ST Picard, Republic Day, the values of Starfleet, and those left behind

Today is 26th January. The Indian Republic Day. And I resume my blog in 2020. Before I get to the idea of what it means to be a republic, or indeed, what any of this means to me, I will turn to something that has been a key influence on my life. Star Trek: The Next Generation, and more specifically, Jean-Luc Picard.

Star Trek: Picard is now finally here with its global premiere. Patrick Stewart reprises his role of Jean-Luc Picard, now retired Starfleet Admiral. Picard is very much a show of its time, and the best few moments of an all too rapidly paced first episode are in the FNN interview scene where Picard does what Picard does best. Give a short, yet, strong speech about Starfleet’s core values.

Picard: “The Romulans asked for our help. And I believed we had a profound obligation to give it.”

Interviewer: “Many felt there were better uses for our resources than aiding the Federation’s oldest enemy.”

Picard: “Well fortunately the Federation chose to support the rescue effort.”

Interviewer: “Yes. Initially.”

Picard: “I have been known to be persuasive. But the Federation understood there were millions of lives at stake.”

Interviewer: “Romulan lives.”

Picard: “No. Lives.”

The interview continues. Picard mentions that the rescue effort’s historical analogy is not the Pyramids, but Dunkirk. And Picard tells us the real reason for leaving Starfleet: “Because it was no longer Starfleet! We withdrew. The galaxy was mourning, burying its dead, and Starfleet had slunk from its duties. The decision to call off the rescue, and to abandon those people we had sworn to save was not just dishonorable. It was downright criminal!” He then brings up Dunkirk again, berating the interviewer for her lack of historical knowledge, before his closure: “You are a stranger to history. You are a stranger to war. You just wave your hand, and, pfft, it all goes away. Well, it’s not so easy for those who died. And it was not so easy for those who were left behind.”

For those of us who happen to be migrants, or darker skinned, Dunkirk is a sour note in what should have been a great speech (and it perhaps is for many).[i] But Dunkirk has been in the news not that long ago, due to a grandiose Christopher Nolan film. Dunkirk in this Nolan imaginary is a moment that England, at the time of Brexit, global far-right and nationalist resurgence, can see as uniquely its own, a moment of its stellar heroism. Nolan was accused of whitewashing, raising “Englishness” and English-heroism when the many heroes of WWII narrative included the larger British Empire, which include the many Asians and Africans who were part of the Allied effort. [ii] Dunkirk the film is anti-Nazi in its historical sentiment, and profoundly English in its emotional landscape at the same time. Yet Dunkirk is not a story of Englishness or national exception. It wasn’t and shouldn’t be. It was the story of many multitudes of nations, other European, Asian, and African nations. But to see this one has to look outside the bubbles of nationalist space-time. As Churchill and his racism dictated policies that led to the devastation of the Bengal famine two years after the events of Dunkirk,[iii] soldiers of the “Empire” shed their blood fighting for the future of the planet, under whatever banner they could have had at the time. That Picard brings up Dunkirk is unsurprising. For those whose reference point is the film however, Picard’s reference to Dunkirk serves the opposite purpose. It recreates English exceptionalism in a narrative about the future. It endorses the English identity that stoked and continues to stoke its virulent anti-European, xenophobic, nationalist, sentiments.

But the reference to Dunkirk to me is not a sour note because of the film – although that contributes to it, but because Picard’s speech does something else – it also somehow sullies the very core of what is the best thing about Star Trek to someone who has been a Trekkie and a fan of Picard forever – the core values of Starfleet. Picard’s speech dismisses one example of human endeavour (one from ancient history and slavery) while using another form of human achievement as exemplary (one from modern history and the era of brutal colonialism). What is left behind in the former is the pyramids and the politics of glorified nostalgia, and Picard is right to dismiss it. What is left behind of the latter is nationalist ethnocentric exceptionalism, which has no place as an admirable time inside or outside the ST universe.

History is always more complicated. Look at who died, and who was left behind. Look at what is left behind.

Thus when Picard brings us to the question of Starfleet values, in what would be the perfect moment for the return of a long admired figure, all I had was the question: did Starfleet ever actually have those values to begin with? Indeed, Starfleet has been notoriously callous to the rights of other species, which has also been at the heart of some of the best Trek episodes. Picard’s speeches – the best of them, have been in defense of principles that Starfleet has mouthed in principle but been indifferent to in practice. The Prime Directive’s Vietnam War roots are well known. But the reason Star Trek has always been my show – and will continue to be – is something that is in spite of Star Trek perhaps. If on the one side there is Dunkirk, on the other there is the defense of an idea that makes Picard say Lives instead of differentiating between Romulan and Human or Federation lives. If Dunkirk is a political statement, so is this. At a time of geopolitical crises, where it seems we are all too quick to dismiss some lives over others, or value some lives over others, it is the sole purpose of this statement to challenge any form of exceptionalism. And rightly so, for this exceptionalism is yet again (as it always has) leading to the new aggressive politics of oppression and violence from one corner of the globe to another. One ethnicity over another, one nation over another, one religion over another, one gender over another. The ostensible core ideals of Starfleet, howsoever they may perform, are an attack on this politics. It is also the one that is at the heart of Picard’s first appearance in the Star Trek universe in TNG, and why Picard remains “my captain” and has served as an inspiration for all my life. It’s a form of possible politics, where we are not perfect but where we must always strive to be better than we are, a quest without an endpoint. A form of politics that is needed more than ever at a time when the planet is burning and these exceptionalisms take increasingly more efficient genocidal forms. And these genocides are based on a politics of nostalgia enmeshed in the logic of technocapitalism. We chain many possible futures with the ghosts of pasts. Because, like the mythos of Dunkirk, the empire never ends. Historical details and history are profoundly important. But we must not elevate a politics of nostalgia and instead look upon history as the record of us that is consistently necessary and shameful, as the artefact whose mistakes we must consciously grow beyond.

And this brings us to the Republic Day, 26th January, to the idea of India. To many, the idea of India is always under attack by outside forces as often as by internal ones. But the events of the recent past, countrywide protests seem to have made our fissures and unities visible around the world yet again. I have grown up with this. With the politics of unities, diversities, hatreds, and reconciliations. All descendants of the partition people – the refugees – in the subcontinent have. The politics of nostalgia for another time, before “we” lost our lands and lives, our homes and livelihoods, before the lines between us and them were clearly drawn for the first time shaping the experience of every one of us in the whole subcontinent. But for the partition people our home is never one we can envision ever returning to. Permanent refugees in the world locked in the traumatic birth of nations. Or one might just as easily call it the xenophobic geno/xeno-cidal moment where we decided that our identity was to be imprisoned in the confines of whatever identity our ancestors imprinted on us as that which would be forever ours, for generations, and many generations, to the end of whatever time we could imagine. The exact politics that shapes us to this day.

Like any such national celebration, the Republic Day also celebrates a foundational moment. It is a moment of pride, of independence, of becoming a nation, it is a moment of celebrating the sacrifices of those who came before us. It is also a profoundly nostalgic moment for the absolute beauty of our constitution and the rules, rights, and duties, to which we are bound. Yet the truth is that the Constitution of India is as much an open document as any, it can be changed, amended, and transformed, as time progresses. It is at the mercy of time, and its values and principles are not absolute, but temporary, and we who are the citizens that are bound by it are also the agents of its change. Our populist politics may determine what changes happen to the constitution, including changes that may be profoundly against any idea of peace and happiness and the healthy coexistence of all people that live on a patch of land. When we thus celebrate the Republic Day, and the constitution of India, we are celebrating an interim document. And perhaps we must defend it again and again, its best values, just as we defend the values of Starfleet, and raise it as a slogan and as mantra, but that’s not where we can stop. Our ideas of coexistence must exist beyond the constitution – we must shape the constitution to accommodate more realms of the possible rather than letting the constitution alone determine our possibles. But before we can imagine or make this future constitution, we must shape our politics towards a future that is not based on nostalgia or purity or nationalism. Unhappy is the land that needs a hero. Brecht wrote these lines sandwiched between the Nazis and Hiroshima. Unless we can see the need to think beyond heroes and heroism (even if the hero is a Picard), beyond the exceptionals to the everyday, whether pyramids or Dunkirk or republics or independence or nations or soldiers or wars, can we ever get there?

I am not sure all this makes any sense to anyone other than me, and this is a personal blog after all. And it is perhaps an all too simple position. It is the kind of position one sees from Don Quixote when he sees the chained criminals and sets them free. Quixote simply believes that it is his duty is to get rid of oppression. That duty extends to one and all, and it does not matter if the oppressed are criminals. In our troubled times it seems to be a ridiculous perspective. And perhaps the most necessary one.

[i] Some of Picard’s best speeches are defenses of the rights of other beings, including Data (“The Measure of a Man”), and this particular speech echoes the famous one from Star Trek: Insurrection (