J. S. Mill, the Prime Directive, and the Theory of Moral Intervention

John Stuart Mill [left] and Jean-Luc Picard [right, drawing by gerardtorbitt]

This is the penultimate post of our five-week roundtable on science fiction and imperial history, co-edited by Marc-William Palen and Rachel Herrmann. You can read our call for posts here, and the other posts in the series here, here, here, here, herehere, and here. We look forward to hearing your thoughts!

“No starship may interfere with the normal development of any alien life or society.”

— Prime Directive (United Federation of Planets General Order 1)

“The Prime Directive is not just a set of rules; it is a philosophy…and a very correct one. History has proven again and again that whenever mankind interferes with a less developed civilization, no matter how well intentioned that interference may be, the results are invariably disastrous.” – Capt. Jean-Luc Picard

The Victorian political philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-1973) and Star Trek’s far-future United Federation of Planets (the Federation) differ substantially on the colonial question. In particular, Mill the Victorian liberal imperialist thought that it was the duty of the British to help “civilize” less developed states through colonialism. Within his stages of civilization, Mill regarded underdeveloped states like India to be backwards and in need of benign British despotism, which was “a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end.”[1]

Although Star Trek‘s Federation may share some similar Victorian-era ideas about imperial power structures and civilizational stages, by contrast it has strict rules about not attempting to “civilize” or colonize “backward” societies. It is enshrined in their Prime Directive, which was first introduced in the Original Series (1966-69) as a none-too-subtle anti-imperial rebuke of the US war in Vietnam.[2]

However, despite their glaring differences on colonialism as civilizing mission, J. S. Mill and the Federation do see eye-to-eye when deciding whether it is morally justifiable to intervene in foreign conflicts. Continue reading “J. S. Mill, the Prime Directive, and the Theory of Moral Intervention”

The Threat of Cannibalism and Wakanda’s Place in the World

This is the newest post in our third week of our roundtable on science fiction and imperial history, co-edited by Marc-William Palen and Rachel Herrmann. You can read our call for posts here, and the other posts in the series here, here, here, here, and here. Posts will run twice a week until the second week in July. We look forward to hearing your thoughts!

Rachel B. Herrmann
Cardiff University

At a crucial point in the 2018 Marvel blockbuster Black Panther, geopolitical relationships are in flux. (Warning: spoilers) Erik Killmonger, the film’s main antagonist, has defeated King T’Challa (Black Panther). Left for dead, he is secretly taken to the Jabari stronghold in the mountains. T’Challa’s mother Ramonda, Queen Mother of Wakanda, his sister Shuri, Nakia, T’Challa’s ex and War Dog, and Everett Ross, a white CIA operative, have fled from Killmonger’s oppressive new reign and seek aid from M’Baku, leader of the Jabari. Once there, Ross attempts to speak to M’Baku to inquire about next steps. He is immediately silenced as the Jabari start barking at him. “You cannot talk,” says M’baku. “One more word and I’ll feed you to my children.” There is a tense silence, before M’baku breaks out laughing. “I am kidding; we are vegetarians.”[1]

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The threat of cannibalism works here on three levels in this Afrofuturist movie that blurs the line between the genres of science fiction and superhero films.[2]

First, it ensures Ross’s silence. Later in the scene, a revived T’Challa will ask M’Baku for the support of his army, which M’Baku refuses. This opening meeting, then, is a diplomatic negotiation between two men, one of whom once headed a four-alliance pact and the leader of the fifth tribe that refused to enter that alliance (and who later challenged T’Challa’s right to rule). Ross represents the white colonizer, whose intervention is inappropriate and irrelevant.

Second and relatedly, this scene works to reminder viewers that the character of T’Challa was imagined by white artists Stan Lee and Jack Kirby; as Sheena Howard argues, “white people created this character . . . gatekeeping our Black imagination and negotiating our sense of escapism from the real world.”[3] The moment suggests that behind the Black Panther cannon is a long history that has been mediated by white writers and artists for white consumers.

Third and most important here, the threat of cannibalism invokes the history of slavery and imperialism that undergird the history and rationale for Wakanda’s place as an isolationist country in the era during and after the transatlantic slave trade. Continue reading “The Threat of Cannibalism and Wakanda’s Place in the World”