Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Rhetoric of Babylon 5

As anyone who has watched Babylon 5 knows, as the plot moves along, the heroes encounter two overriding philosophies, which are truly only ever explained by the fundamental questions of their respective civilizations. The Vorlons, which represented order, asked the question, "Who are you?" The Shadows asked, "What do you want?" The third voice, which was represented only by the first One - the only being who remained behind and served as the God figure for the others asked, "Do you have anything worth living for?"

Up until near the end of the Shadow War, the Vorlons were believed to be the force of good in the conflict. "Who are you" Was a rhetorical question that they intended to use as a means to get people to examine the trappings of identity and see themselves as the true beings they are. According to the show creator, Joe Michael Straczynski, the intention is not to solicit a "correct" answer, but to "tear down the artifices we construct around ourselves until we're left facing ourselves, not our roles." Identity creates division, so casting it aside exposes the core of what lies beneath. This seems to be at least partially influenced by several eastern religions, such as Taoism, Jainism, and Buddhism, which emphasize non-attachment to material things, non-action, and acceptance. Indeed, in the real world, most dominant Eastern religions are considered peaceful even while they often tend to exist alongside totalitarian regimes that oppress their own people. As it turns out, the Vorlons were not the good guys, but were instead the predominant authoritarians.

The Shadows, by contrast, practiced an ideology of chaos. Their question, "What do you want?" illustrates that they use personal desire to shape identity. This was presented as disharmonious, destructive, and ultimately less than ideal, which is why the younger races were forced to struggle against them time and time again. The comparison that JMS seems to be making, but he never comes out and says, is that the philosophy of the Shadows is analogous to capitalism in the United States. In the US, lives are shaped by greed. Those with wealth desire more wealth, those with some wealth also desire more wealth, and coincidentally, the poor struggle for more wealth. Even while those who have live lives of comfort and privilege that most can only dream of, those with wealth and power desire the acquisition of wealth to the point where they are willing to circumvent common sense for personal gain. It is for this reason that the world is now faced with a deep recession or possibly even a depression. Greed is the great evil of the United States, causing it to cannibalize itself until there's nothing left. In an ironic twist, one of the most conservative presidents of the past hundred years is now forced to implement some of the most socialist measures to keep the entire economy from collapsing.

The final questions come from Lorien, who describes himself as the first one. "Do you have anything worth living for?" This was actually the question asked of Sheridan as he stood on the threshold between life and death following his attempted self sacrifice, and his question was eventually refined to two questions, "Why are you here," and "Where are you going?" For now, we'll only examine the original. "What do you have to live for?" is a far more powerful question than "Do you have anything worth dying for?" People die in wars, and for causes, and for loved ones. They do it all the time, all around the world in conflicts that are often horrible and quickly forgotten. Alternatively, asking what you have to live for asks what work to you have left undone? When asked this question, Sheridan ultimately answered Delenn, who was the Minbari ambassador to Babylon 5. This answer initially created puzzlement. The romantic relationship between Sheridan and Delenn had only been hinted at up to that point, but what they were doing was spearheading the war. It wasn't just the love they had for each other that was important, but the work that they were doing together. When stripped of all of the possible considerations, his answer was love, not just for Delenn, not just for humans, or Minbaris, but for all interstellar races - universal love.

While the Shadow War was happening, President Clark was busy transforming Earth into a totalitarian state. By advancing the politics of division and fear, he was able to assert absolute control over the society he led. At the time, the best historical figure to compare him to was Hitler, though just a couple years after the end of Babylon 5, President Bush rose to power and advanced a very divisive agenda that othered Democrats, Arabs, and even our allies in the United Nations. Bush is a far better example of the problems JMS warned about than Hitler, not because he used ideology, lies, and the media to secure his own power as a demagogue, but because ultimately it was the conscience of his own people that overthrew him. It was the love of others rather than the fear of them that ultimately led to the popular demise of their divisive ideologies.

Finally, the ascension of G'Kar as a prominent religious leader demonstrates the ultimate example of a transformation of love. G'Kar was a Narn, a member of a warlike race that had only recently won its independence from Centauri occupation. When we first see him, he is bitter, nationalistic, hateful towards the Centauri, and distrustful towards the other races. Throughout the series, he undergoes a trial at the hands of his enemies. His homeworld is once again conquered, with the help of the Shadows. He leads those of his people who escaped re-enslavement from Babylon 5 for a time, but is ultimately captured, tortured, made to amuse the Centauri emperor, at whose hands he is mocked and disfigured when they removed one of his eyes. When G'Kar emerges from his trial, he is no longer a figure who stands for nationalism, but instead universal love. He is a warrior philosopher who counts among his friends those who he once hated. In a final display of enlightenment, rather than allow his own people to turn him into a demagogue, he leaves for the outer rim, which is a metaphor for the frontier, often associated with death.

The message JMS promotes with Babylon 5 is, knowingly or not, an interpretation of Kenneth Burke's "A Rhetoric of Motives," and he suggests that the solution to the problems of the world is love of everyone. According to Robert Eddie, Director of Composition at Washington State University, love is a form of mysticism - which is itself an overwhelming feeling of connectedness with all people, and things.

When seeking the true underlying message of the multilayered plot JMS has constructed with Babylon 5, and to quote John Lennon, "Love is the answer." The welfare of the community is more important than the welfare of the individual.

1 comment:

Louis Porter Jr. said...

Being a huge B5 fan, I find this to be very interesting and insightful. Please do more like this.