I’m going to slightly bend Patrick’s house rule of not discussing politics, religion, or barbecue, but only by making mention of the idea of private organizations picking up the slack of a shrunken and deregulated government. I don’t particularly advocate that idea, but it’s interesting to note a couple of ways that so-called Leftist, Pinko-Commie Hollywood has played around with it. And if part of sci-fi’s raison d’être is to paint a picture of what could be, then my preteen self definitely saw how it might work in the form of decent, honest, hard-working American knights-errant in leather jackets.
Case Study #1: Knight Rider
Michael Knight is a different sort of hero from the likes of Batman, the A-Team, or Kuwabatake Sanjuro. That is, he isn’t a masterless samurai, not when he’s backed by F.L.A.G., i.e. the Foundation for Law and Government.
An organization with a name like that almost sounds vaguely right-wing, at least it did in the ’80s. But instead of arming Knight with AR-15s–I’m sorry, M-16s–and all the ammunition that he arguably might be allowed to Constitutionally carry, F.L.A.G. gives him access to advanced A.I. and robotics instead! And with the Knight Industries Two Thousand, Michael Knight goes “on a crusade to champion the cause of the innocent, the helpless, the powerless, in a world of criminals who operate above the law” by, uhh… well… by operating above the law. A bit. You know, by using his drone-on-wheels to conduct warrantless wiretapping and, on the basis of that evidence, occasionally sending it out, unmanned, to run down suspected criminals in the street.
Other than that, he’s a sterling example of how one man can make a difference, while looking good in his leather jacket.
Case Study #2: MacGyver
I know people have debated on whether MacGyver is sci-fi for the better part of 25 years, but roll with me here. You have former employees of the fictional US Department of eXternal Services, setting up and funding their own private organization. The DXS is an intelligence agency, which means these folks are trained ex-spooks. And this organization that they put together, this Phoenix Foundation, is supposed to be a “think tank.” A think tank which employs field operatives and will occasionally help out intelligence and police agencies.
Chew on that for a second.
Oh, and the Foundation’s star player is a man who hates guns, but has no qualms about whipping up improvised explosive devices with a Swiss Army knife, duct tape, and whatever random and seemingly innocuous items you’d foolishly left in the broom closet you tried to lock him in after you caught him breaking and entering into your hideout.
And lest we forget, he too looks good in leather.
Even as a kid I wondered, if F.L.A.G. and The Phoenix Foundation were so rich, why they never tried to hire at least one more Knight Rider, or another MacGyver. But alas, that’s where the logic starts to break down for these Hollywood versions of the “Yay for outsourcing law enforcement functions to private organizations!” fantasy. You really can’t blame the producers for not taking the idea to its logical conclusion, wherein these Foundations send operatives out into the world with nothing but their good word (via their PR departments) that they’re doing things above board. Because who knows where that could lead? At best, to Team Knight Rider. At worst, to people trying to set up Libertarian countries in the South Pacific by force like the real-life Phoenix Foundation. Or, to any number of things in between.
It’s unsettling to me that while Mike and Mac are consistently shown as heroes who always do the right thing, we’d still have to name these two decent, honest, hard-working American knights-errant for what they are: mercenaries backed by corporate money.
Still, at the end of the day these Foundations are simply gimmicks whose sole purpose is to provide plot macguffins. In Knight Rider, the emphasis isn’t on a late billionaire’s charity-turned-private security firm. It’s on what happens when this organization gives a former cop the opportunity to take the lemons life handed him (i.e. getting shot in the face and left for dead), and make the lemonade of difference. MacGyver’s secret origin doesn’t start with having been a DXS spook before moving on to security contracting. It starts as a taxi driver who was at the right place at the right time, ready, willing, and able to help someone, armed only with an ingenuity fueled by a lifetime of reading Popular Mechanics. And as a result, he lands a gig where all he ever has to do is to just keep doing that.
Maybe a deeper, more important lesson of Knight Rider and MacGyver is this: Lots of folks fantasize about the positive difference they could make as, say, Batman, if they’d only had their own PTSD-induced incentives and a family fortune enabling them to sleep all day and fight crime all night without ever having to worry about a dayjob. And to be sure, there’s nothing wrong with leveraging one’s advantages do good in the world.
But heroes like Michael Knight and MacGyver? All they ever needed was someone to give them a chance.