By Michael W. Harris
I really don’t know if there is a right way to start this ramble of incoherence, so I’ll just launch in.
In the reimagined Battlestar Galactica that aired from 2004-2009, there was a central question that ran throughout the show: is humanity worthy of survival? Should they be saved from the cylon onslaught that threatens their extinction? The character of William Adama sums it up in a quote from a second season episode: “It’s not enough to survive. One has to be worthy of survival.”
This quote has been rattling around my brain for a while now. With a vicious presidential election cycle, continued intolerance, mass shootings, attacks on women, partisan gridlock—and this is just in America—one has to wonder if we are worthy of survival. Be it humanity, our nation, or just our institutions. It is not enough for our country or species to continue to limp forward, trying to patch up the leaking boat in order to just keep things afloat, we must actually do something to make us “worthy of survival.”
So are we worthy?
Short answer: yes. Long answer: well, it is complicated.
In the United States, we have accomplished great things, along with some dubious honors. Our example laid the ground work for the modern nation state to emerge and spurred on a democratic revolution in Europe (and eventually elsewhere), but from that birth came the last country to abolish the slave trade—whose history we are still struggling to overcome over a century later. We live in a proudly diverse, melting pot of culture, but we also nearly wiped out an indigenous population to do so and have been blindly xenophobic to new arrivals since then, despite being “a nation of immigrants.” It took us until 1967 to decriminalize interracial marriage, until 2003 to strike down all laws criminalizing gay sex, and until last year (2015) to legalize same-sex marriage nationwide. And now we have these irrational fears around transgender people in bathrooms, calls to ban all muslim immigration (to say nothing of Hispanic immigration), climate change deniers, anti-vaxxers, and I am too emotionally exhausted to go on.
There are so many irrational beliefs that people still cling to despite every shred of evidence and study and poll that says they are wrong. Of course, this is their right as Americans to hold onto these outdated and dangerous beliefs, but when their right to be wrong interferes with other’s rights to just live and enjoy rights normally afforded to the majority of the population…then we have a problem. And “religious freedom” is not the freedom for you to tell others how they should live their life (i.e., your religion’s stance on gay marriage or abortion should not and cannot dictate the rights afforded to individuals by the country or the state, that is categorically NOT how the first amendment works!). Either get with the 21st century or just leave the rest of us to live our lives in a progressive nation.
But does this dumpster fire of an excuse for a civilization that is the current United States political and cultural discourse (not to mention many other parts of the world that have harsh penalties for gay marriage and sex, still restrict the freedoms of women, don’t have universal health care, paid maternity leave, and so on) mean that we are not worthy of survival as a country or as a people?
As much as I get depressed about mass shootings, ignorance, racism, homophobia, transphobia, islamophobia, rape culture, “boys will be boys” mentality, and certain comments by current presumptive <cough>Republican</cough> nominees for US president; no matter how mad it makes me to see some news story trickle across my Facebook feed that I feel like I want to quit social media altogether and stick my head in the sand, and no matter how much I weep for the dead, the marginalized, those denied a voice because of their ethnic heritage, sexuality, gender identification, religion, color, or one of many more possible ways we like to shove people in a box to make them seem like they matter less in our world…I still believe in our ability to do better and be better.
I just makes me incredibly angry that we consistently fail to live up to our potential as a people, nation, and species.
But if science fiction and fantasy has taught me anything, it is to hope. Even in the dark and bleak world Ronald D. Moore’s Battlestar Galactica, there was hope. In The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf said there never wasn’t much hope, “Just a fool’s hope.” It remains, though, that even in the darkness part of night, there will be another morning.
But change takes more than words of solidarity and compassion. It takes more than Facebook memes and profile photo filters. It takes action. It takes mobilization. A bill only becomes law through sustained interest and pressure on elected officials, and it takes even more effort to amend the Constitution (or repeal an amendment).
However, the potential of humanity and our country is not reason enough to say that we are worthy of survival. No, if humanity were to be put on trial for our very existence (a la Q in Star Trek: The Next Generation), we would have a very weak case if we just said that, “We can get better!” No, we have to show that future predictions are based on past performance—though even that is not a guarantee.
Even though “everything is a dumpster fire,” I do feel fine. It is times like these when I try to remember all the shocking and breathtaking beauty in the world created or preserved by humanity. From the temples of Angkor Wat to the natural wonders of our planet that we have worked so hard to preserve because we, as a people, have decided that beauties created by nature are just as important as those created by our own hands, we are capable of such wonders and appreciation for the world around us. Music, art, literature, we have created so much to uplift each other from the mundanity of the everyday, but we treat each other and our world like it was such much discarded refuse so much of the time. And the fact that the American education system seems hell bent on privileging the “STEM” fields at the expense of arts and humanities (thus undercutting our ability to actually appreciate and critically evaluate said art and beauty), well that just compounds the problem.
But I feel fine.
No matter what happens to humanity, the world will keep on spinning without us. If climate change does destroy our planet’s ability to support life and humanity vanishes, the earth, at least, will adapt and heal. And maybe the next bunch won’t screw things up so much.
Or maybe humanity will come together and actually face our problems. Other countries have figured it out, and I think Americans are starting to come around (if polling is to be trusted). But it will take us, as a country, getting over ourselves and our blind jingoism. America is NOT the greatest country in the world, we never even were. Thinking that we are/were is the wrong way to even approach things. Humanity and our planet are not zero sum games. There are no winners or losers and there does not have to be an equal number of each. There is just us, on a sphere of rock, filled with plants and animals, spinning endlessly in the dark. And in the grand scheme of things, our problems don’t amount to a hill of beans in this universe. So we need to stop believing ourselves to be so important and special that the rules of nature do not apply to us, that some magical being will somehow save us all. Even if there is a higher power, our history has shown that they only help those who help themselves. Humanity’s problems have only ever been solved by humans, and today’s challenges are no different.
So let’s start thinking long term about leaving a legacy for millennia to come instead of thinking only about ourselves. It is the only way to make us truly worthy of survival because it means we are not thinking selfishly about our own survival, but rather about the survival of all—regardless of if we agree with all of them or not. As Adama said, it is not enough merely to survive. We have to be worthy of survival.