atomic_fungus (atomic_fungus) wrote,

#650: Ferengi

This is a long-standing gripe of mine.

When Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) came out, they needed a new race of villains, because the Klingons were part of the Federation. Roddenberry came up with the Ferengi, and the episode that introduced them made sure to tie them and their behavior to Americans.

At first they were cardboard villains. I realize I'm committing a major heresy here but by the time TNG hit the airwaves, Roddenberry was no longer any good at writing. The only reasons TNG survived its first season were a) that it was the only SF show on TV at the time, and b) it was freaking Star Trek for God's sake.

The prime movtivation of the Ferengi is profit--money, filthy lucre. They want to make profit. That made them lower than the low, the scum of the spaceways.

But all of that is fine. I expect Hollywood to treat people who want money as villains; that stereotype was established thousands of years ago and it'll never go away. (The fact that everyone wants money notwithstanding.)

When Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (DS9) came about a few years later, one of the series' core character was a Ferengi named (gack) "Quark", and the Ferengi culture actually began to get filled out. The Rules of Aquisition were invented, and we even had whole episodes dedicated to Quark, his brother, and the workings of Ferengi society...and it was fascinating. Not only that, but it was really well-done and highly detailed.

What bothered me about DS9 was how Starfleet personnel treated Quark.

They always treated him with contempt: how dare he be interested in making money?

And the problem only got worse the more we saw of Ferengi culture. It's not just Quark being a money-grubbing capitalist swine; he comes from a culture in which (for example) your corpse is auctioned off to the highest bidder, and the money becomes part of your estate. Ferengi culture is built around the concept that profit is moral; altrusim is immoral and possibly perverted, and definitely illegal according to the Rules of Acquisition!

Contrast that with Starfleet. The rest of the ST universe (except for Romulans, Klingons, the Q, and the Borg) is a socialist utopia which doesn't use money and has eliminated crime, poverty, disease, etc, etc. And of course the United Federation of Planets (UFP) is so egalitarian and open-minded and isn't judgemental about the workings of any culture--even ones that practice euthanasia on perfectly healthy people who reach a certain age.

But that Quark, man, he's beneath contempt. He's trying to make money.

Ergo, Starfleet is a bunch of hypocrites.

"Eh? How'd you get from...."


1) All cultures are equally valid and we don't have the right to judge anyone.
2) ...except Ferengi, who are evil because their culture is built around profit.

In other words, as long as you share the Federation's altruistic ideal, you're okay. But if you come from a society which thinks altrusim is evil, well, obviously you're a skunk.

Yeah, I know the Ferengi are not part of the Federation. But we've seen plenty of examples of how Starfleet personnel deal with worlds and cultures which aren't part of the Federation; it's not because the Ferengi are not members of the same club.

Starfleet is built around basic human rights (what we in the US in the 20th and early 21st century think of as basic human rights, that is) and a classic liberal/libertarian philosophy: you're fine doing whatever the hell you want to do, as long as it doesn't hurt anyone else.

"Ah!" You say. "There you have it. Quark is trying to harm others, financially, by cheating them."

But Starfleet has made plenty of exceptions to that rule. My favorite example is the episode I referred to above, where Lwxana Troi fell in love with a guy from a culture which euthanizes everyone (even productive, healthy people) who reach the age of 60. Starfleet will protect anyone who requests asylum but no one is critical of that culture, which forces people to commit suicide even if they don't want to. Making someone kill himself is, I think, a little worse than trying to cheat someone out of money. Yet that culture is perfectly okay with everybody, apparently.

But that Quark, man, he tried to make money. Fuck him.

But that society--it was a society which expected that guy to kill himself. He was from that world and that's how they work! It was immoral for him to try to stay alive.

Quark is from a society where you are expected to earn a profit. It would be immoral for Quark to be altruistic.

The point I am trying to make here is that Starfleet accepts any kind of behavior from anyone in the universe, no matter who and where they are...unless they are Ferengi.

The way Klingons have sex, we call that "domestic violence" and possibly "rape", but it's okay. They're Klingons! I remember one episode (DS9) where Dr. Bashir was treating Jadzia Dax for multiple bruises and abrasions after she and Worf had some "adult fun".

But those Ferengi, man....

I find it interesting that Starfleet can hold its nose, so to speak, and tolerate all kinds of behavior from all kinds of races in the name of "peace" and "equality"--and congratulate itself on how open-minded it is--and then look down its nose at one race who really does think differently than they do about something.

ST never really dealt with that issue very much, to be honest. The stated template for a society which is "advanced" enough to join the Federation is one which has developed warp drive--interstellar capability is seen as the point at which a society should be allowed in. No other criteria are mentioned.

Yet the unspoken rule (among the writing staff, I mean) is that a world capable of interstellar travel has already become "enlightened" to the point of doing away with slavery, sickness, poverty, racism, sexism, bigotry, religion, and money. The Ferengi presented the first real test case for the writers of the ST franchise, and they failed it.

How would the Federation deal with an otherwise peaceful culture which kept slaves? How would it deal with a culture which was racist? We've seen examples of how they treat religion already--not well--but they tread very carefully around that one, not like with Quark and profit.

The main issue I have here is that Starfleet is prejudiced. They say they are not, that the Prime Directive precludes it--but they are.

Their prejudices are much the same as my own, I admit; I don't like racism, sexism, slavery, poverty, famine, disease, etc, any more than they do. But it means that Starfleet is not as egalitarian and accepting as they profess to be.

Look, if euthanasia of healthy people over a certain age is moral, why is profit immoral? If you accept the former, I fail to understand why you can't accept the latter.

Except, of course, for the Hollywood prejudice that people who want to make money are bad.

"How would the Federation deal with an otherwise peaceful culture which kept slaves?" Well, the TV show would present it as Starfleet personnel being taken captive and sold, which would preclude dealing lightly with it. The writers would never write a show in which Captain Picard (or whoever) couldn't do anything about the slavers! Certainly they would never write an episode where the slavers were allowed to go right on keeping slaves without being punished in one way or another.

Recall the heavy-handed first season episode about the drug addicts? The one which might as well have had big flashing banners on the screen "HERE IS THE MESSAGE!"? That is how a slaver episode would turn out. Even if the Prime Directive kept the Captain from doing anything, the values of the Left Coast would win out.

And so Starfleet isn't about "live and let live". It's "as long as you agree with us, you're okay, but if you don't, you're evil".

If Starfleet really believed that all cultures were equally valid, as they profess, then Quark's profit motive wouldn't elicit such revulsion from the other characters in the series. People might roll their eyes, but they would then say, "Well, he's Ferengi; what do you expect?"

Of course, that is racism.

My point is: you either practice moral relavatism--in which case anything goes, including making a buck--or you don't, in which case there have to be limits to all sorts of behavior...including forced euthanasia, to pick on my favorite example again.

What you don't get to do is say, "Everything is okay except making a buck."

If Quark had been human, it would have been a whole other ball of wax. The core of the issue is that Quark is a highly moral person--for a Ferengi; but if the character had been human, he would have been a skunk and he would have deserved the treatment he got from the other characters.

Okay, Quark is not very cosmopolitan: he acts like he's home on Ferengenar, not out among humans and bajorans and klingons and stuff. But the Ferengi have shown they are not, as a rule, very cosmopolitan, either. This may make them rude; it does not make them evil.

In a real society--or even a proper hard SF society, which ST is not--I don't expect it would be an issue. But ST is a TV show; and TV shows are written against a certain template of predjudices.

I can liken Quark's treatment to what happened to Major Winchester in an episode of M*A*S*H*. The Army was changing the scrip it used in place of currency; the old stuff would be worthless after a certain date. The base (the 4077th) would be closed while the exchange was taking place, so Koreans couldn't exchange their scrip for the new stuff.

Winchester came up with a deal where he bought it from them for American cash, giving them some fraction of the old stuff's vaule in new scrip. He had people lined up to make the exchange. He planned to turn in the old scrip for new scrip and turn a tidy profit.

As I recall--it's been a long, long time since I watched any episode of that series; since the series finale ran, in fact--Hawkeye and what's-his-face, Trapper John's replacement, consipired to make sure Winchester missed the deadline for getting back onto the base, so he was locked outside, rendering all the old scrip he'd bought worthless. Ha ha, we screwed the guy who was trying to make a profit! Aren't we funny and clever?

That's how it was on DS9; characters actively took measures to--and pleasure in--defeating Quark's attempts to make profit. The same characters who would have screamed bloody murder if someone had tried to thwart their attempts to hold up their own ideals.

Remember Kira Nerys? How much she hated the Cardassians, partly because they screwed with her religion? That religion, the "spirituality" of the Bajorans (which is a whole 'nother screed, let me tell you) was the central pillar of their society, as "profit" was the central pillar of Quark's. See what I'm driving at?

In the end, it was really a moderate-to-minor flaw in an otherwise excellent show. DS9 started off reasonably well and had a great finish.

But surprised by it, I was not--the Federation and Starfleet have always been socialist utopias, not an attempt to come up with realistic futuristic societies. There is no place in a socialist utopia for heretics; either you agree with it or you are an enemy of it.

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