A Map of the Unknown World

I got the original idea to write about Battlestar Galactica (BSG) and liberalism when I first began watching the series. When I wrote my initial post, I was testing the waters, and I was delighted to discover that Persephone is doing an entire recap series, so my idea to do several posts on this is feeling pretty genius right about now. My plan is to approach this by episode, but I won’t do every episode, because as great of a show as BSG is, not every episode is relevant to my interests. As always, beware of spoilers, and I appreciate feedback! First stop, “33.”

American liberalism maps the world by division. Church is separate from state. Private is separate from public. BSG troubles the boundaries of this map: colonies (something like states) are merged into a unified fleet, religion influences public leaders (not that it didn’t before), and the military takes a larger role in civilian government.

The first episode post miniseries, “33,” brings us up on the colonists fleeing from the Cylons. The new world has divisions similar to those seen before the attacks: Cylon and human, scientist and believer, battlestar and fleet, civilian government and military. While these divisions existed before, the borders are being renegotiated. The fleet floats in a space that reminds me strongly of a state of nature. It is both pre- and post-government. What’s more, the fight to stay alive is vaguely Hobbesian.

In liberal theory, there are a few states of nature to negotiate:

  1. Hobbes famously called his state of nature “nasty, brutish, and short.” It’s a free-for-all, with person against person.
  2. Locke’s state of nature is a little gentler. It’s inconvenient but ruled by reason. It only grows foul because people act in their own self-interest, which might cause you to have some issues with your neighbor.
  3. Rousseau believes that Locke has it all wrong, since Locke is just taking civilized people and taking them out of government. Rousseau claims that people won’t have any law to guide them, much less a law of reason, so people necessarily enter into a social contract to protect their interests.
  4. Rawls offers a thought experiment, what he calls the original position, in which no one knows where they are and so will make decisions based on the worst off.

The true state of nature is unmapped, because everyone is naturally free. Division evolves to allow freedom once people begin to be controlled by government. The statue of nature in BSG arises from the renegotiation of those maps: where is humanity, what are its laws, and how do we maintain them.

The divisions of liberalism both within BSG and United States politics are wholly created and fictional, but not despairingly incomplete. Michael Walzer notes:

Liberal freedoms are, all of them, unreal. As the formal freedom of the worker is only a mask for wage slavery, so religious liberty, academic freedom, free enterprise, self-determination, and privacy are masks for continued or reiterated subjection: the forms are new, but the content is old. The difficulty with this view is that it doesn’t connect in any plausible way with the actual experience of contemporary politics; it has a quality of abstraction and theoretical willfulness. No one who has lived in an illiberal state is going to accept this devaluation of the range of liberal freedoms. The achievement of liberalism is real even if it is incomplete (emphasis mine).

The point that Walzer makes here is that the divisions of liberalism do not allow the freedom we like to imagine. That said, Walzer admits liberalism has done a lot to move us forward to a more free society.

If this is the case, it’s no wonder that Roslin fights so hard for a civilian government and the divisions it allows. She does not want people to lose freedom, even though freedom is the least of their concerns. She would probably be the first to admit that the liberal representative government of the colonies is less than perfect, but it’s important nonetheless because it maintains the idea that people are free individuals, even if that freedom is an illusion.

“33” ends with a final division: the cutting down of the weak and the threatening. Remember that a liberal government exists to protect people, so when the Olympic Carrier appears to be harboring that other division, the Cylons, then it’s no wonder that the civilian government makes the call to destroy it.

Roslin is not happy about this decision. Her assistant, Billy, suggests she made the right choice. Roslin is upset and asks to be left alone. She doesn’t think it was the right choice, because who chooses who lives and who dies? That’s the trick of liberalism, because once you start dividing, you start excluding, and you start painting categories that are more controlling than free.

In its divisions, liberalism has to make the hard call all of the time. Where does public end and private begin? Who is a threat to others and who is just doing their own thing? The line is constantly renegotiated, and as Roslin suggests, it is not always right.

The Walzer article referenced here is “Liberalism and the Art of Separation” in Political Theory Vol. 12, No. 3 (Aug., 1984) (pp. 315-330).

By [E] Sally Lawton

My food groups are cheese, bacon, and hot tea. I like studying cities and playing with my cat, Buffy.

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