Saturday, May 17, 2014

An Instructive Throwaway

Good morning, Gentle Reader. What with all the Sturm und Drang about how those eeeevil heartless Republicans are trying to starve low-skills types to death by opposing an increase in the federally mandated minimum wage, it tickled me considerably to encounter this Instapundit squib, which was almost certainly meant for no purpose but entertainment.

Please sift through the comments to that post. They confirm my overarching thesis that the principal malaise of American society is that we've got too much time on our hands. I know that puts me at odds with all the Anything Authorities on the talk shows, who all swear that we're getting to be too busy and too regimented to live "human lives," but so be it. When so many of Professor Reynolds's readers display that much, ah, topically focused erudition, it leads to certain inferences about how much of their time they've devoted to reading comic books and watching Saturday morning cartoons. The conclusion follows naturally.

All the same, even a bit of fluff such as that one can teach us something. I recall, back in my own younger days, learning that:

It gave me a chuckle even back then. A comic-book character is supposed to participate in a real-world war? Suppose the war didn't eventuate as the comics would have it? What would that have done to the franchise? C'mon, boys and girls: this is just cheap, colorful, escapist entertainment!

(Yes, I was about this dour and cynical even as a ten-year-old, but I'll bet you'd already guessed that. Curmudgeons Emeriti don't spring full grown from the brow of Zeus, after all.)

Indeed, one of the inexorable constraints upon writers such as myself, who are given to creating larger-than-life heroes and villains, is the requirement that such figures be kept well away from real-world events. For one thing, you run the risk of polluting your tales with contradictions drawn from those events. For another, escapism must allow the reader to escape. But that's tangential at best to my larger point today.

A great many of my fiction readers, the preponderance of them female, have written to express extravagant emotions toward two of my characters: Louis Redmond and Armand Morelon. (A somewhat smaller number of readers, mostly male, have expressed equally extravagant though considerably less refined sentiments about Christine D'Alessandro, Althea Morelon, and Helen Leverrier and Martine Arnault, but we'll let that pass for the moment.) In a way that's confirmation that I did what I'd set out to do: to create figures that embody ideals we can and should aspire to attain, even if their fictional embodiments are "too good to be true." People need heroes, and the need is greatest at those times when the darkness seems to be closing in around us, every man for himself, his hand raised against his neighbor out of sheer survival instinct.

The superhero phenomenon is like that. Superman was engendered, in a sense, out of the desperation of the Great Depression. When it seems that ordinary human powers are insufficient to reverse the tide of destruction, we're most prone to imagining, and wishing for, the superhuman to arrive and save us from ourselves. It can provide a species of relief and refreshment that's not available from other kinds of fiction. Yet there are dangers in such imaginings. If we invest too deeply in them, they can blind us to the real-world necessity to act for ourselves, from the dictates of our consciences and according to our best judgment. For there are no superheroes. Neither Superman nor Thor nor any of the others loiters just beyond the margin of sight, awaiting the perfect moment to intervene.

All we have are men: fractious, fallible, corruptible men. Men can achieve mightily, no doubt about it. But we can also screw up mightily, as history tells us we've done repeatedly for six thousand years at the very least.

The Green Lantern Corps will not arrive in the nick of time to thwart Islam, or political evil, or the MERS virus. We're on our own, naked before the laws of Nature and the consequences our screwups entail.

This is a dark time, for the United States and the world generally. Totalitarianism of several forms is on the march. The world economy has stumbled and fallen, and might not be able to get up. The races seem to have declared war against one another. Individuals' ethics are less trustworthy than they've been for many years. Americans are more fearful than we've been for a century or more.

The swelling popularity of superheroes correlates perfectly with the rise of those other conditions. It's not all just children's fantasies; quite a number of nominal adults are hooked on them, too.

Yes, we need heroes. But we need to live in reality as well. And reality has laws that not even a superhero could break. Which brings me back to the Instapundit post.

Superman, as postulated by his creators, is so strong that he can make coal into diamonds with his bare hands. So why doesn't he do a lot of that, distribute the results, and thus solve the problem of poverty? There's plenty of coal, isn't there?

You understand why he couldn't achieve any such thing, don't you? Neither could he do so by canvassing the galaxy for all the gold in existence, bringing it back to Earth, and distributing it equitably.

Superman could conceivably win any war long as the enemy could be denied access to Kryptonite, of course. The same could be said of several other superhero characters. But they won't be doing any such thing, the ardent wishes of the Ukrainians notwithstanding.

We're stuck with ourselves, and with one another.

"There's only one way to improve society. Present it with a single improved unit: yourself." -- Albert Jay Nock.

When I wrote about conscience a couple of days back, I was in one of the grimmest moods I've ever endured. I've been personally blessed in many ways. A lifetime of thought, study, work, and saving have put me and mine in a position many other families would envy. Yet we are just as vulnerable as anyone else. The least of the tentacles of the darkness enveloping Mankind could dash our little fortress to flinders. I'm all too aware that no man is an island -- that developments well beyond my power to countervail could sweep everything I've achieved into the abyss.

But that's why I wrote that essay:

We are too concerned with what others are doing or not doing, and not concerned enough with what we can do, as individuals and voluntarily assembled groups.

That, in a nutshell, is why the tempers of the politically engaged are so strained, and why such elevated emotions dominate public discourse. We seek to lasso the forces the threaten us and rein them in, and the preponderance of them appear to be political in nature. But what are the limits of political power? What if a Stephen Graham Sumner were to lead a libertarian-conservative tide throughout the nation -- hell, make it the whole world, as long as we're fantasizing -- and free us of Obamunism, Islam, Communism, Eurosocialism, race hatred, welfarism, cronyism, and all the rest of the evils against which we regularly rail here at Liberty's Torch and at many other sites? What if the bells of freedom were to ring worldwide, all oppression and political malice forever extinguished? What then?

You would still need to earn a living.
You would still bear responsibilities for your dependents.
You would still have to contrive defenses against predators, human and otherwise.
You would still grow weaker and wearier with the passage of time, eventually becoming useless.
And you would still depend upon others to produce the goods and services you can't produce for yourself.

Dr. Strange can do nothing about it.

It's long past time we stopped awaiting the arrival of a superhero, whether four-colored or political, who'll save us from ourselves, and started listening attentively to the "still, small voice."

All we have are ourselves and one another.
Politicians cannot augment that.
Use what God has given you.
Life is terrifyingly short.
Start now.

1 comment:

YIH said...

Superman came about as a character during the Great Depression, somewhat before the onset of World War II;
And he was more or less a vigilante then too. While he never set out to kill anyone, he was less than scrupulous about the 'bad guys' not getting hurt/killed or delivering them to the police/jail.
(that aspect was introduced due to the Comics Code)
A significant number of readers demanded to know why Superman didn't participate in the war -- on the side of the Allies, of course;
And how the hell that could be written in anything resembling plausibility?
Superman could have won WWII single-handedly and in less than a day.
The editors of DC Comics replied that their superhero believed the Allies could and should win the war through their own efforts, and that he could do better service to "truth, justice, and the American way" on the home front.
Also a wise move, as noted in the first entry Superman had his own ''truth, justice and the American Way'' agenda. One plausible scenario is Superman discovering that the Allies weren't all ''sugar and spice and everything nice'' such as the US deliberately goading Japan into attacking to bring the US into the war.
Then thinking ''OK, I delivered a gift-wrapped Hitler and Tojo to the White House now it's plain to me that they have been double-dealing as well, guess I need to straighten that out too!'' and who would or could stop him?
The only plausible storyline for any of the superheros would be various spy missions.