David Grant’s excellent recent series of posts here on Social Matter regarding Star Trek have inspired me to offer my own thoughts regarding what is perhaps the most enduring and socially relevant piece of that particular mythos, and certainly the most memorable of its villains, the Borg.
Before the Borg came along, the most well-known Star Trek villains were the Klingons, who undoubtedly captured people’s attention because they reflected the American public’s fears during the height of the Cold War.
The Klingons were a barbaric, oppressive, warlike, and vaguely Asiatic race who had about them a hint of the steppes that in those days lay deep within the Marxist Soviet and Maoist Chinese empires, and from whence Genghis Khan had long ago come. Like the communists on the other side of the Iron Curtain, the Klingons lay in wait on the other side of the Neutral Zone, and like Americans of the time, the Federation lived in fear of the prospect that at any point a small provocation, or even a simple mistake, could push them over the brink into a catastrophic war.
As a stand-in for the fears of Americans during the 1960s, the Klingons were effective enough, and yet times change, and with them, fears change. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, the film that turned the Klingons from the Federation’s enemies into its allies, was released to theaters exactly twenty days before the Soviet Union was formally dissolved. It was a new age. It was the “end of history” moment – ahead lay the interconnected post-industrial digital age, the age of hegemonic globalist universalist liberalism, the age of worldwide uniculture and Davos and the Last Man – and a new monster was needed in order to resonate with its fears.
The writers of The Next Generation, who were perhaps a bit more in tune with human psychology than the none-too-subtle Roddenberry, understood that no monster is as terrifying as a monster from the id; a reflection not of any external threat (as the Klingons were), but of the monsters that we know lurk within our own souls.*
The only thing more awful than the possibility of being killed by a monster is the possibility of becoming one ourselves. To mix science fiction metaphors a bit, this is what made Luke Skywalker’s experience inside the cave in Degobah one of the most emotionally resonant scenes in the Star Wars films – there, Luke is forced to confront with the fact that within him lies the potential to share his father’s fate; to become what he became. Looking behind a monster’s mask and seeing our own face cannot help but be an existentially horrifying moment (and for Luke, it is a humbling one as well – which is what ultimately provides him with the wisdom to make the right choice during his final duel with his father). It is this which makes the Borg so existentially horrifying to postmodern man.
If the Klingons frightened us because, in their brutishness, they represented outside forces aligned against everything in which we believe, then the Borg frighten us for completely opposite reasons. It is no secret that the Federation represents the universalist, egalitarian liberal’s dream – a reflection of how they perceive themselves and the future that they work towards building. Yet the Borg represent the nightmare version of the very same dream. They are a vision of our own values gone somehow terribly wrong; the nagging voice inside of us that won’t stop asking if the nightmare is perhaps much closer to real life than the dream.
On paper, the Federation and the Borg are in many ways indistinguishable from each other, varying not in what they wish to accomplish, but only in how they go about it. As with the Federation, there is among the Borg no homelessness, no hunger, no crime, no religious or philosophical dispute, no internal conflict or war, no lack of medical care, no income inequality or classism, no racism, no sexism, and no privilege. In fact, in some senses it may be said that the Borg collective’s take on equality and universalism is superior to that of the Federation. There is total access to knowledge, total empathy, and total brotherhood – all Borg are connected to the entirety of the hive mind’s knowledge, and to each other’s thoughts.
With the sole exception of the Borg Queen (whose addition, while understandable in order to give them a touch of dramatic personality, ultimately detracted from the effectiveness of their mythos), there is no hierarchy at all among the Borg. All Borg drones are equal and interchangeable – none are valued any more or less highly than any other (and of course they are all equally expendable, but mechanical interchangeability and denial of individuality are inescapable parts of the package of equality). On paper, the Borg live in a perfect egalitarian paradise, and they should be welcomed as saviors by any people who struggle with poverty, inequality, and war.
But of course they aren’t. Why not? Just as many a high school teacher has, after having assigned their students to read Brave New World, challenged them to say what exactly is wrong with the society it depicts, let us ask ourselves: Why is it that we are instinctively repelled by the Borg?
The answer is that unlike the Federation (but much more realistically), the Borg display all of the negative attributes which history has taught us that we can expect from liberalism, especially in its ultimate form: global, radical egalitarianism.
There is the same arrogance and ruthlessness (well-portrayed, it must be said, in the person of the aforementioned Borg Queen). There is the same sense that they are on the right side of history – that the victory of their ways is inevitable, and that the future is theirs. There is the same penchant for heavy-handed “for your own good” tyranny (which the left inevitably puts on display as soon as they feel secure in their power); the same forced collectivism and sense of an entitlement to impose their ways on others by any means necessary. There is the same claim – that they are creating a diverse society by adding other peoples’ distinctiveness to their own – being used as a mask for destroying distinctiveness and imposing universal monoculture, and the same disregard for the faiths, beliefs, and traditions that are destroyed in the process.
It is no great challenge to the imagination to look at the spread of globalist “Last Man” values around the world, and to hear a voice saying: We are the liberals. You will adopt our form of government, our philosophy, our cultural norms, our morals, our sexual practices, our attitudes toward religious faith, our materialist and consumerist lifestyles, our idea of proper relations between the sexes and between parents and children, and even our assessment of the value of human life. You will dress like us, eat like us, work like us, play like us, be educated like us, listen to the music and watch the movies we create, buy the products that we make (or at least, have made for us in Chinese factories), and communicate with each other through channels we control (like Facebook and Instagram).
However, in order to keep up the appearance that we are not in fact the greatest cultural imperialists that mankind has ever seen, once or twice a year at some colorful festival (no doubt heavily attended by tourists from San Francisco and New York, all busily uploading pictures of the proceedings onto Instagram from their iPhones), we’ll allow you to put on “native costumes” (so long as they do not offend our sensibilities too badly) and LARP as your own ancestors, as if you still lived in the same culture as they did. Resistance is futile. If you don’t believe us, count up all the “color revolutions” that have been ginned up around the world by oddly resource-rich “private” NGOs like the Soros Foundation. Or just check out what your kids (in the event that you have any) are up to on their iPhones.
And it is in this awful vision that any native of a globalist, postmodern liberal society – and especially Americans – must come face to face with a horrifying realization:
We are the Borg.
And yet, even here in the heart of Borg space, there are a few of us left that have not been completely assimilated. What is the lesson to be learned for us?
The Borg debuted in an episode of The Next Generation titled “Q Who.” In it, the powerful alien known as Q, bothered by what he sees as Captain Picard’s overconfidence, throws the Enterprise into the path of a Borg cube in order to try to teach him a few important lessons. Among these: there are some things that cannot be negotiated with, that are not interested in your diplomacy, that want nothing you can offer them except total submission, that are irredeemable, that cannot be shown mercy, and that leave you with no option but to destroy them utterly or be destroyed by them utterly.
After many failed attempts to avoid this reality, by the time of First Contact, Picard has come to accept it, and has taken to dealing with the Borg in the only manner in which they can be dealt – by doing cold-blooded murder upon them with whatever weapon may be available, no matter how crude and brutal his society may consider it to be.
Let me be clear – by this I do not mean to advocate doing violence to random individuals – as we have seen again and again, this accomplishes nothing. Drones are expendable, and losing a few here or there has no real effect on the collective. No, we must think more comprehensively. To mix sci-fi metaphors again, as Morpheus once told Neo while guiding him through the Matrix, what we are fighting is a system. That system must be destroyed with maximum ruthlessness – we should not make the mistake of trying to negotiate or be diplomatic with it (for it never negotiates in good faith or keeps its promises), bribe or appease it (for it wants nothing but our total submission), redeem it (for it is pure evil, and cannot be redeemed), show it mercy (for it is only ever either at your feet or at your throat), or stop until it is destroyed utterly (for only then will we be finally free of it).
We shall engage the Borg. We shall show them that they are wrong about resistance, and about inevitability, and about a great many things.
But above all, we will show them that even at the height of their power, they are not all-conquering. We know this, because they have not assimilated us – we know this, because we are not them.
(P.S. Yes, the original Star Trek series brought us the “Mirror Universe”, but that was never a convincing monster from the id, because its premise was “what if the federation believed the exact opposite of what it actually believes?” Yet, an emotionally effective monster from the id isn’t the opposite of you; it is, and to be convincing must be, not a negation of yourself, but an alternate, plausible, “what-if?”, “there but for the Grace of God go I” version of you.)