Never Discuss Religion or Politics
by Michael Hutchison
A rebuttal to "The Mount"
So, Matt Morrison thought he could slip a controversial statement into the last Fanzing and it could go unchallenged, eh?
In this month's "The Mount," Matt delves into the politics of superheroes and states a thesis that "Superheroism, by its very nature, is a liberal act." Those who have abilities are working for the benefit of those who have needs, so it's almost like Marxism.
The problem with this is the same one with all discussions of politics where the basic definitions of terms are up for grabs. If I was talking to a fellow conservative about what it means to be liberal, conservative, etc., there probably would be no need to define everything I'm talking about. But in our country, we have Democrats with a 98% liberal voting record who are defined as "centrist" by the media, we have Democrats who will refuse to be defined as "liberals", we have socialists and communists who think of themselves as the mainstream left, and we have The Nation's Eric Alterman who thinks the media is right-wing. (That sounds ridiculous...but when you consider that he believes most Americans are more to the left than the Republican and Democrat parties, I could see how he'd believe that about the media as well. I mean...Alterman's clearly out of touch, but from that worldview it makes sense.)
What I'm saying here is that the way I define "liberal" is probably not the way the aforementioned people define "liberal," may be not the way Matt defines "liberal," and may not be the way you, dear reader, automatically perceive the word. So, while I hate to precede a fun discussion with an obligatory bit of exposition, I feel it's necessary.
What's it mean?
Throughout the ages, up until the early 20th Century, liberal largely meant a willingness to explore new ideas and having a generosity of spirit. Conversely, conservative meant resistant to change, a phrase which to modern ears conjures up connotations of fuddy-duddyism and close-mindedness but which simply means trusting in the way things have worked (i.e. learning from the past, and from the wisdom of elders) and distrusting newfangled notions which could be ruinous. It was once a great thing to be a liberal, since this was the label given to rich philanthropists and hard-working charity volunteers. And the terms were almost non-partisan. The Republican party was started by northern abolitionists, and abolitionists were certainly both generous (in working for the benefit of others) and not fearful of change. And a rich Republican could be a philanthropist, a liberal, without it meaning he'd become a Democrat.
To any fair observer, these definitions aren't really applicable today. Certainly liberals would like to reclaim the traditional meaning of "liberal," which is why they pretend that the working definition is still "open-minded and caring" and that conservative still means "close-minded and fearful of change." However, the definitions patently don't apply today. One need only consider the following: Conservatives want to allow school choice because the old system isn't working, and liberals want to retain the system exactly as it is (aside from always increasing the funding). Conservatives want to explore different retirement options and liberals want Social Security to stay exactly how it is. As I say, the old terms don't work.
Here's why. The 20th Century saw the rise of socialism and communism on the political left and their mingling with the definition of "liberal." Why not? After all, socialism and communism are all about giving power to the lower classes and embracing the new ideas of a reshaped society. Is that not liberal? The primary difference, of course, is that now "liberal" goodness was institutionalized and run by a central government. Liberalism isn't the optional generosity of the rich. Now liberalism means that the government will watch over your income, label you based on your wealth, take a fraction because it deems that you have enough and then spend it in ways that it, not you, decides will be beneficial to the poor. The word has been corrupted for the use of its new masters. Since the public had a good feeling for the term "liberal," it is used instead of "socialism" or "leftist". (David Horowitz, once a radical lefty and now a radical righty, still thinks of himself as a liberal. But he always has to emphasize that he means liberal in the classic sense, not leftist. As I say...this can all get pretty confusing.)
So, is being a superhero a liberal thing? In the sense that it requires generosity of spirit, it could be called liberal in the classical sense. But since no central government is monitoring the public to see who has superpowers, determining that they have abilities which could benefit the needy and then forcing them to do so...no, it doesn't meet the modern definition of liberal.
In plain English
I disagree with Matt's hypothesis because it doesn't match the way our world works.
We don't have superheroes. However, there are people in our society who do risk and sacrifice to help others. Firefighters. Police. Soldiers. Okay, they're not doing it for no pay, but nobody enters those fields because it's a way to get rich. They get a comfortable wage, but compared to the danger involved it's almost insultingly low.
Well, how do these people view the world? What is their political outlook? We're talking a group of people as diverse as the rest of society, but ask yourself this: If in the next election the vote of every firefighter, policeman and soldier was discounted, do you think it would benefit the Democrats or the Republicans? When Al Gore's lawyers were fighting so hard to get the absentee ballots of the military thrown out, do you think it was because they were expected to be voting for Gore? Well, why not? According to Matt's thesis, these people who risk their lives in service to their country would count as liberals.
Is superheroing conservative?
Let's just look at some aspects of superheroes first.
Superheroes make pronouncements of good and evil, right and wrong, all the time. Liberals don't. Ronald Reagan did. George W. Bush does. And liberals hate them for doing so. Liberals see varying shades of grey everywhere (although they call Republicans "Nazis" pretty easily).
Superheroes apprehend criminals. They don't try to see things from the villain's point of view, or let the criminals go because it's American society that forced them to turn to crime, or debate whether it's okay for a bank robber to steal because it'll only hurt the people with money. Okay, Green Arrow does all of these things as the exception that proves the rule.
Superheroes put criminals in prison (via the justice system) for detention, punishment or possibly execution (although that never happens in comics because the criminals are licensed characters).
Superheroes believe, simply put, in the use of force. Now, this can be the judicious use of force involving varying degrees of violence, or it can be wanton force if you're an Image superhero from 1994. But the defensive use of force is more or less conservative. We Americans may take it for granted, but there are societies where a person in trouble is only allowed to call the authorities and trust that they will be protected. In England, there is a man who has been in prison for years for shooting two burglars in his house, killing one. Recently, he was denied parole because he said that he would do it again in the same situation, and the parole board declared that he was a threat to burglars. Individual empowerment is verboten.
I'd say superheroing is pretty conservative. This does not mean that there aren't plenty of liberal people engaging in it.
There are cops who vote Democrat. They just don't think about how they're voting for people who want no death penalty, shorter sentences, liberal judges and tougher operating procedures for cops, nor do they dwell on how Democrats call them pigs and Nazis. And there are soldiers who vote Democrat without thinking about how the Democrats are the party that cuts their funding while deploying them all over the world on badly planned missions. In the same way, there are plenty of liberal superheroes who just don't think about the generally conservative nature of what they do. They're like animal rights activists who aren't vegetarian.
The trouble with generalities
There's a reason why I don't often get into the debate about superhero politics (or their religious beliefs, another common online debate). Just as you can't assume that a cop, fireman or soldier is of one party or another just because of the nature of their job, you can't assume a political stance based merely on observation. Haven't you ever been dead wrong about a celebrity's politics?
DC's stance against getting political with their big-name characters makes sense. Liberals assume Superman is a liberal. Conservatives assume Superman is a conservative. Why would DC ever "out" someone whose poltics are inscrutable enought that he can otherwise be enjoyed by everyone?
Indeed, merely by observation you cannot deduce Superman's politics. On the one hand, he comes from a two-parent churchgoing family in the midwest, reared with love for mom, the flag, rhubarb pie and hot dogs. But, they are farmers, and farmers tend to vote Democrat in order to get all the big government subsidies. Then we must consider that Clark Kent is a newspaper reporter in a big east coast city, having studied journalism at Metropolis State University. Granted, he could be part of the tiny minority of Republican newspaper reporters, but more likely he is a conservative Democrat. Still, these factors are nebulous enough that his political stance is up in the air, and I like it that way.
Now, Princess Diana of Themyscira? She's a Democrat...if not more left than a Democrat. I mean, she's a big time, United Nations-loving Democrat if ever I saw one. Of course, pre-Crisis she worked for the U.S. military, so I should emphasize that we're talking about the modern incarnation.
As for Batman...how could anyone think Batman is a liberal? Pointing to his philanthropy and the fact that he has a personal hangup about guns as evidence of a left-wing stance is naive. There are plenty of right-wingers who aren't gun enthusiasts. It's entirely possible that the Bruce Wayne persona is allegedly a big-time liberal. Batman, however, is something of an exception to my "you never can tell" philosophy: He is most likely a conservative. The whole concept of Batman is a rebellion against the thinking that law enforcement and the justice system will protect the citizenry. Batman won't use guns, but otherwise employs all manner of explosives, lasers, gas, knives, blades, darts, boomerangs, nets, electric weapons and martial arts. Clearly, this isn't a guy with some cohesive philosophy about not using force against another human being. Indeed, Batman unarmed is potentially more deadly than the average joe armed.
I guess I'm getting away from my point about not being able to judge a superhero's personal politics. Aside from Batman and Green Arrow, I think most superhero politics are nebulous. Yes, even the Silver Age Green Lantern and Hawkman's politics. As I've said before in these pages, these two were chosen as foils for Green Arrow because they both served as members of police forces, which to Denny O'Neill makes them "The Man" against whom the left was rebelling. However, neither seems particularly right-wing beyond a "criminals should be punished" belief system held by most people not in the middle-to-far-left. Hal Jordan's never spoken out against the I.R.S. or the Social Security system, nor has Katar Hol ever said why government-funded daycare is wrong.
What's more, I wouldn't want them too. I think it's better to leave the character's beliefs unstated as much as possible, so that they can be welcomed by all readers.
is Editor-In-Chief of Fanzing.com. He is the world's biggest Elongated Man fan
and runs the only EM fan site.
He lives in Rochester, MN.
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This piece is © 2003 by Michael Hutchison
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