1. By Way Of An Introduction To A Comment And A Polemic
This piece began when I received one of those not-infrequent comments from someone who, despite the interesting points they have to make, decides to be a touch sneering and patronising in the way they express themselves. I usually simply delete such dismissive contributions (*1); when I began blogging, the estimable Andrew Hickey, from the "Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!" blog, advised me to always make sure that I don't caught in pointless arguments here on TooBusyThinkingAboutMyComics, and his advice has served me well. Yet there were bright and worthwhile points in the comment, and the superior air that the writer adopted could well have been an accident of method rather than a deliberate choice to offend. Lord knows I've written what I meant as respectful if playfully written words myself and ended up unwittingly offending others. And so I put aside my normal practise of simply opting out of any possible unpleasantness and began to sketch out an answer in order to discover how I felt about the issues being raised, rather than the tone they were often expressed in.
And in writing a reply for myself, I found that I was producing a companion piece of sorts to the recent blog here on the worrying politics of the "X-Men: Second Coming" collection. But whereas before, in the first "X-Civics 101" piece, I'd tried to rein in my feelings and the force of my opinions, relying on an attempt at humour rather than outrage and a focus more on individual issues rather than an analysis of the meaning of "Second Coming" as a whole, here I found myself giving way to a more emotional and less reasoned approach. Normally, I'd learn what I could from such an experience of writing the first-draft of an off-the-cuff and yet heartfelt reply, and then bin the lot, but I think it might be useful, and perhaps also honest, for me to nail my colours up on the mast here, as it were. Not because it's inherently interesting if I do so, or because my opinions are important in the slightest way whatsoever, but because, I realise, I'm always talking about the ethical content of other people's work, and I ought not to criticise without having at least something of the sense of my political opinions up and available for the shooting at too.
And so I've not edited the first draft of the reply that I wrote with an eye on protecting my statements from all-comers. I've left in my own feelings and my own unjustified stroppiness. I've not edited out the repetition of terms or added qualifying statements to protect my position. There are no supporting quotes or book references. I've simply replied with one apparently unguarded statement of opinion with another.
I have, of course, not printed the name of the chap or chappess who contributed the comment that first inspired this piece. They offered up their ideas for printing in a comment box, not as part of something quite different on the blog proper.
*1:- added later the same day:- on reflection, although the comment is, as Micah puts it below, blunt, it's not as rude as I originally felt. Indeed, the fact that I feel so strongly about these issues may have made me overly sensitive. I'm not sure. It is a dismissive comment with some snotty airs, but it's also bright and engaged. If nothing else, I'm glad it was left because it made me think, and I guess that establishes a point about its worth in an absolute sense before any finer sensibilities come into play.
2. The Unedited Comment Itself
"Not a bad article, however pointing moralistic fingers at the content of political decision making in the X-Men comics misses the point. The philosophy behind all of Scott's decision making is Realpolitik, and that shouldn't be a surprise as that very ideological shift is what they used to visibly mark his difference from Xavier in Messiah Complex (and even from Magneto, who is also an idealist in his own way.) Yes, the X-Men have become separatists as well as nationalists, and yes, their decisions are based on political realism (why in-debt themselves to superheroes whose political interest interests doesn't necessarily align with theirs and whose Civil Wars and Secret Invasion and Dark Reign politics, threaten the X-Men's current goal to stave off extinction). Anyone who didn't think that Emma Frost's ascendancy in the X-Men wouldn't signify realpolitik hasn't mastered the fundamental philosophy of the Hellfire Club. She simply realized that when practising mutant supremacy it helps to have more than four or five mutants at your beck and call. The X-Men have plenty of mutants available and a leader sympathetic to her political views. So when you morally or ethically condemn Cyclops's actions, or Marvel for endorsing them, you misread the current X-Men as a book about "superheroes and role models" instead of it being one where someone, for once in the comic, attempts to step beyond the meager and continually deconstructed "peaceful co-existence" trope that never worked for the comic."
3. And My Response
Hello:- As a politics graduate with 20 more years experience of teaching the subject in one form or another, I think it's probable that I do have a grasp of what realpolitik is. And it's never been a philosophy or practise which advocated snubbing possible and actual sources of assistance which might be accessed to attain a desired end. Quite the contrary, actually. If realpolitik really was the philosophy which motivated the X-Men's leaders during Second Coming, it's one that they either haven't grasped or one which the folks writing the book haven't understood. Realpolitik isn't concerned with attaining one's will without incurring future obligations. (For one thing, any such future obligations could be ignored once the desired end was achieved; that would be realpolitik) Rather, it's a philosophy concerned with attaining one's will, full stop. Whatever works is what gets put to use. And considering that the will of the mutants here was to avoid genocide, their scorning of national, international and superhuman assistance wasn't realpolitik; it was stupidity. It's not "political realism" to alienate support and deter assistance. That's the kind of political realism that characterises the "faith-based" community, the "my way or the highway" brigade in my country as well as yours, and we've seen how well that policy has paid off in the long years since 9/11, have we not?
"Second Coming" isn't based on realpolitik; it's based on the assumption that behaving as a terrorist is completely justifiable and indeed admirable as long as a glorious victory is achieved. That's quite a different premise, and presenting a story that frames Cyclops as a hero for having behaved in such a stupid as well as utterly unprincipled fashion is indeed a "step beyond" the ""peaceful co-existence" trope" you mention. Sadly, it's also a lamentable thing to produce, and I'll return to that point, I think, in a moment.
Secondly, at no point did I suggest that it didn't make sense for the X-Men to have "no more than four or five mutants" at their "beck and call". I mentioned not a whit of complaint about the fact of the size of the mutant forces. What I did criticise was the sense that this super-powered army with their undersea allies could ever constitute a community of victims. The X-Men in "Second Coming" are presented as terrible vulnerable, but that's ridiculous. They're a mighty band of super-powered characters, and they could have accessed all manner of help elsewhere.
But they've been potrayed as self-pitying victims so they can be thrillingly shown committing the profoundly illegal and unethical acts that they do. That they've been terribly hurt by "humans" is undoubted, but that doesn't mean that they've been driven into such a corner that the rule of law is something which oppresses their chances of survival. Cyclops instigates a rule in which the likes of terrorism, assassination, false imprisonment, unconstitutional conscription, and the abuse of minors are portrayed as heroic necessities. Your argument seems to be that mutant terrorism is the method by which the Mutants have succeeded in defining and protecting themselves, and that I should get over it because it works. But it didn't. The X-Men should've sought help and worked together with others to at the very least reduce the threat against them. That would've been realpolitik.
You seem to associate immoral behaviour with realism, as if doing as one will should not only be all of the law, with a small "l", but also be shown to be far superior to any other conventional legal or ethical option. The text of "Second Coming" certainly seems to want us to accept such a proposition. It skips unconvincingly over the possibility that the X-Men could ever have responded to their situation in a conventionally ethical fashion, and instead portrays the world as a vile predatory place with no decency for mutants and then, having fixed its case, expects us to applaud as terrible acts are committed and their perpetrators held up for our admiration.
You also seem contemptuous of my "moralistic fingers". But you're obviously a person who's well-versed in political theory, history and current affairs. You'll have noted that the moral criticisms I made were directed at the profoundly anti-humanist behaviour of Scott Summers, the supposed hero of Second Coming. Detention without trial, torture, assassination, conscription without legal sanction; all of these things are a mark of dictatorship, not practical and realistic politics. I wasn't concerned with these things because they're not nice. My argument was and is that there is a way of doing things according to democratic humanist principles which allows the state to operate without descending into tyranny. For all of its sins, Western democracy permits its citizens to live in a way that's more secure from abuse than under any other political system of scale. Certainly, the modern West is a far better place to live than Cyclops's Utopia is.
Dictatorship by its very nature, despite all the illusions of political realism which apologists for dictatorships always conjure up, inevitably leads to the collapse of human rights, and to the imposition of all those unpleasantnesses and wickednesses which human beings get up to when they're not at least partially constrained by ethical custom and law. Yet "Second Coming" paints us a picture of a society where dictatorship is a marvellously practical and ethical good, and that's what I'm pointing my "moralistic finger" at. Utopia neither works as well as it might nor behaves in any way that any decent-minded democrat might admire. It is, in effect, an inefficient terrorist state, and I don't think that's anything to represent in a heroic light at all.
And just as"Second Coming" isn't truly a book about realpolitik, it's certainly not one that tells us anything of value to do with "separatism" and "nationalism" either, unless you consider that both of these political ideologies have to be expressed in the form of terrorism justified by the rhetoric of the dispossessed. Neither separatism nor nationalism, after all, have to reject the rule of law or humanist principles. And so, no, I don't think it's "moralistic" to point all of this out, and, unless you consider the rule of law to be a bourgeois affectation and democratic government some kind of disposable fancy, I'd be amazed if you didn't think so too. For, quite frankly, if anyone can look at Utopia and see there a political system that doesn't immediately and utterly appall them, then they're either not looking hard enough, or lacking the education to process what they're seeing, or they're neither a democrat or a humanist in the first place.
As far as I'm concerned, there are democratic and humanist principles that aren't negotiable. We don't kidnap people, we don't falsely imprison them, and we don't torture them. We don't assassinate our enemies in the name of political or practical expediency. We don't deny co-operation, scorn help and then act horribly because help isn't coming, and we don't behave as terrorists do because that makes us terrorists ourselves. We certainly don't read books which unambiguously portray terrorist tyrants as heroes and regard it as an unimportant matter which should be passed off without comment. Honestly, at what point did our culture become so complacent that we can read a celebration of unethical behaviour which closes with the miraculous birth of lovely little superpowered babies, an ending which emotionally justifies every vile thing that's gone before, and not think; "Hang on, there's something rotten here"?
For there was no attempt to present alternative points of view to those of Cyclops which were given at the least equal weight and glamour to his. No, it was the brutes and the tyrants who were presented as the battle-turning heroes who counted for the most in "Second Coming", and that makes the book a profoundly anti-democratic tract, by chance or design, though I do subscribe to the cock-up theory where this book is concerned.
These aren't just "moral" points I'm making, as if a "moral" point was by its very nature an unrealistic distraction from practical politics. The rule of law and democracy aren't systems based on fey liberal, weak-kneeded principles. They are systems founded on supremely practical morals, which if respected and protected help preserve the body politic from collapsing into dictatorship. And dictatorship, as no-one needs telling, is always a very bad idea in every possible way, unless you're the dictator or a crony, of course.
The rule of law isn't a "moral". It's an expression of a host of practical principles which underlie a class of political system which serves its citizens better than any other in history. Regretfully, such democratic systems and the principles upon which they're built are currently being undermined in so many worrying ways, including through a blizzard of ignorant fictions in a variety of popular mediums.
As for the idea that the X-Men isn't a book about "super-heroes and role models", well, you've quite defeated me there. It's surely a comic that full of characters who dress like superheroes, who have powers like superheroes, who have the legitimacy with their audience that's granted to superheroes and who exist in a superheroic universe. If the X-Men isn't about superheroes, then I'd suggest that Marvel move it to its own universe, strip it of costumes and codenames and powers and see how many readers turn up to read it.
And ALL stories are about role models. That's how fiction works. We study each other's lives, fictional or not, and we compare ourselves to what we find there. The degree to which the role models in fiction influence us is something else I spent five years studying and twenty years teaching, and I'm well aware that democracy won't fall just because Cyclops and his merry mutants are portrayed as heroic terrorists. But that doesn't mean that such a portrayal is defensible, and as part of a wall of media product that heaps scorn on the ideals and practise of humanism and democracy, "Second Coming" is just one more example of the drip-drip-drip of political immorality which can't help but undermine that which so many generations of folks have fought so hard for.
And if you're not offended by a book that portrays such an anti-democratic stance as heroic, then the real question is why not? Seriously. How could these things not matter to you? I can understand berating modern democracies for not being representative enough, or humane enough. I can understand being frustrated and indeed furious with all their manifest short-comings and failures. But the fact of Marvel pushing hundreds and hundreds of pages with this message into the marketplace is surely something to care about. If it were an accident on Marvel's part, as it must have been, then it needs debating so that Marvel don't make the same
mistake again. (After all, Marvel isn't really wanting to be saying that terrorism is the heroic way for minorities to defend their interests even when all other alternatives haven't been pursued, is it?) And if it wasn't an accident, then Marvel should be challenged on the matter. They have the right to print whatever material they see fit, and I happily spend a fair proportion of my limited income on their products. But my loyalty to their brand is tempered by my absolute commitment to the business of being a democrat. It's something that really matters, matters more than just about anything else, and if you think that's "moralistic", then this isn't the blog for you on any level at all.
So, let's not worry about the X-Men know being about realpolitik, unless it's about how the practical utility of that concept can be undermined by incompetence and ignorance. And let's not have any more of this sneering, for that's what it was, at the "morals" I was discussing in the piece you responded to and in my words above too. Yes, the morality underpinning the existence of the modern democratic state is indeed sacred to me, but the practical business of protecting individuals from the capriciousness of power is more sacred yet. And I for one am bloody weary of a West that seems so very decadent that it thinks it can ignore the absolute value of these issues in the name of being ... well, what? Practical? Knowing? Sophisticated? Playful? Entertaining?
That we've stopped even being offended by the idea of superheroes behaving as these X-Men do is a deeply worrying matter. It's a reflection of a far greater and far more serious problem, an assault through self-interest and ignorance upon the very idea that human rights and the democratic state as we know them are anything more than a great "liberal/leftist" indulgence and, indeed, evil. Comics may not be able to solve that problem, but those that produce them could at least not contribute to the apparently-casual and yet in-practise systematic undermining of the principles which, for whatever their practical limitations, offer the best and only hope for a decent future we have.
When superheroes, including clearly abused children, are shown maiming, torturing, kidnapping, assassinating others as part of a deliberate policy on the part of the characters involved, then it's not the icing on the cake of a story or the addition of some some thrilling but unimportant grit used to add a daring touch of real-world issues. It certainly isn't so when the tale is told in the way "Second Coming" is. It is, of course. a terrifically productive thing to present superheroes behaving appallingly in the form of satire or irony, as broad and obvious comedy or even in the guise of wonderfully bad taste. But this is none of those things. "Second Coming" presents tyranny and terrorism, assassination and an abuse of care to the vulnerable, the violation of the rule of law and a host of other pernicious practises as HEROIC and undeniably NECESSARY.
And when that's done, it should be discussed and condemned. These things are more than important. They are all that keep us from the wolves. They're sacred, and we undermine them in the way that "Second Coming" does at our great peril.
An unfashionable opinion, of course, and expressed in an unfashionably sincere manner, but there it is. For if we can't take democracy and the rule of law seriously, then what is there left to be serious about?