Politics & Policy

Klingon Kitsch

Live long and prosper.

“Can I borrow your towel? My car just hit a water buffalo.”

I spent a good 45 minutes surfing the web trying to figure out how to say that in Klingon. As you probably know, there are scores of sites hosting Klingon dictionaries, fan clubs, and places that take Klingon culture, very, very seriously — and yet I couldn’t find a translation for this simple, everyday phrase. I even went to the Klingon Language Institute, at KLI.org — note the impressive sounding dot-org address.

While perusing the glossary there, trying to piece together the “Can-I-borrow-your-towel” line, I decided to give up when I hit upon the word be’joy’, which is a Klingon locution for ritualized torture committed by women. That made me think of what my fiancée’s reaction would be after I told her how I had spent my day. I decided that it was best I moved on.

Regardless, I’ve been thinking about Klingons a lot lately, and not just because I am really, really cool.

First of all, if I haven’t scared away all but the extremely pale, let me explain who the Klingons are. They are a nice Jewish family from Cherry Hill, New Jersey. The dad is an orthodontist and the mom works part time at an FTD flower shop… No Just kidding.

Actually, the Klingons are a fictional alien race, first introduced in the old 1960s Star Trek television series. Back then they were essentially stand-ins for the Commies in the Cold-War morality play that was the original series. Because budgets were limited (many of McCoy’s medical instruments, for example, were actually salt-and-pepper shakers from the NBC commissary), the Klingon actors were made to look mildly Mongoloid — I don’t mean like Alec Baldwin, I mean like Kubla Khan — and like the Commies, they were a fairly straightforward Evil Empire.

But in 1979 the Klingons got a makeover for the first Star Trek movie. They got big ridges in their foreheads and long hair weaves. Klingon teeth looked like the pride of the 1960s. British dentistry. While still villains, Klingons became more interesting and more culturally belligerent, like melanin-rich futuristic Vikings. By the time the new Star Trek television series was launched in 1987, Klingons were no longer villains so much as they were a misunderstood warrior race, like Samurai (with similar eating habits).

Replacing the Klingons as the villains of the new Trek were the Ferengi, an embarrassingly ill-conceived race of hook-nosed, feral-toothed Shylocks. You see, the contrarian and sadly liberal producers of the new Trek thought that the idea of making villains out of command-economy cultures was hackneyed. So they made the Ferengi capitalists. This idea proved stupid very quickly; the Ferengi soon became nothing more than comic relief. In response, the producers brought back the Romulans — a Roman-style authoritarian empire — and introduced the Borg — a cyborg race living in compliance with Hillary Clinton’s health-care plan — as the new villains.

Meanwhile, the Klingons became hugely popular out there in Trek land. The Klingon character Worf, a regular on Star Trek: The Next Generation (STNG) rapidly became the most popular crewman in the Star Trek universe. After STNG was cancelled, Worf was literally transferred to the Star Trek spinoff Deep Space 9, to help boost that show’s popularity. Very quickly, that series became a fantasyland for Klingon plots and intrigues.

Today, Klingon culture has totally escaped the confines of the show. Just type “Klingon” into a search engine and you’ll see what I mean. Hamlet has been translated into the “original” Klingon (largely because in the sixth (awful) Star Trek movie, Christopher Plummer, playing General Chang, says that Shakespeare is best read in the original Klingon). Much of the Bible and Jabberwocky have been translated too. There is a 50,000+-word Klingon-to-English dictionary. Go into any one of those knife stores in shopping malls or tourist areas and you will find Klingon daggers and swords. There was a Klingon opera performed in Edinburgh.

I have in my “files” (i.e., a large pile of stuff, mostly paper) a story from the Chicago Tribune from 1993, reporting the first Klingon wedding on record. It begins:

“The bride wore black. Black spandex tights, black tunic, black sash graced with a dead snake’s head and a prosthetic device to simulate delicate weltlike ridges running across her forehead, a source of embarrassment to the groom’s family, which has long prided itself on bulging foreheads. But in his moment of bliss, the groom scarcely noticed the flaw.”

“‘What is Klingon is in your heart, not on your forehead,’ intoned Lieutenant Commander K’horf vestai-Rustazh, a.k.a. Stephen Gregory, 32, of Aurora, gazing adoringly at his bride, Lieutenant Kahla vestai-Lassahr, a.k.a. Gail Gregory, 23.”

Since then, Klingon weddings have become almost commonplace. Indeed, as opposed to Scientology, Star Trek has become for some the most successful benign cult in modern memory — unless you thought, like I did, that the Whitewater juror in the Star Trek uniform was a bit over the top. If you don’t believe me, I highly recommend the 1997 documentary Trekkies for your edification.

“tlhIngan Hol Dajatlh’a’ ” (Do you speak Klingon?)

But it is the Klingon thing that fascinates me. Recently I wrote about how the New Age silliness at places like Fresh Fields should really be looked at as an attempt to forge a new ethnicity. Before that, I wrote about how The Sopranos specifically, and mob culture generally, appeals to a lot of people because the Mafia code is an explicit rejection of secular culture. Well, I think the Klingon craze fits into the same category.

The turning point was in an episode during the third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation called “The Enemy.” A highly placed Romulan official is brought on board the Enterprise and it turns out he’s dying. The only way he can be saved is if Worf donates his Klingon blood. Worf refuses to aid an enemy race and lets the Romulan die, despite the pleadings for compassion from his human crewmates. The actor who plays Worf, Michael Dorn, protested vigorously to the producers at the time, thinking that such an act of cruel indifference would turn his character into a villain.

It turned out that it made him the most popular character on the show and converted thousands to the Klingon cult.

Now, imagine if a white, or black, human character on a non-science fiction show had refused to save the life of someone whose only “crime” was his race. There’s no way such a character could remain a “good guy,” except perhaps in some dark and ironic show like The Sopranos.

And that’s the point. The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that ethnicity — the desire to be strongly bound to a culture, a land, a people — is hard-wired into our brains. People want to belong. Much like the Hollywood mob, Klingons explicitly reject relativism and whininess. They provide a model — for good or ill — that stands outside today’s secular swamp.

I think there are a lot of contributing factors to the trend. But one of the biggest has to be the tendency of elite culture to ridicule or demean traditional culture. To take pride in your traditional national or ethnic bonds seems oddly out of step with the times. Sure, you can get into St. Patrick’s Day–so long as there’s an element of kitsch to it. But the hip culture says, “don’t take that sort of thing too seriously, especially if religion is involved.” Indeed, the hip culture says that traditional stuff is worse than old-fashioned, it’s boring. And boredom will drive people to do all sorts of strange things (“like write this stupid column,” my couch just yelled).

And that’s why people are fabricating their own ethnicities. How else do you explain the fact that Esperanto and, you guessed it, Klingon are growing in popularity around the globe? Despite the fact that the linguist Mark Okrand created Klingon only about a decade and half ago, many experts estimate that more people speak Klingon today than Esperanto, which was launched over a century ago.

The benefit to designing your own ethnicity is that you can create your own morality (a growing trend to be sure, see Alan Wolfe’s “The Final Freedom” in the New York Times Magazine). Better, you can create your own history and reject any claim of obligation to your “conventional” ethnicity’s historical baggage. Klingons don’t owe reparations to anyone.

And now that I have wasted your time, I must confess that I don’t know if this is a good thing or a bad thing, a big deal or a small one. But, I’d bet my Franklin-Mint commemorative Spock plate, that it’s a trend that’s only going to grow.


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