Mr. Spock

I waited a few days to write about the death of Leonard Nimoy because I wanted it to settle in my mind. The character he brought to such vivid life, who has existed for over half a century (“The Cage” was filmed in 1964), was, in my mind, a literal harbinger of the future.

We take it for granted these days that the powerful movers and shakers of our world are the brainiacs — Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and others like them — and that a thoughtful and nuanced author like Joss Whedon can write and direct a movie that dominates the box office.

But as Don McLean once said, that’s not how it used to be. American heroes have traditionally been the men who could use their guns and their fists, John Waynes, Clint Eastwood, Kirk Douglas. And this was consistent with America’s identity up to the mid-80s, as the world’s leading industrial power.

But all of that changed with the rise of the modern cyber economy. The center of power shifted from possession of steel mills and automobile factories to the ability to support knowledge workers, to analyze data, to create and manage worlds of pure information.

Mr. Spock represented something very strange in 1966 — the dispassionate intellectual as heroic figure. To a nation raised on G.I. Joe and Superman, this was very nearly a contradiction in terms. Spock’s “super power” was, first and foremost, his ability to reason, to temper emotion with objective truth.

And the personality of that genius was not a bent toward evil, like Doctor Doom, Lex Luthor or Loki, nor the self-centered egotism of Tony Stark, but rather a gentle desire to serve the greater good, to prefer peace rather than war.

When I was young I was one of those brainiac kids. The aggressive one-upmanship that defines so much interaction between children didn’t make much sense to me. I liked to create, to read, to think about possible futures. And of course that made me weird, and sometimes picked on.

Mr. Spock was the first role model in my childhood who really spoke to the person I wanted to be. He wasn’t one of those bumbling absent minded professors played by Fred McMurray or Jerry Lewis, but a true hero, a man of action when needed, but mostly a dignified, thoughtful and steady figure, loyal and forthright, brilliant and insightful, powerful yet touchingly vulnerable.

Half a century on, we are living in an age when humans, in our better moments, are making the most of our most wondrous birthright — these fabulous brains of ours. Many wonderful minds are contributing to an economy that runs on information and cooperation, on discovery and intellect.

For real power comes not from mere armies but from reason and knowledge. Guns and missiles and stone clubs have power only to drag us down into darkness, but enlightened understanding can bring us to a better world.

Of all the figures of my childhood, Mr. Spock most embodied this spirit. I think Leonard Nimoy understood all of this, and that over the years he came to appreciate that being identified with such a powerful symbol of enlightenment and reason was a sacred trust. He lived a good and rich life, and he honored that trust.

He will be missed.

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