Missing Leonard Nimoy, Mr. Spock, …and Richard Hofstadter

Sen. James Inhofe holding snowballPaging Mr. Spock. And some cold, calculated, unimpassioned reason. (Photo: C-SPAN)

The death on February 27 of the greatest icon of reason in popular culture – Leonard Nimoy, who created the role of Mr. Spock in Star Trek – speaks to our culture’s need of reason. The outpouring of grief and affection at the news of Nimoy’s passing confirmed that Mr. Spock was the best-known and most admired fictional character created on television, for reasons bound up with Mr. Spock’s incarnation of emotionless reason, logic, and self-restraint. Spock sounds a note that we need to hear today, in an era of unreasoning politics, rejection of science, and politicizing of everything under the sun.

Star Trek’s fame had to do in part with its resonance with the administration of President John F. Kennedy and the values that Kennedy articulated. Every episode of Star Trek began with an invocation of “space: the final frontier” – reminiscent of Kennedy’s phrase “the New Frontier,” his presidency’s theme. Astute followers of the series noted parallels between Captain James T. Kirk of the U.S.S. Enterprise and President Kennedy (or his public image) – youthfulness, energy, decisiveness, and an eye for female beauty and a taste for sexual dalliance (what my college classmates called “the Kirk lechery factor”). At moments of crisis facing the Enterprise, Captain Kirk would call meetings of his department heads, demand reports and recommendations from them, and then seek to make the right decision. In such debates, two characters took the initiative – the emotional, human, impulsive Dr. Leonard W. McCoy, head of the ship’s sickbay, and Mr. Spock of Vulcan, the icy-cold, logical, odds-calculating First Officer and head of the ship’s science department. As a balancing figure, Kirk juxtaposed the insistently humane McCoy and the relentlessly rational Spock. Analysts of the show had no trouble recasting the roles, with President Kennedy as Captain Kirk, UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson as Dr. McCoy, and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara as Spock.

So, too, in episodes invoking or modeled on the Cold War and international power politics of the 1960s, the Enterprise and the United Federation of Planets stood in for the United States, with the Klingon and Romulan Empires standing in for the U.S.S.R. and the People’s Republic of China. Indeed, H. Bruce Franklin has penned a cogent analysis of Star Trek as embodying an increasingly defeatist American perspective on the Vietnam Conflict.

Even after those historical analogies have faded, what remains clear is the iconic role of Mr. Spock. First presenting Spock as emotionless and purely rational, Star Trek later revealed him as half-human, waging within himself a constant battle to restrain his human emotions in favor of his logical Vulcan identity, while struggling to reconcile the two halves of his mind and heart. In the series, and in later animated episodes, novelizations, and films, writers explored Spock’s conflicted inner nature, finding it a rich source of ideas. And the evolving nature of Spock, and the consummate skill shown by Leonard Nimoy (and his successor, Zachary Quinto) in portraying Spock and dramatizing his evolution, continued to find favor with fans around the world.

The challenge of balancing passion with “cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason” – a challenge memorably articulated by the young Abraham Lincoln in his first major speech, in 1838 – captures the essence of Spock, and that challenge is integral to the American experiment. And yet American history has been pervaded not just by battles between passion and reason but by repeated instances of Americans’ suspicion of reason and of intellect. Today is such a time.

In 1963, one of the most creative and nuanced of American historians, Richard Hofstadter (1916-1970), published Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, an interpretative essay analyzing the anti-intellectual theme in American cultural, intellectual, and political history. Some reviewers dismissed the book as a tract for the times by a scholar who was critical of modern liberalism while committed to it, and who described anti-intellectualism as an expression of aberrant psychology rather than as a cultural theme requiring study.

Over the past half-century, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life has shed those criticisms and established its enduring relevance. Hofstadter’s book has never been more timely than now – when fearful citizens and ambitious politicians reject expertise, scientific authority, and public policy shaped by scientific and social-scientific research. Hofstadter would shake his head in sad recognition at the modern rejection of vaccines and vaccination, the spurning of scientific consensus concerning the role of human beings in causing global climate change, and willful distortion of the American past in service of modern agendas. His book began with a chapter recounting two dozen examples of anti-intellectualism in the late 1950s and early 1960s; those examples eerily presage some of our modern controversies.

Mr. Spock demands to be remembered now as the incarnation of all the talents and virtues that he embodied, talents and virtues totally alien to today’s Age of Stupid; so, too, Richard Hofstadter demands to be remembered now as our era’s great diagnostician of anti-intellectualism. As Hofstadter defended the life of the mind and sought to understand why so many Americans were so resistant to it, Nimoy presented with grace and skill the ultimate incarnation of the life of the mind, including everything we associate, good and bad, admirable and troubling, with intellectualism and intellectuals.

Leonard Nimoy and Mr. Spock, and Richard Hofstadter, are salutary reminders that, at its best, American history has been characterized by valuing intellect and reason, and that some of our finest moments have come when we have guided our thoughts and actions as a people by reference to intellectualism, valuing ideals and discussion of them, and even “cold, calculated, unimpassioned reason.”

About the Author

R. B. Bernstein

R. B. Bernstein teaches at City College of New York's Colin Powell School and New York Law School; his books include Thomas Jefferson (2003), The Founding Fathers Reconsidered (2009), the forthcoming The Education of John Adams, and the forthcoming The Founding Fathers: A Very Short Introduction, all from Oxford University Press.

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2 Comments

  1. What a fascinating, fun exploration of both “high” and “low” culture that reached similar conclusions about the life of the mind. I have often thought we should have bumper stickers saying WWHD, as in, What Would Hofstadter Do? And I have wondered how he might have assessed the evolution (or de-evolution) of American society in recent years, and the role of pop culture. Thanks for a very interesting article.

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