Ted Cruz has upset some of the usual “cultured despisers” (a phrase that I have traced back to sociologist Peter Berger in the 1960s, incidentally, though it may have earlier origins [UPDATE: It was Schleiermacher—I should have tried out that Google thing]) by asserting in the New York Times Magazine Sunday that Captain James T. Kirk of the Original Series is superior to Captain John Luke Picard of the UN-congruent Next Generation series, and is likely a Republican:
If you were a journalist interviewing you, what would you ask? Who knows, I might well ask, ‘‘Kirk or Picard?’’ I’ve never been asked that before, and I actually have a strong opinion on it.
Well, that goes with being a Kirk person. It does indeed. Let me do a little psychoanalysis. If you look at ‘‘Star Trek: The Next Generation,’’ it basically split James T. Kirk into two people. Picard was Kirk’s rational side, and William Riker was his passionate side. I prefer a complete captain. To be effective, you need both heart and mind.
I thought your critique might go in a different direction, because ‘‘Next Generation’’ is more touchy-feely in its politics than the original. No doubt. The original ‘‘Star Trek’’ was grittier. Kirk is working class; Picard is an aristocrat. Kirk is a passionate fighter for justice; Picard is a cerebral philosopher. The original ‘‘Star Trek’’ pressed for racial equality, which was one of its best characteristics, but it did so without sermonizing.
Do you have a suspicion about whether Kirk would be a Democrat or a Republican? I think it is quite likely that Kirk is a Republican and Picard is a Democrat.
I think you and Kirk might have some personality traits in common. Well, thank you. I can affirmatively say that I have made out with far fewer space aliens.
I can sort this out quickly. Cruz is right. Narrowly speaking Kirk was probably more of a John F. Kennedy Democrat, but he’d likely be a Republican today, or if not that he’d be totally unacceptable to today’s Democratic Party. In any case, my expert witness is the University of Virginia’s Paul Cantor, author of a wonderful book on TV entitled Gilligan Unbound: Pop Culture in an Age of Globalization. Here’s an excerpt from his analysis of Kirk and Star Trek: TOS:
The final frontier of Star Trek thus was a science-fiction re-creation of the 1960s New Frontier and James Tiberius Kirk was in many respects an idealized version of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. (Note how both the fictional TV series and the real president invoked the frontier tradition of the American west.) Kennedy was of course closely associated with the issue of space in the American imagination. One of his chief issues in the 1960 presidential campaign was the so-called Missile Gap with the Soviet Union and he made the space program and specifically the mission of landing a man on the moon one of the centerpieces of his presidency. And Kennedy always linked the issue of space to the Cold War; the point above all was for Americans to get to the moon before the Russians. Thus, Star Trek is a good reminder that American liberalism was at one time quite compatible with a militant anti-Communism. Kirk is in fact a Cold Warrior very much on the model of JFK. He justifies his belligerence by insisting that he stands for democracy and freedom and is merely trying to secure the rights of people throughout the galaxy against tyrannical alien powers.
Star Trek thus develops more fully the paradox we saw adumbrated in Gilligan’s Island—assertiveness in foreign policy based on the principle of nonassertiveness in domestic policy. Again and again Star Trek questions the right of anybody to run the life of another being and erects this principle into the foundation of the United Federation of Planets—the Prime Directive that forbids any planet from interfering in the affairs of another planet. And yet precisely this principle of non-interference ends up providing the justification for Kirk interfering in the affairs of one planet after another. The show is continually calling for a peaceful domestic order in which no being can lord it over another. As the same time, though, Star Trek shows its heroes claiming to be superior because of their allegiance to democracy and willing to go to war to defend or advance its cause. The analogies to the way America conducted itself as a world power in the 1960s are obvious.
Which is why, I’ll add as a coda, liberals no longer especially like JFK (beyond a gauzy image and role model for Bill Clinton’s extracurricular activities), and why Cruz has once again picked a revealing fight on the final frontier of the culture wars.
Meanwhile, as a special bonus, here’s the evolution of the Enterprise through the ages in just 43 seconds:
P.S. Yes, I know: It’s Jean-Luc Picard, but I prefer to render it “John Luke” for an extra measure of well-deserved contempt.