Let’s compare and contrast two of my favorite TV shows: Star Trek and My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.
Star Trek is supposed to be about a desirable utopia. My Little Pony is supposed to be a celebration of friendship. The ironic thing is that each succeeds better on the other’s turf. Star Trek‘s utopia is boring and stupid; it succeeds above all as a buddy show. The friendships between Kirk, Spock, and McCoy are distinct and all memorable. On the other hand, although each of the main characters in My Little Pony has a distinct (albeit in some cases one dimensional) personality, none of their relationships strike me as particularly interesting or even particularly distinct from any other. But Equestria is more interesting than the Federation, because Star Trek limits itself to the myth of Progress while My Little Pony taps into much deeper political myths, as we’ll see.
Both are conservative shows, in the narrow sense of that term. The protagonists are defenders of an established order, not plucky rebels. (I hate plucky rebels.) Threats are largely conceived as external. The Federation is threatened by rival empires: the Klingons, the Romulans, the Cardassians. Equestria is threatened by ancient forces defeated but not destroyed by Princess Celestia a millennium or more ago: Nightmare Moon, Discord, the “ancient villains” imprisoned in Tartarus. Star Trek villainy feels like geopolitics; the more memorable My Little Pony villains have a more numinous feel–the primordial chaos rising again against the order of the world.
Both are about multiracial or even multi-species states. The Federation is comprised of the inhabitants of hundreds of worlds. Equestria includes three distinct pony races: the earth ponies, pegasi (with wings), and unicorns (with magic horns). There are two models for maintaining diverse groups like this in a single state. In the segregation model, each group maintains its own communities and lives mostly apart from others. This is basically how the Federation works. In the caste model, different groups perform different economic tasks; the groups are more interdependent and must interact more, but their distinct roles keep them separate. This is basically how Equestria works, although individual towns may be either mixed (like Ponyville) or homogeneous (like Cloudsdale).
But how can such a state be ruled? There must be some universal class standing above the individual subject peoples.
The Federation is ruled by a military oligarchy called “Starfleet Command”. This rule is, like political power in any liberal order, unacknowledged and therefore all the less accountable. The first level of obfuscation is Starfleet’s claim that it’s primary role is exploration, and its starships are armed to the teeth only because exploration is dangerous and, oh, by the way, because of its secondary role (which seems to take up much more of the Enterprise’s time) of Federation defense and negotiating with border peoples while carrying a big stick. This doesn’t fly with me. If being the military is one of your roles, you are the military. Second, there may or may not be some nominal civilian oversight to Starfleet, but it clearly doesn’t amount to much, because we see Starfleet officers making decisions that effectively decide matters of war or peace without any outside input. Starfleet Command must often be consulted, but if Starfleet itself is constrained, I don’t remember it ever coming up. In any case, taking away the locally-handled internal affairs of worlds and defense/diplomacy/exploration (all handled by Starfleet), there wouldn’t be much for any other governing body to do. Even if there was, it would probably end up in Starfleet’s hands, because they’ve got all the best personnel (even Wesley Crusher failed to get into the Academy his first time, the competition is so fierce) and an efficient authoritarian structure for getting things done. Starfleet is effectively the universal class that rules the Federation.
Equestria is a monarchy possessing a very small aristocratic class, the Alicorn ponies. Alicorns have both horns and wings, making them a plausibly universal class able to represent all ponies. Alicorns are accorded the title “princess” and automatically have some degree of authority. Ultimate authority is held by Princess Celestia, with secondary power held by her sister and co-ruler Princess Luna. The authority of the monarchs is openly acknowledged. One of the charms of My Little Pony is that Celestia isn’t shy about referring to the other ponies as her “subjects”. On the other hand, the nature of Alicorns is something of an open political fiction: they’re clearly unicorns with wings, not pegasi with horns. The function of the two sisters, controlling the sun and moon, is a distinctly unicorn function. One of the four Alicorns (at least, I only know of four), Twilight Sparkle, was a unicorn before being transformed into a princess while remaining manifestly the same pony. Despite Twilight’s popularity, the implications of this would have been explosive if it didn’t just confirm something everyone already knew. In any case, pegasus and Earth ponies seem to have no reason to complain about Alicorn rule. As often happens, it’s the group from whom rulers are taken, the unicorns, who have been most diminished, having lost one of their most important roles of controlling the celestial bodies.
How did these states form?
Because I refuse to accept Star Trek: Enterprise as canonical, I can say little about the origins of the Federation. We know that in the mid-1990s, World War III, the Eugenics Wars, left humanity desolated. Decades of weak states and poverty seem to have passed before Zefram Cochrane invented the warp drive, prompting first contact with the Vulcans. We are led to believe that the Federation ultimately grew out of these human-Vulcan interactions. How Earth became the senior partner is unexplained. Earth was rebuilt; socialism was tried again, and unlike every other time it’s been tried, this time it worked!
Originally, the ponies were divided into three hostile but interdependent “tribes”. Equestria originated as a social compact between tribes to form a single political order. This original state doesn’t seem to have lasted long. The next thing we know, Equestria was a formless chaos ruled by the mischievous creature Discord. Discord was defeated and order re-established by the sisters Celestia and Luna, who set themselves up as rulers of the restored kingdom. This is such a perfect political myth–the connection so beautifully made between the establishment of monarchy and a standard myth of creation, of order imposed on chaos–one might have suspected it was entirely symbolic, except that Discord himself comes back to life in season 2. The sisters’ power was now secure, so naturally they soon took to quarreling amongst themselves. Eventually, Luna tried to kill Celestia and was banished to the moon, inaugurating Princess Celestia’s one thousand years of undivided rule.
Do I suggest any lessons for our own multiracial, multicultural future? No. This is a post about a sixties science fiction show and a cartoon for little girls.
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