Someone at NRO wrote something about Star Trek: The Next Generation, and all sorts of people are writing about it. A point missed - and it was a near thing, he almost got there - by Matt Yglesias concerns the question of the character of the Captain, Jean-Luc Picard. Now, I do not believe that the character traits of fictional persons, especially characters on on-going television series, are particularly interesting. Yet, since the subject is broached, I thought it might be important to note that I disagree almost entirely with Yglesias' characterization of Picard:
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.
While I agree that Picard is an ethical individual, it precisely because he is a typical liberal type that he spends quite a bit of time in many, many episodes engaged in a kind of weird philosophical scrutiny of his own, and by extension the UFP's, various actions.
Just one example of many: In the episode "I, Borg", Picard is confronted with the ethical dilemma of a captured Borg. His hatred and fear of the Borg, and by extension his sense of duty in the face of a mortal threat to the UFP creates a conflict when this Borg, Third of Five, discovers, among other things, that he is an "I" (some of the hokiest, and really stupid smarmy liberalism crops up in this episode, with Dr. Crusher gushing about how the Borg is "lonely"; that kind of sentimental anthropomorphism makes me cringe). Picard struggles with the decision of whether or not to return "Hugh" (his adopted name) to the collective with what amounts to a computer virus that would render the Borg unable to operate. As Hugh insists he does not wish to return, yet this is an opportunity to destroy the biggest threat the Federation has faced, what is Picard to do?
With Hugh deciding that, in fact, he will return, with the addition of his own discovered individuality as the new virus the conflict ceases to an extent. In the wake of eight years of Bush Administration conservative foreign policy, however, Picard's mental self-abuse on the entire issue of what to do with a problem like Hugh reveals that he is not, in fact, a conservative at all. A characteristically conservative individual would have sensed no conflict between his duty to the Federation and his duty to the abstract proposition that all individuals of whatever type are of intrinsic moral worth, to be protected and honored at all times. Shoot, Dick Cheney would have shot Hugh in the face and hopes some of that experience would spread through the collective. Instead of that, Picard struggles with the contradictory mandates, ethical to their core, of his sense of duty as a military officer serving a democratic government and his sense of duty to the individual the Borg has become. The resolution, while interesting, lets Picard off the hook of responsibility.
Conservatism betrayed itself during the eight years of the Bush Administration by revealing that, at its core, it has no ethical sense at all, at least as that has been defined for the past 250 years or so. For Bush-style conservatives, one's duty is defined as a duty to authority, pure and simple, without recourse to the kind of namby-pamby self-analysis that Picard goes through frequently. There is a hierarchy of values, clear and definable, and conservatives easily enough figure out how to rank a sense of duty to them. In Picard, we have a kind of liberal pluralist, someone with an understanding of the more-than-occasional incommensurability of various ethical demands, and reveals through various episodes of the show that there is no final resolution, that each decision creates both new opportunities and problems (something Picard and the Enterprise crew discover in a two-part episode the next season, in which the newly-individuated Borg suddenly become an even greater threat through the intervention of Data's "brother", Lor). In light of the way events unfolded, was Picard's decision "correct"? While it might be possible to say, "No" - and there is a bit of that kind of thing in the midst of the two-part episode - my own sense is that Picard's original decision, ethically compromised as it was, was a good ethical compromise; neither he nor anyone else (except perhaps the writers on the show) could have predicted the results of the individuation of part of the Borg collective.
In any event, yes, Picard is a hard-ass, and a kind of ethically upright person we all wish we could be. Yet, he is both characteristically and temperamentally liberal.