Liberal heroes in pop culture Part 2: Captain Jean-Luc Picard from Star Trek: The Next Generation

This is the second of what will hopefully be a series of light-hearted pieces that we will publish over the summer. Please do nominate further entries in the comments! This one was suggested by Josh Kirk on Facebook!  For a link to Part 1, click here.

It is the 24th Century. Humans have explored nearly a quarter of the Galaxy. Energy and resources are almost limitless, all people are free to explore their full intellectual and emotional potential, and, for some reason, the French are now from Yorkshire. Not only that, but they drink Earl Grey (“hot”), play the flute, read detective stories, and make sexy baldness look effortless. Or maybe that’s just this particular Frenchman. I give you Captain Jean-Luc Picard, Captain of the USS Enterprise, NCC 1701-D.

Picard is a decisive, brilliant commander, whose own emotional reserve and professional detachment from his crew does not stop him from drawing on their suggestions and stratagems to help do the right thing, crack the problem of the week, and make the Federation a little wiser, and better. Aided by his Commander William Riker (“Number One”), Chief Engineer Geordi LaForge, Counsellor Deanna Troi and many others, the Enterprise crew is an example of collective discipline combined with useful, diverse ideological debate, and respectful divergence of opinion. The model, perhaps, for an effective liberal Party?   

Our Good Captain is shown countless times to balance a sharp wit with a deep moral core, and is a master at debate, diplomacy and inter-cultural wrangling. Whether he is negotiating a peaceful, swift end to the Klingon Civil War, protecting the civil rights of his android colleague Commander Data to exist and make his own choices, or merely saving his crew from the latest ‘anomaly-of-the-week’, Picard always has the liberal concerns of happiness, safety and potential in his sights. When Humanity is put on trial by the omnipotent and accusatory ‘Q’, Picard speaks as our advocate, and you believe him when he passionately states that we have potential for growth, improvement and endless renaissance. Or at least, you want to believe him.

Picard, in his role as cultural, political and military envoy for the Federation’s flagship, is a great illustration of the political difficulties, moral dilemmas and often near-impossible decisions facing liberal leaders in his position. The Prime Directive, Starfleet’s famous rule pledging ‘non-interference’, is the ultimate example of a guideline guaranteed to be bent, if rarely fully broken. There’s a lot to say about this, and the Federation could easily be accused of being a hymn to ‘liberal imperialism’, as many critics, both in the show’s Universe and without, have done. But the Star Trek universe has its own answer to that. There are worse things out there than occasionally hypocritical or morally self-righteous liberal regimes.

I speak here of Picard’s main dramatic conflict in his seven-year television mission: his fight against the Borg. The Borg is a race of cybernetic absorbers, zombie-like in their unstoppable march and desire to ‘assimilate’ every other race in the Galaxy. They have a single Hive-mind, with any victims of assimilation becoming buried deep in a living-death of mental and physical forced conversion. I will not try to map on them onto any particular political tendency, left or right. I tend to agree with critic Josh Marsfelder [], when he points out that the Borg function better as a Dark Mirror for the Federation itself, or its possible future. They are a grim reminder of what the wish to unite the Galaxy in a consensual, exploratory, liberal Federation could end up as in reality, if not properly balanced with humanistic brakes and checks.

And of course, Picard doesn’t just fight and rage against the Borg, he becomes their victim. He is assimilated, drained of his agency and tactical worth, and made to fight his friends and colleagues in a murderous onslaught, which kills thousands. Eventually freed from this horror, he becomes a lucky survivor, but one who carries the scars, emotionally and physically, for the rest of his life. His greatest struggle, and most remarkable victory, is not to let this personal experience drag him under, and indeed, to continue to help other people in comparable situations of subjugation, slavery and exploitation. It is a central part of his character, and should be a sensor beacon for any good liberal. Hopefully, we can Make It So.

* David Faggiani is a young-ish Liberal living in London, ex-smoker and co-founder of 'Game of Seats' political discussion group on Facebook and Twitter.

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  • Aye, well and good, but you forgot one of the attributes needed in a liberal leader……. his loyalty to a hopeless cause (which I happen to share) and which has been in decline since a golden period in the early part of the 20th century – our Patrick supports Huddersfield Town.

    That said, he lacks the other main qualification. His political loyalties lie elsewhere. See the interview below in the New Statesman in February 2012 :

    “Are you still a Labour supporter?
    My upbringing, my childhood, my parents’ lives, the work that they did, the conditions they worked in, how we lived – all of these things conditioned me to a way of seeing the world. It was, and continues to be, a view of equality of individuals, fairness in our national life. I have always passionately believed that these are aspects of a just society that can only be achieved under the Labour Party.

    Would you like to see Labour taking more left-wing positions?
    To say “left-wing” would be a simplification of what is needed. I would like to see the party be more aggressive in its policies with regard to the recession and getting the economy stabilised.

    What do you think of the coalition?
    I have nothing but contempt for the expression “we’re all in this together”. That’s bullshit – we’re not all in this together. The members of the cabinet are not in the same position as the people who live near me in Bermondsey. What we have seen is not so much a response to a global crisis but Tory policies as usual, masquerading under the claim of necessity. I find the very fact of the coalition to be a cynical piece of manipulation”.

    Ouch !!!

  • James BLESSING 6th Aug '15 - 1:38pm

    Startled that Dr Who wasn’t first… /me casts summon Alex

  • (Matt Bristol) 7th Aug '15 - 10:12am

    All very good – now after Jon Snow, can we have a female pop-cultural-hero in a non-military environment?

  • David Faggiani 7th Aug '15 - 10:27am

    You read my mind, (Matt Bristol)! Already started writing it. But any guesses who it’s gonna be, or better suggestions for who it should be?

  • David Faggiani 14th Aug '15 - 12:15pm

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