Mike Potemra at The Corner:
Palace sources say Patrick Stewart is about to be knighted by Queen Elizabeth II. It turns out he is an avid supporter of Britain’s Labour party; his support must be especially welcome in this, one of Labour’s darker hours. Coincidentally, I have over the past couple of months been watching DVDs of Star Trek: The Next Generation, a show I missed completely in its run of 1987 to 1994; and I confess myself amazed that so many conservatives are fond of it. Its messages are unabashedly liberal ones of the early post-Cold War era – peace, tolerance, due process, progress (as opposed to skepticism about human perfectibility). I asked an NR colleague about it, and he speculated that the show’s appeal for conservatives lay largely in the toughness of the main character: Jean-Luc Picard was a moral hardass where the Captain Kirk of the earlier show was more of an easygoing, cheerful swashbuckler. I think there’s something to that: Patrick Stewart did indeed create, in that character, a believable and compelling portrait of ethical uprightness.
A prominent conservative writer, who wishes anonymity, offers the following analysis: “Jean-Luc Picard . . . was deeply conservative, in the finest Burkean tradition. Picard embraced the conservative Gaullist ideal that ‘institutions can only be preserved if they are constantly renewed’ and was therefore, as Paul Johnson admired in De Gaulle, someone who was modernist and even futurist precisely because he was conservative. Picard preserved all through his travels that love of “la France des villages”; of old books, ancient plays, and classical music. This conservatism was often and prominently highlighted. Even his admiration for [the preternatural wise-woman character] Guinan was conservative at the root: He was intellectually modest enough to know that there were things he could not understand, and would have to leave to trust — perhaps ‘faith’ is a better word. . . . [Picard] had, as Paul Johnson said of De Gaulle, the historian’s capacity for seeing events sub specie aeternitatis, from the standpoint of eternity, which is perhaps the very most conservative way to view the great stage upon which we are all merely players.”
This last part, about the conservative way to view temporal events, reminds me of the serene detachment of Krishna’s conversation with Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita. (I came to the Bhagavad Gita, as so many other Westerners did, through T. S. Eliot, who was a big fan.) It is your duty to fight, but with an eternal perspective that relativizes the passion with which you fight. It is in selfless action that we find our true self; which is the core of Advaita (non-dualist) Hinduism, and an essential part of Christian thought also (“whosoever shall lose his life shall preserve it,” Luke 17:33).
John Hood at NRO:
I think you are correct that while Captain Picard comes off well in TNG, the series as a whole is left-leaning. A while back, I wrote about the ideological divided between Star Trek and Star Wars, and I stand by the analysis. Assuming that the Christmas season might motivate the Corner overlords to suspend their ban for a moment, here are some examples:
• In Star Trek, law enforcement is armed with phasers. Officers stun people, then lock them up, then subject them to intensive psychiatry until they are “cured” of their criminal impulses. In Star Wars, law enforcement under the Galactic Republic appears to be the job of Jedi Knights who try to avoid violence but, if pressed, will cut you in half with a light saber.
• In Star Trek, evil characters are frequently considered to be the product of a poor environment, a bad childhood, misunderstanding, or miscommunication. It turns out that Captain Kirk and the other original cast members just didn’t understand the Klingons, for example, or the Romulans. The Gorn, a lizard-like race that does a Pearl Harbor on the Federation and kills many innocent people, are later excused from culpability because they say that they saw peaceful Federation colonists as “invaders” in their territory. Killer clouds of space gas or giant space amebas threatening the lives of billions turn out to be lost children or mindless things just trying to survive. Even the Borg, a great source of villainy from The Next Generation, are humanized in subsequent stories.
In Star Wars, evil characters have been seduced by the dark side of the Force. They have given into temptation, and are held accountable for their actions. The Star Wars movies are really morality tales, and have a strong religious component in spite of themselves. No one argues that Sith Lords might have turned out differently if they had just been enrolled in a quality preschool program.
From Mike Potemra, over at National Review Online:
I have over the past couple of months been watching DVDs of Star Trek: The Next Generation, a show I missed completely in its run of 1987 to 1994; and I confess myself amazed that so many conservatives are fond of it. Its messages are unabashedly liberal ones of the early post-Cold War era — peace, tolerance, due process, progress….
You know, conservatives don’t usually confess straight up to finding peace, tolerance, due process, and progress so disagreeable. But I guess they slip up every once in a while.
Adam Serwer at Tapped:
Two things: One, this is startlingly honest, two, I love that a party that preaches “personal responsibility” for the most vulnerable in society can use “skepticism about human perfectibility” as a reason to dodge something as essential to democracy as due process. The rule of law — it’s just too hard to adhere to!
As for “tolerance” and “peace” — these things interfere with the quest for national greatness, which can only be achieved through ethnic, gender and religious hegemony and with ceaseless wars of choice.
Kevin notes it is not every day you get conservatives to admit they oppose (or at least dislike) peace, tolerance, due process and progress. But the hole Potemra digs is deeper, and I think there’s actually a (semi) serious point to make here. Poterma forges on: “I asked an NR colleague about it, and he speculated that the show’s appeal for conservatives lay largely in the toughness of the main character: Jean-Luc Picard was a moral hardass where the Captain Kirk of the earlier show was more of an easygoing, cheerful swashbuckler. I think there’s something to that: Patrick Stewart did indeed create, in that character, a believable and compelling portrait of ethical uprightness.”
But surely the proper conclusion to be drawn, then, is that being an ethically upright and generally virtuous person is, however surprising this result may be, consistent with being tolerant, peace-loving, even with upholding due process. And there is no particular difficulty to the trick of being in favor of progress while being skeptical about human perfectibility. I say this is a semi-serious point because I think, for some conservatives, the main objection to a somewhat vaguely conceived set of liberal values really is a strong sense that they are inconsistent with a certain sort of hardassery in the virtue ethics department. End of story. But then Star Trek TNG ought, by rights, to be the ultimate anti-conservative series. At least for the likes of Potemra.
UPDATE: Matthew Yglesias:
I think the right way to say this is that Picard is a conservative person living in a liberal socialist utopia. That’s not to say that he’s a closet version of an early 21st century American right-winger, someone who secretly yearns for the reintroduction of capitalism, religion, and the routine use of lethal violence. Instead, he’s a characterological conservative, someone who believes deeply in authority and tradition and who’s not inclined to subject the basic political values of the Federation to a lot of scrutiny.
But of course this is the trouble with basing your political value system on things like authority and tradition. It’s always changing! William F Buckley’s determination to stand athwart history yelling stop led him to a robust defense of apartheid as a system of government for the American South. At times in different countries, authority and tradition has meant backing absolute monarchy or vicious dictatorships. Or maybe conservatism means women can’t vote. Eventually, you wind up defending the United Federation of Planets just like Captain Picard. Earlier this week TNR did a fun look back at various instances of social progress that the right swore would doom America. By Picard’s time, it’s bound to be a much longer list.
The question then shifts: have all the enthusiasms of the Left since the Enlightenment been unmitigated goods which they would accept wholeheartedly? No errors where a few eggs were cracked to create a progressive omelette? The Left is wont to critique the unsubtle and manichean vision of the Right which divides the world between Good & Evil, but when looking at themselves all such necessity for subtly and moral complexity is lost. History marches on!