importance of community, the definition of family, and the correct relationship between humans and technology. I had faith that they were going to resolve these questions in the only way possible – by not resolving them at all but instead forcing us to continue to grapple with them alone. They weren’t going to raise questions and then give us pat answers, I insisted. Frederick Jameson was one smart cookie but he was wrong about battlestar galactica.

But sadly, Jameson was right once again because Ron Moore gave us some really pat answers. He retreated to an old but faithful amalgam – the purity of nature, monotheism, the sanctity of traditional hetero families, and, yikes, colonial expansion. Yes, in the last 5 minutes in Times Square Ron Moore gives us some ongoing questions to grapple with, but let’s face it, those 5 minutes feel like a tag-on. The real ending is the line of survivors spreading out over the green “unpopulated” landscape of earth. Ron Moore took us from Caprica to space to New Caprica to Earth I and then finally right back into our good old American classic colonial narrative. Lee Adama went from being a disgruntled viper jock with daddy issues to president of the colonies to…well, Thomas Jefferson.

Thomas Jefferson believed that America’s destiny was not to be a capitalist superpower, but instead to be a nation of small yeoman farmers committed to subsistence and sustainability. TJ believed emphatically that Europe was corrupt because of lack of space. There wasn’t enough land and there weren’t enough resources and so people lived on top of each in cities. These cities bred inequality, class conflict, and corruption. America would be different because the land functioned as a safety valve – we could all stay out of each other’s hair. The only way America could avoid becoming like Europe (corrupt) was to keep spreading out across the abundant landscape. That’s why he negotiated the Louisiana Purchase during his presidency and maneuvered the displacement of Native Americans. He admired the noble savage (uncorrupted by cities) but he admired him from a distance. In reality he had to go or he had to whiten up quick. Either way he had to stop hunter gathering because he wasn’t being productive enough. That land had to be put to USE. Additionally Jefferson (and Madison) believed that expansion was necessary for democracy to thrive. People close together had conflicted interests and couldn’t maintain the necessary distance and objectivity to vote for the common good. Democracy with a messy group of non-homogenous people with conflicting interests just seemed impossible to TJ. Impossible and unrealistic. And in the end Lee and Papa Adama agree.

I get the appeal of the Jeffersonian yeoman farmer. Honestly, I do. My whole family lives in Vermont for chrissakes and cans all of their vegetables. And out of the pantheon of slave-holding founding fathers Jefferson’s definitely my fave. As much as I can critique his utopian vision he does have a nascent critique of capitalism that I appreciate. And if Jefferson’s utopian vision had taken place on an otherwise uninhabited continent I might have been really into it. But the thing is, it didn’t. And so Jefferson developed two tactics to make it uninhabited. Here are some clips from his 1803 secret address to congress about the good old Indian problem:

In order peaceably to counteract this policy of theirs and to provide an extension of territory which the rapid increase of our numbers will call for, two measures are deemed expedient.
First[:] To encourage them to abandon hunting, to apply to the raising [of] [live]stock, to
agriculture, and domestic manufacture, and thereby prove to themselves that less land and labor will maintain them in this better than in their former mode of living. The extensive forests necessary in the hunting life will then become useless, and they will see advantage in exchanging them for the means of improving their farms and of increasing their domestic comforts.
[4] Secondly[:] To multiply trading houses among them, and place within their reach those things which will contribute more to their domestic comfort than the possession of extensive but uncultivated wilds. Experience and reflection will develop to them the wisdom of exchanging what they can spare and we want for what we can spare and they want. In leading them thus to agriculture, to manufactures, and civilization[,] in bringing together their and our sentiments, and in preparing them ultimately to participate in the benefits of our Government, I trust and believe we are acting for their greatest good.

So in other words they had to be coerced into giving up their hunting rights to land and become assimilated farmers. This was because farming was more enlightened – “it’s for their greatest good,” and because Jefferson needed that hunting land for white farmers. And those Indians just weren’t making productive USE of it.

Okay so now let’s compare to Battlestar. What is it that Lee says to Papa Adama? Oh right, I remember, “we can give them the best of our civilization.” We can give them language, Lee states explicitly, and implies, we can also give them some of our ideas like democracy, etc. Once Lee gets back from climbing mountains just because they’re there, he can teach these pre-lingual benighted natives civics. And Baltar can teach them how to grow food, even though quite frankly being a hunter gatherer is a more efficient use of time and resources.(Over the past few decades historians and archeologists have concluded that hunter gatherers actually lived quite well). It’s the perfect Jeffersonian fantasy. The colonials (aptly named) get to be purified by the landscape and the simple primitive noble savages, and they get to uplift and improve them at the same time.

The most chilling moment in the finale is when five white men hiding behind a hillock look at a group of black ‘natives’ and express surprise and delight at their shared humanity. “Hard to believe it” Papa Adama tells us. That’s how the early missionaries felt when they landed in Africa. The Africans and the Europeans would spend hours at first just staring at each other in awe, and stroking each other’s faces. And then, the white folks would get to work teaching everybody how to farm, become Christians, and take on western gender roles.

Oh and that brings me to my last point – gender. The best part of Battlestar Galactica I always thought was not just the unconventional gender roles, but the unconventional family structures, the abundance of meaningful but socially undefined relationships. The primary love affair in many ways is the romantic friendship between Bill Adama and Saul Tigh. Kara and Lee’s relationship also anchors the series and yet it’s almost impossible to define – are they siblings? Are they lovers? Are they friends? Are they competitors? Once the colonials and their cylon companions land on Earth II the only relationships that survive and are meaningful are heterosexual couplings. Bill chooses to live alone after Laura dies even though he has a son and a best friend who are still alive. Bill and Saul don’t even get to say goodbye to each other, their relationship is almost forgotten. The only reason Bill says goodbye to Kara is that she is his “daughter,” a conventional relationship that can be validated. Ellen Tigh wins after all – she gets to live out the rest of her days coupled exclusively with Saul without that pesky friendship with Bill getting in the way. In the end even the most unconventional character, Kara, expresses loyalty to the husband that she never seemed to love and refused to divorce for obscure religious reasons I never understood. She barely says goodbye to Lee because their relationship is far too complicated to make sense in the new simplified utopia, but she tells Sam that she loves him and we’re left to believe they will meet “on the other side” in some Battlestar version of heaven. And the Chief (oh poor sweet Galen) abandons the child that he raised for three years because they’re not genetically related anymore. So what happened to all of those complicated and undefined pilot relationships? Those multiple forms of loyalty and affection that made the community of the fleet so revolutionary? Apparently there’s only room for one kind of relationship in the new world order, and that’s hetero couplings. Once again Frederick Jameson rears his ugly head. Throughout the series we got to flirt with these unprescribed complicated unscripted forms of relationship, but once the story ends we’re right back to mom and dad and the half cylon child.

So let’s summarize. A group of mostly white people called the colonists land right in the heart of the “dark continent.” They encounter a group of black natives who they simultaneously dismiss as pre-lingual and primitive and admire for their blank slate purity. They decide to bring these natives the “best” of their civilization. In Lee’s case that’s language and I guess democracy. In Gauis’s case it’s cultivation and his notion of the one god because, let’s face it, if Lee is the new TJ, Gauis is the new British missionary. This finale manages to replicate the western United States and British Africa all in one! The only explicit difference is that the Battlestar crew explicitly states their intention to interbreed with the natives, while the British and the Americans did it on the sly.

And so I’ve officially declared the last half of the season null and void. For me Battlestar ended exactly where it should have, with the discovery of the destroyed remnants of the original earth. My last image of Battlestar Galactica is a group of humans and cylons walking around a devastated planet forced to face each other without the comfort of their mythical utopian ending. Because in the end the really radical solution isn’t a new utopia, it isn’t starting over, it’s figuring out how to live with the people around us.